Throwback: Fighting History

Throwback to July 2015: Tate Britain's 'Fighting History' exhibition. 
Tate Britain 

Since the very beginning of human-beings, art has allowed large events to be transformed into a single image or sculpture. I think that, as highly visual beings, we need this connection with our pasts to allow us to present to others what we feel is important. From depictions of battles to those of religious stories, artworks often allow us to empathise with the artists’ views on certain political or social events.
John Singleton Copley's The Death of Major Peirson (1784)
This is what Tate Britain’s ‘Fighting History’ aimed to explore. The exhibition did not simply display paintings; many art forms were shown. From The Death of Major Peirson (1784) to a denim jacket from the Battle of Orgreave (1985), the exhibition blurred the lines between created pieces and contemporaneous objects that have become artworks. What is the purpose of these political/social artefacts? Are they there to shock or simply record fact?
A jacket from the Battle of Orgreave (1985) 
 There has been much criticism of the exhibition, particularly of its parameters of what constitutes a ‘history painting’. This I can agree with. A lot of the artworks shown were quite surprising, such as Alma-Tadema’s The Silent Greeting (1989). It was unclear why this was included in the collection. The neoclassical piece does depict a historical scene, but only in the dress and interior. Normally history painting is seen as a more complex theme, where a narrative or event is explored. This oversight was unfortunate, as it took time and attention away from some of the best pieces.

Dexter Dalwood's The Poll Tax Riots (2005)
 Walking in to the first room, eyes are drawn to Dexter Dalwood’s large The Poll Tax Riots (2005). Depicted is Trafalgar Square, the site of the riots of 1990, where around 110 people were injured, and 339 people were arrested. In the background are sections of the Berlin wall. Perhaps slightly obvious in its message, the piece was still an effective way to begin an exhibition on political art.

Steve McQueen's Lynching Tree (2013)
 However, a piece that was not obvious was Steve McQueen’s Lynching Tree (2013). The light box is slightly confusing at first. In fact, I stood opposite it for a few minutes waiting for ‘something to happen’. It is only after I read the description that a slow feeling of both understanding and remorse ensued. The tree in question –near New Orleans- once served as a gallows for slaves. This was one of the most interesting pieces in the exhibition, because of its subtle message. Understanding the context of the photograph is crucial, but it is not explained anywhere in the art- which was a thin line some of the other artworks failed to appreciate. Photography is an interesting medium to be seen in an exhibition such as this. There is such a juxtaposition between these photos and the paintings of artists such as Gavin Hamilton and John Singleton Copley. These artists took such care and time to depict their subjects, but, in present times, photographs which are taken so quickly are often much better, more emotive representations.
Richard Hamilton's Kent State (1970) 
For instance, Richard Hamilton’s Kent State (1970) is simply a photo he took of his television screen which was zoomed in on the dead student. Hamilton said of this that it was “too terrible to submit to arty treatment”. I think this is a really interesting sentiment. It seems to be a very critical view of art, especially for an artist to take. But, considering that these last two photos are the pieces I most appreciated in the entire exhibition, perhaps it is true, that some events should not be turned into an artwork, but should just be displayed for what they are.

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