Tate Britain director defends museum against charges of ‘canceling Hogarth’

Tate Britain in London has defended the approach in its Hogarth and Europe exhibition (until March 20, 2022) after a wave of criticism focusing on wall labels written by contemporary commentators, which one critic described as “vigilant teasing”. It tells the museum’s director, Alex Farquharson Kunstavisen that “Tate Britain has both the confidence to provide a public platform for these talks and the expertise to contribute directly to them.”

Curated by Alice Insley and former Tate senior curator Martin Myrone, the exhibition presents William Hogarth’s work in a “fresh light”, with his art seen for the first time alongside works by continental contemporaries in Venice, Paris and Amsterdam, such as Jean -Siméon Chardin of France (1699-1779). “A number of commentators were invited to write the shorter labels immediately next to individual works. These texts bring a wider range of perspectives, expertise and insights to the exhibition, ”according to the exhibition weight text.

Great artists can be unpacked and reinterpreted by each generation

Alex Farquharson, Tate Britain Director

But Tate’s management decision to include comments on Hogarth’s paintings of several non-curatorial figures, including artists Lubaina Himid and Sonia E. Barrett, incited British national newspaper art critics.

According to a weight text written by Barrett, for example, a self-portrait from 1757 depicting Hogarth sitting on a wooden chair must be seen in the context of slavery. “The curved chair literally supports him and exemplifies his view of beauty,” she writes. “The chair is made of timber sent from the colonies, via routes that also carried slaves. Could the chair also stand for all the unnamed black and brown people who enable the community that supports his energetic creativity? ”.

In response, under a headline that the 18th-century artist had been “torn into the cultural wars of today,” critic Waldemar Januszczak wrote in Sunday Times at “[a problem] is the collapse here of useful scholarship and its replacement with vigilant teasing. Caption after caption wastes precious explanatory space on à la mode speculation about Hogarth’s intentions, which are thunderously unreliable. “

Fashion statement: Hogarth’s Marriage a-la-Mode: 2, The Tête à Tête (circa 1743) National Gallery, London

Rachel Cooke wrote in Observer: “Nor was I keen on its curators’ painfully extreme anxiety about social attitudes during this period; to some of its subjects’ connections to colonialism and slavery; to sexism and anti-Semitism. They treat the work like bombs that are about to detonate. “Jackie Wullschläger from Financial Times lamented the fact that the cover of the exhibition catalog has no picture, which led her to declare: “Hogarth canceled.”

The image-free cover of the Tate Britain exhibition catalog Photo: Martin Bailey; Tate

Farquharson emphasizes that the process of developing the interpretation strategy and inviting contributors is always led by the curatorial team, which includes colleagues with expertise in gallery interpretation. However, a British museum consultant specializing in interpretation, who preferred to remain anonymous, says the Tate approach is “unusual”.

An ‘innovative approach’

Farquharson adds that staging such an exhibition, which reflects the very latest Hogarth scholarship, is a collaborative process, explaining that the exhibition team achieved this by bringing more voices into the interpretive texts along with their own.

“Maybe it’s an innovative approach to taking on the gallery’s walls, but that’s how exhibition catalogs are often built, and it’s familiar to all of us from TV documentaries, where the presenter’s frame story is combined with several ‘talking head’ contributors,” he says.

Asked if Tate Britain has lost confidence in the way it handles historical material, Farquharson says: “Great artists can be unpacked and reinterpreted by each generation – that’s part of what makes them so important. In this case I think Hogarth comes out of this process as an even more sophisticated and influential artist than we already knew. “

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