1 MARCH 1986, Page 32



Retiring Modernist

Giles Auty

The current Tate exhibition marks the retirement of Ronald Alley who has given 34 years of committed service to the gallery. Since 1965 he has occupied the key post of Keeper of the Modern Collection so it is appropriate he should have been asked to select and hang the present show and write its catalogue. Not many of us will get the chance to round off our careers with such a complete farewell statement.

favourable surprises. Frank Auerbach's 'To the Studios' has a lyrical beauty and rich variety of colour not always present in his work. By contrast, Dubuffet, who strikes many as an overrated artist, plumbed uncharted depths with his 'Hopes and Options'.

A secondary purpose of this huge exhibi- tion is to help us judge the strengths and weaknesses of the Tate's Modern Collec- tion. Few visitors will have the confidence or competence to attempt such a task. Most will reason that the collection has been chosen for the nation by its foremost authorities. However, others might say that such unquestioning faith in national experts is simply a symptom of our cultural provincialism. I think too few people real- ise that the apparent history of Modern Art is largely a reflection on the way we select and train Modern Art historians. Since the Western world took up training such spe- cialists in earnest, the incidence of new artistic 'isms' has accelerated sharply. Already our own incomplete century can boast at least three times as many discerni- ble artistic movements as those which `Hopes and Options', by Jean Dubuffet.

appeared during the preceding 100 years. Historians naively deny their part in this process but artists, especially the more opportunistic ones, have tended to be more realistic and perceptive. During the 40 years covered by this exhibition, nation- al and provincial museum collections have represented an important and prestigious sector of the art market. At least one British art school now trains young artists in how to manipulate this area of potential sales. While such initiative will no doubt be applauded by the present government which dislikes what it sees as the apparent uselessness of most Fine Art — such training does suggest we may be seeing some rather contrived Museum Art in the years to come. The major duty of all art historians who occupy responsible posts — no matter what their specialist period — is to be aware of and apply wider historical perspectives. If outstanding vision may be hard to retain during a career spent in quasi-civil service administration, then such a sense of histor- ical responsibility becomes doubly vital. In his catalogue introduction, Mr Alley has written: 'It was my hope that by arranging the exhibition in a reasonably chronological sequence, visitors as they walked through the exhibition would get some feeling of the changing character of art over the period, and also an impression of the excitement which those of us felt at the time who followed the development, the unfolding of art with close, eager attention.'

to exist in which Mr Alley's 'changes of character' happen slowly and seldom, if at all. Significantly, only an elite of artists from Britain's more conservative tradition finds its way into the present, supposedly definitive demonstration — or into Mod- ern collections in general. Since the Tate own no works at all by Edward HopPer and only two by Balthus — of which 0.0e, admittedly is on view — the historical importance of these and similar artists 0! an alternative and more traditionally based aesthetic remains ignored yet again. Perhaps the most pertinent job art histo- rians should now undertake is to re-define the word 'modern' as used in contexts such as the title of this exhibition, or of Modern collections generally. If what we really mean by 'modern' is basically innovatory or experimental then perhaps the time has come to say so. Nor should we any longer pretend that the endless rounds of post-war avant-garde innovation have led visual art anywhere except to a sizable impasse. If the old idea of monolinear evolution in art Is not yet dead then exhibitions such as this may help finally extinguish it. Art is not technology and neither genuinely advan- ces, progresses nor develops simply by borrowing the language of science. Mod- ernism has survived thus far by appropriat- ing to itself this favourable-seeming lan- guage. But it will take more than semantics to keep the corpse alive.