After closing for a major revamp the Whitechapel Gallery has, two years and 13.5 million pounds later, been reopened to the public. It’s a well known landmark, both geographically and culturally. Its Art Nouveau frontage stands out in Whitechapel High Street, a bustling but dismal traffic-laden thoroughfare, whilst it has a long lived and honourable place in the art world. Past exhibitors include Pollock, Rauschenburg, Rothko, Riley, and Caulfield and, more recently, Gilbert and George and Gormley; former directors include Sir Nicholas Serota. What does it offer to mark its re-emergence, and have the changes been worthwhile?
It seems barbed comment to point out the opening exhibitions contains features that appeal to all tastes, as if the organisers have cynically set out to grab as many punters as possible with their vibrant variety. It’s not intended as such: this approach, if it was consciously taken, makes sense. In any case, the Whitechapel has a history of exhibiting art that appeals to widely differing audiences. Past subject matter has included work by artists as varied as feminist icon Frida Kahlo to laddish cartoonist Robert Crum , and that tradition is being maintained now.
So for the opening exhibitions we have Isa Genzken: Open.Sesame, showing this German sculptor’s work which features photography, paint, found objects and architecture. Goshka Macuga: the Bloomberg Commission shows work from this installation artist on the relationship between polities and aesthetics: its centrepiece is a tapestry of Picasso’s Guernica originally created by weaver Jacqueline de la Baume Durrbach. (An international artist is invited by the Bloomberg Commission to create a site specific artwork inspired by the history of the Gallery; the painting itself was shown at the Whitechapel in 1939.)
British Council Collection: Great Early Buys shows work bought from artists in the early stages of their careers. Outstanding here is Lucien Freud’s Girl with Roses (1947-48) showing an almost fear-stricken, wide-eyed girl clutching two roses as if for comfort. The Whitechapel Boys: David Bomberg, Jacob Epstein, Mark Gertler, Jacob Kramer, Joseph Leftwich, Bernard Meninsky, John Rodker, Isaac Rosenberg,Clare Winsten, Stephen Winsten and Alfred Wolmark gives us work from Jewish artists who used Whitechapel library as a meeting place in the years immediately prior to the First World War. Epstein’s drawing Study for Rock Drill (1915) shows us a worker wielding a pneumatic drill and who seems as jagged as the rock he is attempting to pierce. The head in Rosenberg’s Head of Male Figure (1911) seems to almost float in a void whilst its face wears a sardonic expression.
The films of Ursula Mayer show actresses engaged in esoteric conversations against a backdrop of Art Deco and modernist backgrounds. This is not throat grabbing stuff, and neither is Minerva Cuevas: S.COOP which gives us artwork, such as tokens which can be used as alternative currency, taking as its theme the relationship between personal, commercial and artistic economies.
Archive Adventures is a collection of photographs, press cuttings stories and maps compiled by local children from the Gallery’s archives to give a flavour of the area’s cosmopolitan nature. Finally, John Koba/New Work Award: Andrew Grassie, Rosalind Nashashibi, Nick Re/ph & Oliver Payne, Juergen Teller shows photographs related to the transformation of the Gallery and to artists associated with it. Teller’s David Hockney Smoking (2008) shows the painter - cigarette defiantly in hand - reclining in an apparently philosophical mood, a pleasing reminder of an artist who combines ability with attitude.
The revamp has involved combining the original gallery building with that of the adjacent former Passmore Edwards library, usually known as Whitechapel library. The design team, working with artistic advisor Rachel Whiteread, has done its best within the limitations this arrangement imposes: the new Whitechapel Gallery has the feel of a rabbit warren about it,but one that’s light and airy, with each turn of a corner or change of level inducing a feel of expectancy.
But has this been a good idea? Admittedly, the gallery now has a 78% increase in space and doesn’t have to close for 10 weeks every year to allow for exhibition installations. Yet it’s difficult not to wish that the reordering could have been carried-out in such a way that the library was retained. Due to its location within a notable area of Jewish immigration the library was once known as the ‘University of the Ghetto’. With a newer immigrant community today facing its own challenges - arguably both from within and without its ranks - the symbolism of a combined library and Gallery would be highly potent. A combination of two legends for the price of one, as it were. It will be interesting to see if the new spaces for learning and education, including two project galleries, a permanent research room for the Gallery’s historic archive, and an Education and Research Tower, with a study studio and two creative studios, take on the same local status as the library which they have replaced.
But powerful imagery remains at the Whitechapel, and this is where the significance of its reopening lies. It was originally established in 1901 by Canon Samuel Barnett, an Anglican clergyman who, along with his wife Henrietta, had moved to the poverty-stricken East End from Westminster some 30 years earlier. He believed that great art could change people’s lives and, among his other activities, he arranged art exhibitions for local people in the schoolroom of his church, St. Jude’s Whitechapel. When the Gallery was eventually opened in the spring of 1901, the opening show attracted some 206,000 visitors. Barnett’s achievement is a reminder of the importance of the immense and varied work performed in the East End by churches, synagogues, charities, public-school settlements, and educationalists and activists of varied political hues. Their work is surely ripe for reappraisal, for it provides an enthusiastic, energizing and effective contrast with the bogstandard,box-ticking-therapy-culture model of education now seemingly considered sufficient for the generality of the poor.
People still need education to help them both prosper within, and challenge, the societies in which they find themselves. The Whitechapel seems set to continue its history of providing cutting edge work which fulfils the difficult balancing act of encouraging and fulfilling razor sharp expectations whilst engaging with the generality of exhibition goers. Let’s hope that its past achievements and future work stand out as stimulating examples amidst the slums of what passes for modern education and expectations.