Perpetuating Nationalism through Art

11 September 2023

By Dr. Adi Schlebusch

The field of Historiography has undergone a profound development in the past few decades. A significant reaction to postmodernism, in the form of Narrative Realism, has led to insightful new perspectives on history. Led by the philosopher of history, David Carr, Narrative Realists have embraced the postmodern emphasis on the narrative nature of history as a "story," yet not as a projection of the human imagination onto reality as the postmodernists envisioned. On the contrary, according to this narrative realism, narratives of the past are actually a reflection of how we as humans practically experience and participate in reality. Carr explains it as follows:

[H]uman events and actions derive their sense from their relation to the past and future, i.e., from their place in a temporal configuration where they arise from something and lead up to something else. The idea of coherence in human affairs comes from the very way we experience and exist in time, not from the imposition of alien or artificial categories.1

Carr's emphasis on the practical function of the past in terms of making sense of the present within the framework of the the narrative character of human existence and participation in reality has implications on both the individual and collective level. The way humans exist and engage collectively is therefore also fundamentally narrative in nature:

Where the communal 'we' is operative, be it family, ethnic, political, religious, or even the universal-human level (as in, ‘we’ landed on the moon in 1969), social time is structured along the same narrative lines as individual time… Just as memory is to the individual, so is history to the community. As the individual implicitly or explicitly composes a life story that constitutes their identity, so the community composes its biography in the history it writes for itself.2

What the memory of the past does for the individual in practice, history does for the community, including the national community. In this respect, art plays an essential role. Think of popular folk songs such as "I'm a good ol' rebel" which not only evokes certain emotions among its sympathetic listeners but also ignites a distinct identification with a national history and identity based on a historical narrative about the Southern people's national struggle for independence conveyed in compelling musical terms. In like manner the visual arts, especially when they depict certain historical moments or figures, also often serve as a powerful tool to sharpen, ignite, and empower a national identity among a specific audience.

In this regard, the sculpture work of Anton van Wouw (1862-1945) represents a fascinating example of how the compelling portrayal of historical narratives, figures, or moments from Boer national history, through art, has cultivated and continues to nurture pride and identity among Boer-Afrikaners. Van Wouw, one of the founding fathers of sculpture in South Africa, was, however, a native Dutchman. He only moved to Pretoria at the age of 28.3 Van Wouw was thus someone who, like Ruth in the Bible, assimilated and identified with a brother nation. His identification with the Boer-Afrikaner people, just as in Ruth's case with Israel, was narratively reinforced in his own life. Ruth's famous words, "your people shall be my people, and your God, my God" (Ruth 1:16), represent a particular association with the salvific history of her brother nation, Israel—a nation with whom she, as a Moabite, shared a common ancestor and origin in Abraham's father and Lot's grandfather, Terah (Gen. 11:26-27). Similarly, Van Wouw deeply identified with the history of the Boer-Afrikaner people—a historical narrative that consistently formed the core of his sculpture work. In his works, the past, present, and future of a nation—its struggles, tragedies, success stories, and ideals—are depicted in a striking manner, as only an artist who has made these stories and ideals his own possibly could. Whether he was portraying the women and children of the Great Trek, statesmen like Paul Kruger, or Boer generals like Christiaan De Wet, Van Wouw's sculptures continually attempt to depict the essence of the unique identity and character of the Boers as a people, shaped by a European heritage as manifested on South African soil. These depictions aim to engage the audience's imagination in such a way that they themselves come to see themselves as participating in their national past or the story of their nation. In other words, through his works, we, as a national community, come to see ourselves as role players in this same historical narrative in which our national heroes figure—as a national community we "compose a life story that constitutes [our] identity," as Carr puts it. This national biography or narrative is, however, not something that, in a postmodern sense, traces its origin merely to our shared imagination. Quite the contrary: it is rooted in the common experience of divinely created realities that uniquely bind the members of a particular nation together.

We see a similar narrative power in the works of Charles Willson Peale (1741-1827). Peale, known for his portraits of American Revolutionary figures, made a profound impact on the American cultural landscape by virtue of his famous images of national leaders like George Washington. His works serves as another prime example of how an artist can help shape and define a national identity through individual portraits.4 Peale's focus on realism and detail helped cultivate a sense of national pride and unity during a time of great upheaval and uncertainty in America. His portraits not only captured the physical appearance of his subjects but also offered a deeper insight into their character and the ideals that drove them. In a spirit similar to Anton van Wouw's sculptures in South Africa, Peale's portraits helped the American national community see themselves as part of the larger historical narrative of their national existence. Peale's works, emblematic of American nationalism, capture the nation's formative years. These artworks continue to resonate with nationalists as they encapsulate the spirit and ideals of a nation in its infancy. Peale's commitment to preserving the likenesses of these early patriots ensures that their legacies remain intertwined with the American people's enduring historical narrative of resilience and the fight for liberty.  

Similarly, the Fredericksburg native John Adams Elder (1833-1895), akin to Anton van Wouw's impact in South Africa, also played a significant role in capturing the historical narrative of the Confederate struggle for independence through his lifelike portraits, notably that of General "Stonewall" Jackson.5  Elder, who enlisted in the Confederate army in 1862, fought at the pivotal Battle of the Crater in Petersburg and later created its definitive painting.6 His other works also included portraits of General Robert E. Lee, as well as several statesmen including the former president of the Confederate States of America, Jefferson Davis. His outstanding works of art, even revered by so many of his enemies, continue to portray and symbolize the ideals of nationalism and liberty that drove the Confederate army at the time.  

Just like children find their place and identity in a specific family context by identifying with the stories of parents, grandparents, siblings, the identity of our nation's children is formed and reformed with each generation who listens to and views, through works of art, the narratives about the glorious acts our ancestors engaged in to honor God and serve their people, and make these narratives their own. In this regard, the artistic contributions of the likes of Van Wouw, Peale, and Elder represent powerful tools that can greatly aid us in realizing our duty and calling to cultivate and perpetuate nationalism intergenerationally.

1. Carr , D. 2008. “The Reality of History.” In Rüsen, J. (ed.). Meaning and Representation in History. Berghahn Books, New York, p. 124-125.

2. Ibid., p. 130.

3.  Roos, N.O. 1979. Die Stand van die Beeldende Kuns in Suid Afrika. Universiteit van Pretoria: Pretoria, p. 1. 

4. Ward, D.C. 2004. Charles Willson Peale: Art and Selfhood in the Early Republic. University of California Press: Berkeley, CA, p. 152.

5. The portrait is used as the image accompanying this article.

6. Willoughby, L.E. Petersburg. Arcadia: Charleston, SC, p. 13.