Tate Britain – the new hang

The new hang at Tate Britain, unveiled in 2013, marks the first major re-hang of its permanent collection since 2000. In its last re-hang, the Tate adopted a much-criticised thematic approach, which grouped different works from different eras under titles such as “Portraiture” or “Landscape” in an effort to make the collection seem less old-fashioned. But for many this approach was too new, too radical, and too sudden a departure from the expected, traditional chronological display. Meanwhile, the new displays, labels and introductory texts were seen as too rigorous and authoritative, and of a speculative and rhetorical narrative, and that, essentially, visitors had to follow the prescribed route in order to have a worthy visit. For some, this way of presenting the Tate’s collection reflected curatorial decisions and “trends” in art history rather than responding to visitors’ needs.

A new hang in a major gallery or museum such as Tate Britain is always a significant point in the ongoing development of the museum – demonstrating that the collection is not static – and offers new insights into the way art is displayed and viewed, historical and social contexts, and new research. With each new display there is an attempt to put works previously not seen into perspective, in terms of their contribution to the history of British art.

A chronological display also has the advantage of being an established, traditional way of ordering a museum. And for the visitor, it is often the most easily accessible way to view the collection. The new “Walk Through 500 Years of British Art at Tate Britain” offers the visitor exactly that: a pleasant stroll through the newly-refurbished rooms of the building on London’s Millbank. And one of the nicest aspects of Tate Britain is that the building is small enough to enjoy a promenade of British art from 1540 to the present day.

The airy rooms have been beautifully refurbished to 21st century standards, their walls painted in soft muted colours which allow the paintings to be enjoyed properly, and the wood floors shine with polish. The new hang represents the unveiling of a new Tate Britain, which will be completed in November 2013 with the unveiling of the building project by Caruso St John Architects, and the reopening of the building’s front entrance.

The “less is more” approach to the new hang enables the viewer to bring their own experience to the works on display, and allows the works to speak for themselves, without the sense of a curator’s voice at your shoulder. Thus the work itself becomes most important, not how the gallery wishes to present itself. The works are neatly labeled, and each room contains a few explanatory notes interspersed between the paintings, which put certain works in their historical, social or literary context, or explain symbols or messages.

The introductory room contains a simple timeline of British Art with a few key works highlighted along the way. The displays themselves reflect changing tastes and styles in art, from the swagger portraits of the early 17th century to the landscapes of the 18th century, in which painters explored both the pastoral idyll and the powerful forces of nature. There are plenty of “favourites” on display: Hogarth’s portrait of himself with his dog, and the picture of his servants; Lucien Freud’s Girl with a Kitten; David Hockney’s Mr & Mrs Clarke & Percy; Chris Ofili’s No Woman No Cry; and lesser-known works by artists such as Mary Beal, George Dawe, Nathaniel Hone and Jann Haworth, offering a few surprises on the journey.

Within the chronological presentation, thematic connections are still made in individual rooms. For example, Alma Tadema’s frolicksome and idealized female nudes in A Favourite Custom is placed beside Walter Sickert’s modernist La Hollandaise, a gritty portrayal of a working-class prostitute, reflecting different approaches to similar subjects. Both works were created within a few years of one another, but until now have been rarely associated in this way. These juxtapositions become more interesting as one enters the 20th century, with the opportunity to observe how artists approach themes such as war and other preoccupations of the modern age.

Alongside the chronological circuit, a new series of seasonal BP Spotlight collection displays offer more depth on particular artworks, artists or themes: a room exploring Constable’s The Cornfield, and rooms focusing on contemporary artists such as Keith Arnatt and Rose Wylie. These displays will change annually, and aim to reflect the changing nature of art, or will focus on emerging artists and recent acquisitions.

May 2013 also marks the launch at Tate Britain of new permanent galleries devoted to two of the greatest figures in British art – William Blake and Henry Moore, artists who, along with J.M.W. Turner, have a special association with Tate Britain. The new galleries seek to tell these stories while allowing more works to be displayed than previously.

Although the new layout runs from c.1500 to present day, visitors can dip in and out as they please, and the route around the galleries also affords some rather wonderful vistas back through rooms just left or glimpses into those to come (the view into one of the Henry Moore rooms is particularly fine). The lack of lengthy explanatory notes allows visitors to fully appreciate the pictures in their own right, while the arrangement of the artworks is never overwhelming. This new hang is very much a celebration of what is great about British Art, past and present, and the continuity of art and creativity in Britain.