The name of the great 17th century Flemish painter, Peter Paul Rubens is known throughout the world. The importance of his contribution to the development of European culture is generally recognised. The perception of life that he revealed in his pictures is so vivid, and fundamental human values are affirmed in them with such force, that we look upon Rubens’ paintings as a living aesthetic reality of our own time as well.
The museums of Russia have a superb collection of the great Flemish painter’s works. These are concentrated, for the most part, in The State Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg, which possesses one of the finest Rubens’ collections in the world. Three works, previously part of the Hermitage collection, now belong to The Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts in Moscow. The Bacchanalia and The Apotheosis of the Infanta Isabella were bought for the Hermitage in 1779 together with the Walpole Collection (from Houghton Hall in England); The Last Supper came to the Hermitage in 1768 from the Cobenzl Collection (Brussels). These three paintings were then transferred to Moscow in 1924 and 1930.
One gains the impression that in the 17th century Rubens did not attract as much attention as later. This may appear strange: indeed his contemporaries praised him as the “Apelles of our day”. However, in the immediate years after the artist’s death, in 1640, the reputation which he had gained throughout Europe was overshadowed. The reasons for this can be found in the changing historical situation in Europe during the second half of the 17th century.
In the first decades of that century nations and absolutist states were rapidly forming. Rubens’ new approach to art could not fail to serve as a mirror for the most diverse social strata in many European countries who were keen to assert their national identity, and who had followed the same path of development. This aim was inspired by Rubens’ idea that the sensually perceived material world had value in itself; Rubens’ lofty conception of man and his place in the Universe, and his emphasis on the sublime tension between man’s physical and imaginative powers (born in conditions of the most bitter social conflicts), became a kind of banner of this struggle, and provided an ideal worth fighting for.
In the second half of the 17th century, the political situation in Europe was different. In Germany after the end of the Thirty Years’ War, in France following the Frondes, and in England as the result of the Restoration, the absolutist regime triumphed. There was an increasing disparity in society between conservative and progressive forces; and this led to a “reassessment of values” among the privileged, who were reactionary by inclination, and to the emergence of an ambiguous and contradictory attitude towards Rubens.
This attitude became as internationally prevalent as his high reputation during his lifetime, and this is why we lose trace of many of the artist’s works in the second half of the 17th century after they left the hands of their original owners (and why there is only rare mention of his paintings in descriptions of the collections of this period). Only in the 18th century did Rubens’ works again attract attention…
In 18th-century Europe, especially with the arrival of Ottoman embassies to the royal courts, Turkish fashion, also named ‘Turquerie,’ emerged sumptuously influencing fine arts, architecture and music.
The Western world’s interest in the East is not something new. Since the Crusades, the travels of warriors, merchants and pilgrims to the towns ruled by the Turks helped to maintain this interest on slow but rational grounds.
In the 14th century, the carpets weaved in Eastern Anatolia were considered luxury goods in France, the country that they were exported to and decorated the French palaces. It is enough to look at the paintings by 16th century painters such as Hans Holbein, Lorenzo Lotto, Bernardino di Betto and Sebastiano del Piombo to see how much these carpets were favored.
A colorful diplomacy
When the Ottoman ambassador that was sent to France in 1607 visited the Palace of Fontainebleau in southern Paris, he aroused curiosity and interest among the nobles. Even a couple of years after this visit, musicians wearing Ottoman-style clothes took the stage at a French ballet performance.
Interesting scenes also came out when King Louis XIV of France gave an audience to the Ottoman ambassador Suleiman Agha. The king spared no gaudiness to influence the ambassador. Suleiman Agha was a low ranking Ottoman official; he ironically echoed Istanbul’s view of the Sun King. As a matter of fact, the ambassador was not as captivated as he was accustomed to see much more gaudiness in Istanbul. However, the noblemen began to imitate the splendor and colorful attires of the Ottoman delegation. The Turkish fashion was in high demand especially in masquerade balls. In Moliere’s play “Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme,” staged in 1702, the scene with Turkish celebration where actors wearing Turkish-style clothes catches people’s attention.
A time came when the most well-known French artists of the 18th century envied to become a Turkish painter. It is not surprising to see that Flemish artist Jean-Baptiste van Mour (1671-1737) who spent 30 years of his life in Istanbul, depicted oriental scenes in his paintings. However, the Turkish themes in the paintings by the painters such as Parrocel, Latour, Cochin, Lancret and van Loo who had never set a foot in the East are quite interesting. These painters selected their models among the Ottoman delegation that traveled to France during the reign of Louis XV and enchanted the court as well as Parisians.
The Turks’ friendship with the French goes back to the 16th century that began with the friendly relationship between Ottoman Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent and Francis I of France. However, the cultural encounters of the two countries began in the early 18th century. The Ottoman ambassador Yirmisekiz Mehmed Chaleby, who was sent to the France in 1721, during the Tulip Era, when the Ottomans reached to a high and refined aesthetic, made a splash in Paris and the Parisian newspapers featured the ambassador and his eccentric entourage for days. The king liked to see this foreigner. The ambassador’s attire and his manners were quite different from the noblemen who were ever allowed to make a presence before the French king.
Ambassador Mehmed Chaleby, who was an Ottoman intellectual, was worthy of this kind reception. As he was kind to the curious Parisian ladies who flocked to the palace that were assigned for his use and showed interest in everything that he saw up close, Duchess d’Orleans said, “He is the most kind and understanding man that I have ever seen in my life.” Following Mehmed Chaleby, all Ottoman ambassadors excited the Parisians equally.
The welcoming of the Ottoman ambassador to Paris in 1721 turned into a spectacle. On one side, the Ottoman delegation in their colorful and elegant clothes and on the other side ushers, guards and generals offered favorable scenes for the painters. History painter Antoine Coypel painted the ceremony of the king receiving the ambassador and presented the painting to the king’s regent Philippe d’Orleans. This painting was followed by others with the same theme by other painters. They were sold at very high prices; the French nobles preferred to decorate their walls with these paintings. Parrocel, on the other hand, portrayed these noble and beautiful scenes in phases and some of his paintings are kept in the Versailles Museum. The Paris visit of the Ottoman ambassador drew so much attention that his visit not only subject to paintings but also tapestries which were modelled from the paintings.
Rondo Alla Turca
Paris has always been taken with foreigners. To reflect their administration, they brought new fashion movements in their hair styles as well as attire. The effect of “A la Turque” fashion did not go away easily for years after the ambassador of the Ottoman Sultan returned to his home. Hence, the West’s admiration for the Orient that began during the reign of Mehmed the Conqueror and known by the names of “Turquerie,” “Turkomanie,” and Alla Turca increasingly continued. This Orient-effect affected a large portion of social life from art to architecture, clothing to food.
Some French families in Istanbul brought traditional souvenirs when they returned to their homeland and presented these objects to the French king. On the other hand, some mesmerized the Parisians with heavy fabrics and ornamented costumes and posed for the painters. Turban became the most popular accessory in women’s clothing.
The noblemen in the 18th century Europe began to dress up in Ottoman-looking clothes, hold their wedding ceremonies in the Turkish-style and keep Turkish carpets, tulips, coffee, and sherbet in their palaces and castles. Turkish themes were also in demand in various fields such as literature, painting, performance arts and decorations. Especially novels, ballets and operas featuring Turkish characters were in common.
Wearing Turkish costumes in balls and posing for the painters in Turkish clothing became a habit for the Europeans. French diplomat Harbette said: “Paris has almost become like one of Istanbul’s neighborhoods,” describing this period in France. The Turkish influence in Europe’s social life first surfaced as dread then continued as curiosity, imitation and finally the birth of Orientalism.
Moustache a la Turque
The Jardin Turc (“Turkish Garden”), once Paris’s most popular gardens turned out to be a favorite background for paintings. Madame de Pompadur and Madame du Barry, two famous socialites in France ordered painter Charles-Andre van Loo to depict them in Turkish-style attire in a portrait.
In music, composers inspired from Ottoman janissary band music and Oriental themes began to be heard in balls and festivities. Mozart, Haydn and Beethoven have “Alla Turca-style” compositions. Another interesting account is that during the wedding of Austrian princess Maria Josepha and Saxonia Prince Friedrich August in 1719, a large group of young people in janissary uniform and “moustache a la Turque” performed a show. The ship that brought the bride and the wedding venue was also inspired from Ottoman-style. The Ottoman-Austria wars made traditional Turkish coffee (“Türkentrank”) popular in Europe, notably in Paris through war captives. Some cafes inspired from the Turkish-style made a common point of intellectuals and socialites, even became a symbol of Paris.
All in all, European architecture, design and even daily items had their share from Turquerie fashion. The Belvedere Palace’s side domes looking as if they were covered by tasseled tent or the Karlskirche, which has towers reminiscent of minarets are some the examples of this trend. In 1785, a mosque built in the Scwetzinger Palace’s garden is another illustration of the Western world’s interest to the East.
Work depicting aristocrat as a young poet will remain on view at Powis Castle in Wales.
One of the finest British miniatures, by Isaac Oliver, has been bought by the National Trust. Valued at £5.2m, it has been acquired for £2.1m, because of tax concessions on a sale to a public collection. Even at the lower figure, it is probably a record price for a British miniature.
Depicting Edward Herbert, 1st Baron Herbert of Cherbury, the miniature (around 1610-14) will remain on display at the National Trust-owned Powis Castle, near Welshpool in Wales. The sitter was a poet, philosopher and statesman. He is shown as a fashionable and melancholic young lover with his head resting on his hand, as he lies stretched out on the banks of a stream in a shady forest. His shield includes a bleeding heart.
Although the private seller is not being identified, it is believed to be a descendant of the sitter’s family, now the Earls of Powis. The acquisition was supported with grants from the National Heritage Memorial Fund (£1.5m) and the Art Fund (£300,000), along with the remainder raised by the National Trust. The sale was arranged by the London-based agent Omnia Art.
The Oliver miniature now requires conservation to consolidate the paint, since there are some slightly loose surfaces. The pigments will be examined to determine their light sensitivity. This work will be done in the coming months. The miniature is then likely to be lent to several venues before returning to Powis Castle. It will not go back to the library, but will have its own special display.
Four Clive of India treasures from Powis Castle were sold off by the Earl of Powis’s family in 2004 at Christie’s, fetching £4.7m.
PARIS — The square at the center of the Louvre, dominated by I.M. Pei’s glass pyramid, was desolate early Friday morning, save for a few tourists taking selfies.
The museum was closed to visitors, as Parisexperienced its worst flooding since 1982 — but inside, staff members and volunteers had worked around the clock to remove artworks from the threat of the rising waters of the Seine River.
I was part of a small group of journalists whom the French culture minister, Audrey Azoulay; the museum’s president, Jean-Luc Martinez; and other officials took on a tour of the strangely vacant museum on Friday afternoon. (Broadcast journalists were given priority; we scribblers tagged behind, straining to hear what was said.)
We were led through the Denon Wing, home of the “Mona Lisa” and usually the most crowded of the museum’s three wings. Rooms packed with Renaissance and Baroque Italian masterpieces were ghostly. The “Winged Victory of Samothrace” was bereft of its usual admirers.
Inside the galleries containing Greek and Roman antiquities, the situation was more chaotic. Near the 2,200-year-old “Venus de Milo,” storage boxes were piled atop one another. Boxes completely encircled some sculptures, like one of a crouching Aphrodite from the third century B.C.
At the other end of the room, the goddess of wisdom, Athena, kept an eye on the metal drawers stacked to her side. The Hellenistic gallery had become just another storage room for treasures from elsewhere in the Louvre.
Some 150,000 artworks in storage rooms, and an additional 7,000 pieces in galleries, were deemed vulnerable to flooding, and many of them were moved to higher floors starting on Thursday evening.
Museum officials activated a flood-protection plan established in 2002. The plan includes, among other things, an inventory of all works that would need to be transferred to upper floors of the museum and plans to slow the spread of any water entering the museum.
Although the Seine was expected to crest by Friday evening at around 20 feet, and no water had entered the museum thus far, officials were taking no chances.
The works that were in storage were the easiest to handle. “It took us less time than we thought, because the artwork was already in containment boxes, so we just had to move them from one floor to an upper one,” said Adel Ziane, the museum’s deputy director of communications.
The most painstaking work involved the removal of works from display cases. Yannick Lintz, the head curator of Islamic art at the Louvre, posted to Twitter images of the display cases, emptied after a long night of work, and of the plastic storage crates where the objects were wrapped and packaged.
In some galleries, it looked as though a family was about to move in — or out. Boxes were subdivided by foam boards, creating spaces for vases and other precious objects. A seemingly abandoned ancient frieze sat on a wooden pallet on the floor of one gallery, half wrapped in plastic sheets.
“For the artwork which was exhibited and not in storage, like for the department of Islamic art, we had to move the pieces from their window displays,” Mr. Ziane said. “We have a team of exhibition-space managers who take care of handling the artwork, and a team of curators who watch over everything.”
For all its complexity, it was nothing like 1938-39, when the museum was stripped of its masterpieces ahead of the German invasion of France in 1940. “Walls of Louvre Blankly Stare While Treasures Rest in Vaults,” aheadline in the European edition of The New York Herald Tribune declared. The museum was partly reopened during the German occupation, but without its top masterpieces, which were hidden in secret locations across France. (Nazi officials eventually discovered the location of most of them, but decided to leave them in place.)
The 2002 flood-protection plan, for all its detail, does not prioritize among works of art. How, in a palace of treasures, can one select the very best?
“It is difficult to say which one is more valuable,” Mr. Ziane said. “They are all priceless, and we decided the evacuation according to their risk of exposure.”
Besides Islamic art, the staff also moved works from Coptic displays and most of the Greek, Etruscan and Roman antiquities in storage.
Mr. Martinez, the museum’s president, said it was difficult to estimate the total number of works moved, but he said it amounted to “thousands and thousands.” Officials were monitoring the levels of the Seine constantly, he said, to see if they needed to move even more works.
“The situation is changing hour per hour — it is still difficult to know when we are going to reopen,” he said.
Earlier this year, the museum did a training exercise, simulating a flood situation, involving in the Islamic art department. That helped the process this week move more smoothly.
But in the long run, the Louvre plans to move more artworks that are not on display to another location. By 2019, it intends to store nearly all those works in the regional branch of the Louvre in Lens, about 125 miles north of Paris.
Tourism is a big driver of the French economy, and Ms. Azoulay, who became culture minister in February, took pains to emphasize that things were under control.
”For now, the artworks of the Louvre are not in danger,” she said. “We have anticipated the situation and the emergency plan worked quite well.”
Other institutions, however, were less fortunate, particularly those in the Loire Valley.
The Musée Girodet in Montargis, devoted to the work of the Romantic painter Anne-Louis Girodet, was heavily damaged.
And the gardens of the Château de Fougères-sur-Bièvre, about 130 miles southwest of Paris, were completely submerged. “It is such a waste, because we had just finished two years of restoration work,” said Philippe Bélaval, the president of the National Monuments Center of France.
Victoria & Albert Museum, London By submerging Botticelli and his Venus in the trashy pool of pop and tourist culture they have inspired, this landmark show elevates them both
A dolce and Gabbana dress covered with prints of Botticelli’s Birth of Venus, a clip of Uma Thurman emerging from a shell in The Adventures of Baron Munchhausen, graffiti art, Bulgari, a golden Italian racing car wheel that quotes a Botticelli brooch. I have wandered into some wonderland suspended between beauty and kitsch, where the Renaissance has morphed into trashy pop culture.
One version of The Birth of Venus, by Vik Muniz, is literally made of trash, an assemblage of junk shaped into Botticelli’s classical composition, as if it had taken shape in the street. It is glorious. Truthfully, I have never seen an exhibition that so courageously captures what is magical about Italian Renaissance art. The magic and the mystery is precisely the ability to persist in this mad mix of modern reproduction, imitation, quotation and – let’s be clear – degradation, yet still come out on top. The world’s most beautiful and timeless works of art are also its biggest cliches and most absurd cultural phenomena.
Go to Florence, the city that pervades this V&A exhibition like a half-remembered dream, and you’ll find Botticelli keyrings, bags, statuettes, notebooks and kitchen aprons galore. Some of that souvenir bric-a-brac makes it into this show, as does Tomoko Nagao’s hyperpop digital image, in which EasyJet planes pay homage to Venus in an apotheosis of tourism. The wonderful and strange thing is that, in among the crowds at the Uffizi, real, profound experiences are had. Egyptian artist Youssef Nabil even got the Florentine gallery to let him stay after hours. He lies, apparently asleep, in front of Botticelli’s Primavera, a weary pilgrim dreaming of Flora and the Three Graces.
Museums are hypocritical. They are happy to sell the tourist tat, but when it comes to curating Renaissance art, they affect a remote scholarly dignity. Never before have I seen an exhibition of a great Renaissance artist that actually embraces the tackiness of souvenirs and pop remakes. This is a landmark event. It shows other museums how to reimagine Renaissance art for 21st century audiences: put Venus in the gutter and let her beauty shine through all the more poignantly.
Here is René Magritte’s painting of Botticelli’s Flora projected on to the back of a bowler-hatted man, there Scottish surrealist Edward Baird’s portrait of his girlfriend posing as Venus on Montrose Beach in 1934. Across the gallery, a hermaphrodite Venus poses among junkies in a photograph by Joel-Peter Witkin. Bob Dylan is singing Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands and Orlan is having cosmetic surgery to look like a living Botticelli. Then it all gets much, much weirder.
If modern culture is still intoxicated by Botticelli, this is because we are the heirs of the Victorians, who rediscovered him and made his melancholy beauties iconic. From contemporary art, the exhibition rewinds to the age of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, who owned a Botticelli portrait and imitated it in his luscious paintings of Jane Morris. Meanwhile, her husband William Morris was creating a tapestry inspired by Botticelli’s Primavera that put a socialist spin on its mythic women as they promise a new “spring” for the world.
Sexual fantasies blossom darkly as Victorian symbolists portray naked women seduced by serpents and bathing in sultry pools. These artists went to Florence in search of taboo sex and found it, of all places, in Botticelli’s art. It was these 19th-century dreamers who corrupted Botticelli, even as they adored him. So it is a shock to move back another few centuries in time and come smack up against the man himself, Sandro Botticelli, who lived and worked in Florence between about 1445 and 1510.
Botticelli was not the sensualist we imagine him to be. A lot of his works here are religious. They include a startlingly energetic large scale painting of the Pentecost, owned by Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, only recognised as Botticelli’s work this century, and an absolutely ravishing Virgin and Child with Two Angels from Vienna. He signs himself as Alessandro on his Mystic Nativity, which bears a prophecy of the end of days and the coming of the New Jerusalem, written in Greek above a rapturous ring of ascending angels.
This artist we know as a painter of pagan gods became a follower of the preacher Girolamo Savonarola, who briefly turned Florence into a theocracy. The most fearsome of Botticelli’s apocalyptic paintings imagines Florence itself in flames, as a woman hugs the cross. She is beautiful. So are the angels in the Mystic Nativity. Even when he was using art to preach the end of the world, Botticelli cannot help dwelling on his singular vision of female beauty. Even his angels look like pagan goddesses or nymphs.
In a series of paintings often said to be portraits of the legendary Florentine beauty Simonetta Vespucci, adored by Botticelli’s patrons Lorenzo and Giuliano de’ Medici, the painter explores the possibilities of the female face and, even more so, hair. In these beguiling pictures, it runs like a golden river and flows like frozen honey. Botticelli’s women are marvellous. But are they erotic? There is a spirituality that makes them truly godlike and pure.
In his great painting Pallas and the Centaur, lent by the Uffizi and one of its knockout masterpieces, the goddess of wisdom holds a centaur by the hair. She has a firm grip on the half-man, half-horse creature, easily disciplining its bestial nature. The centaur is the most realistic in all art. But what is really eerie is the face of Pallas: she looks right past the base, fleshly beast into space. Her eyes are on higher things. Botticelli and his fellow intellectuals at the Medici court were fans of Plato. According to their neo-Platonic ideas, a love of beauty transcends carnal desire. It can become a vision of the divine.
Today we don’t go in for such fancy ideas about love. So why do we still keep looking at Botticelli? Andy Warhol, that secretly religious man who worked in Catholic soup kitchens incognito, has the answer. Warhol’s versions of Botticelli’s Venus hugely enlarges her face and leave you drowning in her gaze. It is not a sensual gaze, but a rhapsodic apprehension of the power of love. Warhol understood the sadness and profanity and holiness in all of us, diving for pearls in an ocean of trash. But Botticelli saw it best of all.
Ask the question of the week – what does it mean to be British? – and the answer you might get from our metropolitan art galleries might be at once polymorphic and paradoxical, but also strangely consoling, in the way of the best culture, about the dark times in which we live.
This dazzling collage of portraits, jewellery, sculpture, rare photographs, wax tableaux and sumptuous oriental prints underlines a simple, and possibly inconvenient, truth: ours is a patchwork culture stitched together by amateur connoisseurs creating an eclectic mix of good taste and booty.
In the tantalising mirror of our accumulated cultural artefacts, from Admiralty maps to Aboriginal miniatures, almost everything you might say about Britain is true – and so is its opposite. Love it or loathe it, in the British Isles we can declare allegiance to any number of totems – global, European, national, sporting, ethnic, civic or sexual – but we cannot escape a rendezvous with Britishness.
That, in turn, derives from the accident of geography. This is an island culture. Appropriately, in the first room of the Tate’s Artist and Empire, between nautical maps and portraits of grizzled sailors, the visitor encounters Millais’s The North-West Passage.
It is the sea above all that makes us British and continues to shape British identity in so many ways. Nearly one in three Britons live within six miles of the coast. A recent YouGov poll placed “being an island” sixth in the top 10 of “best things about Britain”.
The sea is the best defence known to man, and also a great natural highway. People who live by water are different. Islanders have different physical, and psychic, horizons. So the sea did not just define the British – it inspired them to become pirates, merchants, travellers, explorers and empire-builders. It also became integral to our literature and imagination, as well as a raison d’etre.
Not only did the sea sponsor a unique civic transaction in the lives of an island people, it also inspired the British concept of privacy. Islanders are insular – a word synonymous with “defiant”, “separate”, “alone”, “divergent” and “self-sufficient”.
The first Britons, the Celts, sailed here across the sea and established a culture and a society many modern Britons still venerate for its connection to a mythic past. Dr Julia Farley, who curated the British Museum’s exhibition on the Celts, says the history of these ancestors is “phenomenally complicated. You can define Celtic in many different ways, from art to language. That’s why we love the term ‘Celtic’ – because it’s so slippery.”
Farley is not sure why, but visitors to the museum “love the idea of something very old”. The statistics bear this out: almost 100,000 visitors have passed through the Sainsbury Gallery to marvel at more than 300 Celtic treasures from the dawn of time.
Farley’s favourite exhibit, the Gundestrup cauldron, from Denmark, exemplifies a multicultural theme. Although it was made outside the Celtic world, probably in the Balkans, it is rich in lovely Celtic detail: a god holding a stag, a man riding a fish, a female warrior surrounded by her hounds. “It conjures a lost world,” says Farley, “and its ancient magic.”
The Celts’ nemesis, the Anglo-Saxons, also invaded across the sea, landing here with such ferocity that, according to the chronicle, the Britons fled westwards “as if from fire”.
Farley points out that it’s possible to challenge this traditional view and to speculate about the intermarriage of Celt and Saxon. “With the biggest questions about our past,” she says, “it’s always a matter of definition.”
The impossibility of reaching clarity about our identity was illustrated in 2008 when the Times campaigned for a “British” motto: something to rival liberté, égalité, fraternité, but less embarrassing than “Cool Britannia”. Readers had a field day. Their suggestions included, for example, “Dipso. Fatso. Bingo. Asbo. Tesco.” This was closely followed by: “No Motto Please, We’re British.”
Britain’s early history, which was profoundly marginal, echoes this disdain. Somehow, by the skin of their teeth, these people, who had begun to call themselves “Englysshe”, flourished. Now, their language and culture reflected a new kind of self-belief, whose mission statement was Shakespeare’s “O, brave new world”.
After a slow start, they became global adventurers, half-pirate, half-pastor, planting English and Englishness across the known world from Boston to Botany Bay.
There was something “sticky” about this language, and the ideas it embodied, so adhesive in fact that at times it has behaved more like a kind of cultural virus, self-confidently infecting all kinds of international contacts.
In the first room of the newly opened galleries at the V&A, visitors will find Bernini’s Neptune and Triton next to a terracotta model of Ludovica Albertoni, the saintly 16th-century noblewoman who devoted herself to caring for the poor and sick.
This permanent exhibition, currently devoted to Bernini, Caravaggio and the brilliance of 18th century European art, illustrates the complexity of Britain’s passionate engagement with the culture of Europe and a wider world. The dividend from that exchange was an intoxicating infusion of Enlightenment joie de vivre from across the Channel, an intellectual frisson personified in the feline smile of the great Voltaire.
Politically, however, as the century unfolded, all was not for the best in the best of all possible worlds. Britain’s experience of the Enlightenment was, arguably, more immediate and more disconcerting.
The American Declaration of Independence, a model of Enlightenment thinking, both appropriated Britain’s “13 colonies”, but also inspired the empire “on which the sun never sets”.
At Tate Britain, art and imperialism meet in the shadows of transportation and slavery. In a promotional video, Shami Chakrabarti reminds visitors that “some great things came out of the British empire, but not without a cost to different peoples around the world”. And at home, too. Millbank is the site of the prison from which convicts were deported to New South Wales. Moreover, the gallery bears the name of Henry Tate, who made his fortune from that genteel product of the slave trade: sugar.
However, in another irony, it was the Tate that would come to house the largest collection of one of Britain’s greatest artists, Joseph Mallord William Turner, an ardent anti-slaver. Turner’s Slave Ship – originally called Slavers Throwing Overboard the Dead and Dying–Typhoon Coming On and first exhibited in 1840 – is not part of Artist and Empire, but the horrors of the slave trade are represented in work by several minor artists.
Again, the Tate’s art will remind many Britons, currently unsure of their place in the world, of some timeless predicaments. For example, one forgotten landscape has languished in storage for more than 50 years. Now its hour has come.
Elizabeth Butler’s The Remnants of an Army: Jellalabad, January 13th, 1842, painted during the second Afghan war, was seen by Victorians as a stirring portrait of British military heroism.
Alison Smith, curator of Artist and Empire, insists that it should be read as the work of a painter critical of British policy. “This work,” she told theGuardian, “was partly produced to convey the idea of British history repeating itself, often with disastrous consequences.”
Today, Butler’s Remnants hangs near a portrait of another British military disaster at the end of another Afghan war, William Barnes Wollen’s The Last Stand of the 44th Regiment at Gundamuck, showing an Essex regiment being overwhelmed by its tribal enemy. In 1898, on first display, Wollen’s canvas was praised as a commemoration of gallantry in the face of overwhelming odds. But in 2002, British soldiers found reproductions being sold in the markets of Kabul – as a symbol of Afghans defeating foreign invaders. It would be hard to conceive a more poignant image of post-imperial Britishness.
Today, in London, there is a parallel global mood at work among the art institutions of the metropolis. Charles Saumarez Smith, chief executive of the Royal Academy, formerly director of the National Portrait Gallery, spoke about this change. “When I was director,” he told the Observer, “we didn’t really think much about issues of Britishness – although, of course, the choice of portraits reflected all sorts of unspoken assumptions about who we are. The Royal Academy likewise used to be viewed as an old-fashioned English institution, based on the democratic traditions of the annual summer exhibition and its position on Piccadilly, opposite Fortnum and Mason.”
Today, such British institutions flourish in a changed world. “It’s now extremely global,” Saumarez Smith continues. At the Royal Academy “we are able to show Ai Weiwei without reference to his situation in China, to open exhibitions next year on Monet and Giorgione, and currently show Liotard, a Swiss artist who became known as a Turk and worked all over Europe. This reflects the global nature of the art world, in which Antony Gormley and Anish Kapoor are as well known in China and Japan as they are in London.”
At the British Museum, such global influences get refashioned for a popular domestic audience. Joanna Mackle, its deputy director, speaking to the Observer, noted that “this museum was one of the first national institutions to be called ‘British’, proclaiming the right of every citizen to explore a collection which embraced the whole world. The result would be a new kind of citizen – free, informed and equipped for independent thought.”
Open, tolerant and cosmopolitan, the museum remains an expression of Britain’s global outlook, celebrating, says Mackle, “the diverse cultures of the world on a wide range of subjects, including ancient Persia, indigenous Australia and, currently, the Celts. It’s also in partnership with museums across the country, making it in a very real sense the ‘British’ Museum.”
Perhaps this is why, at home, British multiculturalism has begun to take on some local colour. New Britons have many qualities – in surveys, their optimism, good humour, tolerance and a sense of fair play are ones that we identify – but pride or introspection are not among them.
One recent Channel 4 documentary about multicultural Bradford showed a contemporary white Briton, a man, cheerfully analysing his heritage: “I know I’m a British citizen,” he said, “because I’m not anything else.”
It all started in 2013, when Nikos Papadopoulos was playing with his eldest son John-Marios. “We were pretending to go to bed using Playmobil – and it gave me the idea to recreate scenes not only about home life, but the whole of society,” he says.
Since then, the 36-year-old comedy writer from Thessaloniki has become Greece’s latest art star. He’s spent around €900 on Playmobil to make dozens of artworks in his living-room studio. He approaches the work like a satirist – setting up the figurines to express his political opinions (he could be called a visual columnist or a toy cartoonist). He then photographs the dioramas and posts them on his Plasticobilism fan page.
His first piece was to commemorate the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women (25 November). It shows a woman with black eyes. “When I saw that photo, it gave me the chills,” he says.
Since then he has focused on the refugee crisis. In one work, a crammed boat sails the ocean while a mother cradles a young boy – which calls to mind the three-year-old Syrian refugee Aylan Kurdi, whose body was washed up on the Turkish seaside. “With this photo,” he says, “I wanted to remind people that there are no illegal immigrants – only immigrants.”
In another image, a beach scene (based on a real photo he saw in the news) shows tourists on the island of Kos as refugees arrive by boat. “In the real photo,” says Papadopoulos, “the mother and her son came from the sea, and a woman lying on a sunbed turned away from them to avoid refugees ruining her vacation.”
In his version, a mother in a red burqa carries a child to the shore – while a sunbathing woman in a polka-dot bikini raises her sunglasses to get a closer look.
“It’s a message to those who care only about themselves and don’t give a damn about people who suffer from war,” says Papadopoulos, “while ironically, the only thing they want is a safer and better life for them and their children.”
He also targets the Greek financial crisis, with an ATM machine dragging a bank customer along by a chain. It’s a symbol of the austerity at home – it was only recently that bank machines would only let people withdraw €60 at a time. “It was like all these people were slaves to the machines – that’s why I named this photo ATM’s Bitch. The bottom line is: be afraid of empty humans instead of empty ATMs.”
His hilarious compositions carry chilling truths, like the one that shows German Chancellor Angela Merkel in a Viking hat holding two Greek politicians on leashes, both of whom are eating Euros out of dog bowls.
“These two men symbolise the prime minister candidates of my country, who I see as Merkel’s pets,” he says of Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras and Vangelis Meimarakis (“the one with the moustache”).
“What’s happening in my country has deprived people of their hope, their optimism and their smile – three things that are interwoven in Greek people,” he says. “I feel that there is no dignity or pride in my country, no independence or justice.”
The most controversial pieces Papadopoulos has made depict Golden Dawn, Greece’s extreme rightwing party, attacking a white dove and brains. “They can’t handle democratic or free expressions,” he explains.
Papadopoulos’s goal is threefold: to be funny, to criticise the government and to show the consequences of our actions. “As long as we think that only politicians are responsible for our misery, nothing will change,” he says.
Many see his art as symbols of political correctness, but Playmobil are not fans. The German company shut down his first fansite “on the grounds of trademark infringement and the ‘political’ use of their products,” says Papadopoulos. When he started a new site, they warned him that the same thing would happen if he didn’t remove the political content.
After negotiations, both his fansite and blog now host a disclaimer that his pictures are not owned, operated, sponsored or authorised by Playmobil. “I should have the right to use a toy that I’ve bought in any way I like without censorship,” says Papadopoulos. “Otherwise it’s like the pen’s inventor forbidding you to write.”
He still plays with the figurines at home with his son – though he sees them now, not just as toys, but as a powerful tool. “A Playmobil figure symbolises something pure and innocent,” says Papadopoulos. “When I put this innocent object in a cruel human scene, I want to remind people of that feeling we had as children, the feeling we’ve completely lost. My kids haven’t lost it – and I hope that when the time comes for them to understand reality, the reality will be more humane.”