Sunday 11 August 2013

A Love/Tate Relationship

As part of 'Super Saturday', Lily and I took the opportunity to see how Tate Britain have redisplayed their permanent galleries.  As those of you who have been to exhibitions at the Tate recently, the much beloved galleries (where I, and no doubt others, discovered love of the Pre-Raphaelites at a tender age) have been closed whilst a radical rehang took place.

The 1840 room
In the past, pictures were displayed not only in a chronological order but also grouped within 'movements/schools' so there was an actual Pre-Raphaelite room where I often loitered having made a bit of a beeline through everything else to get there.  This has all been replaced by the 'BP Walk through British Art' which works as circuit around the outer perimeter of the upper floor of the gallery.  Rooms flow from 1545 to the present, each room having a starting date cast into the floor as you cross the threshold.  As my choices were 1810, 1840 or 1890 I picked 1840 in my quest to find my old painted friends...

Because there is no longer an emphasis on movements, all art between 1840 and 1890 is eligible for inclusion in the room and there seemed no particular thought in the hanging other than date, or at least I hope there wasn't as some juxtapositions were a little worrying.  For example, in the 1890 room there was a pretty pyramid of the following paintings...

Self Portrait Gwen John

Seated Nude Philip Wilson Steer
The Mirror William Orpen

The positioning of the paintings worked well as they tonally complemented each other and were all pictures of young, attractive women but as your eye traveled across the base of the pyramid to the top, the last woman you saw was Gwen John, not only the model but also the maker of her image.  Hers is not a passive, male-gaze-centric image of womanhood, but a self-portrait and that bump made the viewing experience awkward.  It felt disrespectful to John to have her atop a pile of ladyflesh, female vanity and weakness.

1840 room wall detail
My favourite weird juxtaposition in the 1840 room has to be placing Leighton's snake wrestler in front of the Golden Stairs.  I did some muffled sniggering because in a way the winding form of the snake reflects the stairs, but let's not pretend that was the case.  It did feel like the girls on the stairs were having a giggle at Snake Chap's arse.  Look at the size of his snake!  I'd be sniggering behind my tambourine too.

My main problem with the rehang is this: The reasoning from the Tate site for the rehang is 'you can see a range of art made at any one moment in an open conversational manner.' I think this underestimates the power of movement in art, that your art may have absolutely nothing to do with what your neighbouring artist is doing that day.  By hanging The Girlhood of Mary Virgin next to a painting about the South Sea Bubble by Edward Ward I learn nothing about that year (or couple of years) only that one person was thinking about religious icons and one person was thinking about the South Sea Bubble.  I ended up feeling a bit cheated by the Tate, that they had hung art Tetris-style in a form that would fit together neatly.  There is little or no interpretation offered on the labels, only name, medium, date and artist. 

 I felt there were two especial victims of this hang...
Lament for Icarus Herbert James Draper
Draper's massive work of beauty had the misfortune to be completed in 1898 so was resigned to 1890 onwards room, clashing with the rather more modernist works in both technique and subject.  While it is worth knowing that some artists continued working in the Pre-Raphaelite manner far beyond the lifetime of the original Brothers, no explanation was given as to what on earth Draper was thinking, so in the end it looked like it was a mistake that it had been hung there.

Come on, I'm not labelling this for you
This paled into insignificance if you consider the fate of the poor old Lady of Shalott.  You could hear a whisper across the gallery when people saw her, and even Lily chirped up 'Lady in the Boat!' so we went nearer only to be dazzled by the gallery lights bouncing off the glass.  She's hung up high (the hang is two large pictures high in traditional style) and so you can see her from a distance but as soon as you draw near the light reflects off the glazing.  Que lots of people backing up across the gallery in order to see her.  Lily couldn't see it at all because we couldn't get close enough or at any angle when she wasn't dazzled.  Possibly this was a cunning ruse to stop Waterhouse from being so popular?  I suspect an Ophelia fan was behind it...

Okay, so what did I like?  I loved the art.  Tate Britain has an astonishing collection that is endlessly fascinating.  Even their most familiar works are so fresh when you see them in real life.  They have always championed the Pre-Raphaelites, housing the room full of their works in a period where the reputation of the movement was dodgy and bringing us the astonishing exhibition last year.  This is why I have such a problem with what they have done.  I always get the sneaking suspicion that the Tate are embarrassed by the Pre-Raphaelites or at least have the luxury not to exploit the popular resource that they have nurtured all these years.  As someone who works in heritage I find this incredible, and as someone who studies the Pre-Raphaelites, I find it frustrating.  We have entered a golden period of Pre-Raphaelite appreciation, why dismantle one of the most brilliant focuses of our adoration?

It's free to get into the Tate's permanent exhibition and you can read more about it here.


  1. I hope this isn't a new trend in curatorial practice, as the Hunterian has similarly crowded their walls (and painted them baby blue) in their rehang. While you can't argue with wanting to get more art out there, the point becomes lost if you can't view the work due to the lighting, or the experience becomes confused due to placement. Your first example in particular made me think that the juxtaposition was how one might find such works in a private home... but the Tate has, I hope, a more didactic mission and isn't simply a big building for showing the nation's pretties.

    Great post, as always.

    1. It definitely felt that there was very little thought behind the rehang, which is awful because I'm sure there was *a lot* of thought behind it. I don't mind a big shed of pretty but in such an important museum you can't cut out some of your audience due to disability and bad lighting. I've read loads of great reviews of it in the papers but it seemed that many of them were not specialists or wanted to know more, just to experience the history of art in a designed way. I feel churlish to want my way but I'm sure I'm not alone and it is credit to the Tate's collection that we think they can do so much more with it.

  2. Dear Kirsty
    I am of the 'if it ain't broke, don't fix it' school of thought - placing paintings where the glass causes too many reflections is never a good thing. I understand that sometimes things need to be refreshed and that it can give the viewer a different way to look at things, but do wonder why, in this case, the paintings needed to be placed like this. A thought provoking and interesting post as always - thank you.
    Best wishes

  3. I hope all the modernist stuff has been shipped back to that soulless barn Tate Modern but it seems sadly some has been left behind.
    Also what of King Cophetua? I'm worrying because you didn't mention it

  4. Gosh, let me think. I know there may well be a pre-raph squirrelled away in the 'special' room that I couldn't find (another victim of no signage), but thinking back I can't place it in the room so it might be that it wasn't hung (or was in the secret room). There was some modern-ish stuff, but only what fitted in the 'History of British Art' rooms. Oddly I was alright with the periods I only had a vague knowledge of, but the nineteenth century left me frustrated. Maybe the lesson is that the Tate is now only for people without specialisms...


Many thanks for your comment. I shall post it up shortly! Kx