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 are sometimes called national museums 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.


1 Picturing the National Gallery

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 – 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.

2 Entangling Art and Nation

Opening with study of Norwegian art at the Nasjongalleriet, this chapter looks at how national galleries build a relationship between art and the nation. It examines strategies that involve: isolating artists from the contemporary international scene and instead imposing national lenses of looking; the detection of national subjects and essences; differing interpretations of citizenship; the invention and preservation of artistic heroes; the authoring of national art histories in gallery spaces; and a response to contemporary society.

3 National and International Art

This chapter begins with a consideration of Australia, an exhibition of Australian ‘national art’ shown in London. This exhibition exposes the blinkered looking of critics who see Australian art as derivative and with limited merit; it exposes the unjustified discriminatory geography of art and its history. The collecting of masterpieces by such artists as Rubens and Rembrandt has been seen by many national galleries as offering a path of institutional greatness. The great international galleries, like the Louvre, have played a central role in legitimising the narrow geography of the Western canon; this institution and the canon share the same biases; the Western canon of Old Masters is composed of France and those countries that bordered France at the time of the Napoleonic Wars. It has been argued that artists like Velazquez needed French recognition and yet the Louvre does not possess a single important work by this artist while the Prado holds them in profusion. The chapter considers the idiosyncratic way collections have grown and how much international art in national galleries came from the suppression of religious orders. This should make us question the virtue that seems present in these public spaces.

4 The Invention of National Galleries
5 An Idea in Global Translation
6 Buildings in Cities
7 Performances in Space
8 Making National Art
9 Admitting Complexity