Opinion

Why Are London’s Museums Royally Overhung?

Countless exhibitions in the capital are stuffed full of art like a trussed turkey.

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LONDON — “Now, Joe, you see those palm trees painted there? Those are his signature marks. There’s a nasty bug going around eating them in Spain, did you know that?” Upon overhearing this, I think, when looking at David Hockney’s “A Bigger Splash,” entomology isn’t exactly the first topic that springs to my mind.

It’s lunchtime on a weekday, and I’ve decided to visit the celebrated David Hockney retrospective at Tate Britain. So did hundreds of other people, apparently. I can’t help overhearing the comments of my fellow visitors, and not because I’m being nosy. I confess that I do sometimes find eavesdropping on museum chitchat to be more interesting that the art itself, but this isn’t the case today; there’s just not enough physical space near the painting for me, my new friend the entomologist, poor Joe, and everyone else around us.

I suppose it was naïve of me to expect that the curators would have chosen to allocate “A Bigger Splash” a more isolated spot, one suitable for the pilgrimage. High numbers of visitors shouldn’t be a problem if handled correctly. It’s the bad management of the exhibition space that is worrying.

From the numbers of works in this room alone, I assume Tate must have been particularly successful with their loan requests: Pictures are hung very close to one another, and there is literally not one empty wall to give the eyes a rest. So we all stand there in front of “A Bigger Splash,” fighting for a moment of intimacy with the painting, while in Spain some nasty bug is eating all the palm trees.

In room after room, Hockney’s pictures densely plaster the museum’s walls. The artist’s not-exactly-restful palette, combined with the crowds of old British ladies in flashy raincoats and the groups of rowdy schoolchildren (many wearing fluorescent safety vests) do the rest. I leave the show with a desperate need to spend half an hour staring at a blank wall.

I am about to appeal to the First Commandment of Modernism — “Less Is More” — but I have the suspicion that Mies van der Rohe is probably too busy turning over in his grave to hear my prayers. In fact, he must be really spinning by now: Hockney’s Tate survey is just one of the countless London exhibitions stuffed full of art like a trussed turkey.

Here’s an exhausting irony: Tate Modern’s room dedicated to Minimalism is so packed with works that it looks more like an industrial warehouse than a museum, which might be a helpful reminder of the origin of Judd & Co’s aesthetics, although I’m sure that wasn’t the original intention. The lethal combination of over-full exhibitions and intricate architecture at Whitechapel makes every visit to the gallery a challenge, and the Royal Academy of Arts is hardly better: Last year’s RA Abstract Expressionism exhibition was so filled with canvases that it must have disoriented even the most learned scholar, and the recently closed show of Russian art was no better, so crammed that it resembled a slovenly fair of post-revolutionary memorabilia. There the curators had surpassed themselves: Selections of Dziga Vertov’s movies and other films were screened above the plethora of pictures and vitrines of documents displayed below. A single Kandinsky should be enough to fill one room; there visitors, already worn out after the first two rooms, inevitably overlooked important pictures, passing them by them like wallpaper.

The British public might have some ongoing issues with this topic. Critic Mario Praz famously employed the Latin term horror vacui (“fear of emptiness”) to criticize the suffocating interior design of Victorian households. Little has changed since then, apparently.

Johann Zoffany, “The Tribuna of the Uffizi” (1772–78), oil painting, 123.5 × 155.0 cm, Royal Collection, Windsor Castle (photo via Wikimedia Commons)

It is not only a problem in density but also one of length. Put simply, these exhibitions are far too long. Though to this, the public has developed a surprising adaptability and now faces the prospect of museum-going by getting fully equipped — trekking shoes, walking sticks, and water bottles have become essentials.

Though finding new alternatives to the white-cube paradigm is certainly a laudable venture, curators and directors of public institutions seem to have forgotten that their responsibility should be to make art accessible, understandable, and enjoyable, not to punish their visitors with it.

The risk of perpetuating endless, cramped exhibitions is more urgent than ever. It will eventually leave art viewers completely saturated, passing by priceless masterpieces in the same way we absentmindedly scroll through our Instagram feeds. When it comes to artwork, “the more the merrier” isn’t necessarily the best option. It is time for curators to make some brave choices: Abandon self-congratulation and exhibitionism. Include fewer artworks in your shows, select better, and convince the public that it’s still fine to leave the museum without feeling drained. Our ability to appreciate art — and our poor feet — will be much better for it.

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