Sunday, 29 November 2015

Two Tates and Four Exhibitions - The First Two

I went to Tate Britain to see the Frank Auerback exhibition but accidentally went into the strangely fascinating 'Artists & Empire' exhibition first. 'Empire' is a bit of a charged term these days but it's ripe to plunder for its artistic heritage, as this exhibition amply demonstrates. Yes there are maps showing one quarter of the world coloured red to show the expanse of Empire and yes, there are paintings of governors and others in their version of exotic 'native' costumes and yes, there are paintings illustrating the military might of Empire. But there is a lot more to the exhibition than that.

It's a mix of paintings, sculpture and some textiles and head-dresses and many of the paintings are by non-British artists, artists from around the world that painted scenes from the last big empire. And the paintings aren't just of the great and wealthy, there's a painting of the first former slave Black Barbadian freed woman and property owner who went on to own slaves herself, paintings of crowded cock-fights, of Indian princesses in their finery, of the army taking custody of the sons of enemy nobles as a guarantee of good behaviour, of sad scenes of lovers parting as the man boards a ship to do his duty in some far off place and of women hiding during the Indian mutiny.

Some of the painting stirred strange emotions, such as the scenes of fallen soldiers in some far off and little know war, the last dozen of a regiment surrounded by fallen comrades as the Afghan warriors charge and, reading the sign beside the painting which tells of a captain wrapping himself in the regiment's colours to die only to be left to live and subsequently released by the Afghans. These were real stories that barely trouble the history books but were known at the time. What must it have been like for these young lads to go off to fight in far-flung places when the world was much bigger than it is today, when distances were impossibly huge and they ended up fighting strange peoples at the word of their masters and, let's face it, it was all about money and power for the few at the top of the pile that never faced these dangers. Was it all about adventure or did they have little choice but to go and take the King's shilling?

There are also paintings of the subjects of Empire as well, such as an intense double portrait of two Sikh gentlemen in their turbans and uniform before they went to fight for the British in the trenches of  First World War France. They were captains who survived the war but what must it have been like for them? A sign elsewhere noted that one in six of the soldiers in the First World War were from the Empire but where is this history told and what happened to them, dying half a world away from where they grew up for an Empire that barely valued them other than as fodder. 

The exhibition ends with some more contemporary works to show how the former colonies have been able to reconcile their more recent histories and draw new artistic freedoms from it. It's odd to think that the Empire isn't that long gone and it was the First World War that was the beginning of the end and the  Indian partition finally ended it. Do I feel guilty about the Empire? It brought massive wealth to this country but my people were just as much servants of Empire as anyone else under its rule around the globe, working in the fields and down the mines. I suspect that if I'd been born 200 years ago and sought to escape poverty by adventuring abroad I would've 'gone native' under the Raj and lived as an eccentric. I still might do that.

The Frank Auerbach exhibition was a very different creature, showing his works from the 1950s onwards as his style and vision developed. I know nothing about Mr Auerback but I now know that he's had a studio at Mornington Crescent (just up from Camden in North London) for decades because he painted the area so frequently. And what vibrant paintings they are too - or at least some of them.

His paintings are thick with paint, laid on by a palette knife and chunky brushes, lots of layers and textures on the canvas. A few of them made me want to climb into that froth of paint and explore his colourful North London streets  No doubt it'll be far from the grey concrete and red brick reality of those streets.

I'm not entirely sure what he was trying to say - and is still trying to say - but I'd love to have a chat about it over a glass of wine some day and how I can find my way into his vision of Mornington Crescent ...

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