When I went to university as an undergraduate to study chemistry (back in 1965) one of the first tasks we were set in physical chemistry was to estimate how many molecules from Caesar's last breath we were now breathing in. * I should have known then that I'd chosen the wrong course, but that's another story.
Anyway, and oddly, I was reminded of this the other day when I was thinking about James Marriott's column in The Times: Art with a history lesson dulls the viewing.
At the Tate Britain’s recent exhibition of paintings by William Hogarth there was a distinct air of post-revolutionary ennui. A label next to a Hogarth self-portrait showing the painter sitting on a chair in an empty room pointed out that “the chair is made from timbers shipped from colonies via routes that also shipped enslaved people”. It went on to wonder: “Could the chair also stand in for all those unnamed black and brown people enabling the society that supports his vigorous creativity?”
Well, it might. But by the same logic, it's a sobering thought that the air which that curator breathed as they wrote that label contained molecules that suffused the lungs of slavers and slave owners thus rendering the curator complicit in their rebarbative practices.
*The answer, if memory serves, was 4. Whether it still is, given the passage of time and the population growth, is beyond me.
**There is obviously something in the water at the Tate which has addled the wits of curators. At the Tate Modern, alongside Cézanne's Sous-Bois, the following is to be seen:
“I wonder what this landscape would have looked like to us without colonisation? . . . Would there even be a Cézanne without colonisation? . . . Could Cézanne have [created this] if he was unaware [of disintegration] in Algeria, the Congo, Vietnam and the rest of France’s colonies?”
Thanks (I think) to The Times and Matthew Parris for this sad curator thought.