The Whole Picture – the colonial story of the art in our museums || Alice Procter

This is about as timely as it gets and is certainly woke. Alice Procter’s Uncomfortable Art Tours around museums in London were born out of a sense of frustration at a lack of acknowledgment of colonial history in art galleries.

This is only partly true, as any historian worth their salt knows about the role of colonialism in mainly the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries. I would like to think that an image such as The East Offering Its Riches to Britannia, painted for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, could not fail to make any viewer feel at least a little uncomfortable. Images of kangaroos, however, perhaps more simply educate a willing public about the fauna of distant lands – even if they were invaded and their indigenous populations subjugated. Dürer, of course, famously drew a rhinoceros probably only from a description. It would not be unfair, I think, to say that George Stubbs was not quite so well-informed. And then we have the famous Tipu’s Tiger, an automaton that mauls an unfortunate British soldier. The point that Procter makes rather eloquently here is that while the original is in London, only a rather poor plastic copy exists in the original location.

This, of course, raises the perennial question of whether all art should remain where it was created, or whether it can be moved about the world. It is inevitable that such moves will involve a degree of plunder and this is not limited to a single place or civilisation. Sometimes, the very movement becomes the story itself and history can lend an awful lot of perspective – we can marvel at a Roman statue of a legionary dominating a subjugated Celt without feeling the need to ask for the whole of modern Italy to be cancelled.

To be fair to this book, and its author in particular, this is neither preaching nor a rant, but rather an examination of a subject that is very much to the fore. Should we pull down statues of slave traders or let them stand and tell the story of how they came to be there? Which one illuminates history and which consigns it even further to the dark recesses of memory than it already is? If you want information that will help you think, it’s here.

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