Tate Britain is comical, creepy and a little bit crazy for opening doors to British Folk Art

By Mark Sheerin | 24 July 2014

Exhibition: British Folk Art, Tate Britain, London, until August 31 2014

George Smart, Goose Woman c 1840© Tunbridge Wells Museum and Art Gallery
Imagine a show on the history of modern sculpture that filled a gallery with, say, washroom fittings and unmediated bicycle parts.

The precedent set by Duchamp surely wouldn’t be enough to justify the apparent artlessness of a display like this. Such is the problem with Tate Britain’s current show dedicated to folk art.

Walking into the first gallery you may still be taken aback, by an attractive green wall hung high and low with what look like giant Monopoly counters. There’s a giant hat, a giant boot, a giant saw.

But just a little investigation reveals them to be the placemarkers for small businesses. This gallery is the spiritual home of Turner, Bacon and the Pre-Raphaelites. But now an anonymous pawnbroker joins the canon. Can that be a good thing?

Granted there is plenty of interest in vernacular art and there are plenty of artists doing interesting things with it, and plenty more who will be inspired by this show.

But the difference between works by, say, Jeremy Deller, Grayson Perry and Marvin Gaye Chetwynd is that they are putting quotation marks around such source material. And so their books, artworks and performances are all the more interesting for it.

What makes British Folk Art even more problematic is the evident pleasure the audiences are finding in the work. While looking at a stitched mat from the early 20th century I heard at least three audible gasps as punters drew close to examine the embroidered roll call of those from the 1st Middlesex Regiment decorated after the First World War.

With hundreds of colourful names, it’s a feat of obsessive sewing to be sure, but not much imagination is in evidence.

Despite Tate’s colourful walls, which are the best thing about this show, the suspicion may dog you that, at least until the arrival of modernism, these islands were a fairly benighted place.

What else can you extrapolate from a mannequin made out of thatch or a sampler made out of human hair? There’s a claustrophobic darkness that clings to most exhibits in this show which can’t purely be a hangover from having once seen the unforgettable Wicker Man (1973).

What was popular back when, today looks as spooky as a blind porcelain doll or a life-size corn dolly. George Smart, tailor by day, artist by night, used fabric offcuts to render the same cast of characters over and again.

Here we can see at least eight iterations of Old Bright the Postman and several more of Goosewoman. People paid good money for these and now they are worth even more. But if you saw one of these gnomic wanderers, shuffling past the window of your intercity train, it could haunt you for life.

What makes it difficult to completely dismiss Folk Art is the inevitable inclusion here of Alfred Wallis, the Cornish painter and former fisherman, ‘discovered’ and encouraged by trained artists Ben Nicholson and Kit Wood.

Whereas Wallis can hold his own on the walls of, say, Kettle’s Yard in Cambridge, in this context he is cut down to size. Exhibition notes even suggest there may have been a Wallis ‘in every port’. This is surely a disservice.

Folk Art almost redeems itself with a room full of lovingly conserved figureheads from ships. It is a cheerful coda to a show where humour, if not lacking, is at least obscured by the passage of time.

Here though, we find bold colours, exaggerated features and aesthetic flair. While not totally free from superstition, they are at least modern in appearance. We have Jeff Koons to thank for that.

The scale of Calcutta, a swarthy-looking addition to a prow of yore is impressive. In a museum show, rather than a gallery, it would be a showstopper. But this is not that kind of a museum and, when you look at the longstanding resistance here to a Lowry show, you wonder why the floodgates were opened to a cast of hobbyists and eccentrics.

One of the exhibits is just a mouldering dartboard. This is really not a bullseye for Tate Britain.

  • Open 10am-6pm daily. Admission £11.30-£14.50. Book online.
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