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.
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You would think 500 years of British Art would be overwhelming - how do you cram in half a millennium exactly? Luckily, the expansive and impressive Tate Britain is up to the challenge, leading visitors on a journey through the years. Ordered chronologically, each room represents a particular year allowing visitors to see how British art has evolved. It's a brilliant exhibition whether you know you're Francis Bacon from your J.W Turner or you know very little about British art (like myself). You can find my review and my favourite pieces from the exhibition here http://www.imwanderingandpositive.com/bp-walk-british-art-review-highlights-500-years/
Getting dropped off by a taxi, mounting the Milbank steps and entering to view the new £45m staircase was exciting, as it had only opened the day before. It is a very nice staircase, with an art deco fell but the boys were more interested in the idea that the building had originally been a prison and the plans and drawings next to the Café on the lower floor. I'm a traditionalist at heart and felt a huge chandelier wouldn't look out of place in the vaulted ceiling which was light and airy and would reflect the light fantastically. For myself, partner, 6 year old & 4 year old we endeavoured to make our way around the "Walk through of British Art" in the correct order, but sometimes got a bit muddled and ended up going back in time. In the words of the 6 year old it featured "Zombies, Battles, People, Model things and a really cool Ninja Drummer (Der Trommer). As an Exhibition in itself, to educate those in the progression of art through the past 500 years it was interesting and informative, great for our kids introduction to Art History. Sculpture featured heavily, which was great to see. Some items were predictable, others more thought provoking. The 4 year old really wanted to know why the Elephant was holding a gun and explaining paintings based on the Bible and resurrection led to the comparison with Zombies by the 6 Year old. I would err against visiting the Djanogly Café currently as it was disorganised, badly signed and arranged and even with over 6 staff for around 12 customers, the wait time was over 10 minutes for drinks and payment. The food however was good quality. This needs a major rethink. The bar upstairs in the Rotunda would have been better had we found this at lunchtime!