EXHIBITIONS: A serious game of fantasy art EXHIBITIONS

What's a critic to do when it's high summer and there are no big shows to review? Dream some up

Tim Hilton
Saturday 31 August 1996 23:02

Late high summer is the time of year when there are few new exhibitions to review, so as a diversion I've been imagining shows I would like to see. It's quite a good game - and is also serious, for exhibitions have become an intellectual art form of our time. Not an individual form, of course, for big shows depend on collaboration between museums and many individuals. Their preparation is increasingly complicated. Even quite modest projects can fail to get off the ground. All my imaginary shows are within the bounds of possibility, given the resources of major British galleries, but most would require reciprocal arrangements with museums abroad.

An account of Jackson Pollock, for instance, would have to come from America. Pollock died in 1956, and it's a sadness that in the four decades since his car smash there has never been a thorough retrospective. As is often said, Pollock is the last painter acknowledged today as a great artist by all sections of the art community. Conceptualists and modernists alike recognise his innovations and the eventual triumphs of his work in the late 1940s. To the world at large he may still be controversial. His way of pouring paint straight onto the canvas seems alarming. And then there are the stories of violence and alcoholism. But his painting methods were in truth carefully controlled. Above all, in his best years, he made works of outstanding beauty.

And which works were they? Only an exhibition can let us know, and a retrospective would allow Pollock the dignity denied to him by his recent vulgar biographers. He should also be seen in context: side by side, for instance, with his friend and rival Willem de Kooning. Comparative merits of the painters of the Forties and Fifties could only be reckoned up if we had a complete survey of Abstract Expressionism, a show that the Americans seem oddly reluctant to undertake. But it could be done; some day it will be - and it would be a tragedy if such an exhibition were not seen in Britain as well as the USA.

British curators nowadays declare that they look towards Europe. In effect this means that they have friends in Holland and Germany. New exhibitions should explore the still largely unknown art of central and eastern Europe. The independent, lively character of Czech modernism has never been surveyed. We need a show about the effect of politics on the art of Poland and East Germany, say from 1956 to the present day. It's time for another Bauhaus exhibition. There was one at the RA in 1968, but attitudes have changed, we now know more, and at that date East German sources were closed. I would like to visit a good Klee exhibition, in the first place for its own pleasures, but also to find out whether he was a major or minor artist, or even a sublime mixture of the two.

Staying for a moment in northern Europe, I suggest a Van Eyck exhibition. Sometimes the most significant painters are best displayed in tiny and intimate shows. The recent Vermeer exhibition was the experience of a lifetime, and it contained about three dozen paintings. Well, Van Eyck's known and firmly attributable production is even smaller, standing at no more than 20 pictures. They are all portable, and three of them are in the National Gallery. There could be no better place - apart from the artist's home, Bruges - for a celebration of the holy and vivid founder of oil painting.

Exhibitions designed to attract large crowds have in the past few years concentrated on French Impressionists. Perhaps the next person who deserves a blockbuster show is Seurat. It couldn't be a very large exhibition, for Seurat's life was a short one (1859-91), but besides his few large paintings I'm sure one can find a few treasures among the studies on canvas, and his drawings always please a wide audience. I think Seurat's work on paper is highly conservative, and he was indeed a legatee of Ingres. Speaking of whom, an imaginary replay of the battle between Ingres and Delacroix would be exciting. There has never been a more important division in French art, and to this day there are embattled partisans on either side.

My list of photography exhibitions is limited because I prefer photojournalism to any kind of art photography. I would appreciate a show of British newspaper photography of the present day. Some people think it has never been better, and they may be right. We could still do with shows about the origins and social purposes of photography. I suggest one limited to the small city of Oxford in the 1870s. Here were all the types of the new art - highbrow, scientific, amateur, professional, art-historical and so on - concentrated in just one square mile. Bags of archival material is available. On a more aesthetic note, I think that a survey of French photography from the 1870s to the present day would be ravishing. And French photojournalism would then be seen to have its own claims to high art.

Many galleries must be wondering what to do about the millennium. A survey of the art of our century is pretty well impossible. There's so much of it and it's so various. There are still many things one could do to mark the end of the period. It would be fun to take two paintings (or sculptures) from each year of the century: 200 works would fit a gallery like the Hayward rather nicely. The result ought not to be ponderous. The success of such a display would depend on the verve and showmanship of the selector, for it shouldn't be chosen by a committee. Alas, museums don't breed clever impresarios these days, nor do they like to tangle with them. So I guess that they won't dare attack the problem of fin-de- siecle art, ie our present situation. Incidentally, the anniversary of Ruskin's death falls in 2000, and as yet no gallery is prepared to mount a commemorative exhibition. That's not exactly a disgrace, but it is a sign that something is wrong.

I suppose that fin-de-siecle art in Britain might well be represented by Goldsmiths College and its graduates. Goldsmiths has been a notable phenomenon, there is no precedent for its success and a fair exhibition ought to examine what has been going on. The show would have to answer the following questions. First and foremost, has Goldsmiths' produced any art of lasting merit? Secondly, is this art genuinely new or a recycling of the vanguardism of 20 years ago? Thirdly, has it any aesthetic or intellectual underpinning? Fourthly, are its attitudes those of the worst years of Thatcherism, when it began? Fifthly, has it any future?

My own answers are: (1) no; (2) the latter; (3) no; (4) maybe; (5) I hope not. But I am open to persuasion. And this is a simple and wonderful thing about exhibitions. They are a constant invitation to appraisal and reappraisal. They are hardly ever dishonest. Some writers on art and other subjects find it easy to be devious or bogus in books. But you can't do such fudgery when you place works of art in a gallery. To revive the Abstract Expressionist slogan: "Put up or shut up." And so I admit that my imaginary list is almost all about shows I would like to organise myself ... except for the last one. !

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