I can’t count how many times people have told me that I must visit Tate Modern the next time I’m in London. Each time I cross the pond (as everyone loves to call crossing the Atlantic Ocean – and say it as if it’s the first time the joke’s been told) however, I never seem to get the chance to go. It’s just too far out of the way from where I am.
As luck would have it, now that I’m in Oxford for the summer, all I needed to do to see this much ballyhooed museum was to buy a ticket at the train station for 29 pounds that allowed for a roundtrip to London plus a day pass on the tube. And that is how I finally visited Tate Modern this week (Jubilee Line to Southwark).
As you can see from the picture above, it’s not the prettiest of museums. Tate Modern is housed in a former power station said to be iconic in London. When transformed into a museum in 2000, celebrity architects Herzog and De Meuron held tight to much of the building’s original character, even protecting the building’s inner core, called Turbine Hall, where artists are invited to dream up large-scale interactive designs that are apparently a big hit. When I was there, the hall was just a big empty grey corridor.
I felt like I was in an active turbine as I purchased my headphones and player on Floor One. The doors leading in from the large patio next to the River Thames were nearly constantly kept open with long lines of school children. The chilly June London air gushing in was almost too much! I hugged my coat, grabbed my audio device and booked it to the stairs. I had to take the stairs to drop off my coat on Floor Zero before making it to the escalators for a ride to Floor Two. I’m pointing this out because the maze of escalators and stairs takes a bit of education. You can’t, for instance, take the escalator from Floor One to Floor Two. You have to first go to Floor Zero. Of course, you can always take the elevator to any floor you want.
By the way, the audio device did not work very well and was quite limited in the number of pieces it provided information on, so don’t waste the 4 pounds on it.
‘What’s on’ at the Tate
Tate Modern is where you come to see and learn about modern art of the early to mid 20th century primarily. There are three floors of exhibits that take you through distinct periods of time from the end of World War I through industrial and minimalist art. In addition, there are Artist Rooms that feature the works of one artist exclusively. If you’re a fan of Tate Modern and I am not giving a full idea of what’s there to see, please forgive me. Even though my tour map was reassurance that I had seen all of the rooms, I still had the nagging feeling upon leaving that I was missing something…
Maybe that’s because I had planned to spend the day there, yet I was done in less than 2 hours.
In rooms like the abstract art hall, it was hard not to notice how the tall, blindingly white walls swallowed up the small pieces attached to them. Aesthetically, the room all-in-all was pleasing to the eye and I didn’t mind the exercise I got walking the distances between works. 😉
In this room, I especially liked Composition No. 15 (1925) by Friedrich Vordemberge-Gildewart (1899-1962). He called this type of art, “Absolute Art” because, according to the placard that goes with the oil on canvas painting, it is art with no content or object. It is strictly color, form, contrast and space.
The shelf-like angled rectangle near the bottom of the picture feels 3D when standing in front of the painting, almost floating and detached from the rest of the scene. Despite Vordemberge-Gildewart’s explanation that his art has no content or object, to me the picture looked like a Christian cross with an abstraction of a face placed on it (the round white circle, which looks like a halo). The red square to me represented Christ’s blood. The composition is captivating and the colors extraordinarily vibrant. I had a hard time moving on from this piece.
There are several Picasso’s at Tate Modern, including Nude Woman in a Red Armchair (1932). I love this one in particular. The double face that he is known for is really so clever and fun to look at and discover. In this oil on canvas, the right side of the face can also be seen as the face of a person in profile, kissing the woman on the lips. This picture is part of a sequence of portraits of Picasso’s lover, Marie-Therese Walter.
Art in the period between the two world wars was chaotic; oscillating between the dark and violent, and the ideal, as Tate Modern so well lays out in defined sections. While cubism, surrealism, post-surrealism and abstract art shook things up, realism never completely faded out.
I also enjoyed Dod Proctor’s Morning (1926), which won Picture of the Year at the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition of 1927. According to the placard, it is an image of “awakening” – Allusions to regeneration and stability after WWI.
I found it to be equally hopeful, as the title and description suggest, and depressing. There is uneasiness to the composition and my emotions were mixed, not being able to decide whether it depicted a young woman getting ready to rise for a new day, or a woman feeling ill on a small bed in a sparse room. I love the play of light in the oil on canvas piece and the moodiness of the scene. It is a large canvas, too, which brings the spectator into the room.
Another wonderful example of realism during that period is Meredith Frampton’s Marguerite Kelsey (1928). He strove for “perfect light.” The subject is serene and glorious, yet the magnolia flower suggests hidden desires, according to the placard. This large oil on canvas reminded me of the great Dutch artists who were the best at photo-realism in their day of the high-Renaissance. Her smooth, opalescent skin is exquisite, and the light coming through the window is just as the artist intended – perfect.
Art that makes you throw back your head and laugh
I want to close with what I consider to be the funniest example of modern art ever so far that I have witnessed (and there is a lot of competition for this title). It was in the room dedicated to Structure and Clarity. “Square Tubes” by Charlotte Posenenske (1930-1985) of Germany.
Excuse me a moment….
Sorry, I can’t help myself. I’m really trying hard to appreciate modern art, but I really believe that some forms of art, as they come down the pipe, should be yanked out along with other failed relics of the past, such as green shag carpets and yellow refrigerators of the 70’s. It did leave me with a smile on my face, though, as I hiked back to the Underground to catch a ride on the tube back to Paddington Station and the train to Oxford. And, I suppose you could say that it inspired me, for I started seeing forms of artistic structure and clarity at every turn.
Above is a picture I took before boarding the tube. This piece has a lot more personality and could easily fit into one of those monstrously large white rooms at Tate Modern, or maybe it could be placed in the Turbine Hall as a playground for all those elementary school children running around who couldn’t care less about art of any shape, size or color.
When does school get out for summer in London, anyway…