Feeble, callow, moronic: Fighting History at Tate Britain
There are lots of things you could do with £12, the full adult admission price to this exhibition. Buy a book, or go to the pub – anything you like – just don’t blow it on this……
Detail of The Poll Tax Riots, 2005, by Dexter Dalwood Photograph: Tate Britain
There are lots of things you could do with £12, the full adult admission price to this exhibition. Buy a book, or go to the pub – anything you like – just don’t blow it on this feeble and half-hearted saunter through history and art.
In the 18th century, when British art first made international waves, painters aspired to tell mighty stories. The genre known as history painting meant a dramatic depiction of great events, whether mythological scenes or contemporary news. A captivating example – which is not, of course, in this exhibition – is John Singleton Copley’s painting Watson and the Shark, which depicts a real event when the unfortunate Brook Watson was attacked by a tiger shark just off Havana in 1749. Today, shock stories like this fill newspapers; back then, an artist was commissioned to depict the latest sensation in oils with the self-conscious poses of classical statuary.
This may seem an archaic type of art but it is still very much alive. History painting has a strange appeal in the media age, as artists try to make passing moments matter. Andy Warhol’s pictures of Jackie Kennedy at JFK’s funeral, or a New York suicide are history paintings. So are Gerhard Richter’s paintings of the Baader Meinhof gang. Anselm Kiefer and Cy Twombly have both painted huge, audacious visions of history.
So this is a great theme for an exhibition, full of fascinating questions about art, storytelling and history itself. It’s especially pertinent at Tate Britain in the bicentary year of the Battle of Waterloo, with such a rich legacy of paintings of the Napoleonic wars in its collection.
Battle of Orgreave by Jeremy Deller Photograph: Tate Britain
Fighting History takes that promising subject and expertly sucks every bit of interest out of it. The curators don’t appear to find 18th- and 19th-century history paintings powerful or moving and they don’t want you to, either. They have a callow agenda that basically goes like this: once there were rightwing, patriotic paintings that celebrated the British Empire but today there are right on, radical artworks like Jeremy Deller’s Battle of Orgreave, that take on history in a way we can all applaud.
The message is clear: if you voted Conservative at the General Election then just eff off. We don’t want you in this exhibition. Seriously – that seems to be the message in this show’s first room, which tells us that alternative history artists like Deller are “radical” and therefore A Good Thing.
But it’s not the simplistic politics that kills the exhibition so much as its aesthetic and historical moronism. If you put “history” in the title there should be some attention to the grain and detail that make history come alive. But this show is done in the Tate house-style of rejecting chronology. It is full of crass juxtapositions of past and present that make it impossible to engage with either. Instead of richly explaining and advocating the painterly genre of history painting that was so revered in the age of Turner, it just collides examples picked at random with some modern British approaches to history. An antihistorical history show? It is as silly as it sounds.
Occasionally there’s a nugget, like Johann Zoffany’s painting The Death of Captain Cook (c1795). When I saw it, however, the lighting was awful, much worse than this really unusual history painting deserves. Zoffany depicts a battle in Hawaii. None of its context is explored properly. For instance, the red feathered helmets the Hawaiian warriors wear are not Zoffany’s fantasy. He has carefully depicted actual Hawaiian helmets brought back to Britain by Cook’s exhibitions and still in the British Museum’s collections.
Allen Jones’ The Battle of Hastings, 1961-2, juxtaposed with Philip James de Loutherbourg’s The Battle of the Nile, 1800. Photograph: Guy Bell/REX Shutterstock
In other words Zoffany did his research – which is more than the curators have done – and that reveals the kind of question this show might have asked. How hard did history painters try to get it right? How serious are artists as historians? But the curators already know the answer. When Jeremy Deller waxes lyrical about the Miners’ Strike he’s telling the truth. When Philip James de Loutherbourg painted The Battle of the Nile – a spectacular 1798 victory at which Nelson blew up the French flagship in a horror show of fiery death – he was painting British propaganda.
In fact both are weaving histories at once romantic and real, mixtures of art and truth. I was at the Battle of Orgreave – the artwork, not the original standoff – and Deller’s re-enactment of recent history was a moving, haunting history painting performed by living people. I just wish its documentation were shown in an exhibition that actually did some justice to the genre it reinterprets.
Almost everything in Fighting History comes from the Tate Collection. It would be a lot richer if it had loans like Watson and the Shark or Benjamin West’s Death of General Wolfe. Just ransacking the Tate stores for quirky stuff is no way to put on an exhibition. Yet cheapness is no excuse, for Tate Britain itself has plenty of great works that show the emotional power of history painting. Where is Turner’s Hannibal Crossing the Alps, with its savage army dwarfed by a swirling mountain storm? Simultaneously a scene from ancient history and a comment on Napoleon’s surprise crossing of the St Bernard pass to win the Battle of Marengo, this is a painting of history’s immense drama.
The citizen, 1981-83, by Richard Hamilton Photograph: Tate Britain / The estate of Richard Hamilton
It would not be hard to include since Tate Britain owns it. But there’s only one Turner here, and it’s a flood scene, not one of his many depictions of historical events. A whole section should have looked at how Turner took history to the heights. Similarly, there are a couple of works by Richard Hamilton including his masterpiece The Citizen – the single most haunting work of art here – but no proper exploration of Hamilton’s sustained engagement with history painting throughout his career.
The curators obviously think they are very up-to-the-minute dudes, but their choice of contemporary art is as unimaginative as their selection of older works is ignorant. Deller and Hamilton are the most obvious choices possible. But many other modern British works eloquently evoke history. David Hockney’s Mr and Mrs Clark and Percy is an exquisite frozen history of the early 1970s and Rachel Whiteread’s casts of old furnishings and domestic spaces are marked and stained by time and forgetting. Why not embrace original takes on history like these? And where are Gilbert and George? No other artists have so energetically recorded recent British history. Of course they are history painters, using performance and cameras. I have a horrible suspicion they are too rightwing for the dogmatic and narrow-minded curators.
Dexter Dalwood’s The Deluge, 2006. Photograph: Guy Bell/REX Shutterstock
Instead we get paintings by Dexter Dalwood. I was once accused of having a “vendetta” against this artist. So I will confine myself to saying that his trite daubs have nothing to say about history or anything else.
This is not good enough. I cannot remember seeing such a slovenly exhibition at a major gallery. It is, to quote Russell Crowe in the Napoleonic war film Master and Commander, pitiable stuff.
• Fighting History is at Tate Britain from 9 June until 13 September 2015