Source: Wall Street Journal
‘Artist and Empire’ Review
An exhibition examine’s Britain’s colonial past.
Artist and Empire - Tate Britain - Through April 10, London
A ferocious Britannia puts a Bengal tiger to the sword. A mother and baby lie slaughtered at her feet. For many, “Retribution” (1858) by Edward Armitage captures the essence of the British Empire. The animal represents India, which rose against its colonial masters in 1857, massacring, in one terrible incident, almost 200 women and children. The British took bloody revenge; order was restored.
Typical of the British sense of right—and might—the uprising was condemned at home as the Indian Mutiny; India hails it as the first nationalist uprising but in these more sensitive times, many historians refer to it as the Indian Rebellion. Whatever the bloody incident is called the painting is an unambiguous statement of don’t-mess-with-us superiority, but it is not typical of the works that captured the imagination of the nation at the height of Empire. No, what really stirred the populace was heroic failure— the untimely deaths of generals in battle or glorious defeats against overwhelming odds.
Take “The Death of General Gordon, Khartoum, 26th January, 1885” by George Joy. Gordon was hacked to death defending the British garrison in the Sudan city of Khartoum, yet Joy has him proud and resolute, almost disdainful, as spear-wielding dervishes swarm toward him. The portrait helped establish Gordon as a hero and a martyr to the cause of Empire.
“Artist and Empire,” at London’s Tate Britain gallery (through April 10, 2016), sets out to explain how colonial Britain was portrayed from the late 16th century to the swaggering power of the 18th and 19th centuries and on to the present day.
The exhibition reflects a past about which many in Britain are ambivalent— evoking pride in some; in others shame that power involved cruelty and slaughter. The Tate owes its own existence to the merchant Henry Tate, who gave £80,000 for its construction, having made a fortune in the sugar trade that flourished on the back of slavery.
The exhibition opens with maps, and here the predominant color is pink—the color that would delineate an empire that included Australia, South Africa, the Indian subcontinent and more. The first time the color appeared was in 1733 on Henry Popple’s “Map of the British Empire in North America with the French and Spanish and Dutch Settlements Adjacent Thereto,” which showed a territory stretching from the Grand Banks in Newfoundland to Spanish-owned Florida.
The maps served a practical purpose for the burgeoning maritime power as it sought new territories to colonize—but can also be interpreted as an expression of permanence; that this empire was here to stay.
How fleeting that proved to be in the case of Popple’s map. Yet how potent those pink splashes on the globe became as scenes and sagas of triumph and tragedy were played out—and how adroitly hopeless heroism was spun into triumph.
In Elizabeth Butler’s “The Remnants of an Army; Jellalabad, January 13th, 1842,” what seems to be the sole survivor of a rout in the First Anglo-Afghan War reaches the gates of the British garrison in today’s Jalalabad. He is emaciated, wounded, exhausted, his horse can scarcely stand, but when the image was shown at London’s Royal Academy in 1879 at the time of the Second Anglo-Afghan War it drew tears from the audience. Defeat was turned into a kind of triumph—not an interpretation that would garner much credence today.
The art of the portrait, too, emphasized a scarcely ruffled sense of power, the assumption that the Empire was run by men of panache who had right and might on their side. James Sant portrayed Capt. Colin Mackenzie (c.1842) as a dashing figure, arrogantly appropriating the robes of the Afghan tribesmen against whom he was fighting. Never mind that the captain was held hostage after the rout at Jalalabad and almost sold into slavery.
By the 20th century, when Britain was hastily shedding its empire, the result was more of a sharing and intermingling of cultures than of the recrimination that could have been expected from the post-colonial countries. Many artists from the colonies studied in Europe, and the result, says co-curator Carol Jacobi of the Tate, was a kind of “international modernism” perhaps best expressed by Nigerian Ben Enwonwu, whose “Head of a Nigerian Girl” (1957) celebrates African beauty with the kind of techniques he learned at London’s Slade School of Fine Art. He argued that artists like Picasso, Braque and Vlaminck were influenced by African art but, he wrote: “When they see African artists who are influenced by their European training and technique, they expect that African to stick to their traditional forms.”
The Tate obviously felt they had to redress the balance against empire’s pomp and circumstance with contemporary works but unfortunately they are often one-note and obvious in their hostility. In a work completed this year, Andrew Gilbert parodies the army fighting the Boer War in South Africa with “British Infantry Advance on Jerusalem, 4th of July, 1879” by dressing the soldiers in masks, feathers, fur and a leopard skin to make them appear as “primitive” as the enemy they fought. The work shows, rather bluntly, how assumptions change and the past is reinterpreted—though the process was well under way by the end of World War II, when war paintings fell out of favor. In the 1960s the picture of Gen. Gordon, once so stirring, was taken back by relatives and given to his old school, where, says co-curator David Blayney Brown (also of the Tate), it was used as a dart board.
Mr. Holledge is a freelance arts writer based in the U.K.