There Is An Air About Imperialism: reinterpretation and reappropriation of anti-establishment art movements in the post-colonial mid-20th Century

The Mid-Century movement and its offspring are fields of design that permeated global media in the height of their popularity, and are still widely influential today. Mid-Century Modern’s vibrancy and seemingly unique style has deep roots in a variety of indigenous cultures and creates a clear connection between high and low art. These roots and connections are often obscured or diluted through commercial distribution. Capitalism can create an environment for revolutionary art, but can equally appropriate that art for its own needs. (The ‘Cerulean Sweater’ scene from The Devil Wears Prada explains the process of dilution/appropriation in a speedy and informative, uh, fashion.)

With Mid-Century art and design, and the popularity of its predecessors, connecting the dots between movements is a relatively linear process. Cubism, Futurism and the various fields of Expressionism paved the way for the Modern. These early-20th Century movements are all shaped by Western imperialism. Picasso’s success stems from his exposure to the works of Paul Cézanne, and in turn Cézanne’s exposure to Émile Zola’s anti-Imperialist literature. Cubism rose to popularity as both a reactionary movement and a form of escapism during and post-WWI. While Cubism’s popularity peaked and many artists dipped in and out of salons through the early-to-mid-1920s, Picasso’s Guernica, a mural depicting the atrocities of the Spanish Civil War and the effects of fascism upon its citizens, is one of the most notable examples of the movement.

Picasso’s Guernica, oil on canvas, 1937.

While the Cubist movement is predominantly accountable to Fauvism and Expressionism, Picasso’s ‘African Period’ cannot be left out of the narrative. Inspired by African artefacts (which were seized and removed from Africa to be exhibited to Parisians during aggressive French colonial expansionism), this period of his work would develop into Cubism in the coming years. Between Picasso’s African Period, his influence from Cézanne, and his later involvement with Communism and the Soviet Union, his work cannot be extricated from imperial, colonial, and fascist politics.

Futurism and Expressionism create the foundation for the Modern via similar paths. Futurism was intensely nationalist, while Expressionism was a rejection of capitalist industralisation. Neither the movements nor these ideologies were separable from Eurocentric cultural imperialism that informed them.

(L-R) Zachary Schwartz, David Hillberman and Stephen Bosustow, UPA, 1943.

Now, skip forward through the remains of the Great Depression, but before the US’ involvement in WWII. It’s 1941 and the Walt Disney Studio animators’ strike is well underway. Dissatisfied with the amount of underpaid and/or unpaid work at Disney between Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and Pinocchio, and Walt’s personal disinterest in straying from the studio’s signature ‘pictorial realist’ style, many of Disney’s staff jumped ship to UPA (United Productions of America), a new animation studio founded by Disney alumni David Hillberman, Stephen Bosustow and Zachary Schwartz in the wake of the strike.

Rooty Toot Toot, UPA, 1951

Though UPA’s initial portfolio was primarily government contract work, the studio was allowed to experiment with new techniques and styles that previously had only been considered during moments of psychedelic abstraction in Fantasia (1940). UPA went on to produce animated series Mr. Magoo (1949–1961) and Gerald McBoing Boing (1950–57) along with hundreds of commercial shorts. The cost-efficiency of UPA’s animation techniques and the remarkable contrast of their work compared to that of Disney’s made a significant impact on Western animation, with the “UPA style” adopted by Warner, Hanna-Barbera and MGM amongst many other now-lesser known but once significant studios.

Unsurprisingly, the heavyweights behind this dynamic shift in content — animation veterans like Bob McIntosh, Bobe Cannon and Jules Engel — all cite Picasso, Henri Matisse, Paul Klee and Joan Miró as major influences for their Modern works, and a large number of influential media studio employees were Eastern European and Jewish migrants, fleeing genocide and oppressive regimes in their homelands in the early 20th Century.

Mr. Magoo, Jules Engel, 1949–55
Detail from Gaukler im April, Paul Klee, 1928

Rewind a few years. While Walt Disney Studios were finishing production of their first animated feature film Snow White in 1937, Hungarian polymath and bastion of Modernism György Kepes moved to the US and began to teach at the New Bauhaus (now the IIT Institute of Design) in Chicago, Illinois. In 1942, he was among the art faculty at Brooklyn College, New York; and by 1944, Kepes began to mentor a prolific artist named Saul Bass. Bass’ work became ubiquitous throughout the remains of the 20th Century and into the 21st, with the most famous of his works being a product of the culmination of Bauhaus-borne disciplines, notably (but not exclusive to) Modernism and the New Swiss Style.

Left: Anatomy of a Murder, Saul Bass, 1959 — Right: Orange and Yellow, Mark Rothko, 1956

In the years following WWII and leading into the Cold War, various European empires and unions slowly began to decolonise countries and dependent territories they had claimed ownership of from as early as the 16th Century. No longer willing or sometimes able to support their foreign investments, European colonisers disposed of the majority of their responsibilities to their investments. This varied from degrees of suzerainty to full independence—though often there would still be financial and military ties between new sovereign nations and their former indirect rulers, allowing for the easy exploitation of goods and labour.

Left: Advertisement for Lily Biscuits pre-Independence, c.1942 — Right: Advertisement for Tea post-Independence, 1947

Many incidences of decolonisation resulted in bloody repatriation and governments left in crisis as they were logistically and financially abandoned at the beginning of their self-rule. Indian Independence and the subsequent Partition in 1947 created a rushed and tenuous tabula rasa from which to grow a new national identity. The decline in colonial rule, a resurgence of nationalism, and a less Eurocentric perspective gave way to the localisation of manufactured goods (as these new sovereign nations were no longer obliged to import goods from other colonies), and “Indianised” advertising material.

Historically, the relationship between the British, their indirect subjects, and the consumption of tea has not been particularly amicable. Prior to Independence, tea-drinking was an affair propagandised by the British, and often boycotted as a form of resistance. Once they were no longer in Imperial hands, businesses capitalised on the Swadeshi (“made in one’s own country”) movement to sell goods made by and for the people. Whether this was done out of a sense of national pride and self-determination, or using a political movement to increase sales, the Swadeshi principle of eschewing imported British-owned goods allowed for indigenous industry to flourish. These goods were then advertised with art that further promoted Swadeshi economics.

Bombay Progressive Artist’s Group Manifesto; featuring (L-R) H.A. Gade, M.F. Husain, S.H. Raza and F.N. Souza, 1949

The Bombay Progressive Artists’ Group formed in the turmoil of Independence and Partition, and their work filled an unusual new cultural niche. They were torn between rejecting their colonial identity, defined once as British Indian, and a reclaimed selfhood informed by race, religion, and region moulded by a rushed amputation at the hands of Viceroy Louis Mountbatten’s Partition in 1947. There is some irony, perhaps, in the Progressives working after the fashion of European Modern movements when many of India’s non-British territories and neighbours were still under the rule of the French and Spanish Empires. But it must be noted that the PAG were not merely facsimilists of European art, as they used these political movements to guide their own works and establish a personal and national identity without the interference of British governance.

Karachi By Night, Zubeida Agha, 1956

While I’m focusing primarily on post-Independence India, it would be remiss to not acknowledge Pakistani Modernism. Artists in the Dominion of Pakistan began adopting European movements and translating them to resonate with a fledgling nation delineated both from Imperial rule and the Dominion of India. The Lahore Art Circle, similarly to — but entirely independently from — the PAG, used the Modern to create their aesthetic whilst establishing nascent indigeneity, as well as to solidify Pakistan’s place as a new voice in the global community.

Left: Le Taureau State VI, Picasso, 1945 — Right: Figures With Cattle, Shakir Ali, 1957

As the Modern guided the image of Indian sovereignty, and sovereign India made itself known to the world as a country in its own right, Indian commercial art would follow the same path as that of the commercial art in the West. The Indian Modern was informed by Cubist and European Modern works; works made popular by their ideological expression and a life shaped by subjugation. European migrants to the US translated pieces made by their compatriots to describe grief, resistance and non-compliance into a style of their own. They forged a new style that expressed their cultural legacy, and the projections of an aspirational post-war America. The clean, near-sublime design movements of the Atomic and Space Ages became a utopian future for all Americans to envision, even under the veiled yet vivid threats of Communist spies propagated by McCarthyism amidst fears of rapid industrial development in the Khrushchev-era Soviet Union.

Air India merchandise, Nargis Wadia, c. 1950's

Indian Modern in commercial works had found its voice between its European influence, and the desire to uphold the legacy of decorative art, as a clear and contemporary representation of Indian identity. (This would become a point of contention among many Indian Modern architects — to progress and appear sympatico with a West that moved with them and not on their behalf, but at the cost of reduction in traditional visual language, as Modern architecture often embodied the principle of ‘form following function’.) M.F. Husain had been a prominent member of the PAG, and just as the UPA found a swathe of talent from the European Modern movement, Indian advertising benefitted from Husain’s contributions to commercial art.

Left: Air India poster, M.F. Husain, c. mid-1950s — Right: Air India poster, Nargis Wadia, c. mid-1950s

Air India International (now simply Air India) and their mascot, the Maharajah (designed by S.K. “Bobby” Kooka and Umesh Rao), set a new precedent for India’s international image. The image of the Maharajah (above right, and below) sold a contemporary twist on traditional Indian imagery, and the Maharajah’s humorous and fashionable adventures across the world expressed a fresh glamour. This imagery rejected the perception of India through an Imperial British lens, in which India was a country desperately in need of civilising, or merely a financial resource to the Crown.

Air India posters, various artists (though I believe ‘Paris’ is also by Nargis Wadia) under direction of J.B. Cowasji, 1950–60s

The West’s adoption of the efforts of the Indian Modern movement seems almost inevitable. As American advertising companies and studios capitalised on the transliteration of European Modern, it would capitalise on the Indian Modern to sell their own services. David Klein’s ‘India’ posters for TWA are a handsome example, drawing heavily from the Indian Modern’s aesthetic balance of declaration and decoration. (That said, by the late 60s I imagine you could just blame the Beatles’ sojourn to Rishikesh for the mass consumption, exoticism and appropriation of Indian culture.)

Left: Air India poster, c. 1950s — Centre and Right: TWA posters, David Klein, c. 1950–60s

The commercial art industry has always relied on inequity for its success. Johannes Gutenberg’s invention of moveable type subverted elitist sensibilities and brought forth mass literacy/access to literacy. The progression of industralisation over centuries, despite the fraught relationship between religion and Enlightenment, led to the Industrial Revolution in the West, and the reactionary Romantic movement in the early 19th Century. The nationalism that rose with Romanticism’s popularity soon changed in its behaviour, and became closer to that with which we associate nationalism today; a many-headed beast that oppresses those perceived “other” or “lesser” in the false name of patriotic behaviour, often by Imperial beneficiaries. European Realism gained popularity in the mid-19th Century as the public’s discomfort with Imperialism grew. Émile Zola rose to infamy, close with Paul Cézanne; Cézanne, whom Picasso and Matisse both credit as the “father of [Cubism].” And once again, here we are, at the beginning of the Modern.

Left: Satoshi Hashimoto, Monocle Magazine, 20xx — Right: Kevin Dart, Mr. Peabody and Sherman, 2015

The process of subjugation, expression, translation and/or appropriation is a cyclical one. Commercial art flourishes in the years after community trauma—at home or overseas—as its creators scramble to record their experience, or the experiences of others brought to them by colonial endeavours. These works and their artists are absorbed into a capitalist framework, at an escalating rate, and capitalism requires inequity as the status quo in order to function. It provides an oppressive environment for the next wave of revolutionary creators, whose revolution will be merchandised.

(Here’s a remarkably self-sustained one, if you’re interested: starts with B, ends in a very fat wallet, several semi-ironic installations that result in million-dollar celebrity purchases, and a remarkable amount of plagiarism of Xavier Prou.)

The ouroboros of reaction, production and consumption must be navigated daily, and short of a worldwide overhaul of ethics and finance, is inescapable. As creators, perhaps we can only honour the ancestry of our works, and make honest work in return.

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