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Tate Modern gets all the attention, but the original Tate Gallery, founded by sugar magnate Sir Henry Tate, has a broader and more inclusive brief. Housed in a stately Portland stone building on the riverside, Tate Britain is second only to the National Gallery when it comes to British art. It’s also looking to steal back a bit of the limelight from its starrier sibling with a 20-year redevelopment plan called the Millbank Project: conserving the building’s original features, upgrading the galleries, opening new spaces to the public and adding a new café. The art here is exceptional. The historical collection includes work by Hogarth, Gainsborough, Reynolds, Constable (who gets three rooms) and Turner (in the superb Clore Gallery). Many contemporary works were shifted to the other Tate when it opened, but Stanley Spencer, Lucian Freud and Francis Bacon are all well represented, and Art Now installations showcase up-and-coming British artists. Temporary exhibitions include headline-hungry blockbusters and the annual controversy-courting Turner Prize exhibition (September-January). The gallery has a good restaurant and an exemplary gift shop.
There’s a post-colonial, anti-capitalist carnival happening at Tate Britain. And if that doesn’t sound like much fun, that’s because it isn’t. It’s serious. The colourful procession is British-Guyanese artist Hew Locke’s big new commission for the grand neo-classical central gallery of this old building. There are hundreds of life-size models here. You’re greeted by brightly dressed kids banging drums, flanked by people on horseback draped in flowers, then figures in skull masks dripping with jewels and pearls. The parade courses the length of the gallery, with dozens of faces, figures, outfits and masks. It nods to carnivals, sure, but also to protests, to refugees, to the fleeing of migrants. The flags and banners being brandished are old currency and share certificates from colonial Panama and Nigeria; the skins of the drums are marked with the insignia of the Russian General Oil Corporation; the dresses are cut from old paintings of Black soldiers and slaves; the horses are wearing images of colonial buildings; there are photos of ships, maps of Africa. This is part celebration, part protest, part funeral march. It’s about owning history, powerfully and beautifully Locke is partly trying to draw attention to the history of the Tate. The museum was founded by sugar magnate Henry Tate, who created this place, as the gallery itself says, ‘from wealth derived from an industry previously built on the labour of enslaved African people’, which is a mealy-mouthed, half-arsed wa
Walter Sickert is disintegrating. He’s melting into nothing, disappearing right in front of you in a staggeringly good, muddy, sombre early self-portrait from 1896. This neatly encapsulates what makes the English painter (1860-1942) so interesting: it’s not his handling of paint or how he captures light or anything, it’s the bubbling undercurrent of darkness that courses through his work. Because where the impressionists and their successors exalted in the effects of natural light, found ecstasy in the beauty of nature (easy enough when you live in the South of France instead of north London), Sickert’s work is caked in the filth and thick smog of the city, the grime and decay of Camden. This show of art from across his long career takes in portraiture, landscapes, urban scenes, nudes and a whole bunch of murder. His early work owes hefty debts to his mentors James Whistler and Edgar Degas. He took the muted tones of the former, and the fascination with everyday life from the latter.  It’s deliberately provocative and disconcertingly morbid Sickert, a former actor, repeatedly paints the stages and music halls he loved. There are actors frozen in searingly bright spotlights, draped in luminescent red and white dresses, trapeze artists caught mid-flight, singers caught mid-song. So far, so Degas, but the real gold is in the crowds. Sickert’s masses of rapt bodies are trapped in the gloom, shadowy observers that smudge into one another, becoming big anonymous, amorphous globs o
She’s exploded sheds and trampled French horns, and in the process, Cornelia Parker has become one of the most mesmerising, instantly recognisable British artists working today. This major retrospective will include loads of breathtaking installations, all dealing with issues of violence, ecology, history and human rights. And also her apparent hatred for garden furniture.
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