Art: The rocky rehung picture show

Tate Britain’s New Displays rewrites the story of British art — trouble is, the result is a nonsense, says Waldemar Januszczak

When they write Serota’s obituaries, they will rightly focus on the establishment of Tate Modern as his greatest accomplishment. If you live in a world where audience figures are the most valued yardstick — and we do — then nobody can deny Bankside’s spectacular success. Praise will be directed, too, at the creation of the national Tate franchise, with smaller Tate galleries — Tate locals? — scattered from Liverpool to St Ives: a good dictator always knows how to present territorial gains as vital increases in choice and democracy. Still, no great harm has come from Serota’s empire-building. In one crucial area only have his innovations actually been disastrous. And that is in the field of display.

It is to Serota that we owe the invention of the impermanent permanent collection. It may even have been one of the progressive-sounding ideas that originally got him the Tate director’s job two decades ago.

The approach involves the constant swapping around of exhibits and seeks to blur the divide between a museum and a gallery. A museum, remember, is a permanent collection of precious artefacts that tries to establish a grand narrative for its subject. A gallery, meanwhile, is a site for temporary exhibitions, and needs only to provide temporary pleasures in particular areas of interest. These are conflicting aims. Yet Serota’s display policies have sought to conflate them.

At Tate Modern, the result was a momentously confusing opening hang, where nothing had a place in the greater scheme of things because there was no greater scheme of things. Instead, a thousand mini-exhibitions, all with madly differing display ambitions, attempted to tell the story of modern art by crossing their fingers and hoping. My personal low point of this pointless game of snap across the ages was the ridiculous pairing of a conceptual glass of water by Michael Craig-Martin with a great cubist interior of a cafe, painted by Braque a century earlier, because both of them featured receptacles for liquids.

Coming up with temporary exhibitions is, of course, a lot easier than coming up with grand narratives. It’s the difference between dashing off this article and writing War and Peace. War and Peace is a huge, sustained, planned and mighty display of literary genius. I, alas, seek only to detain you for a few moments on a Sunday morning. I regret myself, yes. But not nearly as much as I regret what Serota’s display strategies have done to Tate Britain.

Contrary to general perceptions, there was always much more to play for at Tate Britain than there was at Tate Modern after the momentous splitting of the Tate in two. Museums of modern art are two a penny in contemporary-art land. But Tate Britain, as Britain’s first and only museum of national art, was a unique institution facing a unique challenge. Every nation needs to know its own art story. Every such story is different. Yet from his arrival at the Tate’s helm in 1988, Serota has perversely avoided the fulfilment of this contract.

The introduction of a constant cycle of rearrangements at Tate Britain, called New Displays, which culminates in a recurrent rehang, sponsored by BP, has been in place for two decades now, and has succeeded, for two decades, in not telling the story of British art. An entire generation has grown up without anywhere to go to understand its own artistic past.

The latest rehang feels even less useful and more bitty than usual. As soon as you enter the door, you ask yourself: where next? Left, right, straight ahead or down? There is no answer. People don’t flock to Tate Britain for the same reason that they avoid driving at night in the fog. You don’t go to galleries to get lost.

Twenty of the Tate’s 30 or so galleries have been reordered and rehung for this particular set of New Displays. It is being presented as a radical repositioning. But if you do the natural thing upon entering, and turn left, you find yourself in a set of Victorian rooms located exactly where the Victorian rooms at Tate Britain are always located. They feel exactly as they always feel, too, and mark neither the beginning of the story nor the end, but a low point somewhere past the middle.

Look carefully and some irritating thematic confusion is discernible in the new arrangement. To pick an obvious example, Holman Hunt’s The Awakening Conscience, which shows a young girl rearing up off the lap of an amorous suitor, is now located in the pre-Raphaelite room, while the London prostitute staring guiltily at her past, by the minor pre-Raphaelite Spencer Stanhope, is found among pictures of modern life. Yet the storytelling ambitions of the two paintings are entirely interchangeable.

Short in most areas of its collection, Tate Britain is regrettably well endowed with Victorian piffle: fainting maids, costumed knights, undressed nymphs, floating Ophelias. I find most of it laughably insincere, but I certainly see the point of exhibiting it. What I don’t see is the point of exhibiting it at the geographic start of the journey, where anyone entering Tate Britain might fairly expect to encounter some agenda-setting and the beginning of a narrative. This collapse of storytelling skills is Tate Britain’s fundamental problem. The progress of British art should not be made as blandly legible as the unfolding of a Harry Potter yarn, but some effort must surely be made to give us a beginning, a middle and an end.

As it happens, the beginning of British art’s story is fascinating and dramatic. Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries, with the crazed iconoclasm that followed, was a cultural tsunami that eradicated a millennium’s worth of British artistic achievement. The nation needs constantly to be reminded of this critical horror. The absence of actual artworks that make the point is a poignant part of the story: I will never forget a Tate display of medieval art in Britain in which the sole remaining fragment of a British Crucifixion was shown. It was just a pair of Christ’s feet. But it was all that was left. And it had more impact than a roomful of Victorian slosh.

The chronological beginning of this display is actually located in the last rooms you would naturally head for, at the far end of the Tate, where a feeble selection of portraits attempts to say something worthwhile on the subject of the English civil war. Could anything be more intrinsically important to the artistic story of Britain than the civil war? Is there a more loaded stretch of native cultural history than the lavish art era of Charles I? What we get here is three pictures: a portrait of Cromwell, a cavalier portrait by William Dobson and a copy of a portrait of Charles I by a follower of Van Dyck. Not an actual Van Dyck: a copy.

No wonder nobody comes here to be fobbed off with such shallow, half-hearted titbits of the national story. It’s like watching endless trailers and never getting the film. There is nothing here to follow, nothing to understand, no rhythm or build-up, no point being made, no pulse being sought. The entire display hops about madly. One moment, we are with the Van Dyck copy, then it’s Hogarth, then 19th- century trades-union banners.

Only when we cross over the Duveen Galleries and turn right does this bumper-car ride around Tate Britain become a tad more appropriate, with the arrival of the modern age. The rhythms of fractious instability suit modern art much better, and the installation of Chris Ofili’s magnificent alternative Last Supper enacted by multicoloured monkeys, The Upper Room, as well as a superb tribute to the dark, burnt-out genius of John Latham, are the high points of the rehang. Here, at the very end of the story of British art, something is got right. It’s much too late.

How it’s hanging now

Room 1 Joshua Reynolds 
The Archers

2 Tudor and Stuart Portraiture 
A Royal Collection loan of miniatures boosts the holdings

3 Civil War and the Commonwealth 
A new hang

4 Hogarth and the Art of Conversation 
The artist’s Heads of Six Servants come out of storage

5 Folk Art

6 The Grand Manner 
A new hang of 18th-century non-landscape

7 British Landscape 
New hang includes Stubbs’s Bay Hunter

8 William Blake and John Flaxman 
Blake and his mentor

9 Romantic Painting 
John Martin and Francis Danby return

 

12 Roger Fenton and the Crimean War 
19th-century illustrations replaced by pioneering reportage

 

13 Victorian Paintings of Modern Life 
Marine paintings are replaced by narrative ones

 

14 The pre-Raphaelites 
Brings together, for the first time, the Tate’s early brotherhood collection

 

15 Victorian Spectacle 
A new hang brings Rossetti’s Proserpine out on display

 

20 Edward Wadsworth 
A founder of the vorticist group. This replaces a Vanessa Bell show

 

23 John Heartfield 
One of photomontage’s great exponents. This replaces a John Piper show

 

24 Bacon, Freud, Butler 
Bacon’s work is contextualised by Lucian Freud and Reg Butler

 

25 FN Souza 
Presented as a key post-colonial artist (previously Richard Hamilton in Focus)

 

26 Pop Art 
A history of one of the key movements in British art (previously Patrick Caulfield)

 

27 Sandra Blow 
An 80th-birthday tribute to the abstractist

 

28 Displacements 
Antony Gormley is displaced for works that include Simon Patterson’s The Great Bear

 

29 Chris Ofili’s The Upper Room 
A bold new acquisition in a space by the architect David Adjaye

 

30 Artist in Focus: John Latham 
The established artist usurps Tracey Emin, who must now find The Perfect Place to Grow in the gallery’s storage vaults

Goodison Room: Outsider Art 
A first Tate display to mark the gift of the archive built up by Monika Kinley and Victor Musgrave