I made an effort to approach the newly hung Tate Britain with an open mind. It helped that I attended the keynote speech delivered by Tate Britain’s Director, Penelope Curtis at last year’s Association of Art Historian conference. Curtis had discussed the changes at length. So, it is fair to say I had some idea as to what to expect but I was still unconvinced. Having written interpretation for national museums and studied on a course which largely equated accessibility with copious amounts of interpretation (textual and otherwise), could a gallery like Tate Britain really give up its addiction to text panels?
Labels have been reduced to tombstone information: artist, title, date and medium. Not all interpretation has been removed and anyone touting the idea that the new hang is interpretation free is wrong. Key works (such as Francis Bacon’s Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion, c. 1944) are still accompanied by text and further interpretation is supplied by AV terminals. Of course, one argument against this form of cherry-picking is that it propagates a version of art history which is pliable to a museum’s agenda. It’s important to be aware of this but subscribing to such a view too forcefully might leave one largely ignorant of ongoing debates regarding the historiography of art history. These are discussions which began in the history discipline, and there is an increasing and wholly justified push to understand history, and the writing thereof, as a process of interpretation rather than the act of committing facts to paper in the name of posterity.
David Bomberg, The Mud Bath, 1914.
What does this mean at Tate Britain? Well for a start chatter now fills the galleries. Instead of visitors engaged in solemn processions from work to work, an act characterised by a swift look at a painting followed by an extended glance at the text panel, I watched an elderly gentleman attempt to recreate the stance of a horse, overheard school pupils debate amongst themselves whether David Bomberg could have worked as a graphic designer (whilst stood in front of The Mud Bath, 1914) and witnessed many others discussing features of works with their companions. Playful, commercial, socio-political and formalist readings were not lacking. When more information was required I heard two separate parties seek out a member of staff. If staffing levels and training can be maintained and funded in line with demand, then I think that this direct dialogic approach is an excited one. Tate Britain has extended past facts and interpretation sanctioned by professionals; it now offers a creative exchange with its visitors – one that feels both dynamic and timely.
When I wasn’t stalking the galleries and eavesdropping on visitors there was the new hang to enjoy. When executed with sensitivity, the juxtaposition of works from different periods provokes enquiry and fosters thematic links across chronology. However Tate’s new chronological layout allows the climate of artistic production to surface without the need for tautological language. I found this most striking when confronted by a group of works from 1949 (pictured above). These works prefigure Herbert Read’s critique of the British Pavilion at the 1952 Venice Biennale, in which he coined the term the ‘geometry of fear’. Granted my art history education provided this context for me but the works chosen to reflect the period visually resonate with bleak post-atomic uncertainty.
Background left: Francis Bacon, Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion, c. 1944. Near right: Henry Moore, Maquettes for Madonna and Child, 1943
Elsewhere contrast is used effectively to suggest context. Henry Moore’s Maquettes for Madonna and Child, 1943 are beside Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion. Such a placement articulates the idea that many different forms of artistic production occur simultaneously, and this serves to strengthen the idea that there are multiple modes of reception and consumption.
Eric Gill, Ecstasy, 1010-1911.
Eric Gill’s Ecstasy, 1010-1911 appears to need little interpretation. One struggles to think of a text that would not seem twee or, worse, rather dry. Just past Ecstasy were several Henri Gaudier-Brezska sculptures nestled around Jacob Epstein’s Female Figure in Flenite, 1913. Tate’s impressive collection of early twentieth-century direct carving benefits from being viewed en-masse. The chronological arrangement draws attention to the fact that this was a group of artists informed and influenced by each others’ work. My only bugbear were the perspex boxes which surrounded much of it. The terrible glare they inflicted interrupted the spatial qualities of the sculptures.
Left: Henri Gaudier-Brezska, Singer, 1913. Right: Jacob Epstein, Female Figure in Flenite, 1913
I left Tate Britain eager to see how the changes are managed long-term. I then made my way to ‘Bowie is…’ at the V&A. Upon entering the fittingly theatrical and elaborately staged exhibition the following quote greeted me:
All art is unstable. Its meaning is not necessarily that implied by the artist. There is no authoritative voice. There are only multiple meanings. David Bowie, 1995
Penelope Curtis certainly keeps good company.