Exhibition review: British Folk Art at Tate Britain

Where do you expect to see ‘folk’ art? It’s most often to be found in a museum of rural life or, perhaps, displayed in Fabian or arty households in Hampstead or Sussex. Now, divorcing it from customary habitats and frames of reference, Tate transports this mainly rustic art form to its temple of high art on London’s Millbank. For three months this summer, we can enjoy close-up encounters with ship’s figureheads and painted inn signs, intricately stitched quilts and samplers, paintings and pottery, and some oddities that defy easy categorisation.

Leafing through the catalogue accompanying this exhibition is a delight, as it showcases more than 200 charming or ingenious examples of this most accessible and engaging genre. Some are well known, such as an exquisite little ship executed in house paint by Alfred Wallis, a former mariner from St Ives. Since this was given to the Tate in 1958, by the painter and critic Adrian Stokes, Wallis has been celebrated for his innocent eye and his primitivism as an authentic folk artist.

The accompanying catalogue presents an interesting analysis of this phenomenon and Wallis’s ‘discovery’ by the painter Ben Nicholson. Nicholson and his circle collected and promoted Wallis’s work and planted it in museum collections. When Wallis was old and infirm and living in the Madron workhouse, Nicholson was still visiting him and supplying the raw materials that ensured he went on producing pictures. Thus, Nicholson and Jim Ede, the Kettles Yard curator, built Wallis into the foundation of the St Ives art movement that has become one of the most famous and highly priced strands in British Modernism, altering our perception of Wallis’s unmediated ‘innocence’ as a maker.
But, like many of the exhibits here, Wallis’s pictures strike their audience as compellingly charming, evoking a nostalgic past.

It is our reception of these pieces, their easy charm and the role that we have allotted to them as windows onto the past that makes Folk Art problematic to some contemporary art historians
in a post-Modern world. Tate’s curators cannot commit themselves to assessing its identity or attributes as a genre. As one states: ‘We shared a scepticism about, or perhaps a simple lack of interest in, the legibility of these objects as authentic records of historical social practices.’ Instead, they have published an introductory essay, a personal view by the painter Jeff McMillan, whose own work assembles and appropriates imagery of modern life for corporate clients including Disney and Nike.

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Rightly or wrongly, Folk Art has, until now, been broadly understood as something quintessentially vernacular and working class-popular, traditional, performative, community-based, anti-commercial and straightforwardly accessible: art made ‘by the people, for the people’. Revivals have tended
to coincide with times of collective crisis, a nationalistic antidote offering Englishness and its countryside as a tonic.

The lucidly intelligent artist and writer Barbara Jones was Folk Art’s chronicler and collector in the 1950s. Her contemporaries Enid Marx and Margaret Lambert assembled a more conventional collection, including pieces such as one of the collaged vignettes of rural characters, stitched and sold to tourists by the Tunbridge Wells tailor, George Smart, loaned to this show from Compton Verney.

Fascinatingly, something like another cultural revival is in the air just now. The Friday night Ceilidh Club at Cecil Sharp House in London, home of the English Folk Dance and Song Society,
is a bawdy, joyful sellout, the Eynsham Morris is full of handsome 16 year olds and Simon Costin’s cool Museum of British Folklore camps on the internet. But perhaps to celebrate or acknowledge any of this would play to the wrong kinds of audience too British, too English? Tate’s curators have chosen to examine the individual ‘modes of making’ by which these objects were created, but not to treat them as symbols of a coherent ‘native’ culture or ‘ethnic’ identity.

As almost all art is popular art now, Tate’s squeamishness over celebrating the mass appeal of Folk Art seems rather a pity. The marvellous exhibits are well worth going to see, but it was probably inevitable that this exhibition would become an exercise in deconstruction, albeit an intellectually valid one. Meanwhile, in Padstow on May Day, the locals fight and drink and dance with the ‘Obby ‘Osses, and Lewes’s Bonfire Boys practice their November festival of pyromania, these former fishing and agricultural communities protecting, corralling and parading their customs for audiences now vastly swelled by tourists, incomers and second-home owners, who are there for the emotional highs and sense of connection that these semi-erzatz folk customs can still provide to a modern world.

‘British Folk Art: The House that Jack Built’ is at Tate Britain, Millbank, London SW1, until August 31 (020-7887 8888; www.tate.org.uk)

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