Dickinson College Humanities Program in Norwich

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

September 3, 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.


Categories: 2010 Patrick
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3 responses so far ↓

  •   Mary Kate // Sep 3rd 2010 at 19:08

    I see a lot of people are commenting on the overwhelming influence of whites in the National Portrait Gallery. But are you sure, Pat, that this reflects cultural elitism? Isn’t it just an accurate reflection of British history? Let me explain my issue here: it seems to me that if the Gallery wanted to correct the cultural imbalance in its collection, it would have to revise history – after all, there haven’t been any non-white monarchs, Prime Ministers, or, to my knowledge, even especially influential MPs. (I’m not saying that’s good, I’m just saying it’s true.) And these rich, influential white people are really the only figures who could have afforded to have their portraits taken in the first place. I truly don’t think the National Portrait Gallery is choosing to be exclusive. I think it’s just working with what it’s got – that is to say, portraits of white people. (And Pat, I think you’re spot on by identifying how these people wanted to be perceived and how they achieved that. Very interesting observation.)
    Besides that, it doesn’t seem from our readings that London had been a particularly ethnically diverse place until Jewish immigration in the 30s and 40s, so works of art that prominently feature British minorities probably don’t even really exist before that time, or at least not many of them.
    Since the Gallery can’t pretend these figures or paintings existed when they didn’t, the other option would be to ignore or marginalize the historical artifacts that we do have in an effort to be more egalitarian (i.e., not to have a gallery at all because there aren’t enough non-whites to include).
    We all know that British history is as fraught with racism and classism as the history of many other nations, including the US – and no one wants to defend the ethnic marginalization and discrimination that came along with imperialism (least of all a person of Irish descent like me). But just for the sake of conversation, for everyone who was uncomfortable with the, um, shade of the exhibits – what do you suggest the National Portrait Gallery should do about this? What would be a valid course of action that would remain true to Britain’s history while reflecting the ethnic and cultural inclusiveness toward which Britain continues to strive? Let’s be constructive here.

  •   stepheniem // Sep 3rd 2010 at 19:35

    Firstly, Pat, I was surprised at several of the portraits because of the lack of identifying information contained within it. Even in your quarter-length portrait a few objects can go a long way to determine the more important parts of a person’s life, especially in a portrait which is (presumably) designed to serve a purpose: preserve a likeness while promoting a person’s standing. I agree, Smuts does seem to have been one of the more “vocal” in advertising his accomplishments.

    Secondly, MK, while there is certainly a lack of cultural diversity in England’s early history, it would be quite easy (assuming funds are available and other technical importances in the museum world are in order) to show what diversity English history does have. How? A few extra lines of text, an acknowledgement of a foreign ambassador or other figure who perhaps influenced policy, a corridor which explores the ideas of and challenges the notions of the “elitist” attitude several have commented on, or even bringing out some photographs from the photograph collection to fill in the gaps. For example, the museum has three photographic portraits of Gandhi. None of them are in the “primary collection,” aka the collection that is regularly displayed. They are either in the photograph or research collection. Why is this? Shouldn’t at least one of these be in the “primary collection?” As England’s politics and population grow more diverse, it’s galleries should as well. It isn’t an easy process, but I’m sure that if a curator wanted to develop a diversity tour (or if the public “requested” one), it could be done. Furthermore, I think part of the tragedy of the issue is that the very time that the NPG’s collections start, England is starting to become more important internationally. Even if the portraits don’t exist to show a multi-cultural England, the text panels could make up for it.

  •   patrickmr // Sep 3rd 2010 at 19:37

    I’m not denying that the vast majority of British progress has been at the hands of the white upper class. It’s just disheartening to see images of figures like Cecil John Rhodes, who eviscerated African cultures, framed, mounted and revered without a second thought- it was the toil and the persecution of African natives under his boot that filled white pockets. I guess that’s the problem with portraits- they’re a luxury which can only represent those with means enough to afford them. I would however like to see an attempt by the portrait gallery to commission and fund images of working class Londoners and other Britons. Perhaps an expanded and modern exhibit on the changing “faces” of the UK?

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