Alex Farquharson

Alex Farquharson is the Director of Tate Britain and Chair of the Turner Prize. He was appointed to this position in Summer 2015. Previously, he was director of Nottingham Contemporary. Farquharson is also a trustee of Raven Row, and he has served on the acquisitions committees of Arts Council Collection and Government Art Collection and on the juries of the Deutsche Börse Photography Prize at The Photographers Gallery in 2011, London and the British Pavilion at Venice Biennale in 2009.

We catch up about Van Gogh and Britain presented at Tate Britain until 11th August 2019 and learn that this exhibition contradicts the cliché of Van Gogh as the suffering loaner. We also talk about Mike Nelson’s large-scale and impressive commission, staged in the grand spaces of the Duveen Galleries of the prestigious museum. We evoke Brexit and discuss the idea that art is about creating differences.

I am very interested in your Van Gogh’s exhibition. How did you come up with the idea of this exhibition? Evaluating the relationship between Van Gogh and British artists, and the time he spent here, was probably needed for a long time.

Firstly, I can’t take credit for the idea. It came up during discussions about the major figures with connections to this country whose stories have not been told here, in a similar vein to the Picasso and Modern British Art exhibition. We were interested in how Van Gogh had been an influence on artists in Britain – Bacon and his study of Van Gogh, for example – but it was also interesting to ask the question “what did Britain mean to Van Gogh?”

We therefore get a two-sided picture: the influence of London and British culture on Van Gogh and Van Gogh’s influence on early modern British art. These ideas came together through new research, as shown in the catalogue as well as the exhibition, building very well supported and persuasive cases. For example, when Van Gogh was here in the early 1870, he wasn’t yet an artist and was only in his early twenties, but was probably earning more than he did at any other time in his career, working for international art dealers on the Strand. He was living in Stockwell and loved walking; so he would walk every day to work, and was very struck by the scale and industry in London. This would have been the most industrial city in the world, famous for its fog and the atmospheric effects that produced, as well as its very visible poverty and the terrible conditions people were living in.

He was also very inspired by British literature and by Charles Dickens in particular, whose popular novels criticised the social conditions of the day. Van Gogh was developing a commitment to social reform and an identification with those in society who led the most difficult lives – the poor, the homeless, prisoners – and we see that social, moral consciousness in his art until the end.

He was also seeing great art in quantity for the first time in London, especially at the National Gallery. In our exhibition we have Hobberma’s celebrated The Avenue at Middelharnis (1689) from the National Gallery which features a man walking down a trail that has two parallel colonnades of trees on either side disappearing from view into the far distance. You can see the influence of that motif, which is very Dutch, right through to Van Gogh’s late work when he is painting avenues of trees himself.

His other big influence at this time is British graphic art, including Gustave Doré’s famous series London: A Pilgrimage. Van Gogh collected prints in depth, in part because they were affordable, but also because they addressed social themes, such as those published in progressive journals like The Graphic. The most direct connection to his own work can be seen in his painted version of Newgate Prison, which we’re able to show side-by-side with the original Doré print in our exhibition.

Was it easy to get the loans from other institutions or did you have to look into British private collections as well?

Van Gogh loans are always a challenge because there is obviously such a public appetite to see his work. If you crunch the data it reveals he is the most popular and recognised artist in the world. He seems to cross all cultures and age groups, which of course is a fabulous irony given he was so obscure in his day. This all means it is tough to negotiate Van Gogh loans, but I’m glad to say lenders have been incredibly generous for this exhibition, primarily because they know we are telling a new and exciting story here. We have secured a great many very important works by Vincent.

In Holland, the Van Gogh Museum and the Kroller-Muller Museum have been very generous, and we’ve also gathered many paintings from other public museums and private collections. We have, for example, Starry Night and a self-portrait from the Musée d’Orsay. We have two major works from MASP in São Paolo, and one from the Stedelijk Museum. There are also a number of private lenders, which means the exhibition features some really great works that are comparatively lesser known. One example is a phenomenal painting called Trunk of an Old Yew Tree from October 1888. The sky is yellow, the field is lilac, and the trunk is placed where you would expect a human figure, giving rise to a kind of self-conscious empathy with the motif. It is an amazing painting, as great as any of his most famous.

That probably makes the exhibition more interesting, I’m sure, to see paintings that you normally do not see everywhere, would you agree?

Yes, I’m really happy about that. But then we have also got the Sunflowers from the National Gallery, a painting that couldn’t be better known. It’s a kind of homecoming for that painting and it’s very generous of the National Gallery to make that possible. The work was originally bought for Tate in the 1920s. Then, when the relationship between institutions was rationalised, with the modern ‘international’ art being Tate’s and pre-1900 ‘European’ art being the National Gallery’s preserve, certain works were re-designated in both directions, including the Sunflowers.

On that note, it’s worth saying that this the first time Tate has done a Van Gogh’s show since 1947, which seems quite unbelievable, doesn’t it? When we did that show in the 1940s it was hugely popular, with hundreds of thousands of visitors who wore out the gallery floor in five weeks! By the 1940s Van Gogh was an incredibly well-known figure, but he’s also come to mean something rather different now with the publishing of his letters. In the Post-War philosophical environment of Existentialism, Van Gogh became the archetypal misunderstood artist. But what our exhibition shows, and what his letters show, is that he was actually incredibly well versed in art history. His work is built on a foundation of great personal knowledge. Yes, it’s expressive and intuitive, but he understood what that meant in an art historical, theoretical way. In that sense I think the exhibition, like a lot of recent Van Gogh scholarship, counteracts the rather clichéd idea of the suffering loner who’s art is defined by his challenges with mental health.

What did you uncover that you did not know about him personally? Did you find out about lots of traits of personality that you did not know about him?

Personally, before I began talking to the curators about it in more depth, especially the lead curator Carol Jacobi, I did not fully understand the influence London had on him. London had meant so much to him and it was so important for his later moral vision. He declared he loved London in letters to his brother Theo. For me that was a revelation, especially with his great interest in the print culture of London at that time and its relationship to literature. You can really see how the painting language he developed was inspired by engraving and print making, both British and Japanese, and how his innovative linear brushstrokes create form in a way that came from studying engravings.

He collected thousands of prints and we have a lot of the actual prints he owed on display. In a way he reversed the relationship between painting and print making. In the 19th century you would have prints made after paintings, such as Turner making images in watercolour to then be engraved, and the business model was built on the profits coming from the engraving. Van Gogh reverses this relationship and it led to a great, formal innovation in paint that we can see running through Expressionism in the 20th century, right to de Kooning: the brushstroke as a carrier of form and a linear kind of painting.

That’s such an important point!

I think it is! It’s a real revelation to see that story played out in the exhibition. I think it makes a compelling case for Van Gogh being as important to the development of modern art in the 20th century as Cézanne has always been thought to be.

I grew up in Arles, and that is why I have a fascination for Van Gogh. I saw the exhibition in the Brixton house probably six or seven years ago by Saskia Olde Wolbers. I read that apparently, he used to walk to the Dulwich Picture Gallery, and even went to the Dinosaurs park in Crystal Palace.

Yes, I’m sure he would have. That park would have been the suburban destination in London and that Jurassic park would have been quite a spectacle – it still is.

Yes that whole history is very interesting to me. But moving on from Van Gogh, I have more personal questions for you because personally I am interested in what you think is your biggest challenge right now at the Tate? Is it to put together exhibitions that are very strong curatorially, or is it the challenge to bring more people in to sustain the model of the museum. How do you approach all these things from a business focus?

Well, we don’t think of the revenue imperative in isolation, so that would never be a sole driver. We want our exhibition programme to reach large numbers of people and we want Tate Britain to reach large numbers of people generally. But within that, it is about creating a balanced programme, an innovative programme, a diverse programme, one that is producing new scholarship, whether about unknown artists or incredibly well-known artists like Van Gogh. It is also about creating new narratives around British art across the ages and showing that those narratives are international as much as national.

What is your dream, what is the exhibition that you would like to put together in the next 10 years here at Tate or somewhere else if you had the freedom? Do you think about that sometimes?

Maybe there are two ways to answer that question. Firstly, without going into great depth because this is work in progress, we could talk about rehanging the collection displays. Once you start thinking of collection displays as something structured – asking questions and posing challenges – then I think the distinction between exhibitions and collection displays starts to break down. In very general terms, we want to keep a chronological structure to our displays, but we also want to relate art to its social and cultural context in a way that will hopefully resonate with people today. We also want contemporary artists to help forge connections with moments in history and deepen our account of how art is related to these broader social themes. That could also help to democratise those histories, making them more representative of the actual population, both as it was at the time and as it is today. So, by diversifying those histories and sometimes telling counter histories, we can create a longer cultural history of our moment.

Secondly, back to the exhibitions, we are currently looking at the Caribbean and the relationship Britain had and still has with the Caribbean, but I can’t say much more about that yet. This is something I particularly wanted to introduce to the narratives we offer at Tate Britain.

Who are you looking at? Who are you a fan of in terms of contemporary artists at the moment personally? Who do you follow and maybe collect?

Well as a curator and now a museum director, I have the privilege of working with art all the time without needing to own it myself. Being at Tate is really the first time I’ve ever been part of an organisation that is collection-based as well as loan-based. In my previous roles I’ve been more used to borrowing things, having these amazing objects pass through and stay with you for three or four months at a time, and now I get to see the constantly developing nature of the Tate collection too. It’s such a privilege working with art and having art in ones’ work place, so I don’t have much impulse to own it.

Are there any treasures in storage that nobody has access to here at Tate or things that emerge, that come back, that you play with, and that we do not necessarily see?

We lend over a thousand works per year. In general, as long as the works are in the condition to travel, which most things are, then they are available for loan. That means there are always fantastic works in Tate’s collection that may not be on display at Tate at any given moment, but which can be seen elsewhere.

In fact, most of the collection is made up of works on paper and those are always available to view in the Prints and Drawings Room at Tate Britain. That is perhaps not well-known enough and is one of the most amazing things about the gallery. GQ just ran an article on “best things to do in London”, which included Don McCullin’s show at Tate Britain and Franz West at Tate Modern, but it also included the Prints and Drawings Room. I happened to be in there yesterday and the curator had taken out about ten Turner watercolours – they are such amazing things! Technically speaking, Tate owns 37,000 catalogued works by Turner, because we count every page of every sketchbook, but watercolours are so sensitive that we can’t have many on public view at once. Turner was as great a watercolourist as he was an oil painter, and the watercolours have a luminosity that oil is not really capable of capturing. He is at his best as a colourist in his late watercolours.

When I was in my first week here, I did a carousel of meetings with everyone to get a better sense of the organisation. One of the best moments was going into the Prints and Drawings Room, where a dozen or so Turner watercolours of lakes were laid out, and we looked through other genres and subjects too. It is just the most amazing one-to-one art experience with these absolute masterpieces and I really encourage people to use that facility. You just have let us know in advance your coming and what you’d like to see.

Do you want to tell me about the Crystal Palace-based artist Mike Nelson? You’ve opened his new commission at Tate Britain.

I think Mike is one of the great installation artists. The spaces he creates are often immersive. He creates these fictions that you enter in such a way that the fictions become real, they become the environment you are in, and the outer world is shut out. They are made up of components from reality, but they have all been transformed in some way, as if you are looking at reality as a memory or a dream or a sci-fi story.

Some of the most memorable installations I have ever experienced have been created by Mike, including Coral Reef in Tate’s collection, which is one of his most ambitious. Some artists make installations that simulate reality, but Mike puts you into another context, like a novel that has been made physical, rooted in the world and its history, but also transformed as if it’s being remembered, or misremembered, or dreamed. I think he is able to capture that ambiguity and immerse you in it.

The piece he made for the Tate Britain commission changes your experience of the museum as a whole by using the various doorways into the Duveen galleries. You enter from the collection displays into this kind of dreamscape of a recent industrial Britain that has been liquidated. He bought all the machinery from auctions, where’s it’s being sold off because the economy has moved on and offshore. That relates very much to Mike’s upbringing, with his father working for a textile company in the East Midlands. The machinery is presented in place of sculpture, giving it an enigmatic, mystical, ceremonial, ritualistic character that these previously functional things didn’t have. Like an object dropped into a world that doesn’t recognise it and re-inscribes it with its own values.

The installation makes it feel like Tate Britain has suddenly acquired a wing of antiquated late 20th Century industry, just as the great exhibitions of the Victorian era showed the applied arts, the fine arts, and the achievements of industry together to try to create an encyclopaedic view of the world.

Do you find the architecture of the museum easy to work with? Since the renovation especially?

Well, I think the renovation is great! I would say that of course, but Caruso St John really are fantastic architects. In terms of architectural language, the earliest parts of this building from 1897 use a heavy, classical style, while later parts use white cube modernism, and then you’ve got the post-modern Clore galleries for Turner. It’s a museum built of aggregates in an accumulative manner, and Caruso St John have rationalised those different languages and formed something new out of it. These are spaces that have such a particular character and history, yet they have somehow enhanced them by taking them into our present time and making them light and gracious.

When curating here, you’re still dealing with the building’s character, even in the modern galleries built in 1979, as that style has also acquired a historic idea of the modern. When presenting the collection chronologically you have to begin from the north-west with its green marble decoration, then go through the heavy Classicism, and end in the architecture of 1979, which imposes a certain order. But sometimes curators and artists want to play with that order. The outside of the building, for example, is now used for new commissions. Alan Kane brought out Christmas lights for the first one, like a suburban house that went overboard celebrating Christmas. Then Monster Chetwynd created her amazing King Kong sized slugs climbing up the building and emitting a fluorescent light. Both are fantastic examples of artists making projects that play off the imposing classicism of the building. You can’t imagine either of these projects working so well on a more ‘neutral’ building.

Whereas you’re not working in a neutral environment?

Yes, absolutely. It’s more stimulating, because you have history as represented by evolving architectural idioms to play off. It feels fitting to have a building that evokes the historic, the modern, and the contemporary given our collecting and curating remit is also the historic, the modern, and the contemporary. Usually we work with the grain of the galleries, but sometimes we interrupt that relationship between historic architecture and historic work, or modern architecture and modern work, and deliberately get things the wrong way round.

One thing that is so exciting about the collection is that all artworks belong to the time they are made in, but they can also acquire a much greater afterlife than they ever had in their own time. William Blake is a great example of that. Turner is also a very famous example, as the reason Rothko gave his Seagram Murals to Tate is because of the late Turner works here. It’s interesting to highlight those aspects of historical art that have acquired new significance.

Are you also looking at new technology and even performances? Anthea Hamilton was a huge success. It was a very cool show, the piece was photographed everywhere and it had a huge resonance with a younger audience.

It was a wonderful piece! It was all the better for being in this grand, classical hall. The deliberate wrongness of it made it that much more meaningful and effective.

Anthea Hamilton and Pablo Bronstein both responded to the Duveen galleries by using performance as well as installation. Of course, we didn’t ask them to do that, but it’s inevitable that some artists will because there is so much drama in the architecture. It already suggests some past life, originally as a sculpture court where visitors wandered around, looking at neo-classical sculpture in marble. So already there is a sense of performativity to that space, and it’s interesting when artists respond to it in that way.

We are also currently staging a performance piece by the late Rose Finn-Kelcey, coinciding with the Van Gogh exhibition. It’s an installation from the collection in which an image of the Sunflowers is made up entirely of coins. She made it in the late 1980s, when Van Gogh was achieving staggering auctions results. The installation also includes full time guards, or rather actors in guard uniforms, adding a live presence that makes one think differently about the whole museum experience.

The live element is one of those key ingredients for rethinking the museum experience. It’s no longer always the case that the work is static and the viewer is mobile. Now the art object can be moving and alive and so break down the barrier between art and audience.

Going back to your earlier question, another ambition we have for Tate Britain is this activating of the museum experience. Museums always need reinventing for their time, they shouldn’t be mausoleums to the past. I think audiences are also becoming more and more demanding and expect a museum environment that, on the one hand, can still enable quiet reflection in front of artworks – like that amazing experience of being one-to-one with Turner’s watercolours – but equally can be a social space where people congregate and share an experience that is creative and social. Across Tate we are all working to do that, particularly in relation to a younger audience. We now have the Tate Collective scheme that enables all young people to see our exhibitions for only £5, which has changed the make-up of our audience for exhibitions. We have Late at Tate Britain on the first Friday of every month, the Queer and Now Festival once a year, and many events for families.

In time I would like to see more of that, and more work with our immediate neighbours and communities, reflecting London’s true diversity.

I love your video campaign for Van Gogh. It is very interesting because you are putting him in context with these people. It is brilliantly executed from a marketing side of things.

Yes, that team has done a great job making trailers and videos for each of our exhibitions. They recontextualize the artists in a way that is relevant today, which relates back to the idea of the museum as a social space. When people say ‘social’ now they also mean social media, as well as interpersonal encounters in real space, and those two experiences are starting to merge.

Are you considering British digital artists as well to activate those social media spaces? Are you looking at artists who use video and new media a lot?

We invite artists to take over our social channels, such as when Jesse Darling did an Instagram takeover for us, as well as undertaking VR projects such as the reconstruction of Modigliani’s studio. As television has been in the past, social media can serve our aims and ensure the museum reflects how these new media enter our lives and are exploited by artists.

This is true of art conservation too. As much as we do amazing work conserving historic painting, including very early Tudor panel paintings for example, the Collection Care team has done very far reaching work around new media and the conserving of new media as art.

That’s a big challenge as well, I’m sure.

It is! New media, once they become less new, can be as difficult, or even harder, to preserve and retain in terms of hardware and data as very old paintings.

Are you personally invited to curate other projects outside of Tate?

I really don’t have time… I feel pretty fully absorbed here!

I’m sure! I mean, the exhibitions here are strong.

Thank you! We are lucky to be in a country with such a strong visual art scene. Of course only part of it happens at Tate, and only part of that happens at Tate Britain. I think other institutions, large and small, are so vibrant and well-led across the UK. There are really innovative contemporary spaces, many of which have undergone architectural transformation in the last few years by a fantastic new generation of architects. I’ve just come back from Milton Keynes where the new MK Gallery has just opened and they have done a fantastic job with 6A, Nils Norman and Gareth Jones. Creating these new spaces of international ambition but also intelligently reflective of where they are. There is so much going on, it makes it very difficult to keep up.

It’s a job in itself…

Yes, it’s a job in itself before one even thinks of anything else going on in Europe and the wider world.

I have to ask that question then, how are you preparing for Brexit? Have you been contacted by the office, have you heard anything, or do you have any instructions?

Like everyone else, we have to plan for different scenarios, and you try to anticipate to the extent you can plan for. But it certainly won’t change what we do. Tate will remain outward facing and will build on the close relationships with colleagues in other nations that we have today. The programme will remain international in its reach and commitment. In terms of what Tate represents, and what Tate Britain represents, we can’t let that change. I think it’s important that our culture is seen as something that always crosses borders, whatever form those borders take or will take. Obviously, the practicalities of achieving that could change with Brexit, depending on what kind of Brexit we are getting. Simply none of us know at this point in time, but of course it doesn’t suit us if there is more obstruction at borders.

Maybe it will prompt more local artists to respond in an interesting way. Moments of crisis often inspire that.

Yes, I think so. London in particular is such an amazing global city in its population in general – and in its art community! I very much hope that continues one way or another after Brexit. But in terms of artists’ responses, I’ve been thinking about this, and there probably aren’t many art works directly addressing Brexit. I can only think of some protest art by Jeremy Deller and by Wolfgang Tillmans and a few others.

Yes exactly, I was about to say that. They are the only two that come to mind.

What we have seen in response to Brexit, as well as the rise of the populist right in Europe, America and Brazil, are artists becoming politicised or re-politicised, but not necessarily making work about one particular political issue. In a wider sense, artists are fighting for differences to be respected. It seems natural to me that cultural workers and artists would be for difference. You could even argue that difference is the definition of art, and that art is always about trying to create difference and help us see things in new ways. It seems to me that nativism and monoculture are absolutely against those values of contemporary culture.

So we now see a lot of artists asserting difference in their work. They might not always deal directly with Brexit, or in America deal directly with Trump, but the greater visibility of artists with a greater range of sexualities, ethnicities and identities combats the idea that being British or American means something singular. Britain for example, despite not having been successfully invaded since 1066, has always been multicultural. There are very, very few ancient Britons amongst those who consider themselves traditionally British. We’re an international melting pot. I think nativism and monoculture are the enemy of art, if one thinks of art as making intellectually created difference, and that has its own social and political implications. It is a bit of a Deleuzian definition of art, but why not! We need Deleuze at this point.

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Thanks Pia Zeitzen for your help.

Images: Alex Farquharson, Director of Tate Britain. Photo © Tate
Van Gogh and Britain, and Mike Nelson © Tate