The opening of Tate Modern in 2000 took London by storm. Thousands more visitors than expected piled into the building. Modern Art in the capital became more fashionable overnight.
But for many visitors, looking at Rodin’s ‘Kiss’ for example, they found it difficult to see today why it was modern. Ditto for Monet’s ‘Waterlilies’. But we are looking at these pieces with a hundred years separating us and them. In that time, both these works have been accepted into the mainstream and cease to shock us any more. We see them on mugs, umbrellas and fridge magnets – they have lost their ability to shock us.
We can see perhaps why the Fauves created such a stir by their use of completely unnatural colours instead of shading, but the ‘Kiss’ just looks tame these days – beautiful, but tame. In its day, however, to see a natural and unidealised body portrayed – a real person in other words – was quite shocking. Marble was more generally associated then with tombs or classical statues than with real, live bodies. Rodin has taken the Dante story of Lancelot and Guinevere and turned it into a sculpture. The fact that these two were brother and sister-in-law would probably have added to the scandal. Notice, too, that it is Guinevere who has Lancelot in an embrace rather than vice versa and it doesn’t look like she wants to let him go anytime soon. But we are made of sterner stuff these days and it takes a lot more to shock us. A dead cow perhaps – or an unmade bed?
It is fascinating to look at works of 20th century art and set them within their own time. For example, Brigit Riley’s Op art stripes were just perfect for their time in the 1960s. No need for experimenting with drugs – just stand in front of a Riley painting for a while, stare at the centre until it moves and voilà. Or perhaps many people did both at once….
Marcel Duchamp fooled us all when he created his readymades and changed the course of art in the process. Art becomes art because the artist says it is.
What about the pile of bricks? How much more interesting it is to know that Carl Andrés first exhibition was not the success he had hoped for and so he returned the bricks to the brickmakers where he had bought them and only kept one sculpture. By the time of the next show, the colour of the bricks had changed and they were no longer yellow….a limited edition was born.
Modern art takes more research in order to understand it. We need to try and place it within its own time and to see it as far as possible through the eyes of the people who would have viewed it then. In many cases, it can make us laugh,but it can also make us angry (even though it is difficult sometimes to know why) and it can energise us. It all depends on how we look at it.