Image: Rachel Jones | Six gems to see in Tate Britain’s dramatic rehang
lick your teeth, they so clutch, 2021 by Rachel Jones CREDIT: Sam Day, Rod Tidnam
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Rachel Jones | Six gems to see in Tate Britain’s dramatic rehang Alistair Sooke

7 May 2023

It’s comforting to imagine that our ­mus­eums and galleries are unchanging. Certain treasures, we like to think, will always be on display. In reality, of course, public museums exist in a state of flux – and I’m not simply referring to the churn of temporary exhibitions: their ­permanent collections are constantly evolving, too.

Mostly, this process is so slow, it’s almost imperceptible: a tweak here, a modification there. Occasionally, though, the changes are more dramatic – as visitors to Tate Britain will discover later this month, when the gallery on Millbank will unveil a comprehensive rehang of its free collection displays. “Temporary exhibitions get the spotlight,” says the director of Tate’s British art collection, Polly Staple. “But if you’re a museum director, the permanent collection is where you can make your mark.”

Sometimes, this can backfire. The last significant reshuffle at Tate Britain occurred a decade ago, when its director at the time, ­Pen­elope Curtis, revealed a con­tinuous chronological display billed as a “walk through British art”. I liked it, but it proved controversial. She left two years later (though her display remained).

What, then, should we expect of the imminent rehang, instigated by Curtis’s successor, Alex Farquharson? Thankfully (in my book), chron­ology remains an organising principle. “Maybe it’s to do with Tate Britain’s architecture, and the flow you get through the building,” says Staple, “but there’s still a kind of walk, which is chronological.”

En route, though, there will be different emphases, reflecting recent preoccupations and research. Female artists, for instance, will have greater prominence. Likewise, artists of colour, such as the late Guyanese painter Aubrey Williams, who’s being honoured with his own room.

There’ll be several vitrines, too, filled with material providing historical context. “Alex’s big idea is to bring the history of [each] period to the fore,” explains Staple. A gallery of 18th-century art has been hung “salon-style”, so that its many pictures ­jostle for attention, as they did when they were first exhibited.

Tate’s holdings in contemporary art are also being finessed, so that, as Staple puts it, “we have the right works for this present moment”. One aim, she continues, is to “diversify” what’s on the walls, so that “our audiences can see themselves”.

Perhaps most exciting of all, though, almost one-tenth of the 800 or so artworks on display will be new or recent acquisitions – six of which, simply because they’re so brilliant, I’m celebrating here.

lick your teeth, they so clutch (2021) by Rachel Jones

Looks abstract, right? Yet the vibrant squiggles and blotches in this original composition – which resemble fantastical, neon-coloured growths of lichen or underwater coral – coalesce into the outline of a set of teeth. This is a painting that grins back at the viewer; the title of Rachel Jones’s superb solo show at London’s Chisenhale Gallery last year was “say cheeeeese”. Various young black artists today are choosing to work figuratively, often producing portraits – but not Jones, who achieves an uplifting chromatic intensity (which, believe me, can be physically felt upon the eye) with oil stick and pastel.

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