Botticelli Reimagined @ the Victoria and Albert Museum

Sandro Botticelli (1445-1510) is widely recognised as one of the masters of the Italian Renaissance and a handful of his images – Spring, The Birth of Venus – have become almost universal due to their reproduction on posters etc.

This exhibition brings together the largest number of works by Botticelli, his pupils and followers, seen in Britain since 1930, but there is a twist. For Botticelli’s reputation underwent a strange decline after his death and for 300 years he was eclipsed by his more famous contemporaries Michelangelo, Leonardo and Raphael. Only in the mid-Victorian period did his fortunes revive and then flourished as he was copied and emulated by, in this country especially, the pre-Raphaelites.

This era of new appreciation was followed, in the 20th century, by a mixture of homage and parody as some of his most famous imagery became ripe for re-appropriation, satire and comedy.

The Virgin and Child with Two Angels by Sandro Botticelli (c.1490) Gemäldegalerie der Akademie der Bildenden Künste Vienna . Image courtesy Gemäldegalerie der Akademie der Bildenden Künste Vienna .

The Virgin and Child with Two Angels by Sandro Botticelli (c.1490) Gemäldegalerie der Akademie der Bildenden Künste Vienna. Image courtesy Gemäldegalerie der Akademie der Bildenden Künste Vienna.

And so this exhibition is in three parts: 20th century homage; the 19th century rediscovery; the original Botticelli, pupils and followers. The exhibition is laid out in reverse chronological order, starting with the 20th century, and the first thing you see is a video screen showing the clip from the movie Dr No where Sean Connery wakes up on the island of Dr No to see Ursula Andress emerge from the sea in a bikini. This is taken as homage to Botticelli’s most famous image, The Birth of Venus, as is the other clip in the sequence, from Terry Gilliam’s movie Baron Munchausen, the scene where the picture comes alive and the statuesque Uma Thurman emerges naked from a huge sea shell.

Having grasped this layout I preferred to start in the opposite order from the exhibition, and spend my Saturday morning energy soaking up the real thing, before progressing to the Victorians, and only then returning the shiny plastic modern spoofs and homages.

Sandro Botticelli

Alessandro di Mariano di Vanni Filipepi (c. 1445-1510) belonged to the Florentine School under the patronage of Lorenzo de’ Medici. By 1470 he had his own workshop in which numerous pupils and craftsmen worked. One of the problems of Botticelli scholarship is that of attribution: only two paintings have his signature on them; all the rest are scholarly guesses, many causing controversy to this day.

In this respect the exhibition fascinatingly hangs sequences of paintings of the same subject in the same style next to each other: six Madonna and Childs, one (?) by the man himself, several (?) from his workshop, the rest (?) by contemporaries working in the same style, allow you to fine tune your understanding of his style and, incidentally, to understand a little the challenging world of art attribution.

The distinctive thing about Botticelli’s style is the way it is flat and diagrammatic, with no attempt at light and shade, of chiaroscuro, of blurring or shadowing. 1) The outlines of faces, noses, chins, arms and especially tresses of hair are all conveyed with a cartoon clarity 2) In particular the women’s faces all look the same or similar, oval with a strongly defined chin and jawbone which continues in a graceful curve round to the earlobe 3) The hair is stylised into into a kind of schematic diagram of hair 4) The women are  tall and slender with high small boobs, the body generally covered in a light diaphanous-feeling, many-folded robe.

 Venus by Sandro Botticelli (1490s) Gemäldegalerie Staatliche Museen zu Berlin Preußischer Kulturbesitz . Photo: Volker-H. Schneider.

Venus by Sandro Botticelli (1490s) Gemäldegalerie Staatliche Museen zu Berlin Preußischer Kulturbesitz . Photo: Volker-H. Schneider.

My favourite work in these rooms was Portrait of a young woman, possibly Simonetta Vespucci (1484) the hair in particular more like a flat book illustration than a painting, each pearl painted with the same amount of detail, no attempt at modelling light and shade, further and nearer, blurring some area to create a sense of depth or shadow: everything in the same hyper-clarity, but all against an impenetrable black background, itself a change and a rest from the stereotypical broken columns or distant lakes with a boat on it which populate so many Renaissance paintings. Just her, in super-clarity.

In these two rooms are gather some 40 paintings by Sandro or his workshop as well as 11 pen and ink drawings and half a dozen early books from the period. A Renaissance junky could probably spend the whole morning poring over these marvellous works. The really classic works, the Spring and Birth of Venus are held in the Uffizi in Florence and are never leaving. I was surprised that the National Gallery’s Venus and Mars hadn’t made the 3 mile trip to be included (note Venus’s strong jawline and statuesque white neck). The nearest thing to them was the large and beautiful Pallas and the Centaur, with the slender grace of the goddess and the vines twining over her arms and breast.

Pallas and the Centaur by Sandro Botticelli (c.1482) © Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence, 2015 . Photo: Scala, Florence - courtesy of the Ministero Beni e Att. Cultura

Pallas and the Centaur by Sandro Botticelli (c.1482) © Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence, 2015. Photo: Scala, Florence – courtesy of the Ministero Beni e Att. Cultura

The main thing I learned was about his later style. In his last years Botticelli fell under the influence of the fundamentalist preacher Savonarola, a period shrouded in rumour. Some say he abandoned painting, others that he burned all his paintings (the ones which weren’t hanging in the villas of his rich patrons the Medicis). What the show illustrates is that is later style was heavier. Two paintings represent it, notably the Flight from Egypt. In this the figures fill the frame, looming and heavy, the composition no longer feels light and dainty but heavy and threatening and the cartoon element is even more to the fore. Look at the donkey. Joseph’s head looks as if it was done by a completely different artist.

Off to one side in a separate room were the prints and drawings. These included five illustrations of Dante’s Divine Comedy (there is currently a fabulous exhibition of thirty of these drawings at London’s Courtauld Gallery). The best of them was the Allegory of Abundance – or by ‘best’, do we just mean the one that looks most like the figures in Prinmavera and Venus? The paintings include a lot of Biblical subjects, a lot of Madonnas in tondi (round paintings). None of these are canonical i.e. none of these are what we expect our Botticelli to be: we expect slender graceful women, and so…

Allegory of Abundance or Autumn by Sandro Botticelli (c.1470-5) The British Museum (c) The Trustees of the British Museum.

Allegory of Abundance or Autumn by Sandro Botticelli (c.1470-5) The British Museum (c) The Trustees of the British Museum.

The Victorian rediscovery

The exhibition suggests that it was the heaviness of these later works which caused Botticelli’s eclipse. For three hundred years or so (1510 to 1810) he was largely overlooked in history books and art teaching.

The exhibition claims that the first step in his revival was the way that, during the Napoleonic Wars, lots of Catholic religious houses were closed down and the art works they contained came onto the market. That began to revive interest in his name.

But the story then fast-forwards to the 1860s and to an essay written by English critic Walter Pater praising Botticelli, and especially to the patronage of Dante Gabriel Rossetti and the pre-Raphaelite painters. Their joint enthusiasm created a revival of Botticelli’s reputation.

There is a smallish room with Victorian books and magazines and posters explaining the Victorian resurgence in his reputation; and then there is a stunning long room full of beautiful sumptuous pre-Raphalite masterpieces. If you like Victorian painting it is worth visiting for these alone, with lovely big sensual works by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Edward Burne-Jones, William Morris and many more.

La Ghirlandata by Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1873) © Guildhall Art Gallery 2015. Photo: Scala, Florence/Heritage Images .

La Ghirlandata by Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1873) © Guildhall Art Gallery 2015. Photo: Scala, Florence/Heritage Images.

Rossetti has taken the shape of the female head – all strong jawline and statuesque neck – and overlaid a whole world of Victorian sensuality and green velvet. Next to these images of sensuality Botticelli’s women look blankly emotionless. It is fascinating – and an amazing experience and opportunity – to wander back and forth between the Botticelli originals and what artists three hundred years later made of them.

The end wall of the room is covered by a fabulous William Morris tapestry, The Orchard, dominated by four female figures, loosely based on the Botticelli lightness and grace, but note the changing fruits of the trees which make up the background pattern of foliage. A reproduction doesn’t do justice to the scale and impact of this beautiful tapestry. Obviously Morris felt at home with, or was inspired by, the foliage themes of the Primavera.

The Orchard by William Morris (1890) V&A. John Henry Dearle, Morris & Co (c) Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

The Orchard by William Morris (1890) V&A. John Henry Dearle, Morris & Co (c) Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

There were also lovely works by Aubrey Beardsley and artists I’m less familiar with such as Arnold Böcklin, Simeon Solomon, Sartorio, and a couple of works by woman artist Evelyn de Morgan, including her Flora from 1895.

The twentieth century response

The thing about the twentieth century is how big and messy it was. From between the wars were traditional (sort of) paintings by the likes of:

But the lion’s share of the 20th century room is dominated by post-war art which, from one point of view, becomes progressively bigger and more facile. There is:

  • Orlan – Occasional strip-tease (1974) Like many of the women photographers featured in Performing for the camera at Tate Modern, Orlan thinks taking her clothes off is an artistic or subversive act, here done in homage, at last in the penultimate shot, to Sandro’s Venus.
  • Cindy Sherman – #225 (1990) homage to one of Sandro’s Madonnas
  • Vik Munix – VantagePoint X This is a huge work. Only when you go close do you realise every element in it is junk, rubbish collected from the streets and garbage bins, arranged to reproduice the famous image.
  • Tomoko Nagao – The Birth of Venus Apparently a homage to the instantly recognisable Japanese style of ‘Superflat’

Here is an image chosen to publicise the show, David Lachapelle’s kitchy, campy studio re-enactment of the Birth of Venus with some fit young men from the YMCA in attendance.

Rebirth of Venus by David LaChapelle (2009) Creative Exchange Agency, New York, Steven Pranica / Studio LaChapelle (c) David LaChapelle.

Rebirth of Venus by David LaChapelle (2009) Creative Exchange Agency, New York, Steven Pranica / Studio LaChapelle (c) David LaChapelle.

The ‘best’ of the 20th century homages had to be the Andy Warhol silk screens of Venus’s face from 1984. God knows how many exist in what combinations of colours, but this exhibition featured two with strikingly different colour schemes. The most attractive one, with a pink face, is used as the exhibition poster.

Warhol had a great eye for classic design, from Campbell’s soup tins to Elvis pulling a gun from his holster. These silks are an appropriate homage from one master of clarity of design and strength of line to another, Sandro’s cartoon-like tresses and features highlighted and retouched for the age of plastic and imacs.

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Reviews of other V&A exhibitions

Artist and Empire: Facing Britain’s Imperial Past @ Tate Britain

In six rooms the curators of this exhibition have gathered a jumble sale, a hodge-podge, a gallimaufry of maps and flags, oil paintings and watercolours, photographs and sculptures, swords and spears from all over the vast territorial range of the British Empire, dating from the 1500s to the post-colonial art of the present day. These objects, quite obviously, can only represent a tiny fraction, a miniscule sampling of the vast, overwhelming multitude of artefacts and stories which remain or could be told about the largest empire in history.

Thematic arrangement or jumble sale

On the one hand, it probably makes sense to try and arrange such a vast subject into themes or topics; and so the exhibition is organised into six rooms each with a distinctive theme, with a room each of maps, of portraits, of history paintings and so on, giving each piece at least a conceptual context.

The drawback of this approach is its randomness – so you get a portrait of Laurence of Arabia (1918) next to a Van Dyck of a Stuart explorer (1635) next to some Indian miniatures from a prince’s court during the Raj (1860). The leaps in time and space and context and meaning between different objects are breath-taking.

Another drawback is that the wall labels explaining each object have only two or three paragraphs to do so and in which to cover sometimes large topics; they risk being rather superficial. Thus we learn that the Empire involved some violence. There were acts of suppression. It involved ‘unequal power relationships’. Hmm.

(Given that the creation and running of the Empire was such a massive event in world history and that, as the commentary points out, the repercussions of the Empire are still with us in many places, maybe there should be a Museum of the British Empire, a really big museum, dedicated to telling the story of the central administration, along with galleries for each subject country or colony, galleries which could explore in detail the histories of trade and barter and war and invasion and resistance and administration and rebellion and independence for each of the 50 or so countries the Empire once ruled.)

There is a chronological underpinning of sorts to the exhibition, with the first room – the map room – containing some of the earliest objects and the last room clearly set apart for post-colonial and contemporary art by artists from former colonies. But otherwise, you have to be quite alert to bits of Empire popping up in scattered places.

For example, did you think the British colonisation of Ireland was a complex and important story? In the first room there’s a primitive map of Enniskellen from Elizabethan times, in the last room a contemporary art work showing a map of Ulster overshadowed by the Troubles. And that’s your lot on Ireland. Not much to get your teeth into. Next it’s native statues from Sierra Leone, an 18th century portrait of Joseph Banks, 19th century wood carvings of Queen Victoria, a 1937 photo of John Buchan in Red Indian head-dress, a chess set from India. And so on.

The Empire in art

The curators claim the exhibition ‘looks at the British Empire through the prism of art and explores some of the ways in which Empire has shaped practices and themes in British art from the early colonial period to the present day.’ In an obvious way, everything here – maps, flags, portrait painting, sculpture, history paintings – references Imperial subject matter – battles, rulers, land. But to say the Empire shaped practices and themes in British art is a more ambitious claim. The portrait, the landscape, animal paintings, history paintings, watercolours of plants or ancient ruins – surely all these existed in other European countries too, including those which never had an Empire.

What the British emphatically did do, and uniquely well, was trade -trade and expand, sometimes by war, sometimes by negotiation, buying land, acquiring land, conquering land, replacing corrupt local rulers with British law or just defeating them in countless ‘small wars’, introducing accurate maps and renaming places, carrying out censuses, introducing new crops, new landholding patterns and then – after the Industrial Revolution – bringing in steam trains, telegraph cables, metal warships to bind it all together.

Of this – the administrative, trading and commercial, the deal-making and buying and selling, the technological and engineering underpinnings of Empire, what amounted in fact to the main engines and sinews of Empire – there was little or nothing. I missed depictions of the economic, technological and military might which made the British Empire so unstoppable for centuries. After the map room, the exhibition features a few pictures of plants and animals, a few spears and native carvings – but overwhelmingly it consists of pictures of people and their stories.

British indifference to Empire

One of the most interesting things about the British Empire was the way it was largely ignored in the country which supposedly ran it. The English syllabus I studied at university included Dryden and Pope, Dr Johnson and Fielding, Wordsworth and Coleridge, Jane Austen and George Eliot and Charles Dickens. Which of them was the cheerleader for Imperialism? Which of them even mentioned the British Empire? There are occasional references to the snobbish, nouveau riches nabobs who come back from India and offensively flaunt their wealth (in Thackeray). Mr Micawber goes off to Australia at the end of David Copperfield (1850); Magwitch returns from Australia in Great Expectations (1861). But for the most part the Empire is a distant place where people go to and sometimes return from or just not mentioned at all.

It’s only at the very end of the nineteenth century, in the age of Kipling and the boys’ own adventures of Conan Doyle and Rider Haggard, from the 1880s onwards, that a really triumphalist Imperial Jingoism asserts itself in British culture and that its remote and exotic locations start to feature in fiction and the broader culture. And this had barely got going before it was called into question by the national humiliation of the Boer War (1899-1902). There was another decade of pomp and circumstance, and then the Great War shipwrecked the whole thing. Then you have the troubled inter-war years, with increasingly shrill hard-core Unionists and Imperialists on one side, pitched against outraged liberals and socialists who support the growing independence movements. The cataclysmic second war when the Dominions rally round Britain while she stands alone against Hitler and bankrupts herself in the process. Then, between 1945 and 1965, a flood of independences and ‘liberations’.

The truly Imperial Moment was a very short period in British history. A few weeks ago I systematically visited every room in Tate Britain, looking at every painting and sculpture. I can’t remember a single work ‘about’ the British Empire. There must have been a few history paintings touching on imperial battles, but what’s really remarkable about the British Empire is its absence from British culture.

For most of our history it was an offshore enterprise, a bit like North Sea oil, employing a small number of people very intensively, bringing massive profits to a small number of companies. You might have read about it when something went wrong (some military setback or other), but most people here just got in with their lives. That’s what the literature records (Dickens, Eliot, Trollope, Hardy, James) – a sublime indifference.

Anti-imperialism

The curators refer a few times to the notion that the Empire is still viewed by the British people as a wonderful achievement. Their stated aim is to probe and question this supposed attitude of patriotic pride. But I would have thought it’s the opposite. My children were taught from infant school all about the horrors of slavery, they know more about Nelson Mandela than Admiral Nelson, they are quick to jump on any suggestion of sexism or racism, which they have been fully trained to recognise and denounce. I’d have thought the commonest view was embarrassment shading into shame about the Empire.

In any case, Britain had a long history of internal criticism of Empire throughout its history. The 18th century economist Adam Smith thought it was a bad thing. Victorian free traders like Cobden thought it would ruin the home country. Gladstone dedicated his life to opposing Imperial adventurism (and its wily advocate, his opponent, the slippery Disraeli). Some of the most stinging critiques of Empire were published immediately after the Boer War. Conditions in the concentration camps created during that stupid struggle were widely publicised at the time (surely a rampaging feminist movie could be made from the heroic campaigns of Emily Hobhouse to publicise their evils?). The nakedness of the greed, the futility of the fighting undertaken to enrich a handful of Rand millionaires, was well publicised at the time. By the 1930s George Orwell was writing of his disgust at the Empire, Evelyn Waugh was taking the mickey.

I’d have thought most educated people are very well aware of the shameful aspects of Empire, the brutality of British rule in India, our wicked involvement in the slave trade. Who hasn’t seen Richard Attenborough’s movie Gandhi with its depiction of the Amritsar Massacre? That was released in 1982. 34 years ago. To claim that any Briton anywhere has an uncritically patriotic pride in the British Empire is to set up a straw man.

Individual stories

Once you realise the exhibition isn’t attempting a coherent narrative, or a sustained analysis, of the British Empire it becomes easier to enjoy it for what it is – a potpourri, a salmagundi, a miscellany and medley of objects large and small, old and new, each with its own ‘Oooh gosh’ story behind it. These are the very spears Joseph Banks collected in 1763! Those bronze heads were looted from Benin City in 1898!

Watching the elderly, grey-haired (and 100% white) visitors shuffling from one interesting artefact to another reminded me of The Antiques Roadshow. I couldn’t help smiling at the incongruity between the curators’ use of post-modern critical language – where art works are always ‘questioning’ and ‘subverting’ and ‘interrogating’ colonial ‘practice’ – and the chatty, antiquarian enthusiasm of the elderly visitors with their walking sticks and glasses, their taste for intriguing objects and historical gossip. And I was happy to be part of that oohing and aahing audience, too.

The rooms

Room one: Mapping and marking

A room full of maps, with some flags hanging from the ceiling, five flags created by Fante artists from the former Gold Coast. How many flags do you think were used during the entire British Empire? A million? Five seems a small selection. The big map of the world hanging on the wall with the Empire marked in pink wasn’t nearly as impressive as I thought it would be. If anything it emphasised how America, South America, a lot of Africa, all Russia and China weren’t in the Empire.

There were two splendid paintings:

  • Triple portrait of Thomas Cavendish, Sir Francis Drake and Sir John Hawkins Note the globe: Drake was only the second man to sail round the planet (presumably with some other sailors involved). What lads they look! Drake was a pirate, remembered in South America as a crook and privateer, and was second-in-command of the fleet which held off the Spanish Armada. Hawkins is fingered as one of the Elizabethans who began to dabble in the slave trade. The slave trade was a bad thing, children. And so Hawkins was a Bad Man.
  • Sir John Everett Millais The North-West Passage (1874) In my old age I’ve given up fighting a taste for cheesy Victorian narrative paintings. If it’s OK to enjoy realistic Victorian novels, why not enjoy their realistic paintings? If you’ve cared for old family members this has added poignancy.

Room two: Trophies of Empire

My recent tour of the British Museum, especially room one, devoted to housing and explaining a selection of 18th century collections, showed me the huge importance of collecting, of the urge to collect and compare and contrast artefacts, which became fashionable in the 18th century and formed the basis of our Western knowledge in a huge range of subjects, from archaeology to botany. The existence of the Empire, of course, enabled the collecting of all kinds of artefacts from all around the globe, especially flowers and plants.

  • Cheetah and Stag with Two Indians The two paintings in this room by George Stubbs seemed dire to me. Portrait of a Large Dog (The Dingo) They’re here to demonstrate the impulse to record, log and record the fauna of new exotic destinations (India, Australia).
  • Best painting was the imposing portrait of the great naturalist Joseph Banks by Benjamin West. Banks was a founder and one of the earliest directors of Kew Gardens. He accompanied Captain Cook on his voyages of exploration. To his left are a Maori paddle and quarterstaff and almost identicial examples are hung either side of the painting, creating an impressive and haunting effect.
  • Talking of Kew, there’s an oil painting of an Indian temple by the prolific Victorian artist Marianne North. At Kew an entire gallery is dedicated to her hundreds of detailed pictures of exotic flora.
  • There were some wonderful botanic prints by Shaikh Zain-ud-Din, one of the many ‘native’ inhabitants taught and trained by the schools the British set up.
  • My favourite works in the British Museum are the ‘bronzes of Benin’, extraordinary works of art which were looted after our troops seized Benin City at the end of the 19th century. Obviously they should be returned to their country of origin (like the Elgin marbles and lots else). On show here are Head of an Oba and Head of a Queen Mother. In one way these were quite the most perfect, complete, finished and powerful exhibits in the show.
  • These and some of the other ‘primitive’ sculptures by native artists struck me as vastly more exciting, compelling, vibrant and alive than something like the dull and dreary Tomb and distant view of the Rajmahal hills by William Hodges.
  • The poster for the whole show is one of the three oil portraits by Austrian artist Rudolf Swoboda painted for Queen Victorian, namely Bakshiram (1886).

Room three: Imperial heroics

A room of big oil paintings depicting heroic moments from Imperial history. The commentary makes the interesting point that Imperial history paintings tended to select moments of solo heroism or martyrdom or depict our chaps facing overwhelming odds – glossing over the many times we and our machine guns massacred the natives. This explains:

On the other hand, there were a lot of military disasters in the history of the Empire. We did get massacred at Isandlwana (1,300 killed), in the retreat from Kabul (nearly 17,000 killed or captured). In fact the history of the Empire is coloured by the cult of Heroic Failure which makes England such an odd country. The conquest of Canada from the French always focuses on the death of Colonel Wolfe at the climax of the Battle for Quebec (1775). We beat the French fleet at the Battle of Trafalgar (1805) and as a result dominated the world’s oceans for a century but, once again, depictions all tend to focus on the death of Admiral Lord Nelson, killed by a French sniper. This assemblage of martyr paintings was thought provoking.

Not particularly related to any of this was the chess set carved from ivory and depicting one side as the army of Tipu Sultan, ruler of Mysore, the other side dressed as the army of the East India Company, created in 1795.

Room four: Power dressing

Imperial portraits focusing on the ‘cross-dressing’ ie the keenness with which some of the chaps liked to dress up in native outfits. Illustrating, or bringing to mind, the tension between the sympathetic colonisers and those who felt we must keep our distance, maintain our difference, at all costs. Big theme, little room.

  • William Feilding, 1st Earl of Denbigh by Anthony van Dyck c.1635–6
  • Lawrence of Arabia (1919) by Augustus John
  • Sir John Buchan, Governor General of Canada by Yousuf Karsh. Pleasing to learn that Buchan had been given the native American head-dress by Indians for his support of First Nation cultural traditions. In fact the head-dress which features in the photo is also on display nearby, crafted by a Kainaiwa artist and presented to Buchan by a Kainaiwa chief apparently named Shot-on-both-sides. From the earliest to the final periods, there were plenty of colonists sympathetic to ‘native’ cultures.

Room five: Face to face

The rationale of this room seems to be an exploration of more informal works: it features journals and diaries with impressive amateur illustrations, wooden carvings by ‘natives’ and so on – but still includes walls of oil paintings. God, but Johann Zoffany painted a lot of stiff, awkward paintings in the 18th century! I liked:

Room six: Out of Empire

After the Second World War artists from the ‘colonies’ came to London to study and pursue careers. In these final two rooms there was the same kind of mish-mash of styles and approaches as can be seen in the main galleries upstairs, in the rooms representing the 1940s and 50s, except done by artists from the decolonising Empire.

I was struck by a bronze bust, Head of a Girl by Benedict Enwonwu, a so-so pastiche of a traditional western-style bust, because it was so much less interesting than the fabulous Benin busts from a hundred years previously. Something had been lost in the transition from ‘traditional’ style to the attempt to copy Western models.

Just because an artist comes from a former colonial country and may have many stories of repression to tell, doesn’t automatically – alas – give them some kind of ‘authenticity’, doesn’t mean their art is any good. It may shed light on aspect of the colonial experience, on the humiliation and suffering of the colonised, on their personal feelings – but doesn’t guarantee these feelings are effectively converted into an art work. For example:

  • Midonz by Ronald Moody (1937)
  • Hills of Gold by Avinash Chandra (1964)
  • Three figures I by Isabel Rawsthorne (1961)

I usually like mocking and satirical works but I found the big photos by Hew Locke somehow cheap and unfunny. They failed, for me, to engage with the ideas or history they mock.

I liked Eve by Eric Gill (1928) as I like all Gill’s work, but I don’t know why it was in this room. It was all a bit so-so; maybe the only piece I could say I liked was:

The irrelevance of anti-imperialism

Central to room six is Donald Locke’s Trophies of Empire, (1972-74) a landmark work in its day, apparently – a see-through bookshelf in the middle of the room containing a variety of candles, some of which look very phallic, some of which are chained together. Probably it refers to slavery and is meant to make me feel guilty about something which ended 150 years before I was born, but the chains reminded me of Fifty Shades of Grey.

In the earnest 1970s righteous Marxism was a viable worldview, and angst about slavery or imperial humiliations, about exploitation of the workers and native peoples, seemed pressing and important, because various forms of armed struggle against lingering colonialism and wars to overthrow capitalism were actually raging around the globe. There was apartheid in South Africa, civil wars in Angola, Mozambique and Rhodesia, to take just a part of just one continent.

Now all that has gone. The doctrines of neo-liberal capitalism have completely conquered the world. The main political parties in most Western countries have become indistinguishable front men for big business and international banks, and their populations are restive and frustrated but ultimately accept it. Only in the Academy, in university humanities courses and in the Arts, do Marxism and various other ‘radical’ -isms continue to have a ghostly, unreal afterlife, detached from the actual world most people inhabit.

The curators of this exhibition believe it is time we started a debate about the real legacy of the British Empire and faced the facts about its darker side, apparently ignorant that its darker side has been well-publicised by politicians, writers and polemicists for over a hundred years (even in the very obvious level of pop culture, I remember the TV series Roots from 1977 or the movie Gandhi from 1982. A generation ago.)

But watching my teenage kids makes me realise that in our post-colonial, post-modern era, dominated by likes, shares and selfies on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, everything is just a gag. Cats who look like Hitler has more followers than the Prime Minister. My kids know more about Miley Cyrus than the Indian Mutiny. Their lives will be about trying to get jobs in a world with 8 billion inhabitants, trying to find somewhere to live in a city of 10 million, and coping with the slowly spreading impacts of global warming.

So when their old Dad tries to interest them in the iniquity of British rule in India 150 years ago or shock them with facts about the slave trade 250 years ago, they just yawn and say, ‘Yeah Dad, we learned all about that at school,’ and turn back to their X-boxes. And who’s to say they’re wrong to be getting on with their lives in the here and now, unhindered by the pomps and atrocities of the past.

This is a very thought-provoking exhibition, in more ways, I think, than the curators intended.

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