Migrations, personal journeys: Bonnie Greer

Bonnie Greer Portrait

Bonnie Greer

Playright and novelist. Deputy Chair of the British Museum

This exhibition demonstrates how, as an island, Britain has always been influenced by the migratory – the best ideas from abroad become incorporated in the culture. I want to encourage visitors to look at the wonderful pictures but also to think about a few significant moments.

Anthony van Dyck, Charles I 1636

Room: Portraiture and New Genres

I read history at university, so I am drawn to this portrait of Charles I. He was a great patron of the arts. He believed himself anointed by God and above nationality. He was a Stuart, his wife was French and his son spent most of his time abroad. His ultimately tragic story was the beginning of the idea of a British identity. Perhaps if it wasn’t for Charles there would have been no Cromwell, and no parliament.

Benjamin West, Lady Beauchamp-Proctor 1778

Room: Italy, Neoclassicism and the Royal Academy

What strikes me, as American-born, is that this picture was painted two years after the American Revolution. You would think anyone who had been part of America at this time would give us some sort of feeling about what had happened there. Yet West paints Lady Beauchamp-Proctor in a kind of Roman style. It demonstrates the bifurcation of British/American history and society – you are taught that it all went one way and clearly it didn’t.

Benjamin West, ‘Lady Beauchamp-Proctor’ 1778
Benjamin West
Lady Beauchamp-Proctor 1778

James Abbott McNeill Whistler, ;Nocturne: Blue and Silver – Cremorne Lights 1872

Room: Dialogues between Britain, France and America

This is one of the first times we see art for art’s sake. This is pure artistic expression. In a way, until now, British art was utilitarian, but this is about Whistler’s eye – his concept of line, colour and that’s it. This painting must have been quite shocking. The fact that a foreign person, an American of all people, brought this kind of sensibility into British art and made it respectable must have added to the shock.

James Abbott McNeill Whistler, ‘Nocturne: Blue and Silver - Cremorne Lights’ 1872
James Abbott McNeill Whistler
Nocturne: Blue and Silver - Cremorne Lights 1872

David Bomberg, The Mud Bath 1914

Room: Jewish Artists and Jewish Art

I love this because it is very bold, emotional and uncompromising. I love the modernity and the urbanity. It is about holding on to your identity in a crowded space. It is also about being an outsider in a culture that values ‘place’. Bomberg’s attachment to his people makes this a very powerful piece of work.

David Bomberg, ‘The Mud Bath’ 1914
David Bomberg
The Mud Bath 1914
© Tate

Piet Mondrian, Composition with Yellow, Blue and Red 1937–42
Room: Refugees from Nazi Europe

Mondrian! When I was a girl in the 1960s this guy was the one – so much pattern on dresses, coats, shirts was copied from his work.

Room: New Diasporic Voices

This art is what drew me to London. I really believed and still do that we are looking at a renaissance. I was living in New York and I saw this happening and I thought, ‘I have to come to London – this is incredible.’ These artists are uncompromising. It was important they called themselves Black. It is not just about blackness racially – it is about ‘Blackout. Next chapter.’ No one had done this before. This is the turmoil of being British of African descent and being urban, individual, non-aligned and insouciant. This is the seed of the YBAs. These artists had the nerve to say that Britishness is fluid, not fixed. Americans don’t challenge being American in this way.