National Galleries: The Art of Making Nations

Today, only in small island nations, such as in the Caribbean and Pacific, and in parts of the Middle East and Africa, are national galleries absent... National galleries have been invented and deployed by liberal democracies, by Marxist revolutionaries and communist governments, by imperialists and right-wing dictators, in colonial and postcolonial settings, in nations old, new, large and small.

 

National galleries - or national museums of fine art as they are known in some parts of the world - now exist in almost every capital city on earth. Until now, however, only the most glamorous examples in London, Paris, Madrid, Amsterdam, Berlin, Washington, Vienna, Budapest, St Petersburg, Florence and Washington have been given prominence. Valuing their wealth of Old Masters, art historians have tended to treat these galleries as paradigmatic. In his book, National Galleries: The Art of Making Nations, Simon Knell sets out to change how we look at, study and understand these institutions and the art they hold. He argues that to really understand them we must dismiss these old elitist perspectives and value those in Paris, Santiago, Harare and Manila equally. In doing so, he pays considerable attention to the role of national galleries in constructing national narratives of painting. Observing that artworks and art museums are singular and situated, he provides new arguments for detecting and valuing local and national art practices, and countering often oppressive and exclusive internationalist perspectives. He does not neglect, however, the political significance of the international masterpiece.

National Galleries looks at these institutions through the lens of nation making. It examines their global history and geography, the politics of their architecture and art curating, the various ways in which national and international art become bound to the nation, and how national galleries have participated in different ways in the invention of national art narratives.

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