The Whitechapel, one of London’s most important public galleries, re-opens next week after a two-year, £13.5 million refurbishment. By expanding into the building next door which used to be occupied by a public library, exhibition space has increased by more than three quarters, and the new gallery will now be able to accommodate a whole range of different kinds of shows, from site-specific commissions to displays of public and private art collections. The ten galleries are well lit, and flow easily into each other. The Whitechapel, which was founded in 1901, has been one of the most curatorially adventurous public exhibition spaces in London – it was the first to show a retrospective of Jackson Pollock, for example.
The re-opening kicks off with four exibitions, all eye-catchingly different from each other. One of them, an installation by the Turner-Prize-winning Polish artist Goshka Macuga, brings back to London a work which first went on show here seventy years ago.
It was in 1939 that Picasso’s Guernica, a painting he had made in his Paris studio in 1938 as a howl of anguished protest against the bombing by Franco’s forces of the village of the same name. Guernica, which had been painted on cloth as a huge banner, travelled to the Whitechapel Gallery in East London to draw the public’s attention to the Spanish Civil War. The painting itself now hangs in a museum in Madrid, too fragile to leave home any more.
This is not quite the same Guernica, but its impact remains almost undiminished. In 1955, Nelson Rockefeller commissioned Picasso to make a tapestry based on the original painting. And it is that tapestry, which usually hangs in a corridor outside the Security Council Chamber in the UN building in New York, which will be in London for the next twelve months.
In certain respects what we can see in London is better than what we experience in Madrid. It’s the same size, exactly. We can get up closer. We can scrutinise it face on. We can stand back to get a better look at this extraordinary, ferocious, collage-like depiction of human anguish. So many hands reach out, imploringly. So many mouths hang open...The tapestry does not have the range of colours of the original – it is woven in quite low, muted tones of browns and creams and blacks and beiges, but that does not in any way reduce the impact. In fact, if anything, it feels as if it helps to focus and to funnel all that raw anguish. The tapestry is the focal point of a room in which the visitor will be encouraged to meditate upon the nature of conflict: a UN-style, circular table at its centre will be used for debates; and other artworks include a Cubist-style sculpture of Colin Powell – the Guernica tapestry, for the first and only time in its history, was covered up before Powell dleivered his UN speech in support of the war in Iraq in 2003 – and there will be an ongoing programme of archival film about warfare.
In addition to Guernica you can also enjoy a retrospective of work by the German sculptor and installation artiste Isa Genzken, whose work moves from the sombre and intensely cerebral minimalism of her early youth to an almost crazed degree of exuberance as she matures, with the top floor showing her at her most rackety and hysterically kitschy and colourful.
Over in Gallery Seven you can see a selection of works bought by the British Council over a period of about three-quarters of a century, all penned into quite a small space. There are some gems here, from an early Lucien Freud – one of those bulbous-eyed young women, this one holding a flower as if it were an unexploded symbolic device – to a painting of Dalston Junction by Leon Kossoff, with the paint trowelled on thick and dense as treacle. Give it a lick.
The fourth show, The Whitechapel Boys, draws on the gallery’s own rich archives, and it takes us back to the very beginnings, when three local Jewish artists – Mark Gertler, Isaac Rosenberg and David Bomberg helped to found the Vorticist Movement in the former Whitechapel Library. One hunded years later, the Whitechapel is still powering on.