James Tissot • Portsmouth Dockyard c.1877 • © Tate


3rd February 2012

What, Jill Glenn wondered, as she headed off to Migrations: Journeys into British Art, was she going to this for? Translation: what are they staging it for? By the time she’s seen it, she’s wondering why no-one’s ever done it before…

Penelope Curtis’s very thoughtful introduction to the accompanying book explains the thinking behind Tate Britain’s new exhibition, flagging up how much of ‘British’ art is not ‘British’ at all, but created by individual incomers or immigrant communities… and migration, she says, both in her printed word and in the short talk she gave to introduce the team of curators and the concept behind the exhibition, is always topical – perhaps now more so than ever. The Journeys Into British Art flagged up by the subtitle indicate both the journeys made by the practitioners and perpetrators, and our own journeys as we find new ways to look at art history.

This is the first time that the Tate has used a team of curators (half a dozen in all) to put together a single exhibition; the collaborative approach is new, and is part of an attempt to take a new approach to how they look at art, and how they use the permanent collections. Remarkably little has been borrowed from other galleries for this exhibition, flagging up what a marvellous – and naturally eclectic – resource the Tate owns. Anything that brings great pieces out of storage has to be a good thing, and so that gets my first tick.

One of the exhibitions avowed aims is to allow works of art to speak to each other across time, creating a sense of looseness and fluidity. It has been conceived as a journey from the 16th and 17th centuries through to the present day – a journey with some interesting stopping points on the way. The first – a section entitled Portraiture and New Genres – demonstrates perfectly co-curator Tim Batchelor’s assertion that almost all British art at this time was created by incomers, even the images that we consider as archetypically British: Hans Holbein’s Tudor portraits, especially of Henry VIII, for example, or Van Dyck’s subtle elegant images of Charles I and his Queen Henrietta Maria. The two Van Dyck works (both loaned by the Chequers Trust) are shown here, along with earlier portraits that look quintessentially English – but which challenge our preconceptions when we read the names (and birthplaces) of the artists: Marcus Gheeraerts II, Simon Du Bois, Benedetto Gennari and Hans Eworth (born Jan Euewouts), for example.

There’s a marvellous bird’s eye View of a House and its Estate in Belsize, Middlesex, 1696 by Jan Siberechts (born in Antwerp) that shows great attention to detail, and prefigures the great tradition of British landscape painting. A few metres away is a seascape by Willem van de Velde that, in its turn, helped launch the great tradition of British seascapes. Adjacent is An English Family at Tea, by Joseph van Aken, an informal group portrait that led to a style called conversation pieces – hugely popular in Britain, but like so much else, with its roots in Netherlandish art.

I particularly liked, of these early works, the bright clever Exotic Birds and a Cornish Chough in a Park Landscape, c1700 by Jakob Bogdani (who was born in Hungary, working in the Netherlands before coming to London and making his mark at the court of Queen Anne), which seemed in its depiction of an encounter between the indigenous and the imported to encompass the themes of the exhibition very nicely.

The track through the centuries alights next at ‘Italy, Neoclassicism and the Royal Academy’, focusing on Italy in general – and Rome in particular – as a hub of international travel. This was the era of the Grand Tour, without which no gentleman’s education was complete, and much art came back to England as a result. Many neoclassical artists themselves crossed Europe to conquer the London art scene, and several were heavily involved in the establishment and development of the Royal Academy. Canaletto, famous as he is for his evocative paintings of the Grand Canal in Venice, left the city of his birth for England and applied his skills to London landscapes. There’s a rather splendid view of The Old Horse Guards from St James’s Park, painted speculatively and advertised for sale in The Daily Advertiser, shown here. Personally, I found this section of the exhibition the least rewarding, but it blossomed again at the next stage: Dialogues between Britain, France and America 1880 -1900. Here there are many indications of society in flux – from James Tissot’s portraits of women on the bounds of respectability (including The Gallery of HMS Calcutta, where the subtleties of flirtation are keenly shown) to Whistler’s powerfully understated pieces and John Singer Sargent’s sympathetic portraits of Jewish social mobility, such as Mrs Carl Meyer and Her Children.

This segues nicely into a section entitled Jewish Artist and Jewish Art, and another called Refugees from Nazi Europe, where the work becomes more challenging. Identity and integration – or otherwise – are strong themes. David Bomberg’s The Mud Bath, an impression of the Russian Vapour Baths in Whitechapel, used by the Jewish community for purification and socialisation, is a study in form, paring the human figure down to geometrical shapes with a vivid use of a very limited colour palette.

As we reach the end of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st, the works selected seek to expand our understanding of internationalism even further, with the addition of non-Western artists into the mix, and demand a more rigorous intellectual engagement. Political statements become more apparent.

The key word I’d use to describe the whole exhibition is ‘disparate’. You can see an intellectual thread running throughout, but, for me at least, it lacks a certain artistic consistency. Maybe that’s the point. It delivers up a different form of coherence – intellectual rather than aesthetic.

The conclusion (or not; you can go more than one way through this exhibition, and you are encouraged to make your own journey and your own connections) is a video installation by French-born,London-based Zineb Sedira: 14 screens irregularly placed on a huge wall, showing a variety of images of ships, birds and sea, taken on the coast of Mauritania where the world’s exhausted ships go to be broken up, and close to Nouadhibou, where African migrants attempt to leave the continent in pursuit of the European or American dream via the Canary Islands. Underpinned by a strong sense of both stasis and movement, Floating Coffins is very appositely named, mesmerically beautiful and alarmingly reminiscent of the Costa Concordia, whose recent demise demonstrates how migrations continue to underpin contemporary society, even when they are only temporary. We busily seek continual change.

The use of sequences of moving images to end this exhibition is very fitting, reminding us as they do that ends are only staging posts. Moving imagework doesn’t exist until it finds a temporary home. It unfolds over time. Our perception of Britishness does – must, even – do the same.

The imposing façade of Tate Britain is an emblem of British art, so it’s very fitting that this is the location for an examination of what Britishness is, and how we should understand it in relation to art. What it is to be British is a simple question but also a complex one. I’m not sure I understood it any better when I came out, but the very idea has been preoccupying me ever since…

Migrations continues at Tate Britain until 12 August 2012


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