Friday, June 12, 2015

Fighting History 9 June – 13 September 2015 Tate Britain: John Singleton Copley and Benjamin West

Fighting History celebrates the enduring significance and emotional power of British history painting through the ages, from 18th century history paintings by John Singleton Copley (1738-1815) and Benjamin West (1738-1820) to 20th century and contemporary pieces by Richard Hamilton (1922-2011) and Jeremy Deller (b.1966). Juxtaposing work from different periods, the exhibition explores how artists have reacted to historical events, and how they capture and interpret the past. 
Often vast in scale, history paintings engage with important narratives from the past, from scripture and from current affairs. Some scenes protest against state oppression, while others move the viewer with depictions of heroic acts, tragic deaths and plights of individuals swept up in events beyond their control.  

Amy Robsart exhibited in 1877 by William Frederick Yeames (1835-1918), which has been newly conserved for this exhibition, casts a spotlight on a historical mystery (Amy Dudley, born Robsart, (7 June 1532 – 8 September 1560) was the first wife of Lord Robert Dudley, favorite of Elizabeth I of England. She is primarily known for her death by falling down a flight of stairs, the circumstances of which have often been regarded as suspicious.)

while John Minton’s (1917-1957) The Death of Nelson 1952 offers a tender perspective on the death of one of England’s greatest naval commanders.
During the 18th century history painting was deemed the pinnacle of an academic painter’s achievements. These paintings traditionally depicted a serious narrative with moral overtones, seen in

 John Singleton Copley’s The Collapse of the Earl of Chatham in the House of Lords, 7 July, 1778 1779-80. (It depicts the collapse of William Pitt, 1st Earl of Chatham on 7 April 1778, during a debate in the House of Lords on the American War of Independence. Chatham is surrounded by peers of the realm, and the painting contains fifty-five portraits.)

The way history was presented in these works was not a precise description of events, but aimed more towards the Italian istoria – a narrative that pleased the eye and stimulated the mind. 
While some conventional accounts suggest that history painting died off in the 19th century, this exhibition shows the continuing vibrancy of the genre, as new artists have engaged with its traditions to confront modern tragedies and dilemmas.

Jeremy Deller’s The Battle of Orgreave 2001, a re-enactment of the 1984 clash between miners and police in South Yorkshire, is also featured. Comprising a film, map, miner’s jacket and shield amongst other things, the room immerses visitors in a pivotal moment in the history of the miners’ strike.

In addition, Malcom Morley’s triptych Trafalgar-Waterloo 2013 venerates Admiral Lord Nelson and the Duke of Wellington, who are separated by a cannon based on one from the HMS Victory protruding from the canvas in the central panel.

The exhibition also compares traditional and contemporary renderings of historical events from scripture, literature and the classical world. There is a room dedicated to interpretations of the Deluge – the biblical flood that symbolises both the end and the beginning of history – including

 JMW Turner’s (1775-1851) The Deluge 1805

and Winifred Knights’ (1899-1947) The Deluge 1920, which contains unmistakeable references to the former.

There is also a section focusing on depictions of antiquity, seen in works such as

Sir Edward Poynter’s (1836-1919) A Visit to Aesculapis 1880

and James Barry’s (1741-1806) King Lear Weeping over the Dead Body of Cordelia 1786-8,

which frames the Shakespearian tragedy in a scene of ancient Britain.

From Ancient Rome to the Poll Tax Riots, Fighting History looks at how artists have transformed significant events into paintings that encourage us to reflect on our own place in history. Itis curated by Greg Sullivan, Curator British Art 1750-1830, Tate Britain with assistance from Assistant Curator Clare Barlow. The exhibition is accompanied by an illustrated catalogue with contributions from Dexter Dalwood and a programme of talks and events in the gallery.

From a review in The Telgraph:

A new exhibition seeks to show us, however, that Britain has had a rich, alternative tradition of history painting – one that persists to this day. Among the earliest paintings on view is

 Gavin Hamilton’s Agrippina Landing at Brindisium with the Ashes of Germanicus, from 1765. Like many pictures of that time, it drew on prevailing Neoclassical trends and harks back to Greco-Roman antiquity...

Alas, one of the landmark works of British history painting, 1770’s The Death of General Wolfe by Benjamin West, isn’t on show. West, pretty much without precedent, chose to capture events of recent history (the heroic fall of General James Wolfe at the Battle of Quebec 11 years earlier) and use contemporary dress...

In 1981’s The Citizen, his image of a hunger-striking IRA prisoner, Richard Hamilton broke new ground. Not just in using a television documentary as his source, but in offering a bearded, barefoot subject of pathos – à la Christ. This is history painting where the artist seems openly to be questioning official government policy of his day (here, Mrs Thatcher’s hard line against hunger-strikers).

Dexter Dalwood, in turn, plays fast and loose with history in Poll Tax Riots, as if suggesting history is unique to each and every one of us in these less deferential times. His reimagining of the Trafalgar Square protests of 1990 includes chunks of the Berlin Wall and a section of Gerhard Richter’s painting Dutch Sea Battle. This is Dalwood’s own, very personal vision of the past.