Displacement activity

Exile is almost a condition of post-Renaissance art: the French classicists Poussin and Claude settled in Italy, Gauguin made his home in Tahiti, Picasso in France, Kandinsky in Germany, Rotterdam-born de Kooning in America. But Britain, for centuries culturally insular but politically liberal, has a unique record of needing and welcoming migrant hopefuls and transforming them into celebrated émigré artists – from Henry VIII’s court painter Hans Holbein to Lucian Freud, Paula Rego and Anish Kapoor.

It is a terrific story and therefore a catastrophe – in terms of political as well as aesthetic resonance – that in attempting to tell it Tate Britain’s new show, Migrations: Journeys into British Art, cruelly omits almost every highlight. Holbein, Freud, Rego and Kapoor are all absent, although Tate owns such important works as Freud’s “Girl with a Kitten” (1947), Rego’s “The Dance” (1988) and Kapoor’s “Ishi’s Light” (2003). Each is a wayward, idiosyncratic piece, reflecting how British art history is eccentric, uneven and multi-stranded precisely and uniquely because it has always merged foreign and vernacular influences into an art of compromise.

You see that at once in the opening room, which is dominated by Van Dyck’s sparkling portraits of Charles I and Henrietta Maria. Dynamic, fluid, spontaneous yet majestic, such depictions introduced the baroque to England, yet their restrained elegance shows how native moderation tempered the bombastic extravagance of Van Dyck’s teacher Rubens.

Van Dyck was Rubens’s assistant in Antwerp but left the city because it did not offer enough scope for a second towering painter. He found eager patrons instead at the Stuart court, and the mix of fantasy, painterly flair and solid naturalism with which he flattered his sitters shaped British portraiture – Gainsborough, Lawrence – for generations. The other significant artist lured by the Stuart kings was Willem van de Velde, paid £100 a year by Charles II for “taking and making draughts of sea-fights”. His seascapes, atmospheric but exquisitely detailed, entered English collections and had an impact on Turner, and he was acclaimed in his youth as “the best of the Dutch marine painters”.

The gallery of Dutch paintings is incomparably the best thing here. An exploration of 18th-century visitors to Britain – Canaletto, Zoffany – is perfunctory, and by the 19th century the show collapses, visually and intellectually. The only major works included from this epoch are a Whistler nocturne and a couple of magnificent portraits – “Ena and Betty, Daughters of Asher and Mrs Wertheimer” (1901) and “Mrs Carl Meyer and her Children” (1896) – by John Singer Sargent, whose free, bravura handling and textural richness were at first greeted as abominations of a “Frenchified” style. But the main conduit of modernity into Victorian and Edwardian Britain, Walter Sickert, German-born friend of Degas, is inexplicably excluded.

‘Mrs Carl Meyer and her Children’ (1896), by John Singer Sargent

The 20th century – great, global epoch of migration and displacement – is the test for any interpretation of this subject. No group has an exclusive claim on its representation; inevitably, rightly, Tate focuses on the Jewish and black experience, but devastatingly misrepresents both by a mediocre selection that defies narrative or analysis. David Bomberg’s stark, powerfully abstract canvases “Vision of Ezekiel” (1912) and “The Mud Bath” (1914), for example, are here, but his seminal influence on the postwar expressionist Anglo-Jewish generation – he taught Leon Kossoff and Frank Auerbach – cannot be documented because Auerbach’s and Kossoff’s works are absent.

Among Nazi refugees, the insignificant Marie-Louise von Motesiczky is in – “Still Life with Sheep” depicts the porcelain animals brought from Germany and displayed on an ironing board in her English hotel room in 1938 – but Freud, one of the greatest 20th-century artists, and Josef Herman, who became “Joe Bach” when he settled in a Welsh mining village and sustained a career depicting the working class, are out.

Piet Mondrian’s “Composition with Yellow, Blue and Red”, begun in Paris in 1937, completed in New York in 1942, looks like a strange interloper: the artist may or may not have worked on it during his few months in London, and its relevance – that formalists such as Mondrian, Walter Gropius and Moholy-Nagy were so alienated in Britain that they “spent a brief and obscure sojourn here before crossing the Atlantic to a more hospitable environment” – is obscure until you read the single helpful essay, by Kodwo Eshun, in an otherwise deadening catalogue.

Why migrant artists stay or leave, whether exile encourages a conservative or a liberated mentality, are among many pertinent questions that should, but don’t, arise in the concluding sections of the display, “New Diasporic Voices” and “The Moving Image”. Instead, the voices are the dreary documentary monotones of Sonia Boyce, with self-indulgent photographic series “From Tarzan to Rambo: English Born ‘Native’ Considers her Relationship to the Constructed/Self-image and her Roots in Reconstruction” (1987); Rasheed Araeen’s “Bismullah” (1988), a silkscreen juxtaposing Islamic tiles with Christian candles, and “Handsworth Songs” (1986), Black Audio Film Collective’s archival footage of the 1980s riots in London, Liverpool and Birmingham. The tedium of these works confirms every prejudice against politically correct minority art.

Missing, meanwhile, are the icons of British black art: Chris Ofili’s great portrait “No Woman No Cry” (1998), tribute to the murdered black teenager Stephen Lawrence; “The Swing” (2001), Yinka Shonibare’s exuberant installation of a figure in African batik clothes. Tate owns both, and it is hard to think of more fitting pieces – although the model for Shonibare’s beloved Fourth Plinth “Nelson’s Ship in a Bottle” would also have been apt – for its focus on “British artists from first or second generation immigrant backgrounds explor[ing] the politics of diaspora and displacement ... transforming the cultural and aesthetic parameters of British art in relation to race and national identity”. Yet Ofili and Shonibare – masters at combining individual and political expression – join the distinguished names whose omission diminishes this show beyond rescue.

Eleven per cent of Britons were born overseas, more than 20 per cent of children have a foreign-born parent. Tate Britain has a duty to show and interpret the best of our national collection, in contexts meaningful to its ever-widening audiences. But here, what should have been a celebration and an illumination is a dingy mess.

‘Migrations: Journeys into British Art’, Tate Britain, London, until August 12 www.tate.org.uk

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