Tate Britain presents a major exhibition of art associated with the British Empire from the 16th century to the present day. The exhibition entitled Artist and Empire brings together a diverse range of works to explore how artists from Britain and around the world have responded to the dramas, tragedies and experiences of the Empire. The large range of objects from collections across Britain, including maps, flags, paintings, photographs, sculptures and artefacts are bought together to tell some of the stories that have shaped our understanding of the British Empire.
One of the most replicated visual reference to the British Empire was the map of the Empire, therefore the first section of the exhibition explores the importance of Mapping and Marking your territories. The room features a number of flags, maps and paintings that illustrate that the influence of other European nations like Spain, Portugal and the Netherlands was considerable in charting sea and trade routes. British maritime adventurers undertook a number of discovery voyages that began to build a foundation for the British Empire based on trade and exploitation of regional resources.
The next room entitled Trophies of Empire explores one of the outcomes of many of these discovery voyages, an extraordinary array of art, artefacts and natural history began to find there way into British Collections where they were often painted by artists. Collecting for research began a unprecedented rise in scientific investigations and classifications in all areas. New museums were built to house these artefacts which were collected by soldiers, sailors, explorers, missionaries and traders. Dominating the room is George Stubbs’ painting, A Cheetah with a Stag and Two Indian Attendants.
The Imperial Heroics room looks at the way that in the period of the British Empire, history painting often became the visual commemoration of a remarkable or heroic act. These paintings were often considered true representation of events but were more often carefully staged to promote support for the Imperial ideal. Wonderful examples are Benjamin West’s The Death of General James Wolfe (1779) and George William Joy’s The Death of General Gordon in Khartoum. Also popular in this period was Power Dressing amongst the principal characters of Empire building. Although rather strangely there was a fashion for British sitters to dress in native dress and colonised individuals adopting Western dress, Augustus John’s Colonel T.E. Lawrence (1919) is a iconic portrait of ‘Lawrence of Arabia’. As the Empire spread, artists would record their own observations of various cultures. The Face to Face room explores the way that artists often romanticised or demonised individuals of other cultures.
By the early 20th century, objects in British Museums from various cultures began to influence British painters in a number of styles and techniques. However, by the middle of the century it was artists from aboard that began to chart the era of decolonisation and independence. In the Out of Empire room., two portraits of Australia by Sidney Nolan, Hills of Gold by Avinash Chandra and Northern Nigerian Landscape by Uzo Egonu provide examples of the move away from Eurocentric art.
In the final room, the exhibition looks at the Legacies of Empire from an artistic point of view. In recent years, a new generation of artists have engaged more directly with the visual culture of Empire with a series of works that question the way that histories and myths perpetuate through time. Sonia Boyce with her work Lay Back, Keep Quiet and Think of What Made Britain so Great (1986) offers a challenging view of Empire.
This intriguing exhibition provides some insights into the way that the ‘British Empire’ has inspired artists to celebrate it or denigrate it. It also raises important questions for museums and cultural organisations about ownership and the cultural identity of many of their artefacts. The exhibition manages to illustrate that the ‘British Empire’ is actually quite a complex concept which has provided artists the means to create their own realities or histories.
If you would like further information or book tickets, visit the Tate Britain website here
Visiting London Guide Rating – Highly Recommended
Artist and Empire
Tate Britain: Exhibition
25 November 2015 – 10 April 2016
Adult £16.00 (without donation £14.50)
Concession £14.00 (without donation £12.70)
Under 12s go free (up to four per parent or guardian)
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