OH, RE-HANG IT ALL! the Tiny Exhibition of Polish Symbolism at Tate Britain Serves Only to Emphasise the Gallery's Increasingly Troublesome Identity Crisis

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Byline: Brian Sewell

TATE Britain is in the process of sloughing its skin again -- the annual spectacle of re-hang and rearrangement that disorients the visitor who longs for permanence as much as change. I see virtue in both, but the wholesale shift and shunt -- though some great paintings survive these activities and are almost always somewhere on view within the building -- is deeply unsettling, particularly when considerable painters and whole movements in the history of art are reduced to only an example or two, or altogether disappear for years.

In its role as the National Gallery of Historic British Art, Tate Britain's prime purpose must surely be always to provide a didactic art historical framework of British painting from Tudor times, with Holbein and Eworth (it has neither), to the venerated masters of the present day. It must offer between these termini the dreadful doldrums of the later 17th century and the astonishing varieties of the 18th and 19th centuries, the response of British artists to the Enlightenment and the Grand Tour, to formula and nature in landscape, to the growth of industry and its consequent social problems, to history and Shakespeare, its escape into Romanticism, the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, Symbolism, myth and quotidian narrative, ending with its Anglo-Saxon attitudes to Impressionism and all the 20th-century developments that in Europe piled Pelion on Ossa.

The present display, though vaguely chronological (if by unlikely chance the visitor first finds the rooms containing the earliest paintings), is haphazard, all my suggested categories jumbled. It is also meagre, largely because the great long gallery that runs north from the old main entrance overlooking the Thames has been stripped to accommodate Richard Long's retrospective survey in 10 days or so.

I experienced it in reverse because the urgent purpose of my visit was to see an exhibition of Symbolist Art in Poland housed in the small octagon in the south-west corner of the building. Polish art in Tate Britain? Yes, because the exhibition's slant is towards the influence on it of British art at either side of 1900, a time when British art was influencing artists all over Europe, even young Picasso in Barcelona. There is also a wholly irrelevant subtext illustrating the British infatuation with the pianist Paderewski, whose nationalist work as a composer reflected the political aspirations of Polish painters.

Symbolism, a perverse and often contradictory movement that swept European literature as well as art in the later 19th century, the one often the inspiration of the other, is poetic and visionary, exotic and sinister, repellent and amusing, enlisting the imagery of dream and fantasy as though induced in a haze of opiates. To illustrate these characteristics, the Poles have sent us two works on paper and seven oil paintings, three of which hang on the end wall of the neighbouring gallery through which we approach the octagon.

On its other walls hang paintings by Sargent, Brett, Rossetti, Burne-Jones, John Collier, Frank Cowper and other painters of the kind collected by the Chantrey Bequest and old Henry Tate himself, of which a small handful loosely hint at Symbolism, halfheartedly setting the scene for the three Polish canvases. These, Josef Mehoffer's Strange Garden and a pair of poetic-cum-nationalist anti-Russian subjects by Jacek Malczewski (all hung at heights that do not correspond with their internal viewpoints, making them uncomfortable to see), are flanked by the Tate's own Hope by Watts and a Yeoman of the Guard by Millais, the visual conjunctions ludicrous, the art historical justifications for them slight. Strange Garden, portraying Mehoffer's wife in blue silk and their infant son stark naked clutching broken hollyhocks, a monster dragonfly above them, painted in 1903, may well be "an icon of the Polish fin-de-siecle", but it is surely far less close to the PreRaphaelites -- as Polish writers have it in the catalogue -- than to his Russian contemporary Mikhail Nesterov, Larsson in Sweden, and even the Glasgow Boys Henry and Hornel, and we should instead recognise it as an example of pan-European Zeitgeist. …

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