Four hundred years later, self-aggrandisement is very much in fashion
Among London’s jewels are the free twice-daily tours at the National Gallery which overlooks Trafalgar Square (and South Africa House). Wherever possible, my business appointments in the city are scheduled to allow time for the hour long journey into the UK’s treasure house of art. It has been a cultural revelation.
But some of the lessons stretch beyond marvelling at products by the most talented to have walked our planet. Yesterday was a reminder that artists were also the original purveyors of propaganda. And how even the best of them tended to do the bidding of their patrons.
Anthony van Dyck’s imposing Equestrian Portrait of King Charles I, painted in 1637, is a good example. In the painting, Charles – who stood a tiny five feet in his socks – strikes an imposing figure astride his powerful charger whose hoof is about to crush a thistle (representing Scotland). One of the largest in the gallery’s 2,400 piece collection, it was pure propaganda, painted for Hampton Court Palace so that awaiting foreign ambassadors would be impressed by the king’s apparent power.
Neither the unfortunate Charles (who was beheaded a short walk from where the painting now hangs) nor his court’s official artist would have seen anything amiss in the exaggeration. Almost four centuries later, neither would their contemporary equivalents. Among mankind’s rich and powerful, self-aggrandisement is still very much in fashion. As is their dislike for those who call them out. Think about that the next time some politician takes a swing at media freedom.