Friday, 20 August 2010

A Victorian lesson in the high art of war

We sometimes think that propaganda is a 20th Century invention but in reality it is a discipline as old as the hills. I was reminded of this when I went to the Leeds Gallery and saw two Victorian paintings which created two strong images of Great Britain at times of great British loses.
The first painting is the Death of General Gordon at Khartoum by George W Joy. This is a painting I remember from my History lessons at school and evokes quite a lot of memories to me thanks to George Benson my teacher. But I was seeing it through slightly fresh eyes as I’d not seen it for a while. The painting shows Gordon defiant, magnanimous and strong in the face of certain death – and a death unlikely to be quick nor painless.
The advancing Mahdi army are seen to be numerous and violent, having already taken the standard with one soldier urging his companions on. This images shows Britain defiant against the savagery of Africa, brave and true in the face of adversity and proud with it.
If you read General Gordon’s memoires days prior to the final defeat, it is far from brave and defiant. He is far from home in a dangerous place, full of strange noises and the sounds of battle all around. He was likely to have died an inglorious and brutal death; and needless as he had been asked to retreat weeks before.
The painting meant something else to the Victorian audience and the death was transformed into act of chivalry, bravery and spirit. A defeat was turned into a moral victory. Whether George joy painted this to demonstrate the Victorian ideals or whether he was compelled to capture the tale spun to him I do not know, but either way the tale was turned successfully and still makes an impression 125 years after General Gordon’s death.
The second painting is earlier from 1858, Retribution by Edward Armitage. The image here is not a real painting but an image of Britain’s relationship with India. A white, European woman is dead, a baby with two tears is lying by her side and a young girl hides from a ferocious Bengali tiger. Britannia is there with her sword of justice, come to rescue the innocents slaughtered by the wild and savage beast depicting the artist’s view of India.
This painting struck me just days after the Rupert Penry-Jones Who Do You Think You Are? Programme dealing in the same period during the Indian Mutiny. It is nice to think the British “civilised” Indian, but the rule of ‘English’ law didn’t really apply to India and commercial law left many Indians disaffected, dispossessed and driven from their lands. The Indian mutiny may have been brutal and savage, but it was not unprovoked. Equally, it was suppressed using military might.
It may have changed the way Britain ruled India, but it was not immediate and had little impact on those suffering at the hands of the commercial British interests. The painting doesn’t depict this side making the British subjects out to be innocents, pure and godly. Your empathy cannot be with the Tiger, digging its claws into Britannia’s arm seconds before the fatal piercing of its flesh from her sword. Yet this is an image for the British to justify the tough tactics in Asia Minor after the deaths during the mutiny.
Flash forward to 19th August, and images are flashed around the world of an American soldier leaving Iraq screaming “We’ve Won”. Have the US really won? Was this staged? Is this just the justification of the war by creating an image of victory over the ruins of a damaged country?

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