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National Gallery may start acquiring 20th-century art

The move would put the institution in competition with Tate

The National Gallery (NG) is considering whether to expand its current displays and cover the early 20th century. At present its remit runs until 1900, following a 1996 agreement with Tate. Under the terms of the deal, the NG transferred 14 post-1900 pictures to Tate on long-term loan, with Tate lending 51 pre-1900 European works to Trafalgar Square. The initial exchange ran from 1997, and was renewed in 2002 for five years.

The Art Newspaper can reveal that NG trustees have begun discussions on extending the gallery’s displays to show work from the early 1900s. The main reason why the issue has come up is that the gallery is considering the development of the lower floor of its west wing, to mirror the new area in the east wing which was opened in September 2004. This would provide a suite of up to 10 rooms, doubling existing display space in the lower floor galleries and also introducing daylight into the internal courtyards. Some of the extra space could be used for post-1900 paintings.

Last month director Charles Saumarez Smith confirmed that “tentative discussions” had begun on changing the 1900 cut-off. The main rationale for the existing cut-off is to make it easy for the public, who know what they can expect to find in the NG and Tate. But art historically, the date is artificial. “We are a gallery which presents a narrative of Western European art, which means there is a possible illogicality in treating 1900 as the terminal date,” Dr Saumarez Smith explained.

If the NG does decide to show early 20th century art, it would presumably seek the return of some of the 14 pictures currently on loan to Tate. These include Pissarro’s The Louvre under snow (1902), Klimt’s Portrait of Hermine Gallia (1904) and Renoir’s Portrait of Misia Sert (1904). The NG might also try to acquire appropriate post-1900 works, which it did in the 1960s and 70s. Any decisions on acquisitions would be made in close consultation with Tate.

The difficulty is that there is no natural cut-off date. Historically 1914, the start of World War I, is seen as a turning point, although it is much less important in art historical terms. One option would be for the NG-Tate divide to gradually advance, but to remain set at 100 years’ difference. Another approach, which is more likely, would be to “blur” the boundaries, by showing post-1900 work at the NG which is more directly related to earlier art and to keep more revolutionary early 20th-century pictures at Tate.

Arguably, a neat division between collections is not essential. In New York, the Metropolitan Museum, Museum of Modern Art, Whitney Museum of American Art and Guggenheim all collect early 20th-century art. Dr Saumarez Smith stresses that “whatever we do would necessarily involve considerable discussion with Tate, in order to ensure that it is successful for both institutions.”