This is one of the most quintessentially British of images, a painting that has stared out of countless textbooks at countless students in countless classrooms. When we imagine Charles I, when we think of the cavaliers, when we think of the era of the Stuarts, when we think of Late Elizabethans, when we think of Shakespeare, it is images like this that we turn to, unwittingly and unthinkingly. And so, these works come to form an enduring part of our own island’s history and what it means to be British. But this image – and the overwhelming majority of images of the Stuart monarch was painted by a Dutch immigrant, Anthony van Dyck. It is these overt and covert contributions to British visual history by migrant artists that Migrations, which opens today at the Tate Britain in the smaller Gallery 2 space, celebrates.
Beginning with the sixteenth- and seventeenth-century court artists – ‘imports’ more strictly than ‘immigrants – who painted the nobility, before examining the transatlantic, transcontinental class of painters that formed part of what Thomas Jefferson described as an international ‘republic of science’, before moving onto three separate waves of diaspora; the arrival of Jewish immigrants at the dawn of the twentieth century, the flight of artists fleeing fascism in the 1930s, and the post-war, post-colonial waves of immigration that, as with earlier waves, has both added and transformed British art.
Because Migrations is based upon a theme and not a movement, the importance of the individual works is perhaps less immediately accessible than Romantics, also showing at Tate Britain at the moment, or than it was with Building the Revolution, which recently came to the end of its time at the Royal Academy. Migrations is more of an art-lover’s exhibition; denuded of their chronological context, you don’t get quite the same immediate sense of why van Dyck, or Mondrian, or Kramer, are as important or as vital to the development of British art as you would if they were placed alongside their contemporaries. That is at once Migrations‘ its great strength and its weakness; presenting to the art-lover a series of paradigm-shifting waves of immigrant artists, but perhaps losing something of what made those artists great by anchoring them in the context of diaspora and dislocation, not artistic expression.
The Gallery 2 exhibition space can sometimes feel too small; the Barry Flanagan retrospective that occupied this space before Migrations was brilliant but brief, but the balance is about right here, although it perhaps could have lived without one of its video installations; they were both brilliant, but I always feel that video installations are an art form that can lose something of their value through repeated exposure. The first installation held me and transported me; I had to have a brief break in order to appreciate the second, which is fine at the press preview, but the actual gallery layout forces you from one room to another without really giving the visitor that option, which is a shame.
Very few things are perfect in this world, and Migrations suffers somewhat from its best works being from the earlier part of its timeline; meaning that the exhibition comes to a somewhat unsatisfactory close. The final room, too, misses several big beasts; any study of migration and British art feels to me incomplete without Rachel Whiteread or Yinka Shonibare, and the presence of either would perhaps have given a sense of wow factor that the McQueen, at least for me, didn’t quite achieve in the same way. Those relatively minor gripes aside, however, it’s a fantastic exhibition, that presents a series of British artists and movements in an entirely new and fascinating context. A must-see.
If you want to see it for yourself (you should), details are here.