It’s time to split the Tate again

‘Babel’, 2001, by Cildo Meireles

‘Babel’, 2001, by Cildo Meireles


In 1992 I wrote a column that was published under the headline ‘It’s Time to Split the Tate’. To my absolute astonishment, shortly afterwards it was announced that this would actually happen (no doubt a coincidence rather than a response to my words). Hitherto, though it is hard now to recall those times, there had been just a single Tate gallery in London — the one on Millbank, containing a cheerful jumble of British painting from the Tudor era onwards mixed with what was then described as modern ‘foreign’ art.

Eventually, Tate Modern opened and became one of the most prominent features on the cultural landscape, not only of London but also of Britain. Nearly six million visitors a year pour through its doors. It has been by almost any measure a huge success. Nonetheless, as I walked around the handsome new galleries designed by the Swiss architects Herzog and de Meuron that were unveiled this week, I felt another radical idea forming at the back of my mind. Perhaps it’s time for the Tate to drop the ‘modern’ tag and hand over the earlier parts of the collection to the National Gallery.

This makes sense partly because 1900, currently the official starting point of the modern age as far as London is concerned, is slowly vanishing into the distant past. We can’t go on pretending for ever that modernity began in the era of the silent film and the horseless carriage. But, more to the point, it’s an acknowledgment of what Tate Modern has really become: Tate Contemporary.

Almost all of the work on display in the new building — dubbed the Switch House — has been purchased since the millennium. A great deal of it was also made in the past two or three decades. Occasionally, among the displays in the original galleries on the other side of the Turbine Hall — an area now known as the Boiler House — you come across a relic of what used to be thought of as ‘modern’. There are some Rothkos here, a Brancusi there, even a late Monet ‘Water Lily’ canvas — but these now look a little isolated and wan.

No attempt is made to provide a chronological narrative of what happened when. Indeed, the sad truth of the matter is that the collection doesn’t really have the depth to tell such a story. When classic modernism was cheap and plentiful — to borrow a phrase from George Bernard Shaw — Tate trustees and staff never missed an opportunity to miss an opportunity. Among the extraordinary works that got away was Matisse’s ‘The Red Studio’, on sale in a London gallery in the 1940s for a few hundred pounds. Such omissions, as Frances Morris, the new director, wryly notes, are ‘hard not to regret even to this day’.

Those gaps are now impossible to fill, so it’s understandable that Tate Modern has embarked on a different project: to become a collection of global art in the modernist spirit. Accordingly, as you go around, you encounter works from everywhere and anywhere.

There is a room of 1960s op art from Zagreb, and several pieces by the centenarian Lebanese artist Saloua Raouda Choucair, plenty of photography, video and, in the zone known as The Tanks, live performances — with something happening all the time. There is even a bit of painting (for which I personally was grateful), including a spectacular room of Bridget Riley and another of Gerhard Richter squeegee abstracts.

Almost the last work you come across in the topmost of the new galleries is by the French artist Kader Attia. It dates from 2009 and comprises a model of a north African settlement full of cubic structures occasionally topped by domes, all made out of couscous. As you might expect, it emits an appetising aroma.

This piece is characteristic of the new Tate in that it is a product of complex cultural cross-fertilisation. European artists such as Paul Klee and Matisse were inspired by exactly that kind of urban landscape from the Maghreb, but Attia — second-generation immigrant to France — has transformed it into something a bit novel, an edible installation. It is emblematic of the way modern art, originally a rather minority taste in some parts of western Europe and North America, is now a worldwide phenomenon. It also serves as a reminder that the sources for early modernists such as Picasso were often not European at all but Japanese prints, African sculpture, Islamic textiles.

But all this heterogeneous stuff appearing in no particular order becomes bemusing after a while. Furthermore, the masterpiece quota is on the low side (and gets lower the closer to the present one comes). One of the more striking pieces on show in the Boiler House is by the Brazilian artist Cildo Meireles: a vast tower of radio sets, all tuned to different stations. It is a contemporary-art Tower of Babel and a good metaphor for the whole enterprise. So perhaps some simplification might help. I think it’s time to split the Tate, again.


Published in the Spectator 

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