Trouble at Tate Britain (ctd.)

March 10 2015

Image of Trouble at Tate Britain (ctd.)

Picture: Guardian

In The Spectator, Jack Wakefield echoes Waldemar Januszczak's call last year for Penelope Curtis, the director of Tate Britain, to resign. Wakefield's demand follows what he says are a series of particularly poor reviews for Tate Britain's latest exhibition, Sculpture Victorious [about British sculpture in the Victorian age]:

[...] she has presided over a stinker of a blockbuster. Sculpture Victorious has been panned across the board.  The Guardian’s good art critic, Adrian Searle, labelled it ‘an epic fail’ and Richard Dorment, who is not only the Telegraph’s chief art critic but also an eminent scholar of Victorian sculpture, wrote the worst review I have ever read. He takes issue with the conception — ‘an extended academic lecture …deadly dull from start to finish’; the curation — ‘these dolts don’t realise …that exhibitions … are above all visual experiences’; and the scholarship — ‘hot-air generalisations that veer between the banal …and the meaningless’.

Dorment's review is indeed a stinker, and he was particularly narked by an error in the catalogue:

To give one example: twice it is stated that Alfred Gilbert’s failure to finish a royal commission (the Tomb of the Duke of Clarence at Windsor) led to his resignation from the Royal Academy. In fact, he was asked to resign several years after that incident, when a client complained to the President of the RA that Gilbert would or could not produce a commission for which she had already paid a large advance.

The reason I know this is that I’ve written both a life of Alfred Gilbert and the catalogue of an exhibition about him at the Royal Academy. Both are readily available – but in libraries, not Wikipedia .

This is junk scholarship. The people who write this stuff have plenty of theories about art but, in my view, not the kind of knowledge that qualifies them to work in a museum or gallery.

I couldn’t care less when they to publish their low-grade, pseudo-historical twaddle in periodicals no one reads. But to see it in a catalogue published by a respected institution like Tate is depressing, because it will now be repeated over and over until it becomes the accepted view of Victorian sculpture.

I haven't seen the show, but the first review I saw, Laura Cumming's in The Observer, makes the point that alas Victorian sculpture itself can be very variable. So perhaps those who didn't like the exhibition should blame the art on show instead. And then here's Martin Gayford in The Spectator (natch) calling the show 'entertainingly barmy'.

Anyway, one eccentric exhibition is no reason to sack a director. Personally I find there's something grating about rounding on Curtis like this. It is true that exhibitions at Tate Britain have taken a new direction, and there have some been some notable casualties of the more 'thematic' approach, such as the show on iconoclasm, which was always going to be impossible to pull off (though personally I liked it). I thought an early show of the Curtis reign, Migrations, was weak. But more recently the folk art exhibition was considered a success, and must be viewed as evidence of what can be achieved when exhibitions are approached from a novel angle. Is it perhaps the case that some art critics are a little behind the times? And the latest Turner exhibition ticked all the boxes you'd expect from a Tate show.

On top of all this, we have to accept that Tate Britain itself - that is, the building - is today in better shape than it has ever been. Overseeing the comprehensive restoration of the galleries, new basement areas, and a new entrance, was a great achievement.

This isn't to say that there aren't many things old stick-in-the-muds like me (and The Burlington Magazine) consider to be wrong at Tate Britain. The much vaunted 're-hang' looks nice, but doesn't show nearly enough pre- 20th Century art; having labels with no explanatory information on them is just silly; too much art is kept in storage; the shamefully unnecessary departures of a score of talented and scholarly curators, and the consequent loss of expertise; the refusal to engage with wider debates on attribution; the insular institutional responses to perfectly legitimate requests for information (such as the latest hoo-ha over BP's sponsorship), and so on. But many of these are part of a wider institutional problem, and it's still not too late to fix some of them. We must live in hope...

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