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Turner Prize: History of the art award as the exhibition opens in Margate

If you are one of the many who struggle to comprehend today's modern art, then you are far from alone. But if you can recall some of the works, you may have already proved that they are worth their weight in gold.

Because when the Turner Prize exhibition opens in Kent at the weekend, showcasing work nominated for this year's award, it will, undoubtedly, generate plenty of debate. And that is, surely, the raison d'être of any artist.

Turner Contemporary in Margate will host both the nominations and awards ceremony for this year's Turner Prize
Turner Contemporary in Margate will host both the nominations and awards ceremony for this year's Turner Prize

You may scratch your head and mutter about believing good art is all about a beautiful oil painting depicting almost photo-realistic people or landscapes, but it is surely the ability to challenge our thoughts and, in its purest essence, have a good old ponder, where modern art can achieve far more than the classics.

It's often over-looked that it is generating thought and being memorable which is the whole point - almost regardless of whether it is aesthetically pleasing.

Margate artist Tracey Emin is probably not everyone's cup of tea, but her classic My Bed made everyone stop and have a jolly long hard think about just what constitutes 'art' in this day and age.

The installation was a snapshot of the condition in which the artist found herself living - a bed littered with the detritus of an unhealthy lifestyle in which she had found herself in a suicidal state, full of booze, condoms and even, gulp, underwear with menstrual blood stains. As I say, not for everyone.

You'll perhaps be pleased to note it didn't actually win the Turner Prize - but was a runner-up back in 1999. Funnily enough, it was beaten to the prize by Steve McQueen for his film and video works - he would go to to win the Best Picture Academy Award for his 2013 film 12 Years a Slave.

Tracey Emin and her famous My Bed which was nominated in 1999 and later sold for £2.2m
Tracey Emin and her famous My Bed which was nominated in 1999 and later sold for £2.2m

In 2014, coincidentally, My Bed sold for £2.2 million.

As Tracey herself put it when challenged that surely anyone could exhibit their messy bed she simply quipped "well, they didn't, did they?". It's a fair point and one she probably recalls as she counts the money it made her.

But it lives long in the memory - much like Damien Hirst's Mother and Child Divided - a cow and calf split straight down the centre and then displayed in a case of formaldehyde. It won the prize in 1995.

Say what you like, they both generate a reaction.

I'll leave you to go and discover Jake and Dinos Chapman's shortlisted Sex and Death exhibits which were runners-up in 2003. Let's just say they're probably not suitable for a family newspaper.

In 2002, the government’s then culture minister, Kim Howells - a man you would assume to embrace and champion emerging artists - described the nominations for the award as, and I quote, "cold, mechanical, conceptual ********". Adding, British art was "lost" if that was the best they could produce.

Former culture minister Kim Howells had some choice words after visiting the 2002 nominations
Former culture minister Kim Howells had some choice words after visiting the 2002 nominations

Mind you, he had just cast his eyes over a line-up which included Fiona Banner's work which featured a huge billboard advertising a pornographic movie, and Liam Gillick's colourful Perspex ceiling suspended in the gallery space.

Go on, be honest, it does make you a little bit curious as to just what they look like – even if just to scoff at it.

His comments were both condemned and celebrated. Much like many of the entrants to this fascinating contest.

And then there was Rachel Whiteread's 1993 winner House - a large concrete cast of the inside of an entire Victorian house on a street in east London.

It divided critical reaction but, perhaps as a final flourish to the artistic creation, it was announced it was to be demolished on the same day she won the prize.

The Turner Prize is not going to be for everyone. That is a given. But it does shine a light on what is going on in the artistic world and generates interest in the medium.

Take a look at this year's entries

One thing you can be certain of, is if you head down to the Turner Contemporary in Margate over the coming weeks to see the exhibition of this year’s nominated artists, it will have an impact - whether that is plenty of tutting and guffawing or the spark of a thought process, will be very much up to you. Beauty, after all, is so often in the eye of the beholder.

The Turner Contemporary in Margate hosts the Turner Prize 2019 exhibition from this Saturday, September 28 until Sunday, January 12. Entry is free. The winner of the 2019 prize will be unveiled during a gala event at the gallery on Tuesday, December 3, and televised live on the BBC. For more on the Turner Prize nominees this year, turn to our What's On section.

History

The Turner Prize was first presented, believe it or not, all the way back in 1984.

Created by the Tate Gallery's (now Tate Britain) Patrons of New Art, the, normally, super-rich and star-studded line up, helped acquire works which could be displayed at the Tate and promote contemporary art.

Grayson Perry, minus his frock, at the opening of an exhibition at the Turner in Margate in 2015
Grayson Perry, minus his frock, at the opening of an exhibition at the Turner in Margate in 2015

Over the years, their number have included the likes of singer Bryan Ferry, he of Roxy Music fame, and Pet Shop Boys frontman Neil Tennant.

Over one of their regular cocktail meetings, they hatched upon the idea for a British prize for visual arts to rival the literary world's Booker Prize.

They gave it the name Turner after JMW Turner, the artist who spent time in Margate (on the site of the former guest house in which he stayed, now sits the Turner Contemporary, also named in his honour).

Antony Gormley's sculpture Another Time outside the Turner in Margate - he won the Turner Prize in 1994 for other bronze casts of himself
Antony Gormley's sculpture Another Time outside the Turner in Margate - he won the Turner Prize in 1994 for other bronze casts of himself

Designed to be awarded to British artists, they gave the inaugural prize to Malcolm Morley, an artist famed for his photo-realistic works but who triumphed with two oil-on-canvas paintings inspired by a trip to Greece.

To spark a little controversy - something the contest would become familiar with over the years - he'd also lived outside the UK, in the US, for nigh on 30 years when he was awarded the prize.

He took home £10,000 for that victory - today the winner will pocket £25,000.

Designed to focus on recent works, rather than acknowledge a lifetime's achievement, it has meant the focus has been very much on some young emerging talents.

Damien Hirst won back in 1995, after being nominated three years earlier, and has become one of Britain's most celebrated artists
Damien Hirst won back in 1995, after being nominated three years earlier, and has become one of Britain's most celebrated artists

But aside from a boost to the bank balance and a massage of the ego, the prize's primary success story has been the publicity given to contemporary art and to the personalities behind it.

From Gilbert and George's triumph in 1986 for their colourful photo montages to Antony Gormley's1994 Testing a World View - which had five identical iron figures, made from a cast of the artist's body bent at right angles at the waist; to Chris Ofili’s portrait paintings comprised of elephant dung coated in polyester resin in 1998; to Grayson Perry's ceramics which triumphed in 2003, it has an uncanny knack of generating headlines.

(Somewhat aided in Grayson's case, when he took to the stage to collect the award as Claire, his female alter-ego, wearing a frock and telling the audience "I think the art world had more trouble coming to terms with me being a potter than my choice of frocks".)

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