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Don’t blame the culture wars for Tate Britain’s disappointing rehang

30 May 2023

There has been a certain amount of criticism launched at the Tate Britain rehang – the museum’s first in 10 years. While the Sunday Times’ Waldemar Januszczak hailed it as, ‘finally, a gallery rehang that works’, the majority of verdicts have been negative – from Jonathan Jones calling it ‘the museum where art goes to sleep’ in the Guardian, to Alastair Sooke of the Telegraph accusing it of being ‘a hectoring history lesson’. All of which has been accompanied by a low rumble of muttering that has attempted to turn it into another battlefield in the culture wars: an attack on art itself in the holy name of inclusivity. The truth is that it is not very good, but not for any of the reasons that have been suggested.

As far as ideological objections go, the criticisms all seems a bit ginned up. It is true that the new labels and displays make repeated reference to colonialism, slavery and various other forms of exploitation; there are, too, ongoing references to the fact that migration, displacement and war are not uniquely 21st-century phenomena. But the results are hardly hectoring, and nor do they reduce all art to ‘a cipher for social history,’ as J.J. Charlesworth writes in Art Review. The truth is that all gallery labels are, by their very nature, broad-brush simplifications, and these are neither exceptionally nor exceptionably so. Nineteenth-century artists did, as the labels have it, ‘often overlook, caricature or romanticise the experiences of women, people of colour, workers or those living in poverty’; their crowd scenes do tend to ‘reflect the perspectives and prejudices of middle-class viewers’. Is art so fragile that it can’t stand up to these ideas? If your capacity to appreciate an object wilts at the merest contact with reality, then you should consider the possibility that perhaps you’re not capable of aesthetic appreciation at all.

To be fair to the critics, the inclusivity side is a mixed bag. More room has been made – as it should – for works of and by women, people of colour and others from under-represented groups. Bringing hitherto neglected works to the walls is exactly what a rehang should do. And yet, it is not well executed. The dedication of a whole room to the painter Annie Swynnerton, meanwhile, feels almost like trolling. The fact that she was historically interesting – a suffragist who was in 1922 elected the first female Associate Royal Academician since the 18th century – cannot rescue work that is, well, dreadful. She and we both would have been better served by letting her penetrating Portrait of Susan Isabel Dacre (1880) stand singly for her reputation, rather than surrounding her with a heinously saccharine crop of apple-cheeked infants. The idea of having contemporary works intervene in historical rooms, meanwhile, is undermined by a feeling of bittiness and tokenism. What exactly Exodus II (2002) by Mona Hatoum, a pair of suitcases linked by locks of hair, has to say to a group of Tudor portraits is unclear – even if you buy that these latter are somehow about migration.

Installation view of the rehang at Tate Britain, with Exodus II (2002) by Mona Hatoum in the foreground. Photo: © Tate/Lucy Green

The failures, though, are not actually about the ideology at play, but the execution. The Swynnerton experience is made all the more disappointing by following on from one of the places where the curators have got it right: the Woolf-inspired ‘A Room of One’s Own’. Featuring Sylvia Pankhurst’s Suffragette tea set (1909) surrounded by paintings of interiors and domestic portraits, the room makes a case for exactly the kind of socio-historical context found next door – but with the bonus of good art. From the well-known – Ennui (1914) by Walter Sickert – to the obscure and no less wonderful – Chintz Couch (c. 1910–11) by Ethel Sands – it brings out the best in the Tate’s collection.

There are high points elsewhere, too. Rooms 13 and 15 – ‘In Modern Times’ and ‘International Modern’ – are hung with an eye for detail that neatly sets the politics of the times against the achievements of artists such as Ben and Winifred Nicholson, David Bomberg and Jacob Epstein. Bomberg’s In the Hold (1913–14) bursts with energy in a display that manages simultaneously to make an ample case for lower-key treasures, such as the serene Hampstead Garden Suburb from Willifield Way (c. 1914) by William Ratcliffe.

In The Hold (c. 1913–14), David Bomberg. Photo: © Tate

Elsewhere, though, it is the precisely the basics that fail: poorly-grouped works on poorly-coloured walls in poorly-lit rooms. In Room 23, acres of bare grey emulsion sap the life from masterpieces by Francis Bacon – paintings that are already struggling to survive the hulking presence of the Henry Moore sculptures they have been forced to cohabit with. In Room 8 – housing Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose (1885–86) by John Singer Sargent – the paintings have been hung unnaturally low. In Room 2, William Dobson’s outrageously good portrait of Endymion Porter (c. 1642–45) is placed in something that feels rather like the children’s section of a local library; the painting’s tale of radicalism and civil war is undermined by a cartoonish display of enlarged Civil War pamphlets and benches modelled on tiny buildings. As for the lighting, perhaps it was beyond the curatorial remit – but if so, it shouldn’t have been. A near-perfect facsimile of the worst kind of winter’s day, it flattens the pictures to a quite astonishing degree, especially in the contemporary sections. Under its malign glower, A Bigger Splash (1967) by David Hockney – placed in a room titled ‘In Full Colour’ – looks less like a celebration of Californian sun than an Instagram post of Brockwell Lido.

Cumulatively, it adds up to something that is not an outrage but a disappointment: a menu of poor curatorial choices that have nothing to do with ideology, and everything to do with the basic job of displaying art so it looks good. As I emerged blinking into the sunlight, I felt, as the old saying goes, not angry but disappointed.