• Kath London Culture Tours

4 Not-to-be-missed Highlights in the Tate Modern!

Updated: Aug 1, 2020

When the Tate Modern opened in 2000 its popularity surprised everyone, so much so that an extension was soon planned. In 2012 the fabulous Tanks opened as a live art installation space, and in 2016 the Herzog & de Meuron extension opened adding ten more floors in a new building attached to the original Bankside power station. This is all a long way of saying that this gallery is B.I.G.!!

In addition to being big it also has an innovative approach to layout which I love; instead of being arrange chronologically, it is arranged by theme. This approach means that all the artists are sort of mixed up all together, you might find Joan Miro in the International Surrealist room, but you will also find him in the Collage room, Jackson Pollack is in a room Art After Catastrophe, about the post-war period. It can be a bit confusing at first, but once you give yourself over to the theme approach it actually means you are much more likely to stumble upon artists you would not have discovered. It will open your eyes, and isn’t that what art is about?

In order to help you navigate the theme-based approach I want to highlight one artist who you should not miss in each of the four main themes in the original main building of the Tate, recently renamed the Natalie Bell building after a local youth and community activist. Believe me it was very hard to choose just one in each wing, but here they are…

Artist and Society

This wing looks at how artists have responded to their social and political context in their art. It contains pieces by artists such as Richard Hamilton, Joseph Beuys, and Wassily Kandinsky. The piece I would like to highlight is by Piet Mondrian, a great pioneer of abstract art.

Composition B (No.II) with Red - 1935 - Piet Mondrian (1872–1944)

The reason I want to show this piece is because many people feel like they don’t ‘get’ abstract art, but I think when you understand what Mondrian was trying to achieve you can begin to appreciate it a bit more, even if you don’t necessarily like it!

Mondrian was aiming for aesthetic perfection, he believed by removing any identifiable images or ideas from his art, that we would be able to look at it without bringing all our preconceptions and baggage with us. He developed a style he called Neo-Plasticism, restricted to the three primary colours and to a grid of black vertical and horizontal lines on a white background. He wouldn’t even name his paintings, calling them simply compositions and with a number and colour. Compositions referred to music, as Mondrian was a big Jazz fan.

Now you might look at this painting and think it looks simple, but actually researchers have taken this painting and reproduced it with small changes, moving a black line to one side, or changing the position of the red square, and when they show members of the public a selection of pictures, of which this is only one, people always chose this as the one they prefer. So, Mondrian was definitely onto something…

Media Networks

This wing looks at how artists in Tate’s collection have responded to the impact of mass media and includes highlights like Roy Lichtenstein's 'Whaam!', Barbara Kruger and the Gorilla Girls. What always impresses people the most of all the great pieces in this wing is this monumental work by Brazilian artist Cildo Meireles called Babel.

Babel - 2001 - Cildo Meireles (born 1948)

© Cildo Meireles

Meireles has taken inspiration from the biblical story of the Tower of Babel, when man tried to build a tower to reach the heavens, displeasing god who caused the builders of the tower to speak different languages, hence dividing them and causing them to scatter over the earth and causing all of man’s conflicts.

Meireles Tower of Babel is constructed out of an assortment of real radios, each tuned to a different radio station, hence creating a cacophony of sound from which it is impossible to pick out any comprehensible voice. Adding to the strange effect the room is bathed in blue light. The radios themselves are arranged with larger and older radios at the bottom and smaller newer radios higher up, creating a sort of sense of perspective which makes the tower appear even taller than it really is.

I never get bored of this piece and love walking around it trying to pick out the different stations. I don’t envy the person whose job it is to keep them all tuned in!

In the Studio

This wing investigates the processes artists use to make artworks, and it is probably the wing where you will see the highest proportion of ‘big name’ modern artists. So, if you only have time for one wing, this might be the one for you. Artists include Salvador Dali, Claude Monet, Pablo Picasso, Jackson Pollock and René Magritte. However, the most important thing in this wing actually gets its own room – the collective of Seagram Murals by Mark Rothko.

The Seagram Murals - 1958-9 - Mark Rothko (1903–1970)

This room seems to divide visitors to the gallery, some find it peaceful and relaxing, others find it oppressive..

Actually, Rothko had wished to create more of the oppressive feeling with this collection of murals. He was influenced by Michelangelo’s Laurentian Library in Florence with blocked in windows and doorways. Rothko said Michelangelo ‘achieved just the kind of feeling I’m after – he makes the viewers feel that they are trapped in a room where all the doors and windows are bricked up, so that all they can do is butt their heads forever against the wall.’ Cheery!

The name of these paintings comes from the fact that they were originally commissioned for the Seagram restaurant in the Four Seasons hotel in New York, but after painting them Rothko went off the idea of displaying them in front of wealthy dinners and decided to donate them to the Tate under condition that they must always be displayed exactly as they are today, in their own room and with a dimmed sober lighting.

Rothko was a troubled man and on the day the paintings arrived in London he sadly took his own life in his studio, something to reflect on whilst you sit in this space he designed.

Materials and Objects

This wing is often the most fun as it is all about artists who have embraced new and unusual materials and methods, and frankly they can get a bit weird! This wing rotates its collection more than any other but be sure to seek out El Anatsui and Haegue Yang. My personal favourite, and perhaps the most important piece in the entire Tate modern is Marcel Duchamp’s ‘Fountain’.

Fountain - 1917, replica 1964 - Marcel Duchamp (1887–1968)

© Succession Marcel Duchamp/ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2020

Now, I know what you are thinking, that looks suspiciously like a urinal… Marcel Duchamp is responsible for something called ‘readymades’, this is the idea that an artist can take an object and that object can become art.

To really think how innovative this was you have to think about the time period, 1917 when he submitted this to an exhibition of avant-garde art in New York under the pseudonym R. Mutt. In fact, it was so innovative that the piece was excluded by the directors of the show. Duchamp was testing how avant-garde the exhibition really was, after his own disappointment at the rejection of his painting “Nude Descending a Staircase, No.2" at the Salon des Indépendants in Paris.

Whether you like this piece or hate it is extremely important to the history of art, as it really opened up the debate about what can be art, can an object become art just because an artist says it is? Duchamp challenged the existing ideas of what art could be.

Interestingly, as the original was just a urinal, and had been rejected, it was lost, probably destroyed. It was only much later, once the importance of this debate and the changes it brought to the art world that people started to care again about Duchamp’s fountain, and so the artist used the only source he had, photos taken of the original piece at the time of the exhibition, and commissioned copies made out of porcelain. So, the ultimate irony is that this is not even an actual urinal, it is a porcelain copy of a urinal, an artist-made piece posing as a ready-made. Very surreal!

The Tate really does reward random wanderings through its galleries, and you are sure to find something you like. It’s also worth checking out the Tanks, converted from the old oil tanks when the Tate was the Bankside power station. They are my favourite space in the gallery, is you like industrial architecture you will love them, and they have brilliant acoustics so often contain works by sound artists. You will find them in the basement of the Blavatnik Building, and the exhibitions rotate every few months.

Let me know in the comments below if you have other favourite pieces in the collection!

If you would like a private tour of the Tate’s collection, or any other museum or gallery, please contact me.

Happy travels!

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