Every room in Tate Britain (part one)

Tate Britain is dedicated to exhibiting British art from 1500 to the present day.

It is housed in a beautiful neo-classical building facing onto the river Thames. To the left a ramp and steps lead to the lower floor with a large exhibition space (currently showing Artist and Empire). To the right of the main building is the Clore Galleries (opened 1987), nine rooms on the ground floor housing the gallery’s big collection of JMW Turner paintings, watercolours, sketches etc, along with a room of Constable and, upstairs, a room of pre-Raphaelite drawings/paintings, and a room of William Blake engravings and paintings.

If you enter up the grand steps through the main entrance you arrive at a long central hall, home to changing displays and currently housing Susan Philipsz’ War Damaged Musical Instruments, an entirely audio display, tannoy speakers emitting the mournful sound of brass music played by instruments damaged in war, which she has rescued and refurbished. Sweet haunting sounds drift through the galleries as you saunter through the history of British art.

The west wing contains ten rooms covering British art from 1540 to 1910. Then you cross the entrance hall to the east wing and pick up the story in 1930, walk through another ten rooms containing the twentieth century exhibits.

Off to the side of these chronological sequences are single rooms dedicated to ad hoc displays of art ancient or bang up to date.

The rooms

1540

  • Full length portrait of Queen Elizabeth I by Steven van der Meulen. I like the still-medieval feel, the flatness, the compaction, and the gorgeousness of the detail, the tremendously patterned gold background to the left, but also the idealised plants, flowers and fruit to the right.
  • Sir Peter Lely Two Ladies of the Lake Family (c.1660) I love the stylised round-cheeked cherub look of all Lely’s women. He was Dutch and emigrated here to become the principal portrait-painter at the court of Charles II, filling the position Sir Anthony van Dyck held for Charles I.

1730

  • Samuel Richardson, the Novelist, Seated, Surrounded by his Second Family 1740–1 by Francis Hayman. This isn’t a particularly good painting, I’m just surprised to learn of its existence. Richardson was a printer whose long epistolary novel about a 15-year-old serving girl named Pamela who writes letters to her parents about fighting off the ‘attentions’ of her country landowner master, Mr B, became the first bestseller and prompted a flood of merchandising and imitations. I enjoyed the attention paid to the silk of the dresses and the detail of the leaves on the trees.
  • William Hogarth The Painter and his Pug (1745) embodying a certain kind of pugnacious bully-boy philistinism. I’ve always enjoyed his O the Roast Beef of Old England (‘The Gate of Calais’) which is a pictorial list of reasons why the French are rubbish.
  • Hogarth’s crudity is highlighted by comparison with Sir Joshua Reynolds’s Three Ladies Adorning a Term of Hymen (1773). Here the focus not now on the depiction of static fabric, as in the Hayman painting of 30 years earlier, but on the effect of the overall composition, the diagonal made by the three women, and the softening effect of light and shade on the numerous decorative details, flowers, rug, plinth, jug and so on.
  • Sir William Beechey Portrait of Sir Francis Ford’s Children Giving a Coin to a Beggar Boy (exhibited 1793) reflecting the later 18th century fashion for ‘sentiment’, for subjects depicting finer feelings.
  • Henry Fuseli Titania and Bottom (c.1790) stands out from the other 18th century works, mainly portraits in the country, for its dark fantasy, note the tiny old man with the long white beard at the end of a lady’s leash in the bottom right.

Foreign painters in England

À propos Fuseli, it’s worth pointing out how many of these ‘British’ painters are foreign. Not featured at all here is the great Hans Holbein (German Swiss painter to the court of Henry VIII), but other foreign painters ‘incorporated’ into the British tradition include van Dyck (Flemish), Rubens (Flemish), Lely (Dutch), Fuseli (Swiss), James Tissot (French), Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema (Netherlands), John Singer Sergeant (American), Percy Wyndham Lewis (Canadian).

  • I liked George Stubbs’ Reapers (1785) rather than the several dramatic horse pictures on display because it is unusual and it shows a very human, almost Dutch landscape-type scene.
  • Next to Reynolds the other great genius of the 18th century is of course Thomas Gainsborough, represented here by half a dozen enormous portraits and a few landscapes. I liked Henry Bate-Dudley: it is not a magnificent picture, the opposite, it has a quiet, a calm superiority or confidence. Note Gainsborough’s distinctively loose brushstrokes on coat, silver birch bark and among the leaves, but somehow coinciding with precise detail.

Looking back down the long 1780 room to compare them, you can see that Gainsborough is dainty and Reynolds is stately.

No religion

After five rooms I noticed a striking contrast with the National Gallery with its in-depth collection of European paintings from the same period – the lack of religious paintings. Overwhelmingly, the works here are portraits, with some landscapes. I counted only two religious paintings in these rooms:

  • Henry Thomson The Raising of Jairus’ Daughter (exhibited 1820) with the stagey Poussinesque figures to the right but the rather haunting central figure of the dead daughter.
  • William Dyce’s Madonna and Child (c.1827–30) a sport, a freak, a careful pastiche of a Raphael painting and completely unlike anything else being painted at the time.

Our British tradition of painting may be thin until the time of Reynolds (1770s) but I think it is typical of the national culture that it focuses on real people and places, and very often on touching and moving personal stories, rather than the tearful Maries and crucified Jesuses of the continental tradition.

All of that, the heavy earnestness of the Baroque tradition of languishing saints, weeping Madonnas and annunciating angels, is completely absent from these displays. For me the religion is in the attention to ordinary life, the valuing of people and their feelings, the same emphasis on psychology and the human scale which saw the English pioneer the novel, the art form which more than any other penetrates the human mind. This sensitivity and refinement of everyday human feeling is exemplified in:

  • George Romney Mrs Johnstone and her Son (?) (c.1775–80) Sure they’re rich, sure it’s partly to show off the sumptuousness of the fabric. But it also shows real love.
  • It’s actually at the National Gallery, but Gainsborough’s unfinished portrait of his young daughters, The Painter’s Daughters with a Cat (1761) epitomises the English ability to capture love and affection, not Holy Love for a Martyred Saint, but real human love, and childishness and innocence and intimacy and aliveness.

Even when we do intense and visionary, rather than angels floating round the heads of saints, it is embodied in people and real landscapes:

  • Take Samuel Palmer’s paintings strange, vivid, jewelled depictions of the landscape around Shoreham in Kent, eg The Gleaning Field (c.1833)
  • And striking because it is so unlike Constable and Turner and his other contemporaries is William Etty’s Standing Female Nude (c.1835–40), very modern in its frankness, not trying to be Greek or statuesque.

The Turner Collection

There is so much Turner. Enough to fill eight good size rooms in the Clore Gallery off to the east of the main building, and this is only a small selection of what Tate owns. Turner’s history paintings, Turner’s classical landscapes, Turner’s mountains, Turner’s figures, Turner’s watercolours. And in all states of finish, from vast formal commissions to sketches to unfinished canvases to the wispiest watercolours. Despite trying hard I find Turner difficult to really like, and the task is not helped by the sheer volume of material. There is a room here dedicated to ‘Turner and the human figure’ which proves conclusively how bad he was at it:

He went on the Grand Tour and I find the resulting huge Roman landscapes strained, pretentious, overblown, bad in a number of ways:

Senses blunted by the vast Roman landscapes, I perked up when I saw the much more modest, and therefore impactful:

All in all, I preferred the one room dedicated to Constable, which is hidden away in a corner of the Clore Gallery, to the eight preceding Turner rooms:

  • Fen Lane, East Bergholt (?1817) Like gently sloping farmland I’ve seen in my walks around Kent.
  • Glebe Farm (c.1830) the church nestling among trees, the solitary cow at the pond, the thoughtful little girl, all artfully composed to create a stock feeling, but a feeling I like.

Pre-Raphaelite Works on Paper

In the far corner of the Clore gallery is stairs up to the smallish room displaying pre-Raphaelite works on paper, lots of sketches but some oils as well. A wall label reminds me that the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (PRB) only lasted from 1848 to 1853. I liked the strange, visionary, angular, amateurish but atmospheric work of early Rossetti, like Arthur’s Tomb (1860). Technically not as innovatory as Constable or Turner, but these small works convey an experimental psychology, using medieval motifs for very modern reasons, to convey the troubled inter-personal relationships of the Brotherhood and their various muses, anticipating the tensions of, say, the Viennese Expressionists fifty years later.

But there are also examples of Rossetti in his smooth, glowing, bosomy phase: Monna Pomona (1864). I liked the wall label’s description of the medievalising tendency in PRB work, its use of: ‘shallow space, tight interlocking composition and rich colour of medieval manuscripts’. A handy description of what I like about medieval art.

I liked Ford Madox Brown’s Jesus Washing Peter’s Feet (1852–6) the oddities of composition riffing off medieval ideas of space to create a very modern psychology.

The glory years

Although the earlier rooms contain many good paintings, in my opinion British art explodes into a glory of masterpieces between the mid 1880s and the Great War, the period which saw Victorian academic art reach its height of verisimilitude before being swept away by the exhilarating eruption of the new Modernism. Rooms 1840, 1890 and 1900 contain painting after painting of pure visual pleasure, greatest hits which make everything before them pale by comparison.

  • James Tissot The Ball on Shipboard (c.1874) Illustration of a Trollope novel.
  • John Singer Sargent Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose (1885–6) Barely a century after Reynolds, and how far not only painting, but the understanding of mood and psychology, has expanded and deepened.
  • John William Waterhouse Saint Eulalia (exhibited 1885) Exotic realism.
  • William Logsdail St Martin-in-the-Fields (1888) The figures, hmm, but the depiction of the church itself is amazing, conveying the cold and drizzle…
  • John William Waterhouse The Lady of Shalott (1888) Late Victorian Arthurianism.
  • Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema A Silent Greeting (1889) A fantasy of the classical world.
  • Stanhope Alexander Forbes The Health of the Bride (1889) Illustration for a Tomas Hardy novel.
  • Anna Lea Merritt Love Locked Out (1890)
  • Sir George Clausen Brown Eyes (1891) Haunting the way strangers glimpsed in a crowd sometimes are.
  • Henry Scott Tuke August Blue (1893–4) Why is it always naked women? Why not some beautiful boys for a change?
  • Thomas Cooper Gotch Alleluia (exhibited 1896) Peculiar, odd, immaculate in some ways, but look at their lips.
  • John Singer Sargent Ena and Betty, Daughters of Asher and Mrs Wertheimer (1901) The figures are impressive but it’s the vase that takes my breath away. Close up to the painting in the flesh you can see the casual mastery of oil with which it’s done.

And then, suddenly, bang! It is the Modernists with their Futurism and Vorticism and Fauvism and fancy European ways:

In the 1910 room are works for well after the Great War, like Eric Gill sculptures or Stanley Spencer or Alfred Wallis, but I’ll leave them for part two.

One-off rooms

  • One room contains three big bright double portraits by David Hockney. Hockney’s art has always seemed to me bright and empty, and also badly drawn, but I know I am in a minority.
  • Jo Spence Feminist artist-activist in the 1970s and 80s, member of the Hackney Flashers who spent a lot of time interrogating traditions, exploring issues, situating their practices. This seemed to involve quite a few photos of herself naked or topless, especially after being diagnosed with breast cancer. No doubt making serious feminist points, but also a treat for admirers of the larger woman.
  • Art and Alcohol Half a dozen historical paintings on the subject of the English and alcohol, one wall dominated by Cruickshank’s famous panorama of a pissed society (at one stage place in a room by itself with lengthy commentary). The highlight is the series of b&w photos Gilbert and George took in the 1970s of them and others getting pissed in a pub in the East End, the photos treated with various effects, blurring and distortion conveying a sense of the evening degenerating.
  • Anwar Jalal Shemza (1928–1985) Never heard of him, a leading artist, novelist, playwright and poet born in north-west India, which then became Pakistan, where he made a reputation before moving to England in 1962 – presumably he’s represented here because Tate bought his works thereafter. The wall label explained that he used Islamic texts as the basis for his abstract-looking paintings, but I was caught by some of the images which reminded me powerfully of Paul Klee, one of my heroes.

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Other museums

David Hockney prints @ Dulwich Picture Gallery

Disappointing. But then I’ve never liked Hockney. I’ve been to innumerable exhibitions, including the big one at the Royal Academy in spring 2012. Big, bright and empty, was my sad conclusion.

The show

It took 20 minutes to stroll through the half dozen small rooms at the DPG. In the first were the earliest prints from his 1960s student days. In the next room a series of etchings illustrating the homoerotic poems of Cavafy: Hockney’s Cavafy etchings. Drab. Passionless.

Elsewhere were big portraits of friends of the artist’s in early 1970s California eg Christopher Isherwood and Don Bachardy. Ugly. Very English in their graceless lumpiness.

Some prints of flowers, one or two of which I liked. Hockney flower print. One of his two brightly coloured pet dachshunds. The last room contained massive overcoloured recent prints, very much like the vast paintings of Yorkshire landscapes which clogged up the RA two years ago, only without their naive landscape appeal. Several horribly garish prints of the atrium of a hotel in Mexico, some others with wackily-shaped frames.

Why Hockney bores me

What they all have in common, for me, is:

  • it’s all figurative; it’s all about conveying what he sees
  • but all done in a sketchy, distorted, 6th form/art school way; the figures are scratchy, unappealing, unattractive; the architecture is distorted, the swimming pools are… abstract, cold, empty. Only the dogs and some of the flowers bore an attractive resemblance to their subject
  • I struggle to think of another artist whose images of the human figure are so unerotic, unsensual, passionless and blank e.g. Portrait of Cavafy II
  • throughout the works are jokey references to other artists, including some tiresome homages or whatever to Picasso, all which serve to highlight how empty and subjectless Hockney’s own art is
  • which leads on to the blah in the catalogue and the interviews/articles always emphasising what a ceaseless explorer and pioneer and innovator he is: Polaroid art, computer art, ipad art and the rest of it – who cares: is it any good?

Define ‘good’. Well: passionate, engaged and engaging, exciting. Pretty much none of the works on display here engaged, excited, amused, entertained, stimulated, frightened or moved me. Or even made me look at them twice. Yep another horrible portrait from the 70s. Yep another so-so print of a vase of flowers. Yawn.

In the final room one of the better pieces Matelot Kevin Druez 2  is obviously, as a study, as a piece of representational art, good, very good. But would you buy it, would you have it in your living room, can you even be bothered to look at it for more than 30 seconds, do you want to come back and look at it again? No.

Is anything at all in this exhibition beautiful? No.

The video

The DPG’s video is a triumph of marketing: the use of rostrum camera and close-up on detail of the prints makes them all look much more powerful and attractive than they actually seemed, hanging limply on the big white walls of the gallery. Maybe his art is best seen in videos and TV documentaries…

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Other Dulwich Picture Gallery exhibitions

Picasso and Modern British Art @ Tate Britain

To Tate Britain to see Picasso and Modern British Art before it closes (15 July). The exhibition comprises a few rooms of works Picasso exhibited in England before and after the Great War, before dedicating a room each to British artists he strongly influenced and/or met and knew – Duncan Grant, Wyndham Lewis, Ben Nicholson, Graham Sutherland, Henry Moore, Francis Bacon, David Hockney. Lots to enjoy and have opinions about.

My son wasn’t impressed by Picasso. I agree: there’s very little of Picasso’s work that excites me. His scope and variety seem to me insidious, too farflung and overstretched. I don’t like the sentimentalism of the Blue period. I don’t like the hundreds of muddy brown cubist works. (I like fabrics and bits of everyday life stuck onto canvas, but done better by lots of others.) I don’t like the small-headed fat women running along beaches of his 1920s neo-classical period.

Pablo Picasso – Two Women Running on the Beach The Race (1922)

I don’t like Guernica. (I like the idea, I sympathise with the intent, I just don’t enjoy looking at it.) I quite like the line drawings from the 40s and 50s, the dove etc.

Picasso’s Three Dancers, one of his two favourite paintings

Picasso, through all his mutations of style, remains wedded to figurative art, to representation. This strikes me as immensely limiting, constraining. Compare and contrast him with the real revolutionaries, the spearheads of abstraction – Kandinsky, Malevich or Klee or Mondrian – who, to my mind, discovered and invented an abstract art suitable for the 20th century. (1)

In those early years around the Great War, Wyndham Lewis criticised Picasso for his passivity, for being so studio-bound, especially in the mud-brown cubist pictures. In his notorious avant-garde magazine, Blast, published on the eve of the Great War, Lewis lambasted Picasso for his limited subject matter and lack of formal energy. Does Picasso ever paint the city, trains and cars and planes, factories, crowds? No. Lewis attacks

‘… the exquisite and accomplished, but discouraged, sentimental and inactive personality of Picasso.’

I agree. Whereas everything Wyndham Lewis ever did lights my candle! I am excited by the fierce angularity, the satirical bite of his Vorticist paintings (and writings). It may be less ambitious and he didn’t keep reinventing his style – but what he did do he did vividly and excitingly.

In contrast to this European avant-garde stuff, Graham Sutherland has always seemed to me to be dull. His religious works, various altarpieces from after the second war (he converted to Roman Catholicism in the 1920s) are sub-Francis Bacon. His twisted landscapes, well, are an acquired taste maybe. (2)

Workshop by Wyndham Lewis (1915)

Workshop by Wyndham Lewis (1915)

Ben Nicholson was more interesting than I remembered. I’ve always liked his small white reliefs from the 30s.

Henry Moore is an undoubted genius but I’m not the only one who wonders whether he didn’t produce too much and take too many public commissions with the result that his sculpture is too ubiquitous, making them strangely invisible (I wrote that before googling the idea and finding this Guardian article).

David Hockney (apparently) took from Picasso the imperative to paint, paint, paint, not to worry whether things were finished or perfect or whether he had a consistent ‘style’. Which explains Hockney’s huge output as captured in the recent Royal Academy exhibition, and his fearlessness in technical experiments, from his cubist montages of Polaroid photos to the latest ipad art. The colour and vibrancy and scope of Hockney’s work is so refreshing after the dingy pessimism of someone like Sutherland or the Home Counties tupperware-and-modernism of Ben Nicholson.

A few rooms were dedicated to Picasso’s reception in Britain. Suffice to say he was embraced by a tiny élite of Bloomsburyites and ridiculed by everyone else, including the so-called Art Establishment. Until well into the 1960s Picasso was being lampooned in newspapers and beyond. The British just don’t really get modern art. It’s not a modern country. It is dominated by people educated in private schools themselves designed to train people to run a Victorian Empire, with a bluff, no-nonsense, philistine attitude to anything which doesn’t involve hitting a ball. A superficial enthusiasm for the Young British Artists doesn’t mask the brute philistinism of the great mass of the population.

Every other country’s twentieth century involved revolution, invasion and devastation. Modernism in art and music expressed real, actual experiences of extremity, desolation, and the burning need to create new forms and new ways of thinking after the old ones were burned to the ground. Only England wasn’t invaded in either of the World Wars, allowing our elites and their subjects to go on thinking the old ways were best. The Germans had Mahler or Schoenberg; the French Debussy and Ravel; we had Elgar and Vaughan Williams. The continentals had Kandinsky and Malevich and Braques and Mondrian. We had Duncan Bell.


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(1)  Picasso reminds me of Stravinsky (who he worked with and who dedicated his shortest piece to him). Stravinsky is the dominating figure of 20th music, as Picasso to art, and yet he, also, didn’t really break away from the western tradition and returned to it in his neo-classical period in the 20s and 30s exactly as Picasso did in art. Throughout all his stylistic twists and turns Stravinsky is at heart a conservative unlike the real revolutionaries Schoenberg, Berg, Webern and all who followed them. Schoenberg famously caricatured Igor as ‘Little Modernski’ and I think that nails him.

(2) “Sutherland is the hollow man of British art whose artistic integrity was subsumed in Picasso’s powerful personality.” – Richard Dorment

Reviews of other Tate exhibitions

David Hockney: A Bigger Picture @ the Royal Academy

11 March 2012

I was out in woods and fields all day yesterday which set me up nicely to go this morning to the Royal Academy for ‘David Hockney: A Bigger Picture’, an enormous exhibition of recent landscapes of the Yorkshire Wolds where he now lives.

Over the years I’ve been to various Hockney exhibitions and never felt a thing. Blank. Here I chatted to a curator who gave some reasons:

  1.  The paintings are immediately there with little or no friction, quick and easy to swallow.
  2. The tonal range is limited – lots of violent reds and purples and greens which get very samey.
  3. They’re soulless: big, slick, there are hundreds and hundreds of them, but no one image struck me, shook me.

That said, we all liked the roomful of ipad art best, images he drew on an ipad, then printed blown-up. There was more attention to the detail of flowers and leaf shapes, trees and puddles, than in the huge oil paintings. Paradoxically, though, the biggest painting of all, ‘The arrival of spring in Woldgate’, was wonderful and, along with a handful in the last, cramped room in the same style, had much more balance and abstraction, like a book illustration or an opera set.

Regardless of my petty preferences, for a man approaching his 75th birthday, the exhibition is an amazing, inspiring achievement.

David Hockney: A Bigger Picture

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