Remember those old black and white photographs of art galleries with the rooms full of potted palms and little chairs on which well-dressed ladies could sit and chat; with similarities to the glass houses at botanical gardens where white classical sculptures were interspersed among the palm trees? All that was missing was the palm court orchestra and the fountain.
Fast-forward a few years and other things started to intrude into these temples of art: cctv cameras, red fire extinguishers, green fire exit signs and a plethora of electrical devices, all jockeying for attention with the art.
Marcel Broodthaers (1924-1976) started his career as a poet and a dealer in antiquarian books before he turned to producing art in 1963 as an ironic gesture. Un Jardin d’Hiver (A Winter Garden), first shown in Zurich in 1998 and now recreated at Hauser & Wirth in London, questions the relationship between art and the gallery in which it is hung. Surrounded by potted palms are natural history illustrations, cases of drawings and texts, a rolled-up red carpet awaiting the potential arrival of a VIP, the monitor for the cctv camera and the fire extinguisher, he asks whether the modern art gallery itself is outdated and over-commercial, having its origins in the colonial world of the 18th and 19th centuries when people established galleries to show the treasures brought back from their expeditions, as they did with plant specimens in the botanical gardens.
Perhaps it is time for a rethink, think of new models and celebrate the many artists whose work is springing free of the confines of the traditional art gallery?
Broodthaers challenges us to have that debate in the 21st century.
As a postscript, not far away is huge modern gallery space on Regent Street with rows of large potted plants between the exhibits. It is the Apple store, designed to perfection by Foster and Partners. What would Broodthaers have made of this twenty-first century temple of the arts??