Tate Britain is Changing

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A Land Girl and the Bail Bull 1945 by Evelyn Dunbar 1906-1960I went to Tate Britain to see ‘King Cophetua and the Beggar Maid’ (1880-84), Edward Burne–Jones, having just read Fiona McCarthy’s excellent biography ‘The last Pre–Raphaelite’. It came as a surprise to find the painting in a darkened room sharing the space with Fredrick Watt’s famous painting ‘Hope’ of 1886 while opposite were projected two silent black and white films. The films, made in 1921, were in fact ‘homages’ by joint directors Herbert Blanché and Lejaren à Hiller, inspired by the sentiment and storyline of these two great Victorian paintings. Although not ideal lighting for the paintings, this installation attempts to set these two famous paintings in a broader context. Fredrick Watts – revered in his time as the new Michelangelo – may not have retained his reputation, but Burne- Jones with his narrative inspired romantic medievalism still has a following (ref Arthurian legend, vampire tales, and the latest fantasy television dramas!).

Tate Britain is changing says the promotional blurb and indeed a new hang has just been unveiled to much acclaim. The rooms have now been laid out and the paintings and sculpture displayed chronologically, telling the story of British art through the centuries. Gone is the thematic hang that was previously in fashion and now different styles and approaches share the same space. Soloman J. Soloman’s ‘Eve ‘of 1908, a Victorian symbolist painting, now hangs next to Walter Sickert’s darkly expressionist canvas ‘La Hollandaise’ of the same year. Diversity is the order of the day. Sir Alfred Munnings’, his reputation in tatters having dared to criticise Picasso in a drunken speech and long since banished to the storeroom, now makes a comeback with his painting ‘Their Majesties’ return from Ascot’ (1925). Previously at Tate Britain this subject matter would have been anathema to the politically correct view of what constitutes good art. Shown here it reminds visitors that there are more varied art styles at any one particular time than was previously admitted.
Meredith Frampton's Trial and Error hangs next to Gerald Brockhurst's Portr
A Gerald Brockhurst (a better etcher than a painter), sits happily beside the Meridith Frampton still life ‘Trial and Error’ from the 1930s while jostling with a Ben Nicolson white relief and a great primitive brute of a sculpture by Joseph Epstein. This is refreshing indeed. This new hang has also brought to the fore artists not normally given gallery space at the Tate. James Boswell’s series of lithographs ‘The Fall of London’ (1933) with its imagined scenes of a fascist invasion of London, show how political some artists were at that time. Another artist more usually relegated to the Imperial War Museum as a war artist is Evelyn Dunbar. It is good to see her painting ‘A Land Girl and the Bail Bull’ in company with and sharing the same wall space as a Lucian Freud, an L.S.Lowry and an early Victor Pasmore among others from the 1940s. The 1960’s room has a fine early John Hoyland colour field painting sitting happily between Hockney’s two paintings the ‘Bigger Splash’ and ‘Mr and Mrs Clark and Percy’ and the cool stylishness of the Sixties could not be better served than with a Bridget Riley optically inspired black and white canvas. Good as this hang is, you start to realise that here is where the sharing of space ends as the opportunity to display lesser-known artists recedes.

Of course there are some duds on display. Damian Hirst leads the way with his large black vitrine which houses a cigarette packet, lighter and ashtray sitting on a table and entitled ‘The acquired inability to escape’. Then the average visitor might be forgiven for enquiring why another Bridget Riley painting, this time from her ‘Tie Design’ series is displayed at the expense of other competent abstract artists of the period. Our man at the Venice Biennale, Jeremy Deller, presents a blackboard diagram called ‘History of the World 1997-2004’ which with too obvious a nod to Joseph Beuys, describes in flow chart technique the relationship between acid house and brass band music. As officially sanctioned artists take to the stage, the inclusivity of the earlier hang disappears. However, it’s good to see a figurative painting by Lynette Yiadom-Boakye included, presumably because of her nomination for this year’s Turner Prize. Is she the best young figurative painter we have, or has she been included as a token gesture?

Individual room are given over to certain artists. The best of these must be Jake and Dinos Chapman’s wickedly funny take on African sculpture and the MacDonald fast food franchise, called ‘The Chapman Family Collection’ (2002). Henry Moore is well represented with a number of his sculptures. There is also a room outlining how Art School education was influenced by the introduction of ‘Basic Design’ as a teaching mechanism. Early British Conceptualism is represented by Keith Arnatt’s dull series of black and white photographs, then as we move into the fringes of the art world we come across Rose Wylie’s latest paintings. At the age of 77 this artist has now become an international success. Her paintings however are not to everyone’s taste. They harken back to the Neo- expressionism of the 1980s when the art world was in thrall to Julian Schnabel, Basquiat, Penck and Basalitz. This, combined with her connections to David Bomberg’s Borough School of painters, perhaps explains her cultural connections. She adopts the untutored eye of outsider art, but without their inspired obsessions.

This new hang at the Tate Britain is to be applauded. The initial freshness of the chronological hang promises an honest display of different genre and artists working at the same time. But does it then end up with the same small selection of approved artists? Tate Britain is changing? Well, only superficially.

Top image: Evelyn Dunbar
Mid image: Meredith-Frampton Trial and Error

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