How to do justice to 500 years of British art in just 500 words? Listing each of the years in order might sound like a lame start, but this complete refresh and rehang of ‘the old Tate’ takes just such a no-nonsense, historical approach as its backbone, running chronologically around a twisting spine or anti-clockwise looping circuit of galleries, from 1540 to the present day. And what a rip-roaring journey it is, taking in Holbein, Hogarth, Constable, Epstein, Bacon, Hockney and Hirst in order, as well as all manner of discoveries in between, the idea being to allow eccentrics and oddities to surface alongside each era’s great and good. These storeroom gems, anonymous panels, unknown Kentish history painters and Cornish
stud the entire trip, enriching the narrative and enlivening the perennial favourites around them.
Gone, though, are some of the more boring blockbuster moments – the room of overbearing Pre-Raphaelites, for example, which has been blended into an even more unholy melange of nineteenth-century art styles. Gone too are most of the labels, allowing visitors to read paintings rather than explanatory texts, although this intellectually spartan cleanliness might do a disservice to the less-engaged tourist drifter or ADD-prone school kid who need more anchoring than the simple dateline reminders, elegantly and subtly imprinted in gold at the entrance to each room. The rest of the refurbishment is likewise only subliminally noticeable: the cleaner galleries, restored architraves and improved day-lighting will complement the reopening of the main entrance and new café areas being unveiled later this year.
Still in evidence are the holes in the collection: early sculpture, drawing, printmaking and photography especially. The smaller curated sideshows or ‘Spotlight’ displays are also still there, but they are now subservient to the flow of the whole, rather than annoying distractions in your face. The best of these contains just a single work, Douglas Gordon’s ‘Play Dead: Real Time’ of 2003, which shows a circus elephant being manoeuvred and directed to perform tricks in an art gallery – a metaphor, if ever there was one, for the incredible institutional shift that Tate Britain’s new director, Penelope Curtis, has achieved in her first three-and-a-half years in the post.
So, there’s plenty of old, plenty of blue (the countless seas and skies) and even some things borrowed from elsewhere – but what’s new? Well, it feels like a national museum of record again, albeit one criss-crossed by competing vistas, voices and missteps along the way. If some connections seem too obtuse and some rooms too confusing, then that’s because the history of British art is like that: mixed up, occasionally mad, hopefully beautiful, brilliant, but often painful. There’s fantasy, drama and storytelling in abundance too, as well as the occasional well-meaning amateur or plagiarist with one artistic foot in France or elsewhere. Well, that isn’t doing it justice, but it’s just us.