Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera and Mexican Modernism: The Jacques and Natasha Gelman Collection (2001)

This is the large-format, floppy paperback catalogue of an exhibition held at the National Gallery of Australia in 2001. The exhibition featured paintings by 20th century Mexican artists collected (and sometimes commissioned) by the wealthy art collectors, Jacques and Natasha Gelman. The book contains:

  • The Director’s Foreward – by Brian Kennedy
  • The Curator’s preface – by Robert R.Littman, exhibition curator
  • Frida and Diego – by Gregory O’Brien, curator
  • ‘People are vying for shreds of her garments’ – by Anthony White, curator
  • ‘A pact of alliance with the revolution’: art and politics in Modern Mexico – by Barry Carr, Institute of Latin American studies
  • Jacques and Natasha – by Anthony White
  • ‘My mother, myself and the universe…’ – by Anthony White
  • Catalogue of the works
  • Artist biographies

Modernism

For a start, I’m surprised they call it Modernism. I thought that’s exactly what it wasn’t. I thought Modernism was cubism, futurism, suprematism, constructivism, vorticism and so on, mainly from the 1910s. I thought Rivera’s art was part of the international reaction against the abstraction of the 1910s, and back towards various forms of realism – called neo-classical realism in France, or the Neue Sachlichkeit in Germany, or the narrative realism of the Mexican muralists.

That said, once you start flicking through this book and taking in its bewildering range and variety – with Surrealist works next to abstract expressionism, light-hearted caricature next to Frida’s earnest self-portraits – you realise that maybe ‘Modernism’ is the only label which works as a hold-all term.

The Gelmans

Jacques Gelman was born into a rich Russian Jewish family in 1909. His family fled the Russian Revolution to Germany. Twenty years later, Gelman fled Nazi Germany on the eve of the Second World War, making his way to Mexico – which was more open to European refugees than America.

In America Gelman became a successful film producer and, along with his wife Natasha, also a keen collector of contemporary Mexican art, building up an impressive collection and commissioning portraits from leading artists.

Upon Mrs. Gelman’s death in 1998, their collection was donated to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Highlights were loaned to the National Gallery of Australia for this exhibition in 2001. And hence this book, the catalogue of that exhibition.

Saint Frida

Frida Kahlo dominates the title and the exhibition and this catalogue.

Even in 2001 the curators write about Frida as having achieved cult status. And as the recent exhibition at the V&A showed, it wasn’t just her paintings, but her entire self-presentation – the dresses and costumes and jewellery and hair, the whole look – which make Kahlo so visually attractive, so iconic.

To a historical materialist like me, what would be interesting would be an analysis of Frida Kahlo’s rise and rise which asked why she has become such a superstar cultural icon and attempted to answer in terms of cultural history and political change.

After all, during their lifetime her husband, Diego Rivera, was much the more famous of the two, up there with Picasso as an internationally recognised synonym for modern art. And Rivera pioneered a uniquely public form of art – his educational murals – which were commissioned by the Mexican state and millionaire American patrons. He could hardly have been more high profile and public.

So what has changed in our culture to lead to the fact that this politically committed, socialist visionary is now almost entirely overlooked in favour of his preening, self-obsessed, young wife?

For you can’t deny that Frida’s work is entirely, obsessively, unrelentingly about herself – it consists of literally hundreds of self-portraits, wearing various costumes, in bed, bound in barbaric medical equipment, crying, bleeding, suffering miscarriages.

Henry Ford Hospital (The Flying Bed) by Frida Kahlo (1932)

Henry Ford Hospital (The Flying Bed) by Frida Kahlo (1932)

The decline of radical politics and its replacement by grievance and victimhood

When I was growing up in the 1970s it was axiomatic that there would soon be a socialist revolution which would sweep away American imperialist capitalism. ‘Up the workers’, ‘Come the revolution’, ‘The workers. United. Will never be divided’, ‘One out, all out’ were just some of the radical slogans which people shouted on umpteen marches and picket lines. (I’m not saying I agreed with it, but these were the widespread assumption among lefties at the time, in universities, the media, film, theatre and so on).

Over the last forty years that hope – the hope for the ‘overthrow of capitalism’ – has, it seems to me, been completely abandoned and replaced by the notion of separate and specific ‘liberations’ to be achieved, in different ways, by distinct sections of the population.

Gay liberation. Women’s liberation. Black power. Over the past forty to fifty years each of these sectors or groups has developed its own discourses, narratives, lists of grievances and injustices. Each of them insists on being heard.

Women need to talk about women’s issues and be heard. #believewomen. #me too. Gays need to talk about the gay experience. Lesbians need to find their voice. Transgender people need to be listened to. We need to talk about mental illness. Black lives matter. Refugees must be given a voice. Muslim women must tell their stories. We need to talk about…. you name it.

The idea of a unified, mass working class movement seeking to effect a fundamental transformation of society has disappeared. It has been replaced by a fragmented landscape made up of millions of voices, all clamouring to be heard, all desperate to tell their stories of suffering and victimhood and exclusion.

In this completely different cultural and political climate, Rivera’s big, loud, working-class politics seems bullying, sexist, old-fashioned, toxically masculine, redundant, or disgusting.

(The art scholars in this book don’t miss an opportunity to accuse Rivera of toxic masculinity, pointing out his philandering and unfaithfulness and general feckless masculinity on pages 10, 14, 25, 26 and 27. The fact that Frida had a staggering number of extra-marital affairs is mentioned as only her due. She was an artist, you know, and a suffering woman in a man’s world. Of course she was justified in taking love wherever she could find it.)

By contrast with Diego’s discrediting as an epitome of discredited, male-dominated, socialist, trade union politics, Frida has become an emblem of our modern concerns, dominated by the Eternal Victimhood of Woman Under The Patriarchy – about the pity and the pain and the pathos of being a woman. (The story of the bus accident in which Frida was injured by a handrail is told on page 9, repeated on page 25, and then told again on page 27. The message is rammed home. Poor Frida. Beastly Diego.)

Injured as a girl (by a male bus driver, obviously), subject to endless medical operations (by male surgeons, of course), forced to wear painful corsets and prosthetics (by male specialists, the brutes), betrayed by her philandering husband (cheating, false and unfaithful Diego), ignored by the (male) art establishment during her lifetime, refusing to conform to (male) canons of female beauty – Frida ticks pretty much every box on the feminist checklist.

My point is that the definition of what is ‘progressive’ or ‘radical’ has changed out of all recognition in the past forty or so years.

Once it was someone who tried to unite the working classes, the poor and the dispossessed, in order to seize power and transform the economic basis of society. Now it is someone who has suffered greatly because of their gender or race. Once it was the semi-pagan idea of the active hero and revolutionary. Now it is much more like more Christian idea of the suffering martyr, the victim, the permanently injured, offended or abused.

And Saint Frida – along with Saint Sylvia and Saint Emmeline and Saint Rosa – is one of the patron saints of the new religion.

The cult of Frida

I had written the above simply as a response to the way Frida’s suffering and endurance and saintliness is so obsessively repeated in the preface and the introduction and the text of the book, and was congratulating myself on developing this little critique, when I came across the fourth essay in the book – ‘People are vying for shreds of her garments’ – and was gutted to discover that everything I’d thought through for myself – is common or received opinion.

‘People are vying for shreds of her garments’ by Anthony White does precisely what had occurred to me – tries to account for the rise and rise of the Cult of Frida over a period when traditional class-based politics has declined and special-interest-group, identity politics has taken over.

White is far more scathing than I was prepared to be. He doesn’t hold back and he makes the link – which i was rather proud of – between the Cult of Frida and Christian ideas of sainthood and suffering:

Kahlo has become the exemplary modern cult figure, in the tradition of Christian saints and teenage pop stars…

Her legacy has grown into a multi-million dollar industry that crosses national and cultural boundaries….

One of the recent sources of Kahlo’s recent celebrity has been a narrative of suffering which feeds into a well-established, popular fascination with personal struggles with pain…

Her work connects to a pervasive tradition in western art that depicts the tribulations of saints

The figure of Frida Kahlo appeals especially to women… Kahlo’s rising popularity in the 1970s was paralleled by the growth in feminism… (Anthony White, p.13)

She was a martyr to pain, menstrual cramps, erratic periods, ill-fated pregnancy, tragic miscarriages, painful abortions, unfaithful men, establishment misogyny, the whole panoply of the evil patriarchy. What woman hasn’t experienced one, many or all of these grievances? Her story features them all, whipped up into a frothy intensity of pathos.

The Broken Column by Frida Kahlo (1944) (or a portrait of the artist as a martyr)

The Broken Column by Frida Kahlo (1944) (or a portrait of the artist as a martyred woman in a man’s world)

Mexican Modernism

Having discussed Frida and her many martyrdoms (physical, psychological, artistic, social) at length, Anthony White then moves on to discuss the rest of the artists featured in the show. He distinguishes three branches of Mexican Modernism, as found in the Jacques and Natasha Gelman Collection:

  • Murals The politically motivated, accessible, murals for the masses made by Rivera, David Alfaro Siqueiros and José Clemente Orozco.
  • Surrealism The Englishwoman Leonora Carrington, one-time lover of Max Ernst, is credited with spurring Mexican Surrealism after her arrival in 1942: André Breton had already visited Diego and Frida and declared Frida’s paintings masterpieces of Surrealism in 1938; another Mexican woman surrealist featured in the collection is María Izquierdo.
  • Abstraction – Carlos Mérida and Gunther Gerzso.

The works

The book includes reproductions of 60 paintings and seven photos. It opens with the wonderful photos by Manuel Álvarez Bravo who was, apparently, ‘Mexico’s first principal artistic photographer and the most important figure in 20th-century Latin American photography’.

Bravo took portraits of Diego and Frida (of course) but also a huge range of subjects, from modernist architecture, street life, and women in various states of undress. Tut tut. Objectifying, misogynist, sexist pig. Great photos, though.

Forbidden fruit by Manuel Álvarez Bravo

Forbidden fruit by Manuel Álvarez Bravo

There is just one photo by his wife, Lola Alvarez Bravo, who was also, apparently, a notable photographer in her own right – an interesting collage of black-and-white photos of ballet dancers stuck over images of the Mexican desert, which my daughter liked.

And then there are paintings by:

  • Leonora Carrington
  • Rafael Cidoncha
  • Miguel Covarrubias
  • Jesús Reyes Ferreira
  • Gunther Gerzso
  • 10 by Frida
  • Agustín Lazo
  • Carlos Mérida
  • Roberto Montenegro
  • José Clemente Orozco
  • Carlos Orozco Romero
  • David Alfaro Siqueiros
  • Juan Soriano
  • Rufino Tamayo
  • Emilio Baz Viaud
  • Angel Zárraga

Apparently, the Gelman collection contained more works by Gunther Gerzso than any other painter, about 40 of them. I can see why. They’re big, bold, colourful abstracts (although Gerzso himself said that they were not purely abstract, but had their source or inspiration in the dry, sun-baked landscape of Mexico). Their existence also shows how the Gelmans continued collecting long after Frida and Diego had passed away (1954 and 1957, respectively), well into the 1960s and 70s, into a completely different cultural and visual world.

This example of Gerzso reminds me a bit of the kind of abstract prints my parents and their friends bought in Habitat and Heals and had on their walls in the 1970s.

Figure in red and blue by Gunther Gerzso (1964)

Figure in red and blue by Gunther Gerzso (1964)

Summary

This is an interesting book because it a) contains a handful of masterpieces by Diego and Frida, but more because b) it introduced me to a dozen Mexican artists I’d never heard of before.

On the one hand, Rivera and Frida emerge as head and shoulders the best and most distinctive of the artists here, with Diego’s painting of a Calla lilly vendor, and any of Frida’s amazing self-portraits, leaping off the page – for example the ones with monkeys, in a red and gold dress or with braids.

But it was good to also learn about Latin America’s premiere photographer, Manuel Álvarez Bravo and about Gerzso and a few others. I took a shine to the crisp abstract works of Carlos Mérida, with their late-1950s, rather Festival of Britain vibe.

Festival of the Birds by Carlos Mérida (1959)

Festival of the Birds by Carlos Mérida (1959)


Related links

Related reviews about Diego, Frida and Mexico

Captain James Cook: A Biography by Richard Hough (1994)

A grave, steady man (Boswell, quoted page 342)

I’ve covered a lot of the detail of the three epic voyages of discovery carried out by Captain James Cook in my review of the current exhibition about them being held at the British Library in London.

That review includes detail of the routes, the places ‘discovered’ and first mapped by Europeans (Tahiti, New Zealand, Hawaii, among many others) and the baleful impact which First Contact with white men had on the native peoples of those places.

Having put all that factual information, and discussion of the attendant cultural controversy, down in another place, this in a sense frees me up to enjoy Hough’s rather old-fashioned biography as a straightforward narrative of derring-do and adventure.

Space and detail

Hough (pronounced How) takes us deep into the day-to-day experience of being an officer or ordinary sailor or one of the scientific passengers, on these extraordinarily bold and dangerous voyages – cooped up in a ship 100 foot long by 28 feet wide for months on end in often terrible weather, with food and water which, after about a month, had become inedible and foul. It is no surprise to learn that drunkenness and fighting among the crew were a permanent problem, with some of the crew being drunk from morning to night, and one man on the first voyage drinking himself to death.

During his career Hough wrote a variety of historical books, but was mostly a specialist in maritime history. He was born in 1922, which means this biography of Cook was published when he was 72 years old. No surprise, then, that it is rather old-fashioned in tone and approach.

Hough gives space at the appropriate points to the scientific motives of the voyages, to the behind-the-scenes politicking at the Royal Society and the Royal Navy which provide the context for the voyages, to the way Cook’s discoveries were appropriated by others (the self-promoting naturalist Joseph Banks being the glaring example), were frequently sensationalised and misreported in the press, and so on.

He deals extensively with Cook’s encounters with the native peoples of the places he ‘discovered’, and gives a better sense of their interactions than the exhibition does. The exhibition is at pains to emphasise the baleful consequences of Cook opening up these places and peoples to colonial exploitation, whereas Hough has the space in his 450-page-long book to go into great detail about the complex mutuality of many of these encounters and their diversity: some natives were friendly and welcoming, some were fierce and antagonistic; some lived in sophisticated cultures with complex religions, others lived stark naked to the elements, with no clothes, or homes or tools of any kind; some, like Queen Obadia and King Tiarreboo of Tahiti, become good friends of Cook and his officers through repeated visits.

But at its core – and what makes his book, I think, so enjoyable – is Hough’s own deep feeling for the perils and pleasures of sailing the seven seas. Although he nowhere explicitly states it, it is quite clear that Hough was an experienced sailor himself, and had visited at least some of the exotic and distant locations he is writing about, by boat.

Anyone who has sailed these waters off present-day Christchurch will appreciate how easy it was for Cook to misidentify Banks Peninsula for an island. (p.158)

This writer, arriving at Easter Island by sea and at early dawn, can attest to the discouragement to landing the fierce visages and giant size of these statues engender. (p.289)

Thus his book contains numerous moments of insight into the precise mechanical workings of an 18th century sailing ship, of the weather and sea conditions to be found on the seas which Cook sailed, and goes into fascinating detail about the great range of jobs and tasks required to keep a ship afloat and sailing.

Hough places you right there, hearing the creak of the rigging, feeling the salt spray in your face, sharing the excitement of the crew when land is sighted after weeks of being cooped up in the stinking, bickering environment of the ship.

It is, for example, typical that before each of the three voyages, Hough not only takes you through the extensive repairs and refurbishments made to each of the ships Cook sailed in, but goes to great pains to name and describe every member of the crew – their names, where they were from, their sailing experience and personalities, with indications of how they bore up during their three-year-long ordeals, right down to the 12-year-old cabin boy.

Map of James Cook's three voyages

Map of James Cook’s three voyages

Mingled in among the narrative events are moments of pure lyricism with which Hough explains the lure of the sea, and the excitement of discovery.

On the ill-fated third voyage Cook took along two junior officers, William Bligh, a young arrogant but competent map-maker whose harshness, 12 years later, was to cause the infamous ‘Mutiny on the Bounty‘ – and young George Vancouver, who joined Cook’s second expedition at the age of 15.  At the moments when they hove into view of new islands, or set out to explore new coastlines, discovering new sounds, bays and inlets, we share with them the raw thrill of discovery which drove Europeans all around the world, on the most cockamamie expeditions.

The audience of political correctness

I’ve watched and read over the past 40 or so years as history writing has become more ‘diverse’ and ‘inclusive’. In practice this hasn’t meant many more black or non-white people writing history, it has meant that the same type of white, upper middle class, private-school-educated academics, writing on the pretty much the same old subjects, but now going out of their way to comment on 1. the presence or absence of women, and 2. the oppression of non-white peoples.

Fine. Some of this approach sheds drastically new light on old subjects, like Alan Taylor’s mind-expanding history of the colonisation of America, American Colonies, which begins 30,000 years ago with the arrival of the first humans in Alaska, and goes on to explain the staggeringly diverse range of ‘races’, nations and cultures which, right from the beginning, made up America’s multi-racial societies. A book like that completely changes your view of the subject.

But in other writers’ hands – and especially in (by necessity) the restricted space of exhibition guides and wall labels – it can sound like tokenism and box-ticking.

An aspect of the rise of identity politics and political correctness in history writing is that it can result in text which is surprisingly simple-minded, almost childish. In the several exhibitions about queer art which I’ve visited over the past few years, the curators take it upon themselves to explain that ‘same sex desire’ was once forbidden and even punished by western societies. Golly.

Reading something like this makes me wonder what age group the curators are targeting. Most of the people I see at art galleries and exhibitions are quite clearly retired, educated middle-class people in their 60s and 70s. Do you really need to explain to the average, educated, middle-class exhibition-goer that homosexuality used to be illegal? Do you think they didn’t know that?

Similarly, at the British Library exhibition about Cook’s voyages, I was struck by the naivety of some of the wall labels, like the one which pointed out that:

Violence is part of the story of James Cook’s voyages, as it is of other European expeditions of this era.

What age group would you say that is aimed at? 11 year-olds? 8 year-olds? Surely not the grey-haired old retirees I was surrounded by.

And in case you didn’t know what ‘violence’ means, the display the label refers to contains a musket which, it explains, is a kind of old-fashioned gun. And a ‘gun’ is a ‘weapon’. And ‘weapons’ are often used in ‘violence’. Get it now?

Next to a map which Cook created of Tahiti is another wall label:

Claiming of already populated lands was a common feature of European exploration.

How old do the curators think we are? 11?

This is what I mean when I say that modern, politically correct identity politics/feminism/post-colonial theory can sometimes end up treating its audience like small children, as if they have to explain every aspect of human nature from scratch, as if we’d never heard of same-sex desire, or violence, or colonialism, or slavery before.

Hough assumes we are adults

This is what makes Hough so enjoyable: he treats his readers as adults who know about the world. Thus he takes it for granted that the main entertainment of the tough, illiterate ship’s crew was getting drunk and fighting – which we know about because of the litany of disciplinary measures Cook recorded in his logs.

Prostitutes And Hough expects you to understand that it was standard practice for the 80 or so crew members, whenever they hit land, to go looking women. In Westernised ports like Cape Town or Batavia, this meant prostitutes. In the islands of the Pacific, it meant native women. But this is where the voyages were so memorable for the men because there were well-established traditions of native women happily giving themselves to visiting men – with the full approval of their own menfolk. Which obviously made a big impression on British sailors brought up in our sexually repressed culture.

Tahitian women Thus every landfall in most of the Pacific islands was accompanied by an impressive amount of sexual activity, sometimes in the open, in full view of passersby. Hough, it seems to me, treats us adults who expect rough sailors to behave this way, and so are not as shocked as feminist art curators. Taking the human nature of humans for granted allows Hough to move on to the more interesting aspects and consequences of these cultural encounters, for example the way that many of the English men and native women formed real attachments, which led the women, for example, to follow the ships in canoes when they set sail, and to greet some of the same sailors when they returned three years later, with genuine joy.

A Young Woman of Otaheite bringing a Present. Print of a drawing by expedition artist John Webber (1777)

A Young Woman of Otaheite bringing a Present. Print of a drawing by expedition artist John Webber (1777)

STDs But it also led to the spread of venereal disease and Hough shows how Cook repeatedly tried to establish the origin of these diseases and tried to enforce bans on his own crew when they arrived at new tropical island (like Hawaii, discovered only on the third voyage) to prevent the natives being infected. The failure of Cook’s strict bans, despite being enforced with flogging the sailors, tells us more about the indefatigableness of human nature than all the exhibition wall labels in the world.

Buggery Hough makes only a passing mention of the fact that ‘buggery’ was rife below decks. He takes it for granted that 70 or 80 rough, physically fit men, cooped up in a very small space for long periods, will indulge in sodomy, even though it was forbidden and punishable by lashes of the whip. A very different world from the ‘same sex desires’ of the kind of Bloomsbury ladies depicted in Tate’s Queer British Art but one any man who went to a boys’ school will know about.

The lash Hough assumes that we understand that maintaining discipline among drunk, potentially violent men, required severe physical punishment, namely tying wrong-doers to a wooden frame and whipping their bare backs till they bled. If the member of crew tasked with doing the whipping refused, he too was whipped. Unbelievably harsh to modern thinking, but Hough expects us to have an adult appreciation that most lives, for most of the past, have been bloody and brutal.

Crossing the line I’d forgotten the tradition that when the ship crossed the equator, every crewman and passenger who hadn’t done it before, was locked inside a kind of wooden cage, suspended by rope from a yardarm, and then dropped several times its own height into the speeding waves, so that the man trapped inside was totally submerged, three times. One of the several officers who kept diaries of the voyage remarks how some of the men revelled in demonstrating their toughness, while others were visibly distressed after just the first drop and wept after the second. The tradition continues to this day, though nowadays is an excuse for a party. bring back the dunking cage, I say 🙂

The purpose of history

For me history has at least three purposes.

1. One is as pure entertainment. I bet most people read history books as they read thrillers or rom-coms, for the entertainment, for the characters, for the amazing things people got up to / endured / achieved and so on. There’s as much sex, intrigue and violence in the Tudors as in a Hollywood blockbuster, which is why books and TV shows about Henry VIII never go out of fashion.

2. A second, more straitlaced motive is to understand how we got here today by reading about our forebears in Britain, Europe, America or wherever, to better understand what happened and why it’s led us to the current situation. The ‘those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it’ school of thought. Winston Churchill said that, by the way.

3. But for me there’s also a psychological-cum-moral purpose — which is to expand the reader’s mind and broaden his or her sympathies.

Reading about the past not only often amazes us at how people lived then, what they had to endure, what they achieved despite it all – but also transports us into the minds of people with completely different expectations and values from us. The more effort we make to think ourselves into others’ places, hundreds of years ago, thousands of miles away, the more we exercise our minds and extend our sympathies.

Instead of rushing to judge people of the past according to the values of today, I think it is more profitable to make the imaginative effort of really immersing ourselves in their world and values, the better to understand:

  1. what they believed and why they did what they did
  2. the vastly different technological, economic, social and cultural conditions they lived under
  3. and so to better understand at least part of the tortuous, labyrinthine, and often unexpected ways in which the past has led up to the present

This, in a nutshell, is behind all the different ways I’m opposed to what I’ve, rather simplistically, called political correctness, in history and historical exhibitions. Political correctness rushes to judge people in the past. I think we should be patient and try to understand them on their own terms.

The livestock

I didn’t realise 18th century sailors took so much livestock with them. Many of the sailors had dogs, and Joseph Banks was notorious for his attachment to his two prize greyhounds. But they also took sheep and pigs and goats, partly to butcher and eat, partly to be gifts to native peoples on the other side of the planet, as well as coops of hens to provide fresh eggs. This meant that wherever they stopped to gather wood and water, they also had to cut grass, a lot of grass, solely as provender for the livestock. And imagine clearing up the piles of poo every day!

By the time of the third voyage, King George III, the official sponsor of all of the voyages, had seen and learned about conditions among the native peoples which his expeditions had claimed for the British Crown. Not least because the second voyage brought home Omai, a Pacific Islander Cook had met in Tahiti, and who became the sensation of fashionable London during his two-year stay in Britain (1774-76).

As a result ‘farmer’ George, as he was nicknamed for his interest in improving agriculture in Britain, decided to send the poor benighted Pacific Islanders a suite of farm animals which they could breed up, encouraging them to convert their primitive agriculture into modern, mixed British farming best practice.

Thus Cook found himself lumbered with direct orders from the king to transport a number of sheep, rabbits, a mare, a stallion, a large number of sows and several hogs, two cows with their calves and a bull, to the other side of the world and given as gifts to the king of Tahiti. Plus a peacock and a peahen, special gifts of Baron Ponsonby of Sysonby.

All on a boat little more than 100 foot long!

For the entire three-year duration of the first voyage, the officers’ tea was provided with milk by a goat, who never failed to deliver, day after day, for a thousand days. It survived all the way back to Britain where Joseph Banks bought her a collar to celebrate her achievement, and commissioned a Latin tag to go on the collar from no less a luminary than Dr Johnson, who obliged with:

Perpetua ambita bis terra preamia lactis
Haec habet altrici Capra secunda Jovis

Which roughly translates as:

In fame scarce second to the nurse of Jove
This goat, who twice the world had traversed round,
Deserving both her master’s care and love,
Ease and perpetual pasture now has found.

Death and Captain Cook

Most accounts of Cook’s voyages focus on their scientific achievement, their mapping and charting, their discoveries of ‘new’ lands (new to Europeans), and the first interactions of Westerners with native peoples in a variety of locations, some peaceful, some violent, all of which – in the long run – would disrupt and decimate their societies.

But one way in which a past as remote as 250 years ago is distant from us is in its attitude towards death. The politically correct tend to think that any deaths, indeed any violence carried out by people and regimes from the past, should be judged against the highest standards of modern, peaceable Western society and held to account as in a courtroom.

But it’s not defending the behaviour of anyone in the past to point out that, 250 years ago, death from all sorts of causes was much more common than it is now. The ubiquity of death – the deaths of his own family, of soldiers and sailors he served with, of crewmates and colleagues – all help to explain the sometimes apparently ‘casual’ way Cook and colleagues responded to the deaths of the native peoples they encountered.

So in among the amazing stories, the colourful characters and the breath-taking scenery, I became interested in Hough’s relating of the many deaths which surrounded Cook all his life, and therefore the presence of death as a theme in Captain Cook’s biography.

In fact there are so many deaths sprinkled throughout the book, that I’ve restricted this selection of examples to just the First Voyage.

Death in Cook’s family

  • Cook’s parents, James senior and Grace, had eight children. Four died in childhood, one as he turned 20, leaving only James and two sisters to survive into adult life.
  • Cook had six children with his wife, Elizabeth who lived to the following ages: James 31 (drowned at sea), Nathaniel 16 (lost at sea), Elizabeth 4, Joseph died at 2 weeks, George died at 3 months, Hugh died at 16 of scarlet fever. None of his children lived long enough to have children of their own.

Death in war with France

  • Off Plymouth in 1757 Cook was crew aboard the Eagle which was in a fight with the 50-gun French ship Duc d’Aquitaine, the Eagle‘s cannon killing 50 Frenchmen, their cannon killing 10 of Cook’s shipmates, wounding 80! Imagine the sound and the sights and all the blood and body parts.
  • As warrant officer on the HMS Pembroke Cook observed no fewer than 26 of the crew dying of scurvy with many more ill or permanently incapacitated – as on more or less every European ship sailing any distance during this era.
  • Cook’s ship took part in the siege of Louisbourg, the French fort at the mouth of the St Laurence Waterway in Canada.
  • Cook took part in General Wolfe’s campaign to capture Quebec and therefore Canada and therefore for the British Empire. During the campaign the Pembroke‘s captain died of an unspecified illness, Cook was involved in trying to repel fireships from the British fleet and, in another incident, was laying buoys from a small boat which was ambushed by canoes manned by French soldiers and native Americans fierce for scalps. Cook’s boat only just made it to land ahead of the canoes, where British soldiers scared the French off. During an abortive amphibian landing Cook’s ship was one of several laying down suppressing fire, but when the landing failed had to receive back on board many wounded and dying soldiers.

Death voyage one (1768-71)

  • ‘Peter Flower seaman fell overboard and before any assistance could be given him was drowned’ in Rio da Janeiro harbour (p.84)
  • 16 January 1769 Banks leads a disastrous expedition into the interior of Tierra del Fuego, setting off in fine weather, but getting lost in a maze of small trees as the temperature plummeted, it started to snow, and the beleaguered troop of ten men struggled to stay alive through the night. Artist Alex Buchan had an epileptic fit, but it was Banks’s two black servants, Richmond and Dorlton, who had filched a bottle of brandy, drunk it all and died of exposure. (p.95)
  • After being caught stealing some sealskin his comrades were going to divide up and make into tobacco pouches, quiet 21-year-old marine, William Greenslade killed himself by throwing himself overboard. (p.102)
  • On 15 April 1769 in Matavai Bay on Tahiti, after a couple of days of happy interaction with the local inhabitants, one of them makes a lunge for one of the marine’s muskets and, as he runs off, is hit and killed by a fusillade from the other soldiers. (p.114)
  • In the same day, back on the Endeavour, the artist Alex Buchan has a severe epileptic fit and dies. (p.114 )
  • On 26 June 1769 Cook and senior officers were welcomed by King Tiarreboo who proudly displayed his collection of human jawbones, and they learned that the previous year the King’s army had invaded  the territory of neighbouring Queen Obadia, killing a large number of her subjects, burning down their huts and stealing their livestock. This explained the desolate landscape and piles of bones which Cook and Banks had observed. (p.130)
  • Back at sea, on 27 August, the boatswain’s mate, John Reading of Kinsale, County Cork, drank three half pints of raw rum and died as a result.
  • On 9 October 1769 they landed at a wide bay of what they came to realise was New Zealand. When three Maori warriors approached the landing party and one came forward threatening with his spear, the cox in charge of the boat ordered soldiers to fire over their heads and, when he came very close, at him. Te Maro was the first Maori killed by the British.
  • Next day a Maori whipped the curved sword from the waist of astronomer Green, and the Brits initially fired birdshot which peppered him but, as he ran off, Surgeon Monkhouse fired his musket and killed him.
  • Later the same day, on the way back to the ship, they encountered two rafts paddled by Maoris and tried to corner one in order to take the natives aboard the Endeavour, show them trinkets and prove how friendly we are. But the Maoris put up a stiff resistance, throwing rocks and anything they could reach so that the Brits eventually fired muskets into the canoe, killing four Maoris.
  • 9 November 1769,  in a different bay, while Cook was exploring the man in charge of the landing party, John Gore was trading with natives. When one of them stole a roll of cloth and ran away, Gore levelled his musket and shot him dead. (p.147)
  • 30 April 1770, in Botany Bay Australia, seaman Forby Sutherland died of pneumonia contracted on Tierra del Fuego, the first Briton to die in Australia.

Death in Batavia

In November 1770 the Endeavour reached Batavia, main city of the Dutch East Indies (now Jakarta). They were relieved to see white men and have access to all the joys of civilisation again, after more than a year either at sea or among native peoples, and also relieved to be able to make repairs to the Endeavour which was in poor shape after enduring such a long voyage, and a number of fierce storms.

But it proved to be a fatal stay. Batavia had been laid out in a grid of canals by the Dutch East India Company but these had silted up and become reservoirs for mosquitoes as well as a host of other tropical diseases.

  • ship’s surgeon Bill Monkhouse 5 November died of malaria
  • 11 November the Tahitian native they’d brought along to act as interpreter, Tupia, died, as did his servant, Taita
  • seamen John Reynolds, Irishman Tim Rearden, John Woodman, marines corporal John Truslove, Sydney Parkinson the wonderful artist and illustrator, the Finnish naturalist and artist Spöring, who had been recommended by Linnaeus, John Ravenshill the ship drunk
  • 31 January 1771 ship’s cook John Thompson, carpenter’s mate Benjamin Jordan, and seamen James Nicholson and Archibald Wolfe
  • February 1771 – midshipman John Bootie, gunner’s servant Daniel Roberts, the surgeon’s brother Jonathan Monkhouse, boatswain John Gathrey, marine John Preston, carpenter John Satterly

In all some 34 of the crew died soon, or from lingering effects of disease caught in Batavia on the journey back across the Indian Ocean and up the Atlantic coast of Africa. Both Cook and Banks were laid low for a while with fevers, but recovered. For a man as proud of caring for his men’s health as Cook, it was a devastating blow.

Death and cannibalism

  • 16 January 1770, in a cove on the New Zealand coast, Cook and his translator Tupia are invited to dinner by a Maori family who explain that they are cannibals. A group of enemies had attacked this tribe, seven had been killed and then – eaten. Some of the sailors saw a native eating the meat off a human arm bone. 20 January some Maori canoes come alongside, sporting dried human heads as decoration.

On the second voyage there were two ships, Resolution captained by Cook, and Adventure, captained by Tobias Furneaux. On 17 December 1773 Furneaux sent a cutter with ten men, commanded by midshipman Rowe, to collect wild greens for the crew. It never returned and next day another cutter went in search and, at a beach they’d named Grass Cove, found hundreds of Maoris and the body parts of their colleagues.

Dogs were chewing at the discarded entrails of four or five men, and they found the eyes, hearts, lungs, livers and heads of their comrades … various feet and Rowe’s left hand (identified by its scarred forefinger) roasting on fires or scattered on the ground.

Over the next few years all visits to New Zealand confirmed that the Maori were cannibals who cooked and ate the bodies of the enemies they defeated in battle. Possibly the white men had got angry, maybe fired a few shots, then were lynched. Possibly they interrupted a native religious ceremony, and sparked the wrath of the celebrants. No one will ever know for sure.

The head of a New Zealander by Sydney Parkinson (1773)

The head of a New Zealander by Sydney Parkinson (1773)

But one of the notable aspects of this clash of cultures was the relative restraint the white commanders showed: his men wanted Furneaux to launch a massive bombardment with all the ships canon to devastate the area, but he resisted. Three years later, when Cook returned to the same area on his third expedition, the men again urged their captain to take devastating retaliation but Cook resisted. He even hosted the king of the tribe associated with the murders, Kahura, in his cabin.

Cook’s sense of guilt

This brings out a central thread of the book, which is Cook’s consistent concern to be fair to the natives, to be considerate and courteous, to pay for everything the crews bought, and to submit to quite a few (to him) incomprehensible religious and civic ceremonies. When he discovered crew members ill-treating natives, or when his subordinates were found guilty of shooting natives, Cook was always incensed, and quite a few were punished with floggings.

And yet the book also lists a steady litany of misunderstandings on both sides, and a steady pile of native corpses which builds up. The white men had cannon and muskets. With every misunderstanding which degenerated into violence, the white men (usually) triumphed. And every incident was a nail hammered into Cook’s agonised awareness that although he was carrying out his Majesty’s instructions to the letter, although he conducted his scientific enquiries, collected biological specimens and made endless maps as ordered – that despite all his good intentions, Western contact with First Peoples was fated to be disastrous.

At Ship Cove in New Zealand, in June 1773, Cook wrote in his Journal of the native Maori:

To our shame as civilized Christians, we debauch their morals already too prone to vice, and we introduce among them wants and perhaps disease which they never before knew and which serve only to disturb that happy tranquility which they and their forefathers enjoyed. If anyone denies the truth of this assertion, let him tell me what the natives of the whole extent of America have gained by the commerce they have had with Europeans. (quoted p.264)

And it was, of course, disastrous for Cook himself, who was cut down in Kealakekua Bay, on Hawai’i island, as a result of a series of cultural misunderstandings with the islanders, which escalated into a bloodbath, described in harrowing detail by Hough on pages 412 to 427.

Cook’s brutal murder stands to this day as a symbol of the tragic ease with which minor cultural confusions can escalate into mass murder, and a gory prophecy of all the massacres which were to follow.

The death of Captain James Cook, 14 February 1779 by Johann Zoffany

The death of Captain James Cook, 14 February 1779 by Johann Zoffany

Cook is cooked

After the fight ashore in which Cook and four marines were stabbed and hacked to death, one of the two boats bombarded the shore while Captain Clerke, taking command, evacuated the remaining men ashore. Some of the chiefs, forlorn at Cook’s murder, promised to reclaim his body for the white men. But next day all they were able to offer was some cooked flesh from Cook’s body and some bones.

This gave rise to the enduring myth that Cook was eaten by cannibals.

No – the Hawaiian Islanders who killed Captain Cook were not cannibals. They believed that the power of a man was in his bones, so they cooked part of Cook’s body to enable the bones to be easily removed. It was the cooking of his body which gave rise to the rumour of cannibalism.

A week after his death, what remains of Cook had been recovered (being the captain’s hands, the scalp, the skull, the leg bones, lower jaw and feet, p.433) were buried at sea in Kealakekua Bay, Hawaii, Captain Clerke assumed command but soon died of tuberculosis and the expedition was commanded for another fourteen months by the American John Gore, and navigated by 28-year-old martinet and expert chart-maker, William Bligh. They sailed north to chart the Sandwich Islands in greater detail, and then all the way north to Alaska to have another – futile – attempt to find the mythical North-West passage.

Elizabeth Cook

His wife, Elizabeth Cook, survived not only her husband by 56 years (he died in 1779, she died in 1835) but all of their children who died young, the three eldest sons aged 31, 16 and 16. On four days a year, the deathdays of her husband and three boys, she fasted and spent the day reading the Bible, and, according to the memoirs of her second cousin:

like many widows of sailors, she could never sleep in high wind for thinking of the men at sea. (p.444)

This may be an old-fashioned book, but partly for that reason, it is sympathetic and moving.


Related links

Australia’s Impressionists @ the National Gallery

This is a very enjoyable, relaxing, easy-going exhibition. It’s small, with fewer than 50 works on display and a relatively short audioguide with only 15 items, meaning there is time to read and look and absorb all the works and then to stroll back through picking out favourites and re-examining them closely.

Australia’s impressionists

‘Australia’s Impressionists’ brings together paintings by three late-Victorian artists – Tom Roberts, Arthur Streeton and Charles Conder – who used new European ideas of painting in the open air to capture the urban and rural landscape of Australia. Their open air practice and the often quick, blurred finish of the works led to them being called ‘Australia’s impressionists’. They are joined here by a fourth Australian artist, John Russell, who spent most of his adult life in France, where he became friends with leading artists such as Monet and van Gogh, developing a genuinely European impressionist style and was even mentor to the young Matisse.

Tom Roberts (1856-1931)

Roberts was in fact born in England – in Dorchester, Dorset to be precise. His family emigrated to Australia in 1869. He returned to England to study art from 1881 to 1884 before returning to establish himself in ‘marvellous’ Melbourne in 1885. The wall label explains that Melbourne was an economic and social phenomenon, having grown from a few shacks in 1800 to become the second largest city in the British Empire by the 1880s, with bustling docks, warehouses and busy streets teeming with soldiers, shopkeepers, sheepfarmers and well-dressed ladies.

Thus one of the most arresting images in the show is Roberts’ Allegro con brio, Bourke Street West, an immense panorama of one of the busiest streets in Melbourne. The palette of duck egg blue for the sky overwhelmed by the sandy orange of the streets and buildings makes a tremendous impact as a depiction of an authentic Australian urban scene. But the title is important and symptomatic, too. Roberts had just returned from 4 years in London where he was much influenced by the Aestheticism of James McNeill Whistler, the pioneering American painter who gave his paintings titles from musical terminology like ‘Symphony’ and ‘Harmony’.

Although they were determined to paint the Australian scene, all three of these artists saw it with eyes conditioned by the latest developments in European art.

Allegro con brio, Bourke Street West by Tom Roberts (1885-6, reworked 1890) © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra and the National Library of Australia, Canberra

Allegro con brio, Bourke Street West (1885-6, reworked 1890) by Tom Roberts © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra and the National Library of Australia, Canberra

While in London Roberts painted the city in a kind of foggy, blurry style which recalls Monet’s London paintings (e.g. The Thames at Westminster (Westminster Bridge) 1871). These made a big impression on his contemporaries and several examples are included here. (My favourite one dates from a later visit to London but is a splendidly evocative miniature of the base of Nelson’s Column in Trafalgar Square – all the more so since the visitor to this exhibition has just walked past this very scene.)

Trafalgar Square (1904) by Tom Roberts © Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide

Trafalgar Square (1904) by Tom Roberts © Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide

9 by 5 Impression Exhibition

In August 1889 Roberts helped to organise an exhibition of works by himself and colleagues in Melbourne. It was titled the ‘9 by 5 Impression Exhibition’ because many of the works were painted on the 9-inch by 5-inch lids of cigar boxes, an easy resource for poor artists. Although small, the sheer number of works (180-plus) in such a consistently shaky, blurry, swift, impressionistic style, made a big impact on critics (who didn’t like it) and fellow artists (who did). In some accounts the show is credited with marking the start of a genuinely Australian art. It was also distinctive for its fin-de-siecle and Aesthetic trimmings, with the walls of the gallery swathed in Liberty silks and the works bordered by large blocky frames, often painted a kind of modernist metallic tint.

Roberts brought back from Europe this taste for painting en plein air and did much to encourage friends and colleagues to do likewise, and to consciously depict the Australian scenery and life. He set up artists’ ‘camps’ in rural locations a train ride from Sydney or Melbourne (just as the French impressionists used the new suburban train network to go out to the suburbs of Paris to paint semi-rural scenes) although the commentary wryly points out that they weren’t exactly primitive, the one at Box Hill near Sydney having a separate ‘dining tent’ and even a piano installed.

As you explore the exhibition more you understand why the 9 to 5 works are placed right at the start – small, fleeting ‘impressions’ of urban scenes they may be, but they soon give way to large and sometimes enormous works depicting the countryside near Melbourne and Sydney.

Given that sheep farming was one of the fundamental activities in Australia it’s striking how few images of it there are in the exhibition. A Google search shows that Roberts did do many sheep-related paintings, including ones of herding and shearing, but there’s only one here, a big and dramatic composition, Break away! in which the mounted farmer is trying to stop sheep bolting for a dried-up waterhole during a drought.

A Break Away! by Tom Roberts (1891) © Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide

A Break Away! (1891) by Tom Roberts © Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide

This is a strikingly naturalistic work, concerned to give a realistic depiction of every detail, for example of the horse’s sweating coat, the cowboy’s lean, his braces, every detail of the fence. It’s great fun but it isn’t really impressionism.

Charles Conder (1868-1909)

Conder was also born in England, in Tottenham, north London. After a boyhood in India he was sent to Australia in 1884. In 1888 he moved to Melbourne where he met Roberts and Streeton. A notable early work is Departure of the Orient – Circular Quay. Note the high vantage point, as used by Roberts in the Bourke Street painting, the smudginess of the clouds and smoke from steamships, the sheen of rain on the dockside. But I saw more of L.S. Lowry in this work than Monet.

Departure of the Orient – Circular Quay by Charles Conder (1888) © Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney

Departure of the Orient – Circular Quay (1888) by Charles Conder © Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney

In fact Conder went back to Europe in 1890, never to return to Australia, and became deeply involved in the Aesthetic movement, mixing with leading artists and writers of the day including Henri Toulouse-Lautrec, Oscar Wilde and Aubrey Beardsley. Critics consider his later period less convincing than the earlier Australian paintings. Conder took part in the rural painting camps organised by Roberts outside Sydney or Melbourne. Towards the end of the show there’s a sequence of works by all three artists depicting beaches outside Sydney. Conder produced this work which became quite famous.

Points of interest include:

  • the text on the building at the right being cut off, as in contemporary photographs or the paintings of Degas who enjoyed chopping off objects mid-frame
  • the image is dominated not by a long sweeping beach but by the man-made walkway or bridge – bridges loom large in the works of the French impressionists and Whistler did a series depicting bridges of London in different moods
  • the (to us) absurd formality of these Victorian ladies and gents. The commentary picks up on Conder’s characteristic use of pink in the discarded parasol, ladies’ hat and newspaper held by the lying figure – I was more struck by the intense blackness of the top hat and the couple behind one of the bridge supports
A Holiday at Mentone by Charles Conder (1888) © Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide

A Holiday at Mentone (1888) by Charles Conder © Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide

Arthur Streeton (1867-1943)

Streeton was actually born in Australia, unlike the previous two who migrated there. The paintings of his here are among the largest, and the most evocative of rural Australia. This dramatic depiction of a mine works on what looks like a blisteringly hot day is initially striking for its scale, for the portrait format and for the brilliance with which he creates the slabby effect of hard rocks. It takes a while to focus on the small humans down at the entrance of the mine, and to realise that they are bringing out of an injured miner on a stretcher.

Fire’s On by Arthur Streeton (1891) © Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney

Fire’s On (1891) by Arthur Streeton © Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney

Streeton’s work is possibly the most accessible and enjoyable of the three. The second room of the show features a number of his really large paintings of rural Australia which make it look like paradise. Golden Summer was painted when he was just 21! painted at the artists’ camp at Heidelberg, outside Sydney, set up by him and Roberts. It was the first painting by an Australian-born artist to be exhibited at both the Royal Academy in London, in 1890, and the Paris Salon the following year, where it won an award. A reproduction can’t convey the size and the sheer sensual pleasure of this astonishingly assured masterpiece.

Golden Summer, Eaglemont by Arthur Streeton (1889) © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra

Golden Summer, Eaglemont (1889) by Arthur Streeton © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra

Nationalism

The commentary points out that the states of Australia only came together to form a nation in 1901. The late 19th century was a great era of nationalism in politics, an interest or concern or issue which spilled over into art, music and literature. And so, for Australian politicians, commentators and artists, there was a lot of debate about what made it a nation, what was ‘Australian-ness’ etc. The commentary points all this out but it would have been good to have more from the artists or maybe contemporary commentators on what they thought Australian-ness consisted of, what they thought the distinctive features of the Australian landscape, or light, or flora consisted of.

A handful of beach paintings are brought together later in the exhibition to show the distinctive white sand of beaches outside Sydney. But in fact one of the most striking things about the show is how European most of these paintings looked to me. My early impressions of Australia were formed by movies, specifically Nicolas Roeg’s Walkabout (1971) and Peter Weir’s Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975), or the TV series Skippy the Bush Kangaroo (1968-70). Desert and drought and hard red rock, or lush sub-tropical suburbia.

Works like Streeton’s ‘Still glides the stream, and shall for ever glide’ (painted when he was just 22) are lovely but don’t look anything like the Australia I grew up seeing. It could be somewhere in the Cotswolds. The fact that the title is a quote from Wordsworth emphasises the Englishness of the imagination which is creating it.

'Still glides the stream, and shall for ever glide’ (1890) by Arthur Streeton © Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney

‘Still glides the stream, and shall for ever glide’ (1890) by Arthur Streeton © Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney

Naturalism

The entire exhibition is premised on identifying these artists as impressionists but I wondered. They remind me less of their French contemporaries and more of late-Victorian English naturalistic painters, as can be seen at the wonderful Guildhall Gallery. A painting like Golden Summer is not unlike some of George Clausen’s bucolic scenes of rural England.

How much these paintings are not really that impressionist is highlighted by the fourth member of the show –

John Russell (1858-1930)

Russell left Australia when he was 22, travelling to France where he made friends with the major painters of the day, including Monet and van Gogh. The section of 10 of his paintings here are completely unlike the preceding three artists.

In the Morning, Alpes Maritimes from Antibes by John Russell (1890-1) © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra

In the Morning, Alpes Maritimes from Antibes (1890-91) by John Russell © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra

Now this has the full French impressionist feel, vague and blurry blobs of very light and bright colours used loosely to create an impression of a scene. Also no people – unlike all the examples above. Streeton, Roberts and Conder also depicted people-less landscapes, but they are concerned with accurately depicting it, whereas Russell seems much more interested in playing with the possibilities of oil paint and colour – pushing, stretching and experimenting.

This can be seen in his many paintings of the Breton coastline where he settled and lived for decades. Here he used Monet’s tactic of painting the same scene multiple times at different times of day to capture different light and mood, in this example the cluster of rocks off the Breton coast named Aiguille de Coton.

Aiguille de Coton, Belle-Île (about 1890) by John Russell. Kerry Stokes Collection, Perth © Acorn Photo, Perth

Aiguille de Coton, Belle-Île (about 1890) by John Russell. Kerry Stokes Collection, Perth © Acorn Photo, Perth

As might be expected from a friend of van Gogh’s, Russell experiments with oil paint to express not what he literally saw in front of him but the psychological impact of colour. Similarly the big crude super-obvious brushstrokes are designed to emphasise the paintwork itself rather than the ‘subject’.

Russell’s bold colour experiments led to his work being included alongside those of André Derain and Maurice de Vlaminck in the 1905 exhibition at the Salon d’Automne in Paris. A critic wrote that the works looked like they had been painted by ‘wild things’ or fauves in French, and this nickname was quickly applied to the movement which became known as Fauvism.

Russell’s section of the exhibition shows us hard-core French impressionism morphing into post-impressionism. One of the curators makes the case – in the very informative film which accompanies the exhibition and runs in a projection room off to one side – that Russell deserves to be better known and included in our accounts of late impressionism. Without doubt. But if you then walk out of his rather dazzling section and back past the restrained realistic works of Streeter, Conder and Roberts it makes you question the label ‘impressionism’ as applied to them. Plein air naturalism might be closer.

Ariadne

One of the most evocative images in the show is Streeton’s fabulous Ariadne (1895). For once this feels like a landscape which is impossible to confuse with England or even Europe. It could be a Mediterranean sky but the red rocks on the horizon and the mottled eucalyptus trees clearly indicate the Antipodes. No reproduction can convey the intimacy and power of this painting.

The commentary points out that it is typical of the French symbolism of the 1890s to deploy a mysterious, generally female, figure to point and focus a landscape, as is done here. But it’s only if you get really close to the painting’s surface that you can see details like the way the sandy beach is achieved by broad horizontal brushstrokes whereas the woman’s figure is made by vertical brushstrokes, as is the white of the tumbling surf. Or the way the vertical sweeps of the dress merge into the beach. The branches of the tree on the left are achieved with just one or two confident strokes. It is an astonishing masterpiece, and no surprise that this image was chosen for the posters and publicity for the exhibition.

Ariadne (1895) by Arthur Streeton © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra

Ariadne (1895) by Arthur Streeton © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra

Conclusion

This is a lovely exhibition, full of what’s-not-to-like images of turn-of-the-century Australia, urban and rural, and shedding light on a quartet of artists who are well worth knowing about.


The video

Most galleries nowadays produce at least one video about their exhibitions.

Related links

Reviews of other National Gallery exhibitions

Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World by Niall Ferguson (2004)

Sir Richard Turnbull, the penultimate Governor of Aden, once told Labour politician Denis Healey that, “when the British Empire finally sank beneath the waves of history, it would leave behind it only two monuments: one was the game of Association Football, the other was the expression ‘Fuck off’.” (p.365)

Niall Ferguson is a bit of a rock star among historians – youngish, good looking in a rugged Scottish way, he’s been the presenter of a number of TV history series for Channel 4, writes combative articles for newspapers and magazines here and in the States, has been a contributing editor to Newsweek, the Daily Telegraph and the Financial Times, has actively helped US Presidential campaigns, appears regularly as a pundit on TV shows – all logged and available on his busy website.

Three things make him stand out:

1. He is an economic historian He has an impressive grasp of the economic and banking and business aspects of history. Most history books rely on government and administrative documents and interpret policy in terms of political parties or the individual psychology of a Disraeli or Churchill, with a smattering of culture (quoting poems) thrown in. For their part, most economic historians are dry specialists, working deep in the bowels of Treasury or corporate archives to produce very technical tracts.

But in the book which brought him to general attention, The Pity of War, Ferguson combined his economic perspective with a popular style and approach, taking a detailed look at defence budgets, steel production, armaments output and so on, to present the Great War from a purely economic point of view, resulting in a number of surprising insights & conclusions.

Ferguson’s unique selling point is his ability to cut through political discourse to show the economic realities – the profit and loss, the problems of issuing bonds, obtaining credit, securing loans, paying back interest, finding new markets, keeping down overheads – the sheer business of the Empire, and the challenges it threw up and the difficult decisions political and business leaders had to take as a result.

2. He is an unashamed capitalist He’s not a Marxist or a socialist or a liberal, he isn’t into cultural studies or feminism or post-colonial studies, as so many contemporary historians are. He is an unabashed Thatcherite capitalist. He has been employed by New York investment banks and has worked for Republican presidential candidates. Despite its obvious inequalities, he defends free market capitalism as the bringer of prosperity and freedom to all the countries which embrace it. After all – look at the alternatives.

3. He is a populist Three of his books are based on Channel 4 TV series which he wrote and presented – this history of the British Empire, another on the Rise of America, and the third on reasons why the West beat the Rest to world domination (all handily available to view on YouTube). He is not shy of tackling the Big Subjects.

Having worked for Channel 4 myself, I know that they value controversy above anything else, they like to encourage contrary and unexpected viewpoints, they like to feel they are stimulating debate. Ferguson, with his confidently conservative views, his brash way with economic statistics, and his Celtic good looks (it is a visual medium, after all) was perfectly placed to present the series and write the books on these epic subjects. He will have mapped out the overall approach or message – broken it down into hour-long episodes / chapters, which are built around key (ideally, controversial and ‘against received opinion’) propositions. Then teams of assistants will have been despatched to assemble the material required to fill them out. ‘We want striking locations, powerful stories, strong messages!’

This, the first of the three books-of-the-series, is hugely enjoyable, fluently written, full of deliberate provocations and journalistic summaries, pithy phrase-making and telling stories (I liked his quip that if Britain was a nation of shopkeepers, Australia started out as a nation of shoplifters) – liberally studded with graphs and diagrams displaying impressive-looking arrays of figures for the economically illiterate. It is designed to impress and persuade a broad popular audience, of which I am one.

Empire is a solid-looking Penguin paperback of medium length for such a vast subject (380 pages) and divided into six chapters which summarise the narrative arc of the story – Why Britain?, White Plague, The Mission, Heaven’s Breed, Maxim Force, Empire For Sale.

The British Empire A Good Thing

The biographical background sketched above helps to explain why Ferguson’s history ruggedly and abrasively declares the British Empire was a Good Thing. It had its fair share of atrocities, terrible behaviour, oppression and subjugation. But overall, on balance, from a high-level perspective, Ferguson in his Introduction asserts the British Empire was a civilising, globalising influence, and then spends the rest of the book going into detail to back his assertions.

The Empire was a good thing because it:

  1. Imposed free market capitalism around the globe, encouraging the free movement of goods, capital and labour on a vast scale.
  2. Spread the rule of law, specifically English common law, fairer, quicker, more efficient than other systems.
  3. Spread English forms of land tenure, which encouraged investment and development.
  4. Spread representative democracy: this has survived in eg India, to the ex-colonies’ lasting benefit.
  5. Spread the idea of a small, incorrupt state: its critics may have criticised Imperial administrators for arrogance and sometimes criminal neglect; but they weren’t venal and corrupt, and the administration was astonishingly small: at its height, the Indian Empire of 250 million was administered by a civil service of 1,000.
  6. Spread the English language.
  7. Spread Anglican Protestantism.

British ideals

Lastly, he emphasises the way the Empire disseminated English ideas of personal liberty. Critics immediately reply, ‘How could an Empire devoted to freedom have made so much money out of slavery?’ Ferguson doesn’t underplay the cruelty or neglect of the Imperial authorities. There are strong passages about slavery, including his description of visiting the slave cells on the West coast of Africa. But the history of the Empire can be split into two parts, Slavery and post-Slavery. Anybody who condemns the British Empire for its use of slavery needs to be reminded that it was the British who were the first nation anywhere in the world to outlaw the slave trade (1808), to abolish slavery altogether (1833), and then to enforce that ban on other nations. The Americans, famously, fought to defend Slavery into the 1850s.

Ferguson makes the profound point that, no matter how rapacious, violent or unjust its activities abroad, there was always a strong party at home which tried to hold the Imperialists to account against the highest standards. Even if the ideal of liberty was betrayed again and again in practice, it was nonetheless an ideal that a significant number of Britons aspired to, and the anti-slavery movement is proof of its power. (After all, a generation earlier, the American colonists had rebelled against their king in the name of a higher ideal than monarchy, in the name of Freedom, and a lot of 18th century Englishmen sympathised with them.) Thus, throughout the nineteenth century, economic and political Liberals criticised the idea and the implementation of Empire, against a range of higher ideals about freedom and national independence.

It was the very power of this British notion of liberty, holding the Empire’s rulers to account against nobler ideals, which meant the Empire’s days were always numbered. By about 1900, as domestic discourse became divided between shrill Imperialists (Kipling, Rhodes) and even shriller opponents (Gladstone’s heirs like John Hobson, author of the stinging critique, Imperialism) the whole idea of Empire was becoming difficult to defend, when it was dealt a body blow by the stupidity of the Boer War.

The alternative empires

The grossest, the most obvious defence of the British Empire is – Look at the alternatives. Empire critics tend to base arguments on the notion that, if the British hadn’t arrived, the ‘native’ red Indians, or Indians or Africans or Maoris or Aborigenes would have continued living their environmentally-friendly, spiritual lives. But no they wouldn’t have. They would have been colonised by the Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch, French, or God forbid, the Belgians or Germans. And, after the Great War, in the 1930s, the new empires were the totalitarian ones of the Japanese, the Russians and the Nazis. Without a shadow of a doubt, much much worse.

The Soviet Union, the Nazis, the fascist Japanese did not emphasise the rule of law, did not have powerful parties at home holding the Imperialists to account. Critics of their totalitarian policies were shot. Opponents in colonised countries were shot. Anyone complaining about British rule in the 1930s should spend a few minutes reading about the Japanese Rape of Nanking, or the way Germany behaved in its new East European colonies after 1939.

The economic end of empire

Ferguson is perhaps deliberately controversial, when he asserts that what ended the British Empire wasn’t the various rag-tag nationalist movements which agitated in their countries (Sinn Fein, the Indian Congress, Mau Mau) it was that in a few short years Britain comprehensively bankrupted itself fighting off other empires which were significantly worse, undoubtedly evil.

He gives pages of figures showing the collapse of Britain’s economy in the 20th century, begun in the Great War and ruined in the second. We were only able to continue fighting after 1940 because of huge American loans. Whatever the military or diplomatic facade, the baton for policing the world and combating evil empires had been handed on to America, an America reluctant to take on the role.

How the British made the modern world

Despite listing the things the British Empire gave to the 25% of the world it governed, I thought the book didn’t really address its subtitle, ‘How the British made the modern world’. In the introduction and again in the conclusion, Ferguson repeats the roll call listed above, but I don’t think that’s quite the same as showing how Britain made the modern world. All kinds of other things made the modern world as well. Oil. Coffee. Cars. Airplanes. Computers. Some Brits might have had a hand in some of them, but so did Germans, French, Americans.

Instead, the lion’s share of the text is taken up with a fairly traditional narrative of the key events in the Empire’s history, with a kind of running economic commentary. Insofar as it is a chronological narrative, it covers an awful lot of familiar ground, albeit littered with entertaining stories and stunning stats. So we get:

  • The early years, the Elizabethan settlements in Ireland and America.
  • A history of the East India Company as it takes over pieces of India piecemeal, fights off the French, in the 1700s, develops its own army.
  • The Slave Trade: the triangle of trade taking slaves to Africa, sugar from the Caribbean to Britain, then gewgaws to buy more slaves back in West Africa, from the 1600s until  the rise of the Evangelical anti-Slavery movement in the 1790s.
  • As we move into the Victorian era, the narrative thickens, becomes slower and more detailed, as:
    • Britain invents loads of stuff, better maps, theodolites, the steamship, the steam engine, iron, coking coal, factories, the telegraph – and sends explorers deeper into Africa.
    • The Indian Mutiny (1856) transforms Imperial power in India from its old relaxed amateurish basis, onto a more formal, hierarchical affair.
  • And thickens further in the era of High Imperialism from the 1880s onwards, as we fought small wars all across Africa and northern India – the era of the Great Game, Kipling, Pomp and Circumstance etc etc.
  • Then the twin catastrophes of the Boer War which sowed the seeds of doubt about the morality of the whole thing, and then the catastrophe of the Great War.
  • The odd twilight between the wars when we still had an Empire, in fact it reached its widest geographical extent, but somehow nobody took it seriously any more, except pompous administrators collecting gongs.
  • And then the hurried decolonisation between 1947 and the 1960s, marred by last-minute crackdowns in Cyprus, Malaysia, Kenya.

An over-familiar story?

A lot if not all of this is familiar from other books I’ve read, like Robert Hughes’ harrowing history of Australia, The Fatal Shore (1986), Robin Blackburn’s The Making of New World Slavery (1997), Thomas Pakenham’s The Scramble For Africa (1991), Lawrence James’s The Rise and Fall of the British Empire (1994), The Crisis of Imperialism by Richard Shannon (1974), Jan Morris’s Pax Britannica trilogy (1968–78), Eric Hobsbawm’s The Age of Empire 1875-1914 (1987).

Like these predecessors Ferguson takes this well-worn story and tries to make it new by studding it with telling anecdotes or accounts of significant figures, garnished by sections on the economics of imperial trade or slavery or the East India Company etc. These economic sections, frequent though they are, somehow don’t have the same impact. A graph about, say, English net migration 1601-1801, while mildly interesting, has little or no impact compared to the 40 or more pages he devotes to a long biographical sketch of David Livingstone, from his impoverished childhood, through his training as a doctor and missionary, and then a thorough account of his adult explorations. Or the long account of Indian Viceroy Lord Curzon, seen as epitomising the cultural moment of high Imperial pomp in India.

Imperial legacy?

In this book and in the Tate Britain exhibition about Artist and Empire I went to recently, I read that the legacy of Empire is ‘all around us’. Hmm. I don’t really agree. My daily commute to Clapham Common, travelling by Tube to Old Street, walking through dirty streets to a 1970s concrete tower block where I work for part of the NHS – not much of that strikes me as a legacy of the British Empire. It all happens to take place in the capital city of the same country, but none of those things were created by or for the British Empire. (Indeed, Ferguson points out that the cost of the NHS and the new welfare state, created after the Second World War, was one of the reasons running an empire became unaffordable.)

To me the most obvious and by far the most important legacy of the British Empire is America. America is the world’s superpower. We founded it, gave it its language, religion and political ideals, and then it grew up and went its own way.

The next most important thing we gave the world was the Industrial Revolution: coal and iron and steam power, railways, electricity, the telegraph and telephone, preparing the way for the oil economy – cars, airplanes and computers. These are the real and immediate physical and technological presences in the life of me and most Londoners. The fact that Indians have parliamentary democracy or Ghana’s judges wear British wigs or Australians play cricket are nice aspects of the world, but as irrelevant to me as the statues of all the generals and viceroys who line Whitehall.

Grace notes

In such a densely researched account, packed with stories, quotes, biographical accounts, facts and figures about such a vast undertaking over such a long period, a number of thoughts stood out, things I never knew or had forgotten, twists or turns in the familiar story:

  • The composer of the hymn Amazing Grace, John Newton, became a slaving captain after his born-again religious conversion.
  • Obviously I knew about David Livingstone: I didn’t know (or had forgotten) that Livingstone’s explorations were based on an economic theory ie mid-Victorian laissez-faire capitalism. Livingstone was a life-long opponent of slavery but he completely failed to make Christian converts among the Africans he visited or to persuade the African and Arab slavers to cease trading. Therefore, he switched his activities to a messianic mission to ‘open up’ Africa, to carve trade routes into deepest Africa, in the belief that, once British traders and businesses could be persuaded to set up trading posts, to start to grow coffee or cotton or whatever in the areas he opened up, free trade would kill off the slave trade. It would simply become more profitable to let Africans do honest labour in their own regions and rake in a profit, than to capture them and drag them down to Zanzibar in chains.
  • By the 1830s and 1840s 40% of the total value of Indian exports took the form of opium. The fact of the Opium Wars against China in which we stole Shanghai and Hong Kong never ceases to amaze me.
  • The very Evangelical Christians who powered the anti-slavery cause and successfully abolished the slave trade, then set their sights on converting the heathen in India, but the rapid growth of missionary societies and missionaries in the field trying to convert Hindus and Muslims was to have a disastrous result. Ferguson says that one of the main contributory factors of the Indian Mutiny was that the soldiers of the Indian Army felt their religion was under threat from the floods of missionaries.
  • The Indian Army was a vital support of the Empire. By the 1880s 62% of all the soldiers of the Queen were Indian. In autumn 1914 about a third of British forces in Flanders were from India. By the war’s end a million Indians had served, as much as the four white Dominions put together.

The Channel 4 TV series

Related links

Bibliography

1995 Paper and Iron: Hamburg Business and German Politics in the Era of Inflation, 1897–1927
1998 The Pity of War
1998 The World’s Banker: The History of the House of Rothschild
1999 Virtual History: Alternatives and Counterfactuals
2001 The Cash Nexus: Money and Power in the Modern World, 1700–2000
2003 Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World
2004 Colossus: The Rise and Fall of the American Empire
2005 1914
2006 The War of the World: History’s Age of Hatred
2008 The Ascent of Money: A Financial History of the World
2010 High Financier: The Lives and Times of Siegmund Warburg
2011 Civilization: The West and the Rest
2013 The Great Degeneration
2015 Kissinger: 1923–1968: The Idealist

Indigenous Australia @ the British Museum

‘The first major exhibition in the UK to present a history of Indigenous Australia through objects’

1. Artefacts

In three medium-sized rooms The BP exhibition, Indigenous Australia: enduring civilisation, packs scores and scores of artworks and artefacts designed to illustrate and illuminate the history of the indigenous peoples of Australia. A timeline on the wall starts 60,000 years ago with the first evidence of humans on the continent, proceeds to the first artefacts and art some 40,000 years ago (at a time when Neanderthals were still living alongside homo sapiens in Britain), among much other evidence that Indigenous Australian is the longest continuous, unbroken culture anywhere in the world.

A huge map of Australia on the wall shows the patchwork of tribes and peoples which covered this vast country – the size of Europe – and, when the Europeans arrived, home to some 1 million Indigenous people speaking an estimated 250 separate languages.

From the BM’s collection of 6,000 Australian objects, this exhibition showcases a range of bowls, masks, spearheads, boomerangs, pendants, belts, shields, shell ornaments, speartips, generally dating from the Early Colonial Period (1770-1850) when missionaries and explorers began to collect them, most beautifully crafted and decorated with very appealing abstract and geometric designs.

Standout objects included a 5-foot-long crocodile ‘mask’ designed to be worn on the head and a small (6 inch square), wonderfully evocative head and shoulders carved out of coral.

Mask in the form of a human face and a bonito fish, Attributed to Kuduma, Murala.  Turtle shell, goa nut, cassowary feather, shell. Nagir, Torres Strait, Queensalnd, Australia before 1888.  © The Trustees of the British Museum.

Mask in the form of a human face and a bonito fish, Attributed to Kuduma, Murala. Turtle shell, goa nut, cassowary feather, shell. Nagir, Torres Strait, Queensalnd, Australia before 1888. © The Trustees of the British Museum.

2. Art

Interspersed with these generally anonymous folk artefacts were large, sometimes very large, paintings by named and much more contemporary aboriginal artists. Almost without exception these were stunningly beautiful and inspiring. The artists included:

They are generally acrylic paint on canvas and there are enough of them, showing enough similarities in style, to have become known as ‘desert paintings’. (There are photos showing the large canvases laid out on a patch of desert and being worked on by one or several artists simultaneously with wide open spaces in the background.) They show abstract patterns derived from natural objects or creatures, but converted into flat panels covered in geometric patterns.There is no attempt at naturalism, they are not confined or trapped by Western notions of perspective or the notion that a painting must be a ‘window on the world’.

‘Kungkarangkalpa’; Kunmanara Hogan, Tjaruwa Woods, Yarangka Thomas, Estelle Hogan, Ngalpingka Simms and Myrtle Pennington (2013) Acrylic on canvas © The artists, courtesy Spinifex Arts Project.

‘Kungkarangkalpa’; Kunmanara Hogan, Tjaruwa Woods, Yarangka Thomas, Estelle Hogan, Ngalpingka Simms and Myrtle Pennington (2013) Acrylic on canvas
© The artists, courtesy Spinifex Arts Project.

I really liked the way the patterning suggests geometric regularity but is never actually exact, always has an organic-feeling variety and fluidity in its lines and circles, its matrices and swirls. And I loved the use of stippling, large dots of coloured paint to create a mosaic affect.

A century ago most Westerners lived in a post-Renaissance visual world, inculcated to think of ‘Art’ as depictions of heroic white men and docile gauze-veiled women (as exemplified in the recent exhibition at Leighton House). It took decades, maybe a century, of Modernism, the influence of Picasso and his generation breaking free from Renaissance traditions and taking inspiration from South Sea Island masks and African carvings to teach us how to see beauty in art which bears little or no relation to the stifling realism of the Western tradition, and to enjoy images like this for their confidence and imaginative power.

As well as examples of this ‘desert painting’ style, there were other bang up-to-date art works:

James Cook - with the Declaration; Vincent Namatjira (b.1983) South Australia (2014) Acrylic on canvas © Vincent Namatjira

James Cook – with the Declaration; Vincent Namatjira (b.1983)
South Australia (2014)
Acrylic on canvas © Vincent Namatjira

  • James Cook with declaration by Vincent Namatjira (2014) a large naive-style painting of Captain Cook holding a big white document representing the law by which the white man will steal the land
  • Undiscovered #4 by Michael Cook (2010) a large print of a photo of a beach showing a Captain Cook-era sailing ship anchored and a man in 18th century British Army uniform standing on the beach – except it is an aborigine in the uniform
  • Barama/Captain Cook by Gawirrin 1 Gumana (b.1935)  a large ‘totem pole’ type pole covered in painted patterns with two heads at the top representing Cook and a native god, Barama

And the Museum has commissioned works specifically for this show from Indigenous artists, including two from Judy Watson (b.1959) – the holes in the land 3 and the holes in the land 4 – in which she’s taken floor plans of the current museum and of the museum extension, created standard-size framed prints of the plans, then given them a wash of colour and superimposed on them the outlines of large dark Indigenous artefacts, in the first case, piturri bags.

3. Aboriginal beliefs

A large video screen just inside the door showed a montage of shots of contemporary Australia, breath-taking landscapes, the beaches and sea and islands, mysterious tree-fringed rivers and wide expanses of red desert dotted with spinifax plants, and then humans, the white world of highways and cars and shopping malls, and groups of aboriginals together in camps, painting young boys’ bodies with traditional designs, and the sound of flies in the desert.

Bark painting of a barramundi.  Western Arnhem Land, about 1961  © The Trustees of the British Museum.

Bark painting of a barramundi.
Western Arnhem Land, about 1961
© The Trustees of the British Museum.

Against this visual and aural backdrop the wall labels and audio commentary didn’t attempt a summary of aboriginal beliefs but dropped insights. Not least because Aboriginal religion or traditional beliefs stretch the western mind, their traditions and holistic mindset completely different from our crisp, clearly demarcated divisions of meaning. I don’t pretend to understand it but it includes:

  • the importance of ‘country’ or the land
  • really ancient traditions and stories stretching back thousands of years
  • the songlines and dreamworld, a difficult concept to grasp, to do with the way the ancestors walked through the land and called it into being, called the animals and flora into existence, and the trails and tracks they left across the land which record these legends…

Something which struck me is the way the songlines stretch right across the land and are shared by different groups, so that someone walking them has to pass on to a different song in a different language to continue the journey. Different tribes and sub-tribes inhabited specific areas, but there was much migration and movement, and people could travel freely across the country.

In a small but, I think, significant way this sharing and overlap is exemplified in some of the desert paintings which are actually the product of many hands – the largest painting in the show, right at the start – exhibit 1 – was created by five artists.

‘Pukara’ by Roy Underwood, Lennard Walker, Simon Hogan and Ian Rictor Acrylic on canvas Western Australia (2013) © the artists, courtesy Spinifex Arts Project

Pukara by Roy Underwood, Lennard Walker, Simon Hogan and Ian Rictor
Acrylic on canvas
Western Australia (2013)
© the artists, courtesy Spinifex Arts Project

4. Politics

I was already well aware that most of the artefacts here are in some sense ‘loot’, sometimes bought or given but most often simply plundered from their rightful owners, often in violent circumstances, and almost always separating the artefacts from the tribe, the location and the tradition which produced them, thus stripping them of much of their meaning and power.

After all, this is true of almost everything in the British Museum which, from one perspective, is a vast stash of loot from the criminal enterprise known as the ‘British Empire’.

But in the second room of the exhibition the dire history of British colonialism began to make its presence increasingly felt, with a sequence of images of the first British explorers, Dampier and then Captain Cook. Cook and his party had only been ashore ten minutes before they stared firing their guns at a couple of curious natives who’d come down to the beach to see them and relations with the Indigenous peoples continued in the same spirit of misunderstanding and one-sided aggression for the next couple of centuries.

The show is, after all, not an art exhibition but an attempt to tell Indigenous Australian history via objects, and no history of Australia is complete, or can even begin to be written, without taking account of the fact that the land was for tens of thousands of years inhabited by hundreds of tribes of people with an intimate relationship with the land, with rich and strange culture and traditions, and with expert knowledge of coaxing a livelihood out of the dryest continent in the world. Until we showed up and started shooting them, enslaving them, hunting them down, introducing them to alcoholism, prostitution and – even worse – western law about property and land ownership.

All this is indisputable and, if you wanted to be sickened and disgusted by the behaviour of the British explorers, colonists and convicts I recommend Robert Hughes’s massive history of crime and injustice, The Fatal Shore.

But as the exhibition moves into room three and the political injustices are laid on thicker and thicker the show becomes quite oppressive.

Land rights placard from the aboriginal Tent embassy, erected, as a site of protest, in 1972.  Paint on Masonite board, Old Parliament House, Canberra, Australia (1972) National Museum of Australia

Land rights placard from the aboriginal Tent embassy, erected, as a site of protest, in 1972.
Paint on Masonite board, Old Parliament House, Canberra, Australia (1972)
National Museum of Australia

The final room is dominated by a wall-size video screen showing a 3-minute sequence of stills recording the aborigines’ liberation struggle, with highlights such as the way protesters renamed the 150th anniversary of the claiming of Australia for the British Crown, on January 26 1938, ‘A Day of Mourning’. And other milestones in the 1970s, 80s, 90s and up to the present day (‘Key moments in the struggle for indigenous rights 1901-2015’). Among other striking facts we learned that the 1901 constitution which actually created the nation of Australia from six self-governing British colonies, for the purposes of census and population counting, explicitly excluded the aborigines, who were thereby declared non-people, non-existent, in their own country.

All this is true and important and tragic and disgusting BUT it had the regrettable affect of almost completely destroying the impact of the first half of the show.

For the first half hour I was straining my brain to understand concepts of land and tradition and art which are completely alien to the Western tradition, well beyond my understanding – as well as learning more tangible insights into Aboriginal art such as, snakes are an important symbol as they are bringers of water to this dry land – or about techniques of painting with ochre on bark. I was working up a feeling of wonder and awe at the age and depth and beauty of these works and of this culture.

Spear thrower. North Western Australia, late 19th or early 20th century © The Trustees of the British Museum.

Spear thrower. North Western Australia, late 19th or early 20th century
© The Trustees of the British Museum.

But I felt the delicacy and fragile insight conveyed in these early impressions was rained all over by the increasing politicisation of the show. No doubt the Indigenous peoples have to fight fire with fire and join in the governing western discourse in order to win their due and their rights. No doubt they had to hire lawyers and sign petitions and lobby the authorities and protest and create posters and banners and march for freedom. But I am over-familiar with the rhetorics of western political discourse; like a lot of other people I am sick of western politics and politicians.

With an audible thump the show went from celebrating the invaluable and barely comprehensible insights of a unique and priceless culture, to feeling like I was listening to John Humphreys barking at a lying politician on the Today programme.

I was much more interested to learn that Uta Uta Tjangala (1926-90) was a native artist who initiated the transfer of sand and body paintings onto canvas, and therefore a ‘pioneer of contemporary Australian art’. Or to see the photo of aboriginal artist Byron Brooks painting on a large canvas stretched out on the dirt floor outside with a vista of desert stretching into the distance and surrounded by ten or more dogs lazing or sleeping in the hot sun.

You’d have to be quite tough-minded to retain the fleeting feelings the wonderful art and artefacts evoke in the first part of this exhibition and not allow them to be tainted by mounting feelings of anger and shame at the miserable treatment of the Aborigines which the second half documents.


5. The oppressiveness of the Greek legacy

Greek sculpture The aborigine show is a few hundred yards away from the bigger, blockbuster exhibition about Greek sculpture also currently showing at the British Museum. That show ends with Michelangelo adulating fragments of Greek statuary and so, along with the rest of the Renaissance, passing on the worship of the perfect body into the Western tradition. I made the point in my review of it that, just as all Western philosophy can be said to be footnotes to Plato, so all Western art could be said to be footnotes to Greek sculpture.

The power of perfection Going further, the Defining Beauty exhibition shows the intimate connection between images of perfection and power: the gods were powerful because they were perfect embodiments of the human form: their power somehow stemmed from their perfection; and their perfection gave them power. They are stunningly perfect.

Discobolus: Marble statue of a discus-thrower (discobolus) by Myron. Roman copy of a bronze Greek original of the 5th century BC. © The Trustees of the British Museum

Discobolus: Marble statue of a discus-thrower (discobolus) by Myron. Roman copy of a bronze Greek original of the 5th century BC. © The Trustees of the British Museum

Athenian imperialism People often forget that Athens, at the peak of its artistic and political achievement, was a slave-owning society at the head of an Empire which it had conquered by force. In this sense the Greek statues in the Defining Beauty show are not innocent. They represent Power.

The power of ideas But not just the power of an army. They represent the power of Greek ideas, the fundamental notion that you gain control over things, over the world, by defining and distinguishing, just as the Greeks pioneered mathematics by exploring all aspects of the interactions of precise, defined values or Plato’s dialogues pursue the definition of abstract terms like the Good, the Beautiful, the Just into mind-boggling depths of analysis.

Plato’s theory of Ideal Forms In fact, Plato found himself persuaded that all earthly objects are the fallen, imperfect copies of things which exist in Ideal Form in another dimension. In some heaven or the Mind of God reside the permanent and Perfect Forms of Beauty, Justice, Law, Power, Morality and so on. These abstract ideas had one perfect form which we lesser mortals, in this fallen world, invoke every time we mention them. Just as, on a cultural and religious level, there was one god to an idea – the god of war, the god of the sea, the goddess of love, the king of the gods and so on.

Precision of Idea. Unity of Idea. Intellectual Perfection. Physical Beauty. Power. All are interlinked. (And were of course handed on into Christianity, the intellectual heir of the ancient world.)

The clash epitomised I had these Greek ideas in mind as I walked through the Indigenous Australian show and the vast distance between the two worlds crystallised, for me, in a photo included in the video of key moments in the aborigines’ struggle for justice. This photo shows a white man (presumably a lawyer) standing with three Indigenous men in western suits, all in the shadow of a neo-classical statue of Justice, perfect in shape and form with a light toga falling off her perfect breasts and holding the requisite scales of justice.

One of the tens of thousands of copies of Greek-style super-realist statues which were deployed all around the British Empire to embody ‘our values’: eg the rule of law (ie the rule of lawyers), democracy (for white men only), justice (if you can afford it), the integrity of private property (once you’ve stolen it from its rightful owners) and so on.

What Captain Cook brought When Captain Cook and his crew came ashore they brought not just the obvious tools of conquest – the guns and metal tools and diseases which would decimate the natives. More insidiously, they brought Western law with its vast array of definitions of property and ownership, the precise and pedantic system of codes and rules which was to steal an entire country from its inhabitants. They brought minds educated to venerate big abstract ideas: Civilisation, Culture, Law, Justice, Writing – and used to ‘reading’ those ideas in their chracterstically classical embodiments – Architecture, Public Spaces, Libraries, Statues.

Indigenous culture In Australia they found none of that. The reverse. The early part of the exhibition emphasises aboriginal culture’s fluidity and depth and localism, the land inhabited by numerous tribes with their own histories, cultures and languages and myths of ancestors criss-crossing the terrain in mysterious tracks and passages, creating the animals and the stories and the means for survival.

Difficult-to-grasp, intangible ideas which the earliest settlers simply didn’t see, couldn’t touch or understand, and so ignored, and so assumed the land was, to all intents and purposes – to white men’s intents and purposes – empty, because the aborigines’ life and culture couldn’t be captured or defined in our precise and pedantic legal terms, wasn’t embodied in forms, in objects or buildings or books, which we could understand.

Mask from Mer, Torres Strait, Queensland, before 1855.  Turtle shell, shell, fibre  © The Trustees of the British Museum

Mask from Mer, Torres Strait, Queensland, before 1855.
Turtle shell, shell, fibre
© The Trustees of the British Museum

Plunder And the scattered artefacts, the beautiful things the natives made and which gained their meaning from the location and tradition they arose from, these also couldn’t be defined, didn’t refer to One God (as Christian missionaries understood it) or even to one Pantheon of Gods (as a classically-educated Westerner would be familiar with) couldn’t be explained according to the kind of unitary system which Westerners understood and insisted on as the only method to generate meaning. And so could be looted and shipped back to the vast lumberyard of the Museum with impunity, higgledy-piggledy, stripped of their mystical associations, the spoils of Empire.

Conclusion

All of which led me to wonder: If all philosophy can be said to be footnotes to Plato, then can the whole history of Western colonialism and imperial conquest be said to be footnotes to the Greek ideals of discrete, defined, logical concepts – to Greek notions of perfectionism – to the tyranny of Perfect Ideas and concepts — a mindset, a way of thinking, which the conquerors repeatedly failed to find among the native peoples in America, Australia and Africa who instead practiced more holistic, overlapping, complex and less authoritarian modes of belief.

And that this fateful clash of cultures is epitomised – in the realm of art and iconography, at any rate – in these two fascinating exhibitions at the British Museum.


P.S.

On the way out, right next to the main entrance to the museum, don’t miss the room off to one side which is displaying a handful of larrikitj, or memorial poles by contemporary artist Wukun Wanambi, made from the trunks of young-ish trees, absolutely covered with minute designs based on swarms of mullet fish – creating a mesmeric swirling pattern of tiny lozenges or facets which, on closer examination, turn out to be teeny, tiny stylised images of fish. Wonderful, beautiful, enchanting.

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