The ‘Presidents’ Club’ as an anachronistic community

Newly installed in the White House in Washington DC is a group portrait depicting several of the Republican presidents of the USA in conversation with each other. According to the Guardian, a copy of the painting ‘The Republican Club’ by Andy Thomas is now hanging outside the Oval Office. (The Washington Post has the story of how the painting came to President Trump’s attention).

Andy Thomas, The Presidents' Club
Andy Thomas, The Presidents’ Club

The use of portraiture to assert connections between individuals across time and space, and to say something about the relationships between them, has a long history in both fine art and more popular image-making. While the USA has its Mount Rushmore, a memorial on a huge scale to four past presidents, art history offers many further examples. Anachronism is often a feature of such pictures, given that their role is often to assert the continuity of the present with the past, and the flow of power from past to present.

Previously on our blog we’ve documented anachronistic group images, including the mediaeval favourites the Nine Heroes, and Raphael’s School of Athens. Of particular note is the fashion for anachronistic portrait groups in Tudor England; Lucas de Heere’s group of Tudor royals depicts Henry VIII with his children Edward VI, Mary Tudor and Elizabeth I as each was at the peak of their own power as a reigning monarch. It was probably painted in 1572 when of the three only Elizabeth survived: as reigning queen, she is accompanied in the portrait by mythological figures of Peace and Plenty, but in depicting the two siblings who preceded her to their father’s throne she reminds her subjects of her legitimate connection and claim to the throne. It was sent as a gift to her trusted minister Francis Walsingham.

The Family of Henry VIII, group portrait
Attributed to Lucas De Heere (1534-84), The Family of Henry VIII: An Allegory of the Tudor Succession, 1572, National Museum Cardiff.

A later monarch, William III of Orange, decorated a staircase at Hampton Court with images of himself defeating twelve Caesars, representing his Catholic opponents in mainland Europe; the anachronistic parallel adds to the grandeur of the scene, magnificently painted by Antonio Verrio (1636-1707), a specialist in such images.

Another form of group portrait is the conversation piece, popular in the eighteenth century as a way of depicting friends, especially those connected by shared political and intellectual interests and pursuits. William Hogarth’s Hervey Conversation Piece, painted 1738-40, shows a group of friends surrounding John Hervey, Lord Ickworth; the painting still hangs in his ancestral home in Suffolk. Such portraits united groups of friends who might in life rarely meet, connecting them in time and space.

The Hervey Conversation Piece, by William Hogarth (1697-1764), Ickworth House, Suffolk.
The Hervey Conversation Piece, by William Hogarth (1697-1764), Ickworth House, Suffolk.

Anachronistic assemblies also feature in more popular artistic contexts. Pop artists Peter Blake and Jann Haworth produced the cover art for the Beatles’ album Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967); their work presents a montage of historical and contemporary personalities, including images of the band members in earlier years.

Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, artwork by Peter Blake and Jann Haworth, 1967
Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, artwork by Peter Blake and Jann Haworth, 1967

Anachronistic groups were also created in the ancient world. Group depictions of philosophers might assemble figures who were not contemporaries, or suggest that contemporary thinkers were linked to the Seven Sages of the past. Polybius reports that Roman families kept masks as portraits of family members, which were brought out for funeral processions, providing both a link to the past and a reminder of the power and influence wielded by leading families:

After the burial and all the usual ceremonies have been performed, they place the likeness of the deceased in the most conspicuous spot in his house, surmounted by a wooden canopy or shrine. This likeness consists of a mask made to represent the deceased with extraordinary fidelity both in shape and colour. These likenesses they display at public sacrifices adorned with much care. And when any illustrious member of the family dies, they carry these masks to the funeral, putting them on men whom they thought as like the originals as possible in height and other personal peculiarities. And these substitutes assume clothes according to the rank of the person represented: if he was a consul or praetor, a toga with purple stripes; if a censor, whole purple if he had also celebrated a triumph or performed any exploit of that kind, a toga embroidered with gold. These representatives also ride themselves in chariots, while the fasces and axes, and all the other customary insignia of the particular offices, lead the way, according to the dignity of the rank in the state enjoyed by the deceased in his lifetime; and on arriving at the Rostra they all take their seats on ivory chairs in their order. There could not easily be a more inspiring spectacle than this for a young man of noble ambitions and virtuous aspirations. (Polybius 6.53, translation Shuckburgh).

Other works by Andy Thomas show similar anachronistic groups of US presidents engaged in social activities such as playing poker and pool, perhaps paying tribute to the less serious side of the conversation piece tradition. In contrast, when the living former presidents of the USA are photographed together, it is often to send a serious message to their fellow citizens or to solicit their help for disaster relief or similar serious causes.

 

Time on screen: Tacita Dean’s Antigone

Film offers a medium in which multiple temporalities can be accessed simultaneously. A new film by artist Tacita Dean, Antigone (2018), uses cinematographic effects and a double screen to explore multiple perspectives and times, from the classical past to an uncertain present, through a collage of images and reflections that recall both Sophoclean drama and American film.

Dean’s film, currently being shown in her ‘Landscape’ exhibition at the Royal Academy in London, grows from an autobiographical question. Antigone is the name her elder sister bears, and its mythical resonances intrigued the artist just as much as those of her own name. The story of Antigone, both sister and daughter to Oedipus, came to fascinate Dean, who also links herself to Oedipus through the shared experience of being lame. While a student she repeatedly inscribed their names, describing these acts in the exhibition catalogue as ‘perhaps in art school imitation of Cy Twombly, who seemed able, like none other, to awake his long-dead heroes by drawing their names’.

This practice continues, to feature in her landscape images, including those displayed in the exhibition, such as the narrative drawing Blind Pan (2004) that tells the story of Oedipus as a storyboard for an unmade film.

Blind Pan
Detail from Blind Pan, 2004, by Tacita Dean, currently on display at the Royal Academy, London

As this earlier work shows, Dean had long planned to make a film about the character and story of Antigone. Its evocation of landscape and travel is realised in the film that she finally made, after many difficulties in realising her vision.

Dean’s control of elapsed time in the hour-long film is a reminder of the formulaic temporality of Greek tragedy, with the action of Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex taking place in a single day. Passing time is represented in the film by the image of a solar eclipse progressing, which provides a time-line throughout; at the core of the film, its totality transforms the landscape. Dean drew on the solar eclipse that crossed the USA in August 2017. While Sophocles uses the conventions of tragedy, such as messenger speeches, to bring past and distant parts of the story on to the stage, Dean frames her depiction of Oedipus’ journey with visible sprocket holes to mark the film’s apparent past, and uses split images to provide multiple perspectives on its landscapes, from Bodmin Moor to the mud pools of Yellowstone national park. The natural imagery also invites questions about duration and stability; the temporary change to the usual order brought by the eclipse, and the impermanent features of the geysers and mud pools of the volcanic landscape.

Antigone: still picture of volcanic landscape
Still from Tacita Dean’s Antigone (2018): volcanic landscape. © Tacita Dean; Frith Street Gallery, London and Marian Goodman Gallery, New York/Paris.

Oedipus’ blindness is represented anachronistically by the solar-eclipse viewing glasses worn by actor Stephen Dillane when in character; we too see the light of the sun replaced by its eerie corona, the landscape falling into darkness. This sun is itself then reshaped as a foot cuts through the image, suggesting the fragmentation inherent in the retelling of myth through the image masking and editing techniques that Dean uses to compose her complex images.

Sun and foot image from Tacita Dean's Antigone
Tacita Dean Antigone: sun and foot. © Tacita Dean; Frith Street Gallery, London and Marian Goodman Gallery, New York/Paris.

A breakthrough in Dean’s development of the project came with her meeting with poet Anne Carson and her discovery of Carson’s poem TV Men: Antigone (Scripts I and II), which covered the same part of the myth that interested her, the period between Oedipus leaving Thebes and arriving at Colonus. This poem becomes integral to the film, in which Antigone herself is an ambiguous absence, with Oedipus wandering apparently alone in his blindness, and in which Carson is an informative presence, explaining the story to characters and viewers alike, mediating between the worlds as a chorus figure.

Anne Carson, in Antigone
Poet Anne Carson in the Thebes courtroom. Location photograph from Antigone.

Dean’s Oedipus has forgotten his own story in his long journey, and has many questions to ask the sphinx-like Carson, with whom actor Stephen Dillane is in dialogue both in and out of character. Why has it taken him so long to reach his destiny at Colonus? The myth of the sphinx is reversed; Oedipus must interrogate the poet to understand his own story. Their discussions takes place across time, the character Oedipus at his campfire as he traverses the landscape, and Carson, Dean and Dillane indoors in the present. But that present itself negotiates the recent past: the three discuss the myth in a courtroom in another Thebes, in Illinois, on the banks of the Mississippi, itself a symbolic location.

Dean draws on the resonance of this American Thebes’ name with that of Oedipus’ city. It also provides an American present, the small town of the American cinematographic imaginary, as well as hints of an American past that recall other exiles travelling in search of a resolution to their stories. The historical courtroom she films is linked with the story of Dred Scott, who had escaped from enslavement and whose failed legal pursuit of his freedom was a significant point on the road to the US Civil War. American history and geology, ancient Greek myth, and Dean and Carson’s own interpretations of them all contribute to a layering of time and space as the film overlays its characters and locations, using the double and split screen to draw the elements together.

Time is already a problem and a source of uncertainty within the narrative of Oedipus’ story, with puzzling gaps between the episodes within the myth that Sophocles chose to dramatise. Antigone’s presence and voice are also problematic; was Antigone even there in the story before Sophocles developed her character in his plays? Carson’s poem appears and re-appears within the film, and documents the erasure of Antigone’s voice and experience from her own story as it is compressed by editorial processes:

For sound-bite purposes we had to cut Antigone’s script from 42 seconds to 7: substantial changes of wording were involved but we felt we got her ‘take’ right.

The characters’ discussions, along with Carson’s text, foreground the processes of working on myth and question the idea that there is an original story to which retellings should adhere; Carson appeals to Theban versions of the story that predate Sophocles’ retellings. But is the version of Antigone produced by Carson’s ‘TV men’ any less valid as work on myth than that offered by Sophocles? Meanwhile, Dean’s film offers a final glimpse of Oedipus, with a comforting touch on his shoulder as Antigone’s hand emerges from the darkness.

  • Tacita Dean: Landscape is at the Royal Academy until August 12 2018.

References

  • Tacita Dean (2018), ‘Antigone’, in Tacita Dean et al. Tacita Dean: Landscape, Portrait, Still Life, London.

The art of historical development: Thomas Cole’s Course of Empire

The fall of old empires and the rise of new ones became a topic of pressing cultural interest as the impact of political revolutions in late eighteenth-century Europe and the Americas became clear. The topic was of central importance to European historians exploring not only the economic and social development of their own countries, but using the encounters of European colonialists in the Americas with indigenous peoples and cultures to establish developmental or ‘stadial’ theories of history. These ideas take visual and material form in Thomas Cole’s ‘Course of Empire’, a cycle of paintings produced in New York between 1833-36, and the centerpiece of an exhibition, ‘Thomas Cole: Atlantic Crossings’, currently on display in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, and transferring to London’s National Gallery in June.

Cole The Savage State
Thomas Cole ‘The Savage State’, New-York Historical Society

Cole (1801-48) emerges from this show as an important figure in the transmission of European artistic developments to an emerging American artistic tradition, finding full form in the works of the Hudson Valley School. Cole, who was born in Lancashire but emigrated to the USA with his family in 1818, returned to Europe for training and to visit the classical sites of Italy, and transmitted his European contemporaries’ awareness of their classical heritage to landscape artists working in the USA.

However, Cole’s work also materialises the response of European thinkers to the temporal possibilities of the new world of the Americas, and the apparent encounter with the past that its landscapes and indigenous peoples offered. A 1728 poem by Bishop Berkeley (1685-1753), ‘Verses On the Prospect of Planting Arts and Learning in America’, captured both the hopes of economic migrants to America, like Cole’s family, as well as a view of historical progress. The title of Cole’s series may refer to the poem’s final stanza, in which Berkeley envisions the rise of a new empire based in America, or perhaps to one of many citations of its compelling phrases:

Westward the course of empire takes its way;
The first four acts already past,
A fifth shall close the drama with the day;
Time’s noblest offspring is the last.

Cole’s empire, however, takes a very different course from that of Berkeley, ending in ‘Desolation’ rather than nobility; the most optimistic reading of the sequence would be to read them as a cyclical rather than linear account of human society, at odds with new developments in historiography but reflecting artistic and cultural interest in stories of decline and destruction, from versions such as Gibbon’s account of the fall of Rome to John Martin’s scenes of biblical destruction and Turner’s scenes of classical decline; both of these artists clearly influenced Cole’s compositions and choice of subjects. Where the economic historians were interested in progress up to the present, and the growing role of international trade and commerce, the classical heritage of fallen empires was still of interest to artists combining new romantic sensibilities with increased awareness of ancient art through its ruined remains as, for example, the Parthenon marbles were displayed in London.

Cole proposed his planned series of pictures to New York businessman Luman Reed, describing his plan to illustrate the cycle of historical change through its impact on a particular landscape:

A series of pictures might be painted that should illustrate the History of a natural scene, as well as be an Epitome of Man—showing the natural changes of Landscape & those effected by man in his progress from Barbarism to Civilization, to Luxury, the Vicious state or state of destruction and to the state of Ruin & Desolation.

Cole’s notion of historical change draws in part on theories of social development proposed by eighteenth-century writers and historians, attempting on the one hand to construct models of human development, and on the other acknowledging the likelihood of decline. These conjectural models drew on empirical evidence, treating North America and its landscape and indigenous people as one source for understanding the early stages of human social development. Historians aimed to create an empirical form of historiography that showed the impact of material factors and of landscape on historical change. David Hume’s ‘On Commerce’ outlined a developmental model of human society, while Adam Smith in his Lectures on Jurisprudence saw hunting, shepherding and then agriculture as the three stages of historical development that preceded commerce, the final stage. The London version of the exhibition is subtitled ‘From Eden to Empire’, making Cole’s debt to stadial theory more clear, but as the full cycle of the ‘Course of Empire’ shows, Cole’s view of human development was more pessimistic than that of the stadial theorists.

The first two paintings in the Course of Empire series follow the developmental pattern of Scottish stadial theory. ‘The Savage State’ hints at both the development of society, with its grouping of tiny huts or tents in the background, and at the potential for war, with the hunting scene in the foreground; Tim Rood sees an allusion to ‘the tepee-shaped huts of American Indians’ in this setting (Rood 2010: 142). In New York the pictures are displayed as Cole intended, with these first two scenes to the left of the central image of empire at its height.

Cole The Pastoral State
Thomas Cole ‘The Pastoral State’, New-York Historical Society

The Arcadian State’ shows a pastoral scene, with evidence of a developing society that is both classical and, with its central monument resembling Stonehenge, a nod to ancient Britain. In this stage of development, humans engage in a range of peaceful activities, including art, farming and herding. The temple and the boats hint at communal activity, with smoke rising from the temple as rites are celebrated.

Cole Consummation of Empire
Thomas Cole ‘The Consummation of Empire’, New-York Historical Society

Cole’s depiction of the height of empire, ‘The Consummation of Empire’, the central picture of the series and the largest of the five canvases, illustrates a clearly classical world. This enables him to evoke both grandeur, in the classical structures that now obscure the landscape, and the potential for decadence, in the figure of the returning victor crossing the bridge mounted on an elephant, and perhaps in the painting’s opulent palette, with its gold and pink tones. While Turner’s imagined Carthage is an inspiration, the British neo-classical architecture of Soane and Nash, which Cole would have seen on his return visits to Europe, may provide another example of the neo-classical rising empire, as the exhibition’s curators suggest.

Cole Destruction
Thomas Cole ‘Destruction’, New-York Historical Society

But while the historians saw a linear progress from hunting through pastoral society and agriculture to commerce, the artistic tradition saw the potential for decline and destruction, drawing on imagery from the classical past and its traditions of empires rising and falling.  There is a journey beyond these stages between Eden and Empire. Cole departs from the stadial, developmental model for his final two pictures, in which the idea of the state recedes.

Cole Desolation
Thomas Cole, ‘Desolation’, New-York Historical Society

The final two pictures, ‘Destruction’ and ‘Desolation’ show first destruction, with war destroying the buildings of the consummate city; the turbulent sky nods to that of Turner’s ‘Hannibal Crossing the Alps’, with its implied critique of Napoleonic expansionism. ‘Desolation’ marks the absence of human life from the cycle; herons nest on the top of a collapsed column, as the ruined city reveals the landscape that underlay it. Is ‘Desolation’ a return to Eden, or does the absence of human life mark a final stage in a linear sequence?

Cole Oxbow
Thomas Cole, ‘View from Mount Holyoke, Northampton, Massachusetts, after a Thunderstorm – the Oxbow’, 1836, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

While the Course of Empire shows a sequence of change across its five images, Cole’s most famous work, ‘View from Mount Holyoke, Northampton, Massachusetts, after a Thunderstorm – the Oxbow’, painted in 1836, demonstrates a multiple temporality within a single canvas. Again, this reflects responses to the situation of European colonisation of the Americas, in which settlers’ farms abutted wilderness. In this painting, the wild hill of the foreground provides a vantage point from which the farmed lowland of the river valley is viewed. Wilderness and domestication exemplify the ‘contemporaneity of the non-contemporaneous’. America represented both the past, in the perspective of the European settlers on the indigenous societies that they found, and the future, as home of the next empire; it is in these landscape paintings, rather than the ‘Course of Empire’ itself, that Cole confirms Berkeley’s vision of the future possibilities of America.

  • M. Kornhauser and T. Barringer (2018) Thomas Cole’s Journey: Atlantic Crossings. Metropolitan Museum of Art/Yale University Press, New York.
  • Foshay, E. M. (1990) Luman Reed’s Picture Gallery: A Pioneer Collection of American Art. Harry N. Abrams, Inc. in association with the New-York Historical Society, New York.
  • Rood, T. (2010) American Anabasis : Xenophon and the idea of America from the Mexican War to Iraq, Duckworth, London.
  • More information about Thomas Cole at Explore Thomas Cole, and the website of the Thomas Cole National Historic site, Catskill, NY.
  • Further reading on The Course of Empire and its bibliography at its permanent home, the New-York Historical Society.