Our Migrations Journey into British Art

Published 17 July 2012 / By COMPAS Communications

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Migrations: Journeys into British Art Exhibition at Tate Britain

Migrations: Journeys into British Art Exhibition at Tate Britain

By Emma Newcombe, COMPAS Communications Manager and Ali Rogers, COMPAS Research Associate

Migrations: Journeys into British Art is an exhibition currently showing at Tate Britain. Its intention is to explore how migration has shaped the course of British art over the past 500 years. Based on an inevitably modest number of selected paintings, sculptures, films and other material from the museum’s collection, it’s the first show of its kind at one of the country’s core national galleries.

Migrations organises its pieces by period rather than by theme, and although you can explore the rooms in any order, they’re more or less laid out chronologically. It begins in the 16th century, when the genres of both portraiture and landscape were introduced by artists from the Low Countries. (The exhibition catalogue notes that, as a result of directly solicited settlement of refugees by 1622, one in seven of Colchester’s inhabitants were of Dutch descent.) Here we learn about the innovative methods and skills that migrant artists introduced; that were subsequently adopted by the locally born artists as their own.

Italian neo-classicists followed in the 17th and 18th centuries, as wealthy young British men headed the other direction on their Grand Tours. Italy, particularly Rome, was popular for international travel as finds on archaeological digs renewed interests in classical civilisation and a modern tourist industry began to grow. The outbreak of war in 1740 restricted travel and the flow of money to buy art, so artists themselves, Caneletto for example, moved to England. Ten of the 34 original founders of the Royal Academy (1768) were migrants.

Mme Gautreau circa 1884 by John Singer Sargent

In the 19th century, the exhibition emphasizes the circulations between France (notably Paris), the USA and Britain. This occurred partly in response to political and economic turmoil forcing some artists to move to more lucrative markets, and partly because new opportunities arose for the elite to move for art education and career advancement. John Singer Sargent for example, was born in Italy to American parents, studied in Paris and moved to London. He, James McNeil Whistler and James Tissot established a reputation for society paintings, although the exhibition also credits Sargent with the first sympathetic portraits of British Jewish families.  Migrant artists during this time began to use their position as ‘outsiders’ to comment on the contemporary social scene.

The Mud Bath 1914 by David Bomberg

Moving into the 20th century, Migrations focuses on artists of Jewish family and community life 1900-1930, including a couple of sculptures by Jacob Epstein. These sit alongside a small collection related to émigré and refugee artists in the 1930s and 1940s, which is supplemented by various contemporary documents examining the role of the British art establishment in facilitating their entry into the country. One letter explains that Oscar Kokoschka (who avoided internment as an Austrian on a Czech passport) was too absent-minded to possibly be of help to the Nazis.

The post-war rooms begin with an exploration of Modernism’s international moment, and the part played by migrant artists from South Asia, Africa and the Caribbean. There are individual pieces by F.N. Souza, Avinash Chandra and Anwar Jalal Shemza, each of which can also be interpreted as reflecting on the fusion of Western and non-Western styles. There’s an intriguing corner devoted to the ‘stateless artist’ of the counter-culture and conceptual art. The centrepiece is David Medalla’s Cloud Canyons 1963, comprised of plastic tubes extruding bubbly foam – using dematerialisation to privilege idea over object.

The New Diasporic Voices room shows a few pieces from the 1980s. Here the artists maximise their international approach to their work and own identities, as undefined by place. By contrast to the society artists of a century earlier, Keith Piper, Donald Rodney, Sonia Boyce and others are engaged in a conscious, harsh critique of British society and its racism. Assuming one has followed the chronological path, Migrations concludes with a series of moving images, films by Steve McQueen, Francis Alÿs and Rosalind Nashashibi.

We can comment on Migrations more from a perspective of knowing a bit about migration than as amateur art critics. Migrations certainly succeeds in demonstrating the long and continuous presence of migrant artists in Britain. The earliest painting dates from 1565, the most recent piece (a video installation) is from 2009.

Secondly, although the periodization is perhaps a little crude, it nonetheless illustrates the different kinds of migrant individual found in Britain’s art. Some were refugees, others circulating cosmopolitans, stopping for a while in the country before moving on. Some came as established artists moving alongside individuals skilled in other trades and professions, including the early modern ‘talent’ migrants of Dutch portraitists. Others arrived as children. Insofar as these diverse individuals are lumped together as ‘migrants’, the effect is inevitably a binary distinction between migrant and non-migrant.

Thirdly, Migrations succeeds in disturbing the very idea of ‘British’ art. For those of us already well-schooled in cultural studies and varieties of cosmopolitan perspective, it might seem an obvious point. Art, like any other kind of human endeavour, may be nationalized but it is never purely national. Even so, it must be significant that the Tate Britain has recognised the problems associated with its objective.  Sir Henry Tate, the gallery’s chief benefactor, made his fortune after all, in the Atlantic sugar trade.

Migrations is however, something of a misleading title. The exhibition is about migrant individuals, not about migrations. In fact, few of the pieces address directly the experience of migration or being a migrant.

Picture with Two Small Dogs 1920-39 by Kurt Schwitters

There are some exceptions. Kurt Schwitters’ Picture of Spatial Growths – Picture with Two Small Dogs (1920-1939) is a collage of printed materials gathered first in Germany and then, following his flight, in Norway; tram tickets, theatre programmes and envelopes track his passage. A large video installation by Zineb Sedira, Floating Coffins (2009) shows images of the rusting hulks of scrapped vessels moored off the desert coast of Mauretania, thinly populated by young men waiting for the chance to cross the water to the Canary Islands and sea birds flocking in anticipation of departure. Accompanied by the sound of waves, it conveys a strange mixture of decay, hope and tidal rhythm.

Who's Afraid of Barney Newman 1968 by Frank Bowling

As we suggested above, the exhibition is necessarily limited by the space available. It is selective or indicative, rather than comprehensive. There are many more paintings by Guyanese artist Frank Bowling elsewhere in the building than in the exhibition itself. What the curators were not able to do therefore, is to show how migrant artists influenced the country’s art by matching the pieces to others by, to put it simply, British-born artists. Some of the claims made for the show are, in this sense, over-stated.

The intention to explore how migration has shaped the course of art in Britain is therefore more like a promise. Migrations is indicative. After visiting the exhibition, you can walk through the rest of Tate Britain with a heightened sensibility to look for the many kinds of mobile techniques, styles, ideas and figures populating the gallery’s walls and agitating the boundaries of British art.

Migrations is on at Tate Britain until 12 August.

(This review was posted simultaneously on the COMPAS and Keble Geographer blogs)