Art Is Fighting History At Tate Britain

Tabish Khan
By Tabish Khan Last edited 35 months ago
Art Is Fighting History At Tate Britain ★★★☆☆ 3
A march in Traflagar Square in opposition to the Poll Tax is funnelled through sections of the Berlin Wall. © Dexter Dalwood and Simon Lee Gallery, London & Hong Kong
A march in Traflagar Square in opposition to the Poll Tax is funnelled through sections of the Berlin Wall. © Dexter Dalwood and Simon Lee Gallery, London & Hong Kong
Jeremy Deller has put together a video and timeline mapping out the history of the miners' strike including articles and artefacts from that time. © Jeremy Deller
Jeremy Deller has put together a video and timeline mapping out the history of the miners' strike including articles and artefacts from that time. © Jeremy Deller
The battle scene depicts the death of Major Pierson in fighting the French in Jersey. The British won, but Pierson was shot by a French sniper © Tate
The battle scene depicts the death of Major Pierson in fighting the French in Jersey. The British won, but Pierson was shot by a French sniper © Tate
The bright blasts wash out this scene of the landing at Dieppe by Richard Eurich © Tate
The bright blasts wash out this scene of the landing at Dieppe by Richard Eurich © Tate
Hugh Rooney was a prisoner at the Maze prison in Northern Ireland. He took part in the so called 'dirty protest' where prisoners smeared their cell walls with excrement. © The estate of Richard Hamilton
Hugh Rooney was a prisoner at the Maze prison in Northern Ireland. He took part in the so called 'dirty protest' where prisoners smeared their cell walls with excrement. © The estate of Richard Hamilton
The concept of the great flood or deluge is depicted in Vorticist style in the last, and one of the best, rooms in this exhibition. © The estate of Winifred Knights
The concept of the great flood or deluge is depicted in Vorticist style in the last, and one of the best, rooms in this exhibition. © The estate of Winifred Knights

Londonist Rating: ★★★☆☆

History painting is a genre where, as the name suggests, paintings aim to capture moments of great significance. Epic canvases of Napoleonic battles or Greek myths come to mind and while works of that ilk can be seen in this exhibition, the main aim is to show us that the genre is still relevant as practised by artists today.

Alongside Richard Eurich's dazzling 'Landing at Dieppe', we find Richard Hamilton's depiction of the protests at the Maze prison in Northern Ireland and Dexter Dalwood's painting of the march against the poll tax. In some works, the past meets the present, for example, one photograph by Steve McQueen shows a verdant forest scene, which takes a dark turn once we discover the tree at the centre was once used to lynch slaves.

The strength of this exhibition lies in the mix of modern and classical paintings though there is a scattergun layout that is perplexing. Tate Britain was never going to capture the whole of British history as depicted in art in a single show, but a clear narrative running through everything would have helped.

The last room tries to weave in paintings of the great flood by comparing it to the modern day issue of rising sea levels, which feels like quite a stretch. But we're glad that the room exists as it features some of the best work in the show, such as an evocative painting by Francis Danby where people and a lion cling on for dear life against raging torrents — it's a wonderfully over-the-top image.

This chaotic exhibition is all over the place in terms of narrative and curation, primarily because it has picked such a big a topic. However, the strength of the works — particularly those from the Romantic era — mean it's an enjoyable whistle-stop tour through history.

Fighting History is on at Tate Britain until 13 September. Tickets are £12 for adults, concessions available. For more art, see our top exhibitions for June, this year's excellent summer exhibition and the immersive Fiona Tan exhibition at Frith street gallery.

Across at Tate Modern, our opinions are divided between the bold and colourful Sonia Delaunay and the repetitive Agnes Martin.

Last Updated 09 June 2015