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July 2023

Vol. 165 / No. 1444

At Tate Britain

It is now nearly a quarter of a century since Tate made the division of its displays between British art on Millbank and modern and contemporary art at Bankside. In that time, the permanent collection shown at Tate Britain has been comprehensively redisplayed four times. An Editorial in this Magazine in 2000 on Tate Britain’s inaugural hang criticised the decision to abandon chronology in favour of thematic groupings (such as ‘landscape’, ‘the nude’ and ‘city life’) in imitation of Tate Modern, and concluded, ‘the opportunity must be seized to present a comprehensive, well-paced, beautifully hung, chronologically based and intellectually coherent conspectus of the development of British art’.[1] Each of the rehangs since then has achieved at least some element of that, but all have fallen short of the ideal, and the latest, unveiled on 23rd May, is no exception. 

The 2000 rehang lasted only eighteen months, as another was required when in 2001 Tate Britain completed its centenary extension. This restored a chronological hang, interspersed with rooms dedicated to thematic and monographic displays, and there the collections largely rested until the radical rehang carried out in two phases in 2012–13, during the directorship of Penelope Curtis. Chronology was largely observed, but the works were expected to speak for themselves: interpretation was minimal, with few wall texts and limited changes of pace between the galleries, which were largely painted the same bluish-grey. 
The latest rehang is a near-complete swing of the pendulum. The curators deserve high praise for the clarity of the layout and design of the galleries, which guide visitors through the history of British art from 1545 to 2000 using prominent room names and a varying palette of rich and generally successful wall colours to mark changes of century or decade. The works are hung with agreeable spaciousness and at a thoughtful pace. Only occasionally can the display be seriously faulted. In Room 2 the wall surrounding John James Baker’s enormous group portrait The Whig Junto (1710) is covered with photographs of eighteenth-century political pamphlets to ugly and distracting effect and in the small, square Room 4, paintings – which include major works by Joshua Reynolds – are claustrophobically hung from skirting board to ceiling, presumably to suggest a historic Royal Academy display, although the absence of any wall text or labels means that it will mystify many visitors if they miss the folders in which the information appears.  
This brief absence of curatorial exegesis may, however, come to some as a welcome relief, given the abundance of it elsewhere. The displays have served one unexpected function, that of dissolving the polarised debates of the so-called culture wars, since the relentless moralising of the wall texts and captions, which emphasise the themes of colonialism, slavery, racism and misogyny to an ultimately upsetting degree, have been criticised by all shades of political opinion. Tate’s curators have always tended, in their exhibitions as well as permanent displays, to treat works of art primarily as social documents, but here their enthusiasm for using art as a way of drawing attention to the evils of the past has tipped over into self-parody. 
The difficulties the curators face in linking art with history comes to the forefront in the galleries devoted to the eighteenth century. In the wall text for Room 5, ‘Troubled Glamour’, it is conceded that paintings by such artists as Thomas Gainsborough and George Stubbs ‘promote a sense of harmony, order and elegance’, but we are then forcefully reminded that this was a time in which Britain’s power was based on ‘the toil of workers in fields and factories, the sacrifices of people in the army and navy, the unpaid labour of enslaved Africans in Caribbean plantations, and the military and commercial exploitation of people across India’. The problem with this observation is that we are in an art gallery, not a history lecture, and the question is therefore how the art on show, which depicts almost none of these things (with the principal exception of military endeavour), is to be understood. Since no effort is made to address that point, the conclusion seems to be invited that these paintings are simply a glamorous lie. Why does Tate insist on taking this line? So far as we can recall, the National Gallery does not remind admirers of Uccello of the harsh lot of agricultural labourers in fifteenth-century Tuscany, nor does the Wallace Collection accompany Rubens’s Rainbow Landscape with labels referring to the migrant crisis caused by the Thirty Years’ War. Amid the virtue signalling so prominently on display at Tate, one virtue is notably absent, namely humility: the present has much, it is implied, to teach the past. 
The narrative offered in the texts that accompany the rehang raises acutely the fundamental question of intepretative authority. Room I, on art between 1545 to 1640, is promisingly titled ‘Exiles and Dynasties’, evoking memories of Tate’s (not yet Tate Britain’s) groundbreaking exhibition Dynasties: Painting in Tudor and Jacobean England 1530–1630, held in 1995–96.[2] There are in fact few dynasties on view – monarchs have a low profile in the rehang – but exile and migration are emphasised, not least by that cliché of modern museum displays, the insertion of contemporary works of art among historic ones. In this case it is Exodus II by Mona Hatoum (2002), thus relegating a major artist’s work to the status of a footnote. The introductory wall text begins: ‘The grand portraits in this room tell stories of migration and power’. The overriding problem of the interpretative element of the rehang is the way that it strains to translate works of art into ‘stories’. On whose authority are we to believe these stories? 
In the rehangs in 2000 and 2001 the wall texts were signed by the relevant curators, whereas now they are anonymous. If the present wall texts had been signed by the curators – or indeed by expert historians, which in the end the curators are not – it would be clear that these excathedra statements have sources that can be debated or challenged. This point resurfaces in the decade-by-decade presentation of post-war art. In the room allocated to the 1980s, for example, inevitably titled ‘No such Thing as Society’, the indictment of the Thatcher years – the miners’ strike, unemployment, police brutality, Section 28 and so on – can be defended on the grounds that these were the issues to which artists responded (although those who took a different line, notably Gilbert & George, are absent). However, it ignores the reality that Margaret Thatcher won three general elections, two with very large majorities, and so it is likely that some of Tate’s audience voted for her. Embrace of diversity does not, here as so often in the arts, extend to troublesome political diversity. Yet the main regret about the jejune historical and social narrative offered by Tate Britain is that it distracts attention from what is in visual terms – the only terms that in this context ultimately matter – largely a beautiful and harmonious presentation of a great collection of works of art. 


[1] ‘Editorial: The Tates: structures and themes’, THE BURLINGTON MAGAZINE 142 (2000), pp.479–80, at p.480 

[2] Reviewed by Catherine MacLeod in this Magazine, 138 (1996), pp.41–43.