I went today to the Tate Modern, a gallery I’ve not visited in (I would guess) over 20 years. I’ve missed out it seems.
The Tate Modern specialises in 20th Century art, my interests tend more to the Renaissance and (obvious as it may be) to French Impressionism, perhaps explaining my relative lack of engagement with 20th Century art. Similarly, like many I grew up in a family with no interest of any kind in art, and such education I have in it I have picked up ad hoc along the way – I suspect this is true of most people. As painting reached the 20th Century, theory became more important, and literal depiction less so. Pre-20th Century art is also of course frequently heavily dependent on theory, on symbolism, on a language lost to the lay viewer that we must study to fully engage with. But, and it is a key but, it also often featured relatively accessible subjects (at least on a surface level) and pleasing aesthetics, so that even if one did not realise the significance of the choice of a particular shade of blue or the reference contained in an arrangement of figures, one could still enjoy the painting as pictorial art.
Modern art, to use a rather unhelpful phrase (particularly given some of it predates my grandfather’s birth) is not so friendly. There is a sense, as a lay viewer, of attending a conference in a language one only dimly understands. One follows some parts of what is going on, is baffled by others, senses meaning which cannot always be deciphered and at times likely find meaning that isn’t actually there. All that said, the Tate Modern clearly realises that this is a common experience, and is at pains to assist. Descriptions of works or movements are generous, certain works have additional passages next to them from other artists describing the work’s meaning to them, rooms have boards describing particular movements. Less successful is the plan to the gallery, which is astonishingly light on detail, making it much harder than it should be to find particular rooms or works. I wanted to revisit a room of six linked Gerhard Richter works and finding it again was needlessly difficult.
Still, enough on the gallery itself. What was truly impressive was the works within. When I visit a gallery, I normally write down names of certain artists, so I can follow up later and read more about their work. In the course of a two hour visit I noted:
Zoe Leonard, fascinating black and white landscape photos and disturbing images such as her 1990 photograph Wax Anatomical Model raising questions about depictions of feminity, with the crooked angle of the photograph forcing us to recognise the incongruity of giving an anatomical model a pearl necklace and blonde hair.
Meredith Frampton brought an extraordinary sense of stillness and grace to his paintings, his 1935 Portrait of a Young Woman is reminiscent of the paintings of artists such as Sargent while his slightly earlier (1928) work Marguerite Kelsey subtly undermines the calm of its sitter with the priapic flower to her right, indicative of subsurface passions.
Many other works also caught my attention, but after about two hours I started to fatigue. I tend to find that I can only concentrate and really engage with art for a few hours at a time, after that I find I start to saturate, works washing over me – there comes a point I find I simply can’t take any more in on any meaningful level. Unfortunately, that meant the installationist works (which I got to last) passed me by, I shall have to make a return trip for those. On the other hand, I did also see some excellent works by Jackson Pollock, Meryon by Franz Kline which had real power, in fact the abstract expressionists generally were both rewarding and put in useful historical context. Interestingly, abstract impressionism is a form of art which has never previously spoken to me, but standing before the works and giving them time, allowing myself longer than instinct suggested to soak in the works, I found they had a genuine depth (often in more than one sense).
Afterwards, walking back to the tube, I found that I was looking at the buildings around me in a different way. I noticed bridge supports for a bridge that wasn’t there, an overgrown church, a peculiar building I’d guess from the first half of the last century, architectural oddities all around. As I said, I finished on the installationists, many of whom seek to make us look at the everyday in new ways. On the way back I wasn’t trying to see the route to the gallery, I was walking in a different direction, but even with all that I was looking at things differently. That’s already fading, but it was still real, and suggests to me that there is some truth to the claim that some of these works can change how we engage with the everyday.
I’ve only scratched on what the gallery contains, a marvellous room of Soviet poster art for example, both impressive and yet chilling too, art as propoganda, symbols of a regime that killed millions of it own citizens. I was also greatly impressed by two Richard Long photographs, and now intend to see his current exhibition in a couple of weeks.
Part of what I’ve taken from this small trip, is that even that which is inaccessible to us is often only inaccessible because of our own laziness. Make the effort, and many of the works give back far more than one puts in. Not everything spoke to me, some works elicited little more than “oh yes, I see what you’re doing there”, but many provided much more than that and I haven’t even touched here on the experimental cinema I saw which I now intend to track down…