Tate Britain has thrown off a century’s shackles and launched itself on the future. With the international modern collection gone, it is one of the world’s largest museums devoted to the art of one nation. The old disjunction between modern and historical collections has vanished, and the long process of showing the building’s strengths introduced by Nicholas Serota over the past decade reaches its culmination next year. For the moment at least a modernist ethic prevails and the uncluttered interiors are painted almost uniformly in battleship grey. This is a significant decision: Tate Britain becomes a laboratory.
For the next year the gallery has a revolutionary picture hang. Arrangements based on history or the established canon of artists have been abandoned for thematically inspired rooms exploring such trusty subjects as The Land, City Life, Word and Image, The Nude, The Artist’s Studio. Works of every available period are brought together in a series of mini-exhibitions—even though the promised introduction of sculpture pre-1900, works on paper, photographs is yet to come. The appearance of a couple of satirical mugs, beside caricatures, in the lively and focused gallery devoted to depictions of Roast Beef Englishness, suggests the impact these additional media will make.
This is not the first time that paintings have been shown by subject rather than period or school. In eighteenth century, Old Master exhibitions in the Luxembourg Gallery in Paris, pictures of different schools and styles were juxtaposed to shock the student into attention. Recently, the Museum of Modern Art in New York has been rethinking the accepted twentieth-century version of art history. But never before has a major collection been hung completely on these lines.
Inspired by developments in art-historical studies over the past twenty years, Tate Britain has abandoned the accepted canon of taste, the study of developing styles and of individual artists—in favour of the “interplay with the social worlds from which they came and with ideas under debate in Britain now”.
Some of the themes work. The room devoted to depictions of artists illustrates the egotism and self-obsession of many practitioners. The Nude room offers some revealing contrasted approaches to the human body.
But in many instances it is hard to see what message is being conveyed. In spite of the project’s ambitions, the desire to present difficult ideas in a cheerily accessible way results in a lack of intellectual toughness, suggested by a label (on the Nude) which informs us that, “Despite their different approaches, all the artists shown here share a fascination with the capacity of the work to convey some essential truths about human existence.”
This bland observation might apply to many of the rooms since, in spite of some happy ideas, it is often difficult to grasp why works have been brought together.
To take a few examples: in the Land gallery, Turner’s “Bay of Baiae” of 1823 is happily shown next to a depiction by Karl Weschke of “The Nile near Kom Ombo”, with the river seen against an unyielding yellow river bank, the starkness of the recent work emphasising the elaborateness of Turner’s composition.
The portrait room, on the other hand, is particularly surprising, and though some ideas emerge, it is hard to see what is gained by hanging Hambling’s blowsy and self-indulgent portrait of Frances Rose next to Hogarth’s acutely-observed portrait of Hoadly, a venal bishop.
In various corners hang groups of works dedicated to specific artists. The traditional hermetic representation of Turner has been broken, so that the Clore Gallery is now prefaced by a room devoted to Constable, while some Turners are dispersed around the building.
Hogarth and Gainsborough may represent the eighteenth century and Hockney the 1960s, but Ben Nicholson seems an insubstantial choice to stand for the earlier twentieth century (if that is what he is doing—it’s not made clear).
Poor Henry Moore, currently unfashionable though he may be, surely deserves to be better represented, as do a whole range of later twentieth-century British artists. Abstract art, which is tiresomely short on themes, is hardly to be seen.
For all the gallery’s claims to be examining notions of Britishness, there is little sense here of what is particular to British art, surely a theme the displays should explore and even, conceivably, celebrate.
The question that arises from this is the responsibility of a national collection. The abandonment of rigid chronological categorisation is potentially stimulating. What is not stimulating is that, while this display theoretically abandons elitist concepts, it actually represents a stronger curatorial intervention than any other type of museum hang. We are never allowed to look for ourselves, or contemplate since it is hard to concentrate on pictures which have such peculiar neighbours. And it is harder to evolve any academic argument or to understand a period.
How far is it acceptable that a national collection should become the plaything of the museum staff at the expense of the works of art and the public? Let us hope for better in the future.
Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as ‘Tate Britain: a plaything for the staff?'