English artist, David Hockney, now living in California, recalls that as a teenager growing up in Yorkshire, located in central England north of London, he often used to hitchhike to London to see the various museums there. There were the Tate, the National Gallery, and a couple other biggies, but there was also one smaller museum he always liked to go to. It was called (then and now) the Whitechapel Art Gallery. Hockney recalls going there to see American Art. During the mid-1950s, it was one of the few places in London where one could do so. There he remembers being "bowled over" by Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, and a bit later, Andy Warhol. And it is there, today, where David Hockney joins these Modern Art icons along with such famous names as Rembrandt van Rijn, J.M.W. Turner, Emil Nolde and Lucian Freud as this modest little art gallery enjoys celebrating its first century of operation.
On March 12, 1901, a Church of England priest, Canon Samuel Barnett and his wife Henrietta opened the gallery with a show of "Modern Pictures by Living Artists." The show lasted six weeks and drew some 206,000 visitors from all over London. In one day, some 16,000 toured the premises. However, Barnett was shocked and disappointed when he counted the contents of the donation box. It amounted to only $487. Despite this meagre showing, the gallery survived. Today, there are hundreds of other, newer galleries in the area, along with a similar number of artists' studios. One hundred years ago, Whitechapel was quite poor. Actually, it still is today. Whitechapel is where London's notorious East End begins, also the home of Whitechapel Road, the favourite haunt of the notorious serial killer, Jack the Ripper around 1888. And then, as now, it had a rather sordid, impoverished look about it. The Whitechapel Art Gallery was opened by the civic-minded priest in order to try and do something about this fault, "...an attempt to fill the minds of the people with thoughts to exclude those created by gloom or sordid temptation."
The Whitechapel Art Gallery was never just locally focused. The first year in operation it hosted an exhibit, "Chinese Life and Art," while the following year it featured an exhibit of Japanese art, and a year or two later, Dutch old masters. During the 1930s, the gallery managed the coup of the century, in snagging Picasso's Guernica for a two-week exhibit (the first and only time the painting was ever displayed in England). Their centennial exhibit reflects this international diversity - 79 works culled from some of the 10,000 shown at the gallery in 725 exhibition over the past 100 years. The current show has had over 22,000 visitors in just its first month. Twentieth century artists such as Robert Rauschenberg, Franz Kline, Jasper Johns, Morris Louis, and Robert Motherwell are shown as well as eighteenth century painters such as George Stubbs, twelfth century Chinese sculpture, and contemporary British sculptors Anthony Gormley and Tony Crag. American video artist Bill Viola is also featured. Hockney credits the gallery's success to its simplicity and humility. It has no front steps; you walk into it right off the street. It's right next door to the Aldgate East subway station. And it's still free, though the donation box has more recently yielded a few more shillings than it did a hundred years ago. And Hockney no longer hitchhikes to Whitechapel.