‘Highly Controlled Chaos’ – A Century of the Artist’s Studio at Whitechapel Gallery, London

Kerry James Marshall, 'Untitled (Painter)', acrylic on PVC panel in artist's frame, 2008, cropped
Kerry James Marshall, 'Untitled (Painter)', acrylic on PVC panel in artist's frame, 2008, cropped

A Century of the Artist’s Studio: 1920 – 2020

Tue - Sun 11:00 - 18:00

From: 24 Feb 2022

To: 5 Jun 2022

Whitechapel Gallery
77-82 Whitechapel High St
E1 7QX

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If working from home has revealed anything, it is how far the clean office ‘ideal’ is from our lived reality. Artists are no exception. Yet Andy Warhol’s Silver Factory has long been heralded as the archetypal studio-as-stage. It’s become a twentieth-century modern art installation all of its own.

Studios have never served as simple showrooms – but workplaces, spaces of experimentation, and sites of refuge. They’re reflections of the artists themselves, from Henri Matisse’s moveable feast of fabrics, to the Roths’ ordered corner of half-used pens, paintbrushes, and practical tools of the trade.

Dieter Roth and Björn Roth, Studio Corner
Dieter Roth and Björn Roth, studio corner

Century is a comprehensive survey of the studio, integrating over one hundred artists across nationalities, genders, ethnicities, and media. The typically large, diverse team of curators have expertly tread the fine line between showing the familiar and accessible, and flinging the viewer into alternative points of view. Everything we see is necessary, never othered or marginalised. 

We first see the artist at work. Documentary photographs of global celebrities like Picasso, Kahlo, Rodchenko, and Giacometti capture the process of creation, and self-conscious poses. Confident self-portraits serve as symbolic assertions of the artist as an artist, efforts at self-definition and identification also explored in the Courtauld’s excellent Van Gogh Self-Portraits. 

Kerry James Marshall, 'Untitled (Painter)', acrylic on PVC panel in artist's frame, 2008
Kerry James Marshall, ‘Untitled (Painter)’, acrylic on PVC panel in artist’s frame, 2008

From the individual, the studio transforms into a common space for collaboration. A warm fireplace pays homage to Bell and Grant’s East Sussex farmhouse, a temporary home to many in the well-known Bloomsbury Group. The domestic location of arts and crafts becomes more political in Chile, with Arpilleras textiles stitched by anonymous women in fierce protest of the authoritarian General Pinochet.

Arpilleras Workshops, Chile, 1970s, and Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant, Studio Corner, installation
Arpilleras Workshops, Chile, 1970s, and Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant, studio corner, installation

The eleven distinct rooms – curated by theme, not chronology – flow into each other, to be consumed at the viewer’s pace. They’re stuffed with subtle juxtapositions, which become strikingly powerful only when you stand back and survey the room as a whole. 

Take Shadi Ghadirian’s ‘Untitled (Qajar Series)’ (1998), a set of solemn monochrome images of Iranian women wearing full dress. They stand directly opposite Tracey Emin’s colour photographs of the naked female body. The point is implicit, about how artists differently interpret or diverge from the same idea to produce entirely different works, depending on the context. 

Francis Bacon, Studio Corner, installation
Francis Bacon, studio corner, installation

Century certainly rivals the Barbican’s Postwar Modern in showing the big beasts of British art, like Bourgeois, Auerbach, and Jalal Shemza. It doesn’t canonise, but humanise, these individuals, inviting us into the private spaces of their studios. Francis Bacon’s passport photographs are pinched from 7 Reece Mews, South Kensington, his home and studio from 1961 until his death in 1992. A hand-scrawled copy book details his desire to curate the ‘highly controlled chaos’ of this dual purpose space. 

Indeed, we see how individual artists all structure their spaces differently. Lisa Milroy’s A Day in the Studio, (2000), a linear canvas comic strip, faces off against Pablo Picasso’s colourful L’Atelier (1955). Again, the point is implicit; there’s no right way to curate or create. 

Common ground comes instead in the idea of creation itself. This enables the works of Barbara Hepworth and Henry Moore to stand comfortably alongside Kim Lim’s sculptures from South East Asia, and Lucien Freud’s small sketches and overwhelming oils to sit snugly side by side. Scrawled in black and red crayon, Egon Schiele’s sparse ‘Office at the Mühling Prisoner of War Camp’ (1916) seemingly offers as much sanctuary to the individual as Ha Bik Chuen’s stuffed studio space in Hong Kong.

Lisa Brice, 'Untitled', oil on trace, 2019
Lisa Brice, ‘Untitled’, oil on trace, 2019

Nothing about Century is didactic. Some works get lengthy captions; for others, a simple label suffices. Room descriptions are confined to a concise guide, which registers its artists by last name, anchoring each space. There’s clear direction, without overlapping or overwhelming reams of information. 

As with their recent Eileen Agar retrospective, the Whitechapel ensures its other galleries accompany the main exhibition. For those seeking more, archive photographs and posters await in Galleries in the Groove downstairs. It too is perfectly curated, though we expect nothing less from the Whitechapel. 

For an exhibition so dependent on individual personalities, the points where the artist is absent are even more striking. Both Darren Almond’s studio livestream, and the empty white walls of Paul Winstanley’s Art School 28 (2014) appear fatalistic, desperate attempts to immortalise disappearing institutions. 

Darren Almond, 'A Real Time Piece', video, 1996
Darren Almond, ‘A Real Time Piece’, video, 1996

But these empty spaces are truly full of promise. They invite us to imagine alternative, more inclusive spaces for the next generation of artists. (Fittingly, the exhibition concludes in the Whitechapel’s own Living Studio, a free-to-access public space filled with materials).

It is impossible to leave Century without feeling inspired to create. It does more than simply show, it encourages us to participate, and create studios of our own.

Jelena Sofronijevic (@jelsofron) is an audio producer and freelance journalist, who makes content at the intersections of intercultural political history and the arts. They are the producer of EMPIRE LINES, a podcast which uncovers the unexpected flows of Empires through artworks. 

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