by Jack Wakefield
Tuesday, 8
December 2020
Reaction
18:00

Must the Tate really cancel Rex Whistler?

The gallery should not close the restaurant containing the artist's offensive mural
by Jack Wakefield
The Rex Whistler Restaurant featuring the ‘The Expedition in Pursuit of Rare Meats’ mural. Credit: Getty

Rex Whistler was the brightest of the Bright Young Things. A prodigiously talented draughtsmen he was also blessed with what Cecil Beaton called a “superabundance of charm and coziness” that made him the toast of Britain in the 20s and 30s.  He died before he was 40, killed by a German bomb on service in Normandy and was greatly lamented.  

Now his work has been thrust into the limelight by a decision of the Tate ethics committee that has pronounced his famous mural, ‘The Expedition in Pursuit of Rare Meats’, commissioned by the Tate in 1927 and decorating the restaurant in Tate Britain, irredeemably racist on the grounds of its offensive depiction of black slaves and some caricatures of Chinese people. 

A detail of ‘The Expedition in Pursuit of Rare Meats’ features a black slave apparently being led on a leash

The offensive details are a tiny part of a vast mural, almost universally missed unless pointed out. Now that attention has been drawn to them, the Tate trustees, according to the much redacted minutes of the meeting where they discussed the issue, feel the need to acknowledge the harm that the images have caused. 

It is irrelevant to point out that the artist is satirising rococo tropes, that he is drawing attention to the oddity of 17th and 18th century art that guilelessly includes black slave children in portraits of the rich, such as those prominently displayed in Tate Britain’s recent exhibition of British baroque. Instead the whole work, and indeed the room and the buzzy restaurant that contains it, must be mothballed.

Couldn’t the tiny bits that cause offence simply be obscured? No. The mural is a work of art in the care of the Tate and therefore cannot be altered or removed. 

This pedantry serves no one: not the Tate which will lose the revenue, not the fans of Whistler who will lose easy access to one of his greatest works, and certainly not the members who lose their restaurant. Everyone can see what ought to happen and the Tate director, Maria Balshaw, needs to find a way to get it done or find another less challenging job.

Join the discussion


To join the discussion, get the free daily email and read more articles like this, sign up.

It's simple, quick and free.

Sign me up
Subscribe
Notify of
guest
18 Comments
Most Voted
Newest Oldest
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Teo
Teo
1 year ago

Scary thought that trustees can not be trusted with the artefacts, even
scarier that woke committees could be in the basements of all the galleries,
libraries and museums across the land erasing every offensive detail of the cultural heritage in their charge.

David Uzzaman
David Uzzaman
1 year ago

It isn’t so long since we lampooned the Victorians for covering up the naughty bits of Greek and Roman statues. Perhaps we should take a leaf out of their book and deploy some foliage which can be removed if reason ever returns.

Andrew D
Andrew D
1 year ago
Reply to  David Uzzaman

Exactly. Or the pope who demanded that fig leaves be applied to all the naked figures on Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling. The same joyless, puritan instinct. Let gauze be painted over the offending Whistler figures (in a reversible manner), and let future generations laugh at our censoriousness.

Neil Turrell
Neil Turrell
1 year ago

Given that one of the main purposes of institutions such as the Tate is to educate, the proposed action by the Trustees goes against that purpose. Putting art in the basement obfuscates the issue; hiding it in the dark when we should be shining a light on some of these issues.

Shame on the trustees for abandoning an important principle for the sake of avoiding potential offence. Should we accept that important aspects of our culture are to be consigned to the darkness by virtue signalling ignoramuses who appear to be unaccountable to the general public whilst benefiting from our obligatory and voluntary contributions?

Given the actions of similar institutions, e.g. British Library, National Trust to name two, isn’t it about time the Culture Secretary got on his hind legs and reminded said institutions of their responsibilities to the wider public and not just the virtue signalling minority who probably live within the M25?

Fraser Bailey
Fraser Bailey
1 year ago
Reply to  Neil Turrell

All these institutions have been beyond hope or reason for some years now. All you can do is avoid them. I still pop into the small private galleries but it’s years since I’ve walked through the doors of a major museum or gallery. The last major exhibition I attended in London was El Greco at Tate Britain circa 2004, and there was a time when I spent much of my life in these places, around the world. Anyway, one often learns more from books than from the exhibitions.

Simon Latham
Simon Latham
1 year ago

Thanks for this Jack. I love this exceptional mural and, in order to admire it, have twice dined in its charmed and charming environs. If only it were extraordinary to hear this verdict from the left wing extremists appointed as guardians of our cultural heritage, alas it is commonplace. No contemporary British artist could produce a work as complex in scope, technique or vision, or as delightful as this. It is clearly not offensive. Those who regard it as such would presumably seek to outdo the British Library’s insanity and also ban all imaginative novels, poetry and children’s books which create well realised fantastic scenarios which can be narrowly interpreted to give offense by the virtue signalling proponents of critical race theory. Those trustees, the great and the good who appointed such people have a lot to answer for.

D Ward
D Ward
1 year ago

Tate trustees. ffs

Catherine Ramsay
Catherine Ramsay
1 year ago

As with any artwork with this ‘problem’ the exhibitor just needs to put information to say that it’s of it’s time, when unfortunately many people were insensitive and prejudiced. Just as statues or properties of those that profited from slavery should have information displayed on this. We can’t rewrite history but can use it to educate and learn from it.

Judy Englander
Judy Englander
1 year ago

Yes, I flinch at the depiction of the black child slave. The grownup solution is – as you say – to show the Tate recognises the insensitivity by displaying background information. In other words, adding 2020 to 1920, not erasing 1920.

Simon Latham
Simon Latham
1 year ago
Reply to  Judy Englander

As there are an estimated 10 million enslaved people in Africa today, many of them children, and slave markets are thriving in Libya, far more depictions of slavery need to be seen. A visual image of slavery is hardly an endorsement of it. As we turn away because of our delicate sensibilities, modern and ancient practices of slavery continue unabated.

Judy Englander
Judy Englander
1 year ago
Reply to  Simon Latham

Good point. I think the difference is that the Tate mural’s depiction appears to be light hearted and decorative (of course, we can’t be sure what was in the artist’s mind).

Annette Kralendijk
Annette Kralendijk
1 year ago
Reply to  Judy Englander

Isn’t that true of any artwork by a dead artist though? Unless they left some sort of detailed description of what the artwork is.

Andrew Crisp
Andrew Crisp
1 year ago
Reply to  Simon Latham

Absolutely, the “offended” need a reality adjustment.

Mark Corby
Mark Corby
1 year ago

Rex Whistler joined the Welsh Guards, as an Infantry Officer at quite an advanced age in his late thirties. Given his reputation and talent he could easily have found a ‘soft billet’ elsewhere, but opted for the ‘sharp end’, the poor, bloody,infantry.

He was killed by a German mortar round very early in the Normandy Campaign.

The Welsh Guards is still the custodian of some of his most amusing works including his brilliant portrayal of the infamous ” Colonel Blimp”.

Brian Dorsley
Brian Dorsley
1 year ago

Once statues were toppled I figured it wouldn’t be long before museums, art galleries and libraries would be next on the agenda. We’re witnessing a dismantling of Western culture and history in order to make way for a system where history, morals and rights are retrograded and dictated to the masses by a regime that seeks to warp reality in accordance with its goals and interests.

Andrew Thompson
Andrew Thompson
1 year ago

People would be offended by this?… Really, would people REALLY be offended by this?…Some offended people really ought to just stay in more. Would I be offended by a depiction of someone being led off into white slavery, I don’t think so, not really thank you very much. Get over it.

johntshea2
johntshea2
1 year ago

Future ages will marvel at this absudity of our time whereby art custodians loudly announce their censorship of their art in a way that draws more attention to the “bad” bits than they ever had before. Who exactly was offended by the details in question, and why are they offensive only when viewed from within the restaurant but not in Unherd and all over mass media?

Adrian Smith
Adrian Smith
1 year ago

Art is a matter of taste – you like certain forms, are ambivalent about others and dislike others. How a picture like this can cause offence is hard to comprehend but HARM! the only possible harm it could cause is if it fell on someone.

The answer is simple: We are an art gallery with many different works, come and look at the ones you like and walk on past the ones you don’t – in the case of the cafe mural choose a seat facing it or away from it – nobody is forced to gaze at it in detail. If you are not into art, the whole purpose of which is to elicit an emotional response, then go and visit the dinosaurs at the Natural History museum over the road to see if they give you a different emotional response you prefer.