Return to the Tate Modern

What is a television apparatus to man, who has only to shut his eyes to see the most inaccessible regions of the seen and the never seen, who has only to imagine in order to pierce through walls and cause all the planetary Baghdads of his dreams to rise from the dust. – Salvador Dali

So it turns out it has been over a decade since I last visited the Tate Modern. Yikes. That’s not a comment on what I went to see there last time – Rodin’s ‘The Kiss’ and various sculptures by Henry Moore – I was enraptured by them enough to come back on multiple occaisions. It says something though that not much else on exhibit at the time seems to have caught my attention.

I returned to the Tate Modern for a few hours last weekend. The contemporary works did not impress me, especially the ones that had large spaces dedicated to them and yet managed to convey very little. Anything younger than I am seemed to be all hype and no substance. I was going to compliment Oskar Fischinger’s psychedelic display, Raumlichtkunst, as the only exception to this, until I found out it was made in 1926.

Metamorphosis of Narcissus (1937), Salvador Dali

Many of the older works were hit and miss, but some were fantastic. Needless to say the two pieces by Salvador Dali I saw on display blew everything out of the water. Metamorphosis of Narcissus (1937) and Mountain Lake (1938) did not need half a room to ensorcell me; the small spaces they occupied contained vast vistas of dreamlike wonder. As with the fist time I’d seen a Dali up close and personal, I was struck by how much difference it made to see them in the flesh – they felt alive. There were also various pieces by Picasso that impressed me a great deal to see in-person too. Works by Georges Braque, Max Ernst, Giorgio de Chirico, Pierre Roy, Meredith Frampton, Dora Carrington, Sir Sidney Nolan, and Leonora Carrington, all impressed and left me with a sense of the artist’s inner vision. I even found Meredith Frampton’s portraits somehow haunting.

Mountain Lake 1938 by Salvador Dalí 1904-1989
Mountain Lake (1938), Salvador Dali

I guess I can’t get away with not mentioning Damien Hurst, seeing as there was an entire show dedicated to him. I think it should say it all that I am not prepared to spend money to see anything by him. Until he comes out and says it has all been a big joke on the fine art scene, revealing himself to have been taking the right piss out of it all the whole time, I will continue to find his work empty at best and vain self indulgence at worst. If Damian Hurst is to be the most renowned British artist of this generation and he is not taking the piss, then fine art has not only well and truly wedged its head up its own posterior, it has also been swallowing far too much of its own shit.

Drawing is the honesty of the art. There is no possibility of cheating. It is either good or bad. – Salvador Dali

The main comment I heard from people while wandering around was ‘I don’t get it’, and I found that disquieting. A book that aimed not to be understood would not make it into the public consciousness, and yet this seems to be par for the course with fine art. The less understandable the better, as if the aim is to put as much pretension between the work and the viewer as possible. A viewer should not spend more time reading the plaque than looking at the work. If a piece is painted/constructed/etc for public display it should have public display in mind. When I look at a Dali or a Picasso I don’t need to get it, I am immersed in it; the consciousness of another speaks to me. Modern artists I have had this reaction to would never make it into a gallery like the Tate Modern. It is almost as if the unintelligible has become a safe place to hide, for curators and artists. How can the work be bad if no one understands it? If art is an attempt to be understood then modern art is either failing or reflecting the unintelligibility of the modern world. If the latter then it seems another form of failure, for it is within art’s power to make sense of all this.

To the guy who said ‘I don’t get it and I don’t understand it, I hope that doesn’t make me a philistine,’ it doesn’t. Your lack of understanding only proves you are paying attention.

We are all hungry and thirsty for concrete images. Abstract art will have been good for one thing: to restore its exact virginity to figurative art.

– Salvador Dali


  1. i recently returned from Tate modern and to say i was hugely disapointed would be an understatement. I fail to see how a seven ft long aluminium bar with a light bulb on the end with a splash of orange paint can be ‘conceptual’ ‘subjective’ or awhat ever other clap trap words you can say to describe it. If thats what it takes to be an artist and become extremely rich i would of sacked off 5 years of medical school and shat in a sandwich bag and tagged it the ‘juxtaposition al a carte brekky’ and made a fortune off of toffy nosed beard scratchers who have more money than sense.

    • Haha, yes, I know how you feel, believe me. Its more about who knows who than the actual work. Its been that way for a long time, but at least in the past it was more about skill, now its seems to be all about shock and hype and creating celebrities.

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