Theming with ideas

Is Tate Modern the greatest thing ever to happen to art in Britain? Michael Gloverwonders whether di

The former Bankside power station, once a grim pile on the wrong side of the Thames, is now universally regarded as a building of overwhelming architectural distinction. Entering Tate Modern down a long ramp and into the vast turbine hall, the dimensions are staggering - the walls rise to more than 100 feet in height. What's not so staggering is that, when you first enter the building - and quite unlike, say, the Musee d'Orsay in Paris - it's extremely difficult to find any modern art to be overwhelmed by. Eventually, you look up and spot something fairly alarming: a giant steel spider by the 89-year-old New York sculptress Louise Bourgeois - not so easy to see from below, but much more easily appreciated through the windows of the upper exhibition floors.

The rest of the art in this vast hall is hidden away down the far end - three huge steel towers, also by Bourgeois, two with circular mirrors projecting from them and spiral staircases winding up their sides, from which, according to a helpful note on the wall, you are invited to consider the symbolic properties of space. All space, or just this space? Six of one, half a dozen of the other.

It was down at this end of the hall that the press conference to mark the "art opening of the century" took place last week. Just before it started, I tried to eavesdrop on what Lars Nittve, the director of Tate Modern, was telling some television journalist, but he was speaking in his native Swedish, so I sat down instead. Then the proceedings commenced: six dark-suited men sat down and worked us up into a lather about the greatest thing that had ever happened to art in Britain. We were told, on the record, that we are no longer a nation that hates art, as Howard Hodgkin had once foolishly said. On the contrary, we've poured money into Tate Modern to the tune of £132m. The taxpayer paid for half of it; the private sector (such as BT, whose communications director was one of the six suits) has coughed up the rest. Unilever has sponsored the spider and the watchtowers in the turbine hall, and has agreed to provide money to fill this space every year for the next five years.

First off the starting block was Nicholas Serota, Tate supremo, looking lean and highly concentrated. Did he think that the architecture of this room was fascistic? asked a journalist. Fortunately, fascism never reached these shores, replied Serota with steely, nationalistic logic. Then it was Nittve's turn. He told us that Tate Modern was revolutionary in its conception. In this building, classic modernism jostles with the contemporary as in any happy-go-lucky football stadium. Hierarchies were dead. The biggest news was this, and it can't be repeated too often: theming, theming, theming. It's the way forward, he said, the way to tell the story of art in the 20th century as it's never been told before. Out go all those lazy old "isms". Out goes ponderous chronology. In comes the democratic treatment of all artists, new and old, dead and not so dead, in themed areas.

That sounded promising, yet also mildly troubling, so I slipped out to have a wander. I could foresee a few difficulties, I thought, as I rode the massive elevators to the fifth floor of the building - two of the floors, 3 and 5, show the permanent collection; floor 4 is currently displaying some of the Tate's large-scale acquisitions of the past ten years under the enigmatic title "From Cinema to a Hard Place". Much of this is video art, although Tony Cragg, Mona Hatoum and Anish Kapoor managed to slip in, too, when the lights were down.

Here are the problems: the Tate owns fewer than 700 pieces of international art - not all that many really. It wasn't created to be a museum of world art at all - in fact, at about the time that the Museum of Modern Art was being established in New York, the Tate was turning up its nose at the work of Gaudier-Brzeska, and didn't really start buying 20th-century international art until well after the Second World War. The consequence of this is that, although the Tate owns 38 Picassos, it also has enormous gaps in its collection - for example, almost no sculpture by Picasso or Matisse; very little art from post-revolutionary Russia (paradoxically, the revolutionary gallery lacks revolutionary art); it is weak on German classics (no Otto Dix or Egon Schiele, for example); poor on futurism.

One way of concealing this fact is by theming. If works by a single artist are, generally speaking, exhibited, one at a time, in themed areas (though some artists do qualify for galleries of their own), and you largely abandon chronological treatment, very few people will notice what's missing.

Level 5 consists of two suites of 12 galleries. To the right is the best and the most intellectually coherent of the themed areas, Nude/Action/Body, which explores the ways artists have treated notions of the body, from Rodin's The Kiss to Sam Taylor-Wood's video Brontosaurus (1995), in which a young man dances naked in front of a small model of a brontosaurus. Every work on display comes complete with a long, descriptive caption. Sometimes, the information is useful and informative. On many occasions, it serves as a patronising substitute for careful looking. "Note the intensity with which Freud paints flesh" reads one. What an insight. Every so often, a caption called "The Bigger Picture" crops up, in which some "name" tells us why he thinks this artist is really, really great. Here is David Bowie's old mate Brian Eno on Jean Dubuffet: "Dubuffet's work looks like a complete adventure, a journey he started without proper maps, following where it led." Another startling insight.

The other suite of galleries on Level 5 is devoted to something nebulously all-encompassing called History/Memory/Society - or "some ways in which artists have responded to the 20th century". One small gallery, called "Modern Art in Conflict", dismisses the First World War in eight canvases and two sculptures. Could it really have been so insignificant?

The related themes of Landscape/Matter/Environment explore how artists have dealt with the inheritance of landscape painting, and the idea of landscape as a subject for art, in the 20th century. In the first gallery, we hit on another problem of theming. Having established a theme, works of art are needed to illustrate it - but what if you don't have especially good examples in the collection? You go ahead anyway, because theming is an ideas-driven pursuit. And so the first gallery in this section, which concentrates on how artists have dealt with the century, includes two mediocre works by Matisse, Notre Dame (1900), with its echoes of impressionism, and The Red Beach (1905), which shows the influence of fauvism.

Next to Matisse, one of the old Tate's favourite canvases is on display, Monet's Waterlilies, painted in his garden at Giverny in 1916. On the opposite wall is a giant, new, site-specific piece by Richard Long called Waterfall Line 2000, which has been painted with wet river mud, Cornish china clay and water: a vast exercise in rudely energetic spattering. Each canvas stands apart from the other, mutually perplexed. And in between stands the viewer in a similar mood of perplexity.

Has theming these two works of art really illuminated anything? The materials used are different, and it is of passing interest to note. The social circumstances of the two men were quite different. Their attitudes towards their art were quite different. But, frankly, so what? Isn't all this blindingly obvious? Doesn't theming trivialise and dehistoricise rather than illuminate?

The central issue is this: Tate Modern's themed approach represents a series of arbitrary "cuts" through the art of the 20th century, a way of telling the story which quite deliberately turns its back on the "discredited" model established by Alfred H Barr at New York's Museum of Modern Art in the 1930s. Barr's way was to show, quite diagrammatically, how one "ism" led inexorably to another - one strand of this takes you through from cubism to Dadaism to surrealism and, ultimately, to abstract expressionism, for example.

Unfortunately, Tate Modern's themed approach, although fitfully interesting and illuminating, lacks intellectual rigour in matters large and small. In part, this is a consequence of having to disguise the fact that its purchasing habits down the decades have been erratic, to say the least. MOMA knew what it was doing from the beginning. The Tate changed its mind in midstream and now suffers the consequences.

Is this a revolutionary truth, or not, Mr Nittve?

This article first appeared in the 22 May 2000 issue of the New Statesman, Hacking their way to a fortune