“Artist and Empire”

Leslie MacDonald Gill, Cable & Wireless Great Circle Map, 1946, lithograph, 40 1/8 × 49 5/8".

ASIDE FROM KEEPING the idea of Palestine alive, Edward Said had one lifelong project: From his earliest writings, he strove to reveal the processes through which imperialism seeped into and colored the cultural production of the Western colonial powers during their centuries-long ascendancy and domination, which have effectively extended into the present. In Culture and Imperialism (1993) in particular, he argued that there is a reciprocal rapport between literature—especially the novel, the main form of modernist expression—and the colonial empire. Not only did colonialism inform the subject matter and scope of Western writers, even those who deal exclusively with metropolitan themes, but it is impossible to truly understand the development and meaning of the novel itself without grasping the ways in which it was influenced by both the experience of colonization and the cultures of the colonized. Understandably, that argument was not well received within the academy, which was accustomed to a sharp distinction between the study of metropolitan cultures and those of the colonies, the latter often seen as peripheral. The literary fields, especially, which had begun to admit the anglophone and francophone production of the colonies into their domain of inquiry by the middle of the twentieth century, continued to resist intimation that canonical Western works had been in any way contaminated by the literature of the colonies, both during and after the colonial age.

The situation is only slightly better in art history. Art has directly served the colonial enterprise since its early days. In fact, entire artistic genres—Orientalism, most notoriously, but also realist, ethnographic, primitive, and Fauvist painting (notice the implicit bias of these names)—had emerged from the bosom of the colonial adventure and represented it, both symbolically and anthropologically. Moreover, various modernist artistic movements of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries were influenced by the art of the colonized. Such art was sometimes directly appropriated and incorporated into the shaping of modern art. But more important, it was enlisted in the conceptualization of impactful artistic experiments by such European masters as Gauguin, Picasso, and Matisse. Yet until now, no sustained scholarly or curatorial work has been devoted to exploring the fraught relationship between modern Western art and the reality of empire, or, less abstractly, between specific empires and the art they engendered, sponsored, or collected. The current Tate Britain exhibition “Artist and Empire” is a first attempt to address this lacuna in a major show—and in the foremost imperial capital of the world, London.

Being first, of course, enables experimentation but also fosters self-consciousness. This is evident not only in the immense array of seemingly disparate artifacts and art objects gathered from the four corners of the world—an expanse emblematic of the vastness of the British Empire—but also in the urge to inform and educate that undergirds the show’s thematic structure and infuses its copious explanatory legends and catalogue. It is a cerebral exhibition par excellence, requiring the viewer to concentrate equally on both object and text and to keep a mental grasp on five centuries of history and global geography. This may be challenging at times, especially for the aesthete looking for pure visual pleasure, but it is immensely rewarding. The curators largely succeed in keeping the visitor both awed and informed as she or he moves through the six more or less chronologically arranged sections.

The first section sets the stage with the most effective visual tools of modern empire: maps. After all, as Abdulrazak Gurnah remarks in his novel By the Sea (2001), “It was maps that gave [the world] shape and made it seem like territory, like something that could be possessed, not just laid waste and plundered.” The section spans four centuries of mapping, beginning with the Queen Mary Atlas of 1541 and culminating in a 1946 map by the noted British cartographer and designer Leslie MacDonald Gill showing cable and wireless networks around the world, with London at its center, like some modern-day Mecca to which all colonial subjects must turn. Produced at the cusp of the empire’s dissolution, this map is a last gasp of British colonial pride, which was bolstered by the drive and fortitude of generations of adventurers, explorers, seamen, surveyors, cartographers, and colonial administrators. Many of these figures are depicted in the portraits on view in this section, redolent with determined looks and theatrical props, as in John Everett Millais’s The North-West Passage, 1874.

Exploration gave way to possession as the British Empire expanded many times over between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries. The objects brought back to the seat of the empire from this sweeping range of territory—“trophies,” as the exhibition cunningly calls them—run the gamut of gifts and purchases, but most are simply loot. Once in Britain, they underwent a kind of cleansing process, their dubious status legitimated by their entry into private and public collections, which has allowed them to be safely displayed in shows like this one without risking demands for reparation. Yet many of these objects retain a strong aura of irony, not only because of the circumstances of their acquisition or the fate of their creators but also in the sometimes surprising self-awareness revealed by their forms and expressions, and because of the enduring insistence of art history to forcibly situate them between art and craft. Take the small argillite figure of a European made by an unknown artist of the Canadian Haida people in the middle of the nineteenth century. Adapted from a “traditional” art form and possibly mass-produced for commercial purposes, the statue possesses a geometricized figuration and economy of detail that exude a modern sensibility that belies art-historical platitudes about the timelessness of such artisanal practices. Such examples underscore the necessity of revising the history of art to reflect the experimentation of colonial artists as part and parcel of global art’s journey toward modernity.

It goes without saying that exclusions from the history of art are ultimately predicated on real imbalances of power. Perhaps unwittingly—though I doubt it, given the bold opinions expressed by the curators and authors in the catalogue—the exhibition accentuates this disparity between colonizer and subject by slipping the section on possession between those focused on exploration and military celebration. The grand military paintings on view in the latter tend to depict one of two seemingly contradictory subjects: the submission of local rulers after defeat by superior colonizing forces, on the one hand, and the last stand of imperial soldiers in the face of overwhelming odds, on the other. While depictions of the first theme are understandably grandiose, as they commemorate moments of triumph, the second motif works on the deeper psychological register of tragic heroism. We see several renderings of small contingents of British soldiers valiantly offering hopeless resistance against hordes of enemies, in addition to The Remnants of an Army: Jellalabad, January 13th, 1842, 1879, Elizabeth Butler’s atmospheric re-creation of Dr. William Brydon, the sole survivor of a disastrous 1842 campaign during the First Anglo-Afghan War, returning to the British garrison at Jellalabad (now Jalalabad).

A particularly poignant—if also insolent—painting is an 1893 scene by George William Joy titled The Death of General Gordon, Khartoum, 26th January, 1885. Standing at the top of a stone stairway and looking down with a mixture of defiance and indignation at a throng of fanatical followers of Muhammad Ahmad al-Mahdi, the religious leader of a Sudanese revolt against the Egyptian-British occupying forces, who point their primitive spears at him, Gordon is the essence of British heroism and honor, his attackers that of barbarism and rapaciousness. Obfuscated, however, is any hint at the just cause of the rebels or the tremendous losses they had already sustained by this point in the long-running conflict, which the British had inflicted with racist cold-bloodedness. Bombastic though it is, this painting is markedly different from the gloating and bloody scenes of vanquished and decimated enemies with which French artists such as Antoine-Jean Gros or Anne-Louis Girodet de Roussy-Trioson depicted the Napoleonic invasion of Egypt. This absence may be a measure of restraint on the part of the curators, indicating that they did not want to push their criticism beyond the boundary of the tolerable, or simply a reflection of the difference between French and British imperialism, the latter described in the catalogue as largely keeping the proverbial “stiff upper-lip.”

Heavy-handed sentiment gives way to a carnivalesque feel in the next section, “Power Dressing,” which deals with crossing cultural boundaries. Here the curators present a series of appropriations by native grandees and colonial officers alike, each adopting, but also subverting, the other’s signs of identity and power. The most curious is a painting by Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger of Captain Thomas Lee from 1594. Having been active in the colonization of Ireland, Lee is portrayed bare-legged like an Irish foot soldier, but with a fancy embroidered shirt and a pistol and helmet that signify his high rank as a British officer. Though it is full of nuanced symbols, the crux of the painting is the sharp contrast between the lower and upper parts of Lee’s attire (or lack thereof), which cannot but be read as a reminder of the incongruity between the primitivism of the Irish and the sophistication of their new British masters.

This emphasis on cultural encounters is expanded in “Face to Face,” the ethnographic section of the show, which reminds us that the colonial edifice was erected on a foundation of fervent anthropological and archaeological exploration working in tandem with military and commercial conquest. Here the curators’ approach is up close and artistic, marshaling personal portraits of colonized individuals (who nonetheless stand for prescribed types). The more successful of these works transcend their ethnographic roots and touch the human essence of their subjects. Philip Alexius de László’s sketch of two officers of the Indian cavalry, Risaldar Jagat Singh and Risaldar Man Singh, 1916, is one powerful example. Although the artist was primarily interested in the picturesque qualities and deep colors of his sitters’ eyes and skin, he nonetheless conveys the estrangement the two men must have felt in their new and foreign environment, as well as their simultaneous pride in their military ranks and their Sikh background, the latter exemplified by their neatly wrapped turbans. The two Singhs were among the lucky few of the one million mostly anonymous Indians who served in the British imperial army during World War I to have at least acquired some recognition, whereas the majority of their compatriots suffered and died in a war in which they had no stake. The British mastered this dimension of imperialism, whereby the colonized were used to further the policies of the colonizer with astonishing results, managing a vast empire with a surprisingly small contingent of British military and civil servants.

To my mind, the last section in the exhibition reveals the limitations of its conceptual framework but also points toward possible sequels. “Out of Empire—Legacies of Empire” casts a wide net, encompassing artists from throughout the former domain of British influence (and current Commonwealth) who address the subject of imperial power. It also touches on the thorny issue of influence in the formulation and development of modern art, but suffers more acutely than the rest of the show from an Archimedean conception of the artist as a free agent, able to reflect on the theme of empire from an objective vantage point. Such mutual independence is obviously suggested by the title of the exhibition itself—“Artist and Empire”—and may have been intentionally emphasized by its organizers. Yet such an approach misses the more critical problem of understanding the effects of living in a multicultural empire not only on the artist’s choice of subject, techniques, and methods but also on the formation of the artist’s very identity through his or her entanglement with the hegemony of empire as well as the artistic cultures of others. For just as the artists of the colonies learned from, adopted, and reinterpreted the sensibilities and modes of expression of the metropolis, so did the artists of the metropolis learn from, adopt, and reinterpret the arts of the colonies—a process of reciprocal creativity that defined the art of empire in particular and all modern art in general.

“Artist and Empire,” curated by Alison Smith, is on view at Tate Britain, London, through April 10.

Nasser Rabbat is the Aga Khan Professor and the Director of the Aga Khan Program for Islamic Architecture at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.