Is the upset surrounding Sensation, the current Royal Academy show of young British artists from the Saatchi Collection, yet one more example of long-held, deeply-divided attitudes to our native art? Events and publications celebrating the centenary of the Tate Gallery in London suggest that this may be the case.
Robin Hamlyn's catalogue essay introducing Sir Henry Tate's founding gift of paintings and sculpture gives a succinct account of the indifference, prevarication and opposition experienced by the sugar magnate in his attempt to establish a national gallery of British art. Even with the active support of such well-established and influential artists as Lord Leighton and Sir John Millais, Tate's first offer in 1889 was rejected, his second withdrawn and only with a change of government in 1892 and Tate's donation of all the money for a purpose-built, top-lit building on the relatively inaccessible Millbank site, was the project eventually realised.
In the summer edition of tate magazine, Roy Porter's reflections on Frances Spalding's forthcoming history of the gallery pin-point the ups and downs and unresolved issues experienced since the gallery's foundation. Formally tied to the National Gallery until 1954 but with responsibility for forming a collection of modern foreign art since 1917, there was no regular state-provided acquisition fund until 1946, and ever since this has consistently fallen short of requirements. Bluntly stated by Porter, "The plain truth is that the Tate has always been overwhelmingly dependent on private wealth" - another parallel with the Saatchi Collection.
One irony in this saga of indecision and inadequacy is that several paintings - Millais's "Ophelia", John Waterhouse's "The Lady of Shalott" and Stanhope Forbes's "The Health of The Bride", all included in Sir Henry Tate's initial gift - have become even more popular over the years. Unlike that of Charles and Doris Saatchi, Tate's taste was never radical. The son of a Victorian minister, he rose from an apprentice grocer in the 1830s to become one of the foremost sugar refiners, directing a substantial amount of the profits from his famous sugar-cube industry into a number of philanthropic causes such as hospitals and libraries.
Tate was in his sixties before he began serious collecting and only during the period of his attempts to establish a gallery did he progress to buying work by a pre-Raphaelite or commissioning "The Doctor" from the socially-conscious Luke Fildes.
Rachel Barnes, the experienced gallery educator, has no doubts about the attractions of this and the other pictures for primary and secondary school pupils. "The fascination lies in their love of a good story, an enfolding narrative or drama," she says, and strengthens her observation by pointing to a comparable interest in present-day narrative painters such as David Hockney and Paula Rego as well as TV soaps.
Had the Tate Gallery been endowed with an enterprising, effective education department at its outset, public responses to both contemporary British and foreign art might have been more enlightened and more positive. Instead, as Richard Humphries, the present senior education officer, frankly admits, "There was only a weakly defined education attitude, with just the occasional talk, until Lawrence Bradbury began his regular lunch-time lectures after the Second World War."
Even then, the Tate had nothing comparable to the out-reach activities set up during the Thirties by a number of provincial galleries and museums. It was with the arrival of Simon Wilson, as lecturer and schools liaison officer in the Sixties, that substantial moves towards the present wide-ranging programme were initiated. Nowadays, Rachel Barnes is just as likely to help Tate Lyle employees on a staff outing appreciate the collections as take students on a guided tour of the Henry Tate Gift exhibition - the original 60 paintings donated by Tate.
Perhaps the most apposite exhibition mounted by the Tate in this centenary year will be The Age of Rossetti, Burne-Jones and Watts: Symbolism in Britain 1860-1910. This sets out boldly to reassess the status of several well- and less well-known British artists prominent around the time that the gallery opened. It will examine their contribution to the pan-European Symbolist movement by displaying works by these British artists alongide those by relevant continental European contemporaries such as Gustave Moreau, Odilon Redon and Fernand Khnopff.
Until very recently, Symbolism as a specific movement in the arts has been seen as an exclusively continental phenomenon, mostly confined to literature except for the very significant example of Wagner's music dramas and the far less important one of mostly second- and third-rate painters. But quite apart from the very evident Symbolist dimensions of Burne-Jones's and Aubrey Beardsley's work, the Tate exhibition presents the case for Rossetti's poetry and painting as being both predecessor and contributor to the wider Symbolist movement.
The crucial issue here is the one that bedevils all commentaries on Symbolist art: how do you define Symbolism? Essays in the catalogue provide some clarification. In brief, the common factor underpinning all so-called Symbolist art is a rejection of materialist realism and naturalism in favour of invoking a state of mind. As Symbolist artists moved ever deeper into this inner world, there was an increasing likelihood that their work would take on the character of a reverie or psychic vision.
In this context, Rossetti's repeated reworkings of a particularly sensual, mystically hypnotic kind of woman - vividly manifest in paintings such as "Beata Beatrix" and "Mona Vanna" - is as much the expression of an obsessive psyche as Moreau's or Burne-Jones's persistent preoccupation with various types of androgyneity or Puvis de Chavannes' and George FredericWatts's with an asexual ideal. Myth, dream and erotic passion overlap in sometimes highly charged and suggestive ways, reminding us, as does the excellent teachers' pack, that these artists are the contemporaries of Friedrich Nietzsche and Sigmund Freud.
With Rossetti, Burne-Jones and the very much more sexually overt Beardsley and Simeon Solomon alongside the highly suggestive Moreau, Khnopff and Redon, the whole enterprise could prove a revelation, re-uniting these late-19th century British and continental European artists and providing yet more evidence of the diverse ways in which Symbolist influences have continued right through the 20th century.
As for teenagers and young adults, Rachel Barnes expects many of them to be "spellbound by the whole thing. Theirs is the time of passionate feelings, romantic as well as sexual." In this exhibition, they will see not only their own unsettled thoughts and feelings reflected, but discover how the search for personal identity made these artists every bit as concerned with image, life-style and the personality cult as our much more media-led age. The relationship between this Tate exhibition and Sensation at the Royal Academy may be closer than many suppose.
u The Age of Rossetti, Burne-Jones and Watts: Symbolism in Britain 1860-1910, from October 16-January 4 u Henry Tate's Gift: A Centenary Celebration, until October 19 u New Tate Gallery publications: catalogue to Henry Tate's Gift, Pounds 1.50; catalogue to The Age of Rossetti, Burne-Jones and Watts, edited by Andrew Wilton, Pounds 35; The Tate: A Centenary History by Frances Spalding, Pounds 25; The Pre-Raphaelites and Their World by Rachel Barnes, Pounds 12.95; Rossetti and His Circle by Elizabeth Prettejohn, Pounds 8.95
100% Tate A special centenary gallery talk for Year 5 upwards. It lasts one hour, introducing groups to the gallery, its history and collections.
Off the Wall A mixed-media performance inspired by famous works in the Tate Gallery. At the Polka Theatre, Wimbledon, until November 15. See review, page 9 Teachers' Open Evening: Symbolism in Britain Education staff will be on hand to help plan group visits; Kevin Gaal will interpret the paintings. Friday, October 24, 6.30pm. For free tickets, tel: 0171 887 8887. For special requirements, tel: 0171 887 8913.
Teachers' pack With an introductory essay, sections on literary connections, gender representations, the legacy of Symbolism, and a who-was-who? listing. Free on request.
Symbolist Trail for Primary Pupils Available to teachers and parents, this offers two routes of discovery into the thickets of symbolist imagery and narrative.
Tate events There is a full programme of talks, lectures, films, a one-day symposium on Symbolism (November 28) and a two-day conference, "Museums of Modern Art and their Spectators" (December 12-13). Tel: 0171 887 8604