On the Tate re-hang

May 19 2013

Image of On the Tate re-hang

Pictures: BG

I finally made it to Tate Britain this weekend to see the much-heralded ‘re-hang’. I’m still puzzled about the concept of ‘re-hanging’ the whole gallery, as if our national collection of British art can be shoehorned into some sort of fixed, giant exhibition. But re-hung it is, and very pleasant it looks too. As a building, Tate Britain has at last been fixed. Great credit is due to all those involved.

First, the renovated galleries are a wonderfully comfortable place to view art. The décor is welcoming but not distracting, the lighting is superb, and, best of all perhaps, the pictures are hung gratifyingly low. One can fully engage with every part of a painting, rather than (as is often the case in major galleries), just the bottom edge of a frame. Better yet, there are no ogrous guards waiting to shout at you if you peer in too closely. They even let you take photos. It’s picture viewing heaven.*

Alas, the time spent in this nirvana must be brief, at least for those interested in many of the great names of British art. Of 20 galleries in the BP Walk Through British Art, just five cover the sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. More of a trot, then. The 20th Century, by contrast, is given 11 galleries. 2013 gets a whole room to itself. The imbalance leaves you wondering what Tate Modern is for. Must Tate Britain be Tate Modern-Lite?

Don’t, therefore, go to Tate expecting to see anything other than the briefest highlights of British art from before the 19th Century. You will, for example, find only one portrait by Lawrence (of thirteen in Tate’s collection), one Raeburn (of nine), and two works by Romney (of twenty). Fans of Paul Nash, on the other hand, can enjoy no less than five of his works, and after eight Barbara Hepworths, I stopped counting.

The chronological hang was not, for me, quite the triumph that the critics promised. I can see why, for most visitors so far, it has proved a great success. The layout is easy to follow, and the pictures on display are almost all excellent. But for art history anoraks the hang will be a little under-whelming. It’s nice to see all the old favourites, but there’s precious little that isn’t already familiar from books, posters and websites. It’s a blockbuster display, and, like any display of blockbusters, it leaves you with an overly simplified view of British art. From this chronology, for example, you would never know that pastel was once a popular medium in Britain.

There are further problems with a strict adherence to the rigid timeline, or chronology for chronology's sake. Regular readers won’t be surprised to find that here I shall introduce Van Dyck to illustrate the point. First, it doesn’t help that in the very first room of the re-hang Dobson’s Portrait of Endymion Porter (painted c.1642-5) comes before Van Dyck’s pair of portraits of Sir William and Mary Killigrew (painted in 1638). You would also not know how dramatic an effect Van Dyck had on British art, for in the new hang he is tacked onto the end of the first room and appears almost as an after-thought.

A curator not bound by a strict timeline would be able to demonstrate Van Dyck’s transformative effect on portraiture in Britain (for better or worse, our staple artistic diet until the mid-18th Century) by better using the hang to contrast Van Dyck’s work with the stiff, often characterless and two-dimensional portraiture that existed in Britain before his arrival here in 1632. In other words, most of the art on display in room 1. The pair of Van Dycks on display should really (alongside Van Dyck’s full-length Lady of the Spencer Family, which remains in the basement) be hung at the beginning of the second room, alongside works by artists who are obviously indebted to him, like Sir Peter Lely.

While I can see why the chronological approach is appealing to many (not least to those who find the ‘-isms’ of art history hard to grasp, or even intimidating) it does prohibit making anything but the most basic art historical arguments. Arts institutions used to relish the idea of ‘challenging’ their audience, but in the new label-free, chronological Tate every judgement and response is left up to the visitor. Little attempt is made to question, convince or guide you, for Tate cannot show, by simple grouping of similar works, changes in taste or technique. The new ethos is heralded by Chris Stephens, Tate’s Head of Display, who said ‘Your response is as valid as our knowledge'. As I said in an earlier post, that’s a worrying philosophy for what should be an educational institution. It’s very right-on, but you might as well give up on scholarship entirely. In some cases the lack of a descriptive label can lead to a wholly misleading impression. I suspect most visitors would be interested to know (or at least would like to have the opportunity to know) that the German-born Godfrey Kneller’s Elijah and the Angel [below] was painted before he came to England, and so isn’t British at all. The presence of this woeful picture suggests there was a demand for large-scale religious painting in England in the late 17th Century, when there wasn't.

A final and slightly dispiriting aspect of the new chronological emphasis is that it suggests a permanence of display. I doubt a curator will be minded to change a picture or two if it means rehanging a whole room, just to maintain the strict timeline. In contrast, one of the joys of visiting the National Gallery these days is that the regularly changing hang means you’ll invariably find something new to see. If Tate’s new hang does signal a permanent exile of the great majority of pre-19th Century art to into storage, then I hope that the new director will follow the National Portrait Gallery’s policy of liberally lending those works it does not display to regional museums across the country. For now, however, Tate’s storage facility must be the greatest museum that never was. In that sense, Tate’s re-hang is for me more about what hasn’t been hung. Isn't it sad that so much great art has to be hidden away?

*National Gallery security department, please note.

Update - The Grumpy Art Historian also went round at the weekend.

Update II - a reader writes:

Thoroughly enjoyed reading your thoughtful price on the TB rehang. I've still not had a chance to see the rehang for myself.

You make several good points in your well balanced piece and I am sure that almost nobody that visits the gallery is going to be happy with everything that they see. Quite apart from any issues about decor, labelling, lighting etc. nearly everyone that visits will, for example, tend to favour "historic" over "modern", prefer the eighteenth century to the twentieth, dislike contemporary art, find portraits dull, and so on and so on. This makes objective comment extremely difficult as there is an inevitable tendency to be more likely to like the rooms which contain works of art you prefer and criticise the rooms which contain works of art you don't like at all. This factor has coloured many of the reviews of the new hang.

[BG butts in - the problem being, in the present case though, that it's hardly a level playing field]

There are a few general points that at least merit some thought;

1. Many reviewers have commented on the balance of rooms between older art and modern art whilst seemingly forgetting the Clore galleries which remain mostly dedicated to Turner but now also contain rooms dedicated to Constable and Blake.

2. One factor in what is displayed must surely be what the Tate actually owns - you menion Paul Nash and Hepworth. The Tate has 30 works by Nash and over a hundred by Hepworth whereas for many well known seventeenth and eighteenth century artists the number of works in the Tate collection is significantly lower.

3. I know your piece was about the "Walk through British art" display but there are also the so called Spotlight displays. I don't know if you had time to look at any of these displays but they include rooms dedicated to Constables "The Cornfield", eighteenth century portraits of artists, and two rooms dedicated to works on paper (which is I think a first for Tate Britain). There is also the "Looking at the view display" for anyone pining for a thematic hang.

4. Whilst the layout of rooms in the "Walk through British art" seems to be more or less now as a fixture, I cannot imagine that the works on display in each room will forever remain the same. What is displayed is sure to change over time, whether it be the insertion of the odd new work or the complete rehang of a room. This is especially the case as this display is both new and very large so the curators will inevitably feel in time that not everything "works" as well as it should. I have no doubt that there will be changes in due course and that this will involve works currently in storage finding their way out on to the Tate's walls.

[BG again - here's hoping...]

5. Like it or not modern artworks are more often than not considerably larger than most pre-twentieth century artworks. Quite simpy this means that a room of art from say the 1970's will have significantly fewer art works in it than say one from the 1770's. It isn't therefore arguably "fair" to simply count the number of rooms dedicated to modern versus historical art works.

6. Time marches on - can 1900 continue to be the dividing line between modern and historical works forever? If 1900 was a "sensible" divide 50 years ago should it now be 1930 or 1910? An interesting question, especially given the rate at which contemporary art is churned out these days. There is of course no right answer.

7. However much pre 19th Century art the Tate has in storage there is far more art in storage from later eras.

Update III - another reader writes:

On the labels controversy: many museums used to have plasticized information sheets, sometimes held in practical hand-held frames, which interested visitors could pick up and put down as they moved from room to room; some museums still do; why not more of that? Or do they think this competes with sales of museum guides, including audio guides? My own view is that this information is more likely to tantalize and incite to further purchases, or to serve a somewhat different audience than audio guides...

Update IV - Waldemar likes it very much.

Update V - another reader writes:

First of all, must say I agree with all the aspects mentioned in AHN on the new display of the Tate Gallery. Particularly regarding the chronological arrangement of the gallery - It is always a safe choice and also a useful one when the museum in question has no funds to renovate the rooms often. However when museums have big "gaps" in their collections this sort of approach makes those gaps even more noticeable. Moreover this option might be a bit "dull" or little challenging for some visitors, but sometimes curators do get a bit carried away and make (in my opinion) way too creative associations of ideas.

Update VI - on Twitter, art historian Ben Street nails it in less than 140 characters:

NPG tells the story of Britain much more effectively. But there are joys in new Tate Brit hang, almost all of which are in the early rooms.

Update VII - a reader points out that Tate Modern's remit is very different:

Tate Modern has a different remit which is to show international modern and contemporary art. British artists get included normally only in an international context so the percentage of works on display at TM by British artists is actually quite low [...] just over 11% of the works in the four suites of collection displays at TM (39 works out of 350).

There are also 3 major exhibitions currently at TM but these are all by foreign artists.

Update VIII - a reader makes a valid point about Tate Modern's new expansion:

I have just returned from London where I spent the morning in the Tate Britain - unlike many I found the new hang somewhat dispiriting, especially with the intrusive noises off from the Duveen video installation. Like you I thought the historic / modern quota unbalanced. Why not shunt the 'recent modern' material upriver to TM when their new multi-million extension is built?

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