An epic portrait of struggle - or naive glorification of disorder?

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The Independent Online
The Museum of London was accused of "glorifying civil disorder" yesterday after it unveiled a reminder in oil of the riot in Trafalgar Square, when police fought hand to hand with anti-poll tax protesters.

Though even-handed in its treatment of both police and rioters, the 12ft by 9ft History Painting, by John Bartlett, is deliberately provocative. The imposition of the poll tax was one of Margaret Thatcher's most unpopular policy decisions and there was a mass campaign of non-payment.

In a traditional epic form, the painting will dominate the museum's London Now gallery which opens next Tuesday explaining the history of the capital since 1945.

It depicts the pitched battle that took place in Trafalgar Square and the surrounding streets on 31 March 1990. Protesters wielding sticks confront police, two on horseback, against a backdrop of Nelson's Column, the National Gallery and burning vehicles.

John Marshall, Conservative MP for Hendon South, said the painting was to some extent glorifying civil disorder. "These rioters were seeking to alter government policy, not by reason but by force. There is no place for that in a democracy. I would have thought there were much greater episodes in London's history to commemorate rather than events conceived by Scargill's children."

Controversy and conflict are major themes in the gallery, with the redevelopment of Piccadilly and Docklands portrayed alongside newspaper type-setting equipment made redundant, along with its operators, after disputes with the print unions. Outfits and accessories from Mary Quant and Biba illustrate the "swinging Sixties".

Mr Bartlett accepts that History Painting might "upset a few people" but says it role is to provoke and confront people with an important event of the recent past.

"I think it's impartial. It's cold in a sense. I deliberately haven't used mannered emotion in the faces. I wanted there to be a seriousness about it."

The 36-year old artist, whose studio is in Bethnal Green, east London, has drawn on great works of the past, including Picasso's Guernica as well as more prosaic sources, such as photographs lent to him by the Metropolitan Police.

"Little has changed in battle dress since the time of the Parthenon Frieze, the shields are still round, yet now they are made from perspex; and the sticks and weapons rise up to the sky like the armies of Uccello and David of old," Mr Bartlett said. As to the his personal view of the poll tax - the artist thought it "very unjust" but paid it none the same.

The museum, which is partly funded by the Government and the Corporation of London, has the painting on free loan from the artist. The curator, Mireille Galinou, said the museum should be used as a platform for reflection.

"It's a good painting from a serious artist. It is refreshing to see a serious painter approaches such a subject. How people interpret it is their business," she added.

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