The course of empire
Germán Tagle’s work reveals his clear understanding of the historic use of images of the landscape as a tool of empire. This is particularly relevant to the allusion to modernism (and the struggle between modernity and post modernity) that is also present in his works. In his noted works, Néstor García Canclini has constantly explored the relationship between modernity and the will of empire:
The expansive project is a tendency of modernity to extend knowledge and possession of nature, and also the production, distribution and consumption of goods. Expansion tens to be motivated by increase in profit, but we also find it, away from any commercial impulse, in scientific discover, industrial growth, demographic growth and even in alternative trends that seek an expansive conception of human evolution.
Following García Canclini’s lead, I would suggest, that Germán’s paintings also refer to one of the principal motivators of the will towards empire, which is desire. The artist himself has noted the close relationship between fear and desire and between fear and fascination. The figures in his paintings are in a state of contemplation; they are desirous but waiting; their desire becomes poetical and relates to imagination, contemplation and the search for gratification within the landscape.[ii] The searching of the landscape is tied to self-knowledge, to intense thoughts, to desire to become linked through the landscape to the understanding of one’s destiny. As has been established by a number of scholars, the discourses surrounding colonized people—their landscapes and cultures—often evoked narratives and stereotypes that were much more revealing about European cultures than about the peoples they were attempting to catalogue.[iii]
In Germán’s work, the fabric he has chosen to use as the support for his painting is particularly telling and relevant to a discussion of colonialism and the course of empire. Toile fabric with flowers and other decorative elements on it was first created from woodblock and then copperplate prints in Ireland and France in the mid-eighteenth century. By the 1770s, it had become extremely fashionable among the French court and the French Oberkampf factory was proclaimed to be the Manufacture Royale de Jouy by King Louis XVI in 1783.[iv] Eventually, European fabricators became adept at finding images that would sell to a variety of patrons, even commemorating American independence for a French market that identified with this historic struggle.
The images printed on toile fabric represent the ideals, the fantasies, the expectations of European society, often based on long-held beliefs about the role of man and nature and the differences between one continent and another, one culture and another. Not merely decorative motifs, these images also represent the desire to encompass the culture of another (the Asian, the indigenous American), to (literally and figuratively) domesticate it, experience it, own it.
One work in which this concept is readily evident is Welcome to America, 2007 (*Fig. 3). The background includes a landscape of bucolic scenes that feature gentle maidens laundering clothing in a river, a pair of oxen lead by a farmer and a young man watching the scene appreciatively from his relaxed position in the grass. Across these decorative views, the artist has filled his canvas with brash strokes of bold, moving color. The paint, as it spreads across these figures serves as a metaphor for the desire to continue to expand across landscapes, to fulfill fantasies about the simplicity of an idealized life.
The kind of imagery seen on these printed toile fabric helps to maintain the conviction that the multiplication of lands available to the nation is an essential part of its development. Through the hand of the artist, the effect of the paint underscores the idea of a culture clash, in which the sanctity of the gentle landscape is intervened by a powerful unstoppable force, much like the spread of empire.
Two smaller examples in which the print of the fabric becomes the central image or protagonist of the works are Castle and Satellite (*Fig. 8 and 9). These works present a single realistic image, each taken from a fabric pattern and collaged into the painting. Castle features a large, Romanesque structure with a tower and a bridge that stretches across a river. A Romantic ruin, the castle dominates the scene that is painted with a violent storm of colors—a testament to the magnificence of the (European) structure. This kind of representation featuring a ruin surrounded by a nostalgic and romantic interpretation of the landscape is typical of the work of nineteenth century Romantic painters and is critical to reading Germán’s work as a contemporary example of the exploration of the sublime in art.