I was fortunate enough today to carve out a few spare hours and took the opportunity to visit Tate Britain.

For many people, folk is a four-letter word. But because we all have a different and vague idea of what it refers to it works like an umbrella to cover many other terms such as ‘vernacular’, ‘popular’, ‘rural’, ‘traditional’ and is a second cousin to labels like ‘self-taught’, ‘naive’ and ‘outsider’. pg. 13 British Folk Art catalogue

British Folk Art.

The exhibition British Folk Art currently running (until 31st August 2014) at Tate Britain attempts the impossible, to find common cause within the ‘folk’ pantheon. One of the curators, Jeff McMillan, admits as much:

Rather than being comprehensive in representing every possible art form, we instead selected works that inherently reflected certain territories and themes, such as town, the sea and the countryside, or alternatively, formal considerations like the figurative versus the abstract or non-representational. The exhibition spans some 300 years from the mid-seventeenth to the mid-twentieth century – an end date that reflects the period before folk art arguably became a commodity or too self-conscious. pg. 12 British Folk Art catalogue


The show is nonetheless a subtle and thought-provoking collection of exquisite works.

Many of these works represent a kind of condensation: a thing boiled down to its essence. The sense of time, the sheer labour involved, along with the at times intimate, miniaturised scale, suggest an interior (or internalised) work. pg 13. British Folk Art catalogue


There’s a directness to the works, and an honesty or explicitness too, each object has a degree of functionality, a purpose, be that as a marker to celebrate a moment or express a story or a pictorial means of commercial communication for a pre-literate age.

I shall spend my life gazing at the ocean of art, where others voyage or fight; and from time to time I’ll entertain myself by diving for those green and yellow shells that nobody will want. So I shall keep them for myself and cover the walls of my hut with them. Gustave Flaubert

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Perhaps it’s in the conjoining of two hugely slippery words ‘folk’ and ‘art’ that the omissions in the show are as relevant as the works included, for in the end we’re all our own curators when it come to what we’d define as folk art.

Folk art is personal, parochial, defined by our individual experience – for example, I found myself ‘chuntering’ around the show ‘Where’s the canal art???’ because to my mind ‘Roses & Castles’ have a prime place in my definition of folk art. Others have no doubt asked where’s the ‘trench art of WW1’, or ‘tattoos’; ‘Staffordshire pottery’, or ‘fairground art’.

In the end the show is both a pleasure and a provocation to re-think what folk art was, is and could be. And what it’s function might be, if anything beyond nostalgia, in the 21st C.

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One thought on “Tate Britain: British Folk Art

  1. I was disappointed in this exhibition. I am rarely in London and had made a special point of going to it, having seen a very favourable distillation of reviews in The Week. I must say I loved the figureheads. But all that sewing… and no one pointed out the error that had been made in the central very detailed sampler on display on its own. Domestic art may or may not be the same as folk art, I suppose, but surely only young ladies of leisure had the time to produce samplers, which I wouldn’t call folk art, which I see as being of the folk, of the ordinary people. Yes, where was the canal art, and where were the clothes and instruments of folk music and dance. Mr McMillan points out the lack of Staffordshire pottery, or art from WWI. I wouldn’t have thought of tattos, but they would have been an interesting addition. And was there any knitting…?


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