State of the Art

The Tate is moving boldly into the future under Maria Balshaw, Tate’s Director, as both holder of the National collection and constructing an International collection, for current and future generations to enjoy British, modern and contemporary art.

Published 9 May 2018, 09:49 BST
Maria Balshaw, Tate’s Director, by Hugo Glendinning.
Maria Balshaw, Tate’s Director, by Hugo Glendinning.
Photograph by Hugo Glendinning

What’s the first piece of art that you remember feeling strongly about?

In terms of a particular piece of visual art that had an extraordinary impact on me, it would be The Traveller (1916) by Liubov Popova. It was given to me as a 20th birthday present in large poster form, bought from Tate Liverpool’s shop by a group of my student friends. I think we were studying 20th Century literature at that time, so I was preoccupied with modernist experimentation - and of course Popova was one of the pioneers of Cubo-Futurism. She allied herself with Malevich, with this sense of an absolute revolution of art, and I could see that in the painting. It travelled with me through many student houses. Of course later in London, I saw the amazing Rodchenko & Popova show at Tate Modern in 2009 and was just so delighted. I had being carrying this image around in my head for 20 years by that point.

Can you describe an occasion when you’ve felt you were in the presence of genius?

I feel I’m lucky in that I have often been in the presence of different kinds of genius, not just in visual arts. The person who comes to mind for me was a scientist that I know well - Kostya [Konstantin] Novoselov, who with Andre Geim discovered graphene. I worked alongside him in Manchester and he is the most humble and down to earth of individuals and I think would absolutely rail against the idea that he’s a genius. But along with Andre and his team, he has discovered and identified potential uses for the world’s thinnest and strongest material that will transform the way in which we are able to do so many things in our world.

The reason Kostya particularly came to mind for me was that he created an artwork with Cornelia Parker, who is herself an extraordinary artist, and they together forged the first cultural use of graphene. They created a graphene sensor that launched a meteor shower above the Whitworth Park in Manchester, sprinkling tiny grains of iron meteorite across the landscape. The graphite used to create the graphene was sampled from the gutters of a drawing by William Blake that was in the Whitworth collection, so in some way his genius had been transmuted across centuries to trigger this extraordinary event. At the time, Kostya said: ‘I think Cornelia and I are operating in the same environment because we are both working at the cutting edge of creativity.’ I found that a tremendously liberating way of understanding what both artists and scientists do.

Self-portrait by Pablo Picasso, 1901.
Photograph by Succession Picasso/DACS London, 2018

Do you think our concept of artistic genius is weighted in favour of white European males?

It has been but not nearly so much now. This change has very much accelerated over the last ten years or so and we have a richer language around understanding creativity and genius. For example there is the extraordinary economy of movement of a gifted dancer or an amazing choreographer, like Akram Khan. Our appreciation of the extraordinary variety and complexity of musical forms has also expanded exponentially, so we do now recognise that Kora music is the classical music of Mali and much of West Africa, and that its deep complexity stands alongside that of Western classical traditions. I can think of art works that I have seen over the past two decades that I could also point to: El Anatsui and the extraordinary metal sculptures that he makes. I first saw his work draped over the Palazzo Fortuny in Venice in 2007 and it stopped me in my tracks - such an extraordinary use and transformation of materials to make a point that is deeply political, yet also utterly simple and monumental in its form and reach.

Can anyone appreciate artistic genius? Or do we need experts and curators like yourself to guide us to an appreciation?

I don’t think it has to be one thing or the other. I absolutely believe that the work of artists can stand on its own two feet and pack a punch with anybody who looks at it. And that does not mean that we don’t as human beings really appreciate knowledge and guidance. Sometimes that guidance is about giving permission to not understand something straight away, and to have confidence in what you feel in response to something. Sometimes the art work demands a kind of knowledge; it references other bodies of work and techniques and it positions itself within history, so the sharing of cues, clues, history and expertise can vastly enrich what the art work means to you and gives back to you. I think most people would say there are some things that just speak to them - and I think that’s an emotional-intellectual response rather than simply an intellectual one. There will be something that speaks to them deeply in ways that they cannot explain. And that’s really one of the purposes of art: to move us in ways that we don’t quite have the words for.

Nude, Green Leaves and Bust, by Pablo Picasso, 1932.
Photograph by Succession Picasso/DACS London, 2018

Picasso’s name probably more than that of any other great artist has become a byword for artistic genius. Why do you think that is?

There is not a single answer to that. Picasso had an extraordinary mastery of a very wide range of techniques and approaches to art, and often he forged the new. He broke rules and wasn’t frightened to break rules. Quite regularly in the course of his career, he proposed an entirely new way of thinking about how to represent a subject. I think he had something which is in common with many extraordinary virtuoso artists or scientists, whatever form they’re practising in; there’s an extraordinary tenacity about his practice and often to the detriment of the people around him. One of the things that our culture has done is that we accommodate and create space for the genius artist, who does not conform to many of society’s rules.

Pablo Picasso, rue La Boetie, Paris, 1933, by Cecil Beaton.
Photograph by The Cecil Beaton Studio Archive at Sotheby's

Picasso was an extremely demanding artist in all sorts of ways. He demanded much of his materials, he demanded much of the people around him, and he demanded a great deal of society in terms of accepting things that would otherwise have been unacceptable. For better or worse, I think our human culture often says, “Okay, so we recognise you are different to the rest of us, we’ll create this space where you’re allowed to be and we’ll call you an artist.”



Conservation is one of the ways in which science meets art at a gallery or museum. What can you say about its importance to Tate?

I’d known from my time at The Whitworth and Manchester Art Gallery of the often unsung and absolutely vital work that conservators do to make sure that our desire to look at and display art doesn’t destroy the thing that we’re looking at. This vital, scientific and creative labour is even more important at Tate, as we care for the National Collection. The depredations of light and humidity, as well as thousands of people that come past these paintings every day, always have to be borne in mind as we think about sharing the greatest works of art of our times. I have always found it rather marvellous that you would need some people within your art gallery that have a degree in chemistry, as it fundamentally challenges people’s stereotypes. Paper and textile conservators do really need to understand chemistry and use it on a daily basis. It’s the application of their scientific knowledge towards a fundamentally aesthetic outcome.

We are also at a very interesting time in terms of conservation as a profession and a science. Fifty or a hundred years ago the notion of restoration was fundamentally different to how we think of it now. A lot of conservation work today is undoing previous restoration jobs, because people wanted to return things to their original state - when actually the state of the object is its existence through time. Over-cleaning is one of the worst things that you can do to a painting and there’s always this incredibly important and, in the end, subjective judgement about how far to go. The conservation becomes part of the history of the work.

The EY Exhibition: Picasso 1932 – Love, Fame, Tragedy is at Tate Modern until 9 September 2018.  Enjoy a sneak preview here.

Maria Balshaw is guest editor of the May issue of National Geographic magazine. The issue is on sale now.

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