Heart pincushion by an unknown artist is an example of British Folk Art that is emerging from the abyss of Art History at the Beamish The Living Museum of the North. Photo: Tate Photography
LONDON— Nearly 200 paintings, sculptures, textiles and objects are part of British Folk Art, the first significant exhibition of British folk art presently at Tate Britain. Drawn together from collections across the country, this is the first noteworthy exhibition of this genre at a major institution celebrating folk art in the UK. While folk art is an established subject in many countries, it has remained an elusive genre in Britain. British Folk Art is an attempt at bringing folk art to the fore in a country it has been denigrated. Unlike ‘high art’, rarely is ‘folk art’ considered in the context of art history. Besides being viewed as part of social history or folklore studies, it is considered inferior art. Evidently, the labeling of one form of art ‘folk art’ and another ‘high art’ encourages a power relationship that allows for the subjugation of the “other”. Dismantling that binary relation is why this exhibition is very important.
Curated by Martin Myrone, Curator, Tate Britain, Ruth Kenny, Assistant Curator, Tate Britain and artist Jeff McMillan, British Folk Art brings together an extraordinary selection of objects that challenge the perceptions and notions that folks art cannot be considered ‘high art’. The works, bordering on the threshold between art and artifact, show that folk art deserves as much attention as ‘high art’.
One of the main highlights of this show is the imposing larger than life-size thatched figure of King Alfred created by master Thatcher, Jesse Maycock, in 1960. Delicately woven together, this sculpture wears a frightful expression. With eyes wide open, King Alfred looks like he has just seen a ghost. The detailed treatment of the facial expression, accentuated by a Fu Manchu mustache and beard, confirms the dexterity of this amazing artist.
British Folk Art reveals the rich diversity of art across a variety of media and contexts. Encompassing works dating from the seventeenth to mid-twentieth century, some of the works include rustic leather Toby jugs, brightly colored ships’ figureheads, embroidery, and patchworks. While many of the creators of these artworks are unknown, some of them were produced by a number of prominent individuals. Amongst these key figures are George Smart the tailor of Frant, eminent embroiderer Mary Linwood, and Cornish painter Alfred Wallis. These artists, who are often neglected in the historical narrative of art in Britain, are given a pride of place in this revealing exhibition.
British Folk Art is an extraordinary opportunity to discover works rarely seen in public. Inserting these works into the museum space elevates them to the status of ‘high art’, engendering a rethinking of how art historians, artists, curators and collectors define folk art in the UK. Maritime embroidery by fisherman John Craske; an intricately designed pin cushion made by wounded soldiers during the Crimean war; and shop signs in the shape of over-sized pocket watches and giant shoes would have remained in the doldrums of art history but for a splendid exhibition.