Tate Modern is a modern art gallery in London, based in the Bankside area of the London Borough of Southwark. With its 4.7 million visitors a year, it is the most-visited modern art gallery in the world. Of all the museums I have frequented, ‘Tate’ is definitely among my favorites. I remember my first visit. The second rehang had just been realized. I was intrigued by the peculiar lay-out of Material Gestures, Poetry and Dream, Energy and Process and States of Flux of the museum. When I visited the Tate again this summer, the third rehang was still in progress. In no particular order, here are some of the paintings and sculptures of the Tate. I took the liberty of finding the display captions as well. I always wonder who writes these captions. They often range from inspiring to elusive and vague, which makes reading the captions all the more interesting.
Mark Rothko – Black on Maroon
Mark Rothko – Red on Maroon
Alberto Giacometti – Man Pointing
Caption: Man Pointing was made very rapidly for Giacometti’s first exhibition in New York. He recalled: ‘I did that piece in one night between midnight and nine the next morning. That is, I’d already done it, but I demolished it and did it all over again because the men from the foundry were coming to take it away. And when they got here, the plaster was still wet.’ It was originally intended to be part of a larger composition, with the left arm positioned loosely around a second figure. Giacometti later abandoned the idea, and considered Man Pointing to be a complete work.
Alberto Giacometti – Woman Walking
Caption: Giacometti joined the Surrealist group in 1931, when he was making disturbing and mysterious sculptures. The elongated forms of this figure echo ancient Egyptian and Greek art, but the fragmentary body is presented walking, as if encountered in a dream. At one stage, a head and feather-arms were added to the original plaster version. Giacometti removed them in recognition of the greater power of the simplified form.
Alberto Giacometti – Seated Man
Caption: Like his sculptures, Giacometti’s portraits emerged from an intense scrutiny of his subjects, and a process of continually reworking the image in order to record his shifting visual impressions. Seated Man depicts his brother Diego, one of Giacometti’s most frequent models, but even this familiar face became an object of investigation and discovery for the artist, who commented ‘When he poses for me I don’t recognise him’.
Pablo Picasso – Head of a Woman
Caption: ‘My greatest artistic emotions were aroused when the sublime beauty of the sculptures created by anonymous artists in Africa was suddenly revealed to me’ Picasso told the poet Apollinaire. This sculpture is of his companion Fernande Olivier. Its flat, planed surface relates the work to his cubist paintings of the same period. Picasso made two plaster casts of the head, from which at least sixteen bronze examples were cast.
Pablo Picasso – Seated Nude
Caption: In the early years of cubism, Picasso constructed his images using small facets, or geometric planes, and represented objects from different viewpoints. Many critics of the period believed the artist aimed to represent reality in a new, almost scientific manner. However, as this atmospheric painting shows, Picasso could use this technique for expressive ends. Here, the woman has been all but stripped of her humanity and appears strangely mechanistic. At the same time, Picasso demonstrates his awareness of tradition in her pose and in the play of light within the picture.
Paul Delvaux – Sleeping Venus
Caption: Delvaux’s work combined classical perfection with an erotic and troubling atmosphere. The sensuousness of Sleeping Venus is set against its oppressive night-time setting. Delvaux later explained that it was painted in Brussels during the German wartime occupation and while the city was being bombed. ‘The psychology of that moment was very exceptional, full of drama and anguish’, he recalled. ‘I wanted to express this anguish in the picture, contrasted with the calm of the Venus’. Though never an official Surrealist, Delvaux was associated with the Belgian group around Magritte.
Francis Picabia – Otaïti
Max Ernst – The Entire City
Caption: A crumbling city looms oppressively below the ring-shaped moon. Ernst made a whole series of such works. The imagery may reflect his pessimism as Nazism took hold in his native Germany. The ruined cityscape was created using a technique that Ernst called ‘grattage’ (scraping). It involved placing the canvas over planks of wood or other textured surfaces, then scraping paint across it. The shapes that emerged formed the basis of the image. Grattage was one of a number of techniques that Surrealist artists explored as a way of letting a chance element into their work.
Georges Braque – Clarinet and Bottle of Rum on a Mantelpiece
Caption: A clarinet lies on a mantelpiece at the centre of this playful work. In front of it stands a bottle with the characters RHU, the first three letters of the French word for rum. The word Valse (Waltz) introduces the idea of dancing, reinforcing the theme of music evoked by the clarinet and suggestions of treble and bass clefs. The scrolled form in the lower right-hand corner could stand for either the bracket of the mantelpiece or the head of n instrument.
Georges Braque – Bottle and Fishes
Caption: Ordinary objects – a bottle and fishes on a plate, laid on a table with a drawer – have been dramatically fragmented to form a grid-like structure of interpenetrating planes. The traditional domestic subject matter and sober colours in this work can be seen as a reaction against the luminous hues and free expression of Braque’s earlier fauvist paintings.
Maria Helena Vieira da Silva – The Corridor
Caption: Vieira da Silva was a key figure within the field of expressive abstraction in post-war Paris. However her work always retained a strong basis of reference to the visible world. Many of her paintings depict labyrinthine interior spaces, with complex or multiple lines of perspective. The elaborate mosaic and tiled surfaces recall the domestic architecture of her native Portugal. This picture was first exhibited in 1950 as The Corridor, but later became known as The Grey Room.
Dorothea Tanning – A Mi-Voix
Caption: ‘I just wanted to paint a white and grey picture that would still have colour in its veins as we have blood under our winter-white skin’, Tanning wrote of this work. Her engagement with Surrealism began in the 1940s when she married Max Ernst. She has observed of herself: ‘as someone … who has chosen art, the making of it, the dedication to it, the breathing of it, this artist has pursued with a high heart that great aim; and has utterly failed to understand the pigeon-holing (or dove-coterie) of gender, convinced that it has nothing to do with qualifications or goals.’
Piet Mondrian – Composition C (No.III) with Red, Yellow and Blue
Caption: Mondrian’s arrival in London in 1938 confirmed the capital as a centre for the avant-garde. In 1936 he had shown this and other works in Abstract & Concrete, London’s first international exhibition of abstract art. Mondrian’s non-figurative paintings – planes of primary colour with black and white – convey what he described as a ‘dynamic equilibrium’, which he hoped would work on the individual spirit and have wider social implications.
Niki de Saint Phalle – Shooting Picture
Caption: The emphasis on the violent gesture in post-war abstract painting culminated in Saint Phalle’s Shooting Pictures. She filled polythene bags with paint and enclosed them within layers of plaster against a blockboard backing. Spectators were invited to shoot at these constructions, releasing the paint. This one was shot by artists Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns. The moment of action and an emphasis on chance were as important as the finished work. Saint Phalle stopped making these works in 1963, explaining ‘I had become addicted to shooting, like one becomes addicted to a drug’.
Sergio de CamargoLarge – Split Relief No.34/4/74
Caption: Brazilian artist Camargo lived in Paris from 1961 to 1974. While living there he made a number of monochrome white works composed of cylindrical pieces of diagonally cut wood, including Large Split Relief. These reliefs, which resemble crystalline growth, generate a play of light and shadow across their surface to explore the organic and rhythmic disposition of the wooden pieces. At the same time, the work highlights the natural material roughness of the wood creating a dialogue between the organic textures of nature and the carefully crafted character of art.
Henri Laurens – Head of a Boxer
Henri Laurens – Autumn
Caption: ‘I aspire to a ripeness of form’ Laurens said. ‘I should like to succeed in making it so full, so juicy that nothing could be added.’ This monumental figure is a luxuriant embodiment of nature. Although the title, Autumn, was only added after the work was completed, its bursting forms suggest the fruitfulness of the season. It is one of a number of sculptures Laurens made in the 1940s relating to the traditional odalisque or exotic, reclining female nude.
Claude Monet – Water-lilies
Caption: In the 1890s, Monet developed a Japanese-style water-garden around the pond at his home in Giverny, north-west of Paris. The garden became an ‘outside studio’ for the artist, and the water-lilies floating on the surface of the pond became the principal motif of his later paintings. Filling the canvas, the pond becomes a world in itself, inspiring a sense of immersion in nature. At times verging on abstraction, the water-lily pictures are the culmination of Monet’s fascination with light and its changing effects on the natural environment.
Sir Sidney Nolan – Inland Australia
Caption: In June 1948 Nolan embarked on a period of travel to remote areas of Australia. Travelling by truck, train, aeroplane and boat, he journeyed inland across New South Wales to Adelaide. He then went north across the central desert to Darwin, returning via the Western coast to Sydney. The view of inland Australia seen from the air made the greatest impression on Nolan. He was profoundly affected by the vast scale, desolation and silence of the desert – the second largest in the world. Like his many other paintings of this subject, this work is what Nolan called a ‘composite impression’. It combines documentary observation with visionary imagination, faithfully evoking a landscape whose immensity seems strangely unreal.
Jackson Pollock – Yellow Islands
Caption: ‘When I am painting I am not much aware of what is taking place’, Pollock said in 1947. By dripping and pouring paint, he was able to work in a free and intuitive way, his thoughts and feelings finding direct expression in the rhythmic patterns he created. Pollock began this painting by pouring black paint onto the canvas, over which he added areas of yellow and crimson with a brush. He then lifted the canvas upright while the paint was still wet, allowing it to sag and run.
Pablo Picasso – Nude Woman with Necklace
Caption: Throughout his life, Picasso reworked the theme of the female nude. In his eighties, he revised the traditional ideal of beauty with particular violence, subjecting the body to a repeated assault in paint. Here, a reclining female figure is presented as a raw, sexualised arrangement of orifices, breasts and cumbersome limbs. ‘It’s all there’, Picasso said, ‘I try to do a nude as it is.’ The face is that of his second wife, Jacqueline Roque.
Lee Krasner – Gothic Landscape
Caption: Although this is an abstract painting, the thick vertical lines that dominate its centre can be seen as trees, with thick knotted roots at their base. It was probably this that led Krasner to call the painting Gothic Landscape, several years after completing it. Krasner was married to the artist Jackson Pollock and, during their life together, her work was eclipsed by his rise to fame. Gothic Landscape was made in the years following his death from a car crash in 1956. It belongs to a series of large canvases whose violent and expressive gestural brushstrokes reflected her feelings of grief.
Asger Jorn – Letter to my Son
Caption: Letter to my Son is one of Jorn’s most ambitious paintings of the late 1950s, the period in which his international reputation was established. The title refers to his son, Ole, who was born in 1950. It is one of a number of works by Jorn that refer to families and childhood. The layered composition includes at least a dozen frenetic figures, loosely delineated with great energy. They have a spontaneous urgency that recalls the children’s drawings that Jorn admired during his CoBrA period.
Francis Bacon – Seated Figure
Caption: Bacon’s portraits are explorations of the human condition as much as they are character studies, particularly in works such as Seated Figure, in which the identity of the sitter is not disclosed. They also represent a complex exploration of pictorial space: the figure is simultaneously posed among some elegant items of furniture and confined within a box-like frame. This device, which was one of Bacon’s trademarks, underlines the sense of isolation as well as generating a claustrophobic psychological intensity.
Joseph Mallord William Turner – Yacht Approaching the Coast
Caption: In this painting the light in the sky and on the sea dazzles the viewer, obscuring the scene. This visual effect echoes the progress of Turner’s own work on the painting as he returned to areas of the canvas over a period of several years, covering the original subject. Dark shapes that appear through the layers suggest boats, while the buildings on the left have not been definitively identified but may represent Venice. By reworking the canvas, Turner has created less tangible subjects – those of light and colour themselves.
Leon Kossoff – Man in a Wheelchair
Caption: Kossoff developed a manner of painting with exceptionally thick paint which is deposited on the board in places almost untouched, giving a sense of three-dimensional form. The model for this painting was the painter John Lessore, who sat for Kossoff once or twice a week for three years. For most of that time, Kossoff recalled, he concentrated on developing the subject through drawings. The discipline of drawing every day is at the heart of Kossoff’s practice.
Hans Hartung – T1937-33
Caption: Like the Surrealists, Hartung was interested in automatic drawing – a process of freely improvised mark-making. His oil paintings were made more methodically by carefully enlarging marks from these small drawings. He believed that this was the only way to maintain their energy on a larger scale. The sweeping lines in this work reflect a turbulent sense of urgency, while Hartung’s handling of charcoal, pastel and paint shows great delicacy.
Jannis Kounellis – Untitled
Meredith Frampton – Portrait of a Young Woman
Caption: This work relates to the tradition of full-length portraits of women that is associated in particular with the work of earlier artists, such as Van Dyck and Gainsborough. However, it is executed with a clarity and precision that give it an unmistakeably modern feeling. Frampton said that he made this painting as ‘a relaxation from commissions, and to celebrate an assembly of objects… beautiful in their own right’. The sitter was Margaret Austin-Jones, then aged twenty three. Her dress was made up from a Vogue pattern by Frampton’s mother. The vase, made in mahogany, was designed by Frampton himself.
Giuseppe Penone – Tree of 12 Metres
Annette Messager – The Pikes
Constantin Brancusi – Fish
Richard Serra – Trip Hammer
Caption: Two sheets of steel are delicately balanced. One stands upright, 2.6 m high and 1.3 m deep, and balances on an edge 5 cm wide. The other rests horizontally on this thin edge, with its only other means of support provided by its minimum contact with the wall. This large, heavy work dominates the space in which in stands, both physically and psychologically through the anxiety it provokes in the viewer.
Jean Hélion – Ile de France
Giovanni Anselmo – Direction
Caption: In the late 1960s, Anselmo began to make sculptures exploring forces such as torsion, gravity, and magnetism. His Direction series incorporate compasses that point to the magnetic north pole. This work is made by pushing a glass beaker with a needle inside it against a dampened cloth. ‘I formed a sort of trail that the energy of the magnetic fields, continuing to orient the needle, kept alive’, Anselmo said. Inside the gallery, the work serves as a reminder of the space outside it, and the invisible forces that structure the world.
Tristram Hillier – Variation on the Form of an Anchor
Caption: Like Nash and Wadsworth, Hillier was impressed by the paintings of Giorgio de Chirico, which he encountered while living in Paris in the 1920s. The Italian’s plunging perspectives and unexpected juxtapositions evoked a mysterious world that led Hillier towards Surrealism. The scale of this anchor-structure is overwhelming, like a monument of unknown significance. It is one of several mysterious beach scenes with abandoned elements made in the 1930s.
Alberto Giacometti – Composition (Man and Woman)
Caption: This small but complex structure is based loosely on the human figure. It was made in a period when Giacometti looked at late Cubist works and so-called primitive art, exploring different ways of representing the figure. Here the male and female figures are `transparent constructions’ (to use Giacometti’s phrase), composed of simplified rhyming shapes. Comparison with related pieces by the artist suggests that at least one of the hemispheres may be read as a head, while the zig-zag lines were intended to signify the female form.
Roni Horn – Thicket No. 1
Caption: Since 1989, Horn frequently has embedded texts in her sculptures. In this work, the top edges of letters can be seen on two sides of an aluminium slab. At first glance they resemble the calibrated forms of universal bar codes. When the viewer walks around the work the phrase ‘to see a landscape as it is when I am not there’ becomes legible. The line is from ‘Gravity and Grace’ by the French writer Simone Weil. Horn uses the phrase to remind us to look carefully at what we see, and to try to perceive the world without the filter of cultural preconceptions that may distort our vision.
Larry Bell – Untitled
Caption: Based in Los Angeles, Bell?s work reflects a preoccupation by some West Coast artists with light and space. The three boxes shown here demonstrate his various technical approaches to achieving their distinctive surfaces. The chequer-board pattern of Untitled (1962) was made by scraping away squares from a mirror, which he then painted black. The smoked effect on the four mirrored squares in the centre was achieved by applying a thin coating to the glass in a vacuum environment. The oval patterns of Untitled (1964) were made by covering the glass with a chemical treatment that cuts off certain bands of light, so that they appear in different colours depending on the viewing angle. Bell later abandoned patterned cubes in favour of plain glass ones, achieving a suffused effect by coating their surfaces with a thin film of quartz and chromium, as in Untitled (1967).
Gego (Gertrud Goldschmidt) – Untitled
Chen Zhen – Cocon du Vide
Caption: Chen Zhen lived and worked mainly between Shanghai, New York and Paris, and his work reflects this constant shifting between cultures, which the artist called ‘transexperience’. In his sculptures and installations he typically assembled obsolete everyday objects, particularly old furniture and candles, sometimes in combination with fragments of technology and consumer goods. This work belongs to a series of sculptures made between 1999 and 2000, sharing the title Cocon du Vide (‘empty cocoon’) and featuring chrysalis-like forms made from Chinese abacus and Buddhist rosary beads threaded onto metal frames.
Emil Nolde – The Sea B
Caption: This is one of a series of seascapes (labelled A-F) which Nolde painted while staying on the island of Sylt in northern Germany. His characteristically expressive brushwork and heightened colour suggest the seething turbulence of the sea. In his memoirs, he recalled ‘I wanted to see the sea again in all its wild greatness. Thunderclouds came driven by hail-storms – lightning flashed into the sea … I had finished or almost finished six seascapes, whose paint was still wet, working on them in a state close to ecstasy.
Cy Twombly – Untitled (Bacchus)
Caption: ‘To paint involves a certain crisis, or at least a crucial moment of sensation or release,’ Twombly wrote in 1957, ‘and by crisis it should by no means be limited to a morbid state, but could just as well be one ecstatic impulse.’ This ‘ecstatic impulse’ has made regular appearances in his work, often personified by Bacchus (also known as Dionysus) – the god of wine, whose rites were celebrated with orgies and animals being torn to pieces and their raw flesh consumed.
In the summer of 2005, with America at war in Iraq, Twombly found inspiration in Homer’s Iliad to create a cycle of eight paintings executed in vermilion on the subject of Bacchus. The title of the series – Bacchus, Psilax, Mainomenos – refers to the dual and almost schizophrenic nature of the god, oscillating between pleasure and sensual release (psilax), and debauchery bordering on the nihilistic (mainomenos). This schism is echoed in the paintings’ ricochet between euphoric loops that soar upwards and sanguine floods of paint that seep, ooze and cascade down the canvas. Red is the colour of wine, but also of blood and these works are some of the most liquid that Twombly has painted, engorged and overflowing with paint. However, their calligraphic quality also recalls the scratched works and incisions of the early works in the first room of this exhibition.
Joan Mitchell – Number 12
Lee Ufan – From Line
Joseph Beuys – Lightning with Stag in its Glare
Kishio Suga – Ren-Shiki-Tai
Magda Cordell – Figure (Woman)
Yves Tanguy – Azure Day
Caption: Tanguy joined the Surrealist movement in 1925, the year after its foundation. Despite his lack of training, he began to paint and soon achieved an astonishing technical precision, depicting vast dream-like spaces. The foreground in Azure Day is occupied by grouped and piled forms that defy rational explanation. They have been associated with the ancient standing stones of Tanguy’s native Brittany.
Paintings and sculptures I wasn’t able to identify: