Real to Reel @ The Imperial War Museum

‘Every man thinks meanly of himself for not having been a soldier.’ (Dr Johnson)

This is a small but densely-packed, moving and very thought-provoking exhibition. It would only take a about a minute to walk straight through the half dozen or so small rooms, created using an interesting setting of metal warehouse shelving and wooden packing crates – maybe only 15 minutes or so to stroll past the display cases and the dozen or so screens giving the looped movie clips a cursory glance – but stopping to watch every clip and read all the display case labels took me an absorbing hour and 40 minutes, longer than I’ve spent at many art exhibitions, time enough to form all kinds of thoughts and impressions – about individual films, about war, about films as a medium for history.

The exhibition

The show opens with a welter of classic war movie posters – Lawrence of Arabia, Casablanca – and then about thirty display cases contain costumes and props, screenplays and set designs and storyboards, publicity stills, movie magazine articles and scale models of machines used in classic movies (a model of the Flying Fortress used in Memphis Belle, and of the U-boat used in the German movie Das Boot).

The exhibition mostly features American and British movies. Of the 40 or so films referenced, there are none from France, Spain, Italy or Russia, all of which have or had pretty thriving film industries. The only non-Anglo country represented is Germany, with the Nazi propaganda film, Triumph of The Will, the TV-epic-turned movie Das Boot, and Downfall, the harrowing account of Hitler’s last days in the Berlin bunker.

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Film still of Jake Gyllenhaal in Jarhead (2005). A pair of the Santa hats worn in the movie are on display. © Universal City Studios LLLP, photographed by Francois Duhamel

Limitations

The exhibition’s sub-title is ‘A Century of War Movies’, which makes sense on one level, since ‘moving pictures’ were invented only a little over a century ago. But it is also taken to mean that the subject matter of the films themselves is limited to the last hundred years. Thus there are no movie representations of the countless wars from earlier in history – none of the Hollywood epics about ancient Rome (Cleopatra), the Greeks (The 300 Spartans, Troy), medieval wars (Henry VBraveheart), the Spanish conquest of America (The Royal Hunt of The Sun), the English Civil Wars (Cromwell), the Seven Years War (The Last of The Mohicans), the Napoleonic Wars (Waterloo, The Duellists), or the countless wars of the British Empire (The Four FeathersThe Charge of the Light BrigadeKhartoum, Zulu, Breaker Morant) let alone the Americans’ very own Civil War (Birth of a NationThe Red Badge of CourageGone With The Wind).

Even within its 20th century framework, there are surprising omissions – nothing about the Russian Revolution (Dr ZhivagoReds), the Spanish Civil War (For Whom The Bell Tolls, Land and Freedom), the Korean War (Hell In Korea, Pork Chop HillM*A*S*H), Algeria (Battle for Algiers), the many wars of independence in European colonies, or the bloody post-independence conflicts in places like Biafra, Bangladesh, Angola, Mozambique, and so on.

No, only Anglo wars feature – the Great War, the Second World War, the Vietnam War and, in the last decade or so, Iraq-Afghanistan (the one possible exception, Yann Demange’s 2014 movie about Northern Ireland, ’71, is still firmly from the Anglosphere).

Colour storyboard artwork of the helicopter attack scene from Apocalypse Now © Courtesy of American Zoetrope

Colour storyboard artwork of the helicopter attack scene from Apocalypse Now (1979) © Courtesy of American Zoetrope

Clips

If you wait and watch every clip on every screen you will see excerpts from the following films (ones in bold are factual films):

  • Battle of the Somme (1916) Fascinating explanation of how the British government commission and distributed one of the first real depictions of warfare to bring home to the civilian population the reality of the trenches.
  • Triumph of the Will (1934) Leni Riefenstahl’s Nazi masterpiece, which begs the fundamental question whether films always glamorise, no matter how evil their subject matter. (My answer is, Yes)
  • The Great Dictator (1940) Charlie Chaplin’s comic masterpiece, with production notes and stills, part of a larger section on the depiction of Hitler in films.
  • Dig for Victory (1941) Fascinating clip from an all-too-rare example of the British factual films produced during the war.
  • Hoch Der Lambeth Walk (1941) Short comedy setting Nazi goose-stepping troops to the popular Cockney tune.
  • Mrs Miniver (1942) Clip from the film’s moving patriotic climax.
  • Went The Day Well (1942) Scene where the vicar of a little English village stands up to the German invaders in Cavalcanti’s immensely moving British film, adapted from the Graham Greene short story.
  • Listen To Britain (1942) Fascinating depiction of Britain at war by the experimental documentary maker, Humphrey Jennings.
  • Donald Gets Drafted (1942) Comedy cartoon example of Disney supporting the war effort.
  • Victory Through Air Power (1943) An extended animated propaganda film from Disney – a display panel explains the surprising extent of the Disney studio’s involvement in war work.
  • The Cruel Sea (1953) A tearful Lieutenant Commander George Ericson (Jack Hawkins) remembers his decision to depth charge a German submarine, thus killing the British sailors in the sea above it.
  • The Colditz Story (1955) Pukka chaps plan escape, led by John Mills.
  • The Dam Busters (1955) Pukka chaps pull off a cunning stunt, led by Richard Todd.
  • The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) the finale where the dying Alec Guinness falls on the detonator which blows up the bridge.
  • Paths of Glory (1957) A display case gives plenty of background to this early work by Stanley Kubrick, a powerful anti-war film based on the true case of a mutiny in the French army during the Great War.
  • Ice Cold In Alex (1958) Pukka chaps escape through the desert, led by John Mills.
  • Carve Her Name With Pride (1958) A big display case gives a thorough background to the heroic feats of Violette Szabo, who volunteered to work for the SOE in occupied France, until caught, tortured and executed.
  • Lawrence of Arabia (1962) Fascinating display case on how the Lawrence cult was carefully created by an American journalist.
  • The Longest Day (1962) All-star cast depiction of D-Day.
  • Hell In The Pacific (1968) One of the new breed of unglamorous anti-war films, starring Lee Marvin.
  • Oh! What A Lovely War (1969) Poster and clips from the archetypal anti-war film, satirising the First World War through music hall songs.
  • Hitler: The Last Ten Days (1973) Alec Guinness stars in what now seems a very dated, made-for-TV style.
  • Overlord (1975) an experimental black and white British film, which failed to get released in the States.
  • Das Boot (1981) The epic German TV series, edited down into a movie – a rare showing for a non-Anglo production. The show features one of the scale models of the German U-boat used in filming.
  • Full Metal Jacket (1987) Kubrick’s shiny Vietnam film, complete with predictable ‘shocking’ scenes.
  • Memphis Belle (1990) Happy ending for an all-star cast. The exhibition features one of the scale models of the Flying Fortress used in filming.
  • Schindler’s List (1993) Spielberg’s masterpiece. A display case shows the suit that Liam Neeson wears in the tear-jerking final scene.
  • Saving Private Ryan (1998) An extended sequence from the famous beach landing scene runs next to several display cases showing memorabilia from officers who landed that day, photos, maps, letters and uniforms, including from men who were killed in the landings.
  • Downfall (2005) Another rare non-Anglo production, with German actor Bruno Ganz giving a harrowing portrayal of the Fuhrer’s last days.
  • Atonement (2007) An extended display case includes production notes from the Dunkirk sequence of this love story gone wrong, and interview clips with the director and production designer which give insights into its creation.
  • The Hurt Locker (2008) The story of a US bomb disposal unit in Iraq. Clips and interview with the film’s director, Kathryn Bigelow.
  • Kajaki (2014) Clip and interviews with the film’s director, Paul Katis, and writer, Tom Williams.
  • ’71 (2014) British troops in the Troubles in Northern Ireland. Clip and interview with the director, Yann Demange.
  • Eye In the Sky (2016) Clip of a drone targeting ‘terrorists’ in Kenya, and an interview with the director, Gavin Hood.

The extensive interviews with writers and directors of the more recent films gives the last parts of the exhibition the feel of a bumper edition of ‘Film 2016’, and the suspicion that we are learning more and more about films we care less and less about.

Costumes

The show features a strong V&Aish, costume & design element. In various display cases we get to see:

  • the dress and shoes Marlene Dietrich used for her USO shows she gave to American troops during WW2
  • the RAF jacket worn by David Niven in A Matter of Life and Death
  • as mentioned, the tailored suit worn by Liam Neeson in Schindler’s List
  • the costume uniform worn by Tom Hanks in Saving Private Ryan
  • the very robe given to Lawrence of Arabia by Emir Faisal
  • the costume uniform worn by the lead character in Warhorse
  • the cap and jacket worn by Clint Eastwood as Lieutenant Schaffer in Where Eagles Dare
  • the costume uniform worn by McAvoy in Atonement
  • the very helmet worn by the hero of Black Hawk Down
James McAvoy starring in Atonement - this uniform is on display © Universal City Studios LLLP, photographed by Alex Bailey

James McAvoy starring in Atonement (2007). This uniform is on display in the exhibition © Universal City Studios LLLP, photographed by Alex Bailey

Props

As well as the scale models of the U-boat used in Das Boot and the Flying Fortress used in Memphis Belle, there’s a cane chair from Rick’s Bar in Casablanca, the mandolin played by Nicholas Cage in Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, and a reconstructed version of the Triumph motorbike ridden by Steve McQueen in The Great Escape!

There is a host of other memorabilia, such as the clapperboard used in Full Metal Jacket, Alec Guinness’s diary when filming Hitler: The Last Ten Days, a storyboard for the classic dogfight sequence in Battle of Britain, design sketches for the set of Dr Strangelove, production notes and models for Hope and Glory, a script for The Third Man, as well as publicity stills and movie magazine articles for numerous other war films, and much more in the same vein.

There’s even a genuine Hollywood Oscar – in case anybody doesn’t know what they look like.

Movie buff stuff

There’s a section about the wartime career of British actor David Niven, who dropped acting to serve in the RAF (though he found time to appear in several training films). He’s here mainly because of his starring role in the wonderful Powell and Pressburger film, A Matter of Life and Death (1946).

The background information about Marlene Dietrich i.e. her flight from Germany just before the war and the wholehearted way she threw herself into Allied propaganda efforts is very enlightening. Similarly, there is no clip of him but there’s a display case devoted to the wartime career of Clark Gable, at the peak of his career when the war began, having just starred in Gone With The Wind (itself, of course, a war film and, apparently, much enjoyed by Chancellor Hitler).

The section devoted to Lawrence of Arabia explains how his legend was fostered by an American journalist and broadcaster, Lowell Thomas, who shot footage of Lawrence in the desert and then went on tour with a show which included dancing girls and exotic props before a showing of the main film itself, which Thomas narrated. The film made Lawrence a household name (and Thomas lots of money). The exhibition explains all this with stills and a programme from the show.

There’s a moving section about Violette Szabo, a young shop girl from Brixton who volunteered to join the Special Operations Executive, was trained and then dropped into occupied France, where she performed several missions before being captured by the Germans, tortured and executed at Ravensbrück concentration camp – a true-life story which inspired the film Carve Her Name with Pride (1958).

Violette Szabo, whose undercover work for the SOE in occupied France inspired the film Carve Her Name with Pride (1958). The show includes costume items worn by the star, Virginia McKenna, as well as historic documents about Szabo’s training, mission, then arrest and execution by the Nazis © IWM

Violette Szabo, whose undercover work for the SOE inspired the film Carve Her Name with Pride (1958). The show includes costume items worn by the star, Virginia McKenna, as well as historic documents about Szabo’s training and mission, including photos of her war hero husband and small daughter © IWM

Themes

The exhibition labels point out that war films provide an excellent vehicle for drama, for depictions of bravery, cowardice, love and passion etc.

Another label remarks that music provides an important element of war films, many war songs and themes going on to become patriotic and iconic tunes, or to be sung by soldiers in subsequent conflicts.

Another display comments that some war films were subject to censorship, citing Churchill’s exasperation at Powell and Pressburger’s classic Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943) which portrayed the British officer class as ageing buffoons and which he tried – but failed – to get suppressed.

The exhibition mentions questions and ideas like these, but it doesn’t really address or explore them, not in any depth. They tend to be overshadowed by the sheer brainless pleasure of movie-watching which, I’m the first to admit, I am also prone to. A discussion of wartime censorship? Look, here’s a chair from Rick’s Bar! Exploring the role of music in shaping emotional responses? Who cares, here’s Steve McQueen’s motorbike!!

It’s a little like putting a few sentences about cholesterol and heart disease into a massive exhibition about ice cream with forty free samples. And that, for me, is the problem with film. Although I enjoyed seeing so many clips from so many beloved old war movies, and finding out a wealth of movie trivia and behind-the-scenes stories about their making, I couldn’t suppress a growing feeling that – no matter how realistic, harrowing or moving – there is something inescapably shallow about film as a medium. In films, thought is always trumped by emotional manipulation.

The weakness of film

Films are shallow entertainment Films by their nature are intense but shallow. Customers pay to go into a darkened auditorium, where they stuff their faces with popcorn and Coca Cola, or to watch at home on a big Entertainment Centre while scoffing a Dominos pizza or takeaway curry. Films are crafted to be consumed in a deliberately infantilising and indulgent environment, designed to relax your rational mind and bring emotions to the surface. Who doesn’t cry when Humphrey Bogart makes his big speech at the end of Casablanca or when the survivors’ families get the letters that their loved ones have survived in In Which We Serve? But plenty of evil men have sent thousands to their deaths and then burst into tears at a Hollywood weepie. I always find it telling that both Hitler and Stalin were not just movie fans, they were massive movie fans, with their own private projection rooms in which they watched films again and again, and then shared their critical insights with their terrified associates. Being moved by a film doesn’t, ultimately, change anything.

Films are commercial products All Hollywood films are designed to make money. It may employ many craftsmen, and plenty of people who want to think of themselves as ‘artists’, but cinema is a commercial business. Many of the movies featured here are shameless blockbusters – from The Battle of Britain to Saving Private Ryan (which made a stunning $481.8 million worldwide in 1998, the highest-grossing US film of the year). They are products designed and honed, whatever the actual content, to make a profit.

Films use stereotyped plots, characters and gestures Film students are taught that their screenplays must have a structure in three acts. They have to have an inciting incident, a confrontation and resolution in a way that history, let alone real life, doesn’t.

As Virginia Woolf pointed out 100 years ago, movies don’t have much time to play with – generally between 1.5 and 3 hours – so they have to boil human behaviour, motivation and psychology down into stereotyped characters, plots and dialogue, all of which must be easy to grasp at one fleeting viewing. Each generation’s actors have used stylised gestures, attitudes and poses appropriate for their times. (Because I don’t like modern films, I particularly dislike the non-stop shouting which passes for acting with most modern American actors. One way to view the clips on show here is to note the way the amount of shouting and swearing steadily increases from the restrained 1940s through to the ‘fuck you asshole’ Noughties.)

Films are vehicles for films stars Then there is the simple fact that movies are vehicles for movie stars. Right from the start a star-struck audience has gone ga-ga for gossip about Errol and Clark and Bette and Jean – nowadays, about Leonardo and Brad and Angelina and Scarlett. The studio ‘system’ of the 1930s and 40s was a machine to find profitable vehicles for bankable stars. Though the situation is more complex nowadays, it’s still about money, the money which buys the stars which drive the promotion and publicity machine. ‘Tom Hanks as you’ve never seen him before’, ‘Leonardo gives the performance of his career’, etc etc in thousands of variations.

The exhibition brings out the fashion in the 1960s and 1970s to cram as many stars into a movie as possible – creating an ‘all-star cast’ – to try and ensure profitability: think of The Great Escape (1963), Battle of the Bulge (1965), The Battle of Britain (1969), A Bridge Too Far (1977).

Cartoon characters War films up to about 1970 featured generally clean-cut heroes – classic movie stars from the 40s and 50s like Clark Gable (b.1901), Gary Cooper (b.1901), John Wayne (b.1907) David Niven (b.1910) and Gregory Peck (b.1916), John Mills (b.1908), Jack Hawkins (b.1910) and Kenneth More (b.1914). These were followed by the generation of movie stars I grew up watching in the 1960s – Richard Burton (b.1925), Clint Eastwood (b.1930), Steve McQueen (b.1930), Peter O’Toole (b.1932), Michael Caine (b.1933), David McCallum (b.1933). So many times, watching these clips, you realise it’s the star, the lines they’re given, the scenes they’re placed in, the way they’re made up, lit and filmed, which give the viewer deep pleasure.

The 1960s was a transition decade in so many ways but watching the war movies you realise they had a distinctive style of Swinging ’60s heroism – 633 Squadron (1964) or The Battle of Britain (1969), The Heroes of Telemark (1965) or Where Eagles Dare (1968). The ‘characters’ in films like this are really animated versions of schoolboy comics, like the ‘Commando Action Comics’ which I devoured as a kid, target audience – 10-year-old boys. The 1960s movies in particular are somehow not really serious. The Great Escape is more memorable for its comic than its ‘tragic’ moments – and although 50 Allied officers are murdered by the Nazis at the conclusion, the very end of the film features the imperishably supercool Steve McQueen returning to his solitary cell in undimmed triumph.

Cool, stylish, glamorous, ironic, smiling – unreal.

Since Private Ryan

A lot of war films from the 1970s and 80s are just too bad to be included (think Escape To Victory) so that this is the most under-represented period in the exhibition.

This is odd because the late ’70s saw a rash of major films about Vietnam which brought a new brutality and cynicism to the genre, led by The Deer Hunter (1978) and Apocalypse Now (1979). A later wave of Vietnam films try but, in my opinion, fail to capture the shocking freshness of those 70s Vietnam movies – Stanley Kubrick’s over-studied Full Metal Jacket (1987), Oliver Stone’s over-schematic Platoon (1987) and unwieldy Born on the Fourth of July (1989), let alone the eccentric Good Morning Vietnam (1987). By this stage we all knew that war is hell and that US Marine training sergeants can be really mean.

Jacket and Platoon are referenced in the exhibition, but the general under-representation of war films from the 70s and 80s makes something else all the more obvious – which is the decisive change in tone and style which came over war films after the epoch-making Saving Private Ryan was released in 1998.

That film’s extended sequence of American troops landing on Omaha Beach (shown here on the only really big screen in the exhibition, so that you can sit and watch it with the sound on headphones) was a game changer. It pioneered new computer-generated special effects to give the viewer a much more visceral sense of the devastating impact of bullets and ordinance on the human body. All war films since Ryan have had to match its hyper-realism, so that cinema goers now see soldiers being eviscerated, dismembered, punctured and disintegrated in unprecedented detail.

Think of the scene in the cave in Clint Eastwood’s Letters From Iwo Jima (2006, not included here) which unflinchingly shows a group of Japanese soldiers committing harakiri with grenades, leaving them with half-removed faces and handless stumps of arms spouting arterial blood. Yuk.

This body-parts-in-your-face style is apparent in all the subsequent works in the genre. Similarly, the harrowing scene in Saving Private Ryan where the troop’s medic, Private Irwin Wade, takes a long time to bleed to death from a stomach wound which his comrades are unable to staunch, has also been replicated in the post-1998 depiction of war wounds, which are much more unflinchingly realistic.

Whether this anatomical hyper-realism which has been mandatory for all war films since Ryan has elevated any of them as ‘works of art’ is an open question, but it’s certainly the style of our time, the set of conventions – of gesture and sound and special effects – which we all take to be ‘true’ – at any rate, until the next stylistic revolution comes along…

Factual films

Seeing all these clips from classic movies is without doubt entertaining and the movie trivia in the display cases is often very interesting and informative. But it’s a shame that, in among all the Hollywood and Pinewood glamour, there isn’t more of an investigation of wartime factual films. There are some:

Nazi propaganda films On the Nazi side there is a clip from Leni Riefenstahl’s classic propaganda piece, Triumph of the Will, a stunningly directed Modernist masterpiece celebrating the Nazis’ Nuremberg rally of 1934. The Nazis’ masterful use of propaganda films like this, and the steady output of Nazi-controlled film studios during the war, are a huge and fascinating topic, something I’d love to know more about – with relevant clips demonstrating Goebbels’ personal intervention in scripts and direction to bring out their Aryan values – but it was only referenced with this one clip and few panels about Triumph.

British propaganda films Presumably the Imperial War Museum owns a significant archive of British newsreel and propaganda films from the war. In fact the show opens with several clips from the information film about the Battle of the Somme which was commissioned by the War Office in 1916, and shown widely in cinemas throughout Britain to publicise the reality of the trenches. I was hoping there’d be much more like this explaining how governments used the new medium to promote or justify their wars.

Staged scene from The Battle of the Somme film (1916) © IWM

Staged scene from The Battle of the Somme film (1916) © IWM

But, disappointingly, there were clips from only three other British factual war films in the exhibition. Obviously the tone, the subject matter and treatment, the look and duration of these films is completely different from the commercial products, and a world away from airbrushed Hollywood.

Maybe one comedy short was enough, but I’d like to have learned much more about the relationship between government-sponsored films and shorts and the output of commercial news organisations like Pathe. This is a vast subject only fleetingly touched on.

US propaganda films A nearby case was devoted to the wartime output of the Disney studios. I’m not surprised that Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck were dragooned into short comedy films about the silly side of becoming a soldier…

but it was fascinating to learn that the Disney studio also made some 170 factual information films during the war. And that it produced a feature-length animation, Victory Through Air Power, from which we see a powerful clip.

Either of these three – Nazi, British or American propaganda films – treated in depth, would make for a fascinating exhibition in their own right, and one well suited to the IMW’s archives and experts. Having them in the show gave us a sense of what we were missing, and tended to highlight the glossy shallowness of the commercial movies.

Conclusion

Shatteringly realistic, brutal and bloody though many are, commercial movies are not real and are of only limited use in understanding the past. The past wasn’t like this. All that films show us is what films from the past were like -subject to all the limitations of their era, to its visual styles and technical capacity, audience expectations and fashions. They offer insights into their times, not the times they depict and even then, severely hampered by commercial concerns.

Above all films are hamstrung by the fundamental requirement to give emotional closure: with a rousing comic ending (Kelly’s Heroes), an uplifting finale looking to a better future (like Chaplin’s The Great Dictator), or as a hard-bitten meditation on the futility of war (any war movie of the past 20 years).

The narrative limitations, the psychological stereotyping, the simplification of the complex, the lack of time or space to explain anything in depth, all of these make movies the complete opposite of books. A history book, of course, also has a structure and an ending – but it will also be packed with references, notes and bibliography which encourage further exploration and further understanding, which move you forward and deeper, and will present you with conflicting points of view and opinions which you have to exercise judgement about. And books require mental alertness and mental effort – precisely the opposite of films.

Movies shut down the mind. Books open the mind.

This is a very enjoyable, stimulating, and thought-provoking exhibition. These are the thoughts it provoked in me, but I’m sure every visitor will take away something different.


Related links

  • Real to Reel continues at the Imperial War Museum until 8 January 2017

Reviews of other Imperial War Museum 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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