Hang the curators! Then rehang them.

Wednesday 3 May 2006

There were plenty of happy punters in the Tate Modern on Sunday: they had found the Dalìs. Four of them, by my count, and good ones too, made before the kitsch element of his work became overwhelming. (I’m not a Dalì fan, but if I was forced to have one on my wall I’d probably pick Mountain Lake, on display here – or else a really small one.) While in the new surrealism room I heard three people call their mates over to where the Dalìs were hanging.
How does the new surrealism room at the Tate compare to the old one? Tate Modern never had a surrealism room before! Its first and, until now, only hanging of its permanent collection was one of those dreaded “themed” arrangements whose main objective is the career advancement of museum curators. So if you liked surrealism, and a lot of people do, you wandered through room after room – all with titles like “The Body and Society”, or “Nature and Growth”, or anything else that sounds like a high school curriculum’s euphemism for sex ed – hoping you stumbled across the one with the Magritte in it.
(Did anyone pay attention to the putative themes of those galleries? Or did everyone just scuttle from room to room in a game of hunt-the-Dalì? Can anyone, even the curators, remember what the rooms were called?)
Sometimes, that Magritte wasn’t there at all. The arranging of work by ideological themes put the curators in something of a bind. The average art-loving punter stubbornly clings to the old-fashioned expectation that museums are places where you go to look at lots of great art. Put up too much good art, and your precious theme will be diluted to the point of giving the lie to your curatorial pretensions. On the other hand, put up third rate art that supports your thesis and your aesthetic judgement will become suspect. Now that the themes have been abandoned, the first thing everyone’s noticed is that there’s a lot more art up on the walls.
Pablo, baby, we know Three Dancers is a great painting but we’re gonna stick it in storage because you neglected to illustrate our curatorial agenda. If we let people see it they might try, god forbid, to locate it in some artificial historical context. Besides, some of us are still mad at you for starting the first world war.
Sorry I don’t have 100% accurate information on what was hanging where, or how much of it is on loan to the Tate to supplement their own collection. I was there on a bank holiday Sunday and the place was packed, so I didn’t always get the chance to scrutinise the title cards. Besides, the main reason I was there was to accompany the girlfriend’s belated viewing of Embankment. Her verdict: it’s OK.
The most immediately obvious room is the one that squares off their big Monet Water-Lilies opposite a big (well, long) Pollock. Unfortunately it’s the wrong kind of Pollock. Blue Poles would look amazing in this company, but Summertime: Number 9A is a bare canvas soaked with an elegant scrawl of dripped black paint, highlighted with brushed on patches of primary colours. It isn’t a surface or a palette that matches Monet’s at all. Fortunately, a bench runs lengthwise down the room so you can face one painting or the other, with audio guides on hand for punters wanting to know more about either work.
The really clever juxtaposition is a pretty Rothko on the wall adjacent to the Monet, at the head of the long room. Its greeny-golds and pinks, the translucence of its surface, play off against Monet’s water-lilies until the Monet looks like a Rothko and the Rothko a Monet. An ingenious pairing.
The room full of Rothkos has been kept intact, as you would expect. Plenty of bench space so you can spend an entire, melancholy afternoon in there if you like.
Unless my memory is played tricks on me, they left that Joseph Beuys thing where it was. Can’t blame them not wanting to lug that big pile o’crap around any more than absolutely necessary.
The recent British art on display is way lame. Dear Tate: don’t trust Charles Saatchi’s acquisitions advice!