The sun may have set on the British Empire, but recently artists have lit it back up. It’s not the most flattering light, either. Previously on TSAH for WIB, I wrote about how time cannot only heal the wounds of war on society, but with the help of art morph them into, if not causes to celebrate, the kind of battle scars one wear’s with an amount of pride. But we’re past the age of Romanticism. More and more, artists are choosing to pick at the scars of their nation’s dark past and highlight the horror rather than the valor.
The late, great Alexander McQueen returned to the theme of national identity over and over in his canon. McQueen was Scottish by birth, but grew up in London, lending him an interesting perspective on both cultures. The autumn/winter 1995-6 collection Highland Rape, though one of McQueen’s earliest, is still one of his most resonant. Bloody and wild models staggered down a runway strewn with traditionally Scottish flora. Mcqueen clarified that the “rape” of the title isn’t regarding the models’ shocking appearance, but the figurative rape of Scotland by English rule and force. The collection specifically references the Jacobite Uprisings (TL;DR version – bloody campaigns to restore Stuart rule to England and Scotland).
Mcqueen returned to the Jacobites in 2006’s Widows of Culloden. The title refers to the final battle of the 1745 campaigns, where the Jacobite mission was crushed forever. Instead of devastation, the collection is full of proud, unsullied tartan dresses and suits, wistful gowns, and pieces that seem to embody the beauty of the Highlands. Still, Mcqueen said of his inpspiration, “What the British did there was nothing short of genocide.” Mcqueen was a strong voice of Scottish nationalism, but even he exhibits the strange love-hate fascination with England that I’ve seen in a lot of the United Kingdom’s artists. 2008’s The Girl who Lived in the Tree is almost a sartorial timeline of the British Empire, not lite on pomp and circumstance either.
For a more recent and very not Scottish look at British history, we’ve got dark songstress PJ Harvey’s latest album, Let England Shake. The English Harvey is known for disturbing lyrics, but this time she turns it on her own nation. “The Words That Maketh Murder” start off with this pleasant imagery:
I’ve seen and done things I want to forget;
I’ve seen soldiers fall like lumps of meat,
Blown and shot out beyond belief.
Arms and legs were in the trees.
To quote a line from a different song, “death was everywhere.” That seems to be British history according to Harvey. She focuses on WWI, an especially devastating time not only for human bloodshed but on account of the very death what it meant to be a British citizen. The metaphor of dismembered bodies as the vestiges a great empire is almost hackneyed at this point. Most of the (truly beautiful, really, check it out) album continues in this vein: the Landing at Anzac Cove is “death’s anchorage,” “a hateful feeling still lingers” at the sight of a battle. However, like McQueen, Harvey’s honest and gory take on history can’t hide being a little bit in love with very idea of England. From “The Last Living Rose:’
Let me watch night fall on the river,
the moon rise up and turn to silver,
the sky move,
the ocean shimmer,
the hedge shake,
the last living rose quiver.
National identity is by nature a very personal and biased issue. But as we can see through artists struggling with their own, it’s nothing if not guts and all. I would leave you with one of my deep thoughts, but Instead I give you my English and Scottish friend’s takes, respectively:
Our history is bloody and messy and self righteous and fucked up.
…the general Scottish consensus is that our history is bloody, messy and glorious.