The recent rehang of Tate Britain’s collections, or Walk Through British art (I censor the distasteful prefix of BP – that ubiquitous sponsor) perpetuates the quintessential nature of a permanent collection: one that aims to discard all subjectivity. In controversially discarding thematic hanging stamped with the curator’s imprint, explanatory captions and other embellishments and opting for a purely chronological hang, the last 500 years of British Art is reduced to its simplest visual form, each gallery delineated by a date emblazoned upon its floor. We are invited to look and seek as opposed to look and be guided. Because this laissez-faire curation encourages us to progress from beginning to end rather than dip in randomly, we are given a curious facility to identify simultaneously both a gradual development of style and thematic content as a whole, and the variations within it. While thematic arrangement can work to the exclusion of other contemporary movements, here the juxtaposition of works irrespective of school arguably allows the greatest degree of illustrative context.
This is most successful in the earliest galleries; the first painting is Lady with a Starling by Holbein ca.1526 (on loan from the National Gallery), yet adjacent is an exceptionally crude panel showing four saints whose faces have been mutilated. Despite the crudity which might otherwise prevent its being shown, the comparison flags up an important passage in Post-Reformation art; the Iconoclasm attacking hagiographic depictions which essentially constricted most artists to painting domestic scenes and portraits, into which categories the majority of paintings in this first room fall.
Similarly, see also the juxtaposition of an example of the Sublime movement – Fuseli’s Titania and Bottom ca.1790 – with William Beechey’s Portrait of Sir Francis Ford’s Children Giving a Coin to a Beggar Boy (exhibited 1793), a domestic portrait. The former is an unnerving hallucination of pixies and fantastical creatures of distorted proportions, exaggerated light and shadow, rendered in paint so thick its surface has bubbled. Part of a series of blackly comic grotesque creations, it contrasts sharply with its neighbour, a cringingly sentimental portrait flattering the patron’s offsprings by depicting their modest generosity in donating to the unfortunate; the paintwork soft, soggy and as limpid as the childrens’ earnest gaze. Their sheer thematic and stylistic differences serve to highlight their respective artistic functions existing in parallel during this one point in time.
Several critics have complained that the hang is unforgiving to individual works; Laura Cumming suggests that a subdued piece by Gwen John is bawled out by its brash neighbours. It is true that the structure of this hang inevitably alienates some pieces, certainly in this aesthetic sense. However if each painting in this enormous three-dimensional web was hung to ensure deliberate comparison, or – inversely – hung visually to find aesthetically complementing juxtapositions, this would defeat the very methodology of hanging chronologically in an attempt to avoid subjectivity. As with Fuseli and Beechey, their very difference highlights the dearth of movements and explorations going on in art at any one time. However I suspect I would be overly sympathetic were I to declare that this hanging according to what physically fits on the wall is a conscious attempt to evoke the identical method used for the historic Royal Academy hangs as mentioned in the history of collecting introducing this show.
It is towards the twentieth century that this structure becomes untenable; due both to the expansion into different media, and to the inexplicable decision to cram the earlier collections into the West wing, reserving the East to the Modern. At least unto this point the visual possibilities present at any one time were confined to two dimensional paintings and the occasional bronze or marble; the range of forms that could be classified as art by the later galleries however introduce so many variables as to hinder constructive aesthetic comparison. The situation is compounded by a kind of gallery Lebensraum; such as the awful naïve daubs of ca.2010 by Rose Wylie which were clearly given disproportionately large wall space by someone with no eyes (see Brian Sewell for a less forgiving opinion). Wylie’s room equals that of Henry Moore’s (incidentally decked out in a grey tone with just enough blue to best complement his bronzes), suggesting her equality to that colossus.
It is pleasing that the hang bridges the gap between historic and contemporary; the ‘greatest hits’ of the YBAs previously at home at Tate Modern are now at the pinnacle of the gallery. Happily, Sarah Lucas, Jake and Dinos Chapman – the best exponents of late 90s British yob culture and satirical commercialism respectively – are present while their vacuous contemporary, Tracey Emin, is not. Unhappily, the presence of the equally vacuous Damien Hirst suggests that he is now unfortunately included in British ‘art history’.
While certainly problematic, this chronological hang is a definitive assertion by Tate Britain as an ‘institution’; presenting British Art with dignity and importance on a par with the heavyweights of the National Galleries. Even the use of uniform grey throughout the hang is a technique copying that of the Musée D’Orsay, the definitive collection of Impressionism et al. What is encouraging above all is that the collection feels newly revitalised and relevant, and essentially more inclusive.