Dickinson College Humanities Program in Norwich

J.C. Smuts and the “look at me” factor

September 3rd, 2010 · 3 Comments

The works in the National Portrait Gallery are nothing more and nothing less than you’d expect from a collection of British heroes and icons.  A pale Lady Diana laughs with her sons.  Rows of Tudors sit in the same position, same facial expression, same symmetrical balance.  I can’t believe how much one of them looks like Jeremy Irons.  James Joyce looks as weaselly as I’ve ever seen him.  British history was written by the British- either the intellectual elite or the monarchy.  That’s who’s represented here.  Over the span of the entire museum I counted two non-white Brits.  Maybe I missed a few, but the fact still remains that Britain is visibly a nation overrun by cultural and class elitism.  It’s no surprise, nor is it unique to the Isle.  Still, including a few of the notable  Black, Indian, or East Asian historical figures in the portrait gallery housed in one of the most culturally diverse cities in the world doesn’t seem like too much to ask.  A city and a nation dedicated to fostering a people of many backgrounds should be dedicated to celebrating a heritage of many origins.

The portrait which most struck me is of a man who wouldn’t have agreed with this sentiment.  Jan Christiaan Smuts was a British-South African who was a major proponent of segregation between African Blacks and European colonizers.  Politics and morals aside, the military man Smuts (or his portrait, anyway) exemplifies what seems to be a perpetual process of one-upmanship in the British community.

Portraits are, if nothing else, a statement that you’ve made it; you have the experience, you’ve earned the recognition.  Might as well show yourself off by hiring someone to paint your likeness.  Smuts takes it further.  A not-so-inconspicuous inclusion of a chest full of army pins and badges in the upper/left half of the canvas serves as a reminder that Smuts is the real deal.  It’s the perfect visual representation of the superiority complex which Smuts clearly had.  I’m beginning to think of it as a “look at me” incentive; as mentioned before, all of the British officers depicted in portraits are white and they all wear similar uniforms.  Smuts puts his accomplishments on display to set himself apart from the pack.  It’s almost more a portrait of an ideal- a machismo, militarist ideal- than of a man.  Based on Britain’s imperialist tendencies, it seems like that mindset wasn’t unique to Smuts.

He just broadcast it best.


Tags: 2010 Patrick