Fighting History at Tate Britain
A celebration of the significance historical events have had in British painting throughout the ages, Fighting History is a gorgeous exhibition that looks at how artists have transformed important episodes from collective memory into paintings.
The exhibition is divided into six themes which both express history and definite moments that helped shape British identity. Historical paintings have long been a leading art genre, and it is within this European tradition that British artists were striving to find their place. Thus, a significant influence from Renaissance painting can be sensed from the works on show.
However, Fighting History is not just about military history, but it also shows how big historic events have affected people. As historical paintings are all about affecting the emotions, the exhibition puts an emphasis on this connection between art and audience through a simple juxtaposition that goes all the way through it: comparing classical and contemporary pieces. For instance, Henry Wallis’ The Room in Which Shakespeare Was Born (1853) is positioned right next to John Everett Millais’ The Boyhood of Raleigh (1870) and Steve McQueen’s photo, Lynching Tree (2013). While the room dedicated to ancient history showcases stunning large-scale paintings depicting ancient mythological stories like those of Agrippina and of Shakespeare’s King Lear, The Battle of Ogreave Archive is a room full of newspapers, vinyl text, maps, books, video and audio files, following the timeline of the 1980s miners’ strike. It is through this sharp contrast that Fighting History manages to showcase the importance of historical paintings, and this comparison of traditional and contemporary renderings of historical events is very effective.
Finally, the exhibition succeeds in reminding people that the old art of historical painting has not died at all and there are artists who still want to represent the past – both ancient stories and events from recent times. This is what all the artists on show have in common: no matter what era they lived in or the style they chose to create in, all of them are storytellers who illustrate an influential event that shaped people. Thus, finishing the show with different representations of The Deluge seems most suitable, five large-scale paintings in dark, grey colours mimic each other as they portray the mythical universal flood that covered the earth. The emotions felt standing before these paintings are hard to emulate in simply reading the texts that inspired them.
Photos: Erol Birsen
Fighting History is at Tate Britain from 9th June until 13th September 2015, for more information or to book visit here.