If David Olusoga’s first film in Civilisations is about the art that followed and reflected early encounters between different cultures, his second explores the artistic reaction to imperialism in the 19th century. David shows the growing ambivalence with which artists reacted to the idea of progress – both intellectual and scientific – that underpinned the imperial mission and followed the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution.
Advances in knowledge and technology imbued Europeans in the 19th century with a sense of their civilisation’s superiority. It justified their imperial ideology. But it created among artists a deep fascinations with other civilisations which in turn produced a scepticism about their own. By contrast, as European artists questioned their civilisation’s ‘advance’, in America painters sought to capture an idea of their new nation’s ‘manifest destiny’ in landscapes.
And in their representation of the Native Americans they sought to record for posterity the world and the cultures they were violently displacing. But this was not always the case.
David shows how in New Zealand one artist was co-opted by the Maori who used his sills to record their culture and celebrate their ancestors. As the 19th Century came to an end, the certainties of industrial and scientific advance were increasingly questioned; many artists (Gauguin and Picasso amongst them) turned to non-Western art and culture for inspiration.
And in the face of the catastrophic conflict of the First World War, the idea that progress, reason and industrial advance were guarantors of higher ‘civilisation’ was rejected. David ends the film with a powerful meditation on Otto Dix’s nightmarish and ironic evocation of the horror of the trenches, the triptych Der Krieg (The War).