BY Jennifer Higgie in Opinion | 08 SEP 16
Featured in
Issue 5

All Change

Art history isn't carved in stone

BY Jennifer Higgie in Opinion | 08 SEP 16

When Tate Modern opened its new wing earlier this year, the facade of the gallery was emblazoned with a deceptively simple phrase: ‘Art Changes. We Change.’ It’s a statement that thumbs its nose at the traditional art historical canon: the one which presumes that once a judgement is made about the value (or not) of a work of art, that is it. End of story. Traditionally, art history was, in the main, written in the 19th and early-20th centuries by white men from Europe and, later, from the US; yet, the fact that their arguments might reflect the vested interests of their country, class, sexuality, race and gender was rarely considered significant. This is not to say, I hasten to add, that many of these writers weren’t brilliant — I still derive great pleasure from reading them — it’s just that, well, times have changed.

When I was at art school in the 1980s and ’90s, despite the incursions of French theory, the art history we were taught wasn’t really that different to the one that had been taught in the 19th century and earlier. Women were, at best, an eccentric footnote: until the Feminist movement of the 1960s and ’70s, we were treated as the subject, rather than the creators, of art. (That women have always made art was dismissed, on the whole, as nonsense.) We were also taught that the most significant and influential artworks were made in Europe or, more recently, the US. In her re-hang of Tate Modern, Frances Morris, the gallery’s dynamic new director, has debunked these assumptions in one fell swoop. In a recent interview with the Financial Times, she declared: ‘The story that we grew up with, that Alfred Barr [New York MoMA’s first director] established, that the museum and market place grew around — it’s an important reference point, but it’s no longer all-encompassing and it no longer has the authority that it had […] Now we can say that not everything that happened outside Western Europe and America happened as a consequence of what happened in Western Europe and America […] Migration was a big thing in the 20th century and it’s very enriching.’

Thus, the radicalism of Morris’s new hang at Tate Modern should come as no surprise. To say that her approach is a breath of fresh air, however, is an understatement. The work of great women artists from around the world — such as Phyllida Barlow, Louise Bourgeois, Gego and Ana Lupas — comprise 50 percent of the displays, while works from different periods are shown alongside each in other in order to enrich and expand our understanding of how ideas develop and regroup. Pablo Picasso’s Weeping Woman (1937), for example, is shown alongside Mexican artist David Alfaro Siqueiros’s Cosmos and Disaster (c.1936), and the late Mozambican artist Malangatana Ngwenya’s untitled painting of war casualties from 1967. Art history, here, is no longer a simple tale that reflects the interests of a single mindset but a grand global narrative in which myriad ways of expressing an idea and experiencing the world intertwine — a far truer reflection of both the state of the world and of art than has ever been seen in a museum before.

Partially inspired by Tate’s example, this year’s issue of Frieze Masters Magazine includes a geographically diverse mix of sculptures, paintings and textiles, many of which were made hundreds and even thousands of years ago. Anne Winston-Allen discusses the Medieval women who painted illuminated manuscripts; Jonathan Griffin explores the rich world of pre-Columbian textiles, which has influenced 20th-century artists from Anni Albers and Lenore Tawney to Sheila Hicks and beyond; Shanay Jhaveri celebrates the contribution of Indian classical music to the visual arts; Dawn Ades delves into the extraordinary ‘spirit paintings’ Georgiana Houghton made in 19th-century London; Maria Loh ponders Caravaggio’s contemporary relevance; and Alastair Sooke examines the enduring power of the Egyptian minor deity, Bes. This year is also one of anniversaries: it’s 150 years since the great art historian Aby Warburg was born and 500 years since the death of Hieronymus Bosch: both of these remarkable men are commemorated in articles that don’t simply look back at what they achieved, but examine why their work is still vital to living, breathing culture.

A regular feature of Frieze Masters Magazine is the ‘Artists’ Artists’ section, for which I invite practicing artists from different generations and countries of origin to nominate a historical work that has inspired them. Most artists living today converse with the art of the past as much as they do with that of the present. It’s a dialogue that twists and turns, taking unexpected leaps in different directions; it’s one I can’t ever see reaching a conclusion. Thank goodness for that.

Main image: Detail of tunic with stepped triangles, Nazca Culture, South Coast, c.700–800, scaffold weave, camelid wool, 186 × 123 × 6 cm. Courtesy: Yale University Art College, New Haven

Jennifer Higgie is a writer who lives in London. Her book The Mirror and the Palette – Rebellion, Revolution and Resilience: 500 Years of Women’s Self-Portraits is published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson, and she is currently working on another – about women, art and the spirit world.