London power station plugs in to hip art

Southwark, south of the River Thames, is not, perhaps, the most wholesome part of London.

Although renewal is in the air, dilapidation caused by years of neglect still shows itself here. And on a dark winter evening, it isn't too hard to imagine this is the kind of London dockland area once peopled with shadier characters.

Yet since May 2000, these streets have been worn by the unaccustomed feet of art lovers, or would-be art lovers, heading to and from a gigantic 1950s power station.

Well, not exactly.

The power station has been given a completely new use. It's a use that could hardly have been envisaged by its original architect, Giles Gilbert Scott, though there is, in fact, something aptly cathedral-like about this mammoth brick structure. What it has become is Britain's first museum of "modern" art.

But for "modern" one should not read merely "contemporary." "Modern" for the purposes of this museum - and since the new century is not much older than the museum itself - means "20th century."

There is a peculiarly British irony in the fact that this traditional country has only been able to finally dedicate an entire building to its collection of 20th-century art after the 20th century has ended. It's as if modernity has to be history before the country can cope with it. Britain needs to look back over it to feel in the least safe about it.

Until the opening of Tate Modern, as it is known, the national modern-art collection was housed on the other side of the river, on Millbank, in half of what used to be known as "The Tate Gallery."

Now this building has been renamed "Tate Britain." This original Tate is today for British art only, instead of being half British and half modern. The new Tate Modern, in the Bankside power station, is modern only. (Though, just to confuse the issue, this does not mean that modern British art is excluded from the displays in Tate Modern.)

Another striking irony has arisen since the opening of Tate Modern. In a country hardly renowned for its interest in the visual arts, and particularly not in what many Britons ignorantly believed modern art to be, it suddenly appears to have become fashionable to go and take a look at Tate Modern and its contents.

This new museum, which is an impressively scaled building worth a visit on its own account, has been flooded with visitors. There were 2 million of them in its first 99 days. Even a cursory eavesdropping on conversations among these visitors indicates a percentage of total newcomers to the experience of modern art. And if anyone has lingering doubts regarding the burning interest of vast numbers of people in art, old or modern, then a visit to Tate Modern should quickly settle those doubts.

At least initially, the old Tate Gallery suffered a sharp drop in attendance. It would seem that Britishness has much less appeal than international modernity. Things are picking up there now, however, with special exhibitions - such as the current enormous one devoted to the work of early-19th-century British artist William Blake - proving to be a draw.

A young woman I spoke to coming out of the Tate Modern suggests that not all visitors are, or instantly become, avid modern-art appreciators. Attracted, perhaps, by curiosity rather than prior interest in modern art, she had spent hours there. But she was still not at all sure she actually liked modern art. She agreed, though, that the art of an entire century - as the quite stunning displays demonstrate - is so varied that there is bound to be something in it to appeal to almost everyone. And she greatly liked the top-floor restaurant with its view across the Thames to St. Paul's Cathedral.

A considerable effort has been made by the museum to accompany the art objects on view with explanatory captions and acoustic guides. Documentary background and archival material is also used to put the works into understandable contexts.

Visitors are not abandoned solely to their own responses - though there is also a danger that too much explanation of the intrinsically inexplicable will oversimplify artistic intentions and distort the art. It is a fine line to tread.

The way in which the art is displayed runs against the usual museum practice of chronology or school. Instead, four basic themes are used, and works (sometimes rather arbitrarily and sometimes with delightful eccentricity) are tossed into the galleries accordingly. The plan is to change the works on display under these themes every three months or so, selecting other suitable works from the collection.

This is partly because even this vast building can only show about 40 percent of the Tate's holdings at one time, an improvement over the previous 10 percent. What can now be shown is more than enough for a visitor to absorb in a day's visit.

The four thematic "suites" are called "Landscape, Matter, Environment"; "Still Life, Object, Real Life"; "Nude, Action, Body"; and "History, Memory, Society."

These categories are reinterpretations of traditional art genres: landscape, still life, the figure, and history painting.

In some cases, works by one artist prove to be perfectly at home in any of the four categories.

The sculpture of British artist Henry Moore, for example, is concerned principally with the figure, yet makes the body into a metaphor for landscape. And since his sculptures are objects, they also fall naturally under the category of "Still Life, Object, Real Life."

Some completely unexpected juxtapositions of artists are brought about by this unusual method of display, such unconventional couplings as those of Monet's water lilies with the environmental stone-floor sculptures of Richard Long. And in one "Still Life" gallery called "Intimate Lives," you find Bonnard and Vuillard paintings rubbing shoulders with a late Derain, and with such utterly (one would have thought) unconnected artists as Hammershoi, Auerbach, and Hodgkin.

Such daring get-togethers make visits to Tate Modern a stimulating adventure for hardened modern-art aficionados. They also introduce first-timers to what is a historical collection without the slightest emphasis on historical logic or reality.

Whether this is helpful or confusing, heaven knows. But nobody could say it isn't thought-provoking.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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