A Tale of Two Tates

I recently visited the new BP sponsored re-hang of British art at the Tate Britain. A few days earlier I had read about it online, and had the obligatory rant at why the odious BP continue to be associated with art at all. However, having now visited the exhibition I believe they have something only too appropriate for their flowery logo to appear on. The exhibition is dire, tedious and boring. It has been curated with such little imagination that it feels like a motley collection of tat hastily arranged on a trestle table at a boot-sale instead of an inspiring collection of great art. The only guiding principle is chronology. Chronology, chronology, chronology. For Brian Sewell, writing in The Standard, this effectively creates a schizophrenic exhibition, with the historical art of notable significance and beauty confined to the first third of the exhibition’s stroll through all things British. He dismisses the remaining two-thirds of the exhibition which consists of contemporary art, a view I have some considerable sympathy with. However, it isn’t the real disgrace here. The disgrace is just how deeply stupid the whole arrangement of the art is. In the earlier parts of the exhibition this results in the monotony of historical chronology distracting from some truly wonderful work, in the latter parts it becomes more fragmented and downright stupid. The overall feeling is one of deep boredom and depression. For example, Francis Bacon’s extraordinary 1972 Triptych painted in the aftermath of the death of George Dyer is now consigned to a 1970’s room where it sits amongst the detritus of spectacularly poor conceptual art. Worse, it is situated on the wall between the entrance to the 1960’s and the 1980’s rooms, effectively a corridor. So when you try and stand the requisite distance needed to view the entire triptych (and avoiding the oversized “sculpture” of a bead necklace on a plinth paced right in front of it) one is treated to a steady flow of increasingly bored looking spectators quite rightly skipping between rooms. As Sewell quite rightly observes, the later part of the exhibition is more cluttered and heavily loaded with the Tate’s acquisitions of British contemporary art, and much of it is deeply shoddy and poor. Mark Wallinger, Emin, Lucas, Chapman Brothers, and the appalling room filled with dire canvases by Rose Wylie, a painter who most five year-olds really could paint better than. This is truly art that belongs to BP, and they’re welcome to it. Whilst the division on show may be, as Sewell argues, ‘extraordinarily and inexcusably unbalanced’, the tedious chronology behind the entire exhibition is about as convincing as one of BP’s marketing brochures trumpeting their ‘green’ credentials.

Genuinely magnificent works are of course contained here – Gainsborough, Stubbs, Turner, Nevinson, Lewis, Lowry, Freud, Bacon, Brandt, McCullin, McQueen. But they’re submerged in the sheer tedium of chronology. My advice, don’t take the BP stroll. Instead, plan ahead works that you want to see and skip around between them. Fuck the chronology. Of course, as with the Bacon, the hanging and the arrangement of the work may well mitigate one’s ability to even be able to properly view the gems on offer. For me the most pleasantly memorable aspect of the entire visit was the Cafe. Was it a BP sandwich…?

Depressed by my visit to the Tate Britain, I decided on the next day to pay a visit to the Tate Modern. This is a gallery I usually avoid like the plague. But I wanted to visit Rothko’s Seagram murals, which I haven’t seen for a couple of years. So needs must. As well as being stunned again by the meditative glory of these canvases, I was really surprised by the imaginative and refreshing curatorship on offer, particulary when compared with the chronological sterility of Tate Britain. Instead of a tedious historical chronology, there are a series of thematic taxonomies – Structure & Clarity, Energy and Process, Transformed Visions, Poetry and Dream, and Word, Sound, Power. There were some really original and startling decisions on show within these themes, for example hanging Turner’s ‘Yacht Approaching the Coast‘ and Kandinsky’s ‘Lake Starnberg’ in close proximity to Rothko, and hanging a huge Monet Water-Lillies painting in proximity to Richter’s vast ‘Cage’ canvases. The latter was truly inspired, and enabled one to revisit both artists anew. Monet’s limpid and abstract depiction of nature vibrates with a celebration of layered colour, and contrasted beautifully with Richter’s huge smudged and scraped grids of vibrant colour. Both are wonderful celebrations of the affectivity of paint, concentrations of attention to the surface of the canvas and the depths of feeling. This is genuine curatorship at its very best. Whilst there is an equal amount of contemporary conceptual tat on show in some of the rooms, and the surrealist and cubist art on show in Poetry and Dream is particularly as cluttered, overfamiliar and dull as ever, there is real evidence of curatorial inspiration. At Tate Modern I was left with the echoes of the sheer affective power of quite a number of the works on show, rather than mere pleasant memories of a nice sandwich at Tate Britain.


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