The Whitechapel Gallery’s exhibition space dedicated to archive displays presents 'I shake you by the hand, comrade Bacon': British Art Abroad, the latest show taken from the British Council’s archives. Taking its title from an entry in the visitors’ book to Francis Bacon’s 1988 show in Moscow - which took place just as Russia was opening to the outside world, and the Berlin Wall was about to fall - the exhibition highlights the British Council’s history of showing British art abroad during the most exciting and volatile social and political climates of the last two centuries.
British Art Abroad draws archival material together with original works of art including pieces by Barbara Hepworth, David Hockney, Henry Moore and Richard Wilson - and gives the only Bacon piece in the British Council Collection, a handwritten letter, its first UK showing.
Prints, government documents and an original drawing explain how Hockney’s inclusion in a 1968 show in Mexico raised issues of censorship and sexual freedom, bringing the Council into conflict with the Foreign Office. Hepworth’s Maquette for Winged Figure (1957) bears witness to the UK’s changing relationship with Iran, travelling there both pre- and post- Islamic Revolution - the second time immediately after the invasion of Iraq.
Amongst the display’s focuses are an exhibition of British arts and crafts that crossed the Atlantic at the height of the U-boat campaign to tour the US in 1942, and a 1997 show to commemorate Pakistani independence taking place in Lahore Fort, which is a UNESCO World Heritage site; an ex-British jail and torture chamber, and the last Asian resting place of the Koh-I-Noor diamond. Others include exhibitions that have travelled to China, the Middle East, and America, highlighting Britain’s relationships in these areas.
Bringing the exhibition up to date are works from Classroom Portraits, a photographic commission by Julian Germain, photographing classes of students in schools across the middle east.
British Art Abroad is testament to the power that art has to cross cultural divides, to raise poignant questions, create meaningful conversations and challenge existing ideas, even during times of conflict.