Books & Literature

Book Review: Civilisations: First Contact / The Cult of Progress, by David Olusoga

Based on the BBC television series, Civilisations, historian, television presenter and author David Olusoga presents a look at the two-way interaction of first contact with old civilisations, and how art has represented progress through the ages.

The sub-title of this book corresponds to the titles of two programs David Olusoga presented in the BBC series Civilisations and is a companion book to the series. Olusoga is a British-Nigerian historian, television presenter and author who has written on black history in Britain. The book covers a vast swathe of history and geography from early Portuguese explorers, Japanese trade and isolation, to Cortes and the Conquistadores, the Impressionists and WWI.

He begins the book by describing the Victorian disbelief on seeing the display of the Benin Bronzes in 1897 as part of Queen Victoria’s Jubilee. The disbelief arose because of the late nineteenth century certainty that Africans were uncivilised and thus not capable of producing such works of art because Art (with a capital A) was firmly rooted in the European tradition, progressing seamlessly from classical Greece and Rome.

In discussing instances of First Contact, the author reminds us that the interaction was never entirely one way: For example, despite the disastrous invasion of the Aztec Empire by Cortes and the Conquistadores, which saw huge swathes of the population die from introduced diseases, there was an interchange of ideas and culture; In order to better suppress the indigenous religions the Catholic priests recorded information on rites and culture and, as in many countries, adapted existing customs. One such was the Aztec festival of the goddess of the dead. By combining this with All Souls Day we now have the Mexican tradition of The Day of the Dead.

The Cult of Progress is described with reference to the styles and representations of art which accompanied the notion of progress. That progress was inevitably good and beneficial and was largely a product of seventeenth and eighteenth enlightenment thinking. Napoleon’s conquest of backward-looking Egypt could, at least from the French perspective, ‘be seen as a benevolent act of liberation… rescued from this lethargy by European invasion and exposure to science and rationalism’ (page 153). Of course, the invasion did not achieve its aims but it was not a failure in the sense that the interest in all things Egyptian and Oriental had a profound influence on European art and architecture.

Moving forward through time, Olusoga examines the impact of the Industrial Revolution in Britain through art. Initially, factories were depicted as situated in pastoral landscapes but artists struggled with representations of the dark mills and the squalid conditions. There seemed no precedence or frame of reference for such artworks. The author argues Turner stood out from later artists in depicting industry literary in the foreground.

Other chapters discuss representations and the art of the India of the Raj; the idea of ‘Manifest Destiny’ in the settling of the American west; and the portraiture of the Maori by artist Czech Gottfried Lindauer. His sitters were shown to have ‘secured a place in this complex, fast-changing, hybrid society’ as they were often depicted in a mix of traditional and European dress (page 215).

The concluding chapter argues the belief in the inevitable march of progress and civilisation was shattered by WWI. Olusoga asserts in the works of German artist Otto Dix, the gas mask is used to symbolise the historical rupture represented by the war years. Barbarism could no longer be viewed as ‘foreign’- it could not be externalised to Africa or India. It was here in ‘civilised’ Europe.

This is a fascinating book which looks at the history of conquest and colonisation from a new and exciting perspective – through how it was represented in art. With plenty of illustrations, an index and suggestions for further reading, I can highly recommend it.

Reviewed by Jan Kershaw

Rating out of 10:  9

Distributed by: Allen & Unwin
Released: May 2018
RRP: $34.99 hardcover

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