British Folk Art

Tate Britain
10 June 2014 – 31 August 2014

Summer Exhibition
Royal Academy of Arts
9 June 2014 – 17 August 2014

At last Tate Britain has found itself a truly populist exhibition. British Folk Art is a hugely enjoyable show, though it must be admitted that, when I went back to look at it properly, having sampled it previously during the Tate’s annual Summer Party, most of the numerous visitors seemed to be pensioners. It was, after all, a warm Friday afternoon. Many non-pensioners were shut up in their offices. Mums and kids were occupied elsewhere.

It was only following this second visit that some slightly strange notions began to creep into my consciousness. First, I became aware that ‘folk art’, in this context, seemed to be a very elastic concept. Part, but only part of the point, at least in the minds of the curators responsible for the show, seemed to be that the term ‘folk art’ could be immediately applied to any kind of artistic activity ruled out in the Royal Academy’s founding statutes, which decreed that ‘no needlework, artificial flowers, cut paper, shell work, or any such baubles should be admitted.’

A striking example of this way of thinking is offered by a section of the show devoted to the work of Mary Linwood (1755-1855) who, the catalogue reports, ‘was regarded by many of her contemporaries as one of the leading artists of the day.’ Humble folk artist she certainly was not. She set up a much-visited permanent exhibition of her work in a very central urban location – Leicester Square. ‘She sold works at sometimes extraordinary prices, and gained an international critical reputation.’ The reason for her exclusion from the R. A. was that her medium was not paint, but needlework. Using this, she made incredibly faithful copies of existing paintings – everything from the work of Annibale Carracci to that of fashionable portraitists of her own day.

One doesn’t have to look far to find a contemporary parallel. How about the much-lauded art of Richard Prince, with its appropriation of advertisements for Marlborough cigarettes? Better still, how about that of Sherrie Levine, who came to prominence in the 1980s, by re-photographing photographs by Edward Weston and Walker Evans, the canonical American Modernist masters of this mode of expression. Her versions are pretty much indistinguishable from the originals.

If Mary Linwood had the good luck to be alive now, she would no doubt be lauded as an exemplary member of our current avant-garde – a feminist appropriationist, using the quintessentially female technique of stitchery to challenge male control of the art world by taking over and subverting images originated by men.

Once an idea of this kind has taken root in one’s mind, it is hard to get rid of. So many of the items included in the show seem to have parallels in recent art – which is perhaps the reason for our often-delighted response to them.

Patchwork Bedcover made by James Williams, Wrexham 1842-52
St Fagans: National History Museum


Installation view of Royal Academy Summer Exhibition 2014 c. Benedict Johnson
Installation view of Royal Academy Summer Exhibition 2014 c. Benedict Johnson

There are other reasons why there now seems to be an increasing synchronicity between what is described as ‘folk art’ and what we are instructed to think of as ‘avant-garde’. Some of these reasons are obvious, others are slightly less so. To look at the most obvious first – the exhibition contains a number of quilts. One, in plain linen, consists of random shapes joined together by a web of red embroidery. The intricate rhythmic pattern made by these shapes makes the finished result look like a very contemporary abstract painting. Another quilt consists of a subtly asymmetrical pattern of white shapes, crosses with curved sides and quarter circles, presented against a red background. If it wasn’t for the deckle-edged border surrounding the main design, plus the quilted texture, this could easily pass for an up-to-the-minute abstract painting, by some well-established master of this kind of thing.

There’s also, however, a kind of solipsism in the choice of these particular works for exhibition. The curators of the show have clearly been led to them by their own previous experience of contemporary painting.

Another example of this kind of synchronicity can be found in many of the trade signs displayed in the opening gallery of the show. An outsize boot, once a cobblers’s trade sign, shown here would sit very comfortably with some of the scaled-up representations of commonplace objects (a shuttlecock, a typewriter eraser, a clothes-peg) made by Claes Oldenburg, one of the founding fathers of Pop Art. We now look at these earlier ‘folk’ objects in a different way from earlier students of items of this kind, because the Pop Art experience has educated us to do so.

Perhaps more fundamentally important, however, has been a radical breakdown of artistic hierarchies. Art education has, for some decades now, been in rebellion against supposedly traditional ways of creating art. There is, however, a paradox inherent in this revolt. The old studio system, inherited from Renaissance ateliers and refined by the Bolognese Academy in the early seventeenth-century, did indeed have some impressive intellectual trimmings, bolted on to it by panjandrums of various kinds, who were only fairly rarely practicing artists. There was, however, a strong basis of what can only be described as craft instruction. How you do you draw the human figure, so that the result has the correct proportions and looks convincingly three-dimensional? What are the basic characteristics of the painter’s materials, and how do you combine them so that they will withstand the test of time?

The doctrine now is that step-by-step instruction of this kind represses creativity – students must be ‘left to find themselves’. The visibly cack-handed is more virtuous than the actually virtuoso. There was an awful lot of this in the most recent Frieze Art Fair – objects so ramshackle that they offered defiant proof that they were solely the work of the artist whose name was attached to them.

This characteristic can be read in two ways. First, as a reaction against the recent tendency for certain artists to act as the CEO’s of manufacturing entities which produce work that may have been imagined by the individual whose name is attached to them, but which have certainly never been physically manipulated by him, or perhaps even touched by him until they were presented to his gaze in completed form. Damien Hirst’s notorious diamond skull is a case in point. Second, however, there is a certain rather endearing ‘folk’ clumsiness about some of these latest supposedly avant-garde productions.

In fact, as the exhibition shows rather clearly, what we blithely call ‘folk art’ tends to run to extremes. Its productions are visibly hand-made, but some demonstrate an obsessive mastery of hand skills, while others are (as we feel) delightfully, naively crude. Or at any rate naïve.

The faux-naïf has become a factor in avant-garde art. It’s worth making a mental comparison between some of the representations of the human form on view in the Tate show, for example the ships’ figureheads, and one of the sculptures visible at the Hayward Gallery, in its current exhibition The Human Factor. Jeff Koons’s ‘Bear and Policeman’ (1988) comes from his Banality series. The piece ironically courts a comparison with Black Forest woodcarvings of bears – just the sort of irredeemably kitsch items that fill true folkies with horror, but which nevertheless have indubitable folk art roots.

One feature that sometimes unites what is characterized as folk art with the productions of today’s avant-gardists is a liking for things made in apparently unsuitable or (at least) incongruous materials. The Tate exhibition offers a group of Toby jugs made of leather. The catalogue description shows that, while choosing to display them, the curators are puzzled about their claim to authenticity. They quote an expert on leather vessels, author of a pioneering study published in 1921, who denounces these items as follows:

An ingenious fabricator of spurious black jacks has lightened the monotony of his labours by producing small leather jugs in the shape of the Toby Philpot jug of the 18th century…A Toby jug of leather is the very height of imbecility, yet I have known cases of them being purchased for high prices.

Of course no such strictures would apply to a professedly avant-garde item, made and presented as such. Incongruity of materials, unsuitability for apparent purpose, become in these circumstances virtues to be lauded, not faults to be criticized. The contemporary avant-garde flourishes on paradoxes of this type. In other words, nowadays it’s not what you see, at least where art is concerned, it’s the mental framework within which you choose to place it. One may argue that this framework, like the items offered at Frieze, has become disconcertingly ramshackle.

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