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120 years of the Whitechapel Gallery – seven landmark moments

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It was just a small thing, really. “The finest art of the world for the people of the East End” – that was the ambition of the first trustees of the Whitechapel Gallery, which rose from nothing on Whitechapel High Street to plans by the architect Charles Harrison Townsend (one of the few English masters of Art Nouveau, responsible too for the Horniman Museum in Forest Hill and the Bishopsgate Institute) to open in 1901, exactly 120 years ago today.

Purpose-built and born out of a philanthropic desire to bring art to the working man (it helped that, unlike most national museums, it had electric light and could therefore stay open late enough for said working man to actually visit), it was perfectly placed in this melting pot of an area, to bring art to people who might otherwise never have the chance to see it, but also to show art that any people might otherwise not see. That’s an intention that its leaders, from its first director Charles Aitken to the current incumbent of the post Iwona Blazwick, have always taken seriously. Here, to celebrate its centenary, are seven landmark moments from the gallery in the east.

The Whitechapel Gallery c. 1900

/ Tower Hamlets Archives

International art exhibitions, 1900s

The gallery was one of the first to take seriously the showing of contemporary art from non-Christian cultures, including among its first ten years of exhibitions Chinese Life and Art (the second ever show at the gallery), Japanese Art the following year, Indian Empire in 1904 and Muhammadan Art and Life (in Turkey, Persia, Egypt, Morocco and India) in 1908.

Women’s War Work, 1918

82,000 people, including the Queen and Princess Mary, visited this exhibition – the first of its kind – in the six weeks that it was open to the public, flocking to see artworks and artefacts acknowledging and celebrating the work of women during the war, just as they were being encouraged by the government to relinquish new-found freedoms and skills and retreat to their domestic duties as men returned from war. It took another ten years for women over 21 in Britain to get the vote on the same terms as men.

Picasso’s Guernica, 1939

Goshka Macuga’s 2009 tribute to the work

/ Whitechapel Gallery

The first and still only visit to London of Picasso’s furious, excoriating masterpiece was hosted by the Whitechapel Gallery with the help of Sir Roland Penrose and Clement Attlee. It commemorated the unwarranted bombing of the small Basque village of Guernica by Nazi German and Fascist Italy, at the request of the Spanish Nationalists. Sadly the Whitechapel doesn’t own any pictures of the original installation, but in 2009, for her Bloomberg Commission at the gallery, Goshka Macuga borrowed the Tapestry After Guernica commissioned by Mrs Nelson Rockefeller, which then hung at the United Nations. The original painting is now permanently on display at the Museo Reina Sofia in Madrid – its huge, monochrome scene of active devastation, like a freeze-frame of terror, still induces a shiver of horror.

This is Tomorrow, 1956

A poster for the exhibition

/ Whitechapel Gallery

This seminal exhibition made up of 12 group collaborations between artists, architects, musicians and graphic designers featured members of the Independent Group of artists and critics and welcomed 1,000 visitors a day while it was open. It’s thought to have kicked off the British Pop art movement, and made a star of Richard Hamilton, whose poster What Is It That Makes Today’s Homes So Different, So Appealing? remains an icon of the movement.

Jackson Pollock, 1958

Installation view

/ Whitechapel Gallery

He’s now both a revered icon and a popular joke of modern art (the ultimate compliment) but this was the first major show in Britain for the swaggering genius of American Abstract Expressionism, two years after his death. It was also a first for the exhibition design – Trevor Dannett hung the pictures on walls of raw breeze blocks under a canopy of undulating fabric strips. Eight years later, the gallery hosted the first major UK solo exhibition for Pollock’s long-suffering and underrated wife, the painter Lee Krasner.

David Hockney, 1970

Hockney at the private view

/ Whitechapel Gallery

Hockney was just 33 when he had this, his first retrospective exhibition, looking back over his first ten years as an artist. Though he had chosen all the works himself, he took himself off to France with Christopher Isherwood during the installation, only arriving back the day before the opening. He was worried, he later said, that he’d be embarrassed by his youthful work – “When I saw them, though, I thought, they do stand up; they’re not that bad.”

Frida Kahlo and Tina Modotti, 1982

Installation view

/ Whitechapel Gallery

It seems astonishing now, given her literally iconic status, that this was Kahlo’s first major show not just in the UK but outside Mexico. The work of Tina Modotti, a brilliant photographer, has rarely been seen here since. The curator Mark Francis remembers it being a rather tricky process, persuading loans out of Kahlo’s husband Diego Rivera’s last lover, Dolores Olmedo, and the former Communist senator Vittorio Vidali (whose reputation he describes diplomatically as ‘ambiguous’) who owned the greatest collection of Modotti’s original photographs. He lent the lot, though he refused to let them tour to a US venue, on political principle.

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