David Lister: The Week in Arts

Why curators should come out of the closet
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The Independent Online

I suspect that the Tate overlord, Sir Nicholas Serota, does not mind the rivalry between his two flagships. I note that, in the manner of Mrs Thatcher talking about her cabinet, he now refers to each institution as "they" rather than "we". He is happy to distance himself slightly and let them fight it out. And he's right to do that. The rivalry is healthy for the art scene.

There's little doubt, though, that Tate Britain has lost confidence over Tate Modern's acclaim. So I'm happy to say that this week it fought back; and with a vengeance.

The BP British Art Displays, now on view, have involved rehangs of 20 rooms. This is not to be taken lightly. Twenty rooms, in many cities, would constitute a new art gallery. This isn't just a rehang; it's a reinterpretation of the collection, a first sight of some unseen works from the basement and, most importantly, a new view of art history by the curators - or, as they call it in the language curators employ when chatting over a cuppa, "a change in the narrative".

And so, we get a Civil War room, which exposes the myth that there was no flowering of culture during the Puritan period, and shows that landscape painting emerged as a new art form in Britain at this time. King Charles I was the first monarch to commission a landscape, Distant View of York, a loyalist city to which he in time fled.

The first display of Folk Art shows material from trades union banners to a ship's figurehead. The room of Tudor and Stuart Portraiture includes, for the first time, portrait miniatures, lent by the Queen from the royal collection, to demonstrate how this art form thrived in the time of the first Elizabeth.

It's absorbing stuff and, as I toured the new rooms with Sir Nicholas and the director of Tate Britain, Stephen Deuchar, I was impressed too by another change in the way an art collection is presented. Mr Deuchar, whose quiet but enterprising style is a key if unsung part of the Tate success, has decided that curators be "named and shamed". They are his words, and, of course, tongue in cheek; but what he has done is important. Each of the rooms has an explanation by the relevant curator on what he or she is trying to show in the choice of works exhibited. Mr Deuchar has insisted that these explanations be signed by the curator.

I think he should go further. An e-mail address should be added, so visitors can ask questions provoked by the display. Or even complain. That would be real engagement with the public. Do it, please, Mr Deuchar.

This wonderful rehang marks a significant moment in the story of the Tate, and that of art in Britain. An intriguing interpretation of some of the history of British art is on display; curators have been outed and, with luck, will engage with the public; our national museums and galleries need not always be in despair about diminishing purchase grants - look what can be done by bringing works out of storage.

And last, but not least, Tate Britain has given its younger sibling a kick up the bum, and has regained its confidence. The rivalry between Sir Nicholas's two flagship galleries is good news for the art world. Long may "they" continue to slug it out.

Somebody move that chair

I can heartily recommend The Philanthropist, which opened at London's Donmar Warehouse this week. The revival of Christopher Hampton's precociously clever 1970 play has a transfixing performance from Simon Russell Beale, in my view the greatest stage actor alive, and always worth going out of your way to see.

But "see" is the operative word. There were chunks of this production in the Donmar's intimate space during which Russell Beale's character was speaking to his fiancée and I could see his back, which also obscured her completely. I was at the side of the stage but only two rows away. Directing in these spaces is difficult, but surely to have two characters on stage and to be unable to see either face has to be wrong. One critic noted that the director had none too wisely placed a large chair on his side of the stage, and his view was obscured.

We have all praised the joys of the intimate venue over the traditional proscenium arch theatre. But they do bring with them an obligation on the production team. The audience has to be able to see.

* The new film of Pride and Prejudice, which goes on general release this weekend, ends with a quip from Mr Bennet, played by Donald Sutherland. At least, it does in the UK. Apparently, the film is to have a different ending in America. There it will end with Elizabeth and Mr Darcy in a loving embrace. The film's director, Joe Wright, was quoted in one newspaper yesterday, saying that Americans "simply like more sugar in their champagne".

I suppose that's one way of looking at it. But one yearns slightly for the obstinate, bolshy, inflexible directors of old who might have said to the studio: "My ending is champagne. You can drink my champagne or you can go and buy someone else's."

Alternatively, let Jane Austen be the guide for the ending. She may have been only dry sherry, but that improves with age.