What is ‘folk art’? It’s a question with as many different answers as there are countries in the world, and this exhibition at Tate Britain seeks to look at what it means to Britain. Not before time either: where many cultures have long venerated their artisanal works of art and design, the art of the British everyday has long gone unappreciated.
Tate has now brought together a collection of over two hundred paintings, sculptures, textiles and other exhibits, forming a multi-coloured smorgasbord of of designed life in Britain. There are leather Toby jugs, gaudy ships’ figureheads and an elaborate pincushion designed by soldiers wounded in the Crimean War. One of the most eccentric offerings is a 1960 mammoth sculpture in thatch of King Alfred by Joseph Myatt. After all, you don’t get much more ‘parochially English’ than thatched goods.
A set of decorative carousel horses, also on display here, wouldn’t look out of place in that quintessential image of England either – perhaps under the bristly eaves of a fairground stall on a village green. A selection of decades-old shops are another particular highlight in the story of a ‘nation of shopkeepers’, and a fascinating look at how, in decades gone by, the visual arts shaped markers of everyday commerce.
The idea in this show is to upend the traditional Establishment distinctions between ‘high’ art and its ‘low’, folksy, fleeting counterparts – which, as the Tate argues, the art world in this country has been particularly sniffy about. We agree: and hope that this sets a precedent for shows that look more closely at the boundaries between, say, folk art, music and song.
The show is at its most thought-provoking when placing artists such as Alfred Wallis under the ‘folk’ rubric. Wallis was completely self-taught and had no concept of, for example, the rudiments of linear perspective. But his map-like panels of wonky houses and deep blue waters arrestingly elegise the disappearance of ways of life dependant on sea and sail. It was only in 1928 when Ben Nicholson, one of the leading artistic advocates of the ‘idiom of the primitive’, came to St Ives and fell in love with the part-time artist, part-time scrap metal merchant’s naïve way of looking and painting that Wallis was canonised into the British tradition at St Ives – the alternative Tate capitol. Tate Britain curator Martin Myrone’s ‘folk’ context helps to make new sense of Wallis’s enduring appeal: nothing to be ashamed of, everything to celebrate.
One of the exhibition’s chief merits is in giving us a chance to look again at the achievement of this non-traditionally-schooled painter, but also at his many nameless counterparts who laboured for the simple love of making and of beauty.
|What||British Folk Art, Tate Britain|
|Where||Tate Britain, Millbank, London, SW1P 4RG | MAP|
|Nearest tube||Pimlico (underground)|
10 Jun 14 – 07 Sep 14, 12:00 AM
|Website||Click here for more information|