East London's premier art gallery reopened on Sunday. The Whitechapel Gallery had been closed for a couple of years while it was extended into the library nextdoor, but now it's twice the size and raring to go. And if a wet and gloomy bank holiday is staring you in the face, you might find a visit brightens your day.
To Whitechapel High Street, which means catching the tube to Aldgate East, not Whitechapel. The station's eastern ticket hall has been simulataneously reopened, so you'll emerge onto the street bang in the middle of the gallery's frontage. It all looks rather splendid now that the scaffolding's finally come down, although definitely two very different buildings bolted together. And yes, there was supposed to be a mosaic in that blank rectangle above the entrance arch, but the 1901 architect ran out of money and only now are there plans to (maybe) fill it in.
The entrance is light and welcoming, drawing you inside past the non-ticket desk (no, really, every exhibition's free). Original galleries, straight ahead. There's no dumbing down here. The Whitechapel's always presented challenging artworks to the local community, and the latest headline exhibition is no exception. Its an Isa Genzhen retrospective (no, me neither), packed with a wide variety of reconstituted industrial materials masquerading as sculpture. Vinyl towers, concrete radios, mirrors with pictures of bacon stuck on them, that sort of thing. It's definitely intriguing, with an air of "I could have done that" about it, except you'd never have had the creative gumption to come up with the ideas in the first place. There's three galleries-worth of Isa, and in the old Whitechapel that would have been your lot. Hurrah for the new.
The library half of the building has more of a heritage feel, though still very much part of a spacious whole. Pride of place in the large ground floor gallery goes to a tapestry depicting Picasso's famous Spanish Civil War artwork, Guernica. The original was only ever exhibited once in Britain, here at the Whitechapel in 1939, a few months before the Luftwaffe recreated the scene in the skies above London. It's still a very haunting image, even in woven monochrome, and is now drawing respectful crowds from a new generation. Elsewhere in the room a large circular display case is given over to examples of East End protest materials and propaganda, from 1930s DIY style-guides to G20 demonstration leaflets 2009-style. Do collect a free newspaper from the back of the room, it explains all.
I also savoured the tiny upper gallery displaying Co-op memorabilia and divi tokens. This was part 1 of an exhibition entitled S:Coop, organised by Mexican artist Minerva Cuevas. She's designed a minted token being given out in change at nearby Petticoat Lane Market, and this can be redeemed at a temporary ice cream parlour on Toynbee Road. After my trip to the main gallery I traipsed through the streets of Spitalfields and popped in for a yummy scoop. I appreciated the fact that all the ice creams on sale were white, for revolutionary reasons apparently, and plumped for a tasty lemon curd in preference to elderberry, vanilla or rum and raisin. It's a bonkers idea to try to subvert economic activity with patently uneconomic art, but definitely a concept I'd recommend if you're in the area.
So welcome back to the Whitechapel Gallery. The new building's been expertly designed, and the enlarged spaces create a most sympathetic space for the display of all kinds of art. There's also a very well-stocked bookshop with a quirky and appealing selection, plus a heck of a lot of postcards should you fancy taking the exhibited artwork home with you. The cafe was doing good trade yesterday (top of the menu, red lentil soup), while a rather less lentil-ly dining room opens on the ground floor next week. East London's truly blessed with creativity, so do come celebrate, and make it a habit to come celebrate regularly. (n.b. open late Thursdays) (n.b. closed Mondays)