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Breath of Fresh Air Sweeps Into The Tate Gallery

After years of development, museum gets the most radical re-hanging of its collection since the '60s. ART IN LONDON

THE development of London's Tate Gallery - which this year is only seven years from its 100th birthday - has been a little like that of the great Gothic Cathedrals - or at any rate, like Topsy: it growed. But it still isn't big enough. Originally built to house a national collection of British art, the Tate's size was doubled two years after its opening. More galleries were added in 1910 to house paintings by J.M.W. Turner. Works were added in 1919, when it was decided the Tate should cover all periods of British art. The years 1926 and 1937 saw more galleries opened, and by then the museum had shouldered a second function: to be the national collection of ``modern foreign art.''

In 1979 further galleries opened. A completely new wing was appended three years ago as (presumably) the final answer to the problem of properly displaying the enormous Turner holdings.

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But increasingly, the Tate has had to face a predicament. It actually hides far more works of art than it displays. Roughly a third of the collection only is on view at any given time.

In view of this, the idea of setting up a regional branch seemed justifiable, and in '88 ``The Tate Gallery Liverpool'' opened beside the River Mersey. The catch is, if you want to see all of the Tate's Giacometti bronzes or Ben Nicholson reliefs, you'll have to travel Liverpool - unless you live there.

Revelation from a new director

At the end of 1988, however, the Tate (London) acquired a new director, Nicholas Serota. Now, over a year later, he has suddenly made a dramatically profound mark on the place. It is not too much to say that he has transformed the gallery completely.

Serota has subjected the museum to its first major ``re-hang'' since the 1960s.

For me, having been a persistent visitor to the Tate Gallery for at least 30 years, Mr. Serota's new hang comes like a highly refreshing revelation. It is like visiting a new museum - an impression helped not a little by a fair amount of new paint, new lighting, and, brilliantly, the removal of a remarkable number of screens and false, lowered ceilings. It is now possible thoroughly to enjoy the interior of this building itself, not at all without virtues.

There is also a less cluttered sense of the artworks within. Old favorites are encountered, of course; some ``masterpieces'' and key works of the collection simply cannot be relegated to the dungeons, but they have been ``awakened'' by being placed next to unexpected neighbors.

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Serota has taken the Tate's two basic problems - its split personality (``British'' and ``Modern Foreign'') and its lack of space - and tried, with some ingenuity and a great deal of good sense, to turn them into advantages.

His radical re-hang is a radical re-think. He has concluded that the peculiarity of the Tate's collection would be better termed its ``distinctiveness.''

Before, the essentially symmetrical layout of the building made it possible to house two galleries, virtually separate from each other: On the left side of the long central hall was ``Historic British,'' on the right, ``Modern'' or 20th-century art, both foreign and British.

Serota writes: ``This was exciting and reflected the aspirations of many of the most accomplished British artists.'' In other words, modernist British artists.

But Serota suggests that the concentration on modern British artists meant that certain British visionaries, eccentrics, academicians, and even Expressionists and realists didn't really fit in. It was as if the international modernism that swept the post-war art worlddefined exclusively who should be shown and who shouldn't.

Now things have changed. Now ``modernism'' is thought, by people like museum directors, to be just one aspect of a rich multi-pattern of art. And in terms of the Tate Gallery re-hang, it means a wonderful potpourri view of the collection, with all kinds of new juxtapositions and insights.

Arrangements provoke thoughtfulness

In some cases, works that have been buried in the vault for generations have been given positions of pride. All kinds of 20th-century British art is presented face to face with contemporaneous art from other parts of the world. And when the re-hung Gallery 11 opens (reputedly the week of March 12), even French Impressionism is having to share a gallery with the British artists.

Who knows, perhaps the work of Philip Wilson Steer, Laura Knight, and S.J. Poeple might still hold some surprises after all. Though how it holds its own in direct confrontation with C'ezanne, Renoir, and Monet is not without a certain breathtaking interest.

What Serota has proposed is that the Tate Gallery is really, primarily, about British art. (He is surely recognizing that regionalism has its own special value rather than indulging in some form of chauvinism.) ``Foreigners'' must be seen in a British context, not the other way round.

True, some 20th-century British artists measured themselves against Paris or New York. Some today measure themselves against recent German art. Some live and work in California. But some have measured themselves against little other than their own inspiration, their own inner urgings. This may be the most interesting group of all - people like the religious visionary Stanley Spencer or the dream-landscapist Paul Nash, both of whom have been given major gallery space as never before.

So, at least, the argument might go. If these artists seem merely insular, provincial figures - even embarrassingly British in their lack of concern for the rest of the world - then maybe it is that which makes them all the more intriguing.

Surprising resonances between certain works

In the 18th-century gallery, we find the telling juxtaposition of John Singleton Copley's ``The Death of Major Peirson,'' a grandeous history painting, with two paintings by George Stubbs. Here, Stubbs was fascinated by the sublime awfulness of wild animals attacking each other, though he may be more conventionally thought of as a ``horse-painter-to-the-gentry.''

In some instances, totally unfamiliar works now rub shoulders with old chestnuts. The ``Bloomsbury and Vorticsm'' gallery contains unknown works by Vanessa Bell, while ``Neo-Romanticism and Henry Moore'' includes one or two almost unheard-of artists.

Standing in the Stanley Spencer gallery, amid his strange, chattery narratives crowded with bulbous figures caught up in religious moments like Jesus's resurrection, one catches through the doorway a glimpse of a strong, stark, uncompromizing Mondrian - a grid of black verticals and horizontals with strict rectangles of primary color. Spencer and Mondrian belong to the same time period and even the same continent. Yet they belong to different universes. Or do they?

If a museum can set forth such suprising resonances, it is surely on the right track.

Besides the re-hang, Serota's solution to lack of space includes, come September, a further re-hanging of some of the 20th-century galleries. In other words, the Tate will never be the same for long. Such a tactic, while undoubtedly hard on the curators, is like a breath of fresh air for the visitors. It makes a museum kinetic, which is exactly what a modern museum ought to be.

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