Tate Britain rehang: a major reshuffle of its free displays

“For the first time in a decade”, Tate Britain has rehung its free displays, said Eloise Hendy in The Independent. The museum boasts “the most comprehensive collection of British art in the world”, making the task of rearranging and in some cases replacing the 800 works on display – spanning five centuries, from the Tudor period to the present day – a massive undertaking. If the rehang has an argument, it is that British art has always been “intimately entwined” with the political and societal conditions under which it was created. So although the display remains largely chronological, each room is now curated in such a way as to address social themes and historical developments. Topics covered include the path to democracy and women’s rights, the history of empire, and the environment. “Old favourites” by the likes of Turner, Constable and Hogarth have been retained, but recent acquisitions, in particular by women and artists of colour, have come out of storage and been given pride of place. The museum hopes its reshuffle “will inspire interest and curiosity in all visitors”.

The rehang will delight anyone who goes to art galleries to read factual wall texts, said Alastair Sooke in The Daily Telegraph. For the rest of us, however, it may prove a bit of a slog. The whole enterprise is dogged by a “wretched historical-mindedness” that reduces the works themselves to “dusty sources about traumatic past events” – notably, Britain’s imperial past. As such, it is distinctly short on “moments of visual flair”, with “dozens” of the collection’s gems sacrificed in favour of exhibits that are worthy but dull. A whole room, for instance, is devoted to the “abominable” paintings of the 19th century artist and reformer Annie Swynnerton, while masterpieces by artists including Richard Dadd and Anthony Caro are nowhere to be seen. Context is important; but really, “history lessons needn’t be this hectoring and fancy-free”.

I disagree, said Ben Luke in the Evening Standard. The wall texts “enrich rather than distract from the paintings”. Thomas Gainsborough’s magnificent portrait of the Baillie family, for example, is “in no way diminished” by a caption explaining that the “finery” the artist so beautifully depicts was probably purchased with income from the sitters’ plantations in the Caribbean. Commendably, female artists are given a voice throughout, from Joan Carlile and Mary Beale in the Stuart period, to contemporary figures such as Lynette Yiadom-Boakye and Mona Hatoum. Yet it isn’t all revisionism: we also get “fantastic” displays dedicated to stalwarts including William Blake, Henry Moore and Richard Hamilton. The Tate was never going to please everyone with its rehang, but it has succeeded in highlighting the “richness” of its holdings with impressive intellectual rigour.

Tate Britain, London SW1 (020-7887 8888, tate.org.uk). Free entry