Bryan Robertson: a hero for our times

I’m off to a preview of the new Rothko show at the Whitechapel Gallery in a few minutes, which marks the 50th anniversary of the first showing of that artist’s work in Britain, curated by the Gallery’s then-director, Bryan Robertson. I posted a somewhat bilious piece a few weeks ago about the use of the word ‘curate’ to mean ‘look after’, so I think that it’s probably only right I post now about ‘curate’ to mean ‘look after’ in the greatest sense – the way Bryan Robertson looked after artists – and art.

Robertson was mostly self-educated, without the university education that would have made him the right contacts (and the lack of which probably cost him the directorship of the Tate – that and his flamboyance, and his love of mischief, of which more below), yet by the age of twenty-four, in 1949, he mounted the first British museum exhibition of contemporary French art at the Fitzwilliam in Cambridge. Then, at the age of 27, he beat out the ostensibly more qualified candidates to become the director of the Whitechapel, at the time a shabby gallery in a part of town that was not only unvisited, but unknown by the art world that clung to the West End.

And there, for nearly 20 years, he showed, as well as the great European modernists, Rothko, Philip Guston, Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, and some of the lasting names of British mid-century art: Hepworth, Richards, Clough.

I met him in the early 1980s, when he was preparing his great Dufy show at the Hayward (1983). This was a revelation – not only an artistic one. It was a revelation because I had thought I knew what I thought about Dufy, but through the care and love and sheer blazing intelligence that Robertson gave to the show, I realized that I knew nothing. It was a revelation, too, because it took away that adolescent sense of certainty and made me see that aged twenty (or thirty, or forty, or fifty), there is always space for rethinking. That was Robertson’s gift. And he taught me, too, that you can have fun while you do it. He would talk about Dufy, and then leave messages on my grandmother’s answering-machine, claiming to be the Scotland Yard vice squad (all of it, I assume): ‘We have been watching for days, and we’ve seen 37 young men going in to your flat, and all coming out exhausted. And we just want you to know that we think it’s disgusting.’ (She was amused and more than a tiny bit thrilled.)

He got pipped to the Tate directorship, it going to someone who more closely resembled what the trustees thought a civil servant should be like. But he was a hero. And hooray for the Whitechapel for remembering not just Rothko, but 50 years on, Robertson’s brilliance, and foresight, and courage.

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