Ro-Tate: Tate's rehang success with 1,500,000 visitors in attendance

It’s all change at the Tate Gallery, as part of Nick Serota’s policy of rotating the collections

Last January, the re-hang of the permanent collection, Nick Serota’s first major project at the Tate Gallery since being appointed Director in 1988, was unveiled to almost universal acclaim and attracted 1,500,000 visitors — the highest figure in the gallery’s history.

Under the old format, established in the Sixties, the left-hand side of the museum told the story of British art until about 1880, while the right-hand side told the story of modern art, but almost entirely in terms of continental European and then American art. Modern British art had, at best, a walk-on part. Serota integrated British art throughout in a much sparser hang. Modern architectural accretions were removed in an attempt to “recover the original sense of the architecture”, and a coherent colour-scheme was adopted. Works on paper are now displayed in the Lower Galleries, and, most spectacular of all, the central Duveen galleries, with their great Ionic columns, are given over to sculpture.

The plan is to rotate most of the displays annually, sending some to the Tate, Liverpool, and, in the future, to outposts that are being planned in St Ives and Norwich. British Petroleum gave £300,000 ($570,000) towards the 1990 re-hang, and the company has pledged a further £300,000 to sponsor the 1991 and 1992 re-hangs. For “New Displays 1991”, about seventy per cent of the displays have been altered, the most thorough overhaul having taken place in the twentieth-century galleries. Galleries 17, 18 and 19, which previously showed “Dada and Surrealism”, “The School of Paris” and “Paul Nash”, are closed for refurbishment as part of the Nomura project. This testifies to the shift in emphasis from trying to build new spaces to the upgrading of existing galleries.

The three central Duveen sculpture galleries now host sculpture in the constructivist tradition. Moving from Naum Gabo through to David Smith, it culminates at the back with work by Caro, Turnbull, Tucker and King. This much is standard art history: more provocative is the fact that David Smith’s stainless steel “Cubi XIX” (1964) is surrounded in the central rotunda by Matisse’s “Back I-IV” (1909-30) which remain from the first re-hang. Their continued presence at the heart of the Tate suggests that they are the pivotal works in the collection. The “Backs” bear witness to Matisse’s evolution from a Cézannesque figuration that is still fussy about surface modulation through to a chunkily heraldic abstraction.

Early displays, such as those involving Blake, Hogarth, Martin, Constable, Gainsborough, Stubbs and the Pre-Raphaelites, remain the same. The first change occurs in the small room 5 where “Landscape Sketches 1770-1830” has been replaced by “Subject Painting 1880-1860” — genre scenes by artists such as David Wilkie and William Collins who were influenced by Hogarth and Dutch seventeenth-century painting. The steamy room 10 hosting “Lord Leighton and the Olympians” (‘Victorians in togas’) is of more than antiquarian interest — the drapery of George Watts’s “Hope” (1886), for example, recalls that of Henry Moore’s drawings.

The other wholesale changes in the left wing are as follows: “Sargent and British Art around 1900” replaces “Impressionism in Britain and France” (French Impressionism and Post Impressionism now appear in room 12); “Camden Town Group” replaces “Bloomsbury and Vorticism”, and, most controversially perhaps, “Munnings and Traditional British Art” replaces “Stanley Spencer and his Circle” in room 15. A single Spencer remains, surrounded by venerables like Meredith Frampton, Rodrigo Moynihan and Dame Laura Knight. Devotees of Royal Academy summer exhibitions and readers of Modern Painters will adore this room, particularly as the wall panel states that most of the work was purchased not by the Tate but by the Chantrey Bequest, a fund administered by the RA, and has not been seen for over thirty years.

Non-believers will see Munnings’s “Their Majesties’ Return from Ascot 1925", then die. Alternatively, they can make their way to the right hand side which includes “CoBrA and Primitivism” (rooms 21 and 22, replacing “Towards Abstract Expressionism” and “Giacometti and the School of Paris”) the St Ives artists “Nicholson, Hepworth, Lanyon and Heron” (replacing “Abstract Art in Britain 1949-56), and “Pop Art and New Realism” (replacing “Mark Rothko” in room 28). The Pop Art display will be complemented by an exhibition of “Pop Prints” in the Lower Galleries from 6 March-23 June.

Overall, the most conspicuous change in emphasis from last year’s display is the greater number of one-person shows. Piet Mondrian, Oskar Kokoschka (to be replaced by Howard Hodgkin in March), Francis Bacon, Gilbert & George, and Lothar Baumgarten all have rooms of their own. The Mondrian room is made possible by several loans from private collections (i.e. the very early “Farmhouse with Trees by a River” c.1905) and museums (“Composition” (1932) from the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh). Other important loans have also been secured, such as Matisse’s “Portrait of Greta Moll” (1908) from the National Gallery (room 13), and Barnett Newman’s “Uriel” (1955) from a private collection (room 23).

Room 30, devoted to the forty-six year-old German artist Lothar Baumgarten, is an example of how Serota is trying to speed up the process of putting new acquisitions, and the work of contemporary artists, on display. “Terra Incognita” (1969-84), an Arte Povera floor installation made up of strips of wood, bowls filled with water, and a network of blue and yellow light-bulbs, was purchased by the Patrons of New Art in 1990. The Gilbert & George and Hodgkin displays will also include new acquisitions. In the words of the advertising slogan of their sponsors B.P., the Tate Gallery is “On The Move”...

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Ro-Tate'

Appeared in The Art Newspaper Archive, 5 February 1991