I started, as so often I do, with keeping a list of consumed culture. This petered out, so I am relying on memory.
2019 was Van Gogh and Rembrandt and Schiele and Munch.
Every year should be Munch year.
Continue reading →
I started, as so often I do, with keeping a list of consumed culture. This petered out, so I am relying on memory.
2019 was Van Gogh and Rembrandt and Schiele and Munch.
Every year should be Munch year.
Continue reading →
I used as various times to maintain a Googlesheet of exhibitions I might possibly interested in going to — then life intervened repeatedly, and it got out of date. Over the past few months I’ve been updating it and there are still a few venues missing, but it’s a l-o-n-g list and I need to work out a decent format still. I have a list sorted by closing date and by venue, and below is opening soon.
Information presented in good faith — a lot of mistakes came to light in this update — and check website before travelling. There’s a south eastern bias, plus major cities in Wales, Scotland and Ireland (I still haven’t been to Northern Ireland). Additions welcome. Continue reading →
One of the most loved paintings in the world is Gustav Klimt’s The Kiss (1907-8), aka The Lovers. Sometimes I’m in agreement with this — Edvard Munich’s Scream and Vincent Van Gogh’s Sunflowers. It was bought by the Austrian Gallery before it was completed, originally shown at the Lower Belvedere and in the Upper Belvedere since then.
This canvas is nice, but it doesn’t quite do it for me. I saw a load of Klimt drawings alongside works by Egon Schiele at the Royal Academy of Arts, but Schiele won. He was, however, key to a generation of Viennese artists before the end of the First World War.
I didn’t go to Oslo just to see The Scream (1893), but it would have been worth it. I’ve seen a pen and ink version at Bergen, but this was the first time I’ve seen this version in the flesh – there’s a later, probably 1910, version supposedly at the Munch Museum (but it wasn’t on display) and the one owned by Petter Olsen and sold for $120,000,000 but we take this to be the original.
This exhibition comes with a thesis. I have to confess I wasn’t convinced.
York-born artist Albert Joseph Moore (1841-1893), son of painter William Moore (d. 1851) and brother to several artists, was part of the Aesthetic movement with Burne-Jones, Leighton, Watts and Whistler. The exhibition claims that his privileging of colour and mood over subject in search of beauty and art for art’s sake was a precursor to British abstract art. Digging around, I found a review of Moore and Burne-Jones from 1881: “Mr. Albert Moore paints neither incidents nor subjects nor allegories: he limits himself very much to the realisation of perfectly balanced for and exquisitely ordered colour.”
Continue reading →
Sometimes you hold contradictory thoughts in your head to your own detriment — I’d known that Sidney Nolan was one of the most significant Australian painters, but I hadn’t realised he was so good.
Let’s phrase that a bit differently — whilst I had seen Nolan paintings (I’m presuming) in Melbourne and at the RAA Australia exhibition, I hadn’t been hugely struck by his work. I seem to recall there’s a painting in the Tate walkthrough of British art, and I just remember the colour brown.
The Pallant House Gallery, in collaboration with the Sidney Nolan Trust, have put together an exhibition to mark his centenary, drawing on the property of the trust and paintings in the Tate collection (I suspect rarely shown), paintings from Leicester Art Gallery, Walker Gallery and so on. It is an impressive collection.
Like (most?) Australian painters, he is drawn to landscapes, and there are several incredible moonscapes of the centre of Australia — mountains and craters and deserts, often as glimpsed from an aeroplane. These were too big to do on site, and I wonder if there are notebooks of sketches not shown here? They are suitable huge, but you notice that he seems more likely to paint the vertical or in a square than in landscape format, presumably to fit in all the layers of horizon and height and depth, rather than a wide, empty sweep. Inland Australia, I guess, is one of those rare exceptions.
Occasionally, he also painted on glass, almost like a contour map, using Ripolin, a kind of enamel paint (making him a precursor to George Shaw). Alongside the Australian desert is the Antarctic one — as dead as Australia interiors seem but freezing rather than hot. There are also paintings such as Carcase in Swamp, a title that is seemingly half right, a product of a commission of a newspaper or magazine to record seemingly the worst drought in Northern Queensland, where corpses were strewn across landscapes or somehow caught up trees. No magazine would touch them, but it was clearly stored in his image bank (to reappear in theatre designs decades later).
Sidney Nolan had been sought out by Kenneth Clark of Civilisation when the latter visited Australia, and this led to Nolan moving to Britain in 1951, away from his increasingly complicated love life in Heide outside Melbourne, although I suspect it became no less complex as a result. It needs therefore to be borne in mind that many of Nolan’s landscapes were painted in retrospect from a very different location. Indeed, he had a studio without windows to avoid distraction.
We get to see glimpses of three of his series of paintings — Ned Kelly, Burke and Willis and Mrs Fraser and Bracewell. I guess the Ned Kelly series is the most well-known — the Irish-descended bushranger convicted for stealing horses who went on the run after the attempted murder of a policeman. He fled to the Bush as an outlaw, being involved in the death of further policemen and a number of hold-ups. The final showdown was at Glenrowan, where the gang wore the homemade metal suits and were shot dead — Kelly survived, to be put on trial and executed in 1880 aged 25. Apparently Nolan’s grandfather was one of the police officers at Glenrowan — and Nolan painted this shootout at least once.
Typically Kelly is reduced to the square, spade-like mask, with a slot for the eyes, sometimes just showing the eyes. The mask stands on a spindly neck on an abstracted body, sometimes on a horse, often wielding a weapon. In other paintings, the mask becomes painted in blocks of colour, a moment of Mondrian or Miro. His Australian symbol could also be twisted to other uses — Kelly Spring 1956 gives him a blue background, a tree with blossom and is presumably a nod to events in Hungary.
And then there’s large, vertical, landscape painting, Ned Kelly and Policeman, with the landscape rather over shadowing the three policemen at the bottom of the image and Kelly on a horse. The label seems to be suggesting that Kelly is facing them down, but to me it looks like he is riding away. Of course, the mask looks the same from either side. There is also the painting of the death mask of Kelly, another mask but this time of his “real” face, based on the post-execution cast. (Do I recall Francis Bacon had a death mask of William Blake? Did I make that up? There are apparently others links too.) Death of a Poet has the bright blue background and strange plants twirling around much of the picture space, especially on the left. Apparently this is also a nod to Arthur Rimbaud, French poet and gun runner, although I’m not entirely clear how.
The second myth he draws on is of Burke and Wills, leaders of a 1860–61 expedition to cross Australia from Melbourne to the Gulf of Carpentaria in the north, which failed on its return to Cooper’s Creek where Burke and Wills died. On the one hand, this was a heroic journey — humanity vs. the landscape — on the other hand this was stupidity, given their lack of knowledge of bushcraft. Burke seems to stand out though — there is The Explorer Burke on a Camel (1966), where a naked Burke almost seems to be merging with the camel, a huge empty landscape behind him.
And then there’s Camel and Figure (1966).
Again, the landscape is striking, overwhelming, the camel stretched out toward a ?naked? Burke, almost subservient to him. Apparently nudity is the sign of someone who has given up and is about to die in a desert. Of course, he’s naked in both the paintings.
Finally, Mrs Eliza Anne Fraser was shipwrecked off the coast of Queensland in 1836 and claimed to be captured by Aboriginal people. She was rescued by convicts John Graham and (in legend) David Bracewell. In the legend, Bracewell asked for a pardon for escorting her to safety, but was betrayed. Novelist Colin MacInnes suggests we read the legend as an allegory for the relationship between the British empire and convict Australia; they’ve also been read in relation to Nolan’s relationship to Sunday Reed, with whom he’d had an affair. There are three paintings here — Convict in a Billabong (1960), a picture dominated by the browns of the vertical reeds and the light green of the trees, with Bracewell picked out in horizontal white and brown lines that parallel the stripes of the billabong. Meanwhile, Woman and Billabong (1957), a mix of browns, yellows and ochre, Mrs Fraser viewed from behind, in the billabong, to the left a weird figure somewhere between a finger and a phallus, presumably Bracewell? This surprisingly idyllic scene contrasts with the equally brown In the Cave (1957), where there is an almost randomly brown field, presumably the cave, with Bracewell in rather darker brown stripes; Mrs Fraser is drawn as a sexualised figure in supposedly aboriginal style, with a blue, red and yellow stripe as waist. The authentically “primitive” Australian here being envisioned seems at odds with the British empire metaphor.
One painting that seems to be outside the usual series and themes of his work is Peter Grimes’s Apprentice (1977) — a drowned figure in purple inspired by Benjamin Britton’s opera. Nolan and Britten knew each other, presumably through Nolan’s work in opera design, and Britten had died the year before. The drowned boy, with ginger hair, is in purple, with what appears to be a fish hook design on his jumper, which only seems appropriate. He is surrounded by fish, which almost seem like musical notes and are about to chew on him. It is a rather strange Ophelia-theme, peaceful yet fearful, an accidental (and tragic) rather than deliberate death.
And then, finally, I’ll turn to a late self-portrait, Myself (1988), depicting an old man with round glasses, somewhere between John Lennon and infinity, and scrawled over the top a frame like Ned Kelly’s mask — cementing an ongoing identification between Nolan and the convict, whether Kelly or Bracewell (I’m less clear he wants to be Willis). But perhaps he is transported to Britain rather to to Australia, the downunder upended. Scrawled is not quite the word — it is a portrait in spray paints, a long from graffiti but haunted by semilegal street art and apparently typical of his late work. The colours are incredible. (Apparent IKON have an exhibition of the portraits coming up.)
And here’s something that appears to only being discovered slowly — alongside the spray paints, Nolan had used Ripolin, an enamel paint, polyvinyl acetate and other industrial paints. Does this reflect his background in commercial painting — he used what he knew? Might we assume — cultural cringe alert — this was what he had available and so used? Various American pop artists were to use synthetic paints — but Nolan seems to predate them. Not for the first time, we should pay more attention to artists on the fringe of the standard narratives. What becomes very visible are the horizontal or vertical lines of the painting, almost scratched onto the surface.
I also note that most — perhaps all? — of the Tate paintings were donations from Baron McAlpine of West Green, scion of the construction company, property developer in Western Australia, art collector and, er, Tory supporter. I have to confess that he had rather interesting taste in art.
J.M.W. Turner: Adventures in Colour (Turner Contemporary, 8 October 2016-8 January 2017)
Joseph Mallord William Turner has to be the hardest working artist in British history. Pretty well every provincial art gallery I’ve been to has one of his works, usually of a local view. This island is obviously well gifted with landscapes, the genre which he made his own. Even the Carbuncle in Lisbon has a couple on display. In his early career, I presume he used coaches, but steam boats and then trains presumably helped his meandering — especially after the end of the Napoleonic Wars. He got to Italy, France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Poland, Czech, Slovenia, Austria and so on.
And yet I confess to a little resistance to him — I suspect there’s a little too much TurnerTM, Heritage painting, and I even went through a phase of liking the earlier, more classical styles. And I have a memory of visiting the Clore Gallery at the Tate — as you have to if you want your Blake fix — where a chunk of Turner’s unsold paintings he left to the nation are on display. Someone came in, took photos of every single panting, and left after four minutes. Very odd.
He was, of course, controversial in his day, his tastes and methods questioned, so I need to reevaluate him and his work. The Turner Contemporary has offered a couple of chances to do so — it always aims to have one of his works on show, it did a big Turner and the Elements show and now has J.M.W. Turner: Adventures in Colour as another opportunity.
The Tate posted an image of Turner’s The Fighting Temeraire on Facebook, and I noted it was a shame that this image of a sailing ship being towed by a steamboat out of a sunset to be broken up would be better if the coast were on the correct side. Someone responded that this was to do with composition and did I know the story of how Turner, on varnishing day at the Royal Academy of Arts, struck a red blob of paint on his canvas, next to Constable’s, and then worked it into a buoy.
Well, yes, actually, I do, if there’s one story that everyone knows about Turner, it’s the one where Turner, on varnishing day at the Royal Academy of Arts, struck a red blob of paint on his canvas, next to Constable’s, and then worked it into a buoy.
The coast is still in the wrong side. And anyway, sailing out of a sunset is hardly elegiac.
But clearly, the man had a way with colour, and the joy of the book on Turner and the Elements was its discussion of the technology of colours and Turner’s acquaintance with scientists of the day. The two cultures were not so divided back then. I think he was the first artists in Britain to use cobalt paints and I wish there’d been a bit more on this back then. I suspect, in what is a show that is frankly too big, the narrative got a little lost.
The first paintings you pick up as you enter are views of Norham Castle and Lincoln Cathedral. These follow the rules of landscape painting which I learned from Astrup’s breaking of them: you accentuate earthy brown in the foreground and exaggerate the blue in the background. This adds to the sense of perspective and scale — ideally you stick a human figure or an animal in the frame to give an identificatory viewpoint or a yardstick for size. Dolbadarn Castle (1800), silhouetted by the evening son, features bandits, adding a narrative (apparently about a Welsh family). Failing that, a spot of white or a splash of red will draw the viewers’ attention. His Fishermen upon a Lee-Shore (1792) has a limited pallete of browns and greens, made mobile by flecks of white and a red jacket.
In his training at the Royal Academy he was exposed to Claude Lorrain, Salvator Rosa, Nicolas Poussin, Titian and Canaletto, painters who tended to classical or Biblical narratives with landscape background. In the period of striving for realism I think you can see this — in his volcanos, fireworks and burning Houses of Parliament you can see Rosa. At much the same time, Joseph Wright was doing more interesting things with the light and John Martin finding a more monumental scale, but that’s more my taste.
Troubled by the sludginess of the browns and greens, Turner from 1805 started preparing his canvases with white paint or pigments, which gives a greater luminosity to everything that goes on top — I wonder if this was to be a Postimpressionist technique, as L. S. Lowry was to use it on advice of an French artist. Of course, sometimes the whiteness began to overwhelm the painting — the more famous canvases of clouds and seascapes, the mistiness of Frosty Morning (1813), the almost monochrome Venice with the Salute (1844) looking like spilt milk. On the other hand, he uses a European blue-coloured paper to stand in for sky or water in some drawings and a rich vermilion in Vermilion Towers (1838).
We learn along the way that he uses a mix of linseed oil and resin, megilp, as a means of enriching his standard paints and he started engaging with debates about the nature of colour. As Professor of Perspective — great job title — at the Royal Academy, he lectured on colour, colour wheels and chromatography, and whilst we have his handwritten notes on show, his writing is not legible. A transcript would have been useful — I should of course Google to see if they have been published. More annoying is the mention of refutation of Isaac Newton’s work on colour by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, in which Turner sided with Newton, who described the splitting of light into the spectrum via the prism and discussed colour as reflected light. Goethe, on the other hand…
Well, I’m not sure what his theory is. I m not even clear, from further reading, that it is a theory. In part, in seems to depend on the prism being a special case and the refraction being more complicated than Newton allows, as well as the colour of shadows. Scratches head. Goethe’s Theories of Colour was translated by Charles Lake Eastlake in 1840, apparently a friend of Turner. Again the two cultures was unformed.
This comes to a head in Turner’s Late square canvases, with the colour taking on the curves of the circle — although I seem to recall the same circles in the work of John Martin. Two examples, I think Shade and Darkness — the evening of the Deluge (1843) and Light and Colour (Goethe’s Theory), The Morning after the Deluge — Moses writing the Book of Genesis (1843) — seem to be explorations of Goethe’s thoughts on colour and emotion, but I’m not clear how this follows through.
These paintings might be pointing back nearly forty years to his picture The Deluge (1805), in itself a response to Poussin’s painting Winter (The Deluge) (1660-64), which features a boat within a cove or a cave pool by the sea. Turner seems to have seen this in 1802 and commented “The colour of this picture impresses the subject more than the incidents which are by no means fortunate either as to place, position or colour, as they are separate spots untouched by the dark colour that pervades the whole.” Turner is setting out to correct the deficiencies he goes into note, and adds a black sailor, although this might be a much later addition. The gallery notes Turner’s investment in 1805 in a cattle farm in Jamaica, connecting him to the slave trade. However, Turner was to become abolitionist in later years.
But the story of Turner and colour is distracted by the various views of Margate that Turner produced over the years — and it is undeniably interesting to see the obscure fishing village that became a watering hole transformed over the decades, and to note how much the town has declined since. Whilst the revamped (and distinctly post-Turner) Dreamland seems to limp along from financial crisis to financial crisis, the Turner Contemporary seems to flourish. The temptation to offer local views is understandable and is one thing that will draw people in.
Just as Mitchell and Kenyon clearly filmed locals to whom they then screened the films in the 1900s and for decades the walky photographers took photos of tourists to sell to tourists, so Turner clearly had an eye on what would sell to locals — or might interest those on tour. The corner devoted to engravings and mezzotints shows how Turner could further monetise his work — with some extraordinary work — even as his perfectionism cut against this success. As a painter of working class origin, he would see no shame in pleasing as many markets as he could, even as his experiments clearly pushed at the boundaries.
Painting with Light (11 May-24 September 2016, Tate Britain)
I am bringing two pieces of baggage to this show.
Firstly a sense that a few London galleries seem to be finding excuses to show the ever popular Preraphs — compare the National Gallery Painters’ Paintings and the V&A’s Botticelli. And also the talk by Karen Shepherdson on Tony Ray-Jones and Martin Parr puts a debate about photography as art and commerce onto my mind. And having just seen William Eggleston at The National Portrait Gallery, my mind was on art.
Continue reading →
Bruegel in Black and White: Three Grisailles Reunited (Courtauld Gallery, 4 February–8 May 2016)
I knew Pieter Bruegel the Elder from that W.H. Auden poem, about Icarus and life going on, and I went away and looked at reproductions of his extraordinary canvases back in the day to see what W.H. was on about. Most years I turn to Bruegel’s Battle of Carnival and Lent to illustrate Bakhtin’s ideas of carnival – or at least, the historical sweep.
The Courtauld Gallery has given us a unique chance – one of the works cannot leave the gallery – to look at his three authenticated grisailles for the first time.
No, I had no idea what they were either.
A grisaille is a painting more or less in black and white, although shades of grey seem possible. Sometimes, I gather, in brown. These can be used to extraordinary effect – the depiction of night and darkness, perhaps, or a three dimensional impact on a plane. One of the locations of such works is on the closed flaps of altarpieces in Dutch churches – and so a religious subject is often presupposed and Hieronymus Bosch had already produced some of these. What Bruegel seems to have done is to lay down an area of white on wood – compare L.S. Lowry’s use of white paint to prime his canvases – a drawing added in charcoal or red chalk, a thin black wash added to most of the canvas and then Bruegel painted on top of that, presumably mostly in greys. The grisailles seem to have been painted in a hurry, with alterations whilst the paint dried.
Until the mid-twentieth century, two examples were known: The Death of the Virgin and Three Soldiers, with a third, A Woman Taken in Adultery coming up for auction in 1952 and eventually being bequeathed to the Samuel Courtauld Trust collection. Two of these clearly have religious themes, and the existence both of prints of these and of a Resurrection suggests that there is at least one more yet to be found.
The Death of the Virgin is dated c. 1562-5 and is a nocturnal, almost chiaroscuro, depiction of the dying moments of the Virgin Mary surrounded by worshippers, partly lit by a candle in her hands, but also luminescent. Everyone is in (then) contemporary dress, of course – it is an extra-Biblical interpolation. Life goes on, too, of course, a cluttered table and chair are at the end of the bed, someone is asleep in the corner and, best of all, a cat is in the prime position by the fire. These details show up better in the 1574 print version by Philips Galle, where the light levels are considerably higher and some of the awkward perspectives of a chair are rectified. On the other hand, that chair perhaps nods to Van Gogh to come. One the other hand, that underplays the religious significance of the light of Mary set against the candles and the fire.
A Woman Taken in Adultery is taken from the He-that-is-without-sin bit of John (8.1-11) – although why Christ is writing this rather than saying it out loud eludes me. Christ is leaning over on the left hand side of the picture, scratching in the dust in Dutch, his head just overlapping the woman, and the Pharisees are on the right of the picture, stones to the ready on the paving. Note Christ is either on a lower step or (I can’t quite tell from the perspective) there is a gap between his paving and the Pharisees’. There is a crowd in the background – some passing by, others gawping. The fact that Christ is writing with his right hand suggests this was an original work rather than a preparation for prints.
Pieter’s son Jan sent the grisaille to patron Cardinal Federico Borromeo in Milan, but the latter felt this was too generous, had a copy made in about 1825, and sent it back. Pieter Perret made a print in 1579 – again this is much light, with a foreground text – and Jan had painted a copy roughly 1597, which brings us slightly closer to the foreground foursome and isolated the crowd more distinctly. None of these have the vitally of Bruegel’s original. Pieter’s son, Pieter Bruegel the Younger, also copied the painting, apparently several times, with a colour one on display here. The realism and the individuation of the figures is at the expense of the spiritual dimension – it feels less religious.
The Three Soldiers (1568) seem not to be a religious subject – there is a drummer and a fifer and in the background a soldier with a flag. The best guess is that these are Landsknechte, mercenaries, which could have fought for Spain or the Holy Roman Empire. My dim and distant history A Level reminds me of the ongoing wars in Europe – the Netherlands, Spain, Italy, the Holy Roman Empire – and the forces of Catholicism, various flavours of Protestantism and the counter-reformation. It is perhaps a plea for religious tolerance? At one point, the grisaille was owned by the future Charles I, although it briefly left the royal collections during the Commonwealth, it seems to have passed from William III to a private secretary, William van Huls.
Two more grisailles round out the exhibition — The Visit to the Far (c. 1600), attributed to Jan Brueghel the Elder, and Frans Pourbus the Elder’s The Last Supper (c. 1570). The former had been thought to be by Pieter, but is reckoned to be inferior – a series of figures in a farmhouse, with a nurse and baby in the foreground. It may be a copy of a lost Bruegel painting, it may be a pastiche. Again the absence of a religious subject must be noted – but of course non-religious examples may have been lost.
Artist and Empire (Tate Britain, 25 November 2015–10 April 2016)
The initial question was, which artist, which empire?
Well, of course, this is Tate Britain, so the British Empire, but you don’t want to ignore the French, the Spanish, the Portuguese, the Belgian, the Ottoman, the Viking, the Roman … And that is to limit ourselves to a Eurocentric model. African and Asian empires… My history knowledge is insufficient. Is there a league table of evil empires?
Am I assuming the British Empire is evil from the get go?
And here, of course, we are in the heart of the Tate, a space built on the profits of the sugar trade:
The Tate Gallery Liverpool is based in the Albert Dock complex, on the north bank of the river Mersey. In order for the dock to be opened in 1846, a public house, several houses and a previous dock had to be demolished. One of its major commodities was sugar, and Henry Tate was one of those who used the docks to import the sugar needed for his business. The sugar initially came from cane cut by slaves on the plantations of the Caribbean, though formal slavery was gradually abolished throughout the nineteenth century. In 1889, Tate donated a collection of 65 contemporary paintings to the nation, together with a substantial bequest for a gallery to show them, and 1897, the National Gallery of British Art opened in Millbank, London, on the north bank of the river Thames.
As far as I can tell — and the exhibition is silent on this — Tate’s business was built in the second half of the nineteenth century and thus after the slave trade as such. It is in the era of indentured labour and apprentices, better than pure slavery but clearly in an infrastructure that was first built with slavery in mind. There are few depictions of slavery that I recall from the exhibition — perhaps only part of one landscape and in the margins of Walter Crane’s supposedly radical map. I don’t think there are any depictions of sugar or tea or cocoa or tobacco or even bananas — the cash crops of empire.
The first room, “Mapping and Marking”, shows the various charts that filled in the blank parts of the world for the British explorer, the unveiling of Australia, the breadth of the pink parts of the world and views of exotic climes. In applying cartography, a western politician convenience is imposed upon existing indigenous models of land use and land ownership, existing names are subsumed under British toponyms. There is a nod to Ireland, too, perhaps the first British colony, if Wales is excluded…
(And Scotland? Are we Trainspotting‘s bunch of effete wankers or did the invitation to James VI mean the Scots colonised us? In any case, the early part of exploration was an English-and-Welsh-colony. Oh, but what about the chunks of France we had?)
There are African flags, relics of colonising, but their creators are speechless.
In “Trophies of Empire” we see the purpose of empire — to find objects to fill zoos and museums and botanical gardens, public spaces and entertainments sometimes aside asylums, sometimes in the cause of temperance. The spoils of empire here are not sugar or tea or cocoa or tobacco or even bananas, but plants and animals; the dingo, the Tasmanian tiger, the crane, flowers… There are also the carvings and niknaks of anonymous tribes people, rarely ascribed to an actual maker. I recall looking around the Brenchley collection in Maidstone Art Gallery and Museum and wondered how much of it was plundering and how much the Victorian equivalent of “They went to the Pacific Northwest and All They Got Me Was This Lousy Headdress”. The objects are literally from all over the world, but without the rigour of the Pitt-Rivers Museum classification by function. It is not at this point clear what the sorting narrative of the exhibition is — but there’s a broad chronologucal approach.
The third room, “Imperial Heroics”, is a space for eighteenth and nineteenth century history painting, with accounts of massacres and last stands and slaughtered colonists. Little of it, frankly, is any good and the answer to the question not quite posed by the exhibition’s title is that we were not good at looking at empire. The best that can be said is the art undercuts its own messages — the symbolism of Queen Victoria giving a bible to a native leader (Thomas Jones Barker (c. 1863)) or Britannia slaughtering a tiger (Edward Armitage’s Retribution (1858)) cries out for critique. Are some of these paintings depictions of people rightfully defending themselves from invasion?
One representation that clearly requires further head scratching is William Blake’s The Spiritual Form of Nelson Guiding Leviathan (c.1805–9), which I don’t think I’ve seen before and perhaps needs to be located in his cosmic history of the world that links Biblical to British history. Nelson for him would be current affairs — Blake does do satire too — but odd to see Nelson as a Hindu god and a mannacled slave ready to be rescued.
The fourth room, “Power Dressing”, has depictions of colonists in nature dress and natives dressed in colonial dress. Inevitably there’s going to be issues of appropriation, patronisation, various levels of Orientalism, and again there’s a low quality threshold. I suspect the colonialist cannot win, as it were, in terms of ethics. I wonder also if there’s a problem with using the term “power dressing” — which I associate with women trying to be successful in the workplace in the 1980s — in the curation and the term “cross-dressing”, with its gender connotations, in the booklet.
The penultimate room, “Face to Face”, is a series of portraits, some by westerners of the indigenous, some by the colonised of the coloniser. I don’t recall if there were any self-portraits of the natives. There are also figurines or statuettes, but again there’s uneasiness from the anonymity of the artists (a legacy of the looter or the commissioner or the purchaser) and the geographical spread of the objects. Australasia melts into India melts into Africa. It’s all the same empire.
The final room is divided in two, “Out of Empire” and “Legacies of Empire”, I suspect the smallest space of the six. This covers the century of decolonisation and independence, a period when colonial artefacts had reached western museums and influenced (read: were appropriated by) western artists. Henry Moore springs to mind, but he isn’t here. Artists came to Britain from the colonies having studied art or to study art — a Sidney Nolan I don’t recall seeing before springs to mind as an exemplar. A handful of artists get to represent the Commonwealth artists’ commentary on empire — centrally Donald Locke’s Trophies of Empire, an open cabinet of curiosities of jars and pots and objects almost shaped like sex toys, with shackles and handcuffs. This is one of the few representations of slavery in the exhibition. There are also photos by Locke’s son Hew Locke, statues of colonial figures, Edmund Burke and Edward Colston, overlaid with bling.
I don’t think in the end that the artists here really faced up to empire – the “postimperial” ones, maybe, but I think the exhibituon needs a lot more contextualisation than the casual observer who hasn’t bought the catalogue can give it. In the bookshop, you can buy Franz Fanon or read about King Leopold’s slave, but that kind of discourse isn’t in the show.