The bare essentials

On Thursday, Tate Britain unveils its Centenary Development that includes an opening exhibition of Victorian nudes. It should be British art at its best, says Tom Lubbock. But is it?
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The first picture in Tate Britain's new displays is, like many works of British art, not by a British artist. It was painted by Girolamo da Treviso for Henry VIII, and it shows the Pope being stoned to death by the four Gospel writers. In other words, it's a piece of Protestant shock propaganda, and it hangs in a room that also holds broken church statues and other fragmentary remains of the mass iconoclasm that went with the English Reformation. It's an ambiguous starting point to the story of British art. Some people think that this catastrophic cultural rupture was why British art has never been all that good.

Whatever the reason, whatever its failings, we're stuck with it. And with the Centenary Development at Tate Britain, which opens to the public on Thursday, British art has finally a proper home all of its own.

Last year, when Tate Modern opened on Bankside, Tate Britain was in a tricky position. It was upstaged, and it looked as if it had been left behind. It didn't close, but it wasn't fully open. In the last year and a half, it has put together some excellent exhibitions – Blake and Gillray, for example – but at the same time, it has been under construction. Basically, it was ticking over.

Now, the work is revealed. There are four new rooms added to the main floor of galleries, and five old ones have been revamped. There's also an extra suite of special exhibition galleries on the lower floor, and an extra entrance. There's also, naturally, a new shop. Large structural changes like this are spectacular, but you soon come to take them for granted. The new hanging policy will be of more lasting interest. When it opened in spring 2000, Tate Britain adopted a chaotic non-chronological display, each room filled with an allsorts pick'n'mix of pictures connected by some very loose theme – the land, the city, fantasy, portrait. This now appears to have been a temporary aberration.

The new hang returns broadly to chronology – British art from 1500 to now – but with some intelligent thematic steering. There are galleries devoted, say, to Britain and Italy in the 18th century, or the First World War. There's a William Blake room in which Blake's work is shown with a wall of 20th-century Blakist works – by Paul Nash, Graham Sutherland, David Jones – acknowledging the way that English modernism found in Blake a natural forerunner. There are single artist concentrations, too: two rooms given to Constable, early and late; a room to Wyndham Lewis.

This is a focused and impermanent display. It doesn't show all of the gallery's greatest hits all of the time. It will shift its focus every so often, particularly at the modern and contemporary end. But the framework seems very sound.

The other important element is loans. Pictures borrowed from other collections turn up in every room. Holbein's Lady with a Squirrel (National Gallery) hangs among Tudor portraits. Henry Tonks' frightening pastels of war-wounded faces (Royal College of Surgeons) appear in the First World War section. The idea is to extend the Tate's own collection, using the national collections generally as a pool.

This is a very good idea because – as it makes you realise – the Tate's historical British collection is in fact very partial. It's strong on Blake, Stubbs, Pre-Raphaelites. But it lacks work by such resident aliens as Holbein and Van Dyck. There's not much from Scotland. And so many of the icons of British art – The Shrimp Girl, Mr and Mrs Andrews, The Experiment with the Air Pump, Rain, Steam and Speed – belong to the National Gallery.

More seriously, the Tate has never much gone in for those low genres where British art shows so well. I mean, the great caricaturists from Gillray to Beerbohm, landscape watercolourists like Towne and Cotman, illustrators like Tenniel and Beardsley, sporting prints, the naive. But with loans, all these gaps could (from time to time) be made up. The present display has rooms devoted to the miniature portrait and the Victorian photograph.

As with all contemporary Tate displays, every work is thoroughly captioned, and the captions are a bit PC preachy. Eighteenth- century farm workers, you're told, wouldn't have looked so cheerful as Stubbs depicts them. On the other hand, when there's a bit of useful information that a caption could supply, it doesn't always. Anyone looking at Turner's The Field of Waterloo might wonder what that bright light in the sky is. But the caption doesn't mention it.

But I cannot find many other nits to pick. (Well, Cornelia Parker's dangling sculpture, Thirty Pieces of Silver, isn't helped by being housed tightly in a room of its own. And Jane and Louise Wilson's Gamma isn't what I'd have chosen as the only video-piece.) So the prospect looks good.

This year is the centenary of the beginning of the Tate Gallery, and also of the death of Queen Victoria. Tate Britain's reopening exhibition, in the new lower floor galleries, is Exposed: The Victorian Nude, a survey of the subject in paintings, sculptures, drawings, photos and early, saucy moving pictures.

I wish I could feel more enthusiastic about this project. The title does its best to be arousing, and no doubt an audience will be drawn. I can certainly think of one old male relative of mine for whom this show might have been specifically designed. But if our thoughts are on the strengths and weaknesses of British art, then the Tate could hardly have chosen a combination of genre and period where British art looks more useless.

British feelings of cultural cringe seem, ironically, to have been the motive force here. Seeking to raise British art, 19th-century painters turned to the undraped figure as the artistic subject (the Greeks, etc). They then kept running into moral trouble for overstepping the bounds of decency. But the prudes got as good as they gave. Gradually, depictions of nakedness got both more realistic and more outrageous. In the process, lots of debates were generated about purity, corruption, morality, truth, freedom, public and private realms... But, unfortunately, almost no painting of any real value.

It is news, to an extent, just how much Victorian art nudity there was. Yet whether they pose in statuesque froideur or with serpents coiling round them, or show their strength, or languish, or expire, or stand bound in the arena waiting to be eaten by lions, these nudes, male and female, are lifeless as either art or pornography. I don't gather that the work in this show is even meant to be good. It is meant to be interesting, issue-raising, evidence in a psycho-social history, and curious, and perhaps rather amusing in a camp sort of way.

All of which would be fine for a book. But to organise a large art exhibition that is not founded on admiration for most of the works it contains seems to me a waste of time. Why was it necessary to physically assemble them? They generally look better in reproduction, anyway. And besides, even as talking points, lively works are more encouraging than deadly ones (the same arguments apply to nudes in 19th-century France, Germany, Austria, but the art there is worth arguing about).

"Exposed" exposes a lot of lesser-known work, but brings hardly any overlooked talents to notice. William Etty (1787-1849) is the leading exception. He's the only erotic painter in the show – the only one who gets sex into the way he paints – and perhaps the only one in British art. The new Tate Britain should give him a retrospective.

Exposed: The Victorian Nude runs from 1 November 2001 to 27 January 2002

'The Independent' is the official media partner of the Centenary Development