The London Art Traveller
Tate Modern Is 20 years old this year. Unfortunately, its milestone anniversary has been sadly obscured by the harsh reality of the coronavirus epidemic. It remains to be seen whether any large-scale celebrations will take place at all this year, but my money is that they won’t. This is a pity because the Tate Modern really is quite a remarkable achievement. Its architecture is wonderful. It is accessible to almost everyone, being free and well organized. And it is actively trying to broaden and deepen its collection of modern and contemporary art with a new, world-focused approach.
Before Tate Modern, there was Bankside Power Station, a massive structure on the South Bank of the Thames between Blackfriars and Southwark bridges, directly across the river from St Paul’s Cathedral. The power station was decommissioned in 1981, and for 19 years, the structure lay deserted in an area that was frankly decrepit and unappealing. However, the power station had value, as it was initially designed by Sir Giles Gilbert Scott. It had the potential to be an inspiring place if it could be adequately redeveloped. Finally, in 1995, architects Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron began to turn the enormous brooding hulk into the wonderful art space it is today
Tate Modern genuinely is one of the world’s great modern art museums. Still, until relatively recently, its collection was noticeably weak compared to New York’s MoMA and the Whitney Museum. For one thing, the Tate has almost no American art and, crucially, very few American paintings of note. This is a severe problem given the importance of American painting after the 2nd world war. The cost of acquiring such works today would be absolutely crippling for a public art gallery. What is particularly encouraging is that the Tate has chosen to look outward. It has been steadily collecting artworks from all around the world, including Africa, the Americas and Asia as well as Europe.
I visited Tate today in its new Covid-safe incarnation. I’m sure it’s really not what the Tate wanted to do in its anniversary year, but let me just say they’ve done a great job. Firstly there are far fewer people than you would usually find on August day because London has very few tourists. That might not be great for the economy, but it’s really great for Londoners. But even if there were many more people, the Tate has organized the space to create a pleasurable, easily navigable tour around the artworks. Not everything can be seen. Some of my real favourites are not available because I guess it would be too difficult to incorporate them into the one way walkthrough system. I had been hoping to visit the Rothko Seagram murals but, alas, they were not on show. Nor were some of my favourite paintings, such as George Grosz’s Suicide and Dorothea Tanning’s Eine Kleine Nachtmusik. Nevertheless, I still managed to spend a highly enjoyable 3 hours looking at the works.
I was particularly happy to notice a relatively new acquisition, Inspiration from the Sea (1963), by the Egyptian abstract-surrealist Ramses Younan. Younan worked on the abstract aspects of surrealism, engaging with automatic painting, inspiration from the inner self, something similar to Andre Breton’s idea of automatic writing. Spontaneous, yet at the same time, Younan’s choice of colours and texture connects deeply to the Egyptian landscape. Younan understood how to use the ochres that have been dug from the ground since the beginning of Egyptian art history.
more on Egyptian Surrealism
This was just one small painting, unfortunately, but it opened up my mind to everything else the Tate is doing. I would like to see them collecting more art from Egypt, both modern and contemporary.
The other artwork I found particularly inspiring today was the American multimedia artist Ed Ruscha. I’ve always liked his work, which encompasses painting photography and bookmaking no matter the medium he’s using, he always does something fresh and inspiring. I never tire of Ruscha’s work. He has a way of both skewering and celebraitng America, its self image, its turbulent history and its seductive mythology. I love the US, and I appreciate what the artist is doing in these works.
And it was good to see old friends:
I really appreciate that Tate Modern has gone to such an effort to make the artwork available to us during this terrible time. We have spent almost six months now living in some kind of dread. It’s not normal, and it won’t be the ‘new normal’ – but it is where we are right now. Still, I’m happy to be in London, and I’m delighted to be able to visit Tate. I’m also glad to share the pictures of my experience and encourage you to have a good look at the Tate website to see much, much more.