Is the new Whitechapel gallery a modern masterpiece?

London's Whitechapel Gallery was founded to improve poor people's lives through fine art. As it reopens after a two-year refit, Tom Lubbock still senses an old idealism

Nobody has put that much faith in art before or since – and not only their socialists. Go to the National Portrait Gallery, and as you go in you'll find the words of Lord Palmerston written up: "There cannot be a greater incentive to mental exertion, to noble actions, to good conduct on the part of the living than for them to see before them the features of those who have done things which are worthy of admiration."

Or go to the National Gallery. What Sir Robert Peel said on its foundation isn't inscribed there, but it's just as telling. "In the present times of political excitement, the exacerbation of angry and unsocial feelings might be much softened by the effects which the fine arts had ever produced upon the minds of men." He trusted that "the edifice would not only contribute to the cultivation of the arts, but also to the cementing of those bonds of union between the richer and the poorer orders of the State..."

Spiritual blessing, moral elevation, social peace and cohesion: these are the ideals that art spreads, among all the classes but especially among the lower ones. They may not sound very appealing or very plausible. But what ideals would today's galleries announce? If you wanted art for the sake of something more than art, would they have much to offer? Perhaps there's an answer still in one London gallery that was born with a very clear vocation.

In 1881 Canon Samuel Barnett and his wife, Henrietta – philanthropists and socialists – organised the first of their Whitechapel Fine Art Exhibitions. He was vicar of St Jude's parish and the shows took place in the St Jude's schoolroom. Their principle was "Pictures for the People": "the finest art of the world for the people of the East End". Their hope was that free art would keep them out of pubs, and inspire them "with thoughts to exclude those created by gloom or sordid temptation".

Whatever happened in the pubs, these shows were very well-attended. The public could vote for their favourite painting. They kept on coming over the next two decades. It's odd to think of these high-minded occasions as contemporaneous with Jack the Ripper. But of course it wasn't a coincidence. The horror of the Whitechapel murders only symbolised to the better classes the general horror of the East End – prostitution, dissipation, criminality.

And the success, by contrast, of this cultural enterprise culminated in the establishment of a permanent institution. In 1901 the Whitechapel Art Gallery opened. It addressed the world with a terracotta Art Nouveau façade. Its first show was Modern Pictures by Living Artists, Pre Raphaelites and Older English Masters. It attracted 206,000 visitors.

This Sunday, the Whitechapel Gallery opens again to the public. After more than a century of exhibitions, and two years of closure, it will emerge with the biggest transformation since it was built. It has now taken over the Whitechapel Library next door. You'll find its exhibition spaces are much expanded. It has a new restaurant. It has free admission to every show, and it never closes: the new spaces mean that there'll constantly be something on to see.

On the other hand, it's still where it always was, and the area hasn't gone up much in the world. The Jewish immigrants of the early 20th century have left. The Bangladeshi immigrants of the late 20th century have taken their place. Curry tourism keeps nearby Brick Lane busy, but Aldgate East isn't art-smartened Hoxton. That terracotta façade sits oddly and rather discreetly in the row of raucous shop-fronts. It's still a surprising place to find a modern art gallery lurking.

Which is how it should be. Its history has always meant that it was part of its location and local population. And what's good about the reopening shows is that they honour that history. Take the Whitechapel's most famous exhibition ever – the visit of Picasso's Guernica to the East End in 1939. This, now legendary, painting, condemning the ruinous bombing by fascist planes of the Basque town, travelled to Britain to raise support for the republican forces in the Spanish Civil War. Its appearance at the Whitechapel was organised by a mixture of arty folk and local trade-unionists. Clement Atlee, then leader of the Labour Party, made the opening address. Attendance was strong. The price of admission was a pair of boots, to be sent to the Spanish Front.

This was definitely art for the sake of something more than art. The exhibition was both an appeal and an act of political solidarity. It had been shown in the West End too, but here it could expect a properly supportive working-class public, as one of the organisers, Roland Penrose, noted. But, writing to Picasso, he couldn't avoid just the wrong note of class-consciousness: "I want to give you some idea of the profound impression your works have made on these simple people."

This showing of Guernica is now the focus of an installation by the Polish-born artist Goshka Macuga. She has borrowed the tapestry version that normally hangs in the United Nations building – the tapestry that was notoriously covered over when, in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq, Colin Powell addressed the UN and presented his unreliable evidence.

So a web of connections can be made – between the gallery's history, the picture, the tapestry, the war in Spain, and the war in Iraq. Macuga adds a documentary film on the Spanish war, and also a bust of Powell at the podium, made in a Cubist style, showing "a figure who is falling apart morally"; plenty of archive material. The bust is not very well made. But the concept is tighter than it may seem. There are people who now see the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in the same way as idealistic Englishmen in the 1930s saw the Spanish Civil War. They join up. We call them terrorists, insurgents. Some of them may even live in the area.

The gallery survived the Blitz. Its post-war shows are now a roll of honour. Under of the succession of directors – Brian Robertson, Nicholas Serota, Catherine Lampert – it presented the London art world with art news. Robertson's 1956 show, This Is Tomorrow, is normally taken as the birth of British Pop Art. But the overall riches are remarkable.

Exhibitions covered classic modern artists, like Mondrian, Malevich, Léger, Miro, Gris. There were new contemporaries from abroad: Jackson Pollock, Philip Guston, Georg Baselitz, Gerhard Richter, Anselm Kiefer, Christian Boltanski. There were young British artists – from David Hockney to Peter Doig – getting their first major showing.

There's an echo of that more recent history too. In a new upstairs gallery, post-war British art is given a brief resumé with a selection of works from the British Council Collection. In this small room, it performs a lively variety act – from a mystical Paul Nash landscape through a dazzlingly rippling Op Bridget Riley, to a Chris Ofili canvas propped on and adorned with dung.

But the main reopening show picks up another line: news from abroad. Isa Genzken is a German sculptor, 60 years old, widely rated, unshown here. Both upstairs and downstairs spaces of the gallery as it was – basically unchanged – are filled with a retrospective of her work, in Open, Sesame!

The pieces downstairs, rough concrete cuboid blocks, smoothly tooled lengths of painted wood, rectilinear constructions and frameworks of resin, have an air of usefulness – shutters, blinds, canoes, loudspeakers, lamps, and (obviously, because they have aerials stuck in them) radios. They have authority without it making clear what they're on about, which is always a good starting position for an artwork.

Upstairs the language is much louder and clearer. You have a sequence of violent, anarchic assemblages of mannequins and wheelchairs and umbrellas and shreds and helmets. It has a feeling of a multicoloured plastic car-crash. This is all much more familiar, though its rather formulaic craziness is complicated by knowing – if you happen to know – that Genzken has a history of mental trouble. It doesn't make the work better or worse, but it makes you wonder.

But whatever it is, this is certainly international art for art's sake. It's smart of the current director, Iwona Blazwick, to pip them, but Genzken might have been shown in the Hayward Gallery or Tate Modern.

What has always been distinctive about the Whitechapel is its mixture – of international and local, and of art and idealism.

There's a perfect reminder in another new upstairs gallery. It's a small room that's half a book-room and half a display space. It has works by a group of Jewish modernist artists and writers known as the Whitechapel Boys. Local, international, they used to meet in the Whitechapel Library in the early years of the 20th century. Now they are (in effect) back there, with works by David Bomberg, Mark Gertler, and Jacob Epstein, with an exquisitely solid head of a child by Epstein in the centre of the room.

How strong is the sense of place, still? The Whitechapel began in the idea of pictures for the people. It wasn't so long before the people were being asked for art back. From 1932 to 1963 it held the East End Academy, an annual exhibition open to "all artists living or working East of the famous Aldgate Pump". It was followed in 1970 by the Whitechapel Open, which was drawn from the burgeoning East London colony of artists. The last one was in 1998. But now the institution will return, under its original name. The new East End Academy is to occupy the lower gallery all this summer. It's open to anyone.

And how strong is the old idealism? "The finest art of the world for the people of the East End". "Pictures raise blessed thoughts in me – why not in you, my brother?" Obviously those original, paternalistic, principles won't do. But by this stage it seems we've been scolded out of all ideas that art does anyone any good. Honest art is honestly useless. Anything else is empty uplift.

Yet, if anywhere, this is the place to promote a new belief in the good of art. And we shouldn't forget that great line from another Victorian socialist, George Bernard Shaw: "I am simply calling attention to the fact that fine art is the only teacher except torture."

Bryan Robertson, writing many years after leaving his job as director of the Whitechapel, quoted that sentence. Perhaps he could have had it carved over the entrance of the Whitechapel Gallery too. Perhaps it could be still.

The artists' friend adds to her prestigious portfolio

The driving force behind the Whitechapel Gallery's multi-million pound makeover has been a key figure in Britain's contemporary art life over the last two decades.

Iwona Blazwick was born in 1955 in Blackheath in the south-east of the capital to architect parents who both painted. She changed the spelling of her family name from Blaszczyk, exhausted with mispronunciations in the Sixties and Seventies.

After reading English and fine art at Exeter University, she describes herself as "immersed" in the Modernist aesthetic – her thesis was on Henry Moore – until the revelation of discovering "ideas-based art" when she returned to London after university.

Blazwick took a job as a receptionist with a publisher of Pop Art books and prints and later became curator, then director of exhibitions at London's Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA). Her first exhibition in 1981 included work by Bill Woodrow and Antony Gormley. It was under her direction that the ICA hosted Damien Hirst's first public show in 1992.

In 1997, Blazwick became head of exhibitions at the Tate. She was integral to the conception of what would become Tate Modern, planning the installation of the collection and the blueprint exhibition programme. "I'm no stranger to hard hats," she says. Cue her next challenge in 2001 as she took on the directorship of east London's Whitechapel Gallery, spearheading its ambitious redevelopment.

When its doors open again on Sunday, Whitechapel will continue to showcase cutting-edge and celebrated artists, but on an extended canvas. In Blazwick's architectural revamp it has taken over the old Passmore Edwards Library next door, spreading into a network of stylish galleries, studios and reading rooms.

Blazwick says her new programme will focus on big mid-career surveys and exhibitions that explore a theme or examine new trends, with the mantra: "If you've seen it here today, it's going to be big tomorrow. Expansion allows the gallery to house free exhibitions all year round for the first time, "so there will always be something free to see," she says.

Louise Ridley

The gallery that changed my life

By Nicholas Serota

I remember my first day at the Whitechapel Gallery in the summer of 1976. The roof was leaking, the programme was not very fully developed and there were financial problems.

I took the job as director because it is one of the most beautiful galleries in the whole of Europe. Bryan Robertson, who had been the director in the 1950s and the 1960s, had shown that it had amazing potential. I wanted to re-establish it as a place where the best British and international art could be seen. I also wanted to root it more firmly in the local community. It had somehow lost touch with both of those for different reasons notwithstanding the efforts of my predecessors Jennie Stein and Jasia Reichardt.

One of the first things I did was to reinvent the annual show that presented the work of local artists. It had been thought that there weren't enough good local artists and it had been opened up to the whole country. I felt strongly that there were a lot of young artists in the area whose work deserved to be shown, so we restricted it to East London. This gave an opportunity to many younger artists to show their work for the first time after they left art school, including people like Mark Wallinger and Alison Wilding. No one ever achieves everything they hope for but we got quite a long way. The highlights were probably some of the exhibitions: Carl Andre, Gilbert & George, Philip Guston and the much-ignored British artist Victor Willing. Some of the then younger German artists were shown for the first time there such as Anselm Kiefer and Georg Baselitz.

You can't spend 12 years working with a fabulous team of people, building an institution without it changing your life. It gave me the opportunity to work with some marvellous artists – some very early on in their careers – like Antony Gormley, who had his first show in a public gallery at the Whitechapel.

Many of the ideas that I developed at the Whitechapel – such as making it international and trying to build respect from artists – I employed when I went to Tate. What I learned was that you had to have a very clear vision and that you had to be consistent, without expecting instant results.

London is now much more connected with the international art world, the whole art world is much larger, there are many more visitors to exhibitions, and the visual arts occupy a much more important position within culture than they did. I played a part in making this happen, with a lot of other people, but frankly these changes are made by artists more than by administrators. It's the work of artists that has made the public excited.

There were some great moments at the Whitechapel including the shows I have mentioned and a wonderful show in the eighties of Bengali textiles. To see people from the neighbourhood coming into that show and identifying with it was really very moving.

Modernism's new home

Jay Merrick takes a closer look at the gallery's metamorphosis...

London's Whitechapel Gallery was Britain's first and most consistently challenging centre of Modernist art and is now poised, with some tension, between the Edwardian philanthropy and Jewish intellectual voltage that launched the Whitechapel Free Library and Museum in the 1890s, and today's climate of self-conscious artistic anxiety.

Nikolaus Pevsner described the original Whitechapel as "a wonderfully original and epoch-making building" in a part of London whose social diversity began in the 17th century, when it became the destination for incoming Huguenots, Portuguese, and Spanish Jews. By the end of the 19th century, it was a ghetto for poor East European Jews and Russians.

The library, and the later self-contained gallery, were founded by the philanthropists Samuel and Henrietta Barnett, and became the reactor-core of British Modernism via brilliant locals including David Bomberg, Jacob Epstein, Mark Gertler and the poet Isaac Rosenberg. After the second war, the gallery premiered the works of artists including Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, David Hockney, and Gilbert and George.

The reinvention of the Whitechapel is partly a response to demographic changes. There are said to be 10,000 artists living in the borough of Tower Hamlets; half the local population is under 40, and from ethnic minorities; and half of all adults work in the banking and financial services sector. The gallery's international profile helps to generate something like half a billion pounds in contemporary art sales in London annually, and visitors to the new Whitechapel are expected to spend £2.3m locally each year.

The 78 per cent increase in gallery space, with no closures for exhibition set-ups, could make the Whitechapel, led by its articulate and trend-conscious director, Iwona Blazwick, an even more potent force in art.

The appointment of Robbrecht and Daem, supported by the English practice Witherford Watson Mann, guaranteed a series of settings that are both anti-iconic and anti-white-cube.

"Every [gallery] building should not only be an exhibition space, but able to accept art that is very critical of that space," Paul Robbrecht told me. "Art and architecture have a lot in common, but art now has to work in a mass-media situation. So they have to find each other, in what I call unforgettable space.

"There's a tension. At the Whitechapel, it's a walking experience. You become a flâneur. You choose where to walk. And you are alone. It is a positive feeling of loneliness."

It is no surprise that the architects' fusion of the faux-Jacobean library with the original arts and craft architecture of the gallery has not erased the warren-like atmosphere – thank heavens. On the other hand, two superb new self-contained spaces have been created: a quietly elegant archive and reading room, and a penthouse creative studio for children.

Open, Sesame! the opening show by Isa Genzken, takes over the two main original galleries and a connecting space. Her installations are extremely challenging from a curatorial point of view, ranging from architectural arrangements of glass in New Buildings for Berlin, to Street Party, a detritus-clogged dance of death which seems – quite ideally – at war with the Gallery Eight. The seminal work in Gallery Seven, from the British Council collection, ranging from Freud to Gilbert and George, is brilliantly staged. It looks as though art will flourish in these spaces.

But will eating? There is one dreadful failure of taste and architectural typology: the new café, which looks out onto Whitechapel High Street, lacks only the whiff of ammonia and a Greek chorus of enquiries about holiday destinations to transform it into a ladies hair salon in Weybridge. Or is this what Paul Robbrecht really meant when he referred to his vision of "a condensed urban experience"?

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