Tate britain

Our great art institutions have reduced British history to a scrapheap of shame

Let’s indulge in some identity politics for a second: I am from Hong Kong, born as a subject of the last major colony of the British Empire, minority-ethnic, descended from Chinese refugees, now living here in exile. This summer, both the National Portrait Gallery and Tate Britain are presenting new displays that are meant to reflect the ‘inclusive’ and ‘diverse’ identities of Britain. Supposedly, I fit nicely among their target audience. In reality, as an immigrant looking to be included in this nation, I am perplexed by my visits. For two publicly funded museums tasked with telling the story of this country through the portraiture of its eminent figures and

Stop tearing down controversial statues, says British-Guyanan artist Hew Locke

When Hew Locke was growing up in Guyana, he would pass by the statue of Queen Victoria in front of Georgetown’s law courts. Henry Richard Hope-Pinker’s 1894 statue had been commissioned to mark the monarch’s golden jubilee, but not long after Guyana became independent from British rule in 1970, the statue was beheaded and the remains thrown into bushes in the botanical gardens. ‘I remember being shocked that such a sacrilegious thing could happen,’ says the Edinburgh-born, Guyana-raised, London-based 62-year-old artist. ‘It set me thinking about what public statues are for. Who are these people? How come we pass by them without noticing every day?’ Half a century later and

At her best when lightly ruffling the surfaces of things: Cornelia Parker, at Tate Britain, reviewed

Cornelia Parker wasn’t born with a silver spoon in her mouth, but when she was growing up her German godparents sent her a silver spoon or fork every birthday. She seems to have had a thing about silverware ever since. She used to sell it on Portobello Market, and it formed the basis of her first large installation. ‘Thirty Pieces of Silver’ (1988) could be viewed as an elegy to the fish knife and all those other superannuated aids to aspirational dining whose genteel functions are now all but forgotten – salvers, sauceboats, toast racks, sugar tongs and those scalloped silver shells holding coils of butter beaded with condensation from

Ignore the wall text and focus on the magnificent paintings: Tate Britain’s Hogarth and Europe reviewed

There are, perhaps, two types of exhibition visitor. Those who read the texts on the walls and those who don’t. Personally, I instinctively tend towards the latter group, which is no doubt often my loss. In the case of Hogarth and Europe at Tate Britain, however, ignoring all the verbiage would be a huge advantage. This concentrates with anxious obsessiveness on the topics of empire and slavery (with a little condemnation of sexism on the side) and has infuriated several of my colleagues: ‘wokeish drivel’ (Sunday Times), ‘non-aperçus — which range from the crass to the asinine’ (New Statesman), ‘some quite drastic misreadings’ (Observer). Well, I’m not going to dissent

Full of masterpieces: Paula Rego at Tate Britain reviewed

The Victorian dictum ‘every picture tells a story’ is true of Paula Rego’s works, but it’s only part of the truth. Rego has said that she hopes and expects that when people look at her pictures, ‘Things will come out that I’m not even aware of.’ And that’s right too: every marvellous picture tells so many stories, and is so charged with under- and overtones, that no one, including its creator, can be aware of everything that’s going on. That’s certainly true of many works in the Rego retrospective at Tate Britain. All notable painters and sculptors are, of course, sui generis. They don’t follow established rules; instead they make

The joy of socially distanced gallery-going

Not long after the pubs, big galleries have all started to reopen, like flowers unfolding, one by one. The timing reminded me of an anecdote that Lucian Freud used to tell about a Soho painter friend he took into the National Gallery after it had shut (as some senior artists are entitled to do). They arrived after closing time in the drinking holes of Soho, and the painter friend was staggering and swaying so much that Lucian — who was not easily rattled — became alarmed that he was going to put one of his flailing arms through a Rembrandt. I wonder how those art-lovers of yesteryear would have coped

The gloriously indecent life and art of Aubrey Beardsley

Picture the young aspirant with the portfolio of drawings pitching up nervously at the eminent artist’s studio, only to be turned away at the door by a servant; then the master catching up with him, inviting him in and delivering the verdict on his portfolio: ‘I seldom or never advise anyone to take up art as a profession; but in your case I can do nothing else.’ Within two short years of this fairy-tale meeting in the summer of 1891 between Edward Burne-Jones and the 18-year-old Aubrey Beardsley, the self-taught insurance clerk who had fallen under the Pre-Raphaelite spell had turned himself into the most talked-about artist in London. Van

Slight: Steve McQueen at Tate Modern reviewed

Steve McQueen’s ‘Static’ (2009) impresses through its sheer directness — and it’s very far from static. A succession of helicopter-tracking shots around the Statue of Liberty, it’s the first film you encounter in this quasi-retrospective from the Turner Prize-winning conceptual artist-turned-Oscar-winning film director. Shot shortly after the monument reopened after the 9/11 attacks, it offers the eye an exhilarating whirl of light and colour, while the mind — given the potency of that historical context — goes on an equally dizzying train of associations through the notion of American liberty. While you bring these associations yourself, they seem to emanate naturally and directly from what you’re seeing. It’s that essential

Tat Britain: Museum gift shops are naff – but necessary

Exit through the gift shop. Pick up a postcard, a magnet, a novelty eggcup in the shape of Queen Elizabeth I. Treat yourself to a replica Rosetta Stone, a Babylonian bookend, a build-your-own Leonardo trebuchet. Tuck your little one up at night with a cuddly Anubis the dog. Nicholas Coleridge, chairman of the Victoria & Albert Museum, has put the tat among the pigeons by telling the Cheltenham Literature Festival that the V&A shop is more successful than the BM’s. ‘The British Museum shop,’ said Coleridge at an event to promote his memoir The Glossy Years (available in all good gift shops), ‘increasingly sells teddy bears wearing police helmets, while

A cast of Antony Gormley? Or a pair of giant conkers? Gormley’s RA show reviewed

While Sir Joshua Reynolds, on his plinth, was looking the other way, a little girl last Saturday morning was trying to prise a littler sculpture from the pavement of the Royal Academy’s courtyard. For all its tininess — from a distance the sculpture’s curvy lumps, 12 x 28 x 17cm, resemble horse droppings a security guard might dig into their rose bed — she couldn’t shift it. ‘Iron Baby’ (1999) is a solid iron cast made by Sir Antony Gormley of his six-day- old daughter abased before the Enlightenment temple of art, buttocks facing Piccadilly in eloquent critique. But for the Instagramming hordes, you might step over her heedlessly on

The many faces of William ‘Slasher’ Blake

‘Imagination is my world.’ So wrote William Blake. His was a world of ‘historical inventions’. Nelson and Lucifer, Pitt and the Great Red Dragon, chimney sweeps and cherubim, the Surrey Hills and Jerusalem in ruins, the alms houses of Mile End and the vast abyss of Satan’s bosom.  He saw the fires of the Gordon Riots and the serpent in the Garden of Eden. His subjects were Milton and Merlin, Dante and Job, ‘Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard’ and the Book of Revelation. He held infinity in the palm of his hand, yet worked through the night to write and grave all that was on his mind. ‘I have

The possibilities of paint

‘The possibilities of paint,’ Frank Bowling has observed, ‘are endless.’ The superb career retrospective of his work at Tate Britain demonstrates as no words could that he is correct, and that the obituaries of this perennial medium — so often declared moribund or defunct — are completely wrong. This presents more than half a century’s virtuoso exploration of what pigment on canvas can achieve. After his first decade of work, Bowling (born 1934) became what is called an abstract artist. But that is a vague and unsatisfactory category. His early, figurative pictures such as ‘Cover Girl’ (1966) could be labelled ‘pop’. It features an image of a Japanese supermodel garnered

Sublime salvage

There was a moment more than 20 years ago when Bankside Power Station was derelict but its transformation into Tate Modern had not yet begun. I remember thinking, on a visit to the site, how beautiful and impressive the huge rusting generators looked — like enormous real-life sculptures by Anthony Caro. Nothing that has since been exhibited in what came to be called the Turbine Hall has looked quite so strong. A quarter of a century later, the artist Mike Nelson has reversed the process — not at Tate Modern, but at Tate Britain where he has filled the Duveen Galleries with massive pieces of redundant machinery: cement mixers, engine

Art and life

Diane Arbus saw mid-20th century New York as if she was in a waking dream. Or at least that is the impression you get from the exhibition of her early photographs at the Hayward Gallery. She was attracted to people on the margins of society — or, as she roundly called them, ‘freaks’: fairground performers, assorted human oddities and individuals with non-standard bodies such as ‘Miss Makrina, a Russian Midget, in her Kitchen NYC’ (1959). Arbus famously observed of such individuals: ‘They’ve already passed their test in life. They’re aristocrats.’ However, Arbus could make just about anybody — or thing — appear unaccountably strange. An old couple on a park

The big sleep | 8 November 2018

‘I want big things to do and vast spaces,’ Edward Burne-Jones wrote to his wife Georgiana in the 1870s. ‘And for common people to see them and say, “Oh! — only Oh!”’ That, however, was only the first part of my own reaction to the exhibition at Tate Britain of Burne-Jones’s works. Perhaps I’ve got a blind spot when it comes to B-J, but time and again I found myself thinking, ‘Oh no!’ Nonetheless, this comprehensive display and the accompanying catalogue give plenty of clues as to where he went wrong. Sir Edward Coley Burne-Jones (1833–98) followed an extremely unusual career path. He was the son of a struggling framer

The good, the bad and the ugly | 21 June 2018

Some disasters could not occur in this age of instant communication. The first world war is a case in point: 9.7 million soldiers died, 19,240 British on 1 July, 1916, the first day of the Battle of the Somme, alone. If all that had been seen on social mediaand rolling news threads, public opinion would have shifted immediately. A hundred years ago, however, the sheer awfulness of what was happening took more time to sink in. Aftermath, an exhibition at Tate Britain, deals not so much with the art of the war itself as with the shocked and grieving era that followed the cataclysmic conflict: post-war art. The horrors of

Faulty connections

In the mid-1940s, Frank Auerbach remarked, the arbiters of taste had decided what was going to happen in British art: Graham Sutherland was going to be the leading painter. ‘Then downstage left, picking his nose, Francis Bacon sauntered on. And the whole scene was changed.’ But how did it alter? What happened to figurative painting in London in the decades after Bacon exploded on to the scene? This is a question with which All Too Human at Tate Britain grapples. It is an old problem. When in 1976 R.B. Kitaj proposed that there was an important group of figurative artists at work here, a ‘School of London’, he defined them

London calling | 26 October 2017

Madame Monet was bored. Wouldn’t you have been? Exiled to London in the bad, cold winter of 1870–71. In rented rooms above Shaftesbury Avenue, with a three-year-old son in tow, a husband who couldn’t speak English, and no money coming in. Every day roast beef and potatoes and fog, fog, fog choking the city. ‘Brouillardopolis’, French writers called it. Camille Monet had offered to give language lessons, but when she hadn’t a pupil — and Claude hadn’t a commission — she let him paint her, listless on a chaise-longue, book unread on her lap. Her malaise was ‘l’exilité’ — the low, homesick spirits of the French in England. ‘Meditation, Mrs

Space odyssey | 14 September 2017

Rachel Whiteread is an indefatigable explorer of internal space. By turning humble items such as hot-water bottles and sinks inside out — that is, casting the cavities — Whiteread has accomplished one of the traditional tasks of art: revealing structure, beauty and mystery in the everyday. Her work is a remarkable contribution to an overlooked genre: the sculpture of inanimate things or still-life statuary. Nonetheless the large-scale, mid-career Whiteread retrospective at Tate Britain, which ought to be a triumph, does not quite come off. Ironically, since her idiom is derived from minimalism, the exhibition fails to observe the law that less is more. This is a common problem with museum

The good, the indifferent and the simply awful

‘There is only one thing worse than homosexual art,’ the painter Patrick Procktor was once heard to declare at a private view in the 1960s. ‘And that’s heterosexual art.’ It would have been intriguing to hear his views on Queer British Art at Tate Britain. All the more so since it includes several of his own works, including a fine line-drawing study of the playwright Joe Orton, completely naked except for his socks — which he kept on because he felt they were sexy — and reclining somewhat in the manner of Manet’s Olympia. In fact, many of those included might have had reservations — Oscar Wilde, for example, one