Tate Explores Role Of Migrations In British Art

Tate Britain’s Migrations brings together an engaging collection of works from over a period of 500 years, but lacks real coherence

Migrations is a major new exhibition at Tate Britain setting out to explore the ways in which British art has been shaped by incoming culture and peoples. The exhibition has been constructed from works in the Tate’s collection, and encompasses the last 500 years of British art, enlisting a team of half-a-dozen curators to explore the role of migration within their own historical specialisms – from the Tudor period to the present-day.

The exhibition kicks off with the 15th and 16th Centuries, making the point that this was a period in which in which almost all the leading artists were incomers from Europe. The earliest (and perhaps even the best) work in the show, for example, is by Hans Eworth – the Anglicized version of ‘Jan Eeuwouts’ –, an artist expelled from Antwerp for heresy in 1540, and was to become the principle portraitist of queen Mary I (although the ghostly sitter for this particular work is far more enigmatic, with her anonymity augmented by the later addition of heraldic arms belonging to a woman long-dead at the time of painting).

We are then taken on a whirlwind tour of the effects of incoming culture on British art, from: 19th century dialogues between Britain, France an America; Jewish artists in the early 20th Century; the avant-garde influx of artists such as Naum Gabo and Piet Mondrian during the Second World War; the mid-century lure of Britain as a centre for engagement with an international language of Modernism for artists across the world (an idea rapidly blown out of the water by British inability in the event to see beyond ethnicity); to the work of artists from second generation immigrant backgrounds, engaging with questions of race and identity in Thatcher’s Britain.

In this final section, we are confronted with some of the darker dimensions of migration, and perhaps some of the darkest features of human history. Keith Piper’s 1987 Go West Young Man, for example, presents us with a a series of composite posters exploring the horrors of the ‘Middle Passage’ – the journey of the slave ships from Africa to the ‘New World’ – in relation to his own experiences of racism in Britain. One, for instance, recalls the words of his father: ‘When the European says MUGGER, LOOTER, RAPIST, he sees you. … These people have carved out a very special place for you in their nightmares’; this, he implicitly suggests, is the residue of the slave trade – ‘We had made the transition from humanity to commodity. … We had been reduced to objects of fear and fantasy’.

This is then, without doubt, an interesting collection of art works; but, it is a collection brought together on somewhat shaky conceptual ground. Often there is no real link between the pieces beyond that they were created by immigrants to Britain. How, for instance, does David Medalla’s 1961 auto-creative Cloud Canyons – in which three hollow towers continually emit bubbles and foam, that dribble and cascade down the tubes, adding to and mutating its sculptural form – relate to migration?  Yes, it could be argued that, in exploring ideas of transformation, Medalla’s work intrinsically explores the ever-movement of British demography; but this is highly interpretive. Yes, it could argued (and it is done so) that Medalla – an foreign incomer – was an influential force on British art; but, true though it may be, there is no attempt to demonstrate this critical influence via contemporary comparison, and so we must simply take the curator’s word for it.

In fact, this lack or thematic relevance to migration – or a convincing-enough demonstration of how British art was affected by foreign influence – is the major setback of the exhibition. Ann this problem is augmented by the repeated effort to read thematic migration backwards into the work on display. Piet Mondrian’s Composition with Yellow, Blue, and Red, for instance, becomes a ‘migratory work’ for the simple fact that it was begun in one country and finished in another – namely, Britain. But, given that there does not appear to have been any stylistic or paradigmatic shift from start to finish – despite its mid-process physical transit – (being a typical example of his signature grid and block colours), one is forced to conclude that the physical migration of the artist and canvas (unfinished or otherwise) was in fact of no significance.  

Similarly, the rooms devoted to The Moving Image are accompanied by the note that, given that film captures movement, it has an intrinsic relevance to the movement of peoples. Such an assertion has equal validity to the belief that painting – being static – is uniquely relevant to problems of enervation and stagnation.

Perhaps this is an issue of trying to do too much in too small a space. But then, equally, the fundamental lack of unity within Migrations – with the exhibition often coming across scattered, disparate – makes its point all the better; for what better metaphor can there be of Britain’s messy juxtapositions of culture and peoples, acting, reacting, and ricocheting of one another to create something new – all the more vital – but by no means coherent. Words/ Photo Thomas Keane © 2011 ArtLyst


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