Tate Hangs Back

A debate has been going about Tate Britain’s new chronological “hang” of its pictures. Do we want to see the nation’s art in the order its people first saw it? Or, now that we have them, do we want to see all the Gainsboroughs, all the Pre-Raphaelites, hung together so that we can study and judge them? Some people are arguing crossly that we do want that. For my part, I think that the curator has made a good and gallant decision.

I remember, when I was a boy, first coming across Chekhov’s stories. I found them here and there in anthologies and other miscellaneous places, and was continually astonished. Then someone told me about a Collected Chekhov that was coming out. I hated the idea. I wanted to go on finding them by chance-pleasures that would break into my life in their own good time. I still do not own a collected edition.

In the past, most people who liked paintings saw them in this way. They appeared over altars in churches. They were bought by princes and wealthy men, and some fortunate people might be invited to see them. Who in Titian’s day — even emperors and dukes who commissioned them — had any idea of all the pictures he had painted? But they loved what they had got.

Prints began to spread knowledge of artists’ work, dealers sprang up, artists began putting on shows of new offerings in shops rather than in their studios. More people began to get an idea of what artists were up to. Then museums started making collections, and retrospective shows began. But for hundreds of years what anyone might actually see was totally haphazard. 

Of course to walk through Tate Britain — where not just the artists but even the individual works are separated by their dates — is not quite the same as walking through history. This is, in spite of everything, a curated show. A curator — the museum’s director, Penelope Curtis — has chosen the pictures. But she has not imposed her own vision on the story. She has shown works that were welcomed, for whatever reasons, by the patrons, buyers, critics, public and other painters of the day. And there are no accompanying explanations on the wall — just dates.

So when you go round Tate Britain you get an idea of what it was like when people who appreciated art were stumbling their way along, not knowing what they were going to find or what they were going to like. Nowadays our view of artists of both the past and the present is largely steered and manipulated by an unholy alliance — not necessarily even a very conscious alliance — of exhibition curators, collectors, art historians, critics and dealers, all of whom have their own interest in the outcome (and all of whom contribute to the vast exhibition catalogues that need a caddy to carry them around).

Tate Britain at least gives one a taste of times when art lovers flew on their own wings in a mapless world, as I was once happy to do with my Chekhov stories.

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