Last Monday, the Bank Holiday, we went to Tate Britain to visit the Romantics exhibition. It was surprisingly and pleasantly quiet, at least before lunch. But we didn’t get far before being captivated by the jet fighters in the Duveen Galleries, a Sea Harrier (above) and a Jaguar (below). They immediately appealed to all three small boys there – my two young sons plus the one in me.
Once I’d got over being impressed by seeing such amazing machines up close, my first thought was whether the artist, Fiona Banner, could take much credit for the impact. Surely getting close enough to touch a couple of jet fighters is pretty thrilling whether it happens in a hanger or a gallery? It’s not just their power that’s evident; they’re inherently beautiful objects, their muscly aerodynamic curves giving them the look of pumped-up dolphins. Yes, she had stripped them down to accentuate their shapes and both had received some cosmetic treatment – the Sea Harrier had subtle feathering painted on it and the Jaguar had been polished to a chrome sheen – but nevertheless.
On reflection, though, I thought the artist’s decisions did a huge amount for the work. Just not for the reasons she stated in the accompanying video (also online): she believes that viewers will find it ‘strange and uncomfortable’ to find something designed for killing so beautiful. Really? The combination of beauty and deadliness is surely a familiar one – later that day we saw some lovely looking swords in the hands of the Guards on Whitehall and a bit further downstream the Tower of London has some impressive examples of beautified killing tools (and the jets are only beautiful incidentally – they’re designed to be efficient, not attractive). Her intention is pacifist but I can’t see the striking beauty of these exhibits changing any minds about the waging of war; it’s rather like expecting a tour of the Tower of London’s armoury to put people off knights.
She also reckons our attraction to the display somehow implicates us in their practical use, provoking feelings of guilt; a point which I also found unpersuasive. (There’s also a lot of the usual boiler-plate stuff about imperialism and power).
Rather, for me, the work’s intellectual interest lay in its animalistic elements. These are already present in the planes – their names and shapes – but are accentuated by Banner – the decoration and positioning. She sees them as prehistoric beasts communicating to us in what she calls the ‘opposite of language’ (not sure what that can be: silence? meaninglessness noise?). But far from putting the subject matter beyond literate communication, I think the animal parallels place the work in an intriguing artistic tradition.
The Sea Harrier hangs from the ceiling as if on a hook and the Jaguar is nose-down, belly-up with one wing touching the floor, the other in the air; both are flayed of markings and extraneous parts; one has the traces of feathers. In this way, they’re arranged just like carcasses in early modern genre paintings: the pieces of meat to be found in butcher’s shop scenes or the dead game to be found in still lifes. Some examples: Rembrandt’s stark and unblinking Slaughtered Ox, which draws on a tradition of painting butchered meat from the late-Renaissance onwards, Aertsen’s Butcher’s Stall being an early example; or the beautiful but very dead game birds that hang somewhat mystically against black backgrounds in the works of Juan Sánchez Cótan (all three, respectively, below).
Such works often set out to convey how we’re pieces of meat ourselves; they were memento mori, reminders of death. They may also have sought to illustrate vanitas or how we shouldn’t set too much store in earthly beauty as it is fragile and passing. And once one starts thinking of hung meat when looking at these planes, one’s mind strays to the images to be found in the same building by artists such as Hogarth and Francis Bacon (The Sea Harrier of Old England?). Aggression, gore, violence, mortality and death don’t seem so far away after all.
They may also be telling us something more contemporary, about technology: their dated riveted panels and their being stripped of avionics reminds us that they’re slipping into obsolescence. Once fearsome examples of cutting-edge, military hardware, in the near future they’ll only be fit for exhibition, pieces of heritage. We reflect that even the technology of the future will be old one day; it can save neither us nor itself. Which all seems an interesting, contemporary inflection to the memento mori. And as they’re trophies bagged by an artist might they also not demonstrate that the pen (or metaphorical paintbrush) is ultimately mightier than the sword? Or at least will outlast it?
For me at any rate, I think a very fine use has been found for these two beautiful instruments of death. Banner’s work is resonant even if it’s in ways seemingly unintended by her (not that that’s particularly significant or unprecedented). In a way, it’s a shame she was given the opportunity to explain in detail her banal intentions, even if they are partly fulfilled in ways she doesn’t seem to have consciously envisaged.
A good start to our visit, then. Unfortunately, the Romantics exhibition – a re-hang of the Tate’s own collection – didn’t maintain the excitement. That’s partly as both T and I don’t get Turner, who, unsurprisingly in this location, provided a large part of the work on show. Personally, I keep wondering whether I’ve got my glasses on, scrunching up my eyes to try to bring things into focus. I find all the lemon yellows and old golds leave me cold too, I’m afraid.
It was also partly that there seemed little else that was really stirring, and surely one should be stirred by Romantic visions? Nothing as awesomely mysterious as a Caspar David Friedrich, nothing as wildly epic as a Géricault or a Delacroix and nothing as intensely disturbing as a Goya. Constable’s tame domesticity is a sort of milk-and-water Romanticism in comparison.
It was nice to see Wallis’s Chatterton again (right), the exhibition’s poster boy. But for nostalgic reasons – how I loved that image in my youth! However, rather like socialism and staying out all night its attractions diminish as you get older (for a start, those iridescent trousers now seem very questionable). It’s a lonely Pre-Raphaelite work, which made me wonder at the absence of other Pre-Raphaelite artists – one of the Tate’s strong suits. Surely, if it’s a question of subject matter, others could be said to have painted scenes as Romantic as the death of a Romantic poet? They would have added a bit of dash.
Another questionable decision was the selection of photographs in one of the ‘influenced by’ rooms labelled ‘After the Picturesque’. A good proportion were realist or grittily urban or both, presumably to demonstrate the dissipation of the Romantic tradition. But it’s not as if there haven’t always been plenty of examples of unRomantic or even consciously anti-Romantic work. And it’s not as if there aren’t plenty of Romantically-inspired British photographers. Puzzling.
I could continue with the quibbles – this sort of thematic exhibition always invites a few, and this one more than most. Anyway, the fighter planes are there until January.