A Question of Context

I was interested this afternoon to stumble upon a handful of reviews of the rehanging of the collection at Tate Britain, the ‘unveiling’ of which has followed hot on the heels of a very similar rehang of another national collection, with the reopening of Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum (a summary of reviews of that reopening can be found here).  The Tate’s new approach, ‘A Walk Through British Art’ from the 1500s to present, is one that breaks the boundaries between schools of art, reasserting a chronological – an almost ‘as it happened’ view – of our nation’s art and its varying contemporaneous facets, rather than one navigated by academic theories and classifications.

It is a problem of which I have become increasingly aware in my work in music and poetry of the early twentieth century – and also more widely: we research our little pockets of interest, most often solely in the medium that is the focus of our research, be it literary, musical or artistic, and can lose sight of the ‘broader picture’, and how our pockets of research relate to the other arts or even different ‘schools’ within the same arts.  The Tate’s rather more radical decision to give very little information beside each of the items on display is one which will perhaps help to bridge some of these divides and will be an invaluable eye-opener, removing many of the ‘labels’ and categories which have previously separated these works.

While such a view of a national collection of art is most welcome, it does no more than sound a reminder that as we explore our corners of the arts, as well as broadening our horizon within those corners, we must cross over to the ‘other side’, and remind ourselves what is happening in the other arts, and how they might relate to our own corners.  As I have found to my own benefit, being a musician who has recently completed a PhD in English literature (albeit the poetry of a composer-poet), crossing the boundaries can bear great fruit and be enormously informative.  However it can at times leave one wondering quite where one belongs!  While ‘interdisciplinary’ is a hot watchword in academic circles, when you truly fall between two stools, people aren’t quite sure what to do with you; and indeed one is oneself torn between disciplines, for departments of study are specific and not at their root interdisciplinary.

As well as crossing boundaries within our national arts, it is essential that we keep an eye on worldwide developments in our respective ‘periods’ and arts.  I am surprised by how little researchers and writers in the arts make such comparisons.  How many realise that Bach was born towards the end of Henry Purcell’s life?  Or that Wordsworth was an exact contemporary of Beethoven, who died in the same year as William Blake?  Indeed, do these facts matter at all?  Perhaps not, but it is interesting to consider them and to ask these questions.

Various pictures of the Tate’s collection and its rehang can be found here.  For now, this glimpse must satisfy, but I cannot wait to peruse the collection for myself.


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