Whitechapel’s $20 Million Redo Expands Edgy London Gallery

When the Whitechapel Gallery in East London reopens to the public on April 5 after a 13.5 million pound ($19.3 million) redevelopment, it will be twice its previous size. So far, so unsurprising: in recent years art institutions and museums have expanded inexorably throughout the world. The Whitechapel, though, is special.

It was founded in 1901 as a beacon of culture in one of London’s poorest areas. Just to the north was the notorious slum prowled by Jack the Ripper. Whitechapel was the heart of the old East End, and for centuries first home to immigrant populations.

That may account for its radical tendencies. In 1939, the gallery was the venue for a display of Picasso’s “Guernica” to raise support for the Republican cause in the Spanish Civil War, the only occasion that picture has been seen in Britain.

A tapestry copy of the picture, which normally hangs in the United Nations building in New York, will be shown as part of an exhibition — a Bloomberg Commission — about the history of Picasso’s masterpiece by the artist Goshka Macuga (from April 5). After the war, the gallery presented pioneering shows by stars of the avant-garde such as Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, Robert Rauschenberg and David Hockney.

The original Whitechapel building, designed by Charles Harrison Townsend in a luxuriant yet restrained art nouveau style, is one of the great monuments of turn-of-the century London. The gallery now has spread next door into the former Passmore Edwards Library.

Modernist University

This edifice, founded in 1892, was known at one point as the “University of the Ghetto,” because 100 years ago Whitechapel was home to a community of Eastern European Jewish immigrants. Among the modernist artists who benefited from it were Jacob Epstein, Mark Gertler and David Bomberg. There will be a small exhibition of works on paper by those and others in one of the new spaces. From having one show at a time, the Whitechapel will move to holding several simultaneously; the largest being a retrospective of work by the German sculptor Isa Genzken.

On the whole, the integration of the old library into the gallery has been deftly done by the Belgian firm of architects Robbrecht & Daem. The boldest move — and the most dubious — was to leave the yellow London brick of the walls plus some Victorian decoration in the big, new ground-floor gallery. This gives it a stronger architectural personality than the standard contemporary “white cube.” While it’s good to be unusual, I suspect this space may overwhelm the art that’s shown in it.

Hockney, Freud

On the other hand, another new gallery upstairs that functioned as a display space in the original library is beautiful, and features an excellent small exhibition of works by Hockney, Lucian Freud, Bridget Riley and others from the British Council collection. Among the new facilities is a handsome restaurant, designed in a sort of updated Charles Rennie Mackintosh manner.

Whitechapel, one metro stop from the City of London, remains a lively area — densely populated, ethnically diverse and home to some 3,500 artists. Among those with studios a short walk away are Tracey Emin and Gilbert & George.

The gallery is still in the vanguard. On its roof is a new copper-and-steel weather vane by Rodney Graham. This represents the artist dressed as Erasmus, reading that author’s “In Praise of Folly,” seated backward on a horse, and spinning around in the wind. That feels like an apt symbol of the world in spring 2009; let’s hope it isn’t an accurate prediction of the future.

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Published in: on March 31, 2009 at 9:35 am  Leave a Comment  
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