Review: Artist and Empire at the Tate Modern, open until 10th of April, 2016
The subject of this exhibition is representations of the British Empire by artists over the past four hundred years. You might expect a bucket of blood to confront visitors in the first room at Tate Britain but the subject has to be approached more carefully given a recent poll indicating that 44% of British people look back to their empire with pride. So the first room of the exhibition, entitled Maps and Flags, plays it safe with examples of early cartography and some splendid Ghanaian asafo flags. Brian Friel’s Translations comes to mind as a more insightful probe into the role of maps in the making of the empire.
The second room, Trophies of Empire, looks at the variety of artefacts and art associated with Britain’s imperial project and, given the size and extent of the empire, it is not surprising to find an astonishing range of material on display.
There is Stubb’s grand painting, ‘A Cheetah and Stag with Two Indian Attendants’, illustrations of plants and animals by amateur scientists and naturalists and no shortage of material resulting from looting, bartering and purchasing by traders and soldiers. Carved heads from Benin, a small part of the systematic plundering conducted by British forces in 1897, are the prize exhibits here but a visit to the British Museum is necessary to appreciate just how magnificent was the art practised in a corner of Nigeria centuries past.
Imperial Heroics is the title given to the subject matter of the third room – paintings of historical moments – and here are to be found some colourful examples of the ideologically staged scenes that artists chose to represent, erasing from consciousness the reality of the social wars and power struggles between conqueror and the conquered that constituted the building and maintenance of the empire. What these artists managed to avoid depicting is left to the viewer’s imagination when looking at Victorian Edward Armitage’s scene of sword-wielding Justice defeating the tiger of Indian rebellion.
It takes Andrew Gilbert piece of installation artwork to inject a more objective note of fantasy into the proceedings — four soldier mannequins with their Union Jack dressed as the exotic Other – a precise reminder that the military enacted a violent intrusion by an alien cultural force. The fact that such incursions were not always successful is brought home in a painting by Elizabeth Butler (1846-1933), ‘The Remnants of an Army: Jellalabad, January 13th, 1842’, about an episode from the First Afghan War of 1839-42, that prompts reflection on the more recent failure of military involvement in Afghanistan.
The next room, Power Dressing, looks at trans-cultural dressing in portraitures of British rulers looking as if they might be going native, adopting the dress and manners of those they had conquered, but usually just posing to demonstrate their condescendence and lordly curiosity.
One of the two exhibits relating to Ireland is shown here, Captain Thomas Lee in the late 16th century shown with bare legs in the style of Irish foot soldiers of that time. Face to Face is a room showing how artists depicted the faces they saw overseas, sometimes romanticising them while at other times intuiting forms of living and looking completely different to their own. A watercolour by John Griffiths (1838-1918), ‘A Sannyasi – A Religious Mendicant’ is extraordinarily successful in conveying a sense of the mysterious.
The exhibition draws to a close with the work of artists from conquered countries, studying and working in Britain after 1945, reflecting on what it means to be a product of empire. Their tones vary from the playful to the critical and playful but as a conclusion the exhibits here, like those at the very start of the show, do not bring home the violence that underlay the empire.
What seems necessary is work that confronts the brutality underlying imperial rule, in the way that The Hateful Eight assaults the viewer head on with the roots of the racism that prevails long after the particular institution – slavery or empire – that gave rise to it has faded into time past. If art doesn’t do this we’re stuck with the 44% who feel proud about the British Empire.