How Artist John “Rex” Whistler became the latest target of Cancel Culture
In June 1940, the 35-year-old Reginald John Whistler, known as ‘Rex’, gave up his successful career as an artist to join the British army. Eager to help fight for his country during the Second World War, he was commissioned into the Welsh Guards, serving as a tank commander before being killed in action four years later by a mortar strike, after leaving his tank to provide aid to wounded men in his unit. After reporting his death, The Times received a massive outpouring of letters from the public, more than for any other victim of the war. Surely, then, Whistler should now be regarded in contemporary British culture as one of the most successful painters of the interwar years and a war hero. Yet the opposite seems to be the case. Whistler’s work has been deemed “racist” and “offensive”, and his most famous work has since been hidden from public view.
In 1926, the young Whistler, aged 21, was commissioned to paint a large mural in the Tate Gallery in London, covering all four walls of a room soon reopened afterward as The Rex Whistler Restaurant. This immense work, titled The Expedition in Pursuit of Rare Meats, took 18 months to complete and was hailed as a triumph. Set in a fictional land named “Epicurania”, the mural depicts a group of people traveling through a mystical landscape in search of exotic tastes. Epicurania, of course, is an ode to Epicureanism, the philosophy that views pleasure as the ultimate human aim. The year that the work was completed, the river Thames flooded and burst its banks, precipitating that grim water to submerge the lower ground floor beneath a layer of scum. Despite that, the mural was able to be fully restored.
The fantasy style of Rare Meats denotes a form of escapism that was prevalent in artworks in the years following the Great War – often produced by those who experienced the horrors of war firsthand, such as Eric Ravilious, a fellow casualty of the Second World War who was killed in action two years prior to Whistler. Nonetheless, the mural also acknowledges the horrors that mankind is capable of, which itself can be seen as a critique of imperialism, among other themes. In part of the artwork, a bound black child is dragged behind an oblivious woman. In another, a boy is seen drowning. In a subtle but clear and unambiguous way, the painting reflects Virgil’s sentiment Et in Arcadia ego; even in heaven, death and suffering exist.
In 2020, after almost a century of hosting a restaurant without any issue, the public was told that the Rex Whistler Restaurant would not reopen after the so-called pandemic. Initially ignited by a tweet and several Instagram posts from user ‘The White Pube’ and following a review by the Ethics Committee of the Tate, its committee members were “unequivocal in their view that the imagery of the work was offensive.” The review cited the instances of bound black children and “stereotypical” depictions of Chinese people as evidence. Because the artwork is painted directly onto the walls of the Grade-I listed Tate, it legally cannot be changed or removed. Accordingly, it has remained closed, out of the public eye, until Tate executives decide what to do with it.
Of course, the idea of removing or hiding artworks that contain controversial or sensitive material is not only dangerous, it is also nonsensical. Galleries are full of works that portray gruesome acts; crucifixion, martyrdom, murder, war, rape, and nudity are all common in paintings going back centuries. The Tate itself is currently exhibiting a number of works that feature much more visually disturbing imagery than Whistler’s mural. For instance, in Chicken Knickers by Sarah Lucas, a woman is photographed wearing underwear to which a raw uncooked chicken is attached, “its rear orifice in roughly the position of her vulva”. In Massacre at Sakiet III by André Fougeron, which is currently on display at the Tate Modern, victims of the bombing of Saiket by the French colonial government during the Algerian War of Independence are depicted strewn on top of each other, half-naked, with French military boots standing over them. This imagery is disturbing, yet (in Fougeron’s work, at least) it is also evocative and meaningful, presenting its themes effectively to the audience. In Rare Meats, the depictions of enslaved children also serve to present a message about the prevalence of suffering, albeit a message which seems to have been lost on a vocal minority of the audience.
To their credit, after I initially shared my views on the undeserved controversy regarding Rex Whistler’s mural on social media, the Tate engaged with me, and wrote that the room in which Rare Meats is displayed will eventually reopen in the autumn, albeit not as a restaurant. But jubilation regarding this decision by the Tate is mitigated by the caveat that an artist named Keith Piper “has been commissioned to create a work in dialogue with the mural” which will form an exhibition in the room.
Piper, an artist who founded an association of black British art students called BLK Art Group concerned with a “critique of institutional racism in and beyond Britain’s art world” first came to prominence following what is described as a “politically forthright exhibition” called The Pan-Afrikan Connection. He is now an associate professor in Fine Art at Middlesex University. In an interview with the university regarding his upcoming work, Piper states that his aim is to “excavate the complexities of the mural, in particular [its] racist content”. The work itself is described as taking the form of a video installation in the Rex Whistler room, in which a young Whistler is “being ‘grilled’ by a contemporary academic about his mural as a way of subjecting its development and problematic content to detailed scrutiny.”
The Tate says the artist will create a work “in dialogue with the mural”. The artist himself says that Whistler will be “grilled” in a “dramatic encounter”. Normally, a dialogue involves two different voices speaking their minds and, importantly, being heard. What Piper has in mind appears to be a diatribe – or an interrogation.
Following the initial emergence of the controversy, British Labour MP Diane Abbott tweeted that she had “eaten in Rex Whistler restaurant” and had “no idea famous mural had repellent images of black slaves,” while sharing a photograph of a completely different artwork apparently in order to prove her point that it should be removed. The controversial segments of this painting are so small that the vast majority of casual observers would never have noticed they existed at all. Now, with the mural going back on display, and the Piper exhibition drawing attention to relatively minor elements of the work, these depictions will predominantly be what the public will flock to the exhibition to see, in just another example of a man’s name, life and work being tarnished without an opportunity for defense.
Rex Whistler, a brilliant artist and a fundamentally courageous man, who died saving the lives of his soldiers in war against Hitler’s Germany, is today smeared as a racist for a mural depicting victims of colonialism. This sorry affair is just another example of contemporary museums, art galleries, and other cultural institutions degrading themselves to appease a cynical network of activists. Until those with any stake in the cultural history of the West – and that should be all of us – take a stand against this revisionism, we will continue to see the degradation of the institutions that once made this country great.