The Pick - Government Art Collection, Selected by Simon Schama: Travelling Light

December 22, 2011




Government Art Collection, Selected by Simon Schama: Travelling Light

Whitechapel Gallery, London, until 26 February

At 25, Lord Byron was the ultimate matinee idol, posing in Albanian dress with scimitar for a celebrated portrait now hanging in the British Ambassador's residence in Athens. The consul general in New York can enjoy Grayson Perry's Map of an Englishman, whose head seems to be filled with thoughts such as "Beige", "Bus-pass", "Chocolate", "Countryside", "Model planes" and "Sissy-wet-pants". Treasury mandarins can dream of escape as they look at Edward Lear's lovely View of Beirut.

All these are among the pieces chosen by Simon Schama, professor of art history and history at Columbia University in New York, from the 13,500 paintings, sculptures and works in other media in the Government Art Collection. Most are usually on the walls of ministries, embassies and similar buildings across the world. A series of five exhibitions at the Whitechapel Gallery has put a selection on public display for the first time. (They will later be shown at the Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery and then the Ulster Museum.) Travelling Light, which continues until 26 February, is the third.

A prolific writer and television presenter on both art and British history, Schama is also an Englishman based abroad who spends much of his time travelling. All this is reflected in his bold - and boldly juxtaposed - choices. Distant exotic climes and figures such as Vanessa Bell's portrait of a Byzantine Lady meet a photograph of allotments in Ely and a chunk of rock from Kent. A heroically scarred portrait of Lord Nelson from 1799 is debunked by Yinka Shonibare's Nelson's Ship in a Bottle, with sails made of stereotypically "African" textiles, a smaller version of the one that confronts Nelson's Column on the Fourth Plinth in Trafalgar Square.

Equally undermining of imperial dreams is Mona Hatoum's Projection, a white-on-white map made of cotton and abaca fibre, where the accurate portrayal of land masses makes Britain almost disappear. A parallel effect is achieved in Ori Gersht's photograph of the Judean desert - on the contested frontier between Israel and the West Bank - where the sand and sky seem to merge into a blinding white mirage.

Although travellers can obviously bring back solid objects from other places, Schama seems more interested in the way that travel makes everything seem fragmentary and ephemeral. Grandiose buildings and landscapes are reflected in windows or glimpsed momentarily from a car. Peter Liversidge's We Take Good Care of You depicts a tiny aeroplane against a sky of a blue so pure it is almost sinister. And Tacita Dean's Up Down Charm Strange consists of photographs of six feathers. Each has a striking and sometimes "heroic" story: one comes from Freud's pillow, others have apparently been to the summit of Everest and the Antarctic. Now they just float frail and meaningless against black backgrounds.

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