National Galleries: The Art of Making Nations


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


National Galleries is the first book to undertake a panoramic view of a type of national institution – which is sometimes called a national museum of fine art – that is now found in almost every nation on earth. Adopting a richly illustrated, globally inclusive, comparative view, the book argues that national galleries should not be understood as ‘great galleries’ but as peculiar sites where art is made to perform in acts of nation building. A book that fundamentally rewrites the history of these institutions and encourages the reader to dispense with elitist views of their worth, it reveals an unseen geography and a rich complexity of performance. National Galleries considers the ways these institutions entangle art and nation, and the differing trajectories and purposes of international and national art. Exploring galleries, artists and artworks from around the world, National Galleries is an argument about how we think about and study these institutions. Privileging the situatedness of each national gallery performance, and valuing localism over universalism, the book looks particularly at how national art is constructed and represented. It ends with examples that show the mutability of national art and by questioning the necessity of art nationalism.


Free access to an ‘accepted manuscript’ version of the first chapter. For the final version of this chapter please see the published book.



To understand national galleries it is necessary to put to one side ideas formed in the great galleries of the world. We need to approach them in a way that exposes their inner workings and demonstrates their contribution to the making of art and nations.

This chapter begins by examining the highly nationalistic Heroes, Kings, and Saints exhibition at the Hungarian National Gallery. It then goes on to argue that even the seemingly most benign national gallery can be a site of unobserved nation making. Indeed, it soon becomes apparent that national galleries, as a genre of museum, have been largely misunderstood; there has been an assumption that a handful of so-called ‘great international galleries’ define the form. They do not. Instead it is necessary to look at the situated characteristics of each gallery. A review of mission statements, for example, shows how different each is. Though, of course, each also trades on being similar; on being like those great galleries in Paris, London, Madrid and elsewhere. With a little probing it is possible to characterise different kinds or categories of national gallery and distinguish these from related institutions. The chapter then goes on two introduce two distinctive national gallery performances – representations of national art and international art – and their peculiar characteristics. It is noted that many historians of art dispute the category ‘national art’. This book explains how this category can be understood and how these galleries act of invent it. It argues that national galleries have political agency and that they contribute to what is termed the ‘art-nation’, a performed entanglement of art and national identity. The term is introduced and defined in this chapter.

The two chapters in this section explore the role of national galleries in the making of national and international art.

2 Entangling Art and Nation

Opening with a study of Norwegian art at the Nasjongalleriet in Oslo, this chapter looks at how national galleries build a relationship between art and the nation. In the case of Norway, I explore a significant art tradition on, or beyond, the periphery of the European canon. This art enters the European consciousness as a succession of ephemeral waves. The chapter then looks at the strategies national galleries have deployed to realise and celebrate ‘national art’. I consider the peripheral situation of most of the world’s national galleries and national art histories; a sense that their world and interests lie beyond the international canon. One strategy national galleries use to overcome charges of derivativeness is to isolate national artists from their international peers. I demonstrate this by examining quite similar works concerning death to be found in national galleries in Norway, Mexico, Australia, Poland, Hungary and Spain. Interestingly, these similar works often origin from particular academies and teachers who have had a profound impact on the works we see in national galleries. One such influential teacher was Karl von Piloty in mid-nineteenth century Munich which I illustrate with work now found in Croatia and elsewhere. I also consider regionalism in Italy as another level of identification through art. Using examples from Russia, Australia, Hungary, the Philippines, Belgium, Bulgaria and Canada I look at how national galleries act to define symbolic and iconic national subjects. The presumption that national artists are national citizens is challenged by looking at artists who play a heroic role in the art history of a number of countries. I reveal a distinction between ‘new’ settler nations, such as the USA, and old nations like Great Britain, which have traditionally treated immigrant artists differently. Looking at cases in Britain, China, Hong Kong, Singapore, Poland, the Philippines, Hungary, Spain, Sweden and Finland, I show how the national gallery becomes a sacred tomb for national artists. The chapter also looks at how national galleries invent stories about national artists; the logics and processes used to construct linear national art histories. This is illustrated with examples from Turkey, the Americas, Mexico, Cuba, Lithuania and Australia. The chapter concludes by thinking about national diversity and how the conservatism of national galleries and nation making can act to disenfranchise women, black communities and other minorities, immigrants, the working classes, the developing world and so on. Using examples from London, Stockholm, Jordan, Copenhagen and Canberra, I provide examples of national galleries actively rethinking their place in the world so as to address this problem.

3 National and International Art

This chapter begins with a consideration of Australia, an exhibition of Australian ‘national art’ sent from the National Gallery of Art in Canberra to the Royal Academy in London in 2013. This exhibition exposed the blinkered looking of critics who see Australian art as derivative and possessing few merits; it exposes the unjustified discriminatory geography and history of art which has become such a cause célèbre for many art historians since the 1990s. The chapter goes on to consider the collecting of masterpieces – works of celebrity; treasure! Indeed, these galleries illustrate this superficial approach to art particularly well if we examine the collecting of works by Rubens and Rembrandt which national galleries globally have considered to be signifiers of institutional greatness. I look at Sweden’s acquisition of iconic artists of the modern canon, at Australia’s struggle to collect a Jackson Pollock and at the attractiveness, for these galleries, of Richard Serra’s signature style. Superficial treasure hunting is followed by equally superficial marketing which contributes, through its cyclical processes, to the inflated reputations of artists. The chapter then looks at the authorial power of national galleries who shape the international canon. I reveal that this canon is actually fragmented into nationally distinctive narratives. I illustrate this with a detailed comparison of British and French art shown in London and Paris; I consider the French disdain for British art. I show that the Western canon of Old Masters itself is an artefact of the Napoleonic Wars two centuries ago; it consists of those countries that bordered France and which France occupied and from where it stole art that it then displayed in the first and most celebrated rendition of the Louvre. The narrow geographical boundaries of the international canon are themselves, in part, a product of superficial practice. An artefact of this internationalised French nationalism has been an argument that artists like Velázquez needed French recognition in order to enter the international canon. Yet the Louvre does not possess a single important work by this artist; the Prado, the true author of this artist’s greatness, holds them in profusion. I look at the distribution of works by this artist as well as other influences on the distribution of art in these galleries such as the market, empire, revolution, war, the power of Western galleries like Tate in Africa, and – in the case of the profusion of religious works in national galleries – the dissolution of the Jesuits. The morality of nation making remains a justification for the showing of Napoleonic works of propaganda. It also justifies, across much of Central Europe, from the Baltic to the Vatican, great works that celebrate Christianity as defining Europe and demonise the Muslim, in the form of the Ottoman Turks. The stories I explore here should make us question the presumed virtue of these public spaces.


This section helps us understand why national galleries are found in almost every country.

4 The Invention of National Galleries

This chapter begins with Rubens arriving in London in 1629 and considers the artworld and collection of Charles I. It does so in order to contrast the birth of the National Gallery in London with similar institutions in continental Europe. Here I reveal an unseen myth, more than 200 years in the making, that describes this gallery as being one of the last national galleries to be developed. Actually, the National Gallery was the first purpose-built national gallery in the world and at the time of its founding, in 1824, was one of only three in the world. The other two were the Museo de la Trinidad in Madrid (which is always considered of secondary importance in Spanish histories) and the national gallery in Oslo (which has always thought of itself as late and poor)! The Louvre, the first and most glorious national gallery, was by then a royal gallery once more. Of course, the Louvre acted and continues to act as the paradigm for the national gallery; its London counterpart was by comparison, on its founding, rather inglorious. Following a discussion of the establishment of the Louvre and its changing status as a national public institution, I look at the second national gallery and the first to possess the name: the Nationale Kunstgalerij established in The Hague. This, too, was short-lived but ultimately led to the founding of the Rijksmuseum some 80 years later. In this chapter, I consider the founding of many other European national galleries in Spain, Portugal, Denmark, Sweden, Germany, Austria, Italy, Finland, Hungary, Poland, Russia, Armenia, Georgia, Ukraine, Lithuania, Karazhstan, Tajikistan, Azerbaijan, Estonia, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Yugoslavia, Serbia, Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, North Macedonia, Kosovo, Bulgaria, Karakalpakstan, and Uzbekistan. Rather than presenting a catalogue, I tell stories of connected invention arising from nationalising royal collections, projects of national unification, the fight for independence, the desire for ideological control, ethnic fanaticism, the fragmentation of nations and by rather idiosyncratic processes.

5 An Idea in Global Translation

This chapter opens with a detailed look at the national story of art constructed at Museo Nacional de Arte (MUNAL) in Mexico City in the early 2000s. Today, national galleries in almost every country on Earth, though they are more thinly distributed through the Caribbean and Africa, and largely absent from the Pacific islands. In this chapter I extend the geography of these institutions into Latin America: Argentina, Paraguay, Chile, Brazil, Venezuela, Cuba, Bolivia, Nicaragua, Guatemala and the Dominican Republic. I also look at the British model in Australia, New Zealand, Canada, the United States, India, South Africa and Zimbabwe, at international aspirations in Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore and Hong Kong, and political control and release in China, North Korea, Mongolia, Afghanistan and Pakistan, and narratives of independence and nation making in the Philippines, Vietnam, Indonesia and numerous African nations. The chapter ends by examining national galleries associated with building art culture. Here I look at Rwanda, Uganda, Mozambique, Namibia, Nigeria, Malaysia, Bangladesh, Vietnam, Jordan, Jamaica and Honduras.


This section investigates a hierarchy of performances from the cityscape, to the form of the gallery, to curated performances in gallery spaces.

6 Buildings in Cities

This chapter begins with an in-depth look at the uncompromising Brutalist architecture of the National Gallery of Australia and the impact of its aesthetically and functionally more refined extension. I then go on to look at national galleries as objects in the symbolic and functional cityscape of the capital, beginning with Canberra but then looking at Washington, Berlin, Munich, Vienna, Pyongyang, Paris, Budapest, Bucharest and Tirana. Most of the chapter, however, is devoted to examining architectural intensions and trends in the interior design of national galleries. The Louvre acts as a paradigm based on the palace and perhaps best seen at the Hermitage in St Petersburg. The Alte Pinakothek in Munich provided the functional ideal which was imitated in St Petersburg, Vienna, Stockholm and Dresden; the New Hermitage in St Petersburg holds the finest example of gallery design from this period. London, Edinburgh and Dublin, by comparison, lacked this logic. The incorporation of nationalistic symbolism becomes important in galleries designed in the second half of the nineteenth century, here explored through the Nationalmuseum in Stockholm, and best exemplified in Beaux-Arts buildings in Rome, Brussels and Copenhagen, and also in the architectural and spatial performances of the Rijksmuseum. Classicism was favoured in many socialist buildings such as the State Art Museum in Minsk but also in the mid-twentieth-century National Gallery of Art in Washington. White-walled modernism emerges after World War I as a direct response to the bombastic nationalistic architecture popular before that war. It appears early in this period in a national gallery of contemporary art in Berlin but also forms the backdrop to displays of Nazi art. Modern functionalism is explored looking at Moderna galerija in Ljubljana, the Neue Nationalgalerie in Berlin and at Le Corbusier’s influence in Southern Rhodesia and Japan. Other innovative galleries include Museo de Arte Modern in Mexico City, Galeria de Arte Modern in Santo Domingo, the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris, the State Museum of Fine Arts in Bishkek, the National Gallery of Canada, the Gemäldegalerie in Berlin, Moderna Museet in Stockholm, Kiasma in Helsinki and MAXXI in Rome. The chapter ends by looking at national galleries located in appropriated buildings: Turkish baths, a supermarket, government buildings, palaces, a former military museum, a power station, and even an airport departure lounge.

7 Performances in Space

This chapter looks at curating practice in national galleries. It begins with a detailed consideration of Tate Britain’s Walk Through British Art which conceals a quiet, egalitarian, radicalism. I look at how harmony has been used to empower art. It informed the very first great galleries and was imported into the national galleries as an accepted practice. This is explored by looking at early debate in Berlin, framing practices in Paris and Canberra and the conversational intentions of symmetry in Mexico, Washington, London and Budapest. The Alte Nationalgalerie in Berlin, the Tate Gallery in London, the Museum of Fine Arts in Budapest and other galleries are used to explore how works are displayed so as to exploit the movement of visitors through space. The relationship between the scale of works and the qualities of space is explored using examples from around the world. Paris provides a paradigmatic example of the nationalistic hang but I also consider the actions of galleries at the periphery of the canon who also attempt to show that their artists too were actors in the international artworld. Two contrasting examples of storied hangs in Copenhagen and Tokyo are explored in detail. Galleries of Old Masters in Paris, Washington, St Petersburg and Berlin reveal the national gallery’s attempts to map the international canon and in so doing author a local view. I also look at widespread practices of professional imitation which leads to deep conservatism.


The last two chapters look at the varied performances and possibilities for making national art.

8 Making National Art

This chapter looks at some fairly straightforward negotiations of national art. It begins with a canonical performance at the National Gallery of Arts in Tirana, Albania. The history of art of Albania, in the Western tradition, actually begins with foreign painters arriving in search of exotic orientalist subjects, though none left works to this country. Albania’s own modern art history is short, and for much of the time was severely constrained by the political requirements of a brutal communist dictatorship. The modern galleries successfully negotiate this history and include striking displays of socialist realism. This is followed by a detailed discussion of displays of communist and fascist art in Russia, China and Germany which show how the state seeks to use the national gallery to indoctrinate. The in-depth example of national galleries in Poland shows how artworks are interpreted to strengthen their nationalistic content. The chapter then looks at the profound influence of the Prado on the creation and reception of that handful of artists who epitomise ‘the Spanish tradition’. It closes with the example of Canada’s Group of Seven as perhaps the most perfected performance of national art. The National Gallery of Canada played a key role in the rise of this group of artists who are universally known in Canada but poorly known beyond that country’s borders.

9 Admitting Complexity

The final chapter builds on the last. It looks at more complex performances of national art. A consideration of the institutional journey of Picasso’s much discussed Guernica (1937) reveals that work’s political malleability. An investigation of Impressionism: both Australian Impressionism and French Impressionism, which have became entangled as the (non-national) National Gallery of Victoria acted to refresh that country’s first national art tradition. The chapter also raises questions about the status of Australian artists in France. Similar concerns are raised in the next section which looks at Fauvism in France. Here, Hungarian national gallery curators have developed sophisticated arguments that claim Hungarian influence on the birth of this movement. Exhibitions of Hungarian Fauves at the two national galleries in Budapest has done much to invent and venerate these artists. Shown elsewhere in Europe, however, these works disrupt a canonical view that Fauvism was entirely French. The chapter goes on to look at the troubled rise of Colin McCahon, arguably New Zealand’s most important national artist. Here, the national gallery in New Zealand became one of the impediments to his rise before a change of director brought about a reversal of policy. The National Gallery of Australia has also played a role in elevating this artist. McCahon exemplifies the challenge of creating a national art history in a country remote from Europe. I then look at how the Smithsonian American Art Museum (SAAM) developed an increasingly inclusive view of mid-twentieth-century American abstraction and in so doing acted to counter the reductive narrative of New York Abstract Expressionism shown at MoMA in 2010. SAAM has also been a leading contributor to the rewriting of US national art history, not least by narrating and showing the contribution of Latino artists. The chapter ends with the National Gallery of Australia and its showing of acrylic works by Aboriginal artists, which it displays in its finest gallery spaces. For this book these works are exceedingly important because they fall outside the parameters of Western art history and were produced by a people who contested the idea of the Australian nation.