Article by Tom Lubbock

The Independent, 12 March 2007

British art can be a hard sell at best of times, but when the gallery dedicated to our national paintings hides the best ones away, and hangs the others in the dark, Tom Lubbock despairs.

Comic abstract painting? There’s only one candidate that I can think of - Jeremy Moon (1934-73). Moon’s work is still emerging from the shadow that fell on it after his early death. A room of his odd, witty and benign canvases is one of the most gladdening events in Tate Britain’s new rehang.

The language of these forgotten paintings is one we’re just learning to speak. A field of red, with five blue circles in a curved formation at the top. A field of orange with a deep pink noughts-and-crosses grid of different widths. A field of off-white, with a regular criss-cross mesh of black verticals and yellow horizontals.  You approach them its geometrical abstractions, but something’s wrong. The shapes seem too arbitrary or too simple, and the colours are unserious, sweet shop - toy shop hues.

Then, on closer consideration, the pattern turns round. You work out that the design, in fact, conceals a strict and clever visual scheme. But that’s not the pay-off, because on a longer view it changes again, resolving into something actively beautiful. There’s a kind of twist on the purity and solemnity of the modernist abstract, but the effect is more than jokey. These are pictures about living well in an unpredictable world. They are light, but firmly heartening.

Tate Britain is often thought of as a problem, rather as Britain itself is. Dramatically eclipsed by its big colony across the water, weighed down by its heritage, it has never worked out an identity for itself. But at this spot in the gallery it doesn’t feel like a problem at all. The Moon room stands at a point of open-plan intersection, where Francis Bacon meets Sixties figuration and Sixties abstraction meets early conceptualism.

It’s an expansive and energetic episode in British art. And the lighting is good, and the works are hung so they can be seen properly (unlike in Tate Modern), and the visitors are few enough to make this possible (ditto), though not so few as to make the place seem dead.

And in other ways Tate Britain is the equal or superior of its offspring downriver. Its special exhibitions (currently Hogarth) are just as good. The installations in the central Duveen Galleries (currently Mark Wallinger’s State Britain) are usually more artistically substantial than the boggling spectacles in Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall. Above all, Tate Britain is a national gallery not an art theme-park.

But touring through its whole survey of British art, from start (c1500) to now, it’s clear that there are problems. There is the historical weakness of British art itself. There is the historical bias of the collection, which excluded the low graphic arts - illustration and caricature, often the most vital strand of British visual culture. There’s the existence of the other Tates, where many of the best 20th-century works are sent off. And then there are the vagaries of the current curating.

Who chose that paint? The walls of the historical rooms — the western half of the gallery— are covered with a truly horrible selection of “heritage” sludge colours. And why is the lighting so dim? There’s a preference for spotlighting single works, rather than filling the rooms with general light, and it means that each work can only really be viewed dose-up.

British art, historically, is not the brightest in the world. With swathes of park-painting and stiff portraiture, the viewer needs every possible encouragement. This combination of heavy decoration and under-illumination is just about the most destructive treatment you could give it. But then, given what Tate Britain chooses to show, it hardly matters. The two greatest British artists are George Stubbs and William Blake, and the Tate has a good collection of each. But at the moment it is showing exactly one Stubbs painting, the most boring one it owns.

When I asked at the information desk, it was explained that they’d had a special Stubbs display last year, and so... His voice trailed off, But what he must have meant was: and so the curators have got a bit bored of Stubbs. Well, sorry it’s not their business to get bored of Stubbs. (Do the curators in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam get a bit bored of Verrneer?) And what have they got to put in his place? Some interesting — i.e. piffling — “conversation pieces” by Johann Zoffany.

As for Blake, he has long been languishing in a special display devoted to Blake, Samuel Palmer and their 20th-century followers. The theme is a good one in theory because Blake and Palmer had a big impact on British modernism, but what the showing has proved is that, apart from Paul Nash and Wyndhath Lewis their followers are basically rubbish. And Lewis isn’t even included.

British art isn’t rich enough to ration out its glories in this way. If you consider the roomfuls of moribund dullness that await the visitor to Tate Britain, work that so often seems to be begging to be put out of its misery, then to delete the few things that will actually lift the spirit is a kind of madness. I surmise that the spirit of administration is to blame, the curatorial attitude that will favour a bad work because it is “representative” of something or because it has been “neglected”, and omit a good work because it doesn’t fit in with a theme or because “we’ve just done that”. Curatology prevails at the contemporary end, too. The “Art Now” slot is a room devoted to a single emerging artist, and it regularly shows work that I suspect of being made by the curators themselves, under a pseudonym.

There are goodish bits, of course. If you admire Turner, which I don’t, then you’ll probably think that the room devoted to his watercolour The Blue Rigi (just saved for the nation, at great expense) plus related works is an exemplary display. The Chapman Brothers’ exhibition, When Humans Walked the Earth, has an excellent title, and its collection of Molesworth Frankenstein torture machines, with hammers, saws, tubes, bottles, brains and penises, all cast in bronze, is quite amusing. The veteran British abstract painter Basil Beattie has been allotted a room, though that room is so lacking in proper light that no visitor will discover what’s good about Beattie’s work.

And all through the gallery with every single work, there are the captions, designed to distract and relieve the public from the wearisome task of looking There’s one I have to record, from Roelof Louw’s Pyramid (1907). “This work is created from 5,800 oranges and raises questions about ephemerality, time and decay. Visitors are invited to take an orange, and as a result the piece literally dematerialises and changes through visitor participation.” But just in case participation gets out of hand, you’re reminded, at the bottom: Visitors are invited to take an orange to be eaten outside the gallery.

copyright Tom Lubbock/The Independent 2007