With the opening of the Tate Britain’s winter exhibition, Artist and Empire, Britain’s rather shady Imperial past is thrown firmly back into the limelight. While Imperial art traces a journey of cultural awakening and appropriation we may not be entirely proud of, it nonetheless is a journey that has profoundly shaped modern British cultural identity. So, it’s about time one of Britain’s national galleries made Imperial art the focus of a blockbuster exhibition.
Ground-breaking critical post-colonial texts by Edward Said and Franz Fanon, published in the latter half of the twentieth century, challenged the cultural legacies of Imperialism. Despite this influence, the six galleries showcasing a diverse range of maps, portraits, landscapes, watercolours and objets d’art, collated from British private and public collections, seem to celebrate Britain’s gameplay with the exotic. With such a fabulous art collection of outstanding quality and exquisite beauty on display, any lingering sense of colonial unease momentarily dissipates. So, is it really so controversial to admire the art and art makers of the British Empire? The short answer is no. At least something good, in fact really good, came from what is now more often than not recognized as something bad.
Imperial art is as rich in talent and aesthetic beauty as any other genre of British art. Celebrated artists such as George Stubbs, Joshua Reynolds and William Blake all turned their hand to Imperial subjects and are unanimously honoured in the Tate’s newest exhibition. Stubbs’ iconic landscape depicting a cheetah, later endearingly called ‘Miss Jenny’ by her British carers in the Royal Menagerie, and two Indian attendants is one such example. Stubbs’ fine brushwork and alluring palette is at its best here, but as with all Imperial art nothing is as it first seems. The cheetah’s vibrant red harness is just one discrete symbol of colonial subjugation. The attempt to domesticate the exotic speaks silently of struggle and any inherent sense of unease returns. Quick, onto the next. Maps.
A furtive glance at Matthew Flinders’ ink on paper drawing, General Chart of Terra Australis, 1804, the first British map of the modern day Australia, however, does nothing to quell rising feelings of discomfort. Once a geographical tool, Flinders’ map is now an immortalized artwork laden with political meaning. The artist’s lines are not just any old lines, they are territorial markings that quantify this mysterious landmass as a tangible space to be conquered by a power-hungry West.
But not every work in the exhibition speaks of Britain’s colonial imprint. Rudolf Swoboda’s, Bakshiram, 1886, is just a beautiful depiction of a beautiful man. The sitter’s expressive face and vibrant turban draws the gaze, but seemingly this time no hidden Imperialist agenda unfolds. Politics aside, what becomes clear looking at the exhibited works is the power of artists’ markings to inform, instruct and most importantly evoke a response, whether intended or not. There is no denying that all the objects in the Tate’s exhibition have been shaped to some extent by Orientalism. A term coined by Edward Said, Orientalism connotes the fictionalizing of the East as unfathomably ‘other’ in order to assert Western superiority. Yet all works are stunning visual momentos of a time gone by and while historical accuracy is debatable, aesthetic beauty is not.
Whether we like it or not, a Western fascination with the Orient is a fundamental part of British visual and literary heritage. Trophies of Empire pepper the Tate’s exhibition but removed from their contemporary geo-political contexts these works are isolated objects of art that stand united in triumphant success.
So don’t beat yourself up about it, face it, admire it and marvel at the art shaped by it.
By Lucy Scovell
Artist and Empire at Tate Britain, 25 November 2015 – 10 April 2016. http://www.tate.org.uk/whats-on/tate-britain/exhibition/artist-and-empire