Art And The British Empire At Tate: Reviewed

Artist and Empire, Tate Britain ★★★☆☆

Tabish Khan
By Tabish Khan Last edited 27 months ago
Art And The British Empire At Tate: Reviewed Artist and Empire, Tate Britain 3
British officers are entertained in an India court. Copyright British Library.

The British Empire is a tricky subject to explore; even today it generates patriotism and shame in equal measure among Britons. Artist & Empire: Facing Britain's Imperial Past takes the right approach, and doesn't try to tackle this dilemma. Instead it simply acknowledges the dichotomy at the outset, before getting on with the business of showing how art was inspired by the Empire.

Everything you'd expect to find in this exhibition is here: British soldiers heroically fight off Zulus and Afghans, with General Gordon nobly facing the Sudanese before his demise. Maps showing the global influence of the Empire, would have originally been placed in schools; the sooner indoctrination begins, the better. The patriotic propaganda doesn't get any more blatant than a muscular Brittanian impaling a Bengal tiger.

It's not just works created by British artists that feature here though; there are some remarkably carved heads looted from Benin, and a chess set that pits the East India Company against the forces of Tipu Sultan. A modern interpretation showing the flip side of the shilling is a sculpture of British soldiers decorated and being paraded — a hypothetical scenario of what would have happened if Britain had lost the Anglo-Zulu war.

Ironically it's the romanticised depictions of war that are the most striking and enjoyable; other works are a mixed bag, with the climactic post-1900s exhibits being a genuine disappointment. Like the Empire itself, this exhibition goes out with a whimper, not a bang.

Still, it does highlight one positive legacy of the Empire: at least it produced some decent art.

Artist & Empire: Facing Britain's Imperial Past is on at Tate Britain until 10 April. Tickets are £14.50 for adults, concessions available. The exhibition is open seven days a week.

Last Updated 24 November 2015