Sunday 19 May 2013

Tate Britain rehang - nice display despite the curators

Yesterday I went to Tate Britain, where they've re-hung the pictures.  The new display has been warmly received by critics, but I suspect the praise is partly because expectations had been managed down so far by spectacularly inept recent displays at the Tate.  The new display is all right, but anyone can produce an 'all right' display by taking the cream of the Tate's collection and hanging it chronologically.  I like the idea of integrating sculpture and painting, but too often large sculptures just got in the way.  I think dense hangs in large galleries sometimes work (e.g. the National Gallery's Italian Baroque room or the Boston MFA's central gallery), but here the mix of works is jarring, and smaller paintings are lost in the crowd.

The problem at the Tate is that it all goes wrong every time any curatorial skill is required.  The Tate sacked a number of its most renowned curators last year.  It's a searing indictment of arts journalism that this received almost no press coverage, whereas the rehang of the permanent collection has been reviewed almost everywhere.  I haven't seen anyone make a connection between the two stories.  The Tate has tried to justify the paucity of wall text with silly claims about not wanting to get in the way of people looking (as if a few words at the side means that we can't see the paintings?).  I wonder if it's because there's no one left at the Tate who knows enough to write the labels.

Critics have rightly welcomed the return to a chronological hang, but the Tate has managed even this seem philistine.  Rather than hang by artist or school, they have hung according to a rigorously strict chronology, removing the curatorial judgment about schools and influences.  Jackie Wullschlager spoke to them for an article in the FT: "Year-on-year chronology, says Tate Britain director Penelope Curtis, is a 'neutral search tool', disabling curators from imposing textbook schools and 'isms' that are outdated and narrow."  If they're outdated, propose something else Penelope.

Curator Chris Stephens is later quoted as espousing a "pluralistic presentation appropriate for 'a digital age where we find our own material and narratives through surfing'".  This isn't empowering the visitor, it's just the abdication of responsibility by the curators.  And how lazy to blame the 'digital age' for their failure to share knowledge with visitors.  A sign says that they're still constructing the new Tate Britain and 'improved learning facilities' will follow.  What will they teach?  How to Google?

The allocation of space between old and new is absurdly skewed towards the new, as if Constable and Gainsborough were mere precursors to the achievements of Rose Wylie and David Hockney.  The selection of new art requires more curatorial judgment because it has not been tested by generations of critics and scholars.  The Tate gets it wrong, as Brian Sewell's review explains.

A final point made by many reviewers is worth repeating (more emphatically!).  The sponsor's* intrusive branding is obscene.  It taints the reputations of both donor and recipient.  Art History Today has a post making some more general points on museum sponsorship that's worth reading.    I've previously been neutral on the question of sponsorship, regarding it as more or less free funding.  The corrupting intrusion of the sponsor at the Tate is making me reconsider.

The overall effect is positive, and a great improvement on recent displays.  But much of that is due to the collection itself and the fine suite of restored galleries.  The Director and her staff are doing a terrible job and they desperate need to recover the curatorial expertise that was jettisoned when their colleagues were sacked last year.

* I refuse to give the culprits any more publicity by naming them.

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