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August 18 2012

Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Avant-Garde at Tate Britain – in pictures

A selection of images from Tate Britain's historic pre-Raphaelite show, featuring work from Ford Madox Brown, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Edward Burne-Jones and others, along with shots of the exhibition coming together





The pre-Raphaelites: behind the scenes at a modern blockbuster

Tate Britain has spent five years bringing together some of the greatest pre-Raphaelite works for a show that repositions the artists as the radicals of their day. We witness the culmination of a huge project, as everything, from the largest Burne-Jones to the smallest fridge magnet, finds its place…

In a huge house in a mysterious part of London, a tall, energetic man called Rupert Maas is showing me a drawing: The Lady of Shalott by Elizabeth Siddal. "It's absolutely lovely, isn't it?" he asks, though I have the strong impression that he doesn't give two figs whether or not I agree with him. "There are no more ethereal drawings produced by any of the pre-Raphaelites than those by Lizzie, and this is a very, very good one." His voice runs on: not dreamily, exactly, but clotted with a certain kind of passion. "It has this febrile intensity. It's deeply sexy, for some reason. Look at the tightness of her dress, the yearning quality of it." Somewhat trepidatiously, I tell him that, to me, this particular Lady of ShalottLord Tennyson's Arthurian maiden, condemned forever to see Camelot only in the reflection of a mirror, was a favourite subject of the pre-Raphaelites – looks a little like a doll. "Yes, well... I think that might be part of it," he says, with a smile.

Elizabeth Siddal, the redhead who is perhaps best known as the model for John Everett Millais's Ophelia, was married to Dante Gabriel Rossetti, one of the seven founders of the pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, from 1860 until her death from an overdose of laudanum in 1862 – though their relationship began in about 1851, when she first started sitting for him. "The relationship between Rossetti and Lizzie is absolutely central to the pre-Raphaelite spirit," says Maas, still peering over my right shoulder. "She is Beatrice to his Dante." But Siddal, who had humble roots and had previously worked as a milliner, also longed to be an artist in her own right; in 1855, John Ruskin agreed to subsidise her career, paying her £150 a year in exchange for every drawing she produced. "It's well-documented," says Maas. "He [Rossetti] taught her. He stood over her while she drew, and he did bits that she couldn't manage. It was a thing they did together: a journey of love into another world; a medieval paradise for them both." Did Rossetti work on The Lady of Shalott, which is dated 1853? "I think he might have had something to do with the sprite carved on the chair. I think they did that together."

In the next few days, The Lady of Shalott will depart this house for Tate Britain, where she is to appear in the gallery's autumn blockbuster, Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Avant-Garde. There, it will join works owned by, among others, Jimmy Page and Andrew Lloyd Webber. Is it thrilling to lend to such an august institution? Not for Maas. This is the second time Siddal's drawing has holidayed at the Tate (the first was during the gallery's last pre-Raphaelite show in 1984), and there are other, equally wonderful works in his collection. "I do it all the time, quite honestly," he says. "I think it's a public duty. When it's there, I won't even look at it; I'll go and look at something I'm not familiar with instead." He grins. "But, of course, when it comes home, I'll have a jolly good gloat."

Maas inherited some of his collection from his father, Jeremy, an art dealer who in 1969 wrote a celebrated book about 19th-century British art, Victorian Painters, and who began buying 19th-century British paintings when they were still amazingly affordable. (Rupert now runs his father's Mayfair gallery.) The rest, he bought: "I'm not one of those dealers who feels he shouldn't collect." So what is it about Victorian art in general, and the pre-Raphaelites in particular, that speaks to him? They haven't always, it's fair to say, been terribly fashionable.

"Yes. But when people say they hate Victorian art, you have to ask: what is it they're hating? They're hating themselves, because they're hating the stuff of which we're made. Most middle-class people in Britain still live in Victorian houses. They gave us all sorts of things we take for granted. And Victorian genre paintings deal with such serious social issues. Look at Ford Madox Brown's The Last of England [a painting about emigration and poverty that will also be in the Tate's exhibition]. He's asking big questions in pictures."

As for the pre-Raphaelites proper, with their penchant for swooning damozels and complicated allegories, he hopes that the Tate's vast new show will persuade visitors to reconsider them. The pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, formed in 1848, was determined to rebel against dreary Royal Academy conventions; for this reason its members have sometimes been compared, in spirit, to the Young British Artists of the 1990s. Maas, though, likens them to punks; every young artist wanted to be one. "Millais was the greatest draughtsman. Rossetti was the romantic, the natural heir to Blake. Holman Hunt is more difficult: the priggishness, the religiosity, the density: these are some seriously wacky paintings. But they're all so big, so brightly-coloured, so powerful. You can just imagine how they must have seemed once, when everyone was used to seeing Sir Sloshua Reynolds and his school." His eyes widen. "They must have seemed seriously psychedelic."

It has taken Alison Smith, a Tate curator, more than five years to put Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Avant-Garde together. The idea for it came to her after the Tate's Millais exhibition in 2007. It encouraged visitors who thought of the artist as a painter of fancy chocolate-box pictures to see him in a different, more audacious light, and Smith found herself wondering if she couldn't do the same for his colleagues in the pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. "I wanted to show them as modern artists rather than as soft romantics," she says. "That was my agenda."

Her case successfully argued (the Tate's programme is driven not by potential visitor numbers but by intellectual inquiry, with the result that every show must have a thesis), and the exhibition safely in the schedule, she began work. The Tate has a peerless collection of pre-Raphaelite paintings, among them Ophelia by Millais, The Golden Stairs by Burne-Jones, The Beloved by Rossetti, and The Triumph of the Innocents by Holman Hunt. But she also had a list of must-haves to be borrowed from elsewhere: Millais's Isabella, which hangs in the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool; Holman Hunt's Rienzi Vowing to Obtain Justice for the Death of His Young Brother, which is in a private collection and had not been seen in public since 1984; Ford Madox Brown's Work from Manchester City Galleries; Holman Hunt's The Light of the World, from Keble College, Oxford; and, most fabulous of all, Holman Hunt's The Lady of Shalott, from the collection of the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art in Hartford, Connecticut. This massive painting, overpowering and, some would say, overwrought, has not been seen in Britain since 1951.

So how did she do? Lizzie Siddal's drawing, just across the river, must have been relatively easy to clinch. But what about the others? "Oh, we secured them all," she says, almost nonchalantly. "Everything we wanted, we got. The Lady of Shalott was in doubt for a while; there were conservation issues, and we had concerns about travel and costs. But, in the end, all the problems were resolved, and this astonishing late painting [it was completed in 1905 after the artist's death by an assistant, by which time its subject was already long out of fashion] will be the final work in the exhibition." And once the names on her list were ticked off, did she dance a little jig? "No. But you feel good for the show. You feel it's finally coming together."

Its major paintings bagged, the exhibition began to spread its tentacles outwards. All hands on deck. Backstage in London, Kiko Noda, the show's registrar, embarked on the complex logistical task of arranging the transportation of every loan. "Most lenders insist on a representative being present when a painting is hung," says Smith. "And once a work has been hung it cannot be moved. You can't go back and say, 'Oh, that would look nicer there.' A big lender might have five or six works in different rooms, so drawing up an installation schedule is perhaps the trickiest thing of all. That's where Kiko comes in."

In America, Smith's co-curators, Tim Barringer and Jason Rosenfeld (the exhibition will travel to Washington), started working on their scholarly essays for the catalogue. At Tate Enterprises, the team began thinking about merchandise: scarves inspired by the gown Rossetti's model wears in The Beloved; bags and cushions made from fabric designed by the pre-Raphaelites' friend and supporter, William Morris; and, of course, fridge magnets and postcards, which sell in their thousands. (Tate Enterprises earns between £2m and £3m a year for the galleries, so ordering the right merchandise is a serious business.) And the marketing department considered how best to attract younger visitors. Among their ideas: pre-Raphaelite-inspired fashion shoots; a pre-Raphaelite Pinterest page; a roll call of "modern day muses" with pre-Raphaelite sensibilities (Paloma Faith; Florence Welch, from Florence and the Machine).

The months, and the years, ticked by. It's now August and the paintings are finally arriving; Kiko Noda receives every one personally. They will be hung by a team led by Geoff Hoskins, a senior art handling technician of 20 years' experience, in the fortnight before the show opens on 12 September (the wall texts were completed only in the past few days – Smith's American colleagues slaved through the night to finish them on time). What will it be like to see the work in the galleries at last? Smith smiles. "For me, the most wonderful moment is installation. It's the culmination of everything. That's when you feel you are deep in the heart of a project." And when it opens to the public? "The personal attachment loosens a bit, but you're still concerned. It's a like a child going out into the world: you want it to do well."

The Tate's pre-Raphaelite paintings are among its most popular (Ophelia by Millais, so lush and yet so plangent, has long been the gallery's bestselling postcard). "They're always on display," says Natasha Walker, a paintings conservator. "And when they're not, they're often on loan to another gallery. So it's quite rare that we get the opportunity to look at them. That's why we like these big shows. It gives us the chance to get our hands on things."

Some time ago, Walker and the other conservators examined all of the Tate paintings that will appear in the exhibition. "We have priorities," she says. "Obviously, if something is stucturally unsound, that's the first priority. This one [she reaches for some images] was displayable, but we wanted it to look its best. So I spent five months cleaning it."

The painting in question is Dante Gabriel Rossetti's Beata Beatrix (1864-70), a portrait of the poet Dante's wife, Beatrice, that was also a memorial to Rossetti's wife, Elizabeth Siddall (the painter used sketches of his late wife to complete it). It's an exquisite piece, smaller and more intimate in scale than many pre-Raphaelite works, and softer, too, being more dimly lit. Beatrice/Siddal has her eyes closed, though whether she is in a state of religious or sexual ecstasy is unclear. Meanwhile, a bird, a messenger of death whose feathers are the colour of dried blood, drops a poppy into her open palms (this must, surely, be a reference to Siddal's death from an overdose of laudanum shortly after she gave birth to a stillborn child). In the background is Dante, looking towards the haloed figure of Love, in whose hands the burning heart of his wife flickers and wanes.

"The painting had a natural resin varnish over it," says Walker. "It would have been added to improve its colour rendition, the gloss of it. But it had become quite discoloured." After doing some tests to find which mixture of solvents would best remove this layer, she set to work with a cotton wool swab. "It's very painstaking. You have to be careful with the paint layer." She shows me some before and after pictures. "Look at the colour shift. Before, it was warmer and quite yellow in tone. Varnish tends to make things look quite unified. The contrast between highlights and shadows is so much greater now, and her flesh is cooler, not quite so glowing."

During the conservation, Walker x-rayed the picture; she also photographed it while casting light at an acute angle over it. "I found out quite a lot. The story goes that Rossetti had made and abandoned an oil sketch of his wife, and that it lay in his studio for many years, until his dealer took it to be adhered to another canvas, and brought it back for Rossetti to finish. The x-ray showed that there were indeed canvas additions at the top, sides and bottom, all of which would have allowed Rossetti more scope for background." She shows me the x-ray. "I could also see these losses in the lead white preparation under the paint. Rossetti left these losses. A more meticulous artist would have filled them before recommencing. When I cast light over the picture, I could also see brush hairs, studio dust and debris in the paint, which tells you something about the state of his tools."

It took Rossetti six years to complete Beata Beatrix, a long time for a painting of this size. "When I looked at the green of her cloak I could see that it had aged and cracked over a period of time; his red monogram had been added over the cracks. I could even see some of the red pigment caught up in the varnish, which tells me that he signed it and then quickly sent it away."

How do these discoveries make her feel? Shivery, is the answer – though in a good way. "You've seen it in books, or on walls. But this brings you so much closer." It's a visceral thing, a connection with the artist himself. What do her discoveries tell us about Rossetti's state of mind? Walker is reluctant to say: "I'm not an art historian," she laughs (her degree is in zoology, the chemistry she learnt then a great help). But to me it seems obvious. Rossetti took his wife's death hard, burying the bulk of his unpublished poems with her in Highgate cemetery. Afterwards, he grew increasingly depressed. Beata Beatrix was a painful piece to paint; it took him an age. But when he finally felt able to let it go, he couldn't wait to get it out of his sight.

It's not only paintings that must be conserved. When Walker and I have finished talking, she takes me to the studio of Alastair Johnson, a frame conservator. For the past year, Johnson has been working on the frame of Burne-Jones's enormous oil, King Cophetua and the Beggar Maid – a project that will be completed any day now, when picture and frame are once again reunited.

King Cophetua was completed in 1884. It was inspired by a Tennyson poem, The Beggar Maid, and tells the legend of an African king who disdained women until he met Penelophon, "a beggar maid all in grey", with whom he fell in love at first sight. In the painting, the king gazes at Penelophon devotedly (the theme of male enthralment to female beauty was a favourite of Burne-Jones's), having put aside his crown and shield in deference to her beauty. A deeply sensual work – with her gently rounded belly and her curled toes, there is something so straightforwardly sexy about Penelophon – Burne-Jones's friends bought it for the Tate after the artist's death in 1898.

The painting's frame was made for it, in the Renaissance style, by the Vacani family. But a few years after it joined the collection it was altered to accommodate a glazing door (in other words, an ugly sub frame was fitted inside the original one). "The alterations were substantial," says Johnson. "They had to insert four inches of material in the bottom of the frame, removing one putto's head, and replacing it with two. They also built up the columns at the side and removed altogether the frame's lovely moulded [internal] edge."

How did Johnson know what the original frame looked like? Luckily, there existed a photograph by Emery Walker of the painting in its original frame; Johnson found it at the National Portrait Gallery, where Walker's archive is kept. Using this as a guide, he set to work. First he removed the additions. "They were quite brutal," he says. "You could see the saw marks where they'd cut the bottom of the frame in two." Then he made moulds of a putto's head elsewhere on the frame. "I used a silicon rubber mould; prop-makers use them; they're incredibly detailed. The heads themselves are made from composition, a doughy mixture of plaster or chalk." Then he set about copying the moulded edge. "Usually we find another frame which has something similar as a guide. But I couldn't find one anywhere. In the end, I just modelled a section up in Plasticine."

Finally he guilded his repairs. Johnson leads me to the frame itself, in the centre of the room. Wow. What a wonderful thing it is. But will he age his own additions? They're a bit bling at the moment. "Yes. I'll probably use watercolour: something I can easily remove, or add to. And perhaps a bit of household dirt." It will, he says, be an anxious moment when the painting is put into the frame. "A very expensive piece of Perspex – it's called Optium – will replace the glass. It has an innovative coating which makes it look like low-reflective glass. It also has an inherent flexibility, which is important with a painting of this size. Unlike glass, it won't crack." How will he feel when he sees it in the gallery? "Oh, it'll be wonderful," he says, with great feeling. "But I'll also be praying I measured the painting correctly."

As both Walker and Johnson point out, thanks to their efforts, when visitors to the exhibition come to gaze on Beata Beatrix and King Cophetua in a few weeks' time, they'll be seeing them pretty much as Rossetti, Burne-Jones and their contemporaries saw them. Will this make a difference to their understanding of these artists? Perhaps not. Only experts and passionate fans will notice such subtle changes. On the other hand, as the late, great Robert Hughes put it, for the pre-Raphaelites, "God was in the details: in the petals of a cornflower or the vein of an elecampane leaf, in the grain of stone or the purling of a brook."

Rossetti and his friends would, I think, have adored the care the Tate has put into this show. Such attention, loving and precise, reflects the extreme trouble they went to in their own pursuit of accuracy. Though what they would have made of fridge magnets is anyone's guess.

Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Avant-Garde is at Tate Britain, London SW1 from 12 Sept to 13 Jan 2013; tate.org.uk


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July 28 2012

Another London: International Photographers Capture City Life 1930-80 – review

Tate Britain, London

Another London is a show of black-and-white photographs of the host city that can only have been conceived with Olympic visitors in mind. This is a tourist guide to London at its most familiar and nostalgic. It is Big Ben and the Tower of London, bobbies and red buses, pearly kings, cockney sparrows, roll out the barrel and change the guard, all viewed through a haze of smog so unvarying that it makes even the work of such disparate artists as Henri Cartier-Bresson and Bill Brandt look speciously similar.

The photographs all come from the collection of Cartier-Bresson's brother-in-law, Eric Franck, who has given more than a thousand pictures to Tate, doubling its holdings. Some of these are classics, including Irving Penn's turbaned cleaning ladies with their battered buckets and their shining resolve, and Lartigue's portrait of his wife, Bibi, walking towards the camera as the street shears away behind her looking remarkably like 19th-century Paris.

Other images are by less well-known names, such as the Viennese photographer Wolfgang Suschitzky, who clambered up the dome of St Paul's to photograph the bombed-out streets, or Leonard Freed who memorialised the Hassidic communities of north London in the 70s. But all the works are by international photographers, looking in from the outside, which may be why so many of these scenes turn out to be proverbial: tea at a Lyons Corner House, City gents in bowler hats, street urchins playing in the East End terraces and that most unchanging of events, the changing of the guard.

Sometimes, the image has a distinctive sensibility, especially among the photographers of central and eastern Europe with their dramatic tonal contrasts and their fragmented compositions. Suschitzky took a bewildering photograph of figures on a merry-go-round hurtling into white space that fills one with excitable dread.

But one senses that some of these photographers had arrived in search of the Blitz spirit, the class system and the stiff upper lip and couldn't resist the sight of a cockle-seller or a schoolboy in a top hat. They photographed the general more than the particular: the fishmongers at Billingsgate, the Norland nannies forging across Hyde Park with their Silver Cross prams, the working-class orators of Speakers' Corner, preferably with a British bulldog in sight.

Black-and-white photography, of course, has the look of documentary truth; the historic record. It is apt to depict the present as if it were already the past. But even so, there are startling anachronisms here. Victorian Londoners as late as the 1920s and Eliza Doolittle, as it seems, still selling flowers in her long black clothes in the 1930s.

For me, the most remarkable photograph in this show is by Robert Frank: a sharp perspective of a London terrace in dank gloom, a motionless street cleaner framed in the window of a waiting hearse. A child darts past, her little body captured in midair, as if running away from death, or perhaps from this dark and narrow life.

It is never a sunny day in these photographs. Nor does London look like the immense and scattered metropolis it is. This is partly to do with the fact that some of these photographers were on assignment photographing the coronation of George VI, or VE Day, or the wedding of Princess Anne. Hyde Park and Trafalgar Square appear over and over again.

But perhaps London was not an easy subject for foreigners during these decades: visibility was frequently poor in the fog and smog, the geography was too diffuse, maybe the society was too hard to crack. Bill Brandt stands before a Bethnal Green doorstep to take his photograph, Eve Arnold manages to get in among the drying stockings of a steamy shared bathroom. But there is scarcely an interior shot anywhere in this exhibition.

And in the end, colour takes over in a Cultural Olympiad kind of way – the colours of a mixed-race, multi-cultural, international, all-welcoming London. This is as much a cliche of 20th-century photography of the capital as the Queen Mother visiting East End housewives during the Blitz. Individual images may be strong – it could hardly be otherwise given the calibre of the artists – but in general this is a safe and conservative show. Another London it certainly isn't.


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July 23 2012

Bombs, bowlers and babies: Another London at Tate Britain - in pictures

As the Olympics kicks off, Tate Britain is hosting an exhibition of images by international photographers that capture London life between 1930 and 1980





June 15 2012

Cy Twombly's late works alongside Turner and Monet

A threefold show of sensuality and symphonic emotion at Tate Liverpool, plus openings of work by Yoko Ono, Bruce Nauman and Andy Warhol – all in your quality weekly art dispatch

Exhibition of the Week: Turner, Monet, Twombly

The death of Cy Twombly in 2011 deprived the world of a mighty painter. Colour in art is the language of feeling. Twombly spoke that language with a langorous drawl.

Born in Lexington, Virginia, his sensibility seems steeped in the melancholy of the American south. That poetic quality was sharpened in New York and matured in Italy. As a young man, together with his close friend Robert Rauschenberg, he confronted the Abstract Expressionist style that flourished in 1950s New York with intimate, earthy references to real life. The result was a richly allusive way of painting which flourished after he settled in Rome and immersed himself in the history of the Eternal City.

This exhibition takes very late works by Twombly and compares them with the late paintings of JMW Turner and Claude Monet. This is a tough test for Twombly's reputation. Will his art truly stand up to these masters?

Monet's late works are overwhelming. His waterlilies hang suspended in time and space, in paintings that melt into abstraction. Turner too became precociously abstract with age. So this is an exhibition about the nature of abstraction – about where it meets the stuff of life.

I expect Twombly to be right at home in this company. The exhibition anyway ought to be an incendiary nocturne of sensuality and symphonic emotion.
· Tate Liverpool, from 22 June

Also opening

Yoko Ono
One of the most original and daring artists of the 1960s, whose performances break barriers between artist and onlooker.
• Serpentine Gallery, London, from 19 June

Bruce Nauman
A founder of the postmodern in art. Nauman is represented here by his work Days, a meditation on time, comparable with the works of composer Steve Reich.
• ICA, London, from 19 June

Andy Warhol
Is there really more that is new and exciting to reclaim in the art of Andy Warhol, or is he perhaps due some dead time?
• Dulwich Picture Gallery, London, from 20 June

Dead Standing Things
Still life under Dutch influence makes for a fresh glimpse of British art in this special display.
• Tate Britain

Masterpiece of the Week

Charles Collins, Lobster on a Delft Dish, 1738

This gorgeous still life with its shiny red lobster takes us to the precise, keen-eyed, and passionately materialistic world of the 18th century Enlightenment and is a gem of the Tate collection.

Image of the week

Five things we learned this week

Art doesn't have to be visible to be wonderful

There's a greyhound with a painted pink leg on the loose in Kassel, Germany

Renzo Piano's Shard is "not about priapismo"

Tracey Emin would have liked to be taught by Louise Bourgeois

How Rachel Whiteread battled with the elements while making her Whitechapel frieze

And finally

Have you seen the Guardian Art and Design Flickr page? Share all your latest cultural snaps there

Show us your artworks with Share your art

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May 29 2012

Tate's new gifts

Works by David Hockney, Lucian Freud, R B Kitaj and Rachel Whiteread are among the nine being gifted by philanthropists Mercedes and Ian Stoutzker



Tate given artworks by David Hockney, Lucian Freud and Rachel Whiteread

Mercedes and Ian Stoutzker donate nine works of modern art to fill gaps in Tate's collection

Nine works of art have been given to the Tate, including a David Hockney, a Lucian Freud and Rachel Whiteread's maquette for her Trafalgar Square plinth.

Mercedes and Ian Stoutzker, a married couple who have been generous supporters of the arts over a number of years, announced they were to give works which fill gaps in the Tate collection.

"The gift was an initiative from the Stoutzkers," said the Tate director, Nicholas Serota. "They don't receive any tax benefit from this gift but in the current climate they were very keen to make it public because they wanted to encourage others to give works to the national collection."

Many senior figures in the arts fear such acts of philanthropy will be fewer unless George Osborne rethinks the budget decision to end tax relief on philanthropic giving.

The arts minister, Ed Vaizey, said the government had done a lot to encourage philanthropy and the chancellor "has raised an important issue, addressed it in the budget and is listening to people making representations. Large donors have made important points about how any changes should be implemented and I'm sure the Treasury will listen to those."

Serota said the Tate collection had benefited from major gifts from successive generations over the years including from Alistair McAlpine and Janet de Botton, and the Stoutzker gift was of a similar significance.

The works will go on display together in October and then gradually arrive in the Tate collection, with the last being on their deaths.

The Stoutzker gift essentially represents two generations of artists. There is a Jacob Epstein bust of Freud made in 1947; a small oil painting by Freud himself, Girl in a Striped Nightdress, or Celia 1983-5; RB Kitaj's homage to Francis Bacon, Synchromy with FB – General of Hot Desire 1968-9; and a Hockney painting of the Savings and Loan Building in Los Angeles.

The later works are a Peter Doig snow scene from 2001-02; Whiteread's maquette for her Trafalgar Square commission in 2001 which was a resin cast of the plinth itself; the Hurvin Anderson oil painting Maracus 111 from 2004; a Conrad Shawcross maquette for his large-scale work Continuum, a three-metre-high sculpture commissioned by the National Maritime Museum; and George Shaw's Ash Wednesday, 8.30am from 2004-05, one of a number of Humbrol enamel paintings the artist has made over the years of the Coventry housing estate where he grew up.


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May 22 2012

Ghostpoet on Henry Moore and Gilbert & George – video

Singer-songwriter Ghostpoet considers his own identity as a man behind a moniker through two works showing that, for artists such as himself, Gilbert & George and Henry Moore, the mask is never allowed to slip



May 18 2012

A little house made of human skin

Poignant, thoughtful and exhilarating by turns, the art of the family comes to the Laing in Newcastle. The Guardian Northerner's arts explorer Alan Sykes finds much to enjoy and admire

Family Matters, which opens at the Laing Art Gallery in Newcastle today, Friday 18 May, shows over 60 artists and their very differing depictions of the family, going back to a 1542 portrait after Holbein of Edward VI aged six, and on to the 21st century.

The exhibition is organised around five broad – and overlapping - themes:
inheritance; childhood; couples & kinship; parenting and home.

Perhaps not surprisingly, death is frequently in the foreground or background of the paintings. Poor young Edward VI, dressed up in imitation of Holbein's grandiosifying iconography of Henry VIII to symbolise the power and continuity of the Tudor dynasty, only survived his father by a few years and died a teenager. Donald Rodney's 1996-7 "In the House of My Father" is a photograph of a miniature house held in the artist's hand. The house is made of skin removed from Rodney in operations for the sickle cell anaemia which was to kill him only a year later, aged 37.

In Gainsborough's charming "The Painter's Daughters Chasing a Butterfly" from the National Gallery, it is thought that the fragile butterfly may have been the painters way of depicting his older daughter Mary, who had died young. Sometimes the portraits are even done post mortem. In Pompeo Batoni's "The Hon Thomas and Mrs Barrett-Lennard with the daughter Barbara Anne", the daughter had been dead for a year when the grieving couple arrived in Rome on a grand tour. The painter had to make the likeness of Barbara Anne from a miniature which the Barrett-Lennards carried with them. Van Dyck's portrait of Venetia Digby was apparently commissioned by her widower, who had plaster casts of her face, hands and feet taken after her death. The sitter had died very suddenly and mysteriously aged only 32, and some suspicion of foul play fell on the husband, but nothing has ever been proved.

It's not all doom and death, however. Zoffany's amusing picture of David Garrick in drag and a rage in Vanbrugh's "The Provok'd Wife" is here, contrasting with the amusing for different reasons and much more overtly theatrical "The Prodigal Daughter" of 1903, by John Collier, in which a modern and independent-minded young woman is pitched against her Victorian-in-every-sense parents.

David Hockney's "My Parents", of 1977, shows his mother smiling fondly at her talented son, while his father is hunched over a copy of "Art & Photography" - apparently he was inclined to fidget when sitting if not allowed to read - while in a mirror on the chest we see a reflection of Piero della Francesca's "The Baptism of Christ" from the National Gallery. Michael Andrews' touching "Melanie and me Swimming" shows the artist teaching his daughter to swim, and looks at parenthood from the opposite end of the lens to Hockney.

Of course, one can have fun thinking of works that could have been included – I would have loved to have seen the extraordinary 1635 portrait">portrait of Sir Colin Campbell, 8th laird of Glenorchy, and his seven ancestral predecessors as laird, by George Jamesone, from the Scottish National Portrait Gallery. And some one can do without: even the Laing's Marie-Thérèse Mayne admitted that Joshua Reynolds' "The Age of Innocence" portrait of a young child is "cloyingly sweet", and it certainly makes one understand why the Pre-Raphaelites lampooned him as "Sir Sloshua Reynolds".

Although the "themes", which are enforced through colour-coding in the labels and in the catalogue - which is irritatingly divided into 5 flimsy pamphlets with no index, rather than being in a single handy volume - are too vague to be of any real use, there are certainly enough treasures to make it worth visiting the Laing to enjoy this free show. Other artists in the show include Gillian Wearing, Rachel Whiteread, Vanessa Bell, Mona Hatoum, Sickert, Stanley Spencer, Lely, Julia Margaret Cameron and Allan Ramsay.

Councillor Ged Bell, Chair of Tyne & Wear Joint Museums & Archives Committee (which runs the Laing and other museums and galleries in Tyne & Wear), says:

"It's very exciting to see the North East being involved in a partnership such as this Great British Art Debate project. The North East, as well as the rest of the UK has a wonderful artistic heritage which powerfully illustrates our sense of who we are and the Great British Art Debate is designed to encourage people to take part in an important debate about Britishness."

The Laing is one of the venues in Newcastle and Gateshead which will be taking part in this year's "The Late Shows", which takes place on the evenings of Friday 18 and Saturday 19 May, and this year includes a ukele jam session in the Sage Music Centre, a Space Hopper disco in the Shed, Gateshead, tours of the Victoria Tunnel under the streets of Newcastle, new sculptures at the Mining Institute and exhibitions and events in over 50 other venues – all accessible via a free bus service. Last year 24,000 people visited the 46 participating venues over the two nights, and this year the organisers hope to break that record.

"Family Matters" has been seen at the Norwich Castle Museum and at Museums Sheffield. It is on at the Laing until 2 September and then travels to Tate Britain (1 October to 21 December).


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May 17 2012

Tate Britain promises new chronological display of art treasures

Success in raising £45m for improvements allows 2013 project to rehang collection and display works from 1550 to present day

Tate Britain has promised visitors a chronological circuit of the full 500-year range of its art treasures from next year as it announced success in raising the £45m needed for its major improvements.

The last link in the chain was a £4.9m grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund, allowing completion in 2013 of a project to conserve and upgrade galleries and open up new spaces.

Central to that is a rehang of the collection, which the gallery's director Penelope Curtis said would be displayed chronologically – from 1550 to the present day – rather themed or by artist group.

That will please vocal critics – among them the Guardian's Jonathan Jones and the respected Burlington Magazine – who have been aghast at the paucity of pre-1900 works being displayed over recent years.

That is down to the Millbank Project, explained Curtis. "What we didn't do well enough was communicate that we were in the middle of a building project. We were perhaps too successful in hiding it."

Nicholas Serota, overall director of Tate, admitted: "Obviously when you have something like a fifth of the galleries out of service you have to sympathise with the visitors.

"They are expecting to see a full panorama of art from 1550 to the present day and we haven't been able to show many of the great works in the collection."

Tate Britain hopes there will be fewer critics when the rehang is opened to the public next May.

The chronological circuit of around 400 works will begin with early treasures such as Hans Eworth's 1565 Portrait of an Unknown Lady, showing works through the centuries to the present day including, said Curtis, both the unexpected and those that "people want and expect to see".

Artists on display will include Constable, Gainsborough, Hogarth, Millais, Stubbs, Bacon, Hockney, Lowry and Spencer. There will also be dedicated galleries for William Blake and Henry Moore.

The gallery has also opened the doors to a rehang of its Turner bequest in the Clore gallery – "the first phase of putting the Tate back to what it should be", said Curtis. It includes many popular favourites as well as lesser-known aspects of his work, including an unfinished study of female nudes never been displayed by Tate Britain and conventionally difficult to recognise as a Turner.

The galleries will also feature works which benefit from recent research, including a room in which Turner seascapes hang alongside works by his contemporary and rival, Constable.

A total of £1.9m from the HLF grant will pay for a major digitisation project integrating the archives into an online collection with the other £3m going in to the £45m pot, a target Tate set for itself in 2009.

Getting the money is something of a relief, particularly as the HLF turned down Tate's application for a £7.5m grant 18 months ago, prompting the gallery to go back to them for a smaller sum.

"Obviously not raising money in the initial tranche has put additional pressure on our fundraising from individuals, foundations and trusts," said Serota. "It is a tribute to the support and faith that individuals, foundations and trusts have in Tate Britain and in its programme that we have managed to achieve that level of support."

Sue Bower, head of the HLF London, said her organisation was "passionate about supporting projects that make our heritage accessible to everyone and through opening up the galleries, creating new learning spaces and digitising archives – this impressive project will do just that".


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May 09 2012

Tate announce 2013 programme

Art lovers will be able to enjoy a major retrospective of Roy Lichtenstein's work and find out how LS Lowry was influenced by the French, as the Tate galleries reveal next year's programmes

Comic strips, matchstick men and David Bowie will hit the Tate in 2013, along with Marc Chagall, Gary Hume and Paul Klee. The four galleries – Tate Britain, Tate Modern, Tate St Ives and Tate Liverpool – have announced their programmes for next year, which include the first major retrospective of Roy Lichtenstein's work for 20 years and a show that will demonstrate how LS Lowry was influenced by French painting.

Lichtenstein, whose comic-strip-style paintings made him one of the forefathers of pop art, will be shown at London's Tate Modern from February. The exhibition will include landmark works including Whaam!, his famous 1963 picture of a fighter plane being shot by another, and Drowning Girl, both appropriated from contemporary comics, as well as the Artist's Studio series which saw him bring his graphic, pop style to his own surroundings and other real-life art works. It will also display lesser known late work including a series of female nudes and Chinese landscapes.

The gallery's autumn show will be dedicated to Klee, a pivotal figure in 20th century art, who taught at the Bauhaus school and whose intense, radiant paintings, replete with symbolism and references to the unconscious, draw on cubism, surrealism and primitive art. It will be the first Klee exhibition to take place in the UK for more than 10 years.

The Lowry show will take place at London's Tate Britain from next June, the first of its kind since the artist's death in 1976. Last year, the actor Ian McKellen accused the Tate of neglecting the artist, after claiming that it had shown only one of the 23 Lowry works it owns – a claim the Tate denies. Though Lowry's images of matchstick-style workers in industrial landscapes are some of the most famous in British art, the exhibition promises to reveal how he was influenced by 19th-century French painters such as Camille Pissarro and Maurice Utrillo.

Tate Britain promises to unveil its refurbished galleries in early summer next year, including a re-hang that has already aroused some controversy, with Burlington magazine claiming that it was prioritising modern works over pre-20th century ones. It will also stage an exhibition of work by Hume alongside that of Patrick Caulfield, who died in 2005.

Tate Liverpool will approach another aspect of popular British art with its show Glam! The Performance and Style, which promises to demonstrate the influence of the glam rock era, from 1971 to 1975, on other art forms in Europe and America. The gallery will also host Chagall: A Modern Master, the first exhibition of the Russian artist's work for 15 years.


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April 30 2012

Tate Britain treats our national art collection like its private plaything

The growing criticism about Tate Britain's policy of sidelining the old art in favour of the modern is a valuable reminder that the Tate's collection is really the nation's

Back in December 2010 I got very angry. The object of my disgust was a rehanging of Tate Britain in London in which gallery after gallery of pre-20th century art was cleared out to make way for a display that concentrated heavily, in fact almost exclusively, on British modern art.

"Surely I can't be the only visitor who, entering a museum billed online as 'the home of British art from 1500 to the present day', expects to see just that," I moaned.

It turns out I am not the only one. Today's Times reports on a growing backlash against the anti-historical policy that has continued at Tate Britain. Most significantly, an editorial in the new issue of the respected Burlington magazine argues that the current approach by Tate Britain "shows a contemptuous attitude to the collection and its audience".

Bang on, Burlington. Back in December 2010 I was invited to discuss the issues I had raised with Penelope Curtis, director of Tate Britain. She explained that it is all part of the large-scale refurbishment currently going on at Tate Britain that will, she claims, result in a much fuller display of the collection than ever before. The same explanation is offered by a Tate spokeperson in today's Times – the transformation will apparently "represent the collection in a more representative way".

So are we lovers of great art and history complaining prematurely? I think not. The obvious problem with Tate's explanation is that it does not actually account for the way the collection is being treated. The gallery could "represent the collection in a more representative way" right now – it could give equal proportions of its currently available space to all periods of British art. Instead, it chooses to aggressively foreground the most recent hundred years or so, and consign huge quantities of fascinating art from earlier ages to the stores. This is a curatorial choice, an expression of taste: to pretend otherwise is patronising. By its current choices, Tate really does seem to be treating history with contempt.

Here are just some of the important works that are currently not on view: East Bergolt House by John Constable; Dedham from near Gun Hill, Langham, also by Constable, and many other such works by Britain's greatest landscape artist. Similarly invisible are Horse Attacked by a Lion by George Stubbs: Gordale Scar by James Ward, a Romantic original; and Willam Hogarth's wonderful portrait of six of his servants. William Blake's The Body of Abel Found by Adam and Eve is another no-show, but this is not simply about missing masterpieces. The Tate-selected highlights of British art from the 18th and 19th centuries are on display in one salon instead of getting the range of rooms that would be needed to reveal the many artists and developments in these centuries properly. If artists as celebrated as the ones mentioned above have so many of their works sidelined, what chance is there of coming across a terrific work of art you have never seen by an 18th-century artist you have never heard of at Tate Britain? Yet that is the kind of discovery it should offer.

Tate is the custodian of a national collection of British art since 1500, whether it wants to be or not. The unique breadth of the Tate collection of British art makes it a fundamental historical resource. History is popular: the Tate has tons of art illuminating themes such as the English Civil War and those gorgeous Georgians, which are constantly being explored in TV dramas and documentaries. Why does it assume no one is interested when there is so much evidence to the contrary?

Even if no one cared about the world of Joseph Wright of Derby, the Tate would still have a duty to show his art properly. A museum cannot just shrug off its responsibility to the public collection it holds. Or can it? Tate has apparently established the right to treat its collection not as our national property, to be on view for us to see and draw conclusions about, so much as the plaything of curators who can trawl it to create mediocre exhibitions such as the recent Migrations.


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April 16 2012

Pre-Raphaelites exhibition celebrates 'revolutionary' art

Tate Britain's big autumn show is the first major survey of the 19th-century movement in nearly 30 years

For some, the work of the pre-Raphaelites represents little more than a nice birthday card image or chocolate box cover. But that is to underestimate these "revolutionary" paintings, according to Tate Britain, which has announced details of a show presenting the artists in a new light – as radicals who did nothing less than change the world.

The gallery in London said its big autumn show this year would be an exhibition five years in the planning, the first major survey of the 19th-century movement in nearly 30 years.

"We want to present the pre-Raphaelites as the Victorian avant garde," said curator Alison Smith. "Painters who self-consciously reacted against convention, against orthodoxy and established new a benchmark for modern painting both in Britain and internationally."

She said the pre-Raphaelites were revolutionaries. "The movement was invented in Britain and spread abroad. It is the one time when a British art movement changes the world."

Interest in the pre-Raphaelites – in film, TV and music – has rarely been higher, but there has not been a major show since 1984. Before that, the biggest exhibition was in 1948, the movement's centenary year.

The exhibition will argue that the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood – a movement led by William Holman Hunt, Dante Gabriel Rossetti and John Everett Millais – were radicals in terms of technique, choice of subject matter, composition and the way they engaged with the viewer. They explored social, moral and political issues in a way that was new and often shocking.

Smith said the gallery had been planning and negotiating loans for the past five years. Among the highlights will be Hunt's Lady of Shalott, owned by the Wadsworth Atheneum in Connecticut, which has not been seen in the UK since 1951. More than 150 works are due to be exhibited along with photography, furniture and sculpture.

Smith added: "We'll also be showing how they advocated a co-operative or collaborative working practice, to which end they sought to obliterate distinctions between the fine and the decorative arts in order to place art at the centre of life and society."

The pre-Raphaelites entranced audiences but infuriated many critics. Millais even stopped exhibiting publicly because of the hammering he got in the press, but by the end of the century the artists were superstars. "Everyone knew their names and they were the equivalent, you could say, of Damien Hirst today," Smith said.

The Tate will show works that have aroused immense passions. Wyndham Lewis, for example, once hailed Edward Burne-Jones's The Doom Fulfilled as one of the great paintings of all time. Other paintings in the show include The Pretty Baa-Lambs by Ford Madox Brown, perhaps the first time a figure had been painted outside, and many other crowdpleasers such as Millais' Ophelia.

The show will run in London from 12 September to 13 January before travelling to Washington DC and then the Pushkin Museum in Moscow.

The Awakening Conscience by William Holman Hunt

Some Victorians thought this painting was of a brother and sister in a parlour and at first glance it does look fairly innocent – a bit of playfulness between a man playing the piano and a woman on his lap.

It is, though, nothing less than an explosive exploration of sex, morality and prostitution.

The painting is stuffed with symbolism and required audiences to read it in a completely new way.

The woman is in her undergarments and must be the man's mistress because she is wearing rings on all her fingers bar her wedding finger. The man, a member of the vulgar nouveau riche (all the furniture is brand new), has just arrived and has been fondling her bottom. The shawl around her hips accentuates erogenous parts of her body.

She's in a mess. The man's fallen glove suggests her fate as a discarded mistress will be prostitution while another clue to her plight is the tangle of threads in the bottom right hand corner. The garden reminds her of her innocent past. The light suggests salvation is possible.

It is a good example of Pre-Raphaelist provocation. Curator Alison Smith said: "The colours shock the eye and force you to look at the composition and read it bit by bit. Rather than it being art where you escape from reality, it is art as a means of making you engage or think about something you'd rather not think about."


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March 26 2012

Patrick Keiller: The Robinson Institute – review

Tate Britain, London

Patrick Keiller's The Robinson Institute is based on a long and partly fictitious walk through Berkshire, Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire. We travel in the company of Robinson, an imaginary itinerant ex-prisoner and "scholar of landscape" who has featured in several films and other works by Keiller.

Trudging the London to Aberystwyth Road, and with detours to North Yorkshire and a desolate Cumbrian peat bog – site of the former Blue Streak missile testing facility just north of Hadrian's Wall – Keiller's Tate Britain commission is a meditation on the British landscape, politics, economics and history, from the Otmoor Riots to the collapse of Lehman Brothers. The presence of such disparate artists as Andreas Gursky, Jackson Pollock, Andy Warhol and Dennis Oppenheim represent the interconnectedness of the local and the global.

Keiller's seven-part installation is a tour of works from the Tate's own collection, and a long stroll back and forth along the Duveen gallery, where paintings and drawings, photographs and prints, film footage and much besides line the length of the space, interspersed with vitrines, an 1830 threshing machine, reading tables and lengthy wall texts. It is a fascinating, absorbing grand tour of a ramshackle mind.

Lumpen black bronze sculptures by Lucio Fontana and by Hubert Dalwood, squat on the floor below a giant full stop painted by John Latham. Each was made within a year or so of each other, around 1960, and all have an air of finality. Little wonder – nearby, in a vitrine, is a copy of the agreement between the UK and the US for the sale of the Polaris nuclear missile, and across the way Quatermass II, a movie based on Nigel Kneale's clunky but still frightening sci-fi thriller, runs on a monitor. A shiny but slightly menacing 1967 sculpture by Kneale's brother Bryan Kneale glowers on the floor nearby. Coming across cloud studies by Alexander Cozens and John Constable, you expect to see rockets slewing through their skies, and below an LS Lowry industrial townscape hangs an Ed Ruscha pastel, emblazoned with the phrase There's a lot that's mad here. But it's the world, not the art that's crazy. The end of the world, in one form or another, is presaged everywhere along Robinson's route. There are signs and portents everywhere, including meteors that fell in North Yorkshire in 1795, and near Bicester in 1830.

Here's a photograph of protesters dancing beyond the fence at Greenham Common, and there a handkerchief commemorating the 1819 Peterloo massacre. It all makes a kind of sense, but mostly only to Keiller's alter-ego Robinson. We glimpse the eponymous Robinson – who might look like one of August Sander's 1920s pair of German vagrants, or a Hertfordshire tramp once painted by Michael Andrews. He might be Robinson Crusoe himself, or even Beatrix Potter's Little Pig Robinson. You can even pause to listen to a 1963 recording of Ray Charles (full name: Ray Charles Robinson) singing That Lucky Old Sun along the way.

Southern England is a land graffitied with neolithic carvings, tunnelled through with fuel pipelines, speared by radio masts, cordoned off behind fences. Keiller has photographed the NO PHOTOGRAPHY sign outside the atomic weapons plant at Aldermaston, and filmed fields of waving opium poppies growing near Didcot power station. Great English landscapists and poets meet Piero Manzoni's canned shit and fossil ammonites quarried from the Cherwell valley. Phew. Even Hugo Chávez is here, among the vitrines and posters, books and videos, pamphlets and other ephemera.

I am surprised Keiller hasn't persuaded Ian Sinclair and WG Sebald to join this apocalyptic, bucolic pilgrimage, but they're here in spirit. Fascinating and absorbing though it is, Robinson's roundabout way is hardly the road less travelled, but we're in good company, and Keiller makes us see things differently.

Rating: 4/5


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March 25 2012

Grayson Perry: 'The most interesting thing about Damien Hirst is probably his accounts'

The Turner prize-winning artist took to the stage to answer readers' searching – and often surprising – questions about his life and work at the Guardian's Open Weekend

It didn't even occur to me that the biggest surprise of interviewing Grayson Perry live might come about before the event even took place. In the weeks leading up to the Guardian's Open Weekend, we invited readers to submit their own questions for the artist. The responses were, by definition, unrepresentative and unscientific. But what a revelation they were.

My usual preparation for an interview had seemed so self evident until as to merit little attention. Whoever the interviewee, when drawing up questions I almost always gravitate towards their fault-lines and conflicts – the paradoxes and puzzles in their life and work. But our readers, it soon transpired, had other ideas.

Starting from a broad position of admiration, most of their questions could be characterised as devices to illuminate Perry's personality, or invitations to expand on his relationship with his work. It came as quite a shock to realise that only one of all their questions would have featured on my list. Conversely, lots of them posed a fantastical scenario, based on a hypothesis – for example: "If you could travel back in time ..." – which would never have even crossed my mind. The conclusion was rather sobering. If these questions were representative of what readers actually found interesting, it might be time for a radical rethink.

To be fair, though, no research method would have generated my single favourite question, submitted by the artist's wife, who tweeted: "What's for dinner?" Perry is one of the few people I've met who actually go, "Ha ha ha," when they laugh – as he does, with earthy abandon, when I read out her question, before pointing out: "Well she'd know the answer to that." Resplendent in a baby-doll dress of appliqué satin, and pantomime dame make up, he adds, deadpan, "I'm an old-fashioned man. As you can see."

Perry must be about as close to the perfect interviewee as one could hope for. He dresses for the occasion, and deploys the risque, occasionally catty candour of the underdog outsider. He likes to preface a reply with a quote, and the breadth of his erudition is almost as impressive as his gift for counter intuitive aphorisms: "Innovation," he declares, for example, "is overrated." If Perry were a politician, these could easily be dismissed as sound-bites. But he commands the sort of giddy affection we tend only to bestow on our most improbable heroes.

The artist became a household name more or less overnight, when he surprised the art world by winning the 2003 Turner prize. Perry had already been working as an artist for the best part of 20 years by then, but wasn't particularly well known within art circles, let alone to the public at large. Born and brought up in Essex, he'd endured a fairly miserable childhood and escaped to London, via art school, as soon as he could. Never fashionable, his success as an artist had been respectable but unremarkable – until the Turner prize made him a star.

Perhaps the clearest single theme to emerge from readers' questions was their impression that the contemporary art world – embodied by Damien Hirst, Tracey Emin and so on – is a bit cynical, whereas Perry represents wholesome integrity. Interestingly, although Perry comes across as something of a mischief-maker, his answers are deceptively skilful, managing to both confirm the audience's distinction between himself and the Young British Artists (YBAs) – and yet never endorsing any explicit criticism of his glitzier contemporaries' work.

"Contemporary art has become this baggy old bag; you can dump any old thing in and people say it's art," he will concede. "I don't want to see something you could think up in the bath and just phone it in. If you go to the Tate, every scrap of paper, every piece of poo – literally – is only made significant because it has a famous name attached. As an artist I'm very aware of what I call Picasso-napkin syndrome – I've got this 20th century version of the midas touch, where if I do a little doodle it's worth money! And that's quite a weird and horrifying curse, if you're in the creative business, because you become incredibly self conscious."

Perry has the audience in giggles when he observes: "Now that conceptual art has appeared on the Archers, you know that the game is up," and reflects, "The most interesting thing about Damien Hirst is probably his accounts. Not to say that his work isn't interesting as well," he adds quickly. "But the most interesting thing is probably the accounts." He calls biennales "banalies", and says the modern gallery-goer's attitude to contemporary art "is theme park plus sodoku. They want to go, 'My god it's so sexy, shocking, big, shiny, amazing!' But," and he starts to mime chin-stroking introspection, "'what's it about, what's it about?' My attitude to art is: is it good art? Is it giving me visual pleasure?" He thinks art whose sole purpose is to shock is "a bit boring. It's a bit lame," and though he sees a place for shock in art – "I suppose there's an element that, you know, you need salt on your potatoes; I think it's part of the kind of excited tingle of looking at an art work," he thinks it's become "a kind of worn-out thing".

All of which goes down wonderfully with his audience. But he is very careful to steer clear of anything that could be construed as an art-world cat-fight. "I think the prank, if you like, of just signing a piece of paper and saying that's art – that's great, and it kind of had to be done, you know, make that boundary of what art can be," he offers diplomatically. A reader's question– "Compared with Grayson Perry, most of the YBAs of the 90s were, and are, humourless self-important pretentious bores. Discuss," – makes him laugh raucously, but he replies, "Well I know quite a lot of them and they're very funny, so that's a very sweeping, terrible bitter generalisation – probably," Perry grins, "from a failed artist." Another question – "Given that much of the YBAs success could be attributed to their having gone to college with Damien Hirst, what would you identify as your own lucky break?" is jokily dismissed as clearly from "another bitter artist".

And yet his answer is intriguing. A member of staff at an Amsterdam gallery, Perry recalls, came across one of his pots while rummaging through the basement for a ceramic show. She called him, got to know him, and asked if he'd like to exhibit a show in their gallery. That show won Grayson the Turner Prize in 2003: "So I guess that was my lucky break."

Over the years since then, Perry's work has increasingly featured his childhood teddy bear, called Alan Measles; he recently toured Bavaria on a motorbike, with Alan balanced on the back in his own custom built glass shrine, and he plays with the idea of Alan as a god. The bear is almost as famous as Perry by now, and a reader wants to know who Perry prefers – himself, or his bear?

"Oh well it depends. If I'm going to play the game then of course Alan is my deity and I owe everything to him. Therefore I would say that he is the senior partner. But of course I'm afraid to say that I projected everything onto him, so I'm sorry Alan but he owes everything to me. I have invented him. I hate to tell this to people but most gods were invented by someone. I'm sorry. It's just that I'm in the present, whereas the famous gods were invented by someone a long time ago." An audience member asks if he is serious about regarding Alan as a god, or merely being satirical, and Perry admits that at first the idea was a joke, but over time has evolved into "a serious look at how religions form." The best religions, he adds, "develop organically. On Twitter, probably."

Alan Measles may or may not be a God, but he is unquestionably a celebrity – as is Perry – and many questions explore the theme of the artist as a personality. Perry handles them all with the unflappable poise of a media veteran. "Well one of the first things a journalist asked me after I won the Turner prize was, are you a loveable character or are you a serious artist? And I kind of replied, is it an either or? We live in a media saturated world. I'm sure artists of the past would have dealt with it in just the same way. If you're in the business of communication and images, then if you ignore the media-sphere you're just cutting off your own foot. It's just daft."

He is equally pragmatic about the relationship between contemporary art and finance. His 2009 work, Walthamstow Tapestry, satirised our slavish devotion to brands – and yet his recent exhibition at the British Museum was sponsored by the luxury brand Louis Vutton, as well as a City firm, Alix Partners. The only question I would have asked myself came from a reader who felt troubled by this partnership, and suggested that artists should be chronicling the wealthy's abuses, not rubbing up to them, but wondered if they could no longer afford to bite the hand that feeds.

"Well," Perry responds equably, "Nam June Paik said an artist should always bite the hand that feeds him – but not too hard. It's one of my favourite quotes, that one. My show wouldn't have happened without a sponsor, full stop. It's just – you have to chew on it, it's a real thing. It's not a kind of new thing." He is similarly pragmatic about becoming a brand. "Well it's interesting because we use the word brand in a very derogatory way a lot of the time. I do it as much as anyone. But i think a brand is also sort of like momentum; it gets you through the bad patches if you've got a good brand." He adds, though, "As an artist I'm extremely aware, increasingly, that everything that comes out of the studio I have to feel it's of the correct quality. I can't just sit on my brand at all. I think the worst behaviour of brands is when they're all brand and no quality."

Perry spent six years in therapy, from the late 90s to early 2000s, and is married to a psychotherapist, so many questions come up about the relationship between art and therapy. "Therapy's been a huge influence," he says, "and, yes, being married to a therapist has been amazingly influential because we talk all the time about therapy issues and I think it's a very clear eyed way of looking at the world. I look at my art during the time I was in therapy and it was a kind of flowering; I got into top gear at that point." In fact he came to the end of therapy the year after winning the Turner prize, so I ask if he thinks this was coincidental or connected. "Yeah, if you do therapy you'll win the Turner prize," he jokes.

Therapy had a major impact on Perry's transvestism, which began in childhood and quickly became a compulsion, but sounds like a pure pleasure for Perry today. He used to talk about dressing up as an alter ego called Claire, but therapy taught him to reconcile his two gender identities, and the construct of a female self called Claire now feels to him like a bit of anachronism. Perry goes along with the Claire shtick as far as he can, but it's evident that his patience is wearing thin.

I put a question from a reader who says that, when dressed as Claire, Perry is "the spitting image of my mother in law". Perry's timing and deadpan delivery are faultless: "Well, he's got a very interesting mother-in-law." Asked where he shops, he says he doesn't; his clothes are all custom-made, often by the fashion students he teaches every year. "I say to them, make me something that I would be embarrassed to wear. I challenge you to do it! And they try their hardest, bless them. I get some superb outfits out of it, I really do." Someone asks Perry to name the most humiliating thing that's ever happened to him. "And did you enjoy it?" He laughs. "Well it was nothing to do with dressing up, probably. It was probably some hideous faux pas that I've made. No, when I talk about dressing for humiliation, it's probably a fantasy of humiliation that I kind of have, rather than actual. Like a lot of sexual fetishes, you know, the fantasy is much nicer than the reality."

Claire is, famously, banned from Perry's studio, and a reader asks, Why does Claire have to be so neat and clean. Doesn't she need a busy space too? "She's not a real person," he points out with a tart laugh. "This is it. It's me in a dress. I'm a busy man these days so I dress up when other people dress up, or I'm doing a show. If other people are putting on a bit of slap then I will."

I'd decided not to ask Perry any of the hypothetical questions readers had submitted – just because they were rather elaborate and would, I feared, take up too much time to get through, one alone running to well over 100 words. But then someone in the audience asked a concise one: if Perry could live another 200 years as an artist, would he still be a ceramicist or would he use digital media? "Oh I do use digital media," he countered. "Now I only make pots probably half the time, if that. My next show, I've done it all on Photoshop mainly. I'm not a luddite when it comes to digital media at all."

Well well. At the very beginning Perry had expressly asked not to be questioned about future projects – and yet this reader's hypothetical scenario got him talking about it, and produced the one news story of the session. Truthfully, I would never have asked that question. It is a sobering and rather confronting thought.

The overwhelming legacy of this experiment is, to my surprise, guilt. I feel terrible about all the readers whose questions I never got to ask. I consider emailing them with apologies and explanations – until it occurs to me that they, more than anyone, have probably gained the single greatest insight into what it's really like to interview people.

It's not about deciding what to ask, or how to trick the interviewee into answering. Most of the time, it's really just about what to leave out.


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March 02 2012

Gilbert & George: our lives in art

'People said you can't buy their art because they won't be together very long. Everyone splits up, don't they? But we didn't'

"Man. Woman. Murder." Gilbert begins to intone. "Addict. Strangled. Rape." "Pervert", interjects George, "Suicide. Attack." It's almost comforting to hear Gilbert and George talk about their latest exhibition, London Pictures, which opens at all three of White Cube's London galleries next week as part of a 13 gallery world tour. The show comprises 292 pictures based on the 3712 newspaper sellers' posters they have stolen over the last six years – "we counted them in the end" – grouped together by headline words and arranged in their trademark grid designs. "And when you start to see the words together – School. Mystery. Tube – you start to see the most extraordinary townscape of London. And none of it is invented. These are real people's lives."

Their work has long been attuned to the beauties, the horrors and the mundanities of life around their east London home. The route to the Kurdish restaurant where they habitually eat passes a large block of flats. "Occasionally we see a policeman or woman ringing a door bell. You think 'my God. What has happened?' That could be a nightmare lasting generations. Death. Tragedy. Imprisonment. They say the shame of a family member going to jail can last for three or four generations. What do you tell the school? What do you tell the neighbours? And all that is captured in a word on a newspaper poster that lasts only a day before something else comes along and replaces it."

In a move away from the brightly coloured work they have produced for the last few decades, the London Pictures use just black, white, red and fleshtones. "It came to us with brutal simplicity. The only thing that united all the posters was humanity, and so we added flesh colour." The particular shade of flesh, of course, is essentially the colour of their flesh and images of the two men lurk behind the texts, as they have appeared in much of their work over the last 45 years.

Their distinctive appearance, subject matter and propensity to situate images of themselves in their art has ensured Gilbert & George are among the few artists to enjoy recognition by the general public. When they venture outside their Spitalfields home they are photographed by the art tourists who haunt the newly gentrified area. There is fan graffiti on the walls opposite their front door. "We are very proud of that," says George. "People say hello. Lorry drivers shout at us. One of those enormous trucks delivering steel once stopped and this middle-aged skinhead shouted out the window, 'Oi. My life is a fucking moment, but your art is an eternity'."

The forms and subjects of this eternal art have been many and various over the years since they first met as students at St Martin's School of Art in 1967. They began as "living sculptures", sometimes their faces covered in metallic paint, singing Flanagan and Allen's music hall classic 'Underneath the Arches'. A 1969 piece of "magazine art" called 'George the Cunt and Gilbert the Shit', gave early indication of their ability to shock as well as pre-empting the potential criticism that might be levelled against them. They made large charcoal drawings – which they nevertheless insisted were sculptures – based on photographs of themselves. They further explored taboo language and images as they moved into films and photography proper through which they probed, with increasing graphic clarity, various subjects found near their east end base such as working-class youth, immigration and homelessness, as well as aspects of themselves including microscopic images of their own blood, semen and faeces, often accompanied by images of themselves in their trademark matching suits, or in varying degrees of undress.

"We have two main privileges," says George. "We can bolt the door of the studio and make pictures that say exactly what we want. Then we can take them out into the world and no one can say, not this one or not that one. You can't shout some of these thoughts on the street. You'd be arrested." "But it is all part of the language of human beings," says Gilbert. "People were told that shit was shocking. Shit is not shocking."

Their work has duly provoked more than its share of both real and sometimes manufactured outrage, and their professed Conservative sympathies have been equally frowned on within the art world. But more often than not they have enjoyed commercial and critical success as well as establishment recognition. They won the Turner Prize in 1986 and represented the UK at the 2005 Venice biennale. The Royal Academy once sought legal advice as to whether it could admit two people for one of its limited memberships. "Every two years they telephone to ask whether we would accept membership," explains George. "We say "Ask us. Write us a letter and we will reply". But they say it doesn't work like that. You have to say you will accept and then they will ask you. Not very honest, is it?"

In 2007 they were the subject of a large Tate Modern retrospective. "We felt we deserved it", says Gilbert. "But we wanted it in the right Tate, not the wrong Tate." When the idea was first proposed they were told that Tate Modern had never shown a British modern artist and had no plans to do so. "Then we knew we were on a journey. We had something to beat. And we won through by slow persuasion. We made it difficult for them to say no, because museum directors hate to say no in case they are proved wrong in the future."

They say they don't believe in the "racial division" of the two Tates. "You can't do art by passport," says George. "Gilbert is from Italy, Lucian was from Germany, Francis Bacon was from Ireland. That is what the modern art world is like here. And they have made a decision on those two buildings that will be forever fucked. A disaster. Show, say, a postcard of a Caro sculpture to anybody you meet in the street and they will say that is modern art not British art. So surely it should be in Tate Modern." "Every English artist who has a show in Tate Britain is finished two weeks later," says Gilbert. "It's the kiss of death. If you have Tate Modern, then the other one must be Tate Old-Fashioned. They're trying to say that they don't really believe in British modern art." It is a subject that has long exercised George. "At my first art colleges, art only came from wine growing countries. Teachers never mentioned an artist from the north. Later you couldn't be an artist unless you were from New York. That felt frightful. In that sense, to say you are English and an artist was a new idea."

This reference to his early art life – he only half-jokingly lists his teenage influences as "Jesus, mother, Van Gogh and Terry-Thomas" – remind us that while G&G was born in 1967, there was a time before Gilbert and George. In fact, George Passmore was born in Plymouth in 1942 and was brought up in Totnes in Devon. He had an absentee father, a larger-than-life mother and an elder brother who was converted to evangelical Christianity by Billy Graham and became a vicar. (Some years later his brother "saved" their missing father when he became a Christian.) George left school at 15 to work in a local bookshop, but took art classes in the evenings at the progressive Dartington Hall School where Lucian Freud had been a student before the war. His facility for drawing and painting prompted an invitation to become a full-time student and the plan was for him to move on to the Bath Academy of Art at Corsham where Howard Hodgkin was a tutor. Corsham rejected him and George left for London where he did various jobs – working in Selfridge's, in a music hall bar, and as a childminder – before enrolling at the art school of Oxford technical College en route to arriving at St Martin's in 1965.

Gilbert Proesch was born in a village in the Dolomites of northern Italy in 1943. He was from a family of village shoemakers and his early art revealed itself through traditional Alpine wood carving. He attended the Wolkenstein Art School in the next valley to his home and then, instead of taking the expected route south to Florence or Venice to continue his art education, went north to the art school at the medieval town of Hallein near Salzburg in Austria before moving on to the Munich Academy of Art where he studied for six years.

"So we are very highly trained," says George. "We did seven or eight years of naked ladies," adds Gilbert. But there was little evidence of their traditional background by the time they met at St Martin's on its renowned sculpture course. "St Martin's was very special because, briefly, it was the most famous art school in the world. And that department in particular. There were TV crews from Venezuela. We felt very arrogant about being there. They made us feel very privileged." But Gilbert and George, along with some fellow students such as Richard Long and Barry Flanagan, reacted against the orthodoxy of the time, characterised best perhaps by Anthony Caro's large abstract works, and an early product of their partnership was a jointly staged diploma show on two tables in a Soho cafe: "But we did give them tea and sandwiches when they got there." Later they photographed themselves holding sculptures before realising that they could remove the sculptures to just leave the human beings. "It was our biggest invention. We had made ourselves the artwork."

The opposition to this strategy included St Martin's writing to a potential sponsor advising having nothing to do with them. "And we felt very proud of that," says George. "We knew we were on our own. It was hard but that's why a two is such a common arrangement. It makes you stronger. People said you can't buy their art because they won't be together very long. Everyone splits up, don't they? But we didn't. It was us against the world in that the only galleries exhibiting at the time were minimal. Figurative was not really allowed. Colour was taboo. Emotions were taboo. It all had to be a circle or a square or a line. And be grey or brown or black or white." "And being in the work ourselves was not liked," adds Gilbert. "That's not the case now, everyone is in their work. But then we two were like a fortress. You become somehow untouchable."

The precise nature of their relationship has long been a source of speculation, given additional spice in the 90s when it emerged that George had been married as a young man and had two children. In 2008 Gilbert & George entered into a civil partnership, but they said at the time this was primarily to do with the practical business of protecting the others interests if one of them were to die. Even their friend, and biographer, the late Daniel Farson concluded by saying in his 1999 study of them that "frankly, I have no idea what goes on".

And far from being gay spokesmen they say they are "just the opposite". They object to their work being described as homo-erotic, claiming it is just "erotic". "Sex is just sex. When you ask for a steak in a restaurant you don't ask whether it is a girl or a boy." That said, they did complain when a critic said that at St Martin's they called themselves living sculptures while "anyone with eyes in their head could see that they were actually two fruity gays in suits". "I phoned the editor, not the writer," says George, "and she said it was meant as a compliment. I said 'Madam, you are a liar. Good day.' But I suppose it is another one of our battles in a way. So why not. We deal with everything."

In 1970 they were invited to show some of their charcoal works in Düsseldorf. "The dealer asked the price and, not thinking for one second that anyone would buy it, we said rather big-headedly, '£1000'. The next day he sold it. We were amazed and had enough money to misbehave for a year." Soon after they performed their singing sculpture in Brussels in a borrowed part of a gallery – "it would be called a pop-up space now" – and were invited, on the spot, to open Ileana Sonnabend's new gallery in New York which resulted in the NYPD having to control the crowds in one of the first downtown art events. By this time they were resident in the Fournier Street home that they have occupied ever since. They say when they bought the first house in 1972 they got a free studio at the back, when later they wanted to expand and bought the studio next door they effectively got a free house.

The change in the neighbourhood has been profound in the intervening 40 years – "We know people who live here and who have never been to Oxford Street. It's just some distant and boring place." – and the transformation of the art world has been equally dramatic. "When we were baby artists, you could ask people on the street to name an artist and they would only mention long dead ones; Michelangelo, Leonardo, Van Gogh. If you asked them to name a living murderer, they'd know two or three in prison. But that has all changed."

They are straightforward in their proselytising beliefs for art in general and theirs in particular. At St Martin's they made a looped tape recording simply saying "come to see a new sculpture" and used marshmallows and cigarettes to entice people. 'We did that because I remember Richard Hamilton coming in and speaking to seven people because no one had told the students. We thought how wretched. We never wanted to make that mistake. At least make sure people know about your work. No one has to go to an art show, but we want them to know that it is there if they did want to go. And if you take an exhibition to a city and 20 or 30,000 people see the show, your work stays with them forever. They become a little bit different than if they hadn't gone to the show."

Gilbert and George and their work have travelled all over the world including trips to China and Russia in the early 90s and most places elsewhere since. "We were recently in Gdansk where just the idea of two men being one artist is still something to get over. There may be a sense in London of people saying 'here they go again', but in other places it feels as pioneering as when we began."

Most of their early photographic work was made in the near derelict kitchen at Fournier Street. "It was very primitive", says Gilbert, "but those pieces are now some of the most expensive ones. And we didn't really know how to do it. It was a new type of art to make work out of negatives and photographs. Back then art meant oil paintings, especially for museums. To make this new work into an art form took years."

They say from the beginning they have had an eye on both posterity and the past. "We don't believe modern is it alone. We have to make an art that will survive into the future, and to prepare our pictures for that. And to take account of the past is essential." Not that they have set foot in a national gallery for years. "We know it all," says Gilbert. "But we want to be inspired by life in front of us and not that sort of brain pollution. A lot of artists go to a gallery and see a picture and then make art. We never did that." "If you have a landscape painting in a museum, people glide past it," says George. "But if there was a little policeman on the horizon and a tramp in the foreground masturbating, then it becomes an amazingly interesting picture. We have thoughts and feelings in our pictures, although that does have a price."

Preparing the vast amount of material that became the London Pictures was a physically demanding task, "but sorting through all those 'man dies' 'woman dies' left us sort of crazed," says George. "As we made these pictures we lived through them. You really began to feel it, all this death. But it is very important that we carry on telling the truth as far as we can work it out. We were making pictures then and we are making them now. It's very simple. How we are tomorrow is how our new pictures will be. But it is always a long journey, which can be exhausting and rewarding. But at the end of it, we know there will come a time when we will find ourselves standing in the middle of White Cube, holding a glass of white wine and being  licked all over by teenagers. It's quite a magic moment, and that will be that."


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February 23 2012

Tate's national photographic archive rescued from skip after internal tipoff

An art charity saved the crucial collection after employee's call, but was too late to save another archive dumped by the V&A

Art historians have been disturbed by allegations that the Tate was about to dump its invaluable photographic archive in a skip when another institution realised its importance and rescued it, and that the Victoria & Albert Museum has already destroyed its own thematic archive. Curators, who consider such resources vital, were not consulted.

The archives were full of photographs of artworks from their collections and beyond – crucial visual histories, invaluable for comparative research and for studying any deterioration as a result of time or restoration.

Brian Allen, director of the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art, a UK educational charity with links to Yale University, expressed disbelief that the Tate, as the holder of a national collection of British art from the Tudors onwards, did not treasure its archive.

Allen says he received a call out of the blue from a "low-ranking" Tate employee, who told him: "Someone said … you might like the curatorial photo archive because we're about to throw it on to a skip."

Allen says he immediately dispatched a van to salvage the hundreds of boxes, and was taken aback to discover that they included confidential material – so confidential that he asked the Tate to take items back. These included sensitive documents relating to government committees and export applications.

Tate confirmed its archive is now with the Mellon Centre but a spokeswoman denied it had been destined for a skip.

"In 2008, Tate decided it would be more useful for scholars if this photographic research material on British art, which had not been augmented since the 1980s and much of which is available online, were to be located with equivalent material at Paul Mellon Centre."

At the V&A, a source lamented the loss of its archive of black and white photographs of almost every item in the museum's collection grouped by subject.

He said: "Because the picture library had to move to a smaller room, the man in charge of it, off his own bat, skipped the lot, without telling any of the curatorial departments … I was so angry I could hardly speak. I did think of writing a note to the director. But what's the point? It was too late."

The V&A admitted dumping archival material using "a secure data disposal service". A spokeswoman denied the decision was a mistake, explaining that in removing the picture archive in 2007 to make way for new gallery space, it believed that a thematic archive "wasn't a method of classification that was really necessary any longer", as it had duplicates of photographs and digital files.

The Tate's archive, some items nearly a century old, was amassed by generations of curators, allowing them to trace changes of attribution, ownership and condition. The images came from scholars, conservators, government departments, dealers, auctioneers and owners.

Some photographs were of otherwise unrecorded works, and were the only image in existence. Others were shots of important pictures taken by different cameras, in different lights and from different angles over many years, often showing dramatic changes, one source said.

One old photograph enabled the Tate to turn down a painting offered to the gallery because it showed how much of its original paint surface had at one point peeled off.

Although the archives' disposal occurred within the past five years, the news has only now emerged.

Christopher Wright, an art historian, said: "The scandal lies in the clandestine manner with which these disposals have been made … the Mellon is to be congratulated [for saving the archive]." He recalled the furore in 2009 that prevented the Courtauld Institute closing its photographic library.

Michael Daley, director of ArtWatch UK, the restoration watchdog, condemned the archives' disposal as "scandalous".

He drew parallels with the "dreadful" destruction by art schools in the 60s of 19th-century plaster casts and copies of classical sculpture: "The new iconoclasts wanted to get rid of history … more forgivable for artists in the postwar flush of excitement about new possibilities in art. For historians to destroy archives, it should be inconceivable. It's just unforgivable."

He said scholars can never guess the significance they may find in photographic records. It may be 50 years before something suddenly resonates with some other evidence.

"Photo archives are almost more important than documentary records because photos are taken by machines without motive or vested interests."

The V&A spokeswoman added: "As a system for finding and accessing images, these thematically arranged black and white prints no longer served the needs of most researchers."

But art historians dismissed the defence, saying many items were not online and it would take years to achieve the same grouped classifications of the database the archive once provided.

Wright added: "What people don't understand is that multiple comparisons cannot be made and really studied simultaneously onscreen."


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February 19 2012

Picasso and Modern British Art – review

Tate Britain, London

Soames Forsyte, of John Galsworthy's The Forsyte Saga, must be the most enterprising art collector in British fiction. At the end of the first world war, while others are still investing in John Singer Sargent, he takes a punt on a work by Pablo Picasso. It is true that Forsyte doesn't struggle to save it when his house catches fire –Dégas take priority – but his prescience has already been established. Forsyte was buying Picasso long before his real-life British counterparts.

How late we were to acquire (if not love) Picasso is one of two stories in Tate Britain's big spring show. It's a cracking tale of politics, class and cultural cringe, more or less pieced together through the captions and catalogue.

The other story is of Picasso's influence on British art. You might argue – the curators do – that Picasso is almost synonymous with modernism and therefore his influence is diffuse. But this show is very precisely focused. It looks at three artists who paid sharp attention without being overwhelmed – Wyndham Lewis, Francis Bacon, David Hockney – and five more who swooned. It is told in 150 works, almost half of them by Picasso; the comparison is frequently cruel.

Picasso's first British airing was in Roger Fry's momentous Manet and the Post-Impressionists in 1910. Putrescence, pornography, infection: the press blew up like bullfrogs and were still mocking the Spaniard in 1949 when the Tate finally acquired its first cubist Picasso. Only the Bloomsberries and a handful of Forsytes bought him. "I find him perfectly charming and quite easy and simple," wrote Vanessa Bell from Paris with telling complacency. If his admirers couldn't see the complexities, then what hope for a public who scarcely saw his work in museums before the second world war?

The attention from Bloomsbury may have been a curse. When Picasso stayed at the Savoy in 1919, designing ropey costumes for Diaghilev (exhaustively represented here, and not a patch on Bakst), the group monopolised him in Garsington and Gordon Square. Other British artists were suspicious, and as the excellent catalogue puts it: "his presence left scarcely any mark on British art".

The exception at this stage was Duncan Grant, whose weak pastiches are an embarrassment to this show. "Why, when I ask about modern artists in England, am I always told about Duncan Grant?" Picasso is said to have inquired. It doesn't get much better later on with Ben Nicholson's guitars and Gallicised still-lifes in the 1930s. "Au Chat Botté Dieppe" is neatly lettered across a tabletop viewed through a window, all done in quasi-fractured planes and chalky tones – cubism Cornish-style.

Nicholson, displaying the anxiety of influence, nicknamed the Spaniard "Piccy" and "Picz". Henry Moore shrewdly avoided all mention of his artistic forebear. To appreciate the necessity of this tactic you need only compare Picasso's The Source with Moore's Reclining Figure, two monumental figures placed conveniently adjacent at Tate Britain, and ask yourself whether the latter is likely to have come into being without the former.

It is one of a dozen instances in this show of something pretty near to plagiarism. Each artist has a different Picasso: cubist for Grant and Nicholson, neoclassicist for Moore, surrealist for Francis Bacon. The Bacon room is the least impressive because it insists upon the similarities between the open-mouthed figures in Picasso's Dinard period and those in Bacon's Crucifixion paintings as if they had a shared idiom, meaning or impact. Bacon acknowledged Picasso very readily, but whatever he absorbed feels quite inconsequential to the exuberant agony and grandeur of his art.

If Bacon looks diminished, imagine the effect on everyone else. Graham Sutherland comes over as a second-rate copyist, David Hockney as a lightweight comedian pulling cubist effects with his camera. Hockney can take care of himself, of course, but what is the lasting value of a show where so much of the art is effectively downgraded?

There are masterpieces: several Picassos, including his beautiful portrait of Marie-Thérèse Walter, her face two kissing forms like the new moon holding the old in its arms, silky flesh bathed in moonlight, and Wyndham Lewis's Workshop, that marvellous concatenation of geometric planes in coruscating pinks and mustards that almost resolve into windows, ladders and shelves, by day and also, as it seems, by night.

If this relates to Picasso, it is via futurism, and speaking not of pictorial languages so much as the dynamism of modern life. And that is how it goes at Tate Britain: surely Grant got more from Matisse? If Lewis, then why not William Roberts? Did they really mean to make the British look so puny? Extraneous questions are raised from one room to the next; it is no way to experience art.

How Picasso finally arrived in Britain, how his communism affected Anglo-Saxon attitudes, who saw his work when and how they responded: Picasso and Modern British Art is tremendously enlightening – as a catalogue. The show is another matter. It needs to fit the pictures to the text and ends up shrinking the art.