15 June, 2011
An Execution in British India
Painting by Vassili Verestchagin
As part of his article accompanying the wood engraving of the painting when it was published in Harper's Weekly on November 17, 1888, Mr. Cook wrote:
"So with the other picture, the shooting of the Sepoys, Verestchagin does not say that this particular scene is an incident of the great mutiny. Shooting from guns is the only way, he says, that 60,000 soldiers in a stronge country can keep in awe 250,000,000 natives. Superstition must be utilized. The natives do not fear to die, but they fear to die in any way that destroys the identity of the body. They cannot enter heaven blown limb from limb. Therefore this is the way to touch their souls with dreadul awe, and the English, says our artist, have always blown from guns, blow from guns today, and will blow from guns as long as India is held.
"But Verestchagin is not only a prophet of evil, a poet of night and cruel deeds...."
Mr. Cook draws an abstraction from a specific event that seems to counteract the effect of its horror. In Europe, Verestchagin's popularity on the other hand, stemmed from the "anti-militaristic tendencies of his pictures" according to one German authority (H. Vollmer, Allgemeines Lexikon der Bildenden Kuenstler, E.A. Seeman, Leipzig 1942, p. 392).
An American compendium describes him as "a realist painter best known for his almost photographic representations of the horrors of war" (G. Norman, Nineteenth-Century Painters and Painting: a Dictionary, U. of California Press, Berkeley, 1977).
Verestchagin actually visited India in 1876-77. He died in the Far East during the Russian-Japanese war in 1904, when the ship he was travelling on was sunk near Port Arthur.
Indian Revolutionaries Strapped to Cannons and Blown Part
"His picture Blowing from Guns in British India depicted executions carried out by tying victims to the barrels of guns. Vereshchagin's detractors argued that such executions had only occurred in the Indian Rebellion of 1857, but the painting depicted modern soldiers of the 1880s, implying that the practice was normal. Because of its photographic style, the painting appeared to present itself as impartial record of a real event. In the Magazine of Art in December 1887 Vereshchagin defended himself, rather evasively, by saying that this mode of execution was "the most humane in existence" and that if there were another rebellion then the British would use it again."
Collection of works at Olga's Gallery
his book is available to read online here