It's not exactly a 'Sensation'

At London's Tate Gallery, British art past and present is drawing crowds -- and criticism

Postcard: London

November 21, 1999|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,Sun foreign staff

LONDON -- Step inside the Tate Gallery and enjoy a great British modern art duel.

In one corner is the Bloomsbury group, the early 20th-century artists and intellectuals who were as renowned for their private affairs as their public works in painting, pottery, furniture and literature.

In the other corner is the latest batch of hip, young artists nominated for Britain's top art award, the Turner Prize. Paint is not their thing. And in one famous case, neither is making a bed.

From the lines snaking through the galleries and the whirring of cash registers, it's clear that the exhibitions create good box office, while also serving as bookends to Britain's artistic century.

But are they providing good art? London's critics aren't quite sure.

Take the exhibition that focuses on the works of Vanessa Bell, Duncan Grant and Roger Fry, the leading lights of a crowd that flowered in Bloomsbury, the central London neighborhood where elegant squares housed an intellectual circle. Others in the Bloomsbury set included author Virginia Woolf, biographer Lytton Strachey and economist John Maynard Keynes. They were on the cutting edge in arts, traded ideas and swapped partners.

It seems they still strike some the wrong way.

"Yes, they were snobs. Yes, they had the morals of a chimpanzee. Yes, they painted like chimpanzees," wrote Waldemar Januszczak of the Sunday Times of London, in a review of the current exhibition.

"What I detest most about them is that they poisoned the good name of modernism for the entire century," he added. "With their selfish and spoilt example, they made British modernism synonymous with a lack of rigor, a lack of perseverance, a lack of originality."

Brian Sewell of London's Evening Standard tried to find some purpose to the exhibition, but came away cranky, writing: "... what a footnote in the history of art, what a paragraph of frivolity in the history of literature, what a superficial trifle in the history of society -- what on earth made the Tate choose Bloomsbury as a summing up this millennium and its welcome to the next?"

A trip through the galleries is a pleasant enough experience, with portraits and still-life paintings forming a core. The Bloomsbury group championed the cause of Cezanne and the French post-impressionists, and some of the work bears the influence. Yet there is a sense that what might have seemed groundbreaking has been tamed by time.

Vanessa Bell's self-portrait is the most evocative of the bunch, simple and direct, an aging artist, wearing a straw hat, glasses and shawl. She looks as if she could be part of the crowd wandering through the exhibition on a weekday afternoon.

Murmuring politely and dutifully stopping for each work, the crowd eventually finds its way to the gift shop, with its Bloomsbury-inspired ties, pitchers and books. The artists may be dead, but their art lives on in trinkets.

The Turner Prize show is different. It's art as a dance rave, dazed and confused, earnest and smug. Just when you think the artists are taking themselves way too seriously, they throw in a dash of humor.

The crowd is as young and energetic as the works, with art students jamming the galleries, doodling in notepads and staring in rapt attention at the video and photographic installations.

The finalists include Steven Pippin, who transformed 12 laundry machines into cameras; twins Jane and Louise Wilson, whose video installation features a crawl through Las Vegas casinos; and Steve McQueen, another video installation artist who re-creates a Buster Keaton stunt by standing still as a house comes crashing down.

But the talk of the exhibition -- and front-runner to win when the prize is awarded Nov. 30 -- is Tracey Emin. Her favorite subject is herself. So, the crowd gets Emin cavorting on film in a bikini, Emin scrawling pictures and random thoughts on sheets of paper ("They All Leave In The End, Baby"), and Emin and her most vivid creation: "My Bed."

Torn pillows, soiled sheets and a pair of pantyhose cover the bed, while the floor is littered with such items as an empty vodka bottle, condoms, stained panties and crumpled cigarette cartons.

People circle the bed as if they might catch a disease. In a video that accompanies the show, Emin admits it is "quite nervy to show it in the Tate," and adds that the bed is "a selfish piece of art."

"My Bed" caused such a sensation after the opening that two art students decided to get in on the act, staging a pillow fight they called "Two Naked Men Jump Into Tracey's Bed." Security guards were not amused, hauling the pair away.

The critics have been most unkind, with Richard Dorment of the Telegraph of London writing that "looking at [Emin's] work, we learn nothing, understand nothing about ourselves."

Yet there is something oddly compelling about being thrust into Emin's world, depressing as it is. Self-absorbed yet self-aware, Emin is rarely dull. If crowd interest is any indication, she'll win, providing quite a finish for British 20th-century art, from Bloomsbury to "My Bed."

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.