1 Picturing the national gallery

Budapest 2012

On 2 January 2012, Viktor Orbán, the Hungarian Prime Minister, opened a temporary exhibition at the Hungarian National Gallery (Magyar Nemzeti Galéria) entitled Heroes, Kings, and Saints: Images and Documents from the History of Hungary (Plate1). A re-arrangement of some of the great patriotic works of nineteenth-century Hungarian history painting, this show at first sight appeared uncontroversial despite the government directive that had brought it into being. This was not, however, just a rehang and the paintings were no longer to be understood simply as pinnacles in the history of Hungarian art. Now art was political illustration, and the visitor’s gaze was directed away from the artistic achievement and towards the paintings’ subject matter as a form of historical testament. At the very heart of these paintings was a narrative of national struggle; a political idea the Orbán government had used to win support. Hungary, so long a part of the Austrian Habsburg Empire, had endured many pains in its fight to exist as an independent nation. Like every nation in this part of Europe it had found its territory challenged by larger and more powerful nations, particularly Austria and the other German-speaking territories, Russia and Turkey. Each at some point imposed its will on this country. Its golden age of nation building began in the aftermath of its failed revolution of 1848 and culminated in the millennial national celebrations of 1896. This moment however was short-lived. On losing the First World War, Austria-Hungary was dissolved with the Treaty of Trianon of 1920, leaving Hungary at last an independent nation-state but reduced in size by two thirds. Its neighbours benefited as a result: Romania was extended, Czechoslovakia invented, and the northern Balkans gained independence. Like Austria, Hungary now found itself a small, disempowered nation. For nationalists this would forever be resented, but every country in this part of Europe could claim these kinds of injustice.

PLATE 1: Viktor Orbán opens Heroes, Kings, Saints, 2012. Photo: Lajos Soos, EPA

Resurgent Hungarian nationalism was, however, only part of the political backdrop to this exhibition. Orbán’s Fidesz government had risen to power with a sizeable majority, sufficient to change the national constitution, the Basic Law of Hungary, and to attempt to move the state away from the liberal democracy it had struggled to become after the fall of communism in 1989. Orbán now recognised China, Russia and Turkey as offering preferred models of state governance. The streets of Budapest filled with pro-democracy demonstrations and counter-demonstrations by the government’s supporters. The new constitution was published in a huge, lavish volume illustrated using the great history paintings possessed by, and on display in, the Hungarian National Gallery. It made a direct connection between the politics of the present day and Heroes, Kings, and Saints, which opened on the day it came into force. Indeed, copies of the new Basic Law could be read in the gallery.

FIGURE 1.1: The Hungarian National Gallery in Buda Castle, Budapest. Photo: Simon Knell

The scene, then, was rather more extraordinary than it might at first appear. Everything in this exhibition had been transformed. Behind Orbán, as he gave his address, was Gyula Benczúr’s The Recapture of Buda Castle in 1686, completed for the millennial celebrations of 1896.[1] Based upon an exhibition of artefacts that had been on show ten years earlier, at the bicentenary of the siege that saw the Ottoman Turks finally driven out of the country, the painting spoke of national triumph. It seemed to embody the very essence of the national anthem, the Himnusz (The Hymn), which refers to the Turkish yoke, though the painting lacks the pain and sorrow – so central to Hungarian nationalism – that accompany that song’s triumphalism. The words and sentiments of this anthem together with its alternative, the Szózat (The Appeal), had been printed in large letters on the walls of the new exhibition and were used to guide the arrangement of the works. To Orbán’s left were historic paintings recalling the nation’s struggle to exist: ‘This is the ground on which so many times your fathers’ blood flowed’. To his right, they depicted national construction and the centrality of Christianity, values important to the present regime’s conception of Hungary: ‘Mind, might, and so holy a will.’ And these things together were all the more powerful for being displayed in the Hungarian National Gallery situated as it was in Buda Castle itself, the site of this defining moment in the nation’s history and the subject of Benczúr’s masterpiece. This massive castle, which is rather more a palace, is situated high above the city. From here one looks out over the near mythological Danube and the fairy tale parliament building, and beyond them to the flatlands of Pest (Figure 1.1). The most scenic and dramatic setting of any national gallery in the world, a patriot might also feel a sense of possession of what he or she sees. The Recapture of Buda Castle is living testament to the achievement of nationhood. As the gallery’s own guide points out, the present castle is built on the ruins of the ‘residence of the medieval Hungarian rulers’. Visitors are left in no doubt that this site lies at the very heart of Hungarian identity and the ‘Árpád Dynasty’.

In a room beyond this large opening gallery space, original documents, including treaties and the national anthem, as well as a replica of the iconic Crown of St Stephen, added to the patriotic historicism that had called this exhibition into existence. The culmination, however, was Mihály Munkáscy’s vast painting, The Hungarian Conquest.[2] Completed in 1893, it had been commissioned to hang behind the presidential pulpit in Imre Steindl’s beautiful Neo-Gothic parliament that was at the time being built. Like many of the great painters of patriotic historical works, Munkáscy lived abroad, at this time in Paris. He was commissioned to depict that foundational moment when Árpád, chief of the Hungarian tribes, on a white horse, arrived in the Carpathian Basin in 896. The painting’s political message was carefully modelled for the task in hand: ‘Árpád should be depicted not as a devastating conqueror but a dignified chief, who gained a homeland for his people and wanted to live in peace with the inhabitants already living in the invaded territory…The painting also reflects the popular historical conception of the so-called double conquest according to which in reality Árpád found no strangers but only Hungarians in the new homeland…descendants of Huns living here under the domination of Attila the Hun.’[3] At the time of its construction, the painting met with resistance on account of its scale and rising ethnic tensions, though it did eventually find a place in the parliament building. In this exhibition, it was accompanied by the words, ‘By you was won a beautiful homeland.’ Munkáscy’s Árpád was no longer a carefully conceived political construct; one could believe this was the man and this was the reality of the conquest. The painting was not to be understood as a history painting but as history itself (though the gallery’s staff had inserted a large interpretive panel that ensured that it would not be read so literally).

Many of the paintings in the exhibition had been permanently on display. Those works produced after 1850 constituted ‘the nation’s passion’ and represented that post-revolutionary moment when the fate of the nation was in the balance.[4] In 2012, however, they were loaded with additional political meaning. As images, they depicted and romanticised historic and mythic moments in the nation’s past, created by artists of great technical proficiency who extracted every potent ounce of emotion out of their subjects by judicious exploitation of the stylistic conventions of history painting: metaphor, allegory and symbolism, chocolate-box realism and sentimentality, and theatrical melodrama. History, myth, and poetry were by these means impossibly entangled, but that barely mattered if these paintings were simply to be considered art. However, these works were never simply art. Their subject matter ensured that they held political potential, which was further enhanced by the suffering, exile, and heroism of those artists who painted them, for they belonged to the generation which fought for independence. 

And now, in this exhibition, the Orbán government had added yet another political layer, mobilising these works and the history they ‘record’ for contemporary political ends. They seemed to evidence the historical conditions and contemporary anxieties that led to the birth and continue to challenge the survival of Hungary. This idea, that the nation was never a cold fact, had long been central to Hungarian nationalism. It appealed as much to the heart as the head and thus was as much indebted to artists, poets, and authors, as it was to conquest, or economic or military might. Some have argued that Central Europe is imprisoned by the past.[5] One visitor to the exhibition observed, ‘History is the opiate of Central European people. It is not a hobby-horse but an addiction. As if it were something that could compensate for all of our losses. That explains the exhibition in the National Gallery.’[6] Here, memories of occupation, denied freedoms, the loss of territory and so on, remain on the surface, ready to be reawakened, whether in political rhetoric, street protests, or gallery poetics. But such thinking soon gets out of control. Inevitably it essentialises the very characteristics of the nation; it defines who belongs and who does not, and now these things became the subject of conversation. One politician from the far-right Jobbik party at this time called for ‘Jews to be registered on lists as threats to national security.’[7] Was the government’s rhetoric of fear merely a means to gain support or did it reflect a Central European reality the liberal West could not imagine? Early in 2014, Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine. A few months later, Orbán was re-elected with almost the same majority. One in five Hungarians had voted for the Jobbik party.

On show for the whole of 2012, Rubicon Historical Magazine dedicated an issue to the exhibition. Packed with full colour illustrations of the paintings, together with maps and other documents, its cover headline read ‘MAGYARORSZÁG A MÉRLEGEN’ (‘HUNGARY IN THE BALANCE’). The government-supporting daily newspaper, Magyar Nemzet, said the exhibition was a shield against the cynicism of the political left. Elsewhere in the building, installed by the government but without the participation of the gallery’s curators, around $100,000 of much ridiculed political art was also on display. It had been specially commissioned to illustrate the Basic Law. One curator remarked that it was ‘cheap, weak, dull and didactic’.[8] At the Berlin Academy of Fine Arts, architect and dissident, László Rajk, mounted a protest exhibition entitled Missing Paragraphs which spelled out what had been removed from the constitution, though this too was criticised by Hungarian commentators keen to see it merely as propaganda of the left. There was also another protest, in the Hungarian National Gallery itself: on 31 December 2011, the day before the constitution (and exhibition) came into being, the Director resigned.

Embarking on a new journey

These events in Hungary reveal, perhaps surprisingly, that a national gallery is a potentially powerful resource for nation building. This book argues, perhaps even more surprisingly, that this is so of all national galleries and not just those that find themselves in a period of reignited nationalism. In many respects this will appear an odd perspective, for national galleries are known by most visitors, perhaps most of the time, as places in which to find aesthetic, intellectual, emotional, cultural, social, and educational fulfilment. Experienced visitors, who possess some knowledge of art and who find the art gallery a familiar and comfortable environment, may also adopt a distanced, universal, view of art that serves to further diminish the politics and national significance of the works on display. Curators, too, invariably act to depoliticise art, perhaps facilitating a purely aesthetic or social reading. Few would consider that they are engaged in nation making. Through these curatorial actions visitors might be able to escape the extraordinary, and sometimes flamboyant, nationalistic architectural setting and make the art itself the subject of their attentions. And yet, there is no denying that a national gallery is a rare and exceptional thing. Are visitors not implicitly and subtly imbibing aspects of their national being in these institutions? Might not the English visitor to Tate Britain, for example, sense a certain Englishness in a Paul Nash painting? Might they not feel some degree of British conceit at the National Gallery’s possession of such treasures as Jan van Eyck’s Arnolfini Portrait (1434) or Hans Holbein the Younger’s The Ambassadors (1533)? These galleries may not assert nationhood or national identity in the manner of the exhibition at the Hungarian National Gallery, but nevertheless a sense of nation can be observed in them both by national citizens and foreign visitors. 

Those who have written about national galleries have tended to ignore this political aspect, preferring only to consider these institutions as great – rather than national – galleries. Deprived of this perspective, art historians have tended to impose on national galleries that lens invented to distinguish and rank great art. The result has been the veneration of a handful of national galleries of Old Master paintings in London, Paris, Vienna, Berlin, Madrid, Amsterdam, Florence, Budapest, St Petersburg, and Washington. All others have against this standard been considered too poor or immature to warrant consideration, or as mere derivatives of this grand order.[9] It is no coincidence that most of these great galleries were formed by old and powerful nations; the same nations that produced, edited, and disseminated the geographically restricted universalism that has traditionally shaped perspectives in the history of art. While it is certainly true that these particular galleries provide a rich resource for understanding the agency of the national gallery more generally,[10] it would be wrong to consider them as typical of what has become a diverse and peculiar global phenomenon. Today, only in small island nations, such as in the Caribbean and Pacific, and in parts of the Middle East and Africa, are national galleries absent. To understand these institutions it is necessary to dispense with old and discriminatory systems of value. It is also necessary to look beyond those characteristics – interior design, objects, and so on – that they share and consider what makes them different. We need to know relatively little of Albania, Argentina, Algeria, Afghanistan, and Australia, to believe that each offers entirely different political, cultural, historical, geographical, and economic contexts within which to build such a gallery.

A way to look past the obvious similarities is to adopt a comparative approach and use one national gallery as a lens through which to look at another. It is as though a national gallery camouflages itself so as to create the appearance of similitude when in really it might be entirely different in terms of its values, ambitions, contributions to the nation, relationship to art production, levels of self-interest and corruption, and so on. National galleries have been invented and deployed by liberal democracies, by Marxist revolutionaries and communist governments, by imperialists and right-wing dictators, in colonial and postcolonial settings, in nations old, new, large and small; sometimes ideologically different regimes have exploited national galleries in very similar ways, other times they have not. ‘Throughout the nineteenth century, monarchs and governments in power took care not to neglect so efficacious a means to influence public opinion, almost to the point of brainwashing.’[11]

More difficult, though no less necessary and a direct extension of this argument, is to dispense with a notion still prevalent in art history and criticism, and particularly in national galleries, that art can only be understood within a Western, universal or global system.[12] Certainly this thinking has affected the production of national galleries and national art, frequently instilling a sense of inadequacy in the national population. While art history has long possessed an interest in historicism, in attempts to understand the particular historical conditions of production and consumption of the artwork, it is necessary to go still further in extracting the artwork from an abstract global system. Both artwork and art museum or gallery are situated; they exist in a unique time and space. Representations of the artwork may exist in books and in the mind but the real object is singular and located in a specific setting.[13] Consider Picasso’sLes Demoiselles d’Avignon(1907), for example, which every art student comes to know. Few, however, have had a face-to-face encounter with it in the Museum of Modern Art in New York where it hangs. Only here in this institution’s highly orthodox narrative of modernism can someone grasp its scale, its craft, its impact upon the space and an audience. Here we engage with the art object on a one-to-one basis, even if our engagement is mediated by prior knowledge and by the spatial experiences the gallery has constructed. This particular painting is interesting because it is far larger and more imposing than readers of art books might assume. This example is also interesting because MoMA is not a national gallery but it has had a peculiar significance for the artistic identity of the United States. It raises the question: what is a national gallery?

The term ‘national gallery’ is not used universally. In parts of Europe, in the English-speaking world, in much of the British Commonwealth, and in Africa and throughout much of Asia, it is widely used. In other parts of Europe, in Latin America, and in countries of the former Soviet Union the preference has been for ‘national museum of fine arts’. In English, the two terms are equivalent but in some countries, the word ‘gallery’ has been applied solely to art spaces dedicated to temporary shows or to the selling works of art. Since the late sixteenth century, it has been established in the English language as referring to a space holding paintings.[14] National galleries today often acquire artworks in a range of other media, including prints, drawings and photographs, sculpture and contemporary installation, traditional indigenous artworks, and art objects constructed using mixed, exotic and digital media. Nevertheless, central to the invention of the national gallery was the easel painting, as it already possessed status and had proven itself as an object of political representation. For these reasons it was easily incorporated into processes and institutions associated with nation making. National galleries of painting form the focus of this book.

Other areas of artistic production are more problematic for a study of this kind because nations have been less consistent in their allocation of objects to these institutions. National collections of sculpture, for example, may be found in national galleries but are also placed in general national museums and in decorative arts museums. To understand the role of sculpture in nation making, it is also necessary to consider sculpture gardens and parks, and the wider cityscape. Prints and drawings, while often of similar art historical interest, are too numerous and too infrequently shown to permit a comparison between nations. They have often been acquired, instead of paintings by the same artist, by national galleries too late to the market. Some nations have, of course, established reputations in media that are insufficiently robust for permanent display. In Japan and China, for example, the significance of works on paper – a fragile medium vulnerable to light – gives gallery spaces an ephemeral aspect quite different from the semi-permanent display of oil paintings in Europe and the Americas. In England, late eighteenth-century to mid nineteenth-century watercolour painting gains equivalence to oil painting as a national art form but for these same reasons is infrequently shown. National galleries of contemporary art offer rather better potential for the kind of study undertaken here but then force consideration of the role of private galleries, biennales and so on. 

As to the definition of a ‘national gallery’, it might be understood as an institution meeting some or all of the following criteria: holding and exhibiting all or part of the national collection of fine art; established by an act of parliament or government decree; funded at least in part by the national government; possessing a professional staff employed by the state; situated in government bureaucracy and delivering in policy areas in the arts; and designated or referred to as a national museum or gallery. In these areas, no national gallery is static: legal status, funding arrangements, bureaucratic positioning, relationships to other institutions, employment status, mission, and so on, change over time. The definition of a national gallery is further complicated by the unitary, united, federal and other systems of national or state organisation and operation. Some examples might assist in understanding the different ways national galleries have been conceived and re-imagined.

Consider, for example, the changes to the legal status and operation of national galleries in London brought about by the Museums and Galleries Act, 1992. This made the then Tate Gallery a charity regulated by statute and the Department of Culture, Media, and Sport. The National Gallery and Tate Gallery Act, 1954,[15] had earlier separated the operation of these two national institutions. These changes permitted the Tate Gallery to develop its own identity, rebranding it as part of ‘Tate’ in the late 1990s as Tate Modern came into being. The Tate Gallery, which was at first negatively affected by this new museum, was renamed Tate Britain and subsequently underwent its own renaissance. The organisation also included Tate Liverpool and Tate St Ives, which opened in 1988 and 1993 respectively, and were in large part a response to the political desire to place national art collections in the English provinces. 

The Vietnam Fine Arts Museum is regulated by a decision of the Ministry of Culture and Information dating from 2004 and ‘occupies the most important position in maintaining and promoting the treasures of Vietnamese cultural and artistic heritage…[giving] the public unique insights into the culture and history of Vietnam’s ethnic communities.’[16] A description of its functions does little to separate it from the national galleries in London, but it operates in a nation with a dense population, 50% greater than that in the UK. Its burgeoning economy is, however, one-eighth the size. Possessing a recent history of colonial occupation and political upheaval, and a demographic makeup that includes more than 50 ethnic minorities, this national gallery is profoundly different from those in London, both in mission and context.

FIGURE 1.2: Museo Nacional de Arte, La Paz. Photo: Theodore Liebersfeld

The Museo Nacional de Arte in La Paz, Bolivia (Figure 1.2), established in 1960, was reorganised under the Cultural Foundation of the Central Bank of Bolivia in 2003. A state organisation, the Foundation aims to recover, protect, guard, preserve, record, restore and promote the tangible and intangible cultural heritage of Bolivia and create spaces for reflection, debate and critical engagement.[17] The national gallery is thus part of a Foundation whose vision expresses contemporary socio-political aspiration: ‘a plural society, intercultural, equal, equitable, decolonised, [with] democratised access to cultural sources.’

Reform of the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, Austria, during the 1990s made it operationally independent and self-financing. While still an institution of the state, it was now free to operate within – and thus constrained in its performance by – Vienna’s rich tourist economy.[18] It has been argued that the Austrian Empire, which covered much of Central Europe in the nineteenth century, was built around the concept of a ‘state of many peoples’ rather than a single nation. When, in the 1950s, Austrian art historian, Hans Tietze, thought about the Kunsthistorisches Museum’s collection it was as a fossilised representation of the art collecting of the Habsburgs and not as a national collection; ‘the country formed the family as much as the family formed the country.’[19] 

FIGURE 1.3: The National Gallery, London. Photo: Simon Knell

National galleries sometimes focus on a particular part of the art canon – Old Masters, modern or contemporary art – and may have a national and/or international outlook. Practices vary widely, each gallery establishing boundaries and associations that express a political or historical logic, or a desire by the gallery to achieve a particular performance. The National Gallery in London (Figure 1.3), for example, by taking its international survey up to 1900 is also able to display both the apogee of British painting in the nineteenth century and those developments in French painting that occurred in the second half of that century and which remain particularly popular with the public. The selection of this year keeps the gallery’s focus on uncontested masterpieces. It holds nothing contentious.

Not all nations have constructed this kind of discrete national gallery. Often national collections of painting exist within more wide-ranging national art museums. These include the Louvre in Paris, the Hermitage in St Petersburg and the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna. While paintings dominate these institutions, they are brought into association with other elite artworks, particularly classical sculpture and Egyptian antiquities, which contribute to the status and identity of the institution overall. In Wellington, the national collection of painting and contemporary art occupies a relatively small space at Te Papa, the National Museum of New Zealand. Here, it could be argued, the art is affected by the egalitarianism and pluralism of its displays of Maori, European and Asian culture. Prior to the establishment of this museum, the national art collection was conceived more traditionally as a separate entity. In Stockholm, the Nationalmuseum became a national gallery, which also held decorative arts objects, as a result of other types of collection leaving to found separate institutions. In many countries, such as Hungary, collections of paintings were first displayed in a general national museum before the establishment of a designated national gallery. The lack of a discrete national gallery may reflect levels of support for the arts or the rather alien, non-traditional or colonial nature of Western-style painting in a nation that identifies with indigenous history and culture. 

Looked at globally, there is a continuum from discrete national galleries to picture galleries as a division within a more general national museum. All manifestations of the national picture gallery will be considered here, though many would be excluded from this analysis if the national gallery was defined only as a discrete institution. The virtue of this more inclusive approach, however, is to ensure that all such collections can be considered regardless of the wealth of the nation or the organisation of its cultural institutions. If the range of institutions to be considered is rather diverse, they nevertheless conform broadly to a type. As the next section will explain, however, this type has many variants. 

Refining and complicating the definition

The firm boundaries that seem to suggest that national galleries are a uniform genre of museum are tested by variations in culture and context, and by the passing of time. Indeed, it is possible to distinguish different types of national gallery, though in doing so it is important to understand that cultural institutions should not be expected to fall into neat typological categories. Nor, as I have already explained, should we think of these institutions as static. It is perhaps easier to imagine the national gallery as being born into and situated within a specific time and place, and that these permit and deny certain potential outcomes.[20] Over time, as the national gallery becomes deployed in policy, it becomes less an expression of the circumstances of its birth and more of the changing political tendencies of the state. 

The most stable, and possibly the ultimate, form of the national gallery exists where the institution is insulated against direct political interference and comes wholly under the control of a profession. This kind of institution is aided by a stable state, constitution and civil society, which ensure a fairly constant relationship between the government and nation. The archetype for these civic national galleries is the National Gallery in London and such imitators as the National Gallery of Art in Washington and the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa. This model is widely established in the developed world and is never used to express partisan political ideologies. Such galleries are, however, affected by government policy.

The antithesis of these institutions is the ideological national gallery. This kind might itself be understood to possess a number of variants. The revolutionary national gallery, for example, is an ephemeral form defined by the mobilisation of the institution and its contents in a process of radical social and political change. The prime example of this was the Louvre during the French Revolution, when the gallery embodied the country’s military and cultural supremacy, its nationalistic ideology and the dispossession and overthrow of the Ancien Régime. During the Russian Revolution, the nationalisation and reorganisation of galleries in St Petersburg and Moscow, expressed the new Marxist ideology but also the chaos of revolution. In Hitler’s Germany in the 1930s, the Haus der Deutschen Kunst (House of German Art) became the venue for new nationally approved ideological art. Revolutionary national galleries, which have been established in many parts of the world, possess no long-term stability. They assert change but in a short period they too must change. 

The nationalistic national gallery is a different ideological manifestation. These express a strong nationalist sentiment and are particularly well developed within the territorial insecurity of Central Europe. An archetype was the (Alte) Nationalgalerie in Berlin at the point of German Unification in 1871. The ‘nation’ referred to in the title of this institution was one possessing ethnic unity. It represented the political ambitions of the Kaiser (Emperor), who retained ultimate control over it, and more generally the way in which autocrats and monarchs came to exploit the idea of the nation and of popular nationalism as a form of propaganda, political illusion and control. Hans Tietze observed that the term, ‘national gallery’, meant something different in Germany; it was the institution that held German – national – art.[21]

A third type of ideological institution is the autocratic state gallery. These were established in the USSR and were instruments for producing an idealised socialist society. Nationalism and the nation were concepts that threatened the integrity of this ethnically diverse communist empire. Component republics were encouraged to celebrate their ethnic identities and traditions but only within the unifying frame of socialism. State art museums were hard-wired into the state’s ideological infrastructure and became venues for Russification and other forms of indoctrination. They were counterparts to national galleries in the ‘free world’ and all would become national galleries with the USSR’s collapse.

The royal gallery is a rather different phenomenon. During much of the nineteenth century, the Louvre, the Prado, and the Kunsthistorisches Museum were royal institutions; they were not national galleries. Historians seeking to give them national status early in their histories have frequently pointed to monarchs passing ownership of their collections to the state but they did so to ensure that their private collections, which glorified their name, were not sold off by their heirs. Collections were not nationalised by this process. Even if opened to the public, these collections remained a representation of the monarch and not of the nation.

It is important, however, not to be dogmatic about these distinctions. These various categories are porous and overlapping. While they begin to offer ways to consider the political dimensions of the institution, for most national galleries these forms are transitory. Consider, for example, the Louvre. This institution was in a process of formation as a royal gallery prior to the French Revolution. It became a revolutionary national gallery during the revolution, there espousing popular nationalism that ultimately became a mechanism for controlling the population. Under the charismatic autocracy of Napoleon, it would change. With Napoleon’s adoption of the title of emperor and his reintroduction of all the trappings of monarchy so the Louvre increasingly took on the characteristics of a royal, rather than a national, museum. Following Napoleon’s final exile and the restoration of the monarchy, the Louvre did finally become a royal museum.

In a number of nations, the national gallery has not been realised as a single institution but as what might be understood as a distributed national gallery composed of a number of essentially identical institutions. This has happened for a variety of reasons. In Italy, for example, all the major art museums became state institutions following unification in 1861.[22] This act of re-designation can be understood as a move to achieve cultural union in a nation composed of once autonomous, rich and artistically advanced regions or city-states. Today, the country’s national galleries reflect and respect the country’s diverse cultural development and its regional identities. In Poland, national galleries often exist within, or as branches of, more general national museums present in all the country’s major cities. This arrangement reflects a long period of partition by foreign powers that resulted in a unique pattern of cultural development across the country as a whole. Under communism the art collections were nationalised and national galleries proliferated.[23]

In West Germany after the Second World War, and in reunified Germany after 1990, nationalism was a forbidden narrative and there was no desire for those institutions that assert it. The Alte Nationalgalerie and Neue Nationalgalerie in Berlin became responsibilities of the Prussian State in a federal republic where culture is for the most part decentralised.[24]  Although bearing the title of ‘national gallery’, those in Berlin today possess the same status as the non-national, formerly royal, galleries in Munich, in the once politically independent state of Bavaria. These latter galleries have been considerably more influential on the development of national galleries than those in Berlin but at no point in their history have they truly been national galleries. This brings us to the question of considering those institutions that in various ways imitate the national gallery or seem to bear some relationship to it.

Boundary institutions

In many capitals there are city galleries that have the characteristics of a national gallery without being one. In some circumstances these operate like surrogate national galleries. A good example is the Taipei Fine Arts Museum, which occupies a landmark building on the ‘national road’ along which foreign leaders are driven on their entry into Taiwan’s capital. The National Taiwan Museum of Fine Arts is, as the result of a national plan to distribute cultural institutions across the island, located in distant Taichung, the country’s second city. 

City projects like this may gain considerable state support but yet not lead to the establishment of a national gallery. Consider, for example, the vast Museum of Contemporary Art in Zagreb that opened in 2010, and which would be an asset to any nation. It remains, however, a city project, a landmark at the heart of what is known as New Zagreb. Istanbul Modern, established in a disused warehouse on the shores of the Bosphorus in 2004, is yet another manifestation which some have seen as being nationally important. It is, however, a private initiative that seeks to emulate, in a modest fashion, the modernising role of its London namesake.[25] The Museo Universitario Arte Contemporáneo, one of several museums in Mexico City run by the National Autonomous University of Mexico, is another nationally significant gallery. It is situated in the largest university in Latin America. With some 300,000 students it has the cultural characteristics of a city. 

The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York also has these ambiguous attributes. A private foundation with a long-standing attachment to the country’s capitalist elites, it is philosophically representative of a nation founded on individualism and a dislike of government interference. It belongs to a group of institutions that might be termed nationally significant, which includes the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Guggenheim Museum, amongst others.

Of course, a private or city gallery may at some point become a national gallery. The Beggruen Museum in Berlin, for example, is based on a private collection purchased by the Prussian State in 2000. It became the fifth institutional member of the city’s Nationalgalerie family of museums. The much larger Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum in Madrid similarly involved the state purchasing an already existing collection. Both museums continue to represent the tastes and logic of the collector rather than the more distanced rationalism typical of a national gallery. Both of these museums are, however, national galleries. 

There are a range of national museum types that exploit history painting of various kinds as illustrative material but which are clearly not national galleries. National military museums, for example, may possess works valued for their artistic qualities but which are nevertheless used as interpretive media. Works of Polish painter, war correspondent and volunteer in the Bulgarian army, Antoni Piotrowski, for example, hang in the military museum in Sofia. In other circumstances such paintings would hang alongside other depictions of war and military pageant frequently found in national galleries. This is particularly true of war artists who hang, for example, in profusion in the National Gallery of Canada. War paintings of a rather different kind – ‘dramatic and sublime’ – were also commissioned during the Second World War by the Japanese government. While many of these were subsequently censored by the Allies, works like Tsuguharu Fujita’s four metre-long Battle on the Banks of the Khalkha, Nomonhan (1941) are displayed at the National Museum of Modern Art in Tokyo. A depiction of military conflict, it would be equally at home in a military museum. 

Other national museums have used paintings as a didactic form of propaganda. When the Museum of the Macedonian Struggle in Skopje opened in 2011, for example, it told a story of conflict, anarchy and murder using theatrical spaces, wax effigies and a considerable number of large, newly commissioned, gilt-framed ‘history paintings’. While these would never be considered worthy of a national gallery, the manner of their construction and display exploited the public’s appreciation of those works these sought to imitate. 

What these latter institutions share is a privileging of depiction over artistic practice. In this they bear a similarity to national portrait galleries of the kind established in London in 1856 to illustrate the faces ‘of the men and women who have made and are making British history and culture’. The National Gallery of Australia was initially conceived along these lines as an institution that would immortalise the nation’s founding fathers. Fortunately, it soon adopted a more artistic outlook.[26]  Often criticised as vanity projects of a social elite, these particular national galleries have important documentary and archival roles.[27]  Some have occasionally taken a more egalitarian view of the nation they represent. While undeniably a type of national gallery, they are rather different from those considered in this book. The national gallery as considered here has a rather different relationship to art and to the nation.

A national gallery is distinguished by its attachment to the nation, regardless of the political system and circumstances under which it operates. However, attempting to generalise the relationship between government, state, nation and national gallery is fraught with difficulty. Ernest Gellner argued that the nation and state are bound to each other but evolve separately.[28] As events in Budapest demonstrated, at times the two seem to come into conflict. Nationalism has certainly played a role in the development of national galleries but again its form and strength varies considerably. Where nations have struggled to exist, as has frequently been the case in Central Europe, an overt and passionate nationalism has been manifested and realised in art and national gallery where both seek to represent the fight for freedom and identity. In this same part of Europe, but also elsewhere, nations have often sought to subjugate, oppress or annihilate their neighbours or their ethnic and religious minorities, and here too national galleries have been established as instruments of ideological consolidation. In liberal democracies, such as in Canada, New Zealand, and Australia, similar chauvinistic attitudes have sometimes developed but nationalism in art and national gallery has been far more concerned with artistic distinction and achievement; with establishing a unique identity for the nation. Here national galleries were concerned with locating a national style and subject matter rather than with political symbolism and didacticism. For these ‘settler nations’, the national gallery represented a continuing connection to the cultural values and modernising ideals of Britain and Europe, whilst also signalling each nation’s journey to full political autonomy. Modernisation in many parts of the world, including in Central and Eastern Europe, has often been driven by a progressive nationalism associated with the emergence of an aspirational and entrepreneurial middle class, which came with a desire to escape primitive, static and fragmented social and economic systems common in rural societies. It would be this class that would operate and establish the defining values of these institutions.[29] Indeed, the national gallery, as an essential expression of middle class values – aesthetic, intellectual, showy, aspirational and public – became central to nation building. 

The relationship between national identity and the national gallery is rarely manifested as explicitly as it appeared to be in Hungary in 2012. Conceptually, ‘the nation’ exists in permanent negotiation as a lived entity, seemingly ubiquitous in its presence and yet plural in its meaning. It is a multifaceted concept; nebulous, mutating and imprecise, and yet meaningful. It is conceived as a birth right and attached to a territory, and yet exists for the most part in the social ether, represented in our thoughts and conversations, forever partial and incomplete. From this repertoire of imaginings, artists, writers, politicians and others, select and deploy a particular rhetoric of words and images that become embedded in the thoughts of at least some of the population. It is this rather indefinite, negotiated, notion of the nation that appears in the construction of the national gallery and in the rhetoric of its performances and possessions. 

This idea is rather more useful to us than any closely argued definition, imposed and regulated by social scientists.[30] Benedict Anderson defined the nation as ‘an imagined political community – and imagined as both inherently limited and sovereign… [;] in the minds of each [member] lives the image of their communion’.[31] Two centuries earlier, Henrik Steffen had written of this internalised sense of nationhood in his work The Present Day (1803): ‘Every nation has a character, an inner spiritual constitution in concert with every individual, and only those that understand this are capable of understanding the nation.’[32] Cultural nationalism, John Hutchinson has argued, is separate from political nationalism, and ‘concerned with the meaning and the identity of the nation as a distinctive moral community.’[33]However, from the preceding examples it is clear that in the national gallery these different forms of nationalism may be conjoined. At times the nation refers to a citizen-constructed sense of community; at other times it represents a concrete historical, political and territorial entity. As to the art gallery, Donald Preziosi noted: ‘The ideological work being done by this museological technology concerns in no small measure the fabrication of the modern citizen.’[34]

Nations, the national and the international

The word national in national gallery is acting in three senses to imply: a possession of the nation; a representation of the nation; and a service to the nation. The national gallery achieves these ends through the deployment of two distinctive types of collection: the international survey, which acts as national treasure and serves a universalist appreciation of art, and national art, which represents the creativity, history and characteristics of the nation more directly. Often these two types of collection are shown in separate national galleries, an approach found in London, Budapest, St Petersburg, and many other capitals. Today, the National Gallery in London collects and curates a balanced survey of Western European painting up to 1900. National art (British art) is included in this survey but unlike at the Louvre, Prado, or Rijksmuseum, its presence is strictly contained. In this way the National Gallery has established its own archetype of the international survey collection: ‘Balance’ rather than size is its Unique Selling Proposition (USP). Earlier in its history, its promoters had interpreted this balance as ‘the completest collection of pictures in the world’.[35] Of course, the elevation of the international collection in Britain also reflected that country’s art history; unlike in France, Spain and the Low Countries, the historical depth and richness of British painting relies very heavily on the patronage of foreign artists. It was with some reluctance that a national gallery of British art, the Tate Gallery, was established. 

At the National Museum of Art of Romania (Muzeul Naţional de Artă al României) in Bucharest, these two collection types exist in the same building but as separate entities each with its own entrance. At the Prado in Madrid the two are shown in the same building where each occupies a clearly defined area. The museum is, however, dominated by the Spanish art that the Prado has so successfully championed, and which here is projected as being of international, as well as of national, significance. At the National Gallery of Canada, the national and international art collections are located on separate floors. The National Gallery of Art in Washington, by comparison, interweaves the national story into the European one in its maze of compact gallery spaces. In some Central and Eastern European countries, where the political and cultural ambitions of Russia have had a profound influence on the development of national galleries, a further distinction may be made. Here the international survey is divided into Russian art, which represents the dominant cultural milieu and foreign art composed mainly of the art of Western Europe. Many art historians, it should be noted, who claim art as universal and beyond politics, object to these often politically motivated subdivisions. 

 These different arrangements reflect the differing conceptualisations and purposes of international and national art. The National Gallery in London is not alone in fearing that the sheer quantity of national art might swamp and weaken the international survey. International art, more so than national art, is valued for its status. These artworks perform within an international system of value in which possession offers political and other advantages, as will be discussed in chapter 3. 

 In the case of a work of national art – which includes artworks produced by national citizens as well as by foreign artists living in the country or depicting national subject matter – a national sense of ownership may occur without a painting’s actual possession by the nation. For example, an Italian may feel a sense of attachment to a work of Michelangelo even if it exists in a private or foreign collection. Such works may transcend rational interpretation, attaching themselves to the nation as poetic and political actors. A ‘national school’ visualised by a citizen of that nation is rather different from that used to subdivide and organise international survey collections. In the latter case, national schools represent a nation’s contribution to a general or universal history of art. Artist and place of production are here attributed with international significance and stand for particular traditions, methods, lineages, environments, inheritances, workshops, and patronage. In early gallery arrangements of this type, place was represented by artistic centres – Venice, Florence, Lombardy and so on – rather than nations. This geographical approach inserted an easy and logical rationale into an otherwise chaotic art world. In time, nationalistic bias would enter art historical discourse adding a political dimension formerly missing.[36]

In the national gallery of national art, the national school represents an attempt to construct the nation in art. It is seen as representing national philosophies, histories, and cultural practices, both in the national ‘art world’ and in the wider psychological, social, and physical makeup of the nation (religion, property, tradition, landscape, and so on). The nation here is not just a geographical territory or a place of production. It is emotive, poetic, and political. In these galleries, the national school is explored and represented more expansively, minutely and comprehensively than it can be in an international collection. Invariably, the act of constructing a national story of art requires a degree of ingenuity, as the majority of nations only establish a modern painting tradition after 1800 and in a great many cases only after 1900. These nations have been particularly creative when it comes to locating the origins of national art. Some do so by incorporating visiting foreign artists as surrogate nationals, even when no work by these artists remains in that country. Others have used the appropriation and elevation of medieval church art or religious icons, as a sign of national creativity. Domestic portraiture and amateur painting are frequently used as precursors to more professional achievement. In recent years, settler nations attempting to reconcile themselves with the consequences of colonialism have placed pre-settlement indigenous cultural artefacts at the beginning of the national narrative. 

It might also be argued that international art, even if permanently removed from the market, remains in some senses a commodity; its value to the nation is in some respects determined through a process of international negotiation. Most national art, by comparison and excepting that which falls out of fashion (political art, whimsical art, eroticism, and so on), may be considered emotionally and morally inalienable in the sense that the attachment between art and nation cannot be broken. 

There are, then, two negotiations taking place here. International art concerns the art a nation wishes to possess, control and experience. The other associates the work or the artist with the idea of the nation. In both cases, these negotiations connect art to nation and nation to art. Both empower art and gallery politically. The international survey may come into being in order to educate a national public or artistic community, but it also represents the nation’s elevation as a civilisation empowered to author and control the universal history of art and culture. These galleries permit nations to measure themselves against their peers. They are built through competition, emulation and rivalry and as such are amongst the most political of all national museums. They also form a club that small nations and new nations seek to join. Arguably, no nation can claim to be a world power without this sense of worldliness. If national galleries of national art are about the internal construction of the nation, the internationally focused national gallery situates and elevates this nation in a global context.[37]  This club-building activity implies the existence of non-members, of a developing world that is not empowered to author and whose national artists may be preyed upon by national galleries with ever more expansive and inclusive views of art, the art world and art history.

The political agency of national galleries

If we fail to observe these political aspects of the national gallery it is in large part due to the tireless efforts of museum professionals who attempt to exorcise from the gallery all trace of nationalism, partisanship, commercial interest and so on. Professional objectivity and neutrality, together with a sense of sanctuary, were designed into those early prototypes of these institutions, the royal galleries.[38] It should be noted, however, and perhaps with some irony, that these professional performances actually enhance the political potency of the institution; they are as a result amongst the most trusted of state institutions.[39] Consider London’s National Gallery, for example. Accessible, free, socially and educationally engaged, with fine café, restaurant, book and gift shops, it is the very model of a neutral public institution. In its Annual Report for 2013, it expressed its aim as ‘to establish a central role for Old Master paintings in modern cultural life.’ The realisation of this aim was to be achieved through the pursuit of strategic objectives centred on preserving, enhancing and developing the collection and broadening audiences, as well as providing the public with experiences, learning and engagement.[40] This is a highly professionalised – neutral and service-oriented – if rather bland, expression of institutional mission. This constitutes the explicit professional mission of the institution but there is also an implicit political mission. Sometimes this is only made public in the political rhetoric that surrounds the formation of a national gallery, but it nevertheless remains present. The National Gallery is situated at the heart of the capital, on its most important square, where it forms the backdrop to national celebrations as one of the centrepieces of London’s tourist industry. In the depth and richness of its collections of world-class paintings it ranks with the very best. As a balanced representation, it might claim that it reigns supreme. It may be an important educational resource and a valuable contributor to the London economy, but as I have already suggested, it is its political symbolism that makes it invaluable. It is one of those things that permits this small country to continue to hold its head up in the international community. It speaks of Britain as rich, sophisticated, democratic and benevolent. Why else would a national government – even one which in 2014 was keen to diminish the size of state institutions – spend £25m a year on its upkeep?[41]

FIGURE 1.4: Tate Modern, London. Photo: Simon Knell

If doubts remain that this is the case, it is only necessary to consider the birth of London’s Tate Modern in 2000 (Figure 1.4). The one time self-proclaimed capital of modern art, New York, looked on in the months running up to its opening, predicting that this ‘gargantuan’ institution would ‘change the balance of power in the international art world’. The commercial market for modern and contemporary art in London’s East End was as a result burgeoning and drawing in international gallerists. An article in the New York Times exaggerated the effect wonderfully: ‘To measure the new museum’s probable effect on London, think of Paris with the Eiffel Tower, Centre Beaubourg [Pompidou Centre] and Musée d’Orsay rolled into one.’ Its cathedral-like Turbine Hall was ‘thrilling’.[42] It contributed – along with the Young British Artists (YBA), Charles Saatchi’s provocative patronage of contemporary art, Sensation (1997), and the uncompromising stance of the Turner Prize – to the New Labour government’s attempt to invent ‘Cool Britannia’ and so recover the optimism of the ‘swinging’ 1960s. In its first year of operation, Tate Modern became the most popular national museum in London and the most popular art museum in the world. The new gallery lacked the overt nationalism built into the very fabric of its nineteenth-century precursors on the European continent; its absence of architectural gloss gave it an art college vibrancy. Vast, free, and welcoming, it seemed to belong to a new modernity, one in which personal mobility and freedom, rather than an art education, determined its role as a cultural venue. It was not just the art world that looked afresh at London; foreign governments also studied the economic, urban, cultural and political transformation marked by Tate Modern’s invention. 

If the National Gallery, Tate Modern, and the Hungarian National Gallery are all in some senses political institutions, it is clear that they are so in very different ways. The Hungarian gallery is not alone in experiencing direct political interference. In some parts of the world, the national gallery director is a political appointment and changed with the government. In some countries, gallery professionals may lack complete autonomy, thus opening up the possibility that a state institution can become directly instrumentalised to realise partisan political objectives. In extreme cases, national galleries have become instruments of propaganda, indoctrination and control. In Britain, the ‘arm’s length principle’, has been vigorously defended.[43]  This permits institutions to mount a professional response to government policy rather than suffer political direction. The museum profession, of course, is itself a political force, an expression of political values and agenda, even if not constituted as a political party. The neutral, objective and socially-oriented goals of the national gallery express this political position. It was professional protests against admission charges in the late twentieth century, for example, which led to entrance to London’s national museums being free. It was professionals in Berlin who, a century earlier, had fought against imperial conservatism, transforming the Nationalgalerie into one of the most enlightened and professional national galleries in Europe.

From what has been discussed in this chapter, it should be clear that various processes are at work that entangle ‘the nation’, as a psychological construct in the mind of the citizen, with those objects considered ‘art’. A useful concept, which I want to introduce and give formal definition to here, is the ‘art-nation’. In doing so, I want to distinguish it from prior uses of the (unhyphenated) ‘art nation’ in the popular media.[44] As in the ‘nation-state’, the hyphen in ‘art-nation’ acts to forge two independent notions into a single concept. Unlike the ‘artworld’ – a system of negotiation within which certain works are designated as art[45] – the art-nation is not concerned with consensual recognition or the actions of an empowered group. Any citizen who, in their own mind, creates a link between an artwork and the nation may be deemed to be a member of the art-nation. The art-nation is nebulous and in many respects incoherent. Thus rather than being concerned with particular groups of actors, the art-nation is best understood as manifested through a set of structures and overlapping and entangled processes of productionshow and identification (see Figure 1.5).

FIGURE 1.5: The art-nation: entangling art and nation in the mind of the citizen

Structures organise our encounters with art, and act to associate art and nation. These structures include national and provincial galleries. In New Zealand, for example, it has been argued that the provincial Auckland Art Gallery has been more important to the development and recognition of national art than was the national gallery. Newspaper columns also offer structures within which associations between art and nation might be made. Various medals, honours and prizes have performed similarly. Indeed, art performs within a wider range of ‘institutions’ than any other form of cultural production. Take, for example, the work of the Public Catalogue Foundation in Britain, a charity set up to digitise the nation’s publicly-held collections of oil paintings. Entering into a partnership with the BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation) in 2009 it put the images of nearly a quarter of a million works online. The resulting Your Paintings website is unashamedly a representation of the nation’s art. It is also an act of democratisation and a canny way to get greater public support for an area of national life that is for the most part controlled and viewed by an educated elite. The site gives a sense of national ownership; art and nation are explicitly joined. The national gallery is just one element within a whole family of structures and whilst it might have a special role as keeper, and perhaps as originator, of these art-nation associations it has to be acknowledged that it is also one of the least accessible of these encounters. Globally, most members of the public do not live within easy reach of a national gallery. 

While any artwork might be considered as nationally significant by the art-nation, artists themselves may engage in acts of production that inscribe the nation into the artwork. Jacques-Louis David’s five versions of Napoleon Crossing the Alps (1801-1805), for example, were used diplomatically during Napoleon’s reign. Napoleon was, and in many respects remains, the embodiment of the French nation. The power of the state to commission art in this way ensured these associations. Today, many national galleries exist primarily to develop the nation’s art and artists.[46]

The act of showing that establishes a relationship between an artwork and the nation may take place in galleries, newspapers and other media but it has to be acknowledged that the art book is particularly potent. It develops this relationship by exploiting a number of strategies. Francis Pound’s The Invention of New Zealand: Art and National Identity 1930-1970 was unlike any previous study of that nation’s art. Of uninhibited scale and closely argued, it offered a personal construction of that country’s art. Critics saw it as a great monolith – imposing, biased and distorting – which could not be ignored. This was rather different from Patricia Bergman’s In Another Light: Danish Painting in the Nineteenth Century, which set art in a nationally framed social historical context. Art often seemed to emerge from a national community and environment. Torsten Gunnarsson’s large format Nordic Landscape Painting in the Nineteenth Century won its argument aesthetically. Containing a vast and carefully curated selection of illustrations on glossy paper of works rarely seen outside Scandinavia, it was necessary only to look at the images in order to believe in the originality and significance of the art of these nations. The success of Robert Hughes’ American Visions: The Epic History of Art in America, a self-confessed love letter to his adopted home, relied on a rather different performance; it owed a great deal to Hughes’ personable authority, eloquence and charisma.

In each of these examples, story-centred narratives seek to essentialise (that is, distil a set of essential characteristics); to elevate a selection of artworks and artists, and embed them in the nation. As in primordial nationalism, the painting and the painter can appear to emerge from the very soil of the nation. Logics and poetics, that barely existed in the confused realities of moment when these works were created, have been carefully edited, ordered, sweetened and spiced. The photographic illustration itself aestheticises the painting it depicts, convincing us that it is truly representational despite editing out the crafted nature of the work itself. In these ways the art book unknowingly transgresses the boundary between non-fiction and fiction, never quite showing us the real thing or transmitting a fragment of the real past. Though, of course, art is never to be understood in solely rational terms. As Lars Nittve once reflected: ‘When you work at Moderna Museet, it can sometimes feel as though you are dealing in myths. We help construct myths – about artists and their work, in particular – while, it is to be hoped, also deconstructing others.’[47] These books and museum performances give us something to believe in, something that transcends the mundane. But, in terms of acts of show, national galleries by comparison offer something different from books: more disconnected, less narrated, more real and yet, because of these things, rather more reliant on the audience to invent, dream and imagine. 

All actors in the art-nation, whether constructing structures, producing or showing, or simply engaging with art, must undergo a process of identification which connects art and nation. This may be something felt or assumed rather than arising from deep analysis, negotiation or even precise knowledge of the artwork or artist. Consider, for example, John Singer Sargent’s ascent to iconic status in American art in the second half of the twentieth century. This might be thought of as an infatuation that becomes a virus of thought that spreads amongst members of the art-nation and strengthens the bond between artist and nation. In other words, this artist – whose primary claim to citizenship lays in parental origins, who was almost without exception a non-resident American, whose art can hardly be considered nationally representative, and who became stranded through his own conservatism – has become increasingly American.[48] National artists have to be constructed and appreciated. Even Diego Velázquez – who by being original, early, rooted, defining a Golden Age, and having stylistic and technical influence beyond his time and nation is an archetypal national artist – nevertheless required rediscovery and repeated acts of deification. Those who curate the works of this artist identify a relationship to the nation and attempt to disseminate it to those of us who visit galleries. Ordinary citizens participate in these acts of identification according to their experiences and exposure to art. In a recent study by Mette Houlberg Rung, experienced visitors to the Statens Museum for Kunst in Copenhagen felt so at home in the gallery as to be empowered over the artworks. They felt they could author their own interpretations. Inexperienced visitors, however, acted out a perceived requirement to respect the authority of the institution and learn.[49]

Our acts of identification as visitors can be affected by extraneous matter. Consider, for example, Mike Leigh’s eponymous cinema release celebrating the life of British artist J. M. W. Turner, first shown at Cannes in 2014. As an accessible introduction to the artist, it might build associations and assurances in the minds of members of a wider public that then enables them to overcome the gallery’s arcane environment and view the artworks themselves. But is the Turner they consume the real Turner, or the actor Timothy Spall, who is currently being worked upon by the media who are keen to turn him into a national treasure? Art and nation are being entangled almost without the involvement of the art itself. Similarly, Kahlo and Rivera now bear the faces and mannerisms of Salma Hayek and Alfred Molina, and might find a place in Mexican minds quite unfamiliar with their works. 

The art-nation can be configured in various ways and complicated by cultural geography and history. In Poland, national art has repeatedly been kept out of the hands of occupying forces, held abroad and then used as a cultural bedrock upon which to rebuild national identity.[50] In more complex national structures, such as in the UK with its separate ‘member nations’, Scottish and British identifications may be positively entangled or negatively oppositional. In Federal nations, particularly those of large geographical area and relatively small and dispersed populations, such as Canada and Australia, the art-nation may be geographically nuanced with members of each state tending to view the nation’s art differently in terms of its significant artists, artworks and art moments. Vancouver Art Gallery, for example, has been instrumental in continuing acts of national elevation of British Columbian artist, Emily Carr.[51] The invention and negotiation of national artists by national galleries will be considered in the next chapter.  

[1]. For context to this painting, Jeremy Howard, East European Art 1650-1950 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006), 45-6.

[2]. A far larger panorama had also been produced at this time, Árpád Feszty’s The Arrival of the Magyars (1891-4), for which see Howard, 50-1.

[3]. Exhibition text, Hungarian National Gallery, http://www.mng.hu/. The Munkáscy Foundation remains committed to patriotic efforts and to memory of the artist, http://munkacsyalapitvany.hu.

[4]. Árpád Mikó and Katalin Sinkó (eds), History-Image: Guide to the Exhibition (Budapest: Hungarian National Gallery, 20002), 4-6.

[5]. Stefan Auer, Liberal Nationalism in Central Europe (London: RoultledgeCurzon, 2004), 16.

[6]. The exhibition provoked considerable media activity. See, for example: Péter Zilahy, ‘Heroes, Kings and Saints’, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, 16 January 2010, http://salon.eu.sk/ (accessed December 2012); Barbara Révész, ‘Missing the mark: artistic critique of Hungary’s Basic Law in Berlin’, Paprika Politik, 9 March 2012, http://www.paprikapolitik.com (accessed May 2015); Anon. ‘Heroes of the Basic Law’ feature in Time Out, Budapest, February 2012 www.translocal.org/  (accessed December 2012); Anon., ‘Heroes, kings, saints, and the second founder of the Hungarian state’, Hungarian Spectrum, 3 January 2012, http://hungarianspectrum.org; (accessed May 2015).

[7]. Martin Dunai, ‘Outrage at “Jewish list” call in Hungary parliament’, Reuters US Edition, 27 November 2012, http://www.reuters.com/ (accessed 3 March 2014).

[8]. Catherine Hickley, ‘Hungary’s heroes, artists enlisted to push Orban policy: review’, Bloomberg, 14 March 2012, http://www.bloomberg.com/  (accessed May 2015).

[9]. Hans Tietze, Treasures of the Great National Galleries (London: Phaidon, 1954).

[10]. Charlotte Klonk, for example, in her innovative Spaces of Experience: Art Gallery Interiors from 1800 to 2000 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009), 4, found it necessary and practicable to focus on major galleries in London, Berlin and New York.

[11]. Germain Bazin, The Museum Age, trans. Elisabeth Earl (Brussels: Desoer S. A. Publishers, 1967), 194.

[12]. An entirely different argument to the one made here has been concerned with ‘World Art’, cultural relativism and the definition of art itself, for which see, for example, Stephen F.  Eisenman, ‘Three criteria for inclusion in, or exclusion from a world history of art’, World Art 1(2) (2011): 281-98.

[13]. On situation in geographical study, Mariusz Czepczyński, Cultural Landscapes of Post-Socialist Cities (Farnham: Ashgate Publishing, 2008), 33.

[14]. The Countess of Auvergne says to Talbot, in Shakespeare’s Henry VI, Pt1 (1623), ‘For in my gallery thy picture hangs’. Francis Bacon, in The Essays (1601), ‘For a crowd is not company; and faces are but a gallery of pictures’. Here the gallery is, like the formal garden, a space for movement, conversation, objects and vistas: ‘you may walk as in a gallery’.

[15]. For British government legislation, http://www.legislation.gov.uk/.

[16]. The museum’s website displays its ‘official duties’, http://vnfam.vn/  (accessed January 2014).

[17]. The mission of the Fundación Cultural Banco Central de Bolivia, http://www.culturabcb.org.bo/ (accessed May 2015).

[18]. Emma Benz and Marlies Raffler, ‘National museums in Austria’, in Peter Aronsson and Gabriella Elgenius (eds), Building National Museums in Europe 1750-2010, EuNaMus Report No. 1 (Linköping: Linköping University Electronic Press, 2011), 21-46, 34.

[19]. Tietze, National Galleries, 11. Marlies Raffler, Museum – Spiegel der Nation? (Vienna: Böhlau Verlag, 2007). See also Bentz and Raffler, ‘National museums in Austria’.

[20]. Mikhail Bakhtin, ‘Forms of time and the chronotope in the novel’, in Michael Holquist (ed.) The Dialogic Imagination (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1937) 84-258. James Clifford, The Predicament of Culture (Cambridge: Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1988), 236.

[21]. Tietze, National Galleries, 1.

[22]. Simona Troilo, ‘National museums in Italy: a matter of multifaceted identity’, in Peter Aronsson and Gabriella Elgenius (eds), Building National Museums in Europe 1750-2010, EuNaMus Report No. 1 (Linköping: Linköping University Electronic Press, 2011), 461-495.

[23]. Kazimierz Mazan, ‘National museums in Poland’, in Peter Aronsson and Gabriella Elgenius (eds), Building National Museums in Europe 1750-2010, EuNaMus Report No. 1 (Linköping: Linköping University Electronic Press, 2011), 667-87.

[24]. Peter Aronsson and Emma Bentz, ‘National museums in Germany: anchoring competing communities’, in in Peter Aronsson and Gabriella Elgenius (eds), Building National Museums in Europe 1750-2010, EuNaMus Report No. 1 (Linköping: Linköping University Electronic Press, 2011), 327-62.

[25]. Ayşe H. Köksal, ‘National art and the “modernization” of Turkey’, in Simon J. Knell et al. (eds), National Museums: New Studies From Around the World (London: Routledge, 2011), 163-79.

[26]. Pauline Green (ed.), Building the Collection (Canberra: National Gallery of Australia, 2003), 1.

[27]. Eilean Hooper-Greenhill, Museums and the Interpretation of Visual Culture (London: Routledge, 2000).

[28]. Ernest Gellner, Nations and Nationalism, second edition, (Oxford: Blackwell, 2006), 6. 

[29]. On nations as a product of modernisation, see Gellner. Nations. See also John Hutchinson, Modern Nationalism (London: Fontana Press, 1994), on the importance of the past and tradition and Anthony D. Smith, Myths and Memories of the Nation (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999). On ideological deployments, Elie Kedourie, Nationalism, third edition (London: Hutchinson University Library, 1978). On concrete reassurances and a commentary on contemporary academic debate on nationalism, see George Schöpflin, Nations, Identity, Power: The New Politics of Europe (London: Hurst, 2000).

[30]. On the reality or construction of nations, see Anthony D. Smith, ‘The origins of nations’, Ethnic and Racial Studies 12(3) (1989): 340-67. On attempts to define, regulate and embed the nation as a concept, see the many works on this subject by this author.

[31]. Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities (London: Verso, 2006) 6.

[32]. Quoted in Michelle Facos, Nationalism and the Nordic Imagination: Swedish Art of the 1890s (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998), 29.

[33]. John Hutchinson, ‘Cultural nationalism’, in John Breuilly (ed.), The History of Nationalism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), 75-94, 76.

[34]. Donald Preziosi, ‘Brain of the Earth’s body: museums and the framing of modernity’, in Paul Duro (ed.), The Rhetoric of the Frame(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 96-110, 105.

[35]. Introduction by Sir Walter Armstrong, Director of the National Gallery of Ireland, in Gustave Geffroy, The National Gallery (London: Frederick Warne & Co., 1904), xix.

[36]. Carol Duncan and Alan Wallach, ‘The universal survey museum’, Art History, 3(4) (1980): 448-69, 463, for example, understood these geographies as politically, rather than art historically, conceived.

[37]. The Bizot Group, also known as the International Group of Organizers of Large-scale Exhibitions, is composed of the directors of the ‘world’s leading museums and galleries’. It gives this globalised hegemony concrete form.

[38]. Theodore Ziolkowski, German Romanticism and Its Institutions (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1990), 326.

[39]. Lon Dubinsky and Del Muise, ‘Museums as in-between institutions’ in Vivian Gosselin and Phaedra Livingstone (eds), Museums as Sites of Historical Consciousness (Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, in press).

[40]. The National Gallery, The National Gallery Annual Report, 31 March 2013 (London: The Stationary Office Ltd, 2013).

[41]. A figure that has been cut repeatedly in recent years, The National Gallery, Review of the Year April 2013 – March 2014 (London: Trustees of the National Gallery of London, 2014), 59.

[42]. Roberta Smith, ‘In London, the last “Sensation” gives way to the next’, New York Times, 30 November 1999, http://www.nytimes.com/  (accessed May 2015).

[43]. For example, Dame Liz Forgan, when Chair of Arts Council England, repeatedly defended the arm’s length principle in public meetings widely reported in the British media. See also Harry Hillman Chartrand and Claire McCaughey, ‘The arm’s length principle and the arts: an international perspective – past, present and future’, in M. C. Cummings Jr and J. Mark Davidson Schuster (eds.) Whos to Pay for the Arts? (New York: American Council for the Arts, 1989).

[44]. The term, ‘art nation’ has been widely used in arts policy, and in social and broadcasting media. It has, for example, been used for a UAE-based alternative artists group, a Swedish rock band, an Arts Council England public engagement programme, arts initiatives in Canada and Hong Kong, a TV show in Australia, and so on.

[45]. There is an extensive literature theorising the artworld or art world, and closely related work examining the sociological and economic operation of the art market and the social production of art. The term was first used by Arthur Danto, ‘The Artworld’, J. Philosophy 61 (1964): 571-84. An institutional view of art was discussed in George Dickie, ‘Defining art’, American Philosophical Quarterly, 6 (1969): 253-6 and George Dickie, Art and the Aesthetic: An Institutional Analysis (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1974).  A sociological approach was adopted by Harold S. Becker, Art Worlds (Berkley: University of California, 1982). This perspective encouraged the search for gatekeepers, as in the study of the Israeli art scene by Liah Greenfeld, Different Worlds: A Sociological Study of Taste, Choice and Success in Art (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989). Critical to this debate was Pierre Bourdieu, The Field of Cultural Production (London: Polity Press, 1993) and his other works. The effect of Bourdieu’s thinking on the art museum was discussed by the museologist, Stephen E. Weil, ‘On a new foundation: the American art museum reconceived’, A Cabinet of Curiosities (Washington: Smithsonian,1995), 81-123. A detailed study of the non-Western art world is given by Su-Liang Tseng, The Art Market, Collectors and Art Museums in Taiwan Since 1949 (Taipei: Sanyi Cultural Enterprise, 2003). Also, Hans Belting, Andrea Buddensieg, and Peter Weibel, The Global Contemporary and the Rise of New Art Worlds (Karlsruhe: ZKM, 2013). 

[46]. Patricia Mainardi, Art and Politics of the Second Empire: The Universal Expositions of 1855 and 1867 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1987) 1, 33.

[47]. Lars Nittve, ‘Forward’, in Anna Tellgren (ed.), The History Book: On Moderna Museet 1958-2008 (Stockholm and Göttingen: Moderna Museet and Steidl Verlag, 2008), 3.

[48] Richard Ormond and Elaine Kilmurray, John Singer Sargent: Portraits of the 1890s (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002) refer to his style as ‘intrinsically cosmopolitan’, but then acknowledge that ‘Sargent was, however, too acute an observer to blur all national distinctions’, suggesting that American and British subjects were each given an inherently different national interpretation. On reception, decline and recovery, Robert Hughes, American Visions (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2009), 248.

[49]. Mette Houlberg Rung,  ‘Negotiating experiences: visiting Statens Museum for Kunst’, (PhD thesis, University of Leicester, 2013).

[50]. Karoline Kaluza, ‘Reimagining the nation in museums: Poland’s old and new national museums’, in Simon J. Knell et al. (eds), National Museums: New Studies From Around the World (London: Routledge, 2011), 151-62.

[51]. Simon Knell. (in press) ‘The gift of historical consciousness: museums, art and poverty’, in Vivian Gosselin and Phaedra Livingstone (eds) Museums as Sites of Historical Consciousness, (Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, in press).

Source: Simon Knell. National Galleries: The Art of Making Nations (London: Routledge, 2016), chapter 1.