Mayhem at Millbank

David Sylvester visits the Tate

Unexpected juxtaposition is one of the great artistic devices of the 20th century. In collage. In passages from The Waste Land where each successive line is a quotation from a different source. In the editing of any new-wave TV commercial. In contemporary collecting and curating and anthologising – where those who play with the arts bring together artefacts from a variety of times and places in encounters meant to surprise at first and then look inevitable.

To celebrate the rebirth of the Tate at Millbank as a totally British collection the curatorial staff have rehung it in order to set up new combinations of exhibits intended to make us think again about the individual pieces. Certainly, the art of display has been self-conscious at Millbank ever since Nick Serota’s arrival there. However, the manifest care and attention with which the paintings have hitherto been hung and spaced and the sculptures placed has not for the most part been designed to create provocative juxtapositions, but rather to make the works look good. The new installation, though, isn’t meant to put the components at their ease; it’s argumentative.

Here and there the argument is illuminating, as when David Bomberg’s In the Hold (c.1913-14) is hung next to Leon Kossoff’s Children’s Swimming Pool, Autumn Afternoon (1971). Both are busy compositions, with a mass of vigorous figures squeezed closely into a space. But the Bomberg is pretty abstract and is linear and neatly drawn with a smooth surface and very contrasty colours placed within an emphatic grid; the Kossoff is clearly figurative and is painterly and loosely drawn with a rough surface and mainly half-tone colours and no overall underlying geometry, but only hints of a grid here and there. Stylistically these pictures are poles apart. Yet there seems to be some similarity in the way they approach the difficulties of making a viable composition from a busy scene – perhaps in the way they reconcile flatness and depth. And then we remember that Kossoff was one of Bomberg’s devoted pupils and that his style here is not very different from what Bomberg’s was at the time he was teaching. Seeing these two pictures together we perceive a continuity between Bomberg’s early and late styles and realise how close Kossoff came to Bomberg’s core. This juxtaposition therefore has considerable educational value. And we know that it is now the done thing for museums to concentrate on helping us to think we understand art rather than helping us to respond to it viscerally. On the other hand, if we do still want art to delight us and move us, to provide us with a feast for the eye, then placing these pictures side by side is rather like serving up a dish in which roast beef is side by side with grilled sole.

This is one of the juxtapositions in the highly eclectic rooms devoted to a theme – as most of the rooms are; the theme in this case being ‘City Life’. A more visually appetising example appears in one of the small monographic rooms, the octagonal room devoted to Gainsborough. On my first visit to the new installation I cherished this room because its homogeneity provided a blessed relief from the aggressive heterogeneity of the anthological rooms. On my second visit I suddenly realised that it wasn’t monographic at all. The Gainsboroughs occupy all the walls but built into the floor is a mosaic by Boris Anrep completed in 1923. And this charming period piece, while only on the floor, is not easily overlooked. I remember all too well how the room was at one time hung with Mondrians, which were magnificent except when their rhythm was broken by peripheral perception of the mosaic. But the mosaic works beautifully with the Gainsborough paintings, creating a perfect mixture of contrast and similarity. To find similarity there is pretty astonishing, but the harmonies are remarkably alike, with their half-tone pinks and ochres and greys and beiges and browns, and there are even similar curves in the contours of the figures. What I wonder is whether this was the most cleverly contrived of all the curators’ juxtapositions or whether it happened when they weren’t looking.

The real question is rather: did they do any looking at all? Waldemar Januszczak wrote of them thus in the Sunday Times Magazine:

Tate Britain has decided that British art has no history worth recounting. That British art needs jazzing up. And that hanging anything next to anything is valid, provided they rhyme. Sort of.

Laughably, this exercise in arrogance and whimsy masquerading as a new national hanging policy has resulted in the Tate being divided into ‘themes’ … The temptation to resort to them is immense. Because themes are easy. You don’t have to construct a narrative. You don’t have to sustain an argument. You don’t even have to follow your own theme, because the supreme attraction of themes is that they are so excellently open-ended. Themes are a way of not saying something definite about anything.

Now, Januszczak, who follows that diatribe with a devastating analysis of the placing of Frith’s Derby Day between Wyndham Lewis’s The Crowd and Gilbert and George’s Red Morning Troubles, is a famously provocative writer who sometimes seems to go on the attack just for the hell of it. But I have not talked to a single soul about this hang who is less violently opposed to it then he: repelled, puzzled, angry, distressed, appalled. I had a sudden telephone call early one morning from a former Tate Trustee, an artist, normally a stoical, phlegmatic character, who simply had to get it off his chest that a visit to the hang had left him with a nauseous sense of ‘shame’. It is true that, like the other people whom I’ve heard talking despairingly about it, he is someone who spends most of his time making or studying or working with art, and it may well be that Millbank’s curatorial staff don’t care tuppence about the reactions of such people – that they’re addressing schoolchildren and tourists. If that is not their defence, they should abandon this hang – intended to last a ‘year or so’ – and rehang everything immediately in a traditional way so that those who care seriously for British art can enjoy the world’s finest collection of it. A sample of what some of these curators can do when they try is to be found in the Clore Gallery, in a beautiful roomful of Constables which includes the fullsize sketch for The Haywain borrowed from the V&A.

A crucial question is raised by the debacle. Is it the result of shortcomings in the Millbank curators or of an unworkable policy? There is one room in which the policy does seem workable, where the theme is ‘War’, the artists run from Copley to Rosoman and there’s a really exciting and illuminating juxtaposition between Jagger’s relief, No Man’s Land (1919-20), and Paul Nash’s Totes Meer (1940-41). It may be relevant that the theme is concrete for once. A lot more light will be thrown on the problem now that the Tate at Bankside has opened its doors and we start to see what the curators there have been able to do with the policy. But something can be learned from other cases too and I offer some reflections on a couple.

The first is the exhibition at the Hayward in 1982 called In the Image of Man: The Indian Perception of the Universe through 2000 Years of Painting and Sculpture. This was an especially interesting case in that the organisers were trying to tell the audience something about cultures unfamiliar to most of them. They decided to arrange the exhibits thematically. The nine themes were classic examples of ‘excellently open-ended’ themes: ‘The Abundance of Life’, ‘Man in the Cosmos’, ‘The Four Goals of Life’. The installation seemed to me a complete mishmash in which there were splendid things whose relationships were completely unintelligible visually or conceptually, until I got to a corner showing a series of linga in which that splendid and immediately recognisable phallic form appeared several times over with a head or heads or a yoni attached to it. If a display is to be visually legible and conceptually interesting it needs to include some element analogous to the ‘subjects’ in a piece of music (fugue, sonata-form movement, Wagner opera), motifs the recurrence of which in various forms gives the whole thing a shape. In visual arts it can be a particular colour or texture, or it can be an abstract configuration such as a circle or an Ionic capital, or it can be an image that is especially telling and unmissable, such as the Crucifixion or the Nativity or Leda and the swan or Europa and the bull. A thematic installation can work, then, if the themes present really clear images – provided, of course, that their shapes or colours don’t jar physically, as, say, a Crucifixion by Grünewald and one painted at the same time by Raphael. A lecturer or writer could usefully juxtapose them on a screen or on a page, but placing the actual objects together would be like following a performance of Verdi’s Requiem with Brahms’s. If so extreme an incompatibility can exist between contemporaries, how much more will it happen with artists centuries apart, as at Millbank, even though geography unites them.

My other case of thematic installation is of a display where the temporal boundaries were very limited. This was ModernStarts: People, Places, Things, the recent controversial temporary hang by a small team led by one of the very best living historians of modern art, John Elderfield, of works of 1880 to 1920 in the collections of the Museum of Modern Art, New York. I cannot say much about its most hotly debated section, ‘People’, because my only sight of it was an hour’s visit hot from the airport on the night it closed; the other two sections stayed open till a later date. But I can say that in the room on the theme ‘Composing with the Figure’, I was bowled over by seeing Picasso’s Three Musicians hanging next to Matisse’s The Moroccans and delighted to find the Demoiselles d’Avignon next to Picabia’s I See Again in Memory My Dear Udnie. There were many more surprises, some agreeable, some disconcerting, but a lot was learned about familiar works from seeing them in new contexts, and the whole hang buzzed with the atmosphere of the period.

One very interesting thing was how at one point in that room the period atmosphere was lost. It was in looking at Léger’s Three Women of 1921 and knowing that what should have been there was a Léger of 1918. Three Women was too late a piece: it was painted in the same year as the Three Musicians, but the Picasso still belonged in mood to the previous decade, whereas Léger had entered another world, more mechanical, more purist. Didactically, of course, this anachronism was useful in what it implied about the history of post-Cubism. But all of this shows that there are occasions in thematic hangs when exact dates are very crucial, partly because there are other times when they don’t matter. One of the most exciting moments in the hang was the confrontation of the great Monet Water Lilies (c.1920), with the Twombly The Four Seasons, (1993-94). I had previously seen the Twombly canvases, ten feet tall, hung in two different museums without realising that they were among the greatest paintings of the last fifty years. I responded to them fully only when I saw them in this hang, certainly because of the lofty space and the nearness of a large window and probably because of the Monet hung opposite.

The new fashion for thematic hanging has resulted from two developments in the thinking of art historians, both of which are revulsions against Modernism. Modernism had great faith in the idea of evolution in art. Alfred Barr’s famous historical schema drawn up in the 1930s and showing the genealogical tree of abstract art, a schema that had guided museum presentation of that art for more than fifty years, had come to seem both banal and, by implication, excessively supportive of the evolutionary idea. And so art historians started looking for new ways to present works. For example, one American curator retained the chronological considerations of Barr’s schema but rejected the geographical ones: he placed all the pictures in the modern collection in precise date order, ignoring the fact that 1912, say, provided different contexts in Paris, Munich and Moscow. As to the cult of the thematic, this has grown out of the second and more important revision of Modernist rules – a belief that subject-matter has become respectable again as a topic for discourse about art.

The primary criterion of Modernism was that a work of art must affirm its existence as an object and that subject-matter was incidental to its proper purpose. Its essential slogan was Maurice Denis’s affirmation that a picture, before being a representation of something or other, was a flat surface covered by colours arranged in a certain order. It was what Baudelaire had been saying fifty years earlier when he proclaimed in 1846 that a good picture had a meaning even when you were too far away to identify the subject – a thought he later developed into a declaration that a picture by his idol Delacroix, when seen from a distance too great for us to judge either its linear graces or the dramatic qualities of its subject, already gave us a supernatural charge, making us feel that a magical atmosphere had advanced on and enveloped us, and that when we did get close enough to analyse the subject, nothing was subtracted from or added to that initial thrill.

This idea that what really mattered in art was the concrete reality, the thingness, of the work reached its most extreme expression in the Minimal art of the 1950s and 1960s. At just about that moment art theorists were starting to complain that subject-matter had been getting less than its due. And so today works are being placed together not because they have some community of style or date or place of production but because they all depict people having tea together or lying around naked or walking in city streets.

It’s obviously healthy when the way art is shown changes in accordance with changes in the way people think about it. The trouble with rejecting an approach that sanctifies thingness is that, when it comes to showing art, thingness won’t go away. I learned this lesson when I curated a retrospective of Magritte at the Tate in 1969. As soon as I had chosen the works I started deciding on the order of the plates in the catalogue. My normal practice, like most people’s, was to place them more or less chronologically, departing from the strict sequence when there was some reason to juxtapose two related works not of quite the same date. The last catalogue I had worked on, that of a Henry Moore retrospective at the Tate the previous year, had been different. Both in the text and in the plates I had divided the work into themes, though not literary themes but formal themes – ‘The Reclining Figure’, ‘Square Form’, ‘Holes and Hollows’ and the like – which meant that it wasn’t altogether divorced from chronology. But Magritte was not an artist primarily concerned with form and colour; his ambition was to create remarkable images. So I decided to ignore chronology completely and with the help of the designer to produce a sequence of images in which each led to the next in what seemed to us an interesting way: the sequence was meant to tell a sort of story. I was pleased with the result and decided to try and more or less repeat that sequence in the hang of the works themselves. I had unwittingly prepared the ground for this by getting the exhibition architect to construct a series of rooms capable of containing very few works – varying from just one to a maximum of four or five. I had done this because of a belief that Magritte’s pictures were like icons, each deserving a short wall to itself. Obviously those small rooms would be ideally suited to a thematic hang: the atmosphere in each would be intense. So I started to follow the catalogue sequence, beginning with a room shared by three pictures, two dating from 1928 and one done in 1966. And the result was awful. When the three of them had been reproduced together, all about the same size and on the smooth surface of printed pages, they had looked great. When the originals were put together, the colours and textures of the 1928 paintings came from another world than those in the 1966 painting. Because the originals were not just images; they were things. Even with an artist like Magritte. I abandoned the idea and hung the show more or less chronologically.

It is all very well for curators to want to ignore chronology. But chronology is not a tool of art-historical interpretation which can be used at one moment, discarded at another. It’s an objective reality, built into the fabric of the work. And into the artist’s awareness. An artist can paint a nude in the morning, a tea party in the afternoon; what he’s conscious of all the time is his location in history.

And what is it that occupies the curators’ minds? Their territorial rights, it seems. They fashion a mini-essay in indifferent prose and have it printed – with a by-line – on a piece of white card as big as the painting next to which they place it on the wall. It’s their text that dominates the eye; the picture – say, a masterpiece by Stubbs – recedes.