I have neglected this site for some time now, in substantial part because of an impending move out of Edinburgh and to a village in the west of Scotland (in three weeks’ time – yikes! It’s probably best not to think about it too much and to write a blog posting about an exhibition instead… oh, look at what I’ve managed to do here!). There is much to say, however: I have two nearly completed (and long overdue) windfarm chapters to publish – which will now come out after the move, I suspect! – and there have been some interesting (to me…) developments and photographs that have emerged in recent times that need some considered attention. But today I want to briefly discuss something that has caused me great excitement on an artistic and intellectual level.
We are just back from a few days in Paris – a long-planned trip that happened to come at a very good time in relation to the move, offering us refreshment and time to reflect. I took a fair bit of reading with me, and we spent time in cafés and restaurants, in our apartment in the 19th arrondisement (via Airbnb for the first time, which worked well), and wandered through the city a bit. We also went to two excellent exhibitions, the first of which is temporary and well-worth going to if you’re in or near Paris in the next months: a detailed examination of Erwin Blumenfeld’s work at the Jeu de Paume, the French national gallery devoted to mechanically- and electronically-reproduced imagery, especially photography, video, cinema etc. I may come back to write about this at some point in the near future, if my head isn’t too full with thoughts about packing boxes and the like. The second gallery visit we made was to the Centre Pompidou, and specifically to the fifth floor, entitled Modernités plurielles de 1905 à 1970, and I want to offer some brief reflections on that, related to my own field of history, historicisation and postcolonial theory (don’t be put off…!). The Centre Pompidou is the world’s largest modern art collection, and even on the basis of this one brief visit, I feel the thinking underpinning the exhibits is way ahead of other large galleries that I have visited.
History and modernity
For some time now, more progressive academic historians have deconstructed the very idea of modernity. To generalise somewhat, up until even just a decade or two ago, traditional Western historians tended towards a particular view of the world, that saw modernity as something that the ‘West’ (often undefined, but understood to be Europe, North America, Australasia, and so on, and perhaps, post-Cold War, the more ‘European’ of the former Soviet bloc countries) had ‘achieved’ and others were in the process of achieving. However, this linear form of history bears no relation to the reality as understood by most of the world. Modernity is not a fixed point, but something that is created continually – this might even be one of the few times I find myself agreeing with an institution of neoliberal finance… (this snapped on my mobile telephone at the airport on a moving walkway!).
The consequence of such an understanding is that it is not appropriate to speak about modernity in the singular – if many people in many contexts are creating modernity, then we need to think about multiple modernities. This is something that is gradually making inroads into even the more conservative fields of historical study, such as mission history (the focus of much of my research); I hope I have managed to play at least a small part in rethinking that over the years, disrupting and questioning fixed historiographies and paradigms of modernity. A key issue in such reassessments is the understanding that colonial history, traditionally portrayed as something that involved the bringing of modernity from the imperial centre (Britain, France etc.) to the colonial periphery (everywhere else!) actually involved a two-way traffic – colonial possessions transformed the imperial centres at least as much as they were transformed. A significant branch of postcolonial theory is about uncovering precisely these transformations, and the idea of ‘global history’ is an integral part of this (see C.A. Bayly’s magisterial The Birth of the Modern World, 1780-1914 or the CLIOH World project and (free downloadable!) books such as World and Global History – Research and Teaching that a friend of mine, Seija Jalagin, has been involved in editing).
However, I have not really encountered this kind of thinking in contemporary art exhibitions. Artists are often shown as solitary creatives, and we often think of them or idealise them as such, even if we think we know better. We marvel at the inventiveness of Pablo Picasso, the nuance in Henri Matisse’s work, the delicate interplay of light and colour that Vincent Van Gogh searched for, Wassily Kandinsky’s move to abstraction with painting becoming almost as a form of music – and so on. Some exhibitions will show some of the influences upon these great men (more about men in a moment!), but these are slim and marginal. For example, I recall visiting a gallery a few years ago (I think it was London’s Tate Modern) that pointed to some of the African influences on Picasso, highlighting masks and other items that Picasso clearly referenced in some of his work (art historians even talk about his ‘African period’).
Subverting the idea of the solitary artist
A PhD student that I have had the privilege of supervising in recent years, Rajalakshmi Nadadur Kannan, has recently completed and successfully defended her thesis, and her work has helped me to rethink copyright in quite radical ways (en passant, I note that this is one of the most rewarding aspects of PhD supervision – having your understanding of an issue radically subverted by a student’s work).
She wrote about Karnatic music (generally known as classical Indian music) and the problems with copyrighting it in the contemporary context. Using Marx, postcolonial theory and understandings of authorship deriving from Benjamin and others, she shows why copyright is problematic in this context. To simplify considerably (I hope she won’t mind this rather brutal summary!), there are two key problems with identifying ownership of this music: (a) it is understood as being divinely inspired and so how can something that originates with the divine, however that is understood, be copyrighted? and (b) the tunes are passed down orally from teacher to pupil, and in turn embellished and elaborated upon according to certain criteria, which makes identifying a single creator difficult. Copyright as a system of ownership linked to a particular individualised understanding of capitalist modernity is difficult to implement in a context that does not subscribe to such principles of individualised modernity.
I would argue that it does not really matter whether we subscribe to the same ideas about divine inspiration of artistic work as Karnatic musicians (theoretically) do, but many of us would recognise that there is some form of internal and/or external inspiration underpinning creative work. Furthermore, I think most also understand the idea of a wider tradition and community that impacts upon artistic endeavour and the creation of a unique artistic expression, giving such expression a context and a framing (though the arguments around these claims are not something I want to develop to any great extent here).
However, Western art exhibitions that I have visited have only ever tangentially recognised this. There is the example of Picasso mentioned above, but the portrayal of influence tends to see the incorporation of ‘primitive’ colonial art into the ‘modern’ art of the European. This is in part a question of the situatedness of the artist and a poor historicisation of their context: for instance, whilst Matisse introduced Picasso to African art, his first transformative encounter with such art was apparently in the context of an ethnographic museum, not an art gallery.
Now, however, we should be seeing and understanding these relationships quite differently, and this is something that the Centre Pompidou has managed to do, and as far as I can tell, do spectacularly well. The gallery – a permanent albeit constantly changing gallery – presents itself under the title ‘Modernités plurielles de 1905 à 1970’ (Plural Modernities from 1905 to 1970), even in the title recognising that there are multiple forms of modernity being created in similar times across the globe, and the art on display reflects this. Not only do we find French, American, Russian etc. art intermingled by theme, we are shown similar patterns from around the world. From the very beginning of the gallery, global art is included, and whilst many of the traditional descriptions of movements remain (Expressionism, Totemism etc.) these are given a global context. For example, Magic Realism is related to Latin American realist movements, whilst artists from the Middle East and North Africa who developed conceptual art in ways that reflected and expanded upon European conceptual art find their place alongside more well-known (in European circles) artists and their works. A section on French architecture and the creation of colonial cities in North Africa demonstrated the ways in which Arab art influenced French architects, even though they thought they were simply building cities for Europeans in Algeria and other colonial possessions (this process is something that I have written about at length in other contexts). Above all, the global context is seen not as a colonial background for the development of European art, but rather, the global exchanges and connections that many artists were a part of are highlighted in constructive and stimulating forms, creating a fascinating discourse between artistic purity and hybridity. It is worth noting that in many contexts, the global artists’ names are not known and appear simply as ‘anonymous’ – a stark and painful reminder of the European colonial legacy that dehumanised huge parts of the world in the drive to economic and political domination.
“The techniques of European art can be as useful to us in painting as in sculpture or architecture, provided we avoid the danger of stripping ourselves of our own art and personality.” (Leandro M’Bomio, Paris, a quotation on one of the gallery walls)
Another effect of the globalised understanding of art in the Centre Pompidou is the diminution of the traditional emphasis on ‘great men’ of art. They are not displaced, but the inclusion of women from Europe and from around the globe sets them into a wider context. Not only do we find, for example, Sonia Delauney (and it has seemed to me that she is portrayed mostly in relation to her husband, rather than recognised as a great artist in her own right) and Frida Kahlo, but also many other global women, including the wonderful Behjat Sadr (a personal favourite). The global vision on offer here brings not only the whole world to an understanding of art, but that whole world also goes some considerable way to restoring the place of women in art history (nonetheless, only about 50 of the 400 artists on display are women – though a number of the ‘anonymous’ artworks may also be by women, of course).
Some closing thoughts
So is this a postcolonial exhibition? I think it could certainly be seen in that way. It is truly liberating to see an exhibition that reflects a global perspective on art, that sees and understands movements and connections in all kinds of interesting ways, and that thereby offers a far more holistic understanding of art than we might already know. I was not completely convinced by all the connections being made, but I am in no way qualified to judge art history in this kind of global way (in fact, I suspect relatively few people really are, but I’m not even qualified to appreciate Western art history fully!).
The fact that the Pompidou has attempted something so radically different in the context of a permanent exhibition is noteworthy and highly stimulating. Doing so draws attention to the ways in which global traditions have emerged, and privileges understandings of art that include artists that are usually marginalised – women, and men and women from the global context. We may not agree with the exact portrayal on offer, but as the curators themselves say, the exhibits are constantly changing, suggesting that they are themselves not completely satisfied with the portrayal on offer, constantly seeking to highlight and emphasise different aspects of the global narrative of modernity in art. As Nadadur Kannan does in her thesis on Karnatic music, offering this kind of complex narrative of art history subverts the role of the ‘lone artist’ and offers a rich understanding of the significance of relationships and dependencies, whilst allowing for individual creativity – however we understand that – its rightful place in the artistic process.
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It is worth reading the Centre Pompidou’s own brief description of the gallery, available here (click the top right language options to see it in English). Alain Seban and Catherine Grenier offer particularly interesting and helpful comments, I think. The press kit (Fr/En) for the exhibition (a 35 page PDF) offers a more detailed introduction to the exhibition.