Until a decade and a half ago, we had no national museum of modern art at all. Indeed, the stuff was not regarded as being of much interest to the British; now Tate Modern is about to expand vastly and bills itself as the most popular such institution in the world. The opening of the new, enlarged version on 17 June — with apparently 60 per cent more room for display — will be one of the art world events of the year. But, like all jumbo galleries, it will face the question: what on earth to put in all that space?
Essentially, there are two answers to that conundrum. Give the public what they want, or — alternatively — what you think they ought to see. Cynics might suggest that Undressed: A Brief History of Underwear at the V&A (16 April–12 March 2017) falls into the former category. And it looks very much as if the Royal Academy has also gone for the first option with Painting the Modern Garden: Monet to Matisse (30 January–20 April). This, of course, is just what a lot of people like to contemplate: pictures of flower-beds, in an impressionist idiom — and has already been pre-denounced as such. Personally, I’m rather fond of Monet — and of gardens too for that matter. So, for the time being, my judgment is suspended.
Opening later in spring upstairs at the RA In the Age of Giorgione (12 March–5 June) looks as if it might be one of the year’s highlights. Giorgione is one of the most elusive figures in art history. The list of facts we don’t know about him with any certainty begins with the year of his birth, and what he was called, apart from ‘Big George’. The late E.H. Gombrich once told me he thought Giorgione was the art-historical equivalent of an untreatable case: there was so much uncertainty about what he actually did that little can be said.