Monday, 12:00am
14 May 2007

The writing on the gallery wall (Web only)

Sara Fanelli’s hand-lettering makes the Tate Modern more user-friendly, but what does it say about the art inside?

By Rick Poynor

Written exclusively for

Graphic design’s role in museums of art is generally no more than functional and only special exhibitions offer scope for striking creative departures from the norm. The typography used in directional signs and wall captions for the permanent collection will certainly have a style of some kind, which might convey a subliminal message about the nature of the institution. It will not as a rule have any larger expressive purpose and it won’t become a focus of attention in its own right.

Sara Fanelli’s hand-lettering for London’s Tate Modern, introduced in 2006 as part of a re-hang of its permanent collection, is therefore something of a watershed. It appears on the entrance walls of the four galleries on levels 3 and 5: Poetry and Dream: Surrealism and Beyond; Material Gestures: New Painting and Sculpture, 1945-1960; States of Flux: Cubism, Futurism, Vorticism; and Idea and Object: Around Minimalism. Working with Marina Willer, the creative director of Wolff Olins, she has also drawn a 40m timeline of modern art, which runs along the concourse walls on both levels, connecting the gallery entrances.

Here graphic design is used as a way of ‘packaging’ the visitor’s environmental experience of modern art and making it appear more accessible. The crucial difference from previous attempts to open up art for the widest possible audience – and, with more than 4 million visitors a year, Tate Modern’s audience could scarcely be wider – is the use of hand-made marks rather than formal, corporate-looking typography.

As one of Britain’s most prominent and successful illustrators, Fanelli is an astute choice. She is popular with designers, belongs to the AGI (Alliance Graphique Internationale) and was appointed an honorary Royal Designer for Industry in 2006. Her work will be familiar to Tate Modern visitors from her Pizza Express menus and Penguin book covers – as well as her books such as Dear Diary and Mythological Monsters, where her childlike handwriting brings winning charm to her illustrations. She has also done work for Tate Britain and, in autumn 2007, Tate Publishing will launch Sometimes I Think, Sometimes I Am, an artist’s book composed of her collages, drawings and paintings.

Fanelli’s gallery entrance designs consist of keywords in capitals – authenticity, colour field, anxiety, improvisation, sublime – surrounded by the names of artists found in the gallery: Rouault, Bacon, Dubuffet, Rothko, Asger Jorn, Tacita Dean (these examples are from Material Gestures). The white vinyl letters are applied directly to the dark grey wall (a few are already missing). The names look like signatures, while the concepts are given different graphic emphasis, presumably for the sake of variety, rather than to convey any particular idea. In ‘Existentialism’, Fanelli intersperses small caps with long, spider-like letters; she renders ‘Consciousness’, the smallest keyword in its group, in caps of even height, again for no obvious reason.

Whether this is an effective way of delivering information is questionable, since there are no links between the concepts and the artists whose work enshrines them. The aim is visual excitement. Fanelli’s handiwork does impart a strong sense of humanity, though, and I saw several people taking pictures of the walls. According to Tate Modern, the handwritten timelines, which dominate the concourses, are intended to reflect ‘the dynamic nature of twentieth-century art history’ – a history that is capable of constant re-evaluation and adjustment. When I brought home the printed version available in the shop, my teenage daughter, who likes art, asked immediately whether she could have it. With a more objective appearance, with meticulous sans serif typography, the timeline would be much less appealing.

For anyone already familiar with the history of modern art, this pill-sugaring presentation could seem not only redundant but also patronising. Devoting hundreds of square metres of wall space to friendly hand-lettering implicitly acknowledges that many people are more comfortable with applied art, in the shape of design and illustration, than with fine art, while underlining the idea that Tate Modern is a fun place for a family day out. But this is not the only factor at play. At Tate Modern, the sponsor’s name, UBS, leaps out at every turn, and the collection is even labelled ‘UBS Openings: Tate Modern Collection’, with the financial services company claiming to share the gallery’s mission to deliver art to the masses. The effect is to make Fanelli’s well-meaning decorative embellishments look like just another sign of a commercial intrusion entirely at odds with the values embodied by much of the art on display.

Picture credits:

Design: Ab Rogers Design

Illustrator: Sara Fanelli

Photograph: Morley Von Sternberg