Tuesday, 4 June 2013

Tate Britain Rehang, feat. Gwen John

Four female subjects; one woman artist
A mad dash around Tate Britain yesterday left me agreeing with the various critics who have come out in support of the new rehang. The building does indeed feel lighter, cleaner and more spacious, and the artworks feel more like national treasures as a result. There's something peculiar going on in the central hall involving rather alarming groaning noises but I'll have to go back and investigate as time was short.

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.


  1. Thank you for this James.

  2. Thank you James. Looking forward to next visit. Last time around, about 2 years back I was so disappointed by the disappearance of many pictures, the shocking waste of space in some areas and the frankly scary condition of some of the more modern works which made me wonder about the quality and durability of 1950s oil paint.

  3. Thanks Julia and Amanda - I have to say that the best rooms (for me) were the 19th/early 20th century. I wasn't impressed by the 1960s and onwards - perhaps the chronological method didn't work so well in that context. What I loved about the earlier rooms was the way you were encouraged to think for yourself about pictures and their relationships. With more rarified/intellectual work it's more difficult to do that. I love Peter Doig, for instance, but they've taken down his very cool picture of a lake and replaced it with Ski Jacket, which is opposite (if memory serves) and equally large and pallid Fiona Rae piece. If you don't know anything about the artists you might be left hankering for Constable!