200 Years of British History Painting
I was scrolling through the art exhibitions on in London on the Culture Key app and saw Fighting History at Tate Britain. I went to the exhibition when it opened but seeing it on the app reminded me I hadn’t put up a review. My tardiness is not (entirely) due to laziness but rather that Fighting History is a very odd exhibition and I suspect I was putting off having to think about it. It’s had some truly awful reviews in the national press. I don’t actually think Fighting History is as bad as those reviews would suggest, ‘moronic’ was harsh, but without doubt it has problems.
History painting, usually defined as the artistic depiction of important events, was considered the apogee of painting until the twentieth century. This show sets out to look at 200 years of British history painting, exploring how artists have responded to historical events.
The Tate’s advertising poster for this exhibition shows a John Singleton Copley oil painting from 1783 of a historical battle scene. So far, so predictable. This sort of high drama, smoke-filled scene crowded with scarlet-uniformed soldiers, complete with a tattered flag is the stuff that traditional history painting is made of.
However, when you walk into the exhibition you are immediately faced with a quite different kind of history painting. Two contemporary works greet you in the first gallery, a section which has been dubbed Radical History Painting, Dexter Dalwood’s The Poll Tax Riots 2005 and The History of the World, a text-on-wall work by Jeremy Deller. It might be ‘radical’ but it’s also a bit sterile and unengaging. That sets the uncomfortable tone for the rest of the show. Subsequent rooms are littered with a jumbled mix of mainly Tate-owned works that can loosely, extremely loosely in a few cases, be defined as history paintings.
The problem with the show is its unevenness, it is by no means all bad. There are some wonderful inclusions in the exhibition. John Everett Millais’s The Boyhood of Raleigh 1870, an unconventional but excellent choice, is a painting of a very young Walter Raleigh sitting on the shore, transfixed by the maritime yarns of a wild-looking Genoese sailor. This is where the 19th century proves itself more modern than the 21st. Millais has turned history around by asking the viewer to imagine the seeds of future greatness being sown in a boy’s mind by an old sea dog. It is at once more intelligent and more engaging than the ‘radical’ take on history in the previous room.
Another work that grabs your attention, in fact it is difficult to look at anything else in the British History room, is Richard Hamilton’s The citizen 1981-3. The Christ-like figure of the Irish republican detainee, shrouded in a blanket, surrounded by the evidence of his dirty protest, is transfixing. This is contemporary history painting at its best.
An entire room towards the end of Fighting History is given over to Jeremy Deller’s 2001 The Battle of Orgreave (An Injury to One is an Injury to All) – a multimedia installation that looks at both the 1984 confrontation between police and striking miners at the Orgreave Coking Plant and Deller’s 2001 reenactment of the same event. Along with the Mike Figgis directed video of the reenactment, the installation comprises wall art, maps, books, a police shield and a denim jacket covered with NUM badges.
The last room of the exhibition, entitled The Deluge, is perhaps the weakest. I am not even sure why it was there at all. It is immediately preceded by Deller’s powerful Orgreave installation and it would have made much more sense to have bookended the exhibition with Deller at the start and the finish. Instead you have to leave the show through a room that feels disconnected from the rest of the exhibition.
There’s some good stuff in Fighting History but it feels like too much of a battle to find it.
Exhibition is on until 13th September 2015
Adult £12.00 (without donation £10.90)
Concession £10.50 (without donation £9.50)
Free for Tate Members
Under 12s go free (up to four per parent or guardian)
Family tickets available by telephone or in the gallery
London SW1P 4RG