Tate Britain rehang review This reshuffle of Tate Britain’s displays re-energises historic moments that we think we know well
Until recently, a major rehang of Tate Britain’s permanent collection might have been of interest only to museum professionals. Who else cares if a few Turner and Constable canvases have been shunted between rooms? But our great institutions are now in a state of near-crisis, gripped by post-Covid budget issues as well as hot button cultural debates. Questions such as “do treasures like the Elgin marbles need to be returned?” and “where are all the women and artists of colour?” abound. There’s far greater public awareness of what galleries choose to show, and the messages these curatorial choices give to the world.
Nowadays, then, a reshuffle is a significant news story. And with questions of British identity more to the fore, and the country at large more divided than at any time in living memory, the matter of how the national collection of British art – the biggest in the world – is presented, and what it tells us about ourselves, feels suddenly of urgent interest.
I doubt you’ll be surprised to hear that the rehang does indeed include more works by women artists and artists of colour – and more images of people of colour – then ever before. But the new rehang is about a lot more than identity issues. By linking the art to great moments in social and political history (wars, strikes, beginnings and endings of empire) it attempts to refresh and rebrand not only Tate Britain – which has struggled for audiences since the creation of its larger sibling Tate Modern – but British art as a phenomenon, and, by extension, it feels, Britain itself. No shortage of ambition here then.
The opening installation in the imposing central Duveen Galleries is broodingly atmospheric, with a neon-lit mound of rice by London-based Laotian artist Vong Phaophanit and a reverse cast of a synagogue staircase by Rachel Whiteread subtly invoking 20th-century horrors – Vietnam and the Holocaust respectively. Yet overall, it’s a shade low-key for this major rebranding moment. Death-related works by Susan Hiller and Anya Gallaccio fail to really ping.
Indeed, moving into the British historical galleries, you may not at first notice much difference. A roomful of highly decorative Elizabethan and Jacobean portraits looks pretty much as such displays always have done, except for a couple of pieces of very modern luggage dumped on a plinth in the middle of the floor. The work of Palestinian artist Mona Hatoum, resident in London since the Seventies, Exodus II (2001) is a reminder that just about every artist represented in the room was an immigrant to Britain, including Rubens and Van Dyck, and that the immigrant impact on British art – far from being largely post-war – has been ongoing and enormous since the Middle Ages.
Strategically placed works by living artists point to contemporary resonances throughout the historic galleries, though they’re often easy to miss or don’t quite connect. Nils Norman’s wallpaper formed from dissenting political pamphlets frames John James Baker’s The Whig Junto (1710), a large group portrait of the forebears of today’s Liberal party, in a room on the 17th-century struggle between court and parliament. While we should be, I assume, excited at getting a privileged glimpse into the birth of British democracy, what we’re left with is a painting of white men in wigs surrounded by print-outs of historic scraps of paper. Elsewhere, Hogarth’s tumultuous visions of proto-Modern London are woefully underused in a room called Metropolis 1720-1760. “Hogarthian” sleaze is a cliché the curators are clearly keen to avoid, but without it the selection of portraits and views feels painfully static.
But there’s a welcome influx of energy in a room exploring the impact of the first public exhibitions: prior to around 1750 art was seen only in private houses or churches. Works by Reynolds, Gainsborough, Stubbs and Angelica Kauffman cram the walls from floor to ceiling. I never thought I’d find myself feeling grateful for the Royal Academy, but its creation in 1768 clearly gave the stolid British art scene a necessary kick up the arse.
It’s in the later 18th-century sections that the new displays really come into their own. Generally seen as an “Age of Elegance” divorced from dirty reality, the era of the great English portraitists, Gainsborough, Reynolds and their peers, is related here not only to British imperialism, but to huge social and political tensions at home. No opportunity is missed to include images of people of colour from Indian housemaids to leading actors, and to explain their contexts. But classic images of Britain are also reframed. The one painting by John Constable, Salisbury Cathedral Seen from the Meadows (1831), generally seen as a great mystical invocation of the English spirit, is given a more prosaic interpretation: a probable response to the artist’s anxiety about reform in the Anglican church. I had to chuckle. While there will soon be a whole room devoted to Constable, confining him, for the moment, to just one work makes a bracing alternative to doing things the way they’ve always been done.
The historical approach yields fewer surprises in the sections on Early Modernism because the art’s connections to urbanisation and mechanisation are already very well established in the public mind. The polite English modernism of the Bloomsbury Group looks a bit provincial, but then it always does. Yet the new hang still finds space for some surprising detours. Reality and Dreams 1920-1940, a room starting with the return to realism in the aftermath of the First World War drifts into Surrealism in a near-hallucinatory fashion, with a wonderful selection of works by the likes of Henry Moore, Ceri Richards and Eileen Agar seen against walls of a deep mesmerising purple.
The effect of this historical approach is to re-energise moments and movements in British art and culture that have come to feel cosy, predictable and downright dull through over-familiarity. Over on the Modern and Contemporary side of the building, that great super-iconic moment the Swinging Sixties is given a potent respray. Superb works by women artists – Sandra Blow, Kim Lim, Paula Rego (a very good early work) and Pauline Boty – and artists of colour – Frank Bowling and Pakistan-born abstract painter Anwar Jalal Shemza, give us a Sixties as bold and colourful as we could want. But it’s as though we’ve entered through a different door. And there’s still room for works by old white men, including the amazing Gift Wrap (1963) by the long-neglected Richard Smith, with its massive projections, inspired by cigarette packets erupting from the canvas. Hell, there’s even a Hockney.
Tony Cragg’s Britain Viewed from the North (1991), a sideways tilted, wall-filling map of our fair isles formed from discarded plastic, makes a great starting point for a brilliant room on the uneasy Eighties. But the following decade, the YBA era, feels thrown away in a display so understated you could walk through barely noticing it. Damien Hirst is represented by a small sheep in formaldehyde and Tracey Emin by a handwritten text piece. Lords knows we don’t need to see the signature works all over again, and it’s good to be reminded that other things were also happening. But if we’re to have a room on the confluence of “media, money and celebrity”, as the wall text puts it, let’s have it loud and brash.
Which brings us to the present moment, always the hardest period to assess. A colossal metal lathe from Mike Nelson’s fantastic installation The Asset Strippers (2019) signifies the end of industry, while three works representing the sea – which is in many ways the great British subject – provide a poignant coda to this inspiring sprint through five centuries of British art and life. Oscar Murillo shows us the ocean in vigorous abstract painting, Wolfgang Tillmans in hyper-detailed photography and Lubaina Himid in an updated history painting. In her contemporary reworking of James Tissot’s bold celebration of Victorian optimism, The Gallery of the HMS Calcutta (1876), two Black women gaze pensively over the waves. Whichever way you look at it, there’s the sense of choppy waters ahead for all of us. But I dare say you already knew that.