LONDON — Artist and Empire: Facing Britain’s Imperial Past has received some of the same slams — too much stuff, too much stuff that’s not art, too much concern for political correctness — that have been aimed at other exhibitions mounted during Penelope Curtis’s recently concluded tenure as director of Tate Britain.
But the overall response has been positive, perhaps because, with more than 200 objects, the exhibition offers something for everyone. It features enough bravura portraits and heroic history paintings to convey an undimmed sense of the glory, guts, and grandeur of empire-building, but if you look at each item and read each label, you can’t escape an awareness of the devastation wreaked by imperialism over at least four continents and countless islands.
The first gallery features maps and documents whose compelling density of information precludes cursory viewing. As an Anglo-American, I pored over Henry Popple’s 1733 map of North America, fascinated by its apportionment of land and by an accuracy that would have been remarkable for the time. What seems familiar to me today became strange, as seen through the eyes of men intent upon taking territory away from First Nations, as well as French, Dutch, and Spanish competitors.
Then there’s the 1922 Navy League Map of the British Empire, which would have been found in many schoolrooms. Britain’s possessions and protectorates are marked in a red so bright and cheerful, you almost can hear the huzzahs — or, for a more recent reference, The Kinks roaring through “Victoria”:
Canada to India,
Australia to Cornwall,
Singapore to Hong Kong,
From the West to the East,
From the rich to the poor,
Victoria loved them all.
In addition to the densely filled walls, there’s a charismatic group of flags suspended from the ceiling, mixing the Union Jack with local motifs from the African Gold Coast. They were made for the Fante militia, who were allied with Britain during the early 20th century. Growing pressure for independence, however, prompted colonial government to ban the flags as subversive, and most were destroyed. As displayed, these survivors offer a riposte to the above-noted maps, as well as to pictures such as John Everett Millais’s 1874 canvas, “The Northwest Passage: ‘It might be done, and England should do it.’”
The Millais embodies some crucial references to British empire-building that might otherwise be overlooked. One is the conviction that such a discovery was an obligation — based on tremendous confidence and self-righteousness. Another is the emphasis on England, which colonized Great Britain and the surrounding islands. Then there is Millais’s depiction of a steely old man seated by a young woman (likely his grand-daughter), who reads to him from a logbook and stimulates his convictions. This is an intergenerational vision, one supported by those who stay at home as well as by those who make the voyage.
The next room contains images made by amateur naturalists — male and female, colonizer and colonized — as well as portraits and objects of plunder. To an extent, the exquisitely detailed watercolors justify claims that British exploration was fired by intellectual curiosity and a passion for discovery. This ostensible disinterest is brilliantly lampooned in Thomas Rowlandson’s 1788 watercolor, which shows Sir Joseph Banks, patron of explorers, about to eat an alligator. Nearby, Benjamin West’s full-length portrait, dated 1771, shows Banks draped in a Maori cloak and surrounded by trophies from Captain Cooks’ voyages.
An uglier story is told by the inclusion of the bronze heads of a Nigerian king and queen mother, made in the late-18th and early-19th-century kingdom of Benin. Along with hundreds of other bronze plaques and sculptures-in-the-round, these were looted from the Benin royal palace, after Benin forces massacred a British military party that had been disguised as a trade mission.
The third gallery contains more artifacts depicting or embodying the consequences of imperial ambition, such as a massive, histrionic painting of Britannia about to slay a Bengal tiger. Although this specifically addresses the vengeful anger aroused by the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857, it also painfully resonates today, in the wake of terrorist attacks by Daish and other jihadi groups.
The gallery contains several other propagandistic depictions of Imperial heroism, from Quebec to Kabul to Isandlhula, against Zulu troops. Many are technically competent but hopelessly maudlin. Apart from West’s 1771 “Death of General Wolfe,” the best work on view is by Elizabeth Butler, the distinguished painter of military exploits. Dated 1879 and titled “The Remnants of an Army: Jellalabad, January 13th, 1843,” it depicts a desolate landscape in which an exhausted man clinging to an exhausted horse approaches one of the stone forts that remain strewn across Afghanistan.
After this room, things take a more affirmative turn, first with a focus on portraiture, including photographs as well as paintings. Augustus John’s 1919 oil painting of T.E. Lawrence — whom Peter O’Toole so uncannily evoked — is placed next to John’s companion portrait of Emir Feisal, which was painted during the same year. Again, these images are haunted by current events and those of recent decades.
The final two galleries present drawings, paintings, sculptures and other works that span the 17th through 20th centuries, by British colonizers, imperial subjects, and post-imperial British artists. Some earlier works suggest mutual recognition and even respect, but many reflect profound cultural bias in their representations of the “other,” regardless of which side of the cultural divide they occupy. Most memorable for me was a gouache painting by Dehli-based Ghulam Ali Khan, and a single “proclamation board” painted on a slab of wood. Made in 1827, the former picture mingles Mughal visual traditions with modern Western elements to depict Col. James Skinner addressing a new recruit to his cavalry company. Of mixed British and Indian heritage, Skinner could not serve as an officer in the East India Company’s private army. Skinner’s Horse, the company he organized, would later be known as the First Bengal Lancers.
The latter chart proclaims the equitable treatment that Tasmanian natives could supposedly expect from white colonists. Produced circa 1830, such charts were inspired by Aboriginal bark drawings. This one’s simplified figures, rendered with white and black skin, were meant to show that all subjects would receive the same benefits and punishments under the colonial government. The extent to which Aboriginal peoples saw and actually believed these depictions is not known.
As previously stated, Artist and Empire contains something for everyone, ranging from fierce pride to loathing. It offers room for both of these extreme emotions, as well as everything in between. But count me among the visitors who continue to roam through the latter space.
Artist and Empire: Facing Britain’s Imperial Past continues at Tate Britain (Millbank, London SW1P 4RG) through April 10.
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