Art, Nationalism and Cultural Heritage

The Coronation of Napoleon by Jacques Louis David. (1807)

When art in order to achieve social recognition has had to respond to the dictates of the state or the prince, or to the demands of patrons and donors, it has generally been perverted. How many flattering portraits made to order have been painted! The Coronation of Napoleon (1805-1807) in the Louvre, a grandiose canvas by Jacques-Louis David, Napoleon‘s official painter, aspires much less to universality than does its patron.

Art is denatured when it is pressed into the service of an ideology or propaganda. What is left today of the artists of Soviet realism (1930-1960)? What has become of the works of once renowned artists such as the Hungarian Gyorgy Lukacs or the Russian Aleksandr Gherassimov? What of the art of the great proletarian cultural revolutionheralding the new man in China in the 1960s? Borrowing an expression from the Turkish architect Sedad Hakki Eldem (1908-1988), Socialist art represents the ―stone age – of art history.

One finds nationalistic aspirations at the origin of novel artistic expressions. After the First World War, nationalist aspirations in the Balkans, for example, translated into original works of art in the local style, opposing Western influence. At the School of Fine Arts in Bucharest, like at its counterpart in Belgrade, the only instructors were artists trained and recognized in Paris. We owe the Athens city plan to a German, Leo von Klenze; the archaeological museum of Bucharest to a Dane, Teophil von Hansen; the cathedral of Athens to the Frenchman François Boulanger. Modernity was something imported.

The architecture of identity becomes the emblem of reasserted sovereignty. In Central Europe, but also in Turkey or the Americas, reactionary nationalism forced a return to the roots. Diego Rivera‘s frescoes reaffirm the values of pre-colonial America in Mexico. Jean Nevole designed the first building expressing Serbian nationalism (the university of Belgrade). Young Turks looked to the Ottoman tradition consecrated in the work published by Ibrahim Edhem Pacha during the 1873 World‘s Fair, Principes de l‘art et de l‘architecture otomanes. In Canada, the Group of Seven (1920) opposed pastoral painting, judging it to be overly influenced by the European masters.

Vanguardmodernist styles (Cubism, Surrealism, Dada) were considered a threat to everything German by the National-Socialist party. The Nazis promoted paintings and sculptures that were traditional in manner and that exalted the Blut ut Boden (Blood and Soil) values of racial purity, militarism, and obedience. The works listed as Entartete Kunst (Degenerate Art), were confiscated, mostly in 1937 and 1938, from German museums and the artists bullied (Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Otto Mueller, Erich Heckel, Max Beckmann, Felix Nussbaum). An estimated 20,000 confiscated works were destroyed on the altar of German national-socialism fascist ideology.

One of the great protagonists of the Romantic movement was Johann Gottfried von Herder who championed the idea that art was not the product of an indivual talent but the expression of the national genius of the artist´s land. But which land? The 2006 Guggenheim exhibition Spanish Painting from El Greco to Picasso does not mention that El Greco was born Doménikos Theotokópoulos in Crete and Picasso spent most of his artistic life in France

Nationalistic excesses are recurrent in the realm of art. Religion, which once embraced art as a mean for expressing piety, now condemns it. The Russian Orthodox Church censures artists: Oleg Yanouchevski fled to Berlin in 2004; Marat Gelman is persecuted for his exhibition at the 2005 Moscow Biennale; Audei Ter-Oganian lives in exile in the Czech Republic and Oleg Mavromatti in Belgium. Yuri Samodurov, the former director of the Sakharov Museum, and Anrei Yerofeyev, a curator with the Tretyakov Gallery, were fined by a courthouse in July 2010 on charges of incititing religious hatred with an exhibition titled ―Forbidden Art-2006 – which displayed religion in works of contemporary art that had been banned by the main Russian museums[1].The combination of archeology and religious nationalism can prove extremely harmful as the demolition by 150 000 Hindus volunteers of the 16th-century mosque of Babri Masjid in Ayodhya (India), the wiping out by the Talibans of the sixth century Bamiyan Budhas in Afghanistan, the destruction by  Islamists of the temple of the Phoenician god Baalshamin in Palmyra (Syria), demonstrated.

The nationalist significance attached to archeological data varies according to the historical weight of archeological sources and the history of the state. In modern states composed principally of immigrants (USA, Australia, Argentina…) archeology is considered to be an ethnic heritage, no part of the national identity. But in Mexico ―indigenismo– was incorporated into a more inclusive national identity (Mexico´s flag bears the Aztec eagle and snake as symbols). The state sponsored excavation of the Templo Mayor one of the main temples of the Aztecs in their capital city of Tenochtitlan, which is now Mexico City, in the 1980s. The excavations were made possible by a  presidential decree ordering the destruction of thirteen buildings and part of the city´s colonial heritage Archeology´s contribution to the construction of national identity was minimal in France, but, as in Germany and Britain, French archeology in the French colonies was a source of national pride with the establishment of French schools in Athens, Rome, Iran, Afghanistan, Egypt and Algeria. German archeology boosted nationalist pride with the excavations of Classical sites (Olympia in Greece, Pergamon in Anatolia) and the establishment of German institutes throughout the Mediterranean under the segis of the Deutsches Archäologisches Institut. As in France, nationalist archeology in Germany and in Britain thus developed largely beyond the countries´ borders, especially during their imperial expansion

In states such as Italy and Greece, archeology is the touchstone in the construction of their national identity. In states such as Nigeria (Benin), India or Cambodia that have freed themselves from colonial rule, archeology has a nationalist significance but the associated heritage has been plundered by colonialist forces or destroyed by civil wars. Nation-states with ethnic communities and artificial borders inherited from colonial administration face huge problems in constructing their national identities. Zimbabwe, formerly known as Rhodesia, is a nation named after an archeological site but which is identified with the ethnic Shona people only.

At times, archeology is leveraged by the state to support some implausible, nationalist-inspired reading of the past. The Greek claim of exclusive right to the name ―Macedonia- would be based on archeological excavations of ancient Macedonian sites, used to deny the later claims of Macedonian nationalism, which is considered to be an ―erroneous- identity[2]. In Algeria, France cited Roman antiquities found there to assert its connection to the Roman Empire. On the other hand, when the country achieved independence, the Roman archaeological finds were excluded from the Algerian national heritage: the perspective of a Roman ancestry poorly suited the cultural identity promoted by an independent Algeria. On a private visit to Turkey in 1968, the Tunisian president Habib Bourguiba (1905-2000) wept on the forgotten and ruined tomb of the hero of Carthage (today Tunisia), Hannibal (247-182 BCE), champion of the struggle arising in Iberia against Roman imperialism. The great Carthaginian general, who died in modern-day Turkey, is celebrated as a pre-Islamic symbol of Tunisia‘s past glory.

Visitors to archaeological exhibits in Israel, almost exclusively non-Palestinian, are exposed to the narrative of the unbroken lineage of Jews. Herod the Great: The King‘s Final Journey at the Israel Museum inWest Jerusalem (August 2013- January 2014) which attracted more than 500 000 visitors in just over one year, concentrated solely on the life and death of the ancient King of Judea, with no displays of the pre- and post-Herodian period. ―An exhibit about the man who transformed the landscape of the ancient Land of Israel-, according to the Times of Israel [3]. There was no mention that the site of Herodium is situated in occupied Palestine, only an indirect reference to its location in Judea and Samaria (Israel uses the biblical term when referring to this region). At Herodium, there is no national narrative of historical continuity for the Palestinians The Israeli-Palestinian Interim Agreement on the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, (Oslo Accords), and then the Wye Agreements (2000) left 60% of the archeological sites of the West Bank under the control of the Israeli Archaeological Department of the Civil Administration divorced from any cooperation with Palestinian colleagues or authorities. On the other hand, Palestinian museum inaugurated without any exhibit in May 2016 at Birzeit (West Bank).

Nationalist ideology is one of the main factors – if not the principal one – that catalyzes a need for identity and sovereignty. Influential intellectuals such as Ernest Binfield Havell, Amanda Coomaraswamy, Rabindranath Tagore founded the India Society in London to promote Indian art as part of the broader movement towards independence and national cultural sovereignty. But British national museums feel they have been entrusted with the mission to create an imperial national identity. Hence, the golden throne of the Maharajah Ranjit Sangh brought to London in 1849 as a trophy after the Second Anglo-Sikh War remains in the Albert and Victoria Museum and was the centerpiece of the 1999 exhibition The Arts of the Sikh Kingdom,

The Futurist Manifesto, published in Paris in 1909 by the Italian Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, struck out against the oppressive force of the past and the constraining framework of the nation, championing openness to modernism and a new aesthetic. Cubism expressed this modernity and universality among artists of such diverse origins as the Ukrainian Alexander Archipenko, the Romanian Constantin Brancusi, the Spaniards Pablo Picasso and Juan Gris, the Pole Louis Marcoussis, and the Russian Sonia Delaunay. The Dutch artist Piet Mondrian advocated social reform through a new code of aesthetics, with abstract art providing the universal interpretation that had been denied by figurative realism, judged to be overly nationalist, overly culture-based. But because of his German origins, Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler(1884-1979), considered one of the major collectors and historians of Cubism,  had his collection sequestered by the French state in 1914 and sold by the government in a series of auctions at the Hôtel Drouot between 1921 and 1923.

Free spirits, artists absorbed enriching influences from outside their culture and their nation. Picasso opened to African sculpture and traditional arts, which had long remained imprisoned in ethnographic collections, probably because of the anonymity of the artists and the colonialist disdain for dark-skinned artists. African art later to become an important constitutive factor of modernism in art (―l´art nègre-), was designated as ―primitive art. The first exhibition of African Art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, organized in January 1915 by the photographer Alfred Stieglitz, was titled Statuary in Wood From African Savages.

The enforced obscurity of the African artists led to a disregard of their individual creativity as works are lumped together by ethnic classification. Modern Art and African Art were received as a single import, derived from French, British and Belgian colonies. Viviane Baeke, ethnological curator at Tervuren, Belgium, the Royal Museum for Central Africa funded by despotic King Leopold II, who robbed the Congo of its resources and massacred millions of Congolese, dared to say: “At the time [when] most of the objects were collected by Belgium they did´nt have any cultural or intellectual value” [4], but the identity of African peoples is inseparably bound up with their material culture. Burkina Faso was the setting of the nightmarish scene of Bobo priests driven to suicide by their extreme anguish upon discovering the theft of their village‘s entire store of ritual objects[5]. The Tervuren museum showcases more than 140,000 Central African artifacts. Under a diplomatic agreement, supported by resolutions from the United Nations, between 1976 and 1982 about 180 artifacts were painfully returned to their rightful owners. Much of what was given back was of very poor quality The museum´s director Guido Gryssels stated that only ―duplicates- can be returned in the foreseeable future[6]. Joseph Cornet, in those days curator-in-chief of the Congolese museums, edited the book Art of Africa: Treasures from the Congo, about the most beautiful art of Congo (Zaïre at that time): he had to go to Belgium, there was nothing left in Kinshasa[7]. Almost all of the 180 pieces illustrated are from the Vander Straete private collection. In none of the Tervuren museum’s 20 large exhibition galleries is there the slightest hint that 10 million of Congolese were killed during Leopold II ´s reign. It is hardly surprising that the twelve states that sponsored the first United Nations General Assembly resolution on the subject of cultural property, Restitution of works of art to countries victims of expropriation(Resolution 3187 of 1973), were all African.


[1] Kishkovsky Sophia, “Art trial reveals clash of Russian cultures”, International Herald Tribune, July 8, 2010.

[2] Diezov Kyril, “Macedonian identity: na overview of the major claims”, in Pettifer James (Ed.), “The New Macedonian Question“, Palgrave Macmillan, 1999.

[3] August 2, 2013.

[4] Opoku Kwame, “Restitution and corruption”, Modern Ghana, August 18, 2009

[5] MCFadden, “Africa Plundered – How Collectors are Stealing the Art of a Continent”, The Bulletin – The News Weekly of the Capital of Europe, March 14, 1996

[6] Opoku Kwame, “Restitution and corruption”, Modern Ghana, August 18, 2009.

[7] Joseph Aurélien Cornet, “Art of Africa: Treasures from the Congo“, Phaïdon Press, 1971.

Patrick Howlett-Martin is a career diplomat living in Paris. His new book is La Mémoire Profanée. Les Spoliations Nazies. Le vol du Patrimoine culturel et la question de sa restitution (The Profaned Memory. Nazis Spoliations. The Theft of Cultural Heritage and the Issue of its Restitution), L’Harmattan, Paris, October 2023.