Thursday, October 28, 2010

50 UK Days: Week 2.5

I took an opportunity this past Monday to stroll through the Leeds Art Gallery. I had been wanting to do this for quite some time, because they have a few important Victorian paintings by artists like Holman Hunt, Waterhouse, and Leighton. Alas, work by the first two was not on display, but Leighton’s painting Persephone, 1891, was, which I was glad to see. However, the picture that struck me most was the one you see above: Retribution by Edward Armitage, 1858 (image: romanticism-in-art). The painting is larger than life in size. On first examination, even in digital form, one might find it somewhat bizarre. A fierce she-man is about to slay a tiger, while a woman and child lie dead in the foreground near an open Bible, and another woman looks on from behind waiting to be rescued. In the background are palm trees and, behind the main figure, a domed building that resembles the Taj Mahal. The juxtaposition of Western classicism with Eastern exoticism tells you this is a painting about Western colonialism. Indeed, anyone who is familiar with Edward Said’s book Orientalism or Linda Nochlin’s essay “The Imaginary Orient” would be quick to point out that this picture shows the oppression of the East. The date and title of the picture, however, tell you much about its historical origins. In 1857 the Sepoy Rebellion in India led to a massacre of numerous British women and children affiliated with the British East India Company. Their bodies were violated, dismembered, and tossed into wells. This shocking news of barbarism led to the immediate governmental order to suppress the rebels and overtake the country. It was then that India officially was annexed by the British Empire, and subsequently led to Queen Victoria being named Empress of India in 1876. This painting then admittedly can be seen by us today as Orientalist oppression, but in its day it was a symbol of patriotism. The she-male is Britannia, the allegorical representation of the British Empire, and the tiger, fear now evident in its eye, is India, aware of its impending demise against the British. The picture was intended for a British public angry about the treatment of its people by an inferior, savage race, and were determined to exact retribution. A picture like this easily could be dismissed by viewers today as melodrama or kitsch, but in fact the story behind it demonstrates how powerfully political a painting could be then, and how its message can still resonate today.

In an inversion of the West-East divide, I went to a talk on Wednesday evening given by artist Marie Redmond, whose work has been influenced by Japanese Ukiyo-e prints. Redmond is a graduate of the School of Art in Glasgow (as a native Scot, her accent was so strong I had to listen very closely for the first few minutes until I became accustomed to it!). Redmond has a few pieces in the current exhibition Undone at the Henry Moore Institute. Now, as bklynbiblio readers know, I’m not typically a fan of contemporary art. I’ve been known, in fact, to call it on more than one occasion Self-Indulgent Crap. I freely admit, however, it’s because I don’t “get” it, and I do believe many of these artists are purposely ridiculing us Philistines for attempting to appreciate the idea behind their art-capital-A (call me cynical). However, I have a much greater appreciation for—and can even say I like—contemporary artists whose work connects with the art historical past or relates to the presence of the body (e.g. see my laudatory reviews on Yinka Shonibare and Marina Abramovic). Redmond explained how “The Floating World,” Japanese Ukiyo-e and Shunga (erotic) prints, influenced the making of her art. She discussed how issues of viewing (peeping/spying), interiors/exteriors, gender, and bodily forms (e.g. kimonos as sculptured objects) inspired her in the creation of specific sculptures. Her art is comprised of both found everyday objects, from corrugated metal to bamboo, and crafted objects, such as tie-dyed fabrics. What struck me as she spoke was that even though the physical body as one perceives it in Japanese prints does not appear directly in her sculptures, the suggestion of bodily presence is seen through the arrangement of the objects, and narrativity become apparent through her titles and use of specific materials. One reviewer of her work (Sarah Lowndes) described it as “stories masquerading as objects,” which I think is apt, especially when you see how she installs it in a gallery space. The pathway that is created through and among each of the objects makes you realize that they are like chapters in a story unfolding spatially around you. It many ways it is not unlike Japanese prints or Chinese scroll paintings, which are unfolded or unrolled, giving you bits of a story, and inviting you to continue to the next stage. Redmond is represented by The Modern Institute, but you can see a few images of her work when she won the 2009 Paul Hamlyn Foundation Award. Considering the picture we began with, I couldn’t help but close with one of the more titillating Shunga prints Redmond showed us, an amusing erotic scene entitled Woman Holding Umbrella Throwing a Snowball from Outside at Lovers in an Interior by Suzuki Harunobu, from about 1765-70 (image: British Museum). And, yes, they are doing what you think they’re doing.

No comments: