Tag Archives: Tate Britain

The picture unframed: Francis Bacon at Tate Britain

Right at the heart of Tate Britain’s current Francis Bacon retrospective, at the literal physical centre of the exhibition, there is a smallish room. Unlike every other room in the exhibition, this one isn’t lined with large and imposing oil paintings, virtually all of them hung in gilded frames: glazed, reflective, spectacular.

Instead, the room is filled with evidence for the way in which the paintings outside were made. There are pages ripped from art books, pictures on newsprint aged the colour of old jaundiced skin, photos of friends and rivals commissioned from John Deakin, lists in a sprawling generous hand, body-building magazines with homoerotic overtones, ink doodles, pictures of Bacon’s own pictures, photos ripped from current affairs magazines featuring wrestlers and famous Nazis and dead people, prints of film stills, the predictable Eadweard Muybridge sequences, the concrete remains of a less predictable interest in David Gower — all of it torn and battered by use, everything spattered with paint — fodder or perhaps rather compost for the painter’s imagination, the refuse of decades of imaginative consumption and elimination, leftovers of creation, the rich and pungent detritus of the studio floor.

It’s fitting, I think, that this room is at the centre of the exhibition, because it takes us right to the crux of at least the most immediate problems we face in confronting Bacon’s work. Should we be looking at the subject matter, or at the paint? Are we here for horror, about which we’ve all heard so much, or for beauty? Are we in fact doomed to stand staring at all the accumulated clutter, metaphorical as well as actual, of this most public of private lives, or is there any way of getting past it in order to reach the actual art itself — and what would we find if we did?

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The BP British Art Displays 1500-2006 at Tate Britain

[The following article first appeared on the website of the Social Affairs Unit.]

There are plenty of British institutions which, having developed out of some unrepeatable melange of historical contingency, accident and the arbitrary whims of those long dead, and having acquired over the intervening years the inimitable patina of fond familiarity, are now, in their haphazard, unselfconscious perfection, the wonder of rationalists, systematisers and foreigners more generally. One thinks in this context of our great unwritten constitution, our legal system, the structures of our established church, even the rules of cricket.

And then — well, there is Tate Britain.

Not a pretty picture
The history of Tate Britain can be read as the story of many successive attempts to sort out a perceived problem, where the unifying theme is that all too often, the attempted solutions just make everything worse. The first such problem was the fact that the National Gallery, founded in 1824, tended to treat British art as the dowdy poor relation of its Italian, French and Low Countries holdings. Private bequests of British art to the National Gallery — or to South Kensington, Dulwich and regional collections — were all very well. So were the regular, enjoyable and sometimes even productive displays of contemporary art at the Royal Academy. As the century wore on, however — and as other countries began to showcase their own national art ever more aggressively, almost as if making claims for their generalised validity as nation-states — the cries for a purely British collection became increasingly difficult to ignore.

So it was that in 1897, built on the site of Millbank Penitentiary through the generosity of a Liberal autodidact sugar-magnate, the National Gallery of British Art — or, as it everyone had taken to calling it within a couple of months, the Tate Gallery — first opened its doors.

Even from the first, the Tate’s mission was a bit confused. In order to avoid clashing with the National Gallery, it undertook to show contemporary British art — but what was to happen once the new art grew old? No one was quite sure. And this was a problem that continued to avoid solution. Instead, what followed, for about a century, was a complex narrative of directors often incompetent and sometimes frankly deranged; administrative arrangements combining eye-watering complexity with incoherence; a lot of money frittered away not always to great effect; the acquisition of a strange and gappy body of work which included enough non-British art to thwart the founders’ intentions whilst at the same time never adding up to anything like a decent survey collection; floods and bombing raids; feuds and follies; Munnings’ half-cut after-dinner oratory and Carl Andre’s ‘bricks’; and, perhaps inevitably given all the rest, a confused and problematic relationship with the Royal Academy, National Gallery, the Treasury, commercial galleries, publishers, patrons, trustees, civil servants, critics, artists and the viewing public. If, in other words, the late 20th century Tate had not existed, it seems safe to assume that no one would have been in any rush to invent it, at least in its contemporary form.

But aren’t the old ones are supposed to be the best ones?
All of which discouraging stuff came to a head in 1997, a century after the Tate was founded. This was the year in which Nicholas Serota oversaw the quickie no-fault divorce between the two halves of the Tate’s operations — its collection of increasingly historic British art and its collection of international modern art — and the subsequent decampment of Tate Modern to its glamorous bachelor pad south of the river, while Tate Britain brooded mournfully on the old Millbank site. Tate Modern’s star-studded, hysterically-hyped launch in 2000 may yet prove to have been the swan-song of Cool Britannia. Meanwhile, Tate Britain was — what?

Alas, the sloppy dialectics practiced by the stupider sort of cultural critic meant that if Tate Modern, as visited by Kate Moss et al, was new and hot and exciting, then by rights Tate Britain had to be old, frumpy and — most culpably of all, apparently, for a major cultural institution — ‘not sexy’. But the saddest thing about this perception was less its intrinsic unfairness than the reaction it seemed to occasion within the institution itself. Vesti la guibba! Like a bereft Other Half putting on a brave show after being dumped for someone younger, Tate Britain began to commit embarrassing acts of would-be trendiness that in fact just reeked of desperation: the commissioning of a not very festive Christmas tree from Tracy Emin, say, or showing video art of absolutely cosmic dreariness, or simply failing to see that the increasingly silly Turner Prize really didn’t suit it any more.

The result of all this was a perverse situation where British art from every era was attracting interest in seminar-rooms and sale-rooms here and abroad, but where the institution responsible for displaying the last five centuries’ worth of British art seemed rather dismissive of any works older than the memories of its most junior curators. What, then, was to be Tate Britain’s equivalent of Botox, collagen lip injections and a slavish addiction to Fabric? One solution was to emphasise present-day art at the expense of the older stuff, so that the 1960s, for instance, would loom much larger than the entire sixteenth century. Another was to ‘sex up’ exhibitions with references to nudity, celebrity and so forth, as if such rhetoric were central to the reasons why the ordinary punter should wish to spend his or her time contemplating art. Finally, another related, yet slightly more subtle approach involved re-casting the older work in terms more acceptable to contemporary preoccupations. Why attempt a straight-forward, chronological presentation, when pictures could be re-framed in terms of gender, race, class or whatever sub-Marxist vocabulary came to mind? Why fulfil the role of a useful old text-book when the role of trendy, tie-less, Groucho Club-haunting media don was there for the taking?

All change
Such questionable expedients have, however inadvertently, been facilitated by the generosity of BP. The relevant grant, which dates back to 1990, funds the periodic re-hanging of the Tate’s displays of British art. The most recent such re-hanging was officially launched recently, with the usual well-orchestrated if generally pianissimo media fanfare.

Now, here’s a confession for you. Tory distrust of change notwithstanding, I always view these events with a degree of excitement, even enthusiasm. For in principal, there is a lot to be said for regular re-hanging. For one thing, human nature dictates that familiarity breeds, if not contempt exactly, then a certain lack of interest — whereas to shake up the familiar at least invites an element of freshness and engagement. And then there’s the sad fact that for reasons of space, much of the Tate’s collection lives in storage. What wonders will emerge from the vaults this time? Finally, there is always the happy possibility that a different sort of hang will throw up some new relationship between artists, some new revelation about influences or innovations, some new flash of understanding, whether at the historical level or at a purely aesthetic one. The rewards are, then, at least, potentially, there for the taking. So as I made my way down to Millbank, I did so hoping that on the way back, my mental map of British art would somehow have been improved with better standards of detail, accuracy and complexity — or, at the very least, that the new hang would be better than the old, which was not without its irritations.

So it’s sad to report that the 2005 displays are, with a handful of exceptions, rather disappointing. The first problem is one of coherence. The decision, more than a decade ago, to reject a faceless, chronological, would-be authoritative scheme of organisation in favour of personalised, rather subjective, thematic ones carries with it a heavy burden of implications. Not least, it puts great pressure on curators to make their chosen themes work, both intellectually and aesthetically. The trick here is to find strong, important paintings that fit in with the theme — and it’s not an easy trick to pull off. This sort of display scheme also demands something by way of shared approach, shared tone and shared assumptions about the interpretive capabilities (or otherwise) of the average viewer. Otherwise the result is a bit too much like some sort of nightmarish art-historical shopping-mall, its various concessions all waging style-wars against each other, the upmarket boutiques wedged in uncomfortably amongst their more demotic neighbours, the competition more confusing than enabling for the poor wretched consumer. Finally, a degree of enthusiasm for the works in question is, while hard to measure objectively, all-important. For if the curators’ sympathies don’t really run alongside the art in any evident way — shared delight in the subject-matter, admiration for the technical qualities of the work, a sympathetic understanding of the period in which the work was produced — the result invariably has something sour and sneery about it. Well, enough people have a poor opinion of British art already, without Tate Britain struggling to make them value it still less.

Yet as far as these issues are concerned, the present rehanging is all over the place. There are some rooms — and it’s worth stating this immediately — where the commentary is attentive to the subtleties of contemporary art history while at the same time genuinely helpful at the level of helping the viewer to understand and appreciate the art itself. “William Blake and John Flaxman” is one of these, “Edward Wadsworth” another. I learned a lot from each, and thoroughly enjoyed the experience.

But there are others where the wall-texts read like outtakes from My First Big Pop-Up Book of Arnold Hauser. In “The British Landscape”, for instance, faced with Stubbs’ formally brilliant, emotionally engaging The Reapers (1785), we are cautioned by the curator that ‘This picture greatly idealises physical labour …’ Leave aside, out of charity, the fact that most viewers probably could have worked this out for themselves. Since, actually, most pre-modern painting idealised pretty much everything — and, indeed, since the most gritty documentary footage of rural life in our own times rarely ventures out without its own raucous little brood of tiresome polemical grievances — one struggles to work out what the point of the curatorial comment could possibly be. Should we like Stubbs more because he painting something other than literal reality? Or like him less? Or what? If there was the germ of a worthwhile comment here, it got lost somewhere between the banality of its expression and the superficial level of the overall discussion. And the sorrow here is that the painting in question one of the greatest works by — to my mind, anyway, if not that of Prof. Christie Davies — one of Britain’s greatest artists.

The dog that isn’t allowed to bark
Meanwhile, nearby hangs another striking painting by Stubbs, Ringwood, A Hound. Here the commentary goes on for lines and lines, yet fails to mention one central feature relating to the reasons why someone might wish to paint, or commission, or indeed preserve a painting of this particular creature. Was Ringwood, well, a domestic pet? Or was this handsome painting simply some sort of ironic send-up of the portraiture conventions of its own time? Alas, though — and despite an excitable reference to ‘blood sports’ (not ‘field sports’) on a general panel nearby — that shocking four-letter word, ‘H-U-N-T’, may actually be one outrage too far for present-day Tate curators. It wouldn’t do, would it, to admit that the art of the countryside, exactly at the points where it seemed to give most respect and esteem to individual quadrupeds, is also the art of a hunting tradition dating back to the dawn of mankind? Or that “The British Landscape” (the theme of the room) would be hard to imagine without reference to the field? In the event, though, the effort to escape the world-view of a certain sort of metropolitan liberal elite never really gets off the ground. We end up learning far more about the blind spots of at least a few of the curators than we do about the art of the period.

Never mind. One might be tempted, at this point, to fall with some gratitude upon that familiar refuge of the cultural conservative hemmed in by flawed and foolish commentary, and to advise all visitors simply to ignore the comments and admire the art. But this raises another problem. The hang itself is, alas, startlingly ugly.

What’s wrong? Where do we start? The pictures are hung far too low — and since I’m only 5 feet 7 inches tall, if I had to look down a few times too often, heaven help the taller type of arts enthusiast! Worse still, the intervals between the works seem completely arbitrary, as if little human agency had been involved in their hanging. Given how well the recent Reynolds exhibition was presented, for instance, it’s amazing that no one seems to have noticed how bad all this looks.

Put out more paintings
Most regrettable of all, though, is the fact that that the works are hung very sparsely indeed. I’ve seen galleries in Eastern Europe where the ghostly marks of missing paintings — rectangles of faint colour punctuating the faded brocade on the walls — hint at losses through war, pillage, expropriation, institutional poverty and a catalogue of natural disasters, which at the same time give a greater sense of generosity in their hanging-schemes than does the present-day Tate Britain. What’s happened? The curators may feel that giving paintings a lot of (oddly proportioned) wall-space allows them to ‘breathe’ — this is, I think, one of those sub-Greenbergian tics still afflicting plenty of people who can hardly hear the words ‘formal values’ without coming out in a rash — to which I can only say that the paintings at the National Gallery, the Louvre, Dulwich, the Wallace Collection and so forth all seem to make do with the smaller amounts of wall-space surrounding them. And then there’s the practical point that if there were less space between paintings, more of the collection could be kept on show. All of which raises a few larger points about the purpose of Tate Britain, to which we’ll return shortly.

In passing, though, it’s worth singling out one of the sadder rooms, where there was much evidence of a good concept gone mysteriously, lamentably wrong. The room in question is the one titled “Romantic Painting In Britain”. Here, in a long gallery of typically over-the-top Duveen-funded proportions, the paintings had, up to a point, been double-hung — but apparently, by someone unwilling or unable to enter fully into the conventions, let alone the spirit, of an early 19th century hang. How, though, can that be possible, after the Courtauld’s brilliant Art On The Line show of 2001-02? Here, though, a few paintings drifted pointlessly above their marginally larger peers, as vast acres of pink space separated each work from its nearest neighbours. There was none of the exciting jostling, the competitive brio, the serendipitous cheek-by-jowl juxtapositions that ought to be shocking, delighting and amusing the crowds. There was no real additional information being generated about the context in which these paintings were meant to be viewed. The hang itself could have said something about how Romantic painting differed from what came before and after — but it didn’t. The opportunity came and went.

And it was a pity, because as well as the usual stars of the collection — great Constables, Gainsboroughs, Turners — there were some fascinating, even surprising works on show, both in this room and in others. It was good, for instance, to see Hogarth as the creator of unfashionably Baroque, ‘foreign-looking’ paintings in the room titled “In the Grand Manner” as well as the author of his more familiar works; good to see such splendid work by the still-underrated William Dobson in a “Civil War and Commonwealth” room (where, in fairness, the commentary could have been a good deal worse); easy to be stopped in one’s tracks by stray marvels such as Holman Hunt’s Cornfield at Ewell. These are the kind of thrills that Tate Britain can, and ought to deliver, breaking through the familiarity of British art and showing us how wrong we are in those moments where, consciously or not, we dismiss it as dull, invariably derivative or second-rate. It’s only a pity that there are not more such experiences to be found at Tate Britain right now, and that the heavy haze of irritations, slights and misjudgements does so much to take the shine off them whenever they occur. British art is, at its best, brilliant. Surely a better case can be made for it than this?

Why it matters
All this criticism may sound heavy-handed and a bit unnecessary — rather like firing off a cross 2,500-word letter to The New York Review of Books because you don’t really like the way your maiden aunt has redecorated the second guest bedroom — but there are, in fact, important issues at stake.

The first concerns the level of esteem expressed towards Britain’s art history by one of the major national institutions charged with conserving and displaying examples of historic British art. Put simply, there are reasons for thinking that recent or contemporary art is being ‘foregrounded’ (this hideous word is, sadly, so appropriate to the whole project described here that one can hardly avoid employing it) at the expense of older work. And yes, I know — this is a jeremiad dating back to the great days of Peter Fuller’s Modern Painters — but as is the way of jeremiads, repetition in no way softens its tone or curtails its terrible urgency.

One sort of evidence for this tinkering with priorities can be found — where else? — in an >interview that Sir Nicholas Serota recently granted to The Guardian. Many of his pronouncements were notable chiefly for their eye-watering banality:

”One of the most important things that has been happening in British art over the past 25 years is the way it has been steadily infused by artists who were perhaps not born here, but are working here, or perhaps who are second generation — such as Mona Hatoum, Steve McQueen, Chris Ofili and Veronica Ryan,” he said.

Presumably the novelty of this situation would have astonished older British artists such as Holbein, Gheeraerts, Eworth, Mytens, Van Dyck, Hollar, Zoffany, Benjamin West, Sickert, Sargent, Wyndham Lewis, Epstein, Auerbach, Kitaj and Freud, to name but a few, and is in addition a good reason for assuming that the art of the future will be far more culturally complex, exciting and relevant than the art of the past. Happy days! But Sir Nicholas has broader ambitions for the institution entrusted to his care (and it’s quite clear he’s talking about Tate Britain at this point every bit as much as Tate Modern):

Sir Nicholas told the Guardian that in the future the Tate should be dramatically recast to integrate “graphics, film, photography and performance. Visual culture is so much more complex than painting or sculpture.”The big idea,” he said, “is that the old hierarchies between painting and sculpture and other forms of expression have evaporated.

“Artists are reflecting on the culture around them — club culture, or whatever it is — and the institution needs to reflect that in the way it shows, presents and buys art.”

Again, once one has recovered from the breathtaking revelation that artists are ‘reflecting on the culture around them’ — clearly an improvement on whatever solipsistic malingering they were getting up to in the past — one is left pondering the practical implications of Sir Nicholas’ remarks. Does this sound like the words of a man who burns with a desire to fill in the blank spots in his institution’s collection of seventeenth and eighteenth century works? Who wakes every morning pondering how best to fix the gaps in the early twentieth century collection? Or, alternatively, does it sound like the sort of man who wants to spend £600,000 on recent work by Tate trustee Chris Ofili, presented in a purpose-build ‘architectural space’ (aka ‘partitioned area with over-emphatic lighting’)? Doubtless Victoria Miro, at any rate, must think he’s getting the balance about right.

Less spiritual than a roomful of monkeys
A word, though, in passing, about Chris Ofili’s The Upper Room, the Tate’s acquisition of which would perhaps have attracted more notice, had Mark Quinn’s grotesquely out-of-scale, slimy-looking Alison Lapper Pregnant not distracted the attention of the small minority who care about these things — and which has, even so, attracted some well-aimed criticism from the even smaller minority willing to speak out against polite consensus.

Now, as it happens — and as much as some readers of this publication may find this admission alarming — I am not someone who thinks that everything Ofili produces is nasty, attention-grabbing, sacreligous rubbish. He may not be the most profound artist ever, but at least at the time of his big 1998 Serpentine show, there was more than a little charm, playfulness and originality there to be seen in his work, so that one came out of the gallery into Kensington Gardens slightly happier, less earnest and more aware of the glitter and sparkle that’s there to be found in the world if one makes the effort to look for it. True, it wasn’t the Arena Chapel — but one can’t go through life expecting that level of soul-stirring impact from every passing work of art. I didn’t find Ofili’s use of elephant droppings particularly shocking. I didn’t even find his contribution to the Royal Academy’s ‘Sensation’ completely without merit, as unlike so many of his coevals there, he had clearly showed some interest in the aesthetic qualities of his efforts, rather than simply focusing on self-promotion and a desire to annoy. And when he represented Great Britain at the 2003 Venice Biennale, I found the result strangely sensitive to its Venetian surroundings, yet still blessed with a fundamental lightness of touch, a refusal to take itself too seriously. So really, by the standards of conservative art critics anyway, I actually quite like Ofili’s work.

The problem I faced at Tate Britain the other day was, then, less some sort of outrage at the content or presentation of The Upper Room itself, than an increasingly queasy suspicion that the Tate now believes it has acquired, in this work, an Arena Chapel pour nos jours. Some of the claims made for this installation — the phrase ‘profound spiritual qualities’ has been used by the Tate Press Office itself — would almost be funny if they weren’t so, well, wide of the mark.

For in truth, this is just more of the usual Ofili output, arranged slightly differently, with extra added hyperbole. Thirteen of the usual person-sized panels, propped up with the usual elephant dung, have been painted in the usual garish colours and flecked with the usual high-camp glitter. But this time, we are forced to make a short journey down a darkened corridor in order to see the result, which I guess is supposed to remind us of every penitential journey on the way to enlightenment — the way into the cave of the Cumaean Sibyl, for instance, or the long journey down to Houston to blink and yawn in the dusky depths of the Rothko Chapel — any anthropology textbook could possibly muster. And once we are in the room, standing amongst these objects, the most striking impressions are those made by the harsh, aggressive lighting, the over-generous spaces between the works, and a generalised impression of pomposity veiling emptiness. Under the circumstances, it would be easy to lose patience with Ofili’s demi-vierge teasing at blasphemy, except that the work just isn’t strong enough to be blasphemous — which is to say, with its rather pointless Christian allusions and total lack of visual charge, it couldn’t possibly hope blaptein anyone’s pheme, except perhaps that of the institution which spent so much to acquire and display it.

Present imperfect
But then that’s the thing about Tate Britain’s emphasis right now: all too often, sparkle seems to matter far more than does quality. For instance, in the context of the current rehang, I imagine that the treatment of F. N. Souza, who is given a room of his own, benefited from Sir Nicholas Serota’s self-proclaimed interest in immigrant artists. Although there’s nothing terribly wrong with Souza’s work, it’s far from clear why it should be where it is, displacing work that is both more central to the traditions Tate Britain exists to curate, and also, well, by most standards, simply better. And by the same token, offering John Latham his own large room seems a rather strange decision. We are told by the Tate Britain Press Office that Latham is ‘perhaps one of the most influential figures in post-war British art’, but it is hard to think who, other than the less successful sort of GCSE at student, has been deeply influenced by the facile symbolism of charred books, or of piranhas representing politicians and the press — not that this stopped the Tate from getting into a mini-row with the artist, who was left calling them ‘cowards’ and crying ‘censorship’. My advice to the Tate is this: when you’re engaging in special pleading, stick with dead artists. At least they can’t answer back.

Meanwhile, how many good Sickerts, Spencers, Spears, Sutherlands, Bacons, Weights, Bratbys and so forth are there to be found in the 20th century displays? At Tate Britain, rehangs are, ultimately, a zero sum game — every decision to display a work is, implicitly, a decision not to hang quite a lot of other works. Every decision to purchase a work is, implicitly, a decision not to purchase something else. And it’s hard to avoid the suspicion that the would-be trendiness mentioned above — evident here as a desire to spice up press releases with lots of references to contemporary or otherwise right-on work, to display such work disproportionately on the Tate’s website or to flag it up in interviews to the exclusion of all else — is, in one form or another, governing too many of the decisions at Tate Britain, whether with respect to acquisitions, display or publicity. We can all see what Tate Britain is trying, so desperately, to look like. But isn’t that fundamentally in conflict with what Tate Britain is, and ought to be?

Mistaken identities
All of which takes us back to the beginning of this essay. The oddities of Tate Britain’s history have bequeathed to it a series of unenviable burdens and sporadically painful paradoxes. Not least, its central responsibility — the care and display of the national collection of British art, 1500-2005 — overlaps, sometimes maddeningly, with those of other institutions such as the Victoria & Albert Museum, the National Portrait Gallery, regional collections the length and breadth of the land, and perhaps most of all with its old ex, Tate Modern, which of course still has some remit to deal with contemporary British art. (And let’s leave aside, for today, the whole issue of whether Tate Britain actually functions as ‘Tate Britain’ at all, or whether ‘Tate England’ would be more to the point.) Tate Britain’s collection includes masterpieces and irrelevances, curiosities and lacunae, the fruits of vanity and short-sightedness as well as generosity and inspiration. Looking to the future, Tate Britain obviously needs to continue to acquire new art, as well as to make the best of what it possesses already. And it needs to convey the excitement, enthusiasm and expertise that many of its staff virtually radiate in the presence of the art they are charged with displaying and interpreting. No one ever said that running Tate Britain was an enviable job. In some ways it’s a wonder that the place gets things right as often as it does.

Yet in order to overcome its many present-day problems, Tate Britain must, first and foremost, sort out the vexed issues of its own institutional identity. What’s the point of that bijou little jewel-box of a building, perched daintily above the Millbank foreshore, and of its contents? Titillating the jaded sensibilities of London’s gallery-going subculture may seem sometimes like the smart option, even the ‘sexy’ option — but when it comes to pleasing Sarah Kent, attracting the same crowds as a Haunch of Venison private view or, heaven help us, replicating the better club-nights of Ibiza in England’s green and pleasant gallery spaces, someone else is always going to be able to do it better.

In the long run, the wiser strategy may well be to embrace the Tate’s original remit, and try to act a bit more like an old-fashioned, historical, didactic, sometimes even flag-flying art collection — a well-thumbed reference work rather than an over-designed style-mag, as it were. Indeed, the time may have come to bring back more clearly chronological, art-historical displays, to put the emphasis on the strongest works rather than the weirdest novelties, to give space to demonstrably ‘important’ art rather than taking expensive punts on fashion trends that may not in fact wear very well. And embarrassing as it may sound, Tate Britain could well find a role for itself in trying to make a case for the international, ongoing importance of British art — the British art of the past, as well as the present, as the two lines of argument are more closely connected that some at Tate Britain seem to think.

To be fair, of course, there are countless cases in recent history where Tate Britain has done just that — in the excellent Michael Andrews exhibition of 2001, for instance, or even the recent Reynolds show, which is far richer and more rewarding than its slightly silly ‘Creation of Celebrity’ subtitle might imply. And there are also displays that work extremely well, and many generous loans to exhibitions and regional galleries, and much else to praise. But at the same time, as this most recent rehang suggests, there are other moments where Tate Britain seems almost embarrassed by some of its holdings, displays and responsibilities. All too often — and here the parallels with that bereft Other Half, trying to pass herself off as someone much younger and wilder and sillier than she actually is, come once again to mind — too many attempts to camouflage a sagging midriff or insufficient knowledge of grime, instead of obviating the central problem, actually draw attention to it.

Learning to love Tate Britain
My prescription, then, for Tate Britain’s next rehang is drawn less from the language of curatorial professionalism, than from the world of self-help literature. First of all, the apologies have to stop! For isn’t that what Sir Nicholas has been doing? Have another look, if you can bear it, at that Guardian interview. He’s sorry that Tate Britain’s artists are mostly white, male — British, even. He’s sorry that the past wasn’t always as right-on as the present. He’s sorry that Tate Britain’s paintings and sculpture are — well, paintings and sculpture, rather than video installations or performance pieces. He’s sorry Tate Britain is what it is.

But it is what it is, and that’s all there is to it. Here’s the bottom line. Self-pity is not an attractive vice. Like the best of us, Tate Britain has its historic strengths, as well as its flaws and limitations. Well, it should play to its strengths. Its strange collection includes startling gems as well as duds; many of its staff possess not simply great enthusiasm for the material with which they work, but unparalleled expertise too; its building is beautiful if sometimes intractable; it tells a story that no other institution could tell in the same way, and believe it or not, that’s a story that many of us are all too anxious to hear. At the same time, though, it should be quiet about its weaknesses. True, it needs to continue to collect relatively recent art, if only for the sake of its collection a century hence. But here, it should play it cool. It should try to look confident. If Tate Britain is a seriously important institution, surely young, healthy, living artists should run after it, begging to have their donated works included amongst Tate Britain’s collections, rather than vice versa? Surely, to do anything else only smacks of a desperation that is not only slightly embarrassing, but also counter-productive?

Most of all, though, Tate Britain should stop pretending to be the über-trendy thing that it so clearly is not. And anyway, who cares what Tate Modern thinks? Once upon a time — and a very short time ago it was — Tate Modern looked like London’s most exciting art space; these days, it’s a little bit too much like one of 2001’s hot ‘see and be seen’ rendezvous, now fallen out of favour with everyone except those who travel on the basis of out-of-date style guides. Because that’s the curse of trendiness — it always goes off in the end. Whereas true individual style, as any dreary, nannyish, unarguable summary of such things will tell you, never ages much, and self-confidence goes a long way towards being a self-fulfilling prophecy. Tate Britain must, in other words, start being itself, and being happy with itself, and must proceed on that basis. For until Tate Britain learns to love itself for what it is, how can it expect the rest of us to follow suit?

Bunny Smedley was co-founder and sometime Arts Editor of electric-review.com.

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Green and pleasant land: A Picture of Britain at Tate Britain

[This review originally appeared on the website of the Social Affairs Unit.]

Each of us has, for better or worse, his or her own secret picture of Britain — the dog-eared mental snapshot we pull out when far away and slightly homesick, or the accidental vision that flashes across our thoughts whenever by the word ‘Britain’ appears in print or conversation. In a sense it doesn’t really matter whether we’ve even visited these islands.

Growing up in America in the early 1970s, long before I’d ever set foot on British soil, my own mental image of Britain was as compelling, to me at least, as it was eccentric. It was an odd confection, cobbled together from old children’s books, pictures in our local art museum, the odd BBC costume drama and who knows what else. Particularly significant, though, were two books, one produced in the late 1930s and the other in the early 1950s. They were titled, respectively, Romantic Britain and Literary Britain. My ignorance of photography is such that only a few minutes ago, seeking accurate titles, did I discover that the latter of these was largely the work of Bill Brandt. But in any event, far too many were the scorching North Carolina summer afternoons that I preferred to spend inside, pouring over those fading black-and-white photos of holy wells, Saxon chancels and lichen-spotted dolmens of mysterious origin. In Britain, I learned, there was no old tree so ordinary as to lack some heart-stopping literary reference, no old bit of masonry so dreary as to have avoided the historically-important siege or Cromwellian slighting, no rolling tree-lined lane that would not culminate in a sublime pairing of parish church and manor-house if one cared to follow it long enough. And so that, strange to say, became my image of the country in which, a little later, I would make my home. Nor am I certain that all those subsequent decades of British reality have provided me with anything as weirdly persuasive, as intuitively functional, as that initial vision.

Doubtless there are also clear-eyed, unsentimental folk out there whose vision of Britain is made up of nondescript suburbs or council estates, out-of-town super-stores and the grim strips of highway that connect them, or perhaps simply the vista stretching all the way from couch past curtained windows out towards the television set as it blares out yet another low-quality US sitcom — who can say? In keeping with our present-day prejudice that the more unpleasant a thing is, the more true it is, they would doubtless congratulate themselves on the unsparing, illusionless qualities of their vision. Well, they may possibly be right.

Up from realism
Such people will, in any event, sneer mightily at A Picture of Britain — a Tate Britain exhibition linked with the six-part BBC television series narrated by David Dimbleby and the obligatory spin-off book. It isn’t so much that the Dimbleby-inflected vision of Britain seems far more similar to Literary Britain and its 1950s ilk than to the contemporary world inhabited by the people who stay in a lot, watching Big Brother, although there’s certainly an element of that. Rather, it’s the fact that A Picture of Britain blanks the Big Brother world entirely.

For although the pictures that make up A Picture of Britain span the eighteenth century to our own, the Britain depicted, even when it’s being depicted by Richard Billingham or Richard Long, is very much the land of Wordsworth and Rupert Brooke, Constable and the old Shell Guides, Turner’s skies and the coolly denatured forms of the St Ives School. Rural labour is assumed to be natural, organic and largely agreeable. Industrialisation, out of vogue at the moment, is nonetheless allowed to show its most handsome face, revealing itself in the celebratory canvases of Joseph Wright of Derby or in Lowry’s cheerfully demotic, nostalgic daubs, as well as in Edward Wadsworth’s Vorticist Black Country. Modernity, when it can no longer be ignored, surfaces in Charles Cundall’s cheerful crowd scene of Brighton day-trippers, or Paul Nash’s haunting Totes Meer where the mangled Luftwaffe aircraft glimmer in the moonlight like the bare bones of ancient yet dangerous monsters.

Admittedly, Britain is not always presented as uncomplicatedly beautiful. What one is not shown, however, is a single towerblock or call centre, or the sprawl of cheap identikit postwar housing lapping now over so much of what used to be the countryside, or those antiseptic successions of shops that could be anywhere or nowhere. This, clearly, is a Britain of blue water, not of Bluewater. Go ahead, then, sneer if you like.

Postcards from the past
All of which means that there are moments where this exhibition reads like a flashback to a different age. This is much an issue of aspiration as it is of achievement. For whatever else it may set out to do, A Picture of Britain does not attempt to expose, reveal, disillusion, disturb, deconstruct, demolish, shock, critique, interrogate or transgress — except, perhaps, in the sense that to avoid setting out to achieve any of these now-conventional ends may well strike contemporary audiences as a slightly risky proposition. Instead, the tone of the exhibition, where not gently didactic, is rarely less than celebratory. At its heart there is a calm assumption that Britain’s historic landscapes are still a source of interest, wonder and delight, both to the British people and to visitors from abroad. On the day I visited the exhibition, it was not only rather crowded but evidently very popular too, generating plenty of conversation and close looking. So perhaps that assumption wasn’t so very far off the mark?

And if it is possible to detect, here and there, a fairly broad hint of anxiety about the survival of these landscapes, it should be remembered that it is exactly in the throes of such anxieties — in the depiction of monastic ruins, in the context of enclosure or creeping urban sprawl, in the leaping shadows of the fires of the Industrial Revolution or of the Second World War — that the greatest British landscape art has been produced. And if Britain is always at her most beautiful in the moments just before she might be expected to vanish forever, it is no wonder that a gloss of Romanticism coats these pictures as thickly as restorers’ varnish. Hence, perhaps, its obsessions and its blind spots. Why dwell on the begrimed and depressing suburban railway platforms, the interchangeable English high streets, the sad stretches of motorway or the unloved and forgettable urban spaces, when they are hardly likely to disappear any time soon? And indeed, why not treat our working country churches, water-meadows, field verges, mossy weirs, seaside resorts and unselfconscious rural architecture as timeless and eternal, especially as their time may well all too soon be up?

Landscape into art
Sharp-witted readers may, by now, have realised how very much I liked this exhibition and how I warmed to what reads in places as a considered, toughly reactionary stance. All the same, more or less anyone ought to find something of value and interest here, if only because of the astonishing diversity of the exhibition’s contents.

Organised thematically, the various rooms are filled not only with obvious ‘masterpieces’ — Gainsborough, Constable, Turner — but also with plenty of deeply unfashionable or forgotten works, each selected to make a point about the ways in which their creators and collectors imagined Britain. For landscape, it transpires, always speaks about something beyond the literal facts of topography. Its learned vocabulary, inherited in large part from the seventeenth century Low Countries and France but also receiving periodic boosts from other schools and individuals — everyone from Titian and Rubens to Corot, Cezanne and Picasso — carried along with it a heavy freight of associations and inflections. So did its history — for landscape is by no means ‘natural’. The habit of seeing the vista before us as a coherent and significant whole, worthy of comment and record, was a learned one, in which Romanticism, the cult of the Picturesque, the Napoleonic Wars, tourism and the railways, among dozens of other factors, all played a part. A Picture of Britain plays out these various strands with elegance and subtlety. It’s a reminder, among other things, of the complicated role that landscape still plays in everything from advertising to daydreams.

And then, of course, there’s the whole issue of content. Envisioning the British landscape could be a way of talking about the most public and general of concerns. More or less chief amongst these public concerns was religion — not just the pantheistic understanding of ‘the sublime’, either, or its bastard offspring, as seen in William Hague’s inability to distinguish between walking in the hills and believing in the risen Christ — but Christianity itself, whether Anglican or otherwise. (Not that this is any surprise — Dutch landscapes were always about Protestantism and nationhood, too.) Samuel Palmer, whose tiny and gem-like works, luminous and visionary, are still less appreciated than they ought to be, painted reports back from the frontier separating heaven and earth, which is to say from his local parish church and the land around it. To study these little paintings is to watch England’s religion of the Word struggling to develop a visual equivalent to George Herbert, and only just failing. Yet religion also permeated even apparently straight-forward works. The most feverishly mimetic of Pre-Raphaelite canvases, such as William Holman Hunt’s Our English Coasts, turns out to have been less a painting about ‘nature’ than a polemical essay on the dangers of heterodoxy and secularism.

Later, as the distinction between nation and confessional community continued to grow ever more self-conscious and less comfortable, the project of re-enchanting the environment with some sort of numinous quality, and not asking too many questions, became ever more urgent. Sometimes, as with Eric Ravillious’s Long Man of Wilmington, the line between public and private meaning disappears, so that the old chalk figure’s mythic and psychosexual significance becomes indistinguishable from the roles of genius loci, guardian of a besieged isle and psychopomp, capable of guiding modernity’s lost souls to some ultimate fastness, half-recollected yet urgently required. And it works, too. Anyone who’s caught an accidental glimpse of the Long Man from a train window as the railway sails past, down towards the South Coast, will realise how effectively the artist, whose father was a low-church lay-preacher, packed all of this into his vision, and how powerfully the resulting image — in the original watercolour, flanked with wartime barbed wire — now infuses its real-world referent.

Where has all the landscape gone?
By the same token, war turns out to have been another preoccupation of British landscape painting. The Napoleonic Wars forced a discontinuation of Grand Tours, encouraging the British aristocracy and their hangers-on to discover, inter alia, the Lake District, North Wales, the Highlands of Scotland and the romantic potential of Britain’s indigenous Gothic ruins. Soon a regular itinerary of picturesque and sketchable stops had been drawn up, complete with guide-books and on-site amenities. What began as an elite preoccupation soon permeated genteel society. As British landscape began to interest an increasingly broad swathe of the British people, its central images became familiar ones halfway around the world, too, so that knowledge of these, and enthusiasm for them, became yet another facet of British cultural identity. And so it was that daffodils, chaffinches, medlars, hedgehogs, willows, apples, loughs, burns, banks an’ braes became part of the inheritance of millions of children who might go on to live long lives without in fact seeing, hearing, tasting, climbing or otherwise interacting with any one of these things. The literary inheritance was followed up with the visual, aural and even sensory one. Britain had escaped its own geographical limits.

This was landscape in expansive mode. It prevailed for about a century after Waterloo. The 20th century, however, brought about a notable shift in inflection. The brilliant landscape art of the 1920s and 30s was both a response to Continental art movements, and an increasingly precarious appreciation of the beauties of islands under threat. The post-war period, however, saw pervasive high-cultural suspicion of romanticism, mysticism, sentimentality, figurative painting styles and anything that looked remotely like pre-war nationalism. And since landscape painting couldn’t, for perfectly good reasons, entirely extricate itself from any of these things — except perhaps in the abstractions of St Ives, where landscape was sublimated effectively if, it must be said, at the cost of quite a lot of intrinsic interest, or when caked in enough heavy irony — it fell out of fashion. So it’s to the credit of the curators of A Picture of Britain that they have managed to include in the exhibition enough striking, relatively recent offerings — works by Michael Andrews, Hamish Fulton, Richard Long and so forth — to invite informed speculation about landscape’s future within the visual arts. There’s at least the implication that landscape has an awful lot of life in it yet. The means of expression may change, and the preoccupations and elisions will inevitably shift with the passing of generations, but the urge to look around us and make something of what we see is probably an innate one. We haven’t seen the last of the land we inhabit, or its scope to stand in as metaphor for something else..

Missed opportunities?
And so we move through the various thematically-organised rooms winding across Tate Britain’s low and windowless ground floor: the Romantic North, War and Peace, the Highlands and Glens, the Heart of England, the Flatlands and the Mystical West. The content shifts and swells and eddies, just as radically as does style or indeed basic painterly competence. Yet despite the rather uncharismatic setting, the hang has been carried out with a real feeling for atmosphere, humour and revelation. It may sound a stupid thing to say, but I do wish a version of this exhibition could be kept at Tate Britain permanently. As it will not, however, I shall just have to visit it as often as possible over the coming months.

A Picture of Britain is not, however, a perfect exhibition. It has three flaws, one of which matters much less than the others. The least important flaw involves the catalogue. As mentioned above, A Picture of Britain is a tripartite enterprise: Tate Britain exhibition, BBC television series, accompanying book. Unfortunately, it is not quite clear whether the book accompanies the exhibition or the television series. Since there is inevitably quite a lot of difference between the former and the latter, the confusion soon starts to tell.

As it happens, the television programme is a delightful business. In six episodes, it chronicles veteran broadcaster David Dimbleby’s barely sub-regal progress through a succession of beautiful and deeply emotive places, in which he is able to exude a mild beneficence undercut with the tiniest, if most necessary sliver of self-knowledge. In any event, the result is perfect. The production is flawless, the humour gentle, the coherence of the project absolute. If I say that during each of the episodes I have seen, I have, in fact, dozed off, it will sound like a criticism. But I don’t mean it that way! I mean it, rather, as an expression of trust, agreement and contentment — rather like motoring through the countryside in a well-conditioned Bentley driven by an old friend in whom one has the most complete confidence. Well, why not nod off occasionally?

The problem here, however, is that the exhibition and the television programme aren’t identical. How could they be? The images are different, the pace is different, some of the interpretation of specific works varies a bit — and the role of our genial host is rather greater onscreen than it is at Tate Britain, at any rate unless one visits in rather more exciting company than I did. The catalogue, however, attempts to span both. It does not entirely succeed. It isn’t that it is bad, exactly. It’s a handsomely-illustrated book featuring stimulating essays by Tate curators David Blayney Brown, Richard Humphreys and Christine Riding, as well as thoughtful and entirely enjoyable commentary from Mr Dimbleby himself. Although the book would make an excellent gift for aged relatives of nervous or liverish temper, it’s actually a far better piece of writing than this suggests. And in a sense, that’s the problem. Given the amount of unfamiliar, unfashionable or simply stunningly re-contextualised work on show in the exhibition itself, I do wholeheartedly lament the lack of a fully-illustrated, serious exhibition catalogue — complete with proper notes on each work — existing alongside this more popular, ‘accessible’ offering. The financial reasons why this didn’t happen are too obvious, and also too sad, to invite explanation. Still, it’s a pity. The result might have been a significant reference work that would give this important exhibition a half-life stretching on for decades. And if the organisers are serious about what really does look like a strong, positive message about landscape, the missed opportunity is a poignant one.

The British Problem
That, though, is simply a question of art and publishing, neither of which matters much. The second flaw is far more significant. It hinges on the whole concept of ‘Britain’. As those who are alert to issues of this sort may have noticed, in a few of the paragraphs above I was struggling slightly. When I wrote ‘Britain’, were there occasions when what I really meant was ‘England’ — or England with Wales and Scotland — or perhaps even a Britain that takes in Ireland too? Undoubtedly so. The exhibition organisers have chosen to call their creation A Picture of Britain. But it’s a picture with a very particular vantage-point. At the centre is England. Wales figures not much at all. And while Scotland looms large, and is the focus of much very interesting discussion — notably, the creation of the Highlands as a place as rich in myth as it is bare of much else — that’s about it. Insofar as Northern Ireland is concerned, it is at best treated as a sort of disreputable extension of the Scottish Highlands and at worst, as something so alien and discouraging as to merit averted eyes and richly meaningful silence.

So this is very clearly ‘Britain’ in the small, geographical sense, meaning the biggest of the British Isles. But if the Britain mentioned in the title means anything, it surely ought to mean ‘Britain’ in the big sense — the Britain that wins wars, built an empire and continues to disseminate its cultural and linguistic heritage across the face of much of this planet. It cannot, in any event, just mean England, which still gets the lion’s share of attention here. Obviously, the question of where England fits within an understanding of Britishness is a huge, serious, messy and contentious one. To do justice to its complexities would have required another whole exhibition — not an easy one to curate, either. But at the same time, there was no way of arranging the present exhibition without taking at the very least some sort of implicit stance about the place of England within Britain, and about the Britain projected out into the world.

So my complaint, in essence, is that the stance taken is the wrong one. If part of landscape painting is always about painting what ought to be — reforming the world to suit a particular vision — then A Picture of Britain should have squared up to the whole question of what its content says about its avowed subject-matter. Instead, those Scottish discussions notwithstanding, it implicitly underplays both the role of landscape art in creating national identities within the British Isles, and the role of landscape art in providing a shared identity that transcended local particularism just as it transcended topographical literalism. Both these strike me as important. Both are underplayed. Yet I am not sure the curators really fully made up their minds about these issues, since the inclusion of work by Sligo-born Jack Yeats (or ‘Jack Butler Yeats’, as it is strangely rendered in the exhibition catalogue) rather brings them to the fore again. And indeed, if you click ‘Belfast’ or ‘Londonderry’ on Tate Britain’s interactive map, you end up in ‘Highlands and Glens’. Enthusiast for the Union though I am, surely there are some basic geographical limits? Seriously, is that rather odd, or what?

It isn’t banned in galleries, you know
Let us move on rapidly. The third flaw is one that has become all too common these days — c.f. the forthcoming Stubbs exhibition at the National Gallery. Here, though, at A Picture of Britain, it is possibly even more upsetting. How can a show so blissfully free of political correctness in most aspects of its organisation have fallen so catastrophically at, as it were, the last fence?

For there are no hunting images in this exhibition. The longer one pauses to consider this omission, the more curious and regrettable it becomes. Hunting is, after all, one of the central ways in which individuals have, for centuries, experienced and understood the land around them — walls, coverts, hills, hedges, copses, brooks and banks. Its rhythms and rituals are almost impossible to disaggregate from certain areas of the British countryside. The hunting print was not only a mainstay of Britain’s imagined landscape, but also a visual form produced more effectively here than anywhere else. This is why from Paris and Amsterdam to Prague and St Petersburg and Kuala Lumpur, any English-themed space can easily broadcast its identity through the use of hunting imagery. Yet in A Picture of Britain, while farming, tourism, industry, recreation, worship and warfare all feature, the mounted hunt does not. So the silence of the hunting horn turns out to be the one of the few false notes sounded in this otherwise intelligent, delightful and inspiring exhibition.

Blue remembered hills
We all think we know what Britain looks like. Some, oceans away, will benefit from a vision unclouded by the annoying interventions of real life. Others, surrounded by the realities of Britain on a day-to-day basis, may find their vision cluttered with ill-considered light industrial premises, petrol-station forecourts on the journey in from suburbs now bled dry of even their faint Edwardian charms, or the unsubtle promptings of a thousand corporate logos shining out against a wet grey sky. Yet whether you are the sort of person who believes that art reveals hidden truths, or alternatively, the sort of person who believes that art exists to protect us from the truth, A Picture of Britain is an exhibition not to be missed.

Landscape painting’s relationship with realism has always been a sly and surreptitious one. Not least amongst the wonders of A Picture of Britain is John Crome’s Mousehold Heath (c. 1818-20). It shows that famous hill, bald and bare, upon which Kett’s rebels camped and campaigned for various rather inchoate demands before the full force of Tudor central government descended upon them. The handling is all Dutch — Ruysdael seems to hover over the landscape, waiting only to apply a flash of his signature gold before soaring away again — but the local appeal to a Norwich audience would always have been strong. The oddity, though — brought out well in the exhibition — is that by the late 18th century Mousehold Heath had been enclosed with fences and carved up with roads. It couldn’t have looked remotely like Crome’s version of it at the time he painted it. So what Crome painted was doubly a fiction. It’s a Netherlandish account of an East Anglian place that no longer existed other than in history and dreams. It’s a magical painting. Much of its magic resides in the pure fact of its freedom from real life. Crome was both recalling and creating a landscape. What he was not doing was recording topography. Topography, after all, changes as much as we all do, with results that invite regret as much as hope. Crome’s painting captures this well, giving his work the qualities both of an incantation and a lament. Landscape painting is, after all, at its best, generally both these things — acknowledging loss as much as dreaming fitfully of a happier, less precarious future. This is why we will always need it, all of us, whether we realise it or not.

Bunny Smedley was one of the founders of Electric Review. She lives in central London.

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Lucian Freud’s retrospective at Tate Britain

The advantage of being ‘our greatest living painter’ is, I suppose, that everyone has some sense of what you work is like; the disadvantage is that most people’s sense of your work will invariably be wrong. Hence Lucian Freud will go down in popular history as the artist who painted ugly, non-erotic nudes spread-eagled amid squalid settings. Unfair? Of course – but when someone says ‘Lucian Freud’ to you, what image comes into your mind?

Tate Britain’s major Freud retrospective (sponsored by UBS Warburg) which opens on 20 June, shows at once how right it is to hand the laurels of painterly supremacy to Freud, and how wrong it is to write him off as a chronicler of veiny breasts, sallow sagging flesh and unsprung sofas. The majority of works on show are not nudes – indeed, a fair number aren’t even portraits. Freud is perfectly capable of diverting his attention away from the human figure to deal instead with horseflesh (as in his lovely, persuasive Filly (1970)), or greenery (Cyclamen 1964, Two Plants 1977-80), the best running water painted within our lifetimes (Two Japanese Wrestlers by a Sink 1983-7), or the mesmerising ordinariness of everyday London life viewed with unaccustomed clarity (Wasteground with Houses, Paddington, 1970-72). In his portraits, the non-human elements occasionally end up stealing the show, starting with Interior in Paddington 1951 (the large unhealthy plant, at least as menacing as the angry young man it flanks) and carrying on to include Night Portrait 1977-8 (the quilted silken coverlet) and Two Irishmen in W11 1984-5 (the stuccoed Paddington terraces glimpsed out the window, punctuated by an ugly skyscraper beyond). Nor has Britain seen such a skilled and sensitive painter of whippets for a very long time, as several works (Double Portrait 1985-6, Pluto and the Bateman Sisters 1996) make abundantly clear.

Freud, then, is about more than nudes. Indeed, as if to amplify this very point, the most powerful group of works in this show have nothing whatsoever to do with nudity. Between 1972 and 1989, the artist made a series of portraits of his mother, Lucie Freud. She was old, wrinkled, and badly depressed after her husband’s death, yet these amazing paintings are remarkable not so much for the truths they tell about ageing flesh and the stealthy approach of death – striking though these are – as for their weird combination of tenderness and ruthlessness. Freud seems to have spent much of his life trying to avoid his mother (apparently she was a very forgiving parent, and doted on her son, but ‘it was being forgiven I didn’t like’) yet here we are invited to experience the tensions of those hours spent so near to her, examining and recording every detail of her appearance as she stared vacantly ahead of her. Here one feels less that psychological insight we are always being invited to detect in Freud’s work, than a battle of two formidable wills. In The Painter’s Mother Reading 1975 (certainly one of the greatest paintings Freud ever created) the elderly woman is reading a book, but even though her eyes are turned downwards, she looks shrewd, almost humorous, and more than a match for her wayward son. By the time of The Painter’s Mother Resting 1982-4, however, her face is all resignation; the paisley ensemble of previous paintings has faded down to a shroud-like white, interrupted only by a beautifully-realised hand laid across her torso; rarely has any painting looked so silent, or any subject so ready for death. It was not until five years later, however, that she died. Freud drew her one last time as she lay on her deathbed – eyes closed, dentures removed, lips sunken. As a group, these works are surprisingly powerful, not least because it is so easy to see in them, or perhaps project on them, even the more painful ambiguities of mother-child relationships. For whatever reason, though, they are unforgettable, and ought to banish forever the idea that Freud can only paint naked women on sofas.

Now that his old Soho drinking pal Francis Bacon is dead, there can be little doubt that Lucian Freud is our greatest living painter. (One could make claims for Auerbach, Hockney and others, but invariably Freud’s claims seem stronger.) It is absolutely right that now, on the eve of his 80th birthday, he should be accorded this major retrospective at Tate Britain. The show, curated by William Feaver (apparently with considerable help from the artist himself) could hardly look better, hung across a succession of large rooms benefiting from a lot of natural light. The organisation is chronological, rather than thematic, a decision which fits well with the fact that Freud’s models are almost invariably important figures in his own life. But in keeping with contemporary fashion and its preference for aesthetic buzz over didactic slogging, Feaver has made a brave decision more or less to banish explanatory labels. ‘Look at the pictures!’ he says, knowing that most of us would otherwise spend far too long on the written commentary. This has the effect of stripping the sitters of any identity beyond that Freud chooses to create for them – ‘is that really Kate Moss? It doesn’t look much like her’ a woman commented incredulously on the morning I saw the show, peering at a marvellous little painting called Woman with Eyes Closed 2002. I had assumed was a portrait of Emily Bearn. Perhaps it’s someone else altogether. Perhaps it doesn’t matter anyway.

The show traces Freud’s artistic development from 1939 (only six years after he arrived in England aged 10, an émigré from Nazi Germany) to the present day. Obviously enough, constructing such a history is never either a neutral nor an objective business. (Bacon’s solicitude for his own career narrative led him to destroy a great deal of his early work, not only the failures but the work that was simply far too indebted to Picasso – his real father had not been much of a success, and the last thing Bacon wanted was an art-historical surrogate.) From the schoolboy-Cézanne apples of Box of Apples in Wales 1939 to the astoundingly accomplished drawing of Christian Bérard (1948), the hang insists (as does the catalogue) on an artistic lineage connecting Freud with France, rather than Germany – whether one means by that the Germany of Durer or Grünewald or the Neue Sachlichkeit. (There is also an intriguing case made in the catalogue for Freud’s indebtedness to an old Phaidon art book, J. H. Breasted’s Geschichte Aegyptens (1936), and photograph of a stone head of Amenhotep IV (1372-1358 BC), better known as Akhenaten.) Claims that Freud ever had any truck with symbolism or surrealism are brushed aside, despite the visual evidence of works like The Painter’s Room 1943-44 (introducing those leitmotifs of Freud’s early work, the spikey plant and stuffed zebra-head, coupled with the threadbare sofa, at once analytic couch and premonition of so many later works), spanning all the way to Sunny Morning – Eight Legs 1997 in which surreal narrative is implied by the image as loudly as it is denied by the painter.

The show also posits an essential continuity between ‘early’ Freud (in which thin paint is applied precisely with a sable brush, up until circa 1959) and ‘later’ Freud (from circa 1959, in which thicker paint, including grainy Cremnitz white, is applied with a broader hogshair brush). It does this through Freud’s subdued palette of colours, through concentrating on portraits rather than other work, and – at least in the case of the later style – by the rigid set of conditions under which Freud creates these portraits.

Freud doesn’t portray people amid the normal circumstances of their lives – he portrays them being painted by Lucian Freud. This may sound too obvious to need saying, were it not for the fact that it explains a great deal that people have found curious or problematic in his work. It explains, for instance, the persistently dingy settings (no better or worse than those in most painters’ studios), the unsparing light, the glazed or withdrawn or faintly troubled expressions on the sitters’ faces (something which should surprise no one who has ever drawn from a live model for more than an hour at a time). Rarely can any painter have made as much a feature of this as Freud does. Freud has rarely – on the evidence of this show, anyway – painted subjects out in the open air, and then only very early in his career. Instead, these north London studios are central to his work. Hence all those white rags (left over from cleaning loaded brushes), the spatters of paint, the studio sink, even the mortar and pestle under his mother’s chair in Large Interior W9 1973 which he apparently uses for grinding charcoal for pigment. Hence the general reluctance to identify paintings by the name of the subject, since that would draw attention to the subject’s own objective life in the world beyond the painting. Hence part of the attraction, perhaps, of painting the subject naked if possible, since this means removing any evidence of the subject’s own taste.

It is this, rather than nudity or even a particular way of handling paint, that lies at the heart of Freud’s recognisable manner. Freud has shown a complete unwillingness to make his studio look like anything other than his studio, or to make his sitters look like anything other than people sitting for a painting by Lucian Freud. And easy though it might be to speculate on the psychological origins of such an approach, the reasons behind it really do not matter much. ‘Everything is autobiographical,’ Freud has said. This is spectacularly true in Freud’s portraits, if only for their insistence on recording his act of creating them. Freud the artist is everywhere in his pictures.

He is also everywhere in this exhibition. William Feaver, who curated this show, first met Freud in 1973 and is writing a biography of the painter. Freud seems to have been consulted over the choice of pictures and the way in which they have been hung. It is impossible to avoid the feeling that the retrospective he’s been given is basically the one he has made for himself – a portrait of the artist in his own work, as he wishes to be portrayed. It is, in itself, a work of art.

Not that I mean this as a criticism, really – more as a caveat. Because make no mistake – this is a marvellous, almost magically good show, bringing together a fascinating body of work and showing it off to spectacular advantage. Having Freud on board doubtless helped with everything from securing loans (including those from Freud himself) to providing a lively and stimulating catalogue essay. At the same time, however, it is important to remember that there may be other ways of reading Freud than those provided with his blessing. Any retrospective dealing with more than sixty productive years of an artist’s working life is bound to be, of necessity, selective. So what are we missing here? Certainly, some beautiful early work – for instance, a still-life of prawns which was shown at a London commercial gallery in 1998 – was not present in the show. This is not to say that there is any sinister pattern in these omissions – just that we simply cannot know what is missing, what is gently being pushed towards the foreground, or what is just as quietly being nudged out of the ambit of history.

William Feaver’s excellent catalogue, Lucian Freud, is a delight to read – the colours are good too – yet there are points at which Feaver’s willingness to accept Freud’s statements at face value is nothing short of shocking. Take, for example, his account of Freud’s transition from a comfortable, upper-middle-class Berlin household, complete with a familiar cast of servants, friends and schoolmates, to a liberal boarding school in Devon. Of life in Berlin we are told that

like the other two Jewish boys in his school he was ineligible for Hitler Youth but was told he wasn’t missing much, though the sausages were good.

Once in Devon, he took advantage of his new school’s liberal regime by spending most of his time tending goats, riding horses and avoiding lessons. Having been removed from this school, he was eventually expelled from his next school

not, it so happened, for having redirected a pack of foxhounds into the school hall and up the stairs (‘all flapping round’) but as a consequence of being dared to drop his trousers in a Bournemouth street.

Far be it from me to condemn Freud from deciding to portray himself as a dandyish tearaway rather than a miserable refugee (of whom he must have met quite a number during and after the war); perhaps he genuinely didn’t mind this radical dislocation in his life; perhaps his unwillingness to fit in at his new schools was simply an attractive gesture of individualism rather than a real crisis dealing with his changed circumstances; perhaps he never bothered to worry about what happened to friends and family left behind in Germany; perhaps all of this is simply fact, rather than desire to identify with heroes rather than victims. Or perhaps the legacy of his famous grandfather’s name was a permanent prophylactic to introspection. Who can say? The point, though, is this: if there is any self-mythologising going on, either regarding the work or the man, no one seems willing or able to challenge it. Freud is obviously a charismatic, compelling, engaging figure – a fact perfectly clear amid the turbulence surrounding his complex personal life – and he appears to have this retrospective exactly the way he wants it.

Again, it is possible to argue whether any of this matters much. It is possible to project more or less anything onto a painting. In recent decades it has become conventional for critics to ascribe to Freud near-mystical powers of psychological insight. As Feaver puts it in his notes to the exhibition, ‘the portrait of a painter friend, John Minton [1952], may be deemed to have anticipated, by five years, Minton’s suicide in 1957’. Really? Minton looks a bit anxious in his portrait, but so does Francis Bacon in the famous miniature (stolen, alas – location presently unknown) also painted in 1952. Had Bacon died in 1957, and Minton lived to an enjoyably disgraceful old age, once cannot help but feel that the Bacon portrait would have also ‘anticipated’ this development. The same goes for many of Freud’s other paintings onto which a particularly heavy load of biographical baggage has been heaped – for instance, Girl with a White Dog 1950-1, in which we can apparently see that his first wife, Kitty Garman, is ‘tense’ and ‘resigned to her role’, or Freud’s poignant and beautifully-rendered Last Portrait of Leigh 1995, painted before Freud knew that Bowry was dying of AIDS and yet seeming somehow, with those closed blue eyelids and parted lips, to foreshadow the death that lay only months away. When tackled about the meaning of his paintings, their weirder incidental details and so on, Freud tends to retreat into formal explanations, in which ‘visual interest’ plays a prominent part. Yet he must also realise – since he is one of those rare artists blessed or cursed with great skill in speaking about their visual work – that neither critics nor the general public can avoid creating narratives out of his compositions, and that – more to the point – given the subject-matter, these narratives can only add to the layers of myth surrounding his own eventful life.

There is yet another way in which an exhibition might have challenged Freud’s own account of himself. Again, I must stress that I mean this as no criticism of the present retrospective, which is probably the finest thing to happen on Millbank since the launch of Tate Britain – if anything, it is simply a point about the inherent limitations of the one-man retrospective. The problem with the single-artist formula is that, by its very nature, it strips the work out of any sort of context beyond its place in the artist’s personal development. Thus we have no idea of how the work might have looked at the time, where it might have found allies or enemies, what boundaries it might have been pushing, how it looked in the world for which it was made. As Freud’s second wife, Caroline Blackwood, put it in 1993,

It is interesting to remember that the many portraits [Freud] painted in the forties and fifties, in what is now considered his most romantic and gentle style, at the time were seen by many as shocking and violent and cruel.

She’s right, of course – this is interesting, but for those of us who didn’t see this work first time round, the full force of this point comes only from, say, memories of the Barbican’s recent show of 1950s art, and from some knowledge of the work of Bacon and Auerbach and Michael Andrews (and perhaps their Continental and trans-Atlantic contemporaries), together with some vague cognisance of British Pop Art and the much-heralded ‘death of painting’ – all of which can only be a weak substitute for the sort of show that would put Freud back into the context in which he was working.

Not least, this might shed some light on the interesting question of Freud’s actual skill as a painter. Freud seems to have taught himself more or less everything he knows about art, from the tiny, meticulous, obsessive sable-strokes of the earlier works down to that oddly additive style – paint dabbed on over paint, until the result looks like some sort of growth generated organically by the canvas itself – so evident, for instance, around Freud’s old-manish neck in Painter Working, Reflection 1993. ‘Learning to paint,’ Freud once said, ‘means learning how to use paint,’ and this retrospective provides a fascinating visual account of this programme of education. One thing seems fairly clear, though – facility has never been a problem for Freud. His draughtsmanship can be almost laughably bad (those feet in Painter Working, Reflection 1993, or the weirdly lurching servant in the frankly dreadful After Cézanne 2000. Indeed, there has to be a suspicion that his fondness for painting seated or recumbent figures stems not simply from the fact that these poses are the easiest to hold for long periods of time, but from his inability to make a figure look as if it is bearing its own weight on two legs. On the other hand, few artists have ever made flesh hang on bone and skin on flesh as Freud, at his best (the monumental Benefits Supervisor Resting 1994, those brilliantly-observed and strangely tender feet in Annabel Sleeping 1987-8, the old woman’s skin in The Painter’s Mother Resting III 1977) has been able to do.

I am not one of those critics who feel that Freud is entering, as Titian did, into a great late style. The later paintings in this show seemed to me considerably less good, less disciplined, less insightful than those in earlier rooms. Still, there were some delightful recent works, not least Daughter and Father 2002, tiny yet eloquent, and the lovely Frances Costello, where every single stroke of the brush seems to do something different and surprising and magical. Some of my favourite works in the show are physically small; the intimate scale seems to make it easier for Freud to control his effects. Yet there is also something strangely endearing about the hit-and-miss character of Freud’s art – a dandyish, devil-may-care bravado, but also a touching willingness to push himself a little bit further than he can easily go. This is why, despite the fact that his work can come across as excessively mannered or even technically inept, it seems so clear, on the evidence of this retrospective, that Freud really is our greatest living painter. I love Auerbach’s landscapes, but after he moved into a brighter palette in the 1960s and then a sweeter palette in the 1980s, he has, in essence, been ploughing the same furrow again and again. Hockney seems to me no longer British, slightly lazy in his fame, and no longer the tough draughtsman he was in the 1960s. And one could extend the list, but to what end? Freud produces failures as well as successes, but there is something heroic and admirable, as well as occasionally arrogant, about the vigour with which he does both. Freud emerges from this late self-portrait looking very great indeed.

The Lucian Freud retrospective (sponsored by UBS Warburg) runs from 20 June to 22 September at Tate Britain (tickets £9), and continues thereafter at Fundacio ‘la Calixa’, Barcelona, and thereafter at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles.

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