top of page

Tate Britain Rehang 2023: Three Perspectives On The Newest History Of British Art

William Blake, Newton,1795-c.1805. Colour print, ink and watercolour on paper; Support: 460 × 600 mm. Photo: Tate

Much of the criticism that has been hurled the Tate’s way over its most recent re-hang has centred on the flimsiness of using art to address history. Certainly, there are better ways to discuss our colonial past, if that’s all you want to do - statues, stately homes, and street names offer more fruitful reckonings with empire. Why choose art, the critics decry: stop ruining all the fun!

But what specifically about art is ‘problematic’? What special considerations should be made for art that wouldn’t be for an Oxford College’s name, or a town square? This is not a public space in the same way: people do not stumble into the Tate Britain, and nobody is shocked by the tofu-eating wokerati of North London having a stranglehold on an art gallery. A contemporary reckoning with history is to be expected here, and the Tate have taken that task seriously, with a generous, rigorous attempt to reframe the images and styles that have encapsulated, exaggerated, or criticised some of the darker aspects of our past. The Tate is merely trying to accommodate great art without ignoring its context or purpose, which is surely the compromise that the cultural gammons and the cultural Marxists can agree upon?

So, has it worked? Is there too much proper history and not enough art history? Our writers have taken a look around…

Isabel Imhorst, STRAND Writer

‘Reality and Dreams’ introduces itself through the complicated social history of the interwar period. On the backdrop of Roaring Twenties ostentatiousness and the economic struggle of the depression years, this room too takes off in wildly different directions. Landscape painting and biblical motifs meet social realism and surrealism, showcasing the relationship between material, technique and motif in creating new directions in the artistic imagination.

The sculptural work in particular excels in this: Frank Dobson’s The Man Child and Henry Moore’s Girl draw inspiration from Asian and African sculpture, as Barbara Hepworth’s Figure of a Woman relies on the natural contours of its material. Their approaches reconfigure their traditional female and familial figures into much more contemporary models showcasing a breadth of inspiration.

Elsewhere, Ceri Richards’ and Peter Laszlo Peri’s work blurs the lines of artistic method, reimagining ancient methods through modern materials and aesthetics. Richards works with canvas and three dimensional elements for the surrealist Two Females, literally breaking out of existing frames of reference for painting. Meanwhile Peri’s depictions of construction workers and a London rush hour are carefully composed of layered concrete, broadening access to the sculptural medium through creative application of commonplace material.

The room may feel like a much smaller gallery at first - one where a limited collection has forced disjunctive curation - but as you progress through the room these pairings prove surprisingly brilliant. Organising by ‘proper’ history instead of aesthetic similarity in this room really spotlights the creativity of this period’s artists. Bypassing strict categorisation, it demonstrates how artists develop a unique imagination from a tapestry of personal and social experience.

Lydia Ourahmane, The Third Choir, 2014. © Lydia Ourahmane. Photo: Tate (Matt Greenwood)

Sam Blackburn, Art Ed.

The ‘Room of One’s Own’ room (a mouthful, but I don't know how else to put it) is typical of this rehang’s ambitions. It is all about women in the 1920s, and paintings of them looking miserable and aloof because, alas, such were the times; it features several works by women, but mostly ones by men.

However, a new acquisition of Sylvia Pankhurst’s paintings of women at work are a nice bit of social history that redress the gender imbalance of the room. Being rather glib and cartoony is perhaps part of her point about the drudgery of female working conditions, but equally it might not be: Pankhurst is rightfully not remembered as an artist, but these work are not here merely to inform. When seen beside Gwen John’s portraits, which are at once unappealing and magnetic as dull greens and greys produce a compelling picture of pain and stasis, the accents of each artists’ work, whether amateurish or accomplished, combine to reveal a continuous style that is reverberating across both of their impressions of women. Whether campaigning or modernisting, the same themes and manners are returned to and attempted, something that is worth considering but thankfully isn’t rammed down the viewer’s throat.

The inclusion of the Pankhurst artworks helps to craft a narrative about these representations of women without being too obvious or brazen. This room is a good example of how art calls for a specific type of contextualisation, that should be done through more art rather than more words. Each artist comes off better for it.

Rachel Jones, lick your teeth, they so clutch, 2021. Oil stick, oil pastel and acrylic paint on canvas; Support: 1603 × 2500 mm. © Rachel Jones. Photo Tate (Sam Day, Rod Tidnam)

Ernest Chlopicki, STRAND Writer

How to address a rehang of contemporary art which is seemingly always regarded for either its remembered or presently felt context? In the Modern and Contemporary British Art section, Tate Britain takes an approach that is, while still periodical, predominantly defined by the revolutionary spirit of the times in which such art was made. And so, a chronological walk through the rooms that gather works from the 1940s until now is a crash course in the fine line between art and politics.

The ’No Such Thing as Society’ room takes the infamous Thatcherian rhetoric and applies it to work that reflects the feelings of exclusion (and the corresponding strivings for belonging) that abounded under her governance. To the left hangs Keith Arnatt’s Gardeners (1978-9), a series of photographs directly in conversation with Tate’s new acquisitions just across the room - two sculptures by Derek Jarman (KCL alumnus, and an avid gardener himself). One of them, a both morbid and toyish installation called The Clause (1988), features a plastic, David-like classical torso (characteristic of Jarman’s interest in homoerotic desire through the ages) as nailed down and tormented by two anthropomorphic vultures: a visual moniker for the Iron Lady and her cabinet.

It is thanks to the Tate’s successfully executed endeavour that Jarman’s sculpture, when witnessed in this space, calls for a reflection on the ancient Greek roots of contemporary democracy. And perhaps due to the room’s beautifully open space that strikes with awe and inspiration, we might as well begin to wonder what society means to us, the visitors.

The Tate Britain's permanent collection is on free display now


Edited by Sam Blackburn.


bottom of page