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The Tate starts to Grate.

In the summer of 1982 I went up to London all on my own for the first time on a sort of pilgrimage to see the Pre-Raphaelite paintings in the Tate Gallery, and very grown-up and artistic I felt too.  I made many more visits to the Tate in the years that followed, as a sixth-former and then as an art student, but then work, changing interests, and a move to Devon intervened, and I'd not been back for ages until last Wednesday, when I found myself near Millbank with a few hours to spare and decided to go and see how the old place had changed.

Well, not that much, it turns out.  It's been rebranded - it's now called 'Tate Britain' - and a lot of the free-expression & fingerpainting stuff has been shipped down-river to new premises at Tate Modern on the south bank.  There's a new entrance too, which I think occupies the basement space where a collection of Rossetti's brilliant little watercolours was on display on my first visit.  In common with a lot of public architecture at the moment (the new atrium in the British Museum, for instance, or the whole of the Tate Gallery at St Ives) this new bit is a huge, airy, impressive space with nothing much in it, which seems a shame; I like my galleries and museums stuffed with objects (maybe we've had to sell them all?)  But not to worry; once you ascend to the old gallery all is much as it ever was; big, cool rooms full of big, cool paintings; just the place to while away a few hours on a sticky London afternoon.  There were John Martin's vast, loopy spectacles of Heaven and the Apocalypse ('The Great Day of His Wrath' (above right) is the predecessor of a thousand action movies, and was what I was aiming for at the end of Mortal Engines.  Come to think of it, I should call an airship that...)  John Singer Sargent's society portraits have never appealed to me, what with being society portraits and all, but crikey, could he paint! Samuel Palmer and co produced pictures which seem to glow from within, like fishtanks in a darkened aquarium.  The Pre-Raphs (whom I revered as a teenager in much the same way that some of my friends revered Joy Division or The Clash) are always worth a visit for old times' sake, and this time I found a little Dartmoor scene by Inchbold which I've never noticed before - the Dewer Stone at twilight, with a strange, lilting twist of lilac cloud strung across the sky (above left).

As always in an art gallery, though, it's best to avoid looking at the captions they stick up beside each painting.  I don't know what these are like in other countries, but in the UK they tend to be specious slabs of cant, often written by someone who inhaled a heady dose of Marxism on a liberal arts course in the seventies and still hasn't come to their senses.  The ones in 'Tate Britain' were mostly OK, but it all goes horribly wrong in Room 7, which is devoted to rural scenes by the likes of Stubbs and Gainsborough.  This display is called 'Nature and Landscape', and alarm bells started to ring as soon as I read the big introductory panel.  I don't mean actual alarm bells - I hadn't inadvertently pocketed a Van Dyck or anything - these were the metaphorical alarm bells which go ting-a-ling-ling whenever I sense that somebody considerably more privileged than me is about to start lecturing me on social inequality like a mad old left-wing nanny.

For it seems that you would have to be both an idiot and an Enemy of the People to simply enjoy these paintings as pretty pictures of the English countryside.  "British landscape paintings were prized for their expressive qualities and apparent truthfulness," we are told.  "However, they often ignored the economic realities of modern country life, in favour of a sense of idyllic nostalgia which has endured to the present day."

Well, I'm sure this is true.  Almost all art (at least, all art from much before the dawn of Twentieth Century, and quite a lot since) is idealised in some way, and you don't have to be a curator at the Tate to work out that most paintings of the Eighteenth Century were paid for by wealthy people who didn't want pictures of starving peasants all over their walls.  But when we pick up a novel by Jane Austen we don't expect it to be garlanded with sanctimonious warnings that she concentrates only on a tiny, well-heeled portion of society's upper crust.  That's a fact worth knowing, but we don't deem it essential to an enjoyment of her books, nor do we criticise her for failing to mention the vast majority of people who were having a beastly time.  In the view of the Tate, however, the only value of these paintings seems to be as relics of the bad old days; we must be helped to recognise them as symptoms of a disease for which the cure has now been found.  So George Stubbs's beautiful, frieze-like picture of agricultural labourers,  'The Reapers', "...perhaps... robs these workers of their individuality and denies the harsh realities of work for sentimental effect".   A  picture of three upper-class lads playing up a tree is apparently designed to show how at home they are in the landscape that they will grow up to own.

This reductionist drivel reaches its apotheosis in the caption beside John Constable's painting 'The Ferry', in which we are told: "Constable's paintings focused intensively on the Suffolk landscape, and suggested a deep emotional involvement with nature.  However, his father owned nearby Flatford Mill, and it was his Middle Class background which allowed him to pursue such an independent and innovative career as an artist."  I've read that through quite a few times and, as far as I can see, that 'however' is saying that Constable was basically faking it; he seems to have a deep emotional involvement with nature, however he couldn't have, because he was Middle Class.  (Presumably only the workers can really feel emotionally involved with nature.)

I came away with the distinct feeling that the people who run Tate Britain are a bit embarrassed at having to find wallspace for these outmoded, undemocratic, politically dubious works of art, and would be far happier downstream at Tate Modern, where the videos 'n' installations crowd never do anything that could disturb the cosy Arts hivemind.  It also made me realise that most pictures are much better off without captions.  (If the Tate needs to save money, I'd nominate the caption-writing department as one place where the axe might usefully fall.)  Unless you're particularly interested in Constable as an artist and want to find out more about his life and influences (in which case you need a good monograph or biography, not 100 words on a glorified post-it note) all you need to know about 'The Ferry' is its title, the date it was painted, the artist's name, and perhaps his dates of birth and death.  The picture, like all good pictures, speaks for itself.

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