Enter through Real Life, exit in Nude

March 24, 2000

"The difficulty of seizing the common principle that pervades all the fine arts has been much enhanced by the disposition I to refer to one particular school as the sole measure of excellence," wrote Franz Kugler when 19th-century connoisseurs were deciding how to arrange artworks in national galleries across Europe. For all his cautionary words, "school" remains the norm to which most national galleries still adhere.

The new Tate's approach to classification establishes broadly conceptualised, thematic matrices. The themes reflect areas of scholarship that dominated British art studies through the 1980s and 1990s: Public and Private; Literature and Fantasy; Home and Abroad; and Artists and Models.

The danger is that it may rapidly seem outdated: on the other hand, this departure from tradition offers an opportunity to view artworks from different periods juxtaposed in ways that encourage us to see them afresh, freed from the chronology of an oeuvre.

Marcia Pointon is Pilkington professor of history of art, University of Manchester.

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