Interview with Anthony D. Smith

As part of our current focus on nationalism, ethnicity and art, SEN Journal: Online Exclusives is delighted to present an exclusive interview with Professor Anthony D. Smith. Professor Smith is the author of numerous highly regarded works on nationalism, including inter alia “The Ethnic Origins of Nations”, “Nationalism and Modernism” and “Chosen Peoples: Sacred Sources of National Identity”. Professor Smith has always maintained a strong interest in art, and his upcoming book “The National Made Real: Art and National Identity in Western Europe, 1600 – 1850” will be published by Oxford University Press next year.

 Sonia Morland met with Professor Smith to ask him some questions about nationalism and art.

1. Thank you for agreeing to this interview, Professor Smith. Perhaps to start off with, would you be able to tell us what draws you to the topic of art and national identity?

I’ve always been interested in nations and nationalism and also art and sculpture. I did a diploma at the University of London in the early 1970s on the History of Art, followed by a Ph.D. on historical revival of painting and sculpture in England and France, 1750–1800. So my interests in art have been longstanding and I thought I’d like to combine these two interests now that I have more time in my retirement.

2. Can you describe the relationship between art and national identity?

The rise of nationalism coincided with two artistic movements in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries: neo-classicism and romanticism. This period particularly interested me for its variety and radical innovations artistically. My book [The National Made Real: Art and National Identity in Western Europe, 1600–1850, Oxford University Press, forthcoming] attempts to explore the links between artistic developments and the rise of nationalism in Western Europe, starting with the Dutch in the seventeenth century and moving on to the British and French, as well as Germans and Scandinavians, in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.

3. Is there anything that is particular about visual art in its relationship to national identity – for instance in comparison to music or dance?

The imagery of visual art is more public, permanent, and often more immediately accessible to a large number of people than works of literature and classical music and, for these reasons, may help to shape the visualisation of the nation. The concept of a nation is highly abstract and so are the ideals of nationalism (autonomy, identity, and unity), and to be grasped by most people, they require embodiment and location. Hence the importance in this period [the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries] of ‘history painting’ and ‘landscape painting’. In ‘history painting’, artists depicted the virtues of heroes and heroines of the national past as truthfully as possible in their ‘authentic’ settings. In ‘landscape painting’, artists sought to portray their homelands in all their distinctive variety.

4. Can you describe/discuss a particular artwork that inspired a national identity?

No artwork can be said to have inspired a national identity but certain artworks have heralded and summed up a growing sense of national identity.

The most famous is probably the ‘Oath of the Horatii’ (1784) by Jacques-Louis David (right). In 1790, the first year of the French Revolution, at the Fête de la Fédération, the participants re-enacted the celebrated oath of the three Horatii brothers. This must be the only case of an artwork inspiring a solemn moment of political ceremony. Other works which have achieved iconic status include ‘The Hay Wain’ (1821) by John Constable (below) and ‘The Fighting Temeraire’ (1839) by J.M.W. Turner. There are also the paintings of Akseli Gallen-Kallela in Finland during the 1890s, which show scenes from the heroic Finnish epic, the Kalevala, which inspired Finnish nationalism.

5. Can you describe/discuss a particular artwork that was inspired by a sense of national identity?

There are a number of artworks which record scenes of national independence and unity. Again, one of the best known is David’s ‘Oath of the Tennis Court’ (1791) (left), another is Delacroix’s ‘Liberty Guiding the People’ (1831).


6. How did pieces of art come to be regarded as national art – is this purely a matter of chance?

This varies considerably. Some works of art were commissioned by the state for nationalist purposes, e.g., many of David’s works (such as ‘The Death of Marat’, 1793) (right). Others gradually came to be regarded as national works over several generations because they were perceived to have summed up an aspect of the sense of national identity, e.g., Constable’s ‘Hay Wain’. Others were commemorations of national heroes, for example, Benjamin West’s ‘The Death of General Wolfe’ (1770). There were also many tombs of famous people in the Panthéon, Paris, and St Paul’s in London, and the tomb of Alfieri (1806) by Antonio Canova.

7. How did the creation of national galleries affect the interplay of artwork and national identity?

This was extremely important, and the timing of their creation, in the middle of the process of national revival, greatly encouraged the growth of national schools of art in Germany, the Scandinavian countries, Spain, Russia, and Mexico. By gathering works of art of both native and foreign schools under one roof and opening their doors to the public, the directors of national galleries greatly enhanced the sense of cultural distinctiveness and national identity amongst both the artists and the art loving public. In addition to the galleries, the Salon in Paris and the Royal Academy in London, in their annual and bi-annual exhibitions, did a great deal to foster a sense of national, cultural identity, often a deliberate policy of the state elite.

8. Can you tell us about the role of the artist in the construction of national works of art?

It is extremely difficult, particularly in the case of artists living over a hundred years ago, to have any idea of their motives. Inevitably, these would have been mixed: the desire for state patronage, the need for remuneration, rivalry with other artists, the widespread fascination with classical and medieval history, and the growing interests in landscape and rural genre art. And, of course, the effects of prolonged war encouraged much national art. All these played a part alongside any genuinely patriotic feeling.

9. Do you think ‘classical’ and ‘modern’ art are equally useful styles to communicate ethnic and national identity?

Insofar as nationalism requires well-defined images of national community and identity, traditional styles are more obviously relevant and better suited to the nationalist message. If by ‘modern’ is meant ultra-modernistic and post-modernistic styles, these tend to be less well suited to the nationalistic message, except as designs for emblems, logos, etc. There are exceptions to this, such as the work of Sidney Nolan in Australia. In an age where cosmopolitanism and global pressures are pervasive, the nationalist message has been put in doubt, and post-modernism, by its often ironical and pastiche-like quality, reinforces this sense of estrangement from the idea of the national community and national homeland.

10. If art captures something deep about national identity, the type of art to be investigated should not be limited to those belonging to ‘high culture’. What is your view on the potential of investigating popular forms of art in the study of national identity?

I agree. In fact, there has been a good deal of investigation of popular forms of art. They started with the satirical newspapers in Britain and Revolutionary France and went on to posters in the Russian Revolution, andfilms, like Brogan’s 1915 ‘Nation of America’ and Eisenstein’s ‘Battleship Potemkin’, ‘Alexander Nevsky’, and ‘Ivan the Terrible’.

All images courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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