Fighting History Opens at Tate Britain

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June sees Tate Britain opening its two exhibitions for the summer season. Barbara Hepworth opens later this month but Fighting History has just opened and it has taken on a challenging but fascinating subject matter.

Its premise is the examination of how wars and political upheavals have been translated into art by British artists from the 18th Century to the 20th, and the emotional power these works have within them.

The works on display span 300 years of art history, from 18th century history paintings by John Singleton Copley and Benjamin West, to 20th century and contemporary pieces by Richard Hamilton and Jeremy Deller.

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It’s good to see the inclusion of Richard Hamilton’s powerful Christ-like The Citizen 1981-3 of a political prisoner imprisoned during Northern Ireland’s ‘The Troubles’ (I hate that term but go with me here!).

And revolt is as important in this exhibition as war with pieces such as Jeremy Deller’s The Battle of Orgreave 2001, a re-enactment of the 1984 clash between miners and police in South Yorkshire, also featured. Comprising a film, map, miner’s jacket and shield amongst other things, the room promises to immerse visitors in a pivotal moment in the history of the miners’ strike and one of the most striking protests in recent times.

I was somewhat surprised to hear that Fighting History has extended itself into fictional territory though with Turner’s The Deluge, the biblical flood that symbolises both the end and the beginning of history, and James Barry’s King Lear Weeping over the Dead Body of Cordelia, 1786-8, which frames the Shakespearian tragedy in a scene of ancient Britain.

I appreciate that British art doesn’t have a massive legacy in this genre but surely we’re grasping at straws by including fictional history?

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Anyway, Steve McQueen’s ‘Lynching Tree’ is also on display, the first time this piece of art work has been shown in the UK. The tree itself featured briefly in McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave and is a poignant work of the tree where many slaves were hanged – with the graves of those slaves surrounding the base of the tree.

The premise of all of this sounds pretty good but I hasten to add this isn’t a review. Why not? Well, there’s a finite time in my diary for a starter and though I do hope to see this at some point, it’s unlikely to be any time soon. And also because, if I’m honest, I have anxiety about going.

I’m aware that JJ in The Guardian was critical of this show (to put it mildly) and the Tate Britain has been having a bad time of it recently with mixed reviews to its recent shows.

I don’t like virulent criticism towards people who are trying their best and I do feel for the curation team at Tate Britain who have had strong criticism of their exhibitions for a while. However, their fondness for throwing art from different eras all together and seeing how this impacts the viewer is evident again in the exhibition images for Fighting History and that worries me. When you’re trying to explore a theme, this chaotic approach actually detracts from the art rather than show it in its best light.

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It also seems that many of the works on show are already in the Tate’s permanent collection and, much like the National Gallery’s Strange Beauty on German Renaissance art last year, I’m a little concerned that items I could see for free at any other time in the year have been collated together under a theme with an admission free slapped on top.

I do hope to see this exhibition but I can’t say I’m rushing to the door. We all have limited time and finances and so we do want our hard-earned pounds to be spent wisely. But if you get there before me, let me know what you think.

Tate Britain, London to September 13, 2015

Admission: £10.90 (£9.50 concessions) or £12.00 (£10.50 concessions) with Gift Aid donation

Image Credits:

  1. Richard Hamilton The citizen 1981-3 Oil paint on two canvases 2067 x 2102 x 32 mm Tate © The estate of Richard Hamilton
  2. Dexter Dalwood, The Poll Tax Riots 2005 Private collection © The Artist and Simon Lee Gallery, London & Hong Kong
  3. Richard Eurich, The Landing at Dieppe, 19th August 1942 1942-3 Oil paint on wood 1219 x 1753 mm © Tate
  4. Jeremy Deller, Jacket from The Battle of Orgreave Archive (An Injury to one is an Injury to All) 2001, Wall painting, paint on fibreboard, vinyl text, map, books, jacket, shield, printed papers, 2 videos and audio, Video, projection, colour and sound, 62 mins Tate. Commissioned and produced by Artangel, film directed by Mike Figgis. Presented by Tate Members 2005. The Artangel Collection at Tate © Jeremy Deller

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