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Revivals and Nationalism

Colonial mythologization and suppression of ‘dying’ cultural practices catalysed efforts to protect them. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, folk and traditional British arts and crafts were revitalized as an expression of national heritage and values, as can be seen in the international success of the Arts and Crafts movement. Revivalist architectural styles appear in medieval Gothic government buildings found in capitals across the world from the Palace of Westminster, London, to Bridgetown, Ottawa, and Wellington. At the same time, local arts and crafts in other parts of the world were revived to express non-European national identities and values that would ultimately oppose Empire.

The Great Exhibition in London in 1851 was a showcase for decorative materials and objects from across the British Empire. An elaborately carved Ivory Chair of State (1850, Royal Collection), presented to Queen Victoria by the Maharaja of Travancore, held pride of place and featured in later photographs of the monarch, e.g. Queen Victoria by W. & D. Downey (c. 1876). Despite the sophistication of such objects and the presence of the replicas of the Ajanta murals, racist commentary around the exhibition saw it as confirmation that the arts and crafts of India, and other non-European cultures, were better suited to decorative and commercial purposes than the so-called ‘fine’ arts (Wornum 1851, vi). Accordingly, under British rule, schools and colleges beyond Europe taught a British art and design curriculum which reserved local artists and styles for applied and decorative art reflected in institutional names such the School of Industrial Art, Calcutta, and the Bombay School of Art and Industry. This attitude persisted and was distilled in the book The Industrial Arts of India (1880), by Anglo-Indian George Birdwood, last keeper of London’s Indian Museum (1801-1879).

However, the Bombay School of Art had already led the way in removing ‘industry’ from its title and encouraging Indian art and artists in the fine art curriculum. In 1872, its Welsh Principal, John Griffiths, and seven Indian students initiated a project to copy a second set of the Ajanta murals, sending 125 to London in 1885. Most of the originals were again lost to fire, but published in a portfolio in 1896-1897 (Griffiths 1896-7). The narratives that framed the murals had altered. British admiration was now, like contemporary appreciation of Benin bronzes, based in a belief that their quality was derived from European contact, in this case with the tradition of Ancient Greece via the invading Alexander the Great. Accordingly, Griffiths’ team took pains to capture the style as well as the iconography of the paintings.

As the cultural historian Partha Mitter has shown, the narratives and meaning of the Ajanta murals continued to change with historical circumstance. In 1907, the Indian cultural commentator Ordhendra Gan-goly wrote:

Our curse is that we are indifferent to our own heritage unless Europeans draw our attention to it . . . No doubt we feel proud that the art of Ajanta is in no way inferior to Greece, but Ajanta is not only significant for its past, it is invaluable as a future ideal.

(Gangoly, quoted in Mitter 1994, 253)

Gangoly was a spokesman for the new Bengal School art movement, based at the renamed Government School of Art in Calcutta and led by Abanindranath Tagore. The school was championing revived Indian arts and crafts and allying them to Indian nationalism. In London in

1910, an India Society was set up by the Principal of the School of Art, Ernest Havell, fellow painters William Rothenstein and Christiana Herringham, and the historian and philosopher Ananda Coomaraswamy. Coomaraswamy was a member of the British Arts and Crafts movement and associate of William Morris and championed Indian arts and crafts, culture, and independence. Under the auspices of the Society, Abanin-dranath Tagore selected artists Nandalal Bose, Asit Haidar, and Samar-enda Gupta from the Calcutta art School of Art to accompany Christina Herringham in a third venture to copy the Ajanta murals. This time, Herringham’s team rejected the claims for the Greek, Roman, Italian, or Chinese origins of the murals and presented them as essentially Indian. The style of her copies, published in 1915, informed and reflected the sinuous outlines and colour planes of the modern Bengal School (Herringham 1915; Khullar 2015, 61). The replicas are now in Hyderabad State collection.

By the early twentieth century, the arts and crafts of Asia, Africa, Oceania, and South America were informing European avant-garde styles. Museum collections accumulated by British and European empires, international exhibitions, and associated scholarship made it possible for European and non-European artists to see a wealth of artefacts from diverse ages and places in close proximity to each other. Books, collections, and displays inspired the strong, simplified, abstract form, colour, and line that defined and dominated the modern European art of Pablo Picasso, Jacob Epstein, and others. Following a lecture by Coomaraswamy in 1910, the British sculptor and graphic artist Eric Gill wrote to his colleague William Rothenstein, ‘Heaven is via Elephanta, Elura, and Ajanta’ (quoted in MacCarthy 1989,153). European appreciation of non-European art was still ahistorical, however. Like Dalton and Joyce, artists such as Eric Gill valued non-European artefacts for what they perceived as their general ‘primitivism’. They blended influences from all sorts of places and periods, synthesizing an abstract visual language which they could consider ahistorical—primal, authentic, and universal. When Hungarian-Indian painter Amrita Sher-Gil viewed the Ajanta murals in 1936-1937, she saw them in this modernist mode and analysed them as a universal language of ‘form . . . intensity or the subtlety of colour,... quality of line’ (Sher-Gil, letter to Karl Kandalavala, 9 January 1939, quoted in Dalmia 2013, 80).

If British, European, and American artists’ engagement with nonEuropean art was often based on an idea of it as primordial, timeless, and universal with continued disregard for its local significance and history, beyond Europe they represented national pasts and futures. Sher-Gil dismissed the revivals of the Bengal School: ‘The art of my country is not to be imitated by me, it is to be assimilated by me’, and pioneered an Indian modernism (Sher-Gil, quoted in Khullar 2015,62) with contemporary relevance. The three pictures of her South Indian Trilogy responded to the Ajanta murals by applying elements of its visual language to modern Indian ‘life’, e.g. the group of young monks, Brahmacharis, 1937 (see Figure 3.8). Sonal Khullar has argued that Sher-Gil’s modernist concept of a universal language of form, connecting ancient and modern India, complemented Indian nationalist models, Jawaharlal Nehru’s concept of unity in diversity. For many, the entwined multi-figure compositions of the Ajanta murals and Sher-Gil’s South Indian Trilogy ‘enacted notions of the masses-as-citizens and the nation-as-mosaic that were common in the late colonial period’ (Khullar 2015, 62).

Amrita Sher-Gil (1913-1941), Brahmacharis, 1937, oil on canvas, 146 cm x 88 cm, National Gallery of Modern Art, New Delhi

Figure 3.8 Amrita Sher-Gil (1913-1941), Brahmacharis, 1937, oil on canvas, 146 cm x 88 cm, National Gallery of Modern Art, New Delhi.

During the twentieth century, local artistic traditions were allied to national identities and successful campaigns for independence across the world. The surveying, revival, and assimilation of local and traditional arts that was undertaken by imperial surveys and accompanied nationalist movements took place in an irreversibly non-local, cosmopolitan context. The global infrastructures of British and other empires and new technologies of transport and communication (e.g. the circulation of illustrated journals) created an interconnected world and interconnected images. This contributed to the international perspective that was fundamental to modernist ideals of an abstract, universal visual language all over the planet. Modern art movements represented local and national identities on a world stage.

In the 1950s and 1960s, artists such as Aubrey Williams and Frank Bowling from British Guyana, Benedict Enwonwu from Nigeria, Rasheed Araeen from Pakistan, Avinesh Chandra from India, and Kim Lim from

Singapore participated in the rise of twentieth-century abstraction, conducting their careers between their countries of birth and Paris, London, and New York. In the year after Nigerian independence, 1961, for instance, Igbo artist Enwonwu was asked to recreate his bronze Anyanwu (1954), an expression of the ‘rising soul of our nation’, for the United Nations building in New York and to provide a new sculpture for the forecourt of the offices of the Daily Mirror newspaper in London (see Figure 3.9). He captured the post-war, cosmopolitan hey-day of the press with seven life-sized, semi-abstract, carved wooden figures that synthesized Igbo carving and other styles. The sculptures could be arranged in varying relationships and permit the public to walk among them to suggest different dialogues. Each figure reads a newspaper open like wings ‘to represent the wings of the Daily Mirror, flying news all over the world’ (Enwonwu 1961, 3). However, the reputations of these non-European moderns faltered in the 1970s. Enwonwu’s wonderful sculpture went missing for 50 years and was only rediscovered in 2012 in a garage at Bethnal Green Academy. In Britain, Europe, and America, artists of black and Asian heritage continued to be framed through binary narratives of progressive European modernity and timeless non-European tradition, what Olu Oguibe has called a ‘pincer action’ in which they were judged as either authentically traditional or in-authentically modern (Oguibe 2004, 61). In a familiar historical gambit, non-European modern art was removed from its real, contemporary historical contexts and assumed to be dependent on European or American styles. Rasheed Araeen challenged this in 1989, assembling important modernists in his exhibition The Other Story: Afro-Asian Artists in Post-War Britain at the Hayward Gallery in London, but these artists have yet to receive full acknowledgement (Fisher 2009). Frank Bowling’s retrospective exhibition at Tate Britain, the national gallery for British art, took place in 2019.

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