Fighting History is a strange exhibition (and one which seems to have had many poor reviews). An exhibition on history painting – and its often counter-cultural attitudes – sounds like a brilliant idea for an exhibition, but for me it didn’t deliver. The only review I saw (heard, actually, on Radio 4, I think) before I went left me unclear as to what the exhibition was really about, and I’m afraid that visiting it didn’t really make that any clearer. The exhibition blurb says:
From Ancient Rome to recent political upheavals, Fighting History looks at how artists have transformed significant events into paintings and artworks that encourage us to reflect on our own place in history.
From the epic 18th century history paintings by John Singleton Copley and Benjamin West to 20th century and contemporary pieces by Richard Hamilton and Dexter Dalwood, the exhibition explores how artists have reacted to key historic events, and how they capture and interpret the past.
The first room, Radical History Painting, argues that history painting is not in fact the conservative genre we think it is, but one which resists authority and undermines the conventional way of thinking. I didn’t think that history painting is a purely conventional genre, but even if I did I’m not sure that the three pieces in this room – Dexter Dalwood’s trite ‘The Poll Tax Riots’, Jeremy Deller’s word-map linking acid house to brass bands, and Robert Edge Pine’s ‘John de Warenne’ – would have convinced me. It seemed like a self-conscious start to the exhibition, shouting to the foolish and naive exhibition-goer: ‘Look! Art isn’t what you think it is, and we are here to show you that, in a very modern and non-chronological way’.
Now, although I am probably conventional and old-fashioned in this, I prefer chronological approaches to exhibitions, usually; however, I’m not so conventional that I’m not open to doing this differently, especially when trying to make a radical point, and grouping the art works by themes across 6 rooms might have been a jolly good idea; however, the themes were odd, and oddly represented by the works in them. 250 Years of British History Painting, in the second room, worked on the vague premise that approaches to history change over time, and contained an odd assortment of paintings with varied relevance to history, including Alma-Tadema’s ‘The Silent Greeting’ (which tells us little about history, though something about the artist and his period), along with Millais’ ‘The Boyhood of Raleigh’ (again, not exactly history, except in the ‘lives of great men’ school), Henry Wallis’s ‘The Room in which Shakespeare was Born’ (is that really history?) and, more sensibly but lacking in context, Johann Zoffany’s ‘The Death of Captain Cook’. The third room, Ancient History, contains, randomly, Millais’ ‘Speak! Speak!’ and the ghastly ‘King Lear Weeping over the Dead Body of Cordelia’ by James Barry, alongside some genuinely ancient history from Poynter and Gavin Hamilton.
Room 4 is British History, which I think attempts to identify a specifically British approach, and – like the other rooms – does contain some interesting pictures, but sadly by this stage my mind was overtaken with annoyance at failing to understand the grand narrative behind the exhibition. I’d like to think that the whole concept was terribly postmodern, undermining a conventional narrative to show the fallacy of historical narratives, but to be honest I don’t think that was the case. Still, I was interested by the (populist but well-done) ‘Amy Robsart’ by William Frederick Yeames, showing the (presumed) murder of the wife of Robert Dudley, freeing him up to marry Elizabeth I (which of course he didn’t), as well as John Minton’s modern, sympathetic ‘The Death of Nelson’, with its homosocial undertones. Yet I was still wondering, why ‘Fighting History’? Fighting against it? Undermining it with radicalism? (in which case, why Alma-Tadema? Why Barry, Millais, etc?) Or fighting it in the sense of depicting a fight of some kind? Who knows.
The fifth room was devoted to modern resistance to authority in art: Jeremy Deller’s ‘The Battle of Orgreave’ set the tone, re-enacting a clash between miners and police in 1984. I quite liked the idea of re-enacting something so modern, as a riff on the concept of Civil War re-enactors, etc: it might make one ask questions about what we do with history, especially modern history; how do we process it, react to it, depict it in art and incorporate it into our lives? Sadly, such questions are undermined by the haphazardness of the final room, The Deluge, which displayed several paintings of the Flood. This was entirely unexpected and seemed an odd conclusion; though there were some excellent paintings here, including the only Turner to feature in the exhibition, and Winifred Knights’ ‘The Deluge’, a modernist painting which looks at a flood – or the flood? – as the end of history. I suppose there is something of a narrative closure there, but the exhibition overall confused and annoyed me – and it’s rare I say that. Go and see the Hepworth exhibition downstairs instead!