Delirium Studies

Art History and its Discontents

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Month: November 2018

Who Are These People and Why Are They Laughing?

Not by wrath does one kill, but by laughter.

— Friedrich Nietzsche

One of the many gifts social media has presented us with is a new wealth of opportunities to appreciate the sick burn — a reply to a tweet that is meant to render its recipient silent, impotent, and publicly shamed — or butthurt, as they say.

The sick burn as an art form must be as old as language itself. No one, I think, would be surprised if anthropologists discovered that the first words that came out of human mouths were “fuck you,”  immediately followed by the ur-riposte, “No, fuck you!” But within the longue durée of the spiteful taunt and the sneering comeback, some extraordinary moments stand out. One of those occurred about 350 years ago, at the edge of a battlefield on the plains of what is now southern Ukraine. It is a moment that inspired one of the world’s most famous and misunderstood history paintings, a sort of Oath of the Horatii – but different, and better, and Russian.

Jacques-Louis David. The Oath of the Horatii. 1784.

It took Ilya Repin eleven years to complete the painting, which he did in 1891. Known in the West by the ungainly title, Reply of the Zaporozhian Cossacks to Sultan Mehmed IV of the Ottoman Empire, in Russia, it is known simply as Запорожцы, or The Zaporozhians. It is as important in Russia as, say, Emanuel Leutze’s Washington Crossing the Delaware is here in the United States. Each image conjures a based-on-a-true-story legend, a defining moment in a national creation myth, a tale of imminent victory over an existential threat. Each image is etched into the collective, national mind.

Emanuel Leutze. Washington Crossing the Delaware. 1851.

Repin’s painting is not historically accurate, but no history paintings are. Instead, history paintings, for all their realism and detail, are essentially abstract paintings. They are not simply descriptions of grand events. They are expressions of a collective metaphysics — abstract qualities of identity and being that define some celebrated aspect of a nation’s character. Each history painting is an assertion of civic virtue, of common moral qualities that have the power to transform individuals into citizens, and countries into nations. Histories describe a country’s events and politics, history paintings describe a nation’s soul. Through The Oath of the Horatii, Jacques-Louis David tells us about the honor of the French moral ideal of fraternité, Leutz does the same for American resolve. Repin shows us the Russian happy warrior.

Repin’s painting depicts a rough bunch of exuberantly mustachioed Cossacks crowded around a rough-hewn wooden table, displaying a species of fraternité somewhat less refined than David’s, and displaying far less dread than Washington’s men do as they row their boat. The year is 1678, the location is the Ukrainian steppe. Hatless heads are shaved but for topknots, and the scene teems with detail: swords and muskets, powder horns and bayonets; these men are armed to the teeth, which appear to be missing in some cases. One is shirtless, some are cloaked in brocade (that’s Taras Bulba, Gogol’s fictional Cossack hero, decked out in red), still others in rags. A war-dog glowers, hunched on the ground. Playing cards are stacked on the table, and a bandura rests on one warrior’s lap. Despite the Ottoman invasion swirling around them, these men don’t seem to have a care in the world. Vodka is out, the men are smoking, and all of them are in various stages of laughing their asses off. One of them looks out to us, in mid-guffaw, and points back to the horizon and the gun-smoke where the rest of the Cossack army is busy crushing the Sultan’s invaders.

Near the center leans Ivan Sirko, leader of the Cossacks, pipe in hand, caught in a moment of a vicious contemplation. The fight against the Ottoman army is going quite well, but in the midst of it, as the story goes, he received a peculiar letter from the Sultan. It read:

I, the Sultan, son of Muhammad, brother of the sun and moon; grandson and viceroy of God, sovereign of all kingdoms: of Macedonia, Babylonia and Jerusalem, of Upper and Lower Egypt; king of kings; ruler of all that exists; extraordinary, invincible knight; constant guardian of the grave of Jesus Christ; trustee of God Himself; the hope and comfort of Muslims; confusion and great protector of Christians, command you, the Zaporozhian Cossacks, to surrender to me voluntarily and without any kind of resistance, and don’t permit yourselves to trouble me with your attacks!

— Turkish Sultan Mohamed1Linguist Victor A. Friedman’s translation available here.

 Sirko is composing his reply to the Sultan’s demand for total surrender, dictating it to a runaway seminarian, pressed into service, no doubt, because his pen and letters, in this circumstance, are a mightier — or at least a more entertaining — weapon than Sirko’s sword.

Sirko and his men replied to the Sultan with this:

You Turkish Satan, brother and crony of the accursed Devil, scribe to Lucifer’s himself. Your army gobbles the Devil’s shit. You call yourself a knight, but you couldn’t kill a hedgehog if your life depended on it! You couldn’t rule over the sons of Christ if you tried! We don’t fear the likes of you, and we’ll fight you anywhere, land or sea. You Babylonian busboy, you Macedonian tinker, you Jerusalemite beerboy, you Alexandrian goatfucker, hogherd of Upper and Lower Egypt, you Armenian swine,  you Tatar buggeree, hangman from Kamenets, Podolian bandit, spawn of the Evil Snake, fool of the entire world, and underworld as well. Idiot before God! Hog’s nose, mare’s asshole, slaughterhouse dog. Take your heathen’s unchristened brow back home and go fuck your mother!

There’s your reply, numbnuts! We don’t care what day it is, and the year is in God’s hands, but today the same sun shines on us as it does you, so what are you waiting for, come on and kiss our Cossack asses!

— Chief Hetman Ivan Sirko and the entire Zaporozhian Cossack Host.2There are several versions of this letter floating around, some expurgated, others not. I’ve relied on Victor A. Friedman’s analysis available here, and Russian and Ukrainian versions, wordlists and translation tips easily found online, but any faults with this translation are mine. Friedman’s translation is, of course, scholarly and literal, but my goal here was to offer a more colloquial and conceptual translation that captures the snide, insulting, and profane character of the Russian/Ukrainian original. (Although the whole tale is apocryphal, there really is no “original.”) I hope to have captured the full Cossack spirit of the letter, taking into account all versions as the letter morphs its way through time.

The Cossacks, of course, repelled the invading Turks, and with his victory and this letter, The Zaporozhians entered the realm of legend.

It’s a Western art historical commonplace that Repin’s quote-unquote Realism is a sort of late, out-of-step ripoff of French Realism that began fifty years earlier, as if the Russians couldn’t have creative ideas of their own and resorted to stealing the Western idea of Realism just as it was going out of fashion with the  sophisticates in Paris. This is an idea that pervades Western art history and persists to this day.

Nothing, of course, could be further from the truth, and this Cossack painting can be read — was meant to be read — as a reply to this sort of Western arrogance and cultural narcissism.

Repin, Ukrainian by birth, was a prominent member of a group of intellectuals, artists, academics, ethnologists, archaeologists, folklorists, critics, and poets who rejected Western influence on Russian culture. Beginning in the 1830s, the Slavophiles were determined to define a Slavic culture radically distinct and separate from Western Europe, and they looked to history and prehistory, folklore, the Russian’s relationship to the Earth and land, church architecture, and especially Orthodox Christianity for models and moral values from which to mold a Slavic worldview. Politics, as they say, runs downstream from culture, and in the mid-nineteenth century, the Pan-Slavic movement materialized — a political and ideological effort to unite all Slavic people under one, gigantic Slavic nation — decades before the Soviet empire was imagined. Panslavist politics rose as the Ottoman Empire was in slow decline, in the shadow of the losses of the Crimean War, and in reaction to Western interventions and during a period of domestic unrest. As they turned away from the West, Russian Slavophiles were at the vanguard of radical identity politics, which, like any identity politics, is a kind of nationalism of the mind.

Amidst the tumult of the late nineteenth century in Russia, the Slavophiles found refuge and fellowship at Abramtsevo, a country estate, retreat, and artists’ colony located forty miles north of Moscow. The estate was owned by a railroad magnate named Savva Mamontov and his wife, Elizaveta, both fierce patrons of the arts. Abramtsevo was more than just an artists’ colony. It was a cultural engine, an artistic DIY enterprise that flourished for decades and attracted not only writers like Gogol and Tolstoy, but Slavophiles of every stripe: scholars, writers, craftsmen, and artists. Generations of artists flocked to Abramtsevo, exchanging ideas and providing cultural continuity as new generations of artists emerged. The entire late nineteenth century and fin-de-siècle Russian artistic pantheon came though at one point or another and made Abramtsevo a hive of creation. Repin was a frequent visitor, and he completed several major paintings while visiting there. The Slavophile nationalism of the mind was put into cultural production. Things were made. Painting, crafts, music, theater, literature, poetry, Orthodox theology, politics and architecture converged in this corner of the Russian countryside, and amazing things happened. The radical strategies of the Russian avant-garde actually formed here in Abramtsevo through continuity with the past and a turn from the West, not, as it is commonly taught in the West, born in the crucible and rupture of revolution.3The two-volume  undergraduate art history textbook/manifesto, Art Since 1900, written by  Rosalind Krauss, Benjamin Buchloh, David Joselit, and Hal Foster would be Exhibit #1 in support of this very American view of Russian culture.

The artist’s studio on the grounds of Abramtesvo. Mikhail Vrubel, Victor Vasnetsov, and Repin worked here when in residence at the estate. Photo credit:

Ilya Repin. Summer landscape (Vera Alekseyevna Repina on a bridge in Abramtsevo). 1879. Repin’s wife stands suspended, on a well worn man-made bridge between two worlds. At the Pushkin Museum in Moscow.

Victor Vasnetsov. Bogatyrs. 1898. Vasnetsov painted this at Abramtsevo. Here are Dobrynya Nikitich, Ilya Muromets, and Alyosha Popovich, legendary bogatyrs, Russian medieval knights found in traditional oral narratives. At the Tretyakov in Moscow.

Mikhail Vrubel. Bogatyr. 1898. Painted at Abramtsevo. No reproduction can do this masterpiece justice. It hangs in the Russian Museum in Saint Petersburg, and like any masterpiece, must be seen with one’s own eyes. It is ten and a half feet tall.

Mikhail Nesterov. The Vision to the Youth Bartholemew. 1889-90. A scene from the life of St. Sergius of Radonezh, a saint especially venerated in Russian Orthodoxy, known for uniting the Russian people. Here he is depicted as a young boy, praying to a vision of a holy man for the gift of literacy so that he may read and understand the Word of God. St. Sergius was born, lived and is buried near Abramtsevo. Nesterov painted this at Abramtsevo, the estate forms the landscape in the distance. At the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow.

The Church of the Savior Not Made By Hands at Abramtsevo. Designed by Viktor Vasnetsov (painter of Bogatyrs, above) and Vasilii Polenov in 1881-82. Design based on medieval church design in Novgorod. The interior is decorated by Repin, Vrubel, Nesterov, and Vasnetsov.  Photo credit:

Ilya Repin. Christ of Edessa. 1881-82. Repin contributed this icon of the Savior Not-Made-By-Hands for the iconostasis of the church at Abramtsevo. Repin and the Slavophiles knew quite well the mystical power of image. Repin’s Realism is not precisely realist. It is instead the real Real. Photo credit:

In this Slavophile milieu, Repin met fellow Ukrainian Dmytro Yavornytsky, a now-famous historian, ethnographer, antiquarian and folklorist who was, and, through his work, still is, the foremost authority on the Zaporozhian Cossacks. He dedicated his life to the study of this culture, he wrote a four-volume history, suppressed under both the Czar and the Soviets as the work of a suspected Ukranian separatist, and he amassed a significant collection of Cossack artifacts and antiquities. Repin and Yavornytsky became fast friends, and Yavornytsky’s research, collection, and encyclopedic knowledge of Cossack culture was invaluable to Repin as he worked on the painting. It was Yavornytsky who came across an old copy of the Zaporozhian letter to the Sultan, and related the story to Repin, and the pair traveled together to southern Ukraine, Yavornytsky to research, Repin to sketch. The guns, the swords, the vodka bottle, and even the shoes are faithful renditions of objects from Yavornytsky’s collection. Thanks to him, Repin’s painting is materially accurate down to the last exquisite detail.

Except for one thing. The Cossacks — they’re not Cossacks at all, not really. Most of the warriors gathered around that table are members of the cultural elite of 1880s Saint Petersburg. Repin populated the painting with portraits of a professor of the Imperial Academy of Arts, a Russian general freshly famous for a recent victory over the Turks, two members of nobility, several artists, a musicologist, and a noted dramaturge. Even Igor Stravinsky’s father, an opera singer, makes an appearance. Repin’s message becomes clear, and becomes contemporary; the new Slavophile barbarians are the same as the old ones. Saint Petersburg’s cultural elite are the new — contemporary — Cossacks. Repin makes them happy warriors. He represents them as defenders of Russian culture in the face of unwanted invasions and sad attempts of cultural conquest — and they are having fun doing so. This is not a history painting at all, but a masquerade — contemporary art in the guise of history.

Please click the image to enlarge it! A chart that identifies the cultural and social elite Repin rendered as Cossacks.

By making this event both contemporary and historic, Repin engages in a bit of painterly legerdemain — he folds time onto itself. History, Repin suggests, is not linear, but cyclical. History repeats itself, just as Nietzsche told us it does. History is the story of the endless repetition of human failure, and laughter is the only rational response to the bleak, cyclical, endless comedy of human error that we all find ourselves in. A joyful acceptance of Nietzsche’s eternal return, a laughing response to this cosmic joke, lives in the heart of every happy warrior.

A philatelic eternal return. Repin’s painting was chosen for Soviet postage stamps in 1944, 1956, and 1969. Each year was a moment of crisis, and each stamp a reminder to Soviet citizens of the Russian way of responding to crisis.

American critics and art historians almost always get Russian art wrong. For example, in his seminal 1939 essay, Avant-Garde and Kitsch, critic Clement Greenberg calls out Repin by name. Political revolution, according to Greenberg, breeds revolutionary art, but, somehow paradoxically, the avant-garde also spawns its nemesis, a reactionary lowbrow pablum-art meant to soothe the urban poor: advertisements, Hollywood movies, Tin Pan Alley, tap dancing, comics all fall into the category of non-art Greenberg christens kitsch. But kitsch is a global phenomenon, knowing and respecting no borders, and it turns out that the Soviet Union had been drowning in kitsch from the start! The Soviets conditioned their ignorant masses to appreciate propagandistic films and socialist realist pap. Taste, for Greenberg, has nothing to do with aesthetics, nor is it a political value — it is, instead, a moral one. The Soviets, by embracing kitsch, have destroyed the moral fiber of their people by erasing the distinction between art that is good, and art that is bad.

In the pages of his essay, Greenberg actually concocts out of his imagination the “evidence” he needs to prove his theory. He imagines an ignorant Russian Peasant and a refined Western Modernist standing before a Picasso painting and a battle scene painted by Repin. The Picasso, an unspecified portrait of a woman, “reminds [the Russian Peasant] somewhat of the icons he has left behind him in the village, and he feels the attraction of the familiar.”4Greenberg, Clement. “Avant-Garde and Kitsch” in Art and Culture: Critical Essays. Beacon Press: Boston. 1989. 14. But Repin’s battle scene, to this imaginary-Russian-peasant-that-somehow-lives-inside-Clement-Greenberg’s-brain, is miraculous! It is so real! Picasso and the icons are bare and austere, but this battle scene is like life itself. Look at the sunset, the explosions, the running and falling men! In Greenberg’s “Western Modernist” versus “Russian Peasant” fever-dream, only the make-believe Modernist has the natural superior ability to understand Picasso’s genius. He is, according to Greenberg, a  “spectator sensitive enough to react sufficiently” by projecting his own inborn miraculousness into the Picasso painting, and then being spiritually moved by his own reflection. The uncultured dreamed-up Russian Peasant is a lesser being, handicapped by his own lack of internal miraculousness, unable to see that nonexistent miraculousness reflected back to him through Picasso’s magic cubist mirror. So Repin, who instinctually knows this, necessarily, “predigests” art for his ignorant Peasant beholder. Repin tells him a simple story, and “provides him with a short cut to the pleasure of art that detours what is necessarily difficult in genuine art.”5Greenberg, 15. For Greenberg, Repin is the ultimate perpetrator of bad art, false art, and immoral art, art for peasants — all rolled into an old, now familiar, Greenbergian ball called kitsch. This essay, this one!, is still held up to art history students as a culturally important example of exemplary critical thought!6See Art Since 1900, Vol. I.

In 1972, thirty-three years after he published Avant-Garde and Kitsch, Greenberg added a short postscript to the essay:

P.S. To my dismay I learned years after this [essay] saw print that Repin never painted a battle scene; he wasn’t that kind of painter. I had attributed some one else’s picture to him. That showed my provincialism with regard to Russian art in the nineteenth century. [1972]

— Clement Greenberg. Postscript to his essay, Avant-garde and Kitsch.7Greenberg. 21.

One of the fundamental and debilitating failings of art history is the arrogance of anthropomorphism. Art history imagines art that goes through time like we do, on a single, progressive, temporal path. Humans are subject to the depredations of time, and so too must be their little creations. Art historical “movements” are conceived, born, mature and wither away, and then replaced by the next. Art historians construct a genealogy of style, and in the process of producing this grand story of begetting, they cut out the problem children, the ones that make their job difficult and complicated — the bastards, the orphans, the ungrateful, and the miraculous.

Art doesn’t work like that. Art exists in an evanescent present, and as a product of a certain time and place. But art is always looking back and always looking forward, ever folding time on itself. Repin knows this and explicitly places his contemporary painting in the historical past, and using a style, a sort of mystical realism that belongs to no other place or time than his. Repin is as surely a product of Abramtsevo as Andy Warhol is of New York.

Repin’s painting does not belong to a single point in time — not 1891 when he finished it, not 1678 when Sirko and the Sultan exchanged billets-doux, and it does not, entirely, belong to our present moment. Repin’s painting, like all art, is temporally destabilizing. And so Repin provides an ex ante reply to the criticism Greenberg offered in 1939, and can still tell us something in 2018, if we are willing to listen. This, I believe, is the difficult work art demands of us.

As I look at Repin’s painting, I think about Nietzsche’s words. “Not by wrath does one kill,” his Zarathustra tells us, “but by laughter.” Repin’s Cossacks know this. I flip through my copy of Zarathustra, and discover Nietzsche’s book and Repin’s painting, after nearly a decade of work from both of them, were each finished  in 1891. Zarathustra and the Запорожцы are exactly contemporaneous statements. Their makers separated, perhaps, by a few hundred miles. (And Nietzsche always identified as a Slav, not as a German.) 

Nietzsche describes the perverse joy of ugliness, the libidinal excess of destruction. He tells us resistance is the strategy of slaves. He also tells us laughter is the true wrecker. Yes, Repin’s Cossacks know all about this, but so do the happy warriors of our age. Like a nauseating carnival ride, the eternal return returns.

I’m sure President Trump has no idea who Nietzsche or Repin are, but there is more than a little Zaporozhian Cossack in him. There is no nadir to his offense, no bottom to his vulgarity, and each one of his tweets — if only faintly — echos that famous Cossack letter. Somewhere in the depths of his soul, he, just like Ivan Sirko, knows Nietzsche’s laughter. Twitter is his instrument, and he plays the sick burn with the joy of an ugly, tinhorn maestro.

But it’s not just Trump, it’s all of us. If we are living through an age that is more Nietzschean than contemporary Americans are accustomed to, each taunting, mocking tweet, each encouraging, clicked-on “heart,” each repost, and each righteous chuckle simply fans the flames of a kind of schoolboy nihilism. Twitter lets us play-act Cossack, but this modern kind of sick burn is little more than a child’s game. We are not strong enough, not brave enough, not honest enough to thrive in Nietzsche’s world, and there are real Cossacks out there.

–Michael Westfall


Notes   [ + ]

1. Linguist Victor A. Friedman’s translation available here.
2. There are several versions of this letter floating around, some expurgated, others not. I’ve relied on Victor A. Friedman’s analysis available here, and Russian and Ukrainian versions, wordlists and translation tips easily found online, but any faults with this translation are mine. Friedman’s translation is, of course, scholarly and literal, but my goal here was to offer a more colloquial and conceptual translation that captures the snide, insulting, and profane character of the Russian/Ukrainian original. (Although the whole tale is apocryphal, there really is no “original.”) I hope to have captured the full Cossack spirit of the letter, taking into account all versions as the letter morphs its way through time.
3. The two-volume  undergraduate art history textbook/manifesto, Art Since 1900, written by  Rosalind Krauss, Benjamin Buchloh, David Joselit, and Hal Foster would be Exhibit #1 in support of this very American view of Russian culture.
4. Greenberg, Clement. “Avant-Garde and Kitsch” in Art and Culture: Critical Essays. Beacon Press: Boston. 1989. 14.
5. Greenberg, 15.
6. See Art Since 1900, Vol. I.
7. Greenberg. 21.

The Museum and the Erasure of Unbearable History

Recently, I went to the Metropolitan Museum to see a brass plaque that was made in what is now Nigeria some four hundred years ago. It depicts an Oba, or king, of the Kingdom of Benin, founded a thousand years ago. The king is on horseback, facing us, surrounded by attendants. The figures are arranged symmetrically, but on top of this symmetrical foundation, asymmetrical details of costume and accoutrement dance and rhyme. Each figure floats in space, as if they are levitating. At the same time, the figures seem to be caught at a moment of becoming, erupting from the flat plane of the flat, patterned background, as if they are jumping out of the past and into the time and space of the beholder. The effect is mesmerizing and unsettling, like that of any masterpiece. I am confronted with eight sets of unblinking eyes. What, I wonder, have these eyes seen? And what, I ask myself, do they demand of me?

Plaque: Equestrian Oba and Attendants. 1550-1680. Nigeria, Court of Benin. Brass. The Michael C. Rockefeller Memorial Collection, Gift of Nelson A. Rockefeller, 1965. Met Accession no. 1978.412.309. Currently on view in Gallery 352.

This plaque is one of hundreds of others that collectively record the history and events of the Edo people. These plaques were fastened to the wooden interiors of the palaces located in Benin City, the capitol of the kingdom, a cosmopolitan center which had prospered through trade with Europeans, mainly Portuguese, from the fifteenth through the nineteenth century. The Europeans bought ivory, pepper, and palm oil with guns and manillas, horseshoe shaped bronze or copper bracelets that functioned as money in West Africa throughout the colonial period and up until the 1940s. These manillas were melted down by members of the Edo metalworking guild, and cast into magnificent plaques and sculptures.

The Met’s audioguide invites me to imagine hundreds these plaques, covering the interior of a palace, “glowing in an intense, rich, reddish tone.” I try to do so, but I see something else altogether, because I now know their true history, a history The Met can’t bring itself to tell us.

There is no explanatory text, no contextualizing information that might explain how this plaque came to be here. In fact, the only text that accompanies this object implies that it, along with hundreds of other plaques, moldered in some tribal archive until some unmentioned force transported it to The Met, so that it might be saved from oblivion, properly cared for, and displayed for the enlightenment and pleasure of all, forever.

The curatorial information accompanying the Benin plaques in Gallery 352 of The Met. There is no mention of the Punitive Expedition, and the assertion that these plaques were “placed in storage” is a fiction contradicted by the accounts of the British raiders themselves.

The unmentioned force that transported this object, along with countless others now on display in our great museums, is, of course, murder and theft on the grandest scale. These plaques, along with ivory, sculptures, and anything else of value in Benin City, were carried off by the British military during an infamous episode of colonial history known as the Benin Punitive Expedition of 1897. This plaque was looted in a military operation meant to destroy the culture that made it.

By the late nineteenth century, as the colonial powers of Europe were scrambling for control of Africa, the British set their sights on the Kingdom of Benin. They wanted control of the trade, the land and the people. The market for rubber, a necessary commodity of the industrial West, exploded in the 1890s because of the popularity of the modern bicycle, and its rubber pneumatic tires. The Victorian “bicycle craze” drove a colonial rubber trade in Africa now infamous for its brutality, forced labor, and gruesome atrocities. The British thought the Edo lands would be perfect for rubber production, and the Edo people a perfectly subduable work force. A one-sided treaty was drawn up in 1892, and allegedly signed by the Oba, handing the Edo territory over to Queen Victoria. This colonialist “diplomacy” proved to be ineffective, the Edo simply ignored the treaty’s terms. By 1897, British patience had worn thin. In early January, 1897, a small group of Englishmen, accompanied by an armed force of 250 Africans, was sent to either to talk some sense into the king, or provoke him into shooting first. He did, and seven British men were killed.

When this news reached England, the nation was outraged. The survivors of what was named the “Benin Massacre” told stories of human sacrifice, cannibalism, and capricious public executions that painted the Edo people as savage and bloodthirsty, led by a tyrannical monster. The British would justify their reaction as a humanitarian obligation, not simple revenge. The British would free the Edo people from their despotic king, and bring them the gift of civilization.

More importantly, the Kingdom of Benin was an obstacle to British desires of territorial and trade expansion. One way or another, the king needed to be removed, and his territory put to good, colonial use.

By early February, 1897, the British raised a force of 1,200 soldiers and armed them with the latest in military hardware. Captain Norman Burrows, District Commissioner of the Niger River Protectorate Force, was assigned to command one of 14 Maxims, a perfected machine gun capable of firing 600 rounds a minute.

The British set out for Benin City, traveling upriver until their boats grounded. After that, they hacked their way through dense jungle, fighting Edo soldiers and burning villages along the way. They reached Benin City on the 18th, and the looting began. They took everything they could lay their hands on. One officer describes his colleague “wandering round with a chisel and hammer, knocking off brass figures and collecting all sorts of rubbish as loot.”1Otzen, Ellen. The Man Who Returned his Grandfather’s Looted Art. BBC News Magazine, 26 February, 2015. Online. Retrieved 24 January, 2017. Over 2000 major art objects were collected, and as historian Robert Home writes, “as booty in one of the main compounds, and the members of the expedition were photographed amongst them, apparently bemused by the bizarre association of fine art with barbarity.”2Home, Robert. City of Blood Revisited: A new look at the Benin expedition of 1897. Collings: London. 1982. 88. The looting was so complete that today, any art from Benin that cannot be traced to this event is assumed to be a modern copy.3Reiderer, Josef. “The Composition of Brass Object from Benin” in Original-Copy-Fake: Examining the Authenticity of Ancient Works of Art Focusing on African and Asian Bronzes and Terracottas. Collected papers presented at an international symposium at Rhur-University, Bochum, Feb. 17-18th, 2007. Mainz: Philippe von Zaben. 148.

Benin Expedition 1897. Group of six European men sitting surrounded by Benin objects. British Museum. Af,A79.13.

On February 21st, as the city was being systematically dynamited, an uncontrollable fire broke out. The wounded soldiers and the gunpowder were saved, as well as some of the loot, but just about everything else was lost, and the entire city was in ruins. What could be salvaged was packed up and sent to London to be auctioned off, and the cultural patrimony of the Edo people ended up scattered in museums across Europe.

Interior of King’s compound burnt during fire in the siege of Benin City, with three British officers of the Punitive Expedition [from left, Captain C.H.P. Carter 42nd, F.P. Hill, unknown], seated with bronzes laid out in foreground. Photographer: Reginald Kerr Granville. 1897.
Pitt Rivers Museum number: 1998.208.15.11

Captain Burrows, the machine-gunner, survived the expedition. Like some of the other officers, he was rewarded for his participation in the destruction of Benin City with a portion of the spoils. After the expedition, he returned home on leave with his Benin “curios.” In May, 1898, Captain Burrows sold what would become The Met’s plaque to noted ethnographic collector Augustus Pitt-Rivers for £25. Pitt-Rivers displayed it in his private museum in Dorset, England, where it remained until the museum was permanently closed in 1957. It then passed through several dealers hands until it was purchased by Nelson Rockefeller, who lent it to The Met in 1965. It entered The Met’s permanent collection in 1978.

Six European men and three African men standing in front of compound walls [in Benin]. (Captain Burrows is third from the left.) Photographer: Reginald Kerr Granville(?). 1897.
Pitt Rivers Museum number: 1998.335.3

Photograph of Captain Burrows at his home, Mellor Hall in Derbyshire. 1897-98?
From the plates section of Robert Home’s City of Blood Revisited. London: Rex Collins. 1982.

Look at the plaque again. The ragged, broken edges provide material proof of some anonymous soldier wrenching the plaque from its proper place. Its scorched surface testifies to Benin City’s final fiery destruction. As the audio guide invites me to, I imagine this object glowing – but glowing red in that fire.  This beautiful object, wrought so finely that the British raiders could not believe it was made by African hands, bears the scars of colonial madness. There is no mention of this history in The Met’s grand galleries. This object, and those eyes, demand something more than The Met is willing to provide: an account that approaches the truth, a history that does not reinscribe colonialist fiction.

The history of this object is no secret. Specialists are well aware of this brutal story, including those employed by The Met. It is a simple but difficult fact that the great collections of the great encyclopedic museums of the Western world would not exist without the insatiable lust for depredation that defines the colonial era. The “encyclopedic museum,” at its very core, is a monument to centuries of cultural theft on a global scale. Until recently, this was just the way things were, the museum was the benevolent arm of the colonial beast. It would collect and care for these precious stolen objects, let us look, but not too closely — as long as we express our wonder and gratitude, and don’t ask too many embarrassing questions.

Times have changed. “The Museum” has been under quiet academic critique for years and Western museums have finally begun to respond to these criticisms. In 2012, the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, for example, received a major gift, 34 objects from Benin from Robert Owen Lehman, an heir to the family of prominent financiers. A dedicated gallery was built to display this gift, and the curators chose to contextualize the work with a description of their actual history. A full provenance — the all-important description of the descent of an art object from its creation to the present day, a list of hands through which the object has passed, a pedigree that carries with it institutional approval, and therefore institutional imprimatur, and from which not only cultural and social value is created, but monetary value as well — is provided for each piece, and each one dutifully includes the looting in 1897.4Two of the Benin objects at the MFA came from Captain Burrows’ share of the spoils. Link here and here.

The ethical dilemma these objects present is gently raised in a dry passage of museum-speak that can be found on the MFA website:

Today, the ethics of collecting and displaying works removed from their places of origin during periods of European colonialism is a subject of debate among museums, local and national governments, collectors, and the public. By exhibiting Benin bronzes at the MFA, we hope to spark conversation about past conflicts and their legacies in a global world, while offering visitors the opportunity to experience these magnificent works of art in a public collection where they can be seen by all.

–unattributed curatorial statement regarding the Robert Owen Lehman Collection of Western African Art ash the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

The MFA has taken these steps toward transparency and yet it is difficult to applaud what amounts to a strained reach to meet a basic institutional obligation. Museums should tell the truth, not lie by omission. There is so much more that could be done. For example, the museum could not only “hope to spark discussion,” but actively promote, encourage and inform this discussion — and the public — about the museum’s role in global colonial history. The museum could reconsider the self-serving assertion that they have provided this collection of African art “to be seen by all,” when the descendants of the makers of these masterpieces, who may now reside in Nigeria, would have to obtain a visa, purchase airfare, travel for  24 to 30 hours, get on the Blue Line into town, find a hotel room, and then pay the $25 admission charge before they would be able to do so.

The stolen art could travel back to Africa. American museums could join the Benin Dialogue Group, a consortium of major cultural institutions such as the British Museum, museums at Oxford and Cambridge, the Weltmuseum in Vienna, the Humboldt Forum in Berlin, among others. Formed in 2007, this group has been raising funds, creating goodwill, and negotiating with the Nigerian government to organize a series of ongoing loans that would bring some of these masterworks, at least temporarily, back to today’s Benin City and its residents. In this effort, American institutions are notable in their absence.

Museums could give the looted art back. Students at Jesus College in Cambridge have recently demanded just that for a brass cockerel from Benin that has been sitting on a shelf in a dining hall at the college for nearly nine decades. In 1930, a British Army captain named George Willan Neville, a participant in the Punitive Expedition, bequeathed to the college a sculpture of a cockerel he took from the spoils back in 1897. In 2016, students became aware of the statue’s true provenance and demanded its immediate return to Benin City. The college promptly removed the statue and as years pass, officials are still trying to decide what to do with it. Or they may be waiting for the outrage to subside, the students to graduate and move on, and for everyone to forget about this piece of Edo patrimony that now lies hidden away.

A brass cockerel from Benin watches over the dining hall at Jesus College, Cambridge. Photo credit:

Encyclopedic museums are granted a special place in our Western world. They are revered institutions, drawing visitors by the millions. The museums of the world form a world of their own, and within that, the Met is granted an even greater status — it sits at, or very close to, this world’s zenith. But in order to achieve this position, The Met had to become a leader in the rapacious and shady markets for the prizes of colonial history. The Met, then, becomes a major force in the creation of a colonialist art history that, at the same time, it takes pains to erase, to cleanse, to whitewash. This contradiction has been present since The Met’s creation.

The Met’s first director was a colorful character named Luigi Palma di Cesnola, an Italian expatriate who became, after many adventures, the United States’ Consul to Cyprus in the years after the Civil War. Seeing a financial opportunity in the flourishing market for antiquities, he, with a small army of workers, began digging. In all, he unearthed some sixty thousand graves, amassed a collection of some 35,000 objects, and got (almost) everything off the island before the Turkish authorities caught wind of what he was doing. He offered his collection to the museums of Europe, but found no takers. The fledgling Met, seeking a way to announce its new presence on the world stage, bought the collection for $50,000 and in 1879, gave Cesnola the position of Director, a position he kept until his death in 1904. The Met still celebrates the collection, noting that it put the museum on “par with the foremost museums in Europe,” and that it remains “by far the most important and comprehensive collection of Cypriot material in the Western Hemisphere.”5 What remains of Cesnola’s collection are now displayed with updated wall labels that highlight the doubt surrounding details such as where each object was found.6Much of the Cesnola Collection has been sold off over the years because Cesnola’s dubious and imaginative restorations do not, and never did, comply with basic archeological practices. For example, Cesnola would construct “restored” sculptures out of broken, unrelated fragments, or remove all traces of paint from an object, or create fanciful stories of an object’s discovery or location. Cesnola’s lack of archeological rigor made many of his finds almost useless to later scholars. This infinitesimal step toward “understated candor” was praised by scholars as a first step toward honesty and transparency at The Met.

There is another point of view that one will not find on The Met’s wall labels. There are art historians, politicians, and citizens in Cyprus who see Cesnola’s grave-robbing as a cultural theft on par with Elgin Marbles. The Cypriots know, however, that repatriation of these objects is a lost cause. The unsurmountable argument is circular. Cyprus has no legal recourse because Cesnola, as with the British in the case of the Elgin Marbles or the Punitive Expedition, broke no colonial laws as they “amassed,” “collected,” or “acquired” the patrimony of their colonial victims. The thievery cannot be prosecuted or corrected because the thieves themselves wrote the laws. The beneficiaries of these thefts — the museums that hold the objects — still write the history of these objects, and it is only recently that some of these art histories at some museums include the embarrassing, shameful, and unbearable chapters.

In 2008, the New York Times published a column by Sharon Waxman, an investigative journalist who had just written a book on stolen antiquities. In the column, Ms. Waxman tells the true story of another stolen object, the magnificent marble column that graces the entrance to The Met’s Greek and Roman galleries.

Marble column from the Temple of Artemis at Sardis. 300 BC. Currently on view at The Met in Gallery 160.

This column was excavated by American archeologists during a bitter war between the Greeks and Turks that broke out in the wake of World War I and the partitioning of the Ottoman Empire. Millions died in war atrocities perpetrated by all sides in what is called by Turks the “War of Turkish Independence,” and by the Greeks as the “Asia Minor Catastrophe.” This column, with many other antique treasures, found its way to the port of what is now Izmir, Turkey. In the midst of the conflict, the city was left without a government, and the Americans took the lack of state supervision as an opportunity to ship their finds to The Met. The arrival of this trove was front page news in New York, where it was hailed as a “Treasure Greatest Ever Taken from Asia Minor.”7The New York Times. Friday, March 2, 1923. p.1. When the dust settled, and Turkish officials demanded the repatriation of the antiquities, The Met decided to fight to keep them, causing an international incident, that was eventually settled. The Turkish government gave up the column in exchange for the return of 53 cases of antiquities, that had also, as Ms. Waxman writes, been “stolen from Sardis.”8Waxman, Sharon. “How Did That Vase Wind Up in the Metropolitan?”. Dec. 1, 2008.

Ms. Waxman wrote this column after The Met had announced the successor to Philippe de Montebello, Director of The Met, who was retiring after thirty years in that position. She urged that successor, Thomas Campbell, to change the institution’s culture, to become more transparent and truthful, to stop the institutional lies of omission. She writes, “Such omissions are shameful for an institution dedicated to preserving history. […] By publicly acknowledging the controversial or otherwise dubious histories of some artifacts and by making the recent past as much a part of the artifacts’ stories as the ancient past, Mr. Campbell can set an example for all museums and build new bridges of respect and cooperation.”9Waxman.

Ms. Waxman’s argument fell, apparently, on deaf ears. But The Met finds itself in another interregnum moment. Max Hollein, the new director recently began his job, and with new leadership there is new hope that The Met might, finally, address its congenital, institutional, and ethical blindness. By hiding the true histories of its objects from the public, encyclopedic museums, such as The Met, still engage in a tacit complicity with colonialism. At some point, this will have to change, and it is changing, elsewhere, slowly. Museums around the world are coming to terms with their own histories. The Met could be a leader in this effort, but now stands as a most prominent example of institutional obstinance. How long should it take for The Met to catch up with history? To catch up with its history?

— Michael Westfall

Notes   [ + ]

1. Otzen, Ellen. The Man Who Returned his Grandfather’s Looted Art. BBC News Magazine, 26 February, 2015. Online. Retrieved 24 January, 2017.
2. Home, Robert. City of Blood Revisited: A new look at the Benin expedition of 1897. Collings: London. 1982. 88.
3. Reiderer, Josef. “The Composition of Brass Object from Benin” in Original-Copy-Fake: Examining the Authenticity of Ancient Works of Art Focusing on African and Asian Bronzes and Terracottas. Collected papers presented at an international symposium at Rhur-University, Bochum, Feb. 17-18th, 2007. Mainz: Philippe von Zaben. 148.
4. Two of the Benin objects at the MFA came from Captain Burrows’ share of the spoils. Link here and here.
6. Much of the Cesnola Collection has been sold off over the years because Cesnola’s dubious and imaginative restorations do not, and never did, comply with basic archeological practices. For example, Cesnola would construct “restored” sculptures out of broken, unrelated fragments, or remove all traces of paint from an object, or create fanciful stories of an object’s discovery or location. Cesnola’s lack of archeological rigor made many of his finds almost useless to later scholars.
7. The New York Times. Friday, March 2, 1923. p.1.
8. Waxman, Sharon. “How Did That Vase Wind Up in the Metropolitan?”. Dec. 1, 2008.
9. Waxman.

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