Lubaina Himid, H.M.S. Calcutta, 2021, oil on canvas, 74 x 96″.
THERE ARE MANY FORKING PATHS, in life as in art, through the social and political construct that is Britain. At Tate Britain, a rehang of the biggest collection of the nation’s cultural patrimony, from the Tudor period to the present, unfolds chronologically across thirty-nine rooms. Divided by the three-hundred-foot-long Duveen Galleries (which are always devoted to temporary commissions or displays), rooms to the west, whose walls are sumptuously colored in hues of deep blue, mahogany, emerald, purple, scarlet, indigo, span from 1545 to 1940. To the east, art from 1940 to today is set against cool shades of gray and white. You can walk any which way, as you could through former director Penelope Curtis’s likewise chronological 2013 rehang, but if you start at the beginning, as I did, three overarching themes are writ large, literally, on the gold-hued entrance wall in white script: “Britain & the World,” “Art & Society,” and “History & the Present.”
Overseen by Alex Farquharson, who was appointed director of Tate Britain in 2015, and director of exhibitions and displays Andrea Schlieker (with whom Farquharson curated the sixth edition of the quinquennial British Art Show in 2005–2006), the rehang was collaboratively undertaken by the institution’s team, with curators working solo or in pairs across suites of thematically organized rooms. Eight years in the making, it is, Farquharson stresses, a collective enterprise, one invested in offering “an account of British art within its historic context, rather than some hermetically sealed, detached offering.” The display, which includes over 800 works by more than 350 artists, renounces the museum’s formerly minimal interpretive style for an emphasis on “storytelling”—about why and how art was made, and how and by whom it was paid for. This is often, predictably (it’s Britain), a tale of commerce and wealth, inequality and exploitation, empire and war; but it is also a complicated long durée of technology, industry, travel, migration, accessibility, education, entertainment, protest, and critique.
Each of the forty spaces is given a title and a set of dates, e.g., “Exiles and Dynasties, 1545–1640,” “Troubled Glamour, 1760–1830,” “Modern Times, 1910–1920,” “In Full Colour, 1960–1970.” Opening rooms make new attempts to foreground the deep-rooted diversity of the nation’s artists and subjects. The recently acquired Portrait of an Unknown Lady, 1650–55, a luminous full-length depiction of a woman in a landscape by Joan Carlile, one of the earliest professional female artists to work in Britain, neighbors two soft, sensuous likenesses by Mary Beale (including one of her husband, Charles, who managed her studio and accounts), another distaff painter of the seventeenth century who found success as a portraitist. Amid familiar elevated subjects, allegories, and history paintings by Gainsborough, Copley, Turner, and Constable, we find portraits of working-class women like Emma Hart (though in his ca. 1782 painting, George Romney casts her as Circe); and Black cultural figures like Francis Barber, the freed Jamaican slave who became Samuel Johnson’s assistant and heir, and Ira Aldridge, the famous African American tragedian who was the first Black Shakespearean actor to perform in Britain. Tellingly, these latter works bear uncertain provenance: manner of Joshua Reynolds, Portrait of a Man, probably Francis Barber, 1723–92, and John Simpson, Head of a Man, probably Ira Aldridge, exhibited 1827.
Manner of Sir Joshua Reynolds, Portrait of a Man, oil paint on canvas, 17 1/2 × 14″.
In several rooms, contemporary artworks have been curated to highlight histories otherwise invisible within the collection. While some are unfortunately a little on the nose (suitcases linked with human tresses as a reminder of migration, a bashed-up Georgian chair as a critique of Georgian-era empire), others afford artful levity and insouciance, even when pointing to matters of hardship and suffering. Pablo Bronstein’s Molly House, 2023, a colorful, openly homoerotic reimagining of the clandestine eighteenth-century gathering spots for gay men, hangs with Hogarth’s paintings and etchings that wickedly satirize the same era. Surrounded by images of wealthy plantation owners in lavish, spectacularly rendered dress, Keith Piper’s Lost Vitrines, 2007, imagines handbooks, manuals, and resistance toolkits for slaves of the Georgian era. Ruth Ewan’s We could have been anything we wanted to be (red version), 2011, an analogue clock modified to follow the French Republican calendar (ten hours a day, 100 minutes an hour, 100 seconds a minute) ticks above biting, comical prints by James Gillray that lampoon both the Tories and the Whigs of late 1700s for their failure to quash revolutionary sympathies in Britain.
Alongside Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood favorites by John Everett Millais and Dante Gabriel Rossetti (John William Waterhouse’s The Lady of Shalott, 1888, is on loan to Falmouth Art Gallery for an upcoming exhibition about Arthurian legend), other favorites old and new(ish) are on display: Sickert, Whistler, Sargent, Moore, Hepworth, Bomberg, Epstein, Freud, Bacon, Hockney, Riley. Victorian bangers The Derby Day, 1856–58, by William Powell Frith, and the bizarre and extraordinary The Great Day of His Wrath, 1851–53, by John Martin, remind us that the exhibition was once a major purveyor of mass entertainment. The former occasioned queues round the block, a protective barrier, and a police presence when shown at the Royal Academy in 1858, and the latter toured England and America to much acclaim.
Tastes change (Martin’s apocalyptic painting, part of a triptych, fell out of favor and was sold in 1935 for £7) and are, above all, always idiosyncratic. For me, the most profound moments with the collection were found in quiet configurations of works with tantalizing connections at once cultural, aesthetic, and biographical. Jeremy Deller’s installation, in the Pre-Raphaelite room (“Beauty as Protest, 1845–1905”), of William Morris family materials, including his socialist pamphlets and Honeysuckle embroidery, 1880, an elaborate floral pattern in silk thread on linen, made with his wife, Jane, and daughter Jenny. Aubrey Beardsley’s delicious, bawdy 1894 drawings placed near postcards of the Canadian dancer Maud Allen dressed as Oscar Wilde’s Salome, a performance that prompted the MP Noel Pemberton Billing to accuse her, in an article titled “The Cult of the Clitoris,” of being a lesbian spy for the Germans (she sued him for libel and lost, her career in ruins). The defiantly drab impressionism of The Chintz Couch, ca. 1910–11, by Ethel Sands, facing Nina Hamnett’s severe and tightly framed The Landlady, 1918 (on loan from a private collection). Large, vivid canvases by Pauline Boty and Frank Bowling hung close together as they might have been at the Royal College of Art, where the two painters studied in the late 1950s and early ’60s.
Ethel Sands, The Chintz Couch, ca. 1910–11, oil paint on board, 18 × 15″.
As the collection marches toward the present, works of art are no less rich and poignant, but the displays are less deftly curated. Does proximity heighten the vastness of a time—explode the myth of an “era” as a coherent span?—making it aesthetically jagged, wild, uncontainable? The last half of the twentieth century exhibited is sometimes awkward and artless in its arrangement, more like flipping through a book (written by someone with an extreme distaste for film and video art) than walking through a considered physical space. Nonetheless, solo displays of Richard Hamilton, Aubrey Williams, Hamad Butt, and Zineb Sedira give an exciting sense of the heterogeneity that underpins contemporary British art. A room devoted to “Creation and Destruction, 1960–66” foregrounds artists involved in Gustav Metzger’s 1966 Destruction in Art Symposium along with kinetic sculpture and the legacy of Signals gallery (cofounded by Metzger, Guy Brett, Paul Keeler, David Medalla, Marcello Salvadori). An exhibition of this anarchic set of practices (wonderful to see work here by Liliane Lijn and Takis) is long overdue. Likewise, varieties of conceptual photography, collage, and assemblage from the 1960s to ’80s—Rose Finn-Kelcey, Stephen Willats, John Latham and the Artists Placement Group, Cecilia Vicuña, Jo Spence, Linder, Ingrid Pollard, and Susan Hiller—suggest new and surprising ways of thinking about decades frequently dominated by other modes and markets.
Chris Ofili, No Woman, No Cry, 1998, acrylic paint, oil paint, polyester resin, paper collage, map pins, elephant dung on canvas, 96 x 72″.
No rehang at Tate, even before its 2000 bifurcation into (the not mutually exclusive) Britain and Modern, has been without controversy. The place of the modern and the international; the creation and championing of a uniquely British canon, the art of the colonies; the role of contemporary politics; questions historiographical, genealogical, and thematic—to avoid or embrace the “MoMA idiom,” developed under Alfred H. Barr Jr.!!—have been argued over at various turns. Walking through display after display—many of which are rather English affairs—I wondered if today’s ongoing anxieties and arguments about national identity in the UK, its fractured uncertainty and combative self-consciousness, has to do with the fact that Britain also colonized itself, honing its methods on domestic populations before exporting them abroad. As Walter Benjamin wrote in On the Concept of History, “every image of the past that is not recognized by the present as one of its own concerns threatens to disappear irretrievably.” A smattering of reviews, both positive and negative, of the newly curated collection affirm general truths about culture, identity, nationhood, and history in contemporary Britain, as elsewhere: You can see what you want, or you can open your eyes.
For those displeased to see the YBAs afforded only half of a room entitled “End of a Century, 1990–2000,” there’s a Sarah Lucas retrospective in September. Others will be refreshed and moved to see relatively recent acquisitions like Sutapa Biswas’s tender partial nude of her sister, To Touch Stone, 1989–90, and Mona Hatoum’s Present Tense, 1996, a floor sculpture of olive oil soap squares embedded with red glass beads that map the 1993 Oslo Peace Accord–defined territories to be returned by Israel to the Palestinian people, sitting next to Chris Offili’s No Woman, No Cry, 1998. Offili’s portrait of Doreen Lawrence has not lost its devastating power as she and her husband Neville continue to campaign, in memory of their son Stephen, against enduring structural racism within the Metropolitan and wider British police forces.
Mona Hatoum, Present Tense, 1996, soap and glass beads, Displayed: 2 × 91 1/2 × 113 1/2″.
Curatorially, the wheels come off in “The State We’re In, 2000–Now”—where exciting new acquisitions are arranged in a lumbering, open-ended display seemingly unmoored from history. Mike Nelson’s hulking industrial-relic The Asset Strippers (Elephant), 2019, is denuded without its phalanx of counterparts that stretched so arrestingly through his Duveen gallery commission of 2019; it also dwarfs quieter works nearby, including Lynette Yiadom-Boakye’s joyous portrait of an imagined woman in a black-ruffed shirt, Razorbill, 2020, and Mohammed Sami’s Electric Chair, a spare 2020 painting of Saddam Hussein’s gilded throne empty of its sitter (a haunting nod to Warhol’s wry “Death and Disaster” series). For some gallerygoers, these works will be familiar from exhibitions at (predominantly London-based) public spaces over the past decade; for others, this might be a first encounter in which the collective center fails to hold. It’s hard to think of a framework that might give useful shape to a room tasked with reflecting 2000 to “now” (growing later by the second), but “recent acquisitions” doesn’t quite do it.
Wolfgang Tillmans, The State We’re In, A, 2015, inket print on paper and binder clips, 106 x 159 1/2″.
Is it possible to make sense of the discombobulated present as it unfolds in real time? I can think of worse things for Britain (the recent £125 million cost-of-living-crisis coronation comes to mind) than the sense of reckoning that nonetheless underpins some of the strongest works in this final room. In one corner, The State We’re In, A, 2015, a huge photograph of the Atlantic Ocean by Wolfgang Tillmans, hangs next to Lubaina Himid’s H.M.S. Calcutta, 2021, a reimagining of James Tissot’s 1876 painting of the same name. Himid replaces Tissot’s three white figures with two black women in colorful modern dress, the waves beyond them choppy and rough, like those that dominate Tillmans’s inkjet print, with just a slim horizontal of gray sky visible above the dark waters. In both works, the vastness of the sea, its long horizon, beckons, overwhelms, terrifies, dazzles, promises—what? Something we’re looking for, something we still can’t see. A country fluid and in flux, an island nation defined in so many ways by the tides, real and conceptual, that ebb and flow around it.
Millbank, where Tate Britain stands, is so named for the Westminster Abbey–owned watermill that once stood on the marshy site. Later, it was a Cromwellian internment camp for Royalists waiting to be sold as slaves to merchant traders; the first modern prison, adapted from Jeremy Bentham’s failed panopticon design; and a holding place for convicts being sent to Australia. When it was destroyed, the penitentiary’s bricks were used to construct the Arts & Crafts Millbank Estate, one of London’s earliest social housing schemes, with its sixteen buildings named after significant artists: Hogarth, Turner, Gainsborough, Rossetti, et al. In 1928, 1953, and 1967, the Thames, T. S. Eliot’s “strong brown god,” breached its banks and flooded the basement and ground-floor galleries of Tate Britain. The barrier has since been shored up, but (après moi, le déluge) we still live by the river.
Emily LaBarge is a writer living in London.