20th April 2001 at 01:00
Centenary Exhibition. Whitechapel Art Gallery. Joanna Carey joins Rothko and Rembrandt for a celebration in the East End of London.

Distilled from a century of Whitechapel exhibitions, this show is full of surprises and startling juxtapositions. Zipping back and forth between Hogarth and Hockney, Burne Jones and Bomberg, Watteau and Warhol, Rothko, Rauschenburg and Rembrandt, it is an exhilarating, unpredictable experience.

On top of all this astonishing visual diversity, there's "The University of the Ghetto", an installation by Rachel Lichtenstein and Alan Dein (one of four new commissions) that uses documentary audio archive material from the Whitechapel Library next door to trace the history of this poor but vibrant, largely immigrant community.

If you've never visited the Whitechapel, take this opportunity to find out what this unique gallery is all about. It was built 100 years ago, the brainchild of Canon Samuel and Henrietta Barnett, Christian Socialists whose purposeful philanthropy inspired them "to bring the finest art in the world to the people of east London". Canon Barnett believed that art would have a civilising effect on the population; he envisaged the gallery as a cathedral offering "sermons on the walls" which, he hoped, would "fill the minds of the people with thoughts to exclude those created by gloom or sordid temptation". He insisted on accessibility; unlike most of our galleries (and cathedrals) Whitechapel has no front steps to climb and it's close to the Underground (Aldgate East).

Although, thanks to its radical and enlightened directors, the Whitechapel became a trailblazer for modern art, the Barnetts' preference was for uplifting history pictures and the Pre-Raphaelites. In 1914 Henrietta Barnett wrote to the then director, Gilbert Ramsey, about his forthcoming exhibition of "Twentieth Century Art" pleading with him not to get "too many examples of the extreme thought of this century, for we must never forget that the Whitechapel Gallery is intended for the Whitechapel people who have to be delicately led and will not understand the Post-Impressionists' or the Futurists' methods of seeing and representing things".

Her fears were unfounded; it was here that the British public began to learn about modern art.

Despite her caution, Barnett was a forward-looking educationist and it was her passionate belief that the visual arts play a vital part in all kinds of learning that inspired the gallery's vigorous education programme. Today, with its free talks, workshops, Inset evenings and after-school activities, that programme caters for primary and secondary schools, community groups, people with hearing and mobility impairments and lifelong learners. The gallery has a dedicated education room and employs three full-time education staff and five part-time artists.

As its senior programmer, Alistair Raphael, says: "The exciting thing about education in a gallery which has constantly changing exhibitions, as opposed to a permanent collection,is that we have to reinvent ourselves with each new show and find new ways of getting into the work."

The young practising artists who work with schools in the London boroughs of Tower Hamlets, Newham and Hackney are all local (as well as working with pupils in schools and the gallery, they offer visits to their studios), and Mr Raphael believes it is crucial that they participate as artists, not teachers.

"Teachers inevitably use a different language to talk about art. We bring artists and teachers together, try to dovetail their experience and abilities. There are fewer and fewer opportunities for professional development in art, so this is great for teachers at every level. How teachers choose to capitalise on this is up to them; there has to be a point at which they take the initiative."

Mr Raphael is clear, however, that "the delivery and interpretation of the curriculum is not our job. We want to see students get the best results, but we can offer something beyond that."

He describes with relish the extraordinary variety of the Whitechapel projects - such as the artist who moved her entire front room into the gallery, including her sofa, desk and computer, and a friend who happenedto be a DJ.

In a recent project, groups of Year 5 pupils from two primary schools, Gallions school in Newham and Ben Jonson school in Tower Hamlets, used Palm Pilot computers to learn about each other without words, emailing their observational drawings to describe their schools, their surroundings and their environment as if to foreign penfriends (not realising that they were neighbours). The early 21st-century computer images, now pinned to the wall in the education room, have the urgent, eloquent simplicity of cave drawings.

Are children overwhelmed by the cultural, historical and visual diversity of the centenary show? "Of course not," says Mr Raphael. "They have an ability to engage with each work individually." And, he explains, because the Whitechapel approach is "non-art-historical" the children are free to react spontaneously and imaginatively not just to the artworks but also to the juxtapositions within the show.

They don't have to be part of a school group to get involved. Every visiting child can take part in a treasure trail, or enter a story competition (prize: a birthday party in the gallery).

Over the Easter holiday, two artists have been creating a vast linoprint on the floor in the education room. The design incorporates images, ideas and memories of the Whitechapel, put forward by local residents (gallery visitors are invited to participate), and the finished work will be displayed in the foyer.

Whitechapel Art Gallery, 80-82 High Street, London E1 7QX. Recorded information: 020 7522 7878. Education service: 020 7522 7855. Website: www.whitechapel.org. The centenary exhibition continues to May 20. Free, closed Mondays. The Whitechapel Art Gallery Centenary Review, an illustrated collection of essays, reviews, comment and analysis, costs pound;8

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