‘Artist & Empire’ at Tate Britain

A survey of art made in response to empire reflects national pride, as well as a legacy of lingering ambivalence

Queen Victoria commissioned the intimate portrait of the Indian artisan Bakshiram now observed in Artist &amp Empire, a key exhibition at Tate Britain that opened this week. The elderly potter returns the artist’s gaze with a weary stoicism from beneath an orange turban. He had lunched with the Queen at Windsor after demonstrating his craft at the Colonial and Indian Exhibition of 1886.


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However, as with several performs in this ambitious, extensive show, time has altered its which means. Bakshiram and other artisans had been in truth on a supervised check out from the colonial jail in Agra exactly where they learnt their abilities. At a time when colonial subjects were liable to be portrayed as ethnographic or criminal sorts, Austrian artist Rudolf Swoboda invested him with a striking personal dignity.

Subtitled Facing Britain’s Imperial Past, this is billed as the first big-scale show of art created in response to the British empire given that the wonderful imperial exhibitions of the early 20th century. As successive colonies won independence soon after the late 1940s, numerous of these functions had been consigned to basements or military museums as sources of shame, anger, nostalgia or melancholy. Paul Gilroy writes in the catalogue foreword on Britain’s lingering ambivalence towards empire that its imperial previous was “long a matter of national pride and a supply of prestige as properly as a litany of exploitation, famine, cruelty and slaughter”. As a measure of this contentiousness, the show’s announcement last summer triggered, in parts of the British press, a reflex defence of empire.

Some 200 paintings, drawings, sculptures and artefacts span far more than 400 years, from the 16th century to the present. British artists are joined by ones from former colonies, with fresh consideration to girls and amateurs. Loans outnumber the Tate’s 25 functions but all are drawn from the UK. As the lead curator, Alison Smith, says: “Imperial collecting formed the bedrock of our collections.”

Sir Henry Tate’s gallery was itself founded in the 1890s on a fortune made in refining plantation sugar. It is now among national institutions rethinking their collections — some would say belatedly — in the light of challenges posed by decades of art and scholarship, significantly of it driven by intellectuals from former colonies. Edward Mentioned, Homi Bhabha, Stuart Hall and Gilroy are among these whose believed implicitly underpins this show.

Arranged by art-historical genres, the show moves from maps and “curiosities”, history painting, portraiture and costume to empire’s influence on the development of contemporary art. Rather than illustrating a historical narrative, Smith says, “we lead with the picture”. The initial “Mapping” section ranges from a 16th-century watercolour of Enniskillen Castle in England’s “first colony”, Ireland, to iconic oils of higher-imperial adventurism. 1 painting has Sir Francis Drake leaning proprietorially on a globe, flanked by fellow Elizabethan privateers Thomas Cavendish and Sir John Hawkins, a pioneer of Britain’s transatlantic slave trade.

In John Millais’ “The North-West Passage” (1874) a grizzled mariner resolves to beat foreign rivals to an Arctic trade route to Asia, as his daughter, delicate in pink and white, reads at his feet. Copiously reproduced in its day — and deployed to lobby for expedition funds — Millais’ defining image imbued the burden of empire with the heartfelt imperative of familial duty. One of Tate’s earliest bequests, the painting fell from view until it was cleaned for this show.

“Trophies of Empire” charts the channels by which colonial objects discovered their way to Britain, from gifts to plunder. Reclassified, they formed the nucleus of today’s museums, collecting being a robust theme all through. George Stubbs’s “A Cheetah and a Stag with Two Indian Attendants” (c1764) dominates, along with a portrait of the 18th-century naturalist Sir Joseph Banks flaunting Maori regalia. There is palatial loot from Benin and Mysore but also nature studies by miniature painters such as Shaikh Zain ud-Din employed by East India Company and other patrons.

History paintings that posed as documentary to rally the British populace behind imperial adventures are grouped in “Imperial Heroics”. A style for depicting the orderly exchange of land through treaties offers way to heroic final stands that created martyrs of the defeated, from George William Joy’s “The Death of General Gordon, Khartoum” (1893) to Allan Stewart’s “To the Memory of Brave Men” (1897) on the initial Matabele war. The vengeful backlash triggered by the Indian rebellion of 1857 is exemplified by Edward Armitage’s “Retribution” (1858), in which Britannia slays a tiger that has ravaged a pale woman and child.

Yet even though several artists were complicit in imperial policy, some had been far more questioning. Elizabeth Butler’s oil painting “The Remnants of an Army” (1879) portrays an injured cavalryman fleeing battle. After seen as a lament for a heroic defeat in the second Afghan war, fresh research favours reading the painting as an indictment of a foolish campaign.

The diligent visitor will discover an immense quantity from this history of empire in 200 art objects. Yet are the grand imperialist paintings matched by visuals of equal energy? Marvellous centrepieces range from Asafo flag collages by Fante artists and Yoruba sculptures of British royals — whether or not homage or caricature — to Thomas Ona Odulate’s touching wooden sculptures of Europeans from the 1920s and 1930s. Andrew Gilbert’s installation “British Infantry Advance on Jerusalem” (2015) satirically inverts the ethnographic tableaux in military museums, full with teacups, regimental fetishes and sawdust. Yet such irony, and the captions’ subtleties, danger being overshadowed by what was, after all, powerful visual propaganda.

What does emerge strongly, specifically via mutual portraiture and the development of modernisms, is the two-way site visitors of empire, and the cultural hybridity it fostered, from dress to styles of art. Despite Gilroy’s contention that “the inability to come to terms with these disputed legacies . . . has contributed to a deep and abiding ignorance”, a basic expertise of the economic workings of empire is assumed. There is little sign of the commodities at its heart, the tea, sugar and tobacco that became portion of British identity, nor of enslaved Africans — other than Nicholas Pocock’s ink drawing of captives at gunpoint and William Blake’s manacled peon awaiting liberation by the Royal Navy at the feet of a divine Nelson. An unfortunate absence is JMW Turner’s “The Slave Ship” (1840), depicting slavers on the Zong jettisoning sick captives like ballast to claim the insurance coverage. That masterpiece is in US hands.

Offered such visual lacunae, the sinister brutality of Donald Locke’s “Trophies of Empire” (1972-74) comes as a salutary shock. Its phallic, bullet-like ceramics, some linked by leg irons (the shapes also allude to sugar cones), are arranged as in a museum cabinet. An inspiration for a generation of British artists in the 1980s, Locke’s installation was acquired by the Tate only this year. The Aboriginal artist Judy Watson’s etching “Our bones in your collections” (1995) is yet another effective response to ethnography.

These last rooms are a reminder of a legacy of dispute, not only more than the restitution of art and human remains but the redefinition of British art. The belated acquisition of artists such as Aubrey Williams (1926-1990), who moved to England from British Guiana in 1952 however, until lately, was not noticed as British adequate for the Tate, tells its own story.

‘Artist &amp Empire’, Tate Britain, London, until April ten. tate.org.uk

Slideshow photographs: Leeds Museums and Galleries Cotton Pebble London Collection Royal Collection Trust National Museums Liverpool Manchester Art Gallery The British Museum, London British Library Tate

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The Face of Britain: The Nation Through its Portraits, National Portrait Gallery, London — evaluation

Simon Schama curates an exhibition that explores British portraiture through themes

Self-portrait by Gwen John Simon Weston by Nicky Philipps

Self-portrait by Gwen John Simon Weston by Nicky Philipps

“The faces which look out at us from the past are the surest indication we have of the which means of an epoch.” So stated the art historian Kenneth Clark, and I think Simon Schama would almost certainly agree with him. A new exhibition curated by Schama, The Face of Britain: The Nation Via its Portraits at the National Portrait Gallery in London, shows above all that portraits, be they painted, drawn, printed or clicked, are about some thing much more than a simple likeness they are a reflection of the time and situations of their creation. And, in fretting about the ephemerality of today’s selfie-snapping, I suspect that Schama is attempting to put his finger on the meaning of our personal age.

Schama’s central thesis on portraiture, which he also develops in a book and forthcoming BBC2 series, is that it emerges from a “triangular collision of wills amongst sitter, artist and public”. For the most part this is accurate, although art historians and curators have a tendency these days to see “tension” everywhere. A literal example of such a collision is Graham Sutherland’s doomed 1954 portrait of Winston Churchill, the story of which is engagingly told in the exhibition with preparatory studies and archive footage.

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The portrait was commissioned by the Homes of Parliament. Sutherland, a gifted, perceptive but rather stubborn artist, chose not to stick to the suggestions (if he knew it) of the wonderful 18th-century portraitist Joshua Reynolds: if a painter “cannot make his hero speak like a great man he must make him appear like one”. Rather, Sutherland saw before him an old, occasionally shambling man prone to dozing off. So that is what he painted.

Sutherland’s portrait was also truthful for its time. Churchill hated it. To everyone’s discomfort, the presentation ceremony went ahead, broadcast on television from Westminster, where Churchill mocked the picture by calling it a “remarkable example of modern art”. In these days, to contact art “modern” was one thing of an insult. Some years later, Clementine Churchill’s private secretary burnt the painting, to her employer’s delight. (Or so the story goes Harold Wilson utilised to claim it was not destroyed, and, touching the tip of his nose, would add: “I know exactly where it is.”)

Churchill had wanted a lot more manage over his image, like most holders of power. Elizabeth I directed Nicholas Hilliard to show her face with “no shadow at all” — that is, no wrinkles. And the exhibition showcases two instances of Margaret Thatcher’s portrait meddling she insisted on smiling for Helmut Newton’s camera in 1991, in case not doing so produced her appear “disagreeable”, even though for Rodrigo Moynihan’s oil portrait of 1983/85 Thatcher not only changed the colour scheme, but even the depiction of her eyes. Her interference is blamed by the National Portrait Gallery for “a compromised painting that speaks of artistic flare extinguished”, even though in truth it is tough to see much artistic flare in Moynihan’s work usually.

The exhibition reveals a lot of such entertaining tales, and there are gems worth seeing. The self-portraits by Gwen John and Lucian Freud are among the ideal you will see, and they prove — perhaps inconveniently — that portraitists excel when totally free to ignore the demands of paying sitters. Nicky Philipps’ portrait of the Falklands veteran Simon Weston, for example, is that uncommon thing: a good modern portrait in oil. And the wit of James Gillray’s satirical caricatures still resonates today.

There are limitations, nonetheless, and they are mainly self-imposed. Like the series and the book, the display explores the history of British portraiture not chronologically but by way of themes “power”, “love”, “fame”, “self” and
“people” (as in “ordinary people”, not posh ones). In the book (and doubtless the series) the thematic approach works when it is held together by Schama’s wide selection of portraits, his enthusiasm, and some of the best writing on British portraiture I have read. But take Schama away, replace his energetic presence with wall text and labels, and the themes at times fail to provide.

What ought to have been a defining moment in the gallery’s mission to showcase British history by means of portraiture is alternatively an inconsistent, somewhat forced display. That it is spread about the developing in separate rooms (or in curatorial-speak, “interventions”) does not help. And nor do the themes look always to make sense. The Chandos portrait of Shakespeare is often a pleasure to see, specifically when rival Shakespeare portraits are “discovered” almost weekly. But it fits oddly right here in “fame” (and by the staircase), for Shakespeare was not a celebrity in his lifetime in the way we would recognise today. Certainly, the Chandos portrait is so in contrast to history’s vision of fame that 19th-century viewers felt the require to tinker with it, giving Shakespeare longer hair to make him look much less like an accountant and much more like a playwright.

The gallery says the exhibition “has been created in wider discussion with National Portrait Gallery curators”, and at occasions the display does really feel like the operate of a committee. Nowhere is this much more apparent than in the “Introductory” section, where the 5 themes are introduced as follows: Margaret Thatcher for “power” the abolitionist William Wilberforce for “fame” George Leigh Mallory (by Duncan Grant) for “love” the 19th-century black actor Ira Aldridge for “people” and a self-portrait by the Scottish painter Anna Zinkeisen for “self”. These are all fine portraits, but such box-ticking shows how subjective a thematic interpretation of British portraiture must be.

This is not, as a result, the face of Britain as it truly existed. Right here you will discover no imperialists, no rich merchants, and surely no slave traders. As an alternative, it is the face of Britain we want had existed inclusive, romantic, and (mostly) agreeable. From within this thicket of political correctness, we struggle to draw any broader conclusions about the history of the British face, or the artists who developed it. But perhaps that is not the point. For these curated faces inform us a lot more about present ideals than past realities.


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Section: Arts