|Four female subjects; one woman artist|
The rehang has been praised as reactionary, but while there is an old-fashioned feel to the whole thing - no info panels, hooray! - I'm not sure this is right. I started off my tour with the spirit of John Berger at my side, lamenting the excessive numbers of rich men in fancy clothes - not to mention that terrible painting of the blushing maid with the melon, surely a candidate for a long spell in Tate Storage.
Things became more interesting as the 19th century opened up. How fun to see such different pictures next to each other; how great to have a Constable oil sketch opposite a finished painting, so you can look back and forth and wonder which gave him greater pleasure or shows his truest feelings. The mid-Victorian room is, as others have pointed out, a bit of a nightmare, with some much-loved pictures hung so high you'd need to hire a cherry picker to look at them properly.
Tate's highly-qualified curatorial team may have got off lightly in terms of label-writing, but they've still given us a carefully edited version of British art history. We're clearly meant to pay more attention to Nevinson and Gertler, for instance, than to some of the Pre-Raphaelites. And we're asked - without actually being asked - to look again at the role of women in art. It's unfortunate that not all the work is the artist's best, with Frances Hodgkins for one represented by a very odd picture, but there are some lovely moments where the juxtaposition of different pieces encourages a bit of independent thought.
My favourite of these is shown above: three classic visions of women as seen by men, and one self-portrait. We have a lovely girl playing Eve, leaving Eden in disgrace, and a woman sitting meaningfully before a mirror (in which the artist is reflected), and a naked woman looking modest in a black hat - all, incidentally, beautiful and sensitive representations. Above them, gazing out over the gallery, is Gwen John. She isn't symbolising anything. She is neither beautiful nor ashamed. She is a serious person endeavouring perhaps to understand something of her life and condition through self-scrutiny. It isn't at all clear what she has learnt.