Thursday, May 30, 2013

A date at the Tate Britain

The Main Hall, Tate Britain

Arriving at the Tate Britain with water squelching in my shoes, my coat completely sodden, my clothes drenched, I wasn't in the best shape to "Meet British Art". Therefore, it may be that I am not the best judge of the new hanging of the permanent collection at the Tate Britain. But I found it exhausting and confusing and I had a lot of difficulty focussing on individual works of art. This is primarily because of the chronological order of the new hanging, a curatorial decision that ignores all context, places second rate works by the greats of British art next to intriguing small works by unknown artists, and spans from the 1500s to today. 

James McNeill Whistler, Harmony in Grey and Green:
Miss Linly Alexander 1872-74

I tried to remember the last time I had walked through a permanent collection of one of the world's great art museums, and it occurred to me that this is actually not something I do, ever. I think of my visits to the Louvre or the Centre Pompidou in Paris and I always pop in to see one or two works of art in the permanent collection, and usually, only if I happen to be nearby or there already seeing a temporary exhibition. I never walk through from beginning to end.

John Atkinson Grimshaw, Liverpool Quay by Moonlight, 1887

All out of sorts with my wet clothes and what felt like the endless narrative of British art through the ages, I decided not to “Meet British Art”, as the new hanging is titled, and to simply enjoy the one or two paintings I had gone there to see, and to discover another. And my discovery of the day was John Atkinson Grimshaw’s luminescent Liverpool Quay by Moonlight, 1887. It is an atmospheric late 19th century painting of Liverpool by the docks with a sky that could be taken straight from a German Romantic landscape and streets that glow with the night lights of the modern city. This lonely, cold grey street at dusk so perfectly captures the mood of this mysterious time of night. The thinly painted sky nevertheless fills the air with the density that tells of the rain recently ended.

The figures on the street are also curious: as if in an attempt to underline the light emanating from the stores onto the wet sidewalk, the figures are transparent. Their black silhouettes allow the light to pass through them so as not to interrupt the light falling through the windows. It is as though they are ghosts or figures in an animation film. Even though the painting still has all the characteristics of a late nineteenth century realist cityscape, the growing force photography is clearly influencing the perspectival composition, the path lit by the shop windows, the transparency of the human silhouettes.

In addition to Grimshaw’s painting, one of my favorite moments of the day was the lighting of the all but empty main hall of the Tate Britain. The hall is filled with a heavy chiaroscuro lighting that surrounds an unsettling, fragmented and vertiginous video of the hall itself with PatrickKeiller’s installation of a year ago in place. The significance of the video was not clear to me, but the hall itself felt as though it had been transformed into a cathedral to the modern, a cathedral to British art. I couldn’t decide of I was troubled by the suggested demand for reverence of British art, or if this demand was undercut by the disconcerting experience of the video. Whichever was the intended response, I was not convinced that the two, video and architectural manipulation through lighting, worked.

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