BP British Art Displays: Looking At The View, Tate Britain, London

  • @ZoePilger

To walk through this display of mostly British landscape artists from the Tate collection is akin to walking through the British countryside itself: bracing, meditative, green, and, at times, dull. However, many exceptional works are included.

From the muted blues and muddy browns of J.M.W Turner’s Hill Town On The Edge of Campagna (1828) to Patrick Caulfield’s technicolour Château de Chillon, part of the iconic After Lunch (1975), there is much scenery to enjoy.

The display spans 300 years of art history, and, at first glance, seems to lack structure. But these photographs, paintings, and films are paired according to a logic that illuminates each in a new way.

Sarah Lucas’ Self-Portrait with Knickers (1994), pictured, shows the artist in a typically confrontational pose surrounded by woodland, or possibly a particularly bushy area of a park in London. Her hands are on her hips. A line of white knickers is strung up behind her.

Lucas’ play on symbols of feminine purity and hygiene hangs next to an oil painting by Edward Atkinson Hornel, one of the Glasgow Boys.

Autumn (1904) shows two young girls wallowing in fallen leaves. Their white smocks are matched by the swans that sail in the pond behind them, and, indeed, by Lucas’ knickers to the left. The painting is an angelic counterpoint.

Landscape was considered to be one of the lower genres of painting until the 18th century when Edmund Burke’s idea of the sublime proposed that to contemplate nature was to be struck by awe and terror.

The grandiosity of the Romantic imagination is demonstrated by the pairing of Joseph Wright’s Sir Brooke Boothby (1781) with Tracey Emin’s Monument Valley (Grand Scale) (1995-7).

The former shows the amateur poet and publisher of Rousseau’s first Dialogues reclining in a forest, holding the book itself. He looks smug. The setting was intended to illustrate Rousseau’s conviction that man must live in harmony with nature.

The Emin portrait is notorious: she is seated in her grandmother’s appliqued chair in the middle of the Arizona desert, reading her own book, Exploration of The Soul.

The curators are making a wry comment on literary self-regard and how depictions of the act of reading haven’t evolved too much over the centuries.  

Pains have been taken to balance tradition with Julian Opie, Tacita Dean, and Gilbert & George. This exhibition is perhaps the next best thing to a day in the country.