Oh Sylvia, I’m so sorry

Buried in the belly of the Tate Britain are two white rooms.

Their temporary occupants are a 1970’s Women and Work archive exhibition and next door, a display of the art and craft of Sylvia Pankhurst, the women’s suffrage campaigner.

The Other F-word (Feminism) has been getting a lot of media attention recently so I figured why not find out where it all started; with the Suffrage movement. Concerned with important issues like votes for women and equal employment, these ladies were the pioneers of women’s rights a hundred years ago. They were the Pussy Riot of their day, campaigning, petitioning, getting locked up.

They got us the vote.

With all the radical activism going on with Sylvia et al. I was expecting great things from the exhibition.

I expected corset burning. I was disappointed.

It was characterised by absence of excitement and by being six degrees hotter than the rest of the Tate. I think the heating was broken. I considered getting naked in protest but took my coat off instead.

A written request from Hester Reeve and Olivia Plender, on The Emily Davison Lodge letterhead, was on display. Every page of it behind a plate glass display.

It detailed at why the Tate should put on an exhibition of Sylvia Pankhurst’s designs, paintings and sketches. It explained the cultural and political importance of her work documenting women’s working conditions in her sketches and giving the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) a visual identity.

Pankhurst’s depictions of women at work are technically very good; she did win a scholarship to The Royal School of Art in 1900.  From the labelling I understand that her branding for the WSPU was noted as the first known instance of a campaigning group using a logo and colour scheme.  (Yes, I read the labels!)

But the display was staid and felt forced. It appeared that little effort was made to make it appealing to the average gallery-goer.  If I hadn’t already made the decision to stay and read all the labels I would have walked out. It is by far the most visually disengaging exhibition I have ever had the misfortune to view. It wasn’t Sylvia’s fault.

My guess is that the letter on display is meant to contextualise the exhibition but in fact it looked like an excuse. The curator saying, “I’m sorry visitors, they complained too loudly and I had to do it (which is why I couldn’t be arsed to make it accessible to a non-academic audience.” I could be wrong, of course.

I believe in art for all and that anyone can get excited about art and politics given the right setting. Sadly the curation made Pankhurst look like a middle-class Victorian curtain botherer with a penchant for gouache, rather than the revolutionary she actually was. Exhibitions of feminist work and art when curated poorly can actually do more damage than good. This one succeeded in making an important historical figure look irrelevant to my generation. She should be celebrated, not shoved in a cultural box room at the back.

Sylvia Pankhurst and the Suffragettes did 100 years ago in Holloway Prison what Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and her Pussy Riot comrades are doing today in Russia.  With one slight difference.

Sylvia did it with all her clothes on.

Sylvia-Pankhurst-arrested
Image from http://www.audacity.org/B-review-Sylvia-Pankhurst-a.htm

Stroking Barbara Hepworth

Hepworth

She sits quietly, on a plinth, with perfectly chiselled lines, strung like a Stradivarius.

I admired the natural knot and split in the curves. My digits itched for it.

Ooh the temptation.

It would not be the first time I’ve been told off for stroking sculptures.  Security guards have something against it. Last time was in the cast gallery at the V&A. (It was a cast! Not even the real thing!).

I just want to feel the texture of the material, to touch what the artist touched. I want to know how it came into being and run my fingers over the rough and smooth of a masterpiece. Wood, stone, metal and marble, against skin.

Tactile sensation is one of my weirdnesses. From a very young age I wandered after Mother in M&S brushing coats, shirts and skirts with my sticky child hands. With age this expanded to include wood furniture, stone walls, expensive book covers and occasional trees.

I am still that annoying child. I still get told off.

There is nothing sexual about it and it is not every object. I passed, without incident, Epstein’s Jacob and the Angel, all mottled light pink and elephant heavy.  I like it but it doesn’t make my fingers hungry like the rolling waves of Barbara Hepworth and Henry Moore.

Neither do the classical features of a darkened brass ‘man wrestling snake’ and his naked marble friends. The fig leaves are off-puttingly small. Those poor muscular men having their marble chippers chopped off. Ouch.

No, the Modernists are much more enticing. I love the clean lines and shape.

But I’m on best behaviour in the Tate Britain. There’s a show I came to see and I’m lost amongst the past masters trying to find it. I have a mission! It would not do to get thrown out.

Look, don’t touch.

Fingerprints hurt the art. The pH levels and grease will ruin everything. The men in white gloves say so. They know these things.

Custodians and curators of these objects are cruel. Putting them on show at arms length. These sculptures are just aching to be caressed.

The rules are rules though.

So as I walked past Moore and Hepworth in the Walk Through I kept my childish hands firmly in my pockets.