The idea that Art can have a government “job” exerting subtle diplomatic influence is ostensibly the appeal of At Work. The first of five consecutive displays at Whitechapel drawn from the Government Art Collection, this particular exhibition aims to highlight the role Art has in smoothing domestic and international negotiations in addition to promoting British Art and presence overseas.

Seven public figures chose pieces from the Government Art Collection for this exhibition. Lord Boateng, for example, picked the bold and tongue-in-cheek Peas Are The New Beans by Bob & Roberta Smith because he felt it would amuse those who encountered the piece at the Treasury building. Art work can do more than elicit wry smiles, however: Sir John Sawers recalls a tense international negotiation in Iran in which the parties reached an agreement after a tea break spent contemplating Ben Nevis on Blue by Claude Heath. In contrast to the subtle diplomatic roles played by the two previous works, Dame Anne Pringle chose to highlight her own taste and her connection to Scotland, when commenting on a pendant portrait pair of Frederik V and Elisabeth of Bohemia by Gerrit van Honthorst.

…one is left wondering why certain pieces are there at all…

Pieces are not always accompanied by personal commentary of their selector. One can only speculate, for example, why both Lord Mandelson and Nick Clegg picked Lucian Freud painting the Queen by David Dawson. Since this exhibition is supposedly about the pieces “at work”, an explanation of each painting’s role is important to the spectator’s understanding. Without context, one is left wondering why certain pieces are there at all.

It is clear that the two commonalities between the works displayed are, firstly, the fact that they belong to the Government Art Collection, and secondly, that they were pointedly chosen by guest curators who are prominent public figures. It is perhaps difficult to consider the works of Art as visual objects with “jobs” once one is conscious of the latter. How the selector’s individual taste and desire to project a particular public image informed their choices becomes a persistent consideration. The subtle roles of the pieces do not always come across well – removed from the environment of a British Government building and placed in an Art gallery, one can appreciate the visual qualities of the works, but not their diplomatic function. 

…the diversity of British art in a small and concentrated display…

At Work is certainly valuable; it makes some of the most interesting works of Art in the Government Art Collection accessible to the public. The exhibition shows the diversity of British Art in a small and concentrated display, spanning across different types of media, historical periods, artists, and depicted themes. This variety could also unfortunately be perceived as a lack of visual or thematic cohesion, in addition to highlighting the fact that the pieces are there because they were picked by guest curators. While it is interesting to see what type of art certain public figures enjoy, the overwhelming impression of the exhibition is that it is about art being “at work” for the those who chose them. 

The exhibition runs at Whitechapel Gallery until 4 September 2011.

Admission free

3 Stars 

Image courtesy of Whitechapel Gallery


About The Author

History of Art graduate from SOAS (jointly with UCL). I cook, eat, and observe the world. Then I write about it and share it with you. This is a unilateral decision.

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