Arts: Young guns and old masters
The Tate London splits in two. Chardin takes on Monet's mantle. Tom Lubbock looks forward to the big art shows of the next few months
Tuesday 28 December 1999
A show early in the new year puts posterity in focus. The Year 1900: Art at the Crossroads opens at the Royal Academy in a couple of weeks. It surveys artistic taste exactly a century ago: 250 exhibits juxtapose the works of established favourites at that time, such as Anders Zorn and Franz von Stuck, with those of fringe figures such as Cezanne and Munch and unknowns such as Picasso and Kandinsky. Well, we know what happened next in terms of honour and oblivion. At least, we know what has happened so far. But posterity's view may change.
Look at the future of the Tate Gallery: 2000 is the year when the Tate in London divides. Next spring, the present Millbank gallery turns into Tate Britain, showing only British art. Then the new gallery at Bankside opens as Tate Modern, showing only art since 1900. British art since 1900 (if you were wondering) may turn up at either premises, and Millbank keeps the Turner Prize. But the re-organisation raises larger questions. For how long will 1900 still count as a great turning point in art? May not 1960 soon come to seem a more decisive break? The Bankside gallery may find it's founded on a historical idea - modern art - that is itself becoming history.
But enough of such timely meditations. Roll the almanac. In February, the National Gallery has two interesting old-master shows. Painted Illusions: the Art of Cornelius Gijsbrechts is a small display of eye-teasing, hand- tempting, super-real images by the 17th-century Dutch painter, including his remarkable paintings of paintings - for example a canvas that represents with perfect deception the back of a canvas. Then there's a Millennium spirituality special, Seeing Salvation: the Image of Christ, a wide-ranging look at Western art's most popular subject. It follows the man-god - newborn, dying, risen, glorified - from the earliest carvings (when he was still shown beardless) to Dali's overhead view of the crucifixion. For a stranger take on the spiritual, look to Dundee. Dream Machines is a thematic show devised by the artist Susan Hiller. Its subject is art with transformative designs on the viewer's consciousness, aiming for altered states, hallucinations and out-of-body experiences. It sounds like it would be a zone in the Dome if the Dome had any sense. It opens at Dundee Contemporary Arts in February (then tours to the Mappin Gallery, Sheffield, and Camden Arts Centre, London). At the Whitechapel Gallery is Live in Your Head: Concept and Experiment in Britain 1965-75, a vindication of the first generation of British conceptual art. Compared with much recent work, I expect it will seem an age of both innocence and peculiar sophistication.
Chardin 1699-1779, at the Royal Academy, is the year's old-master blockbuster. It runs from March to May. The work of this still-life artist is a landmark in the history of subject matter and of paint. His pictures insist that the most modest and minimal subject - a glass of water and three bulbs of garlic - is sufficient to make a picture. They are also works where the visible body of the oil-paint takes the stage. Chardin's alchemy is to make the substance of the paint seem to become the substance of the thing depicted. His pictures are small and can take a lot of contemplation. And any individual viewer may hope that during this show the RA will be - quite unjustly - almost deserted. Monet-sized levels of attendance would make the experience pointless.
The year 2000 brings the British Art Show round again, now for the fifth time. It is a five-yearly overview of the current state of British art. The interval is long enough for one usually to forget that there is such a thing at all. The British Art Show 5 features more than 50 artists and opens in April, in Edinburgh, at seven of the city's main art galleries. It will require a dedicated viewer. And the survey looks partial, not to say whimsical, not to say dodgy. Younger talents, some extremely thin, are mixed with an odd selection of older figures (Paula Rego, Art & Language). Well, it's just what the three selectors like. And if it was an annual show with a less imposing title, who could quibble? It tours - to Southampton in June, Cardiff in September and Birmingham in November.
The French/American sculptor Louise Bourgeois is now nearly 90 and a unique figure. At its best, her work - using every material from marble to wool - stages existential-cum-womanist themes with extraordinary directness and theatricality. She has had several exhibitions in the UK, but never quite had the showing here she deserves. Perhaps she will now. The Bankside Tate Gallery of Modern Art opens in May, with Bourgeois as its first big temporary show, though it is not the retrospective it would be so good to see, but a special project for the gallery.
Meanwhile, at the other Tates this spring... At the Millbank Tate, a show marking the centenary of John Ruskin's death, Ruskin, Turner and the Pre- Raphaelites; at the St Ives Tate, a show of two important modern naives, one Cornish and one Irish, Alfred Wallis and James Dixon; at the Liverpool Tate, recent work by the British sculptor of odd and heavy objects, Tony Cragg.
At the Walker Gallery in Liverpool you can see Constable's Clouds, the artist's high-speed painted snapshots of bits of sky. It opens in April, then goes to the National Gallery of Scotland in August. In June, the Imperial War Museum opens its permanent Holocaust Exhibition.
Forecasts for later months must be hazier. The Iranian artist Shirin Neshat, whose video installation Turbulence caused quite a stir this year, gets two simultaneous and presumably slightly different shows this summer - one at the Serpentine Gallery in London, the other at the Fruitmarket Gallery in Edinburgh. At the Ikon in Birmingham you can see new revisions of romantic landscape by Mariele Neudecker.
Then there start to be shows that do not finish until the year 2001. It feels a little strange just writing that calmly down, somehow beyond plausible prediction. Still, I suppose there will be an interesting-sounding exhibition in the autumn at the Hayward Gallery, called Know Thyself: the Art & Science of the Human Body, which will be about what it says it will be about, from Leonardo to the present. And I really hope there will be the promised end-of-the-year show at the Millbank Tate, a William Blake retrospective. OK, there's a sense in which he couldn't really draw. But the more you look at it, the more extraordinary Blake's art seems. If there were to be any real Millennium experience in London, Blake would obviously be its presiding genius. Very right to remember him now.
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