Magazine article History Today

Representing Britain

Magazine article History Today

Representing Britain

Article excerpt

THE TWENTY-FIRST-CENTURY TATE IS LAUNCHED in London on March 24th, 2000. This is not the day on which the new museum of international modern art, Tate Modern, opens at the transformed power station at Bankside. That happens in May. It is instead the re-launch of the Tate's existing Millbank site as a new entity, Tate Britain, whose remit is to display and interpret art in Britain from 1500 to the present.

In some respects this marks a return to the vision of Sir Henry Tate, the Gallery's founding father who had in 1897 established Millbank as a national gallery of British art. More specifically, he wanted it to be a gallery of modern British art, for his personal interest was in mid- and late-nineteenth-century painting: all artists born before 1790 were to be excluded (though exceptions were made for Turner and Constable). But by the end of the First World War the collecting parameters had been formally extended to include contemporary and modern art from abroad and -- for British art -- work from the earlier centuries too. Today's new division into Tate Modern and Tate Britain is the logical extension of this development.

British art of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries will be displayed in both places -- at Bankside in the context of the international, at Millbank in the context of the historic British. But it is at Tate Britain where the idea of a national school -- so beloved of Sir Henry -- will be most variously and intensively addressed. The question of how a national school of art forms part of a wider construct of national identity follows close behind. Some would argue that our present era of political devolution on one hand and European integration on another (both evolving in parallel with web culture and its implicitly anti-national globalism) is not the most appropriate for the launch of a gallery of national art engaged, inevitably, with issues of nationality and identity. However, the climate of interrogation in this sphere is, I think, healthy for Tate Britain and confers upon it a sense of relevance which too often eludes museums. Few books and popular articles on these subjects seem able to make their points without the aid of visual imagery -- Hogarth's anti-French invective in `O the Roast Beef of Old England', 1748, for example, or Tony Cragg's `Britain Seen from the North', 1981 -- evidence indeed of the central power of the image in celebrating or denying a sense of belonging to the culture of a country. (This is by no means the preserve of art: the Sun newspaper's piece last St George's Day, `100 reasons why it's great to be English' was headed with a famous press photograph of the Queen Mother pulling a pint of beer in a pub, combining two iconic concepts in one image.)

The inaugural gallery displays at Tate Britain, cumulatively entitled `Re-Presenting Britain, 1500-2000', are not, however, intended as some new and extended investigation into national identity; still less do they attempt the invective of the tabloid. Their innovation lies rather in their presentation of historic and modern art not in chronological patterns of the kind traditionally seen at the Tate and elsewhere, but in a series of simple thematic clusters that explore traits -- one might say cliches -- of British life as represented by artists over five centuries.

Each of the four overarching themes -- `Public and Private', `Literature and Fantasy', `Home and Abroad', `Artists and Models' -- comprises a number of displays, treating subjects such as the family, the landscape, the city, the portrait and so on. …

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