Terrible things are taking place at the Tates, both Modern and Britain. People, according to an article in the London Review of Books by the distinguished writer David Sylvester, are "repelled, puzzled, angry, distressed, appalled". He even had a "sudden telephone call" one morning (what would a gradual telephone
call be like, exactly?) from a former Tate Trustee who claimed he had
left Millbank with a "nauseous
sense of shame".
And the alarm isn't confined to the literary journals. In The Sunday Times, Waldemar Januszczak writes of "disaster" and an exercise in "arrogance and whimsy". And what have the curators been doing to provoke such fury and incredulity? Have they been putting smiley faces on the Auerbach portraits to make them more "accessible"? Have they been allowing school parties to colour in the Mondrians as part of an outreach programme? No; the barbarians have been hanging the pictures in a different order.
Now hangs do matter, of course. The ability to assemble artworks with sympathy and imagination is one of those curatorial gifts which hovers between professional knowledge and magical intuition. But the reaction to the Tate's themed hangs - in which the dependable verities of art history and movements have made way for looser associations - is much more than an expression of dismay at local curatorial clumsiness. It is the sound of something everybody assumed immoveable being made to move again, a shriek of friction.
It can sound distinctly odd too - when Waldemar Januszczak writes that "Monet shares a gallery with Richard Long, even though they were born 100 years apart" (my italics), you suddenly become aware of how unquestioned the chronological apartheid in most traditional galleries is. Why is this meeting so unthinkable, exactly, and what violence does it do to either artist to be temporarily in each other's company? Januszczak writes as if any reasonable person would concede the matter right there, almost as if a marriage had been proposed between an infant and a centenarian.
David Sylvester, too, is prone to clinchers that turn out to be paraphrases of the original anxiety. In what is actually a very thoughtful essay about the matter, he concedes at one point that comparing a Grunewald Crucifixion and one painted by Raphael is fine in a book or a lecture hall, but that "placing the actual objects together would be like following a performance of Verdi's Requiem with Brahms's". So magisterial is the sense that he's just slammed down a trump card that one almost hesitates to point out that his ace of hearts has been drawn in red biro on a scrap of foolscap. You wouldn't do this in a concert hall, for practical reasons alone, but surely it's entirely conceivable that a music lover would listen to those two pieces of music in succession - and that both works might emerge enlarged from the encounter?
It would be foolish to pretend that there aren't problems with themed hangs. They are harder to get right than conventional hangs, not easier. And, as in any revolution, there are innocent victims; Januszczak is undeniably right that Matisse's great work, The Snail, has been ill-served at Tate Modern. But theme hangs also enfranchise viewers who otherwise have no vote. They shift the field of expertise from specialists - learned in the aetiology of a particular kind of brushstroke or the evolution of a particular "ism" - to non-professionals, who for once stand as good a chance of forging a convincing connection between the works as anyone else. For those with an interest in the professional mysteries, this is understandably alarming.
They should all calm down. Art scholarship and chronology won't be made redundant by this experiment, they will return refreshed by their sabbatical. In the meantime, the only advice I can give to those feeling dizzy and disoriented is the same you'd give to anyone undergoing a panic attack or a spell of vertigo. Try to relax, concentrate on your breathing - it will be all right in the end.Reuse content