Laura Contreras Sauquet (she/her) is a final year Politics student from Barcelona, Spain. She is interested in the effects of colonialism and misogyny on the arts, how ideologies affect policy making, and questions of national identities. She enjoys drinking coffee in sunny corners, having long walks around any park in London, and listening to podcasts on feminist literature.
Colonialism and Imperialism have had a substantial effect on all realms of society. The cultural legacy that past European empires have left are vast, and the academic debate on how the unpleasant past relates to the true meaning of many artistic pieces is escalating. Western art produced in imperial times has been affected by colonialism by, firstly, glorifying monarchs’ and patrons’ expansionist objectives, and secondly, by spreading artistic traditions central to the cultures of the colonisers to the colonies; lastly, by exchanging Western as well as non-Western art through the global trade system established among Western empires through the various colonies.
During the first three centuries of European colonialism, the imperial monarchies, elites and metropoles used visual arts to justify and glorify their imperial expansionism. The glorification of the empire’s expeditions began to be visible in Portuguese architecture with the ‘Manueline’ style, in honour of King Manuel I. The Jeronimos Monastery in Lisbon was built with this style, and glorifies Vasco da Gama’s trip to India. The Spanish Empire glorified its imperialistic expeditions through paintings such as ‘The Virgin of the Navigators’ (ca. 1535), which is at the altarpiece of the chapel of the Casa de Contratación, in Seville. The Madonna gives protection to Cristopher Columbus, Charles V, and Ferdinand II, among others, symbolising both the success of its expansionism and the broadening of Christendom to the world. Moreover, the ceiling fresco, ‘The Wealth and Benefits of the Spanish Monarchy under Charles III’ (1762) in the central room of the Royal Palace in Madrid, glorifies the monarchy and empire. Being located in the centre of the palace denotes the centrality of the empire, and the painting itself – the loading of a ship with treasures from the American continent, and two Native Americans throwing themselves in front of the ship – depict the Spanish colonisation of the Americas, and the conquest of the native land.
More examples of Western art glorifying their empires include the Dutch; the façade of Amsterdam’s city hall shows on one side, the Dutch empire’s atlas carrying the weight of the globe, and on the other side, the empire receiving the acknowledgement of the four continents. This latter image is an allegory to the non-European world subordinate to Europe, thanking European commerce and empire in a sense for the world’s wealth and resources. William Dyce’s ‘Neptune Resigning the Empire of the Seas to Britannia’ (1847) showcases British pride towards their marine ability, as Neptune, the Roman mythological God of the seas, hands its own crown to Britain. Three figures receive the crown, having produced and benefited from the global empire: Industry, Commerce and Navigation. The peerless Hall of Mirrors in the Palais de Versailles has ceiling paintings by Charles Le Brun narrating France’s triumph over the Spanish, Dutch and German empires.
Many Western artists produced art based on the colonies due to the appeal of the “New World” as something “rare” and “exotic”. This interest and viewpoint the West had of the colonies is now known as the tradition of Orientalism. Edward Said was the prominent scholar who coined this term, defining it as “the corporate institution for dealing with the Orient […] as a Western style for dominating, restructuring and having authority over the Orient” (Said, 1978). Orientalism is the binary distinction of the West and the East in ideological rather than geographical terms. The lack of understanding of “the East” when Western scholars studied it- because it differed from their own- led to them depict it as exotic, enigmatic and curious, romanticising and judging a different culture and way of life according to their own standards rather than attempt to understand it. This made the West believe their societies were superior, and thus justified their invasions and ethnic cleanses because of the ‘need’ of the East to be civilised. Said characterises Orientalism as patronising Western attitudes and vision towards the Eastern world, and he further argues that through this mechanism of “othering”, Occident is defining itself, rather than “the other”. Aimé Césaire says that “colonization works to decivilize the colonizer, to brutalize him in the true sense of the word” (Césaire, 1972: 2); thus, through this viewpoint, the colonised are not the savages, but in fact it is the other way around.
Many Western artists that went to the colonies created pieces that were condescending and triumphalist. For instance, Dutch artists such as Frans Post or Albert Eckhout painted colonial Brazil with a luscious tropical hue, while Native Americans were perceived within the European concept of the “exotic savage” when referring to the colonised worlds. They were just some of the many artists that drew and painted the “new world”, previously unknown to them due to their Western gaze.
Paul Gauguin, a Post-Impressionist French artist, is most famous for his compositions of nude Tahitian girls and women. Gauguin went to Tahiti with a utopian colonialist vision of a primitive land, to “cultivate [his art] for [his] own pleasure in its primitive and savage state”. For instance, his painting ‘Manao Tupapau’ / ‘Spirit of the Dead Watching’ (1892), depicts a nude Tahitian young girl terrified at night by the spirits of the dead. He draws on the European tradition of the reclining nude, but the bright colours, native motifs and “primitive” life are meant to be representative of Tahiti. His paintings are the fruits of the exploitation of indigenous females, and thus, in a way, his relationships with natives can be seen as instrumental to sell his paintings. Gauguin’s art illustrates the exoticist clichés, racial and primitive stereotypes as well as the fetishization of the colonised world that Edward Said names Orientalism.
Due to the “Westernisation” of Tahiti due to colonial rule, Gauguin created the exotic world that we can see in his canvases himself. When Gauguin got there in 1891, he realised that the French colonial rule had spoiled his exotic fantasy, and left the capital to more remote and pre-colonial parts of the island. His art is then created from a patriarchal and colonialist position that reinforces Orientalist, colonial and imperial ideals about non-Westerns due to his portrayal of Tahitians as primitive and uncivilised, and all for the gratification of the Western world. Gauguin’s artwork is Orientalist in the sense that it contributes to the construction of the Oriental “other”, as well as it being rooted in his fantasy of the primitive, uncivilised, and exotic world.
Paul Gauguin’s art can be recognised as beautiful and experimental, which I too consider to be, but one cannot deny the context and the colonialist perspectives of when they were created. If we forget the environment of their creation, we could rightfully believe that the paintings are realist visual descriptions of Tahiti in the late 19th century. By acknowledging its context, Gauguin’s true perversions of his imagined fantasy perpetuated by the Western colonial culture become clear. Both the art created to justify and glorify imperial conquests, and Gauguin’s paintings of Tahitians, demonstrate the power the visual arts have in influencing and shaping our views. The need to critically analyse the artistic legacy is key in order to fully understand our history.
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[Image taken from https://www.rt.com/op-ed/474584-censor-paul-gaugin-art/]