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Art and politics share a long-time connection, made of mutual benefits and common purposes. If we look back at history, we can see how the artistic research has supported politics by giving it a stage to express itself, a place where to enact either protest or propaganda. Whilst in the past art was mainly entitled to empower politics, to celebrate the dominance of a certain Reign through the display of meaningful symbolism, in contemporary times art acts also like a form of protest and satire, using its subtle language to enhance the spirit of the counterpart. 

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Art in the times of the Monarchy

In past times, when Monarchy was the dominant form of government, artists played a very important role in the celebration of the reign under which they operated. Most of their work was often commissioned by the patronage, who had the objective of enhancing its fame and celebrating its own family name through the narration of the feats of its descendance. The Lord often commissioned both decorative and artistic interventions, either to show its richness or to hand down to future generations the greatness of the Royal family. These were times when artists were keen to represent stories about military dominance and individual greatness and were often obliged to follow strict orders regarding the symbolism they were allowed to use.

1. The Battle of San Romano – Paolo Uccello

Commissioned by Lionardo di Bartolomeo, in 1438 ca, this majestic triptych decpicts the famous battle between Florence and Siena, in which the Florentines, who were about to be defeated, managed to win thanks to the heroic intervention of Micheletto da Cotignola. As it was of common use during monarchic times, this painting was commissioned to celebrate the greatness of the winning House, in this particular case the Di Bartolomeo Bartolini Salimbeni House. Besides being an example of how commissioned art worked during past times, this painting is still nowadays one of the highest levels of composition and painterly technique. 

 

Paolo Uccello, “The Battle of San Romano” (1438 ca.). Tryptich.

 

2. The Surrender of Breda – Velazquez

Spanish painter Diego Velazquez depicts with pristine quality the famous Siege of Breda, a glorifying victory accomplished by Philip II of Spain against the revolting Seventeen Provinces. The aim of this painting was to glorify the spanish royal family, in particular the political appearence of its commissioner Philip IV of Spain, through the narration of his ancestors’ military achievements. It occurs that the artist’s freedom was in this case diminished to compositional matters, while instead the painting’s purpose and the political symbolism used, were decided by the commissioner and had to be approved once the work was finished. 
This magnificent piece of art is a perfect example of the service that an artist was required to do, when commissioned to realize politically active paintings during the times of the Monarchy. 

 

Diego Velazquez, The Surrender of Breda, (1634-35). Oil on canvas.

 

3. Liberty Leading the People – Eugene Delacroix

During the times of the French Revolution, art became a way to enhance the spirit of the people who fought against monarchic oppressive dominance. Artists like Eugene Delacroix created paintings of great expressive and symbolic power, to give voice to the revolutionary drive that was felt by the population, and to describe the necessary violence brought by Civil War, as a way to enable the escalation towards freedom. In this particular painting, an allegoric representation of “Liberty” is depicted while holding the French flag and leading the people against the monarchic army; defending what were believed to be the people’s main rights to be free and equal. The composition of this masterpiece leaves nothing out of place and is built to enhance some of the details present in the painting, and due to its significance, it was used and shared by other great masterpieces of the time like “The Raft of The Medusa” by Theodore Gericault.

 

Eugene Delacroix, Liberty Leading the People, (1830). Oil on canvas.

 

4. The Raft of the Medusa – Theodore Gericault

As previously stated, this pristine painting uses the same vertical and triangular composition adopted by Delacroix, to create a narration around an incredbily crude and symbolic happening: the shipwreck of “Medusa”, which occured in 1816 due to the negligence and hasty decisions of its commodore Hugues Duroy de Chaumareys. The powerful aesthetic of the painting and the symbolic elements that can be found in it, create a strong dialogue with Delacroix’s “Liberty Leading the People”, and hint to a more deep interpretation of this masterpiece, which used this famous historical event to create a strong metaphoric narration that aimed denounce the negligence of the royal family and its political dominance.

 

Theodore Gericault, The Raft of the Medusa, (1819). Oil on canvas.

 

Executions: examples of recurring themes and compositions

It can be said that artists take examples from each other’s achievements, and it can be seen how great paintings who share the same thematics, often share some compositional elements aswell. If we take a look at revolutionary art history, and more in detail at the theme of the “executions”, we will clearly see how, starting from Goya’s “The Third of May 1808”, many other narrations of these crude events by other famous artists, often use similar powerful aesthetic arrangements.

5. The Third of May 1808 – Francisco Goya

A crude and chilling depiction of the brutality of war and revolution, displaying without any type of filter the execution of Madrilenian patriots by Napoleon’s army. A picture that can be seen as the highest representation of what is revolutionary. Honest and courageous like the eyes of the executed. Perhaps Goya’s most famous piece of art, this particular painting, as previously explained, stood in the 1900s as a model for many other political art masterpieces like Picasso’s “Guernica”.

 

 

Francisco Goya, The Third of May 1808, (1814). Oil on canvas.

 

6. The Execution of Emperor Maximilian - Édouard Manet

Besides being one of the greatest painters of his time, Edouard Manet was also an active artist in terms of politically engaged masterpieces. About Manet’s political paintings, curator John Elderfield stated: “political art… does not reduce human affairs to slogans; it complicates rather than simplifies”. If we look at his famous panting “The Execution of Emperor Maximilian”, we will find many similarities with the previous model adopted by Goya. In Manet’s version, one of Maximilian’s dark-skinned generals rears back with arms raised, while another soldier awaits to be executed with his hands crossed. The Emperor, Maximilian, shows all of his astonishement for his inevitable destiny, looking surprised and unprepared to his terrible faith, displaying the magnitude of fear through his naif eyes.

 

Edouard Mànet, “The Execution of Emperor Maximilian” (1868-69). Oil on canvas.

 

7. Fucilazione in Campagna – Renato Guttuso

Moving fast-forward towards more recent times, we will fin greatness in the works of Italian painter Renato Guttuso, who’s artistic research focuses many times on the themes of revolution and social disruption. In his work “Fucilazione in Campagna” (1938), we will find a resemblance of Goya’s composition, misplaced and put in the new context of the Italian bucolic countryside. The crudeness oh the story behind this image, is enhanced by Guttuso’s approach to colour and its mixture, creating a variety of patterns that describe the look, the taste and the smell of blood and rottening flesh, in that moment of silence immediately anticipating the execution. Regarding his political paintings Renato Guttuso explained: “these are times of war and massacres: Abissinia, gasses, gallows, beheadings, Spain, and everywhere else”.

 

Renato Guttuso, “Fucilazione in Campagna” (1938). Oil on canvas

 

See works available on Kooness by Renato Guttuso

8. Spagna 1937 – Aligi Sassu 

Another great example of the usage of Goya’s supreme composition, can be found in the work “Spain, 1937” by Milanese painter Aligi Sassu. In this scene, the sentiment of an upcoming terrible menace i vibrant, creating a sense of suspence about the crudeness that is about to happen, giving once again a glance of that moment immediately anticipating death by execution. The executioners, the sicarios, stand on the paintings right side and the harshness of the theme is enhance by the thickness of the colour, which the artist uses as “a unique, violent, ductile instrument of freedom of language”. On his side, Sassu, had a strong drive towards political painting due to his own experience; the italian painter served in fact ten years in prison due to his involvement in anti-fascist resistance. 

 

Aligi Sassu, “Spagna 1937” (1939). Oil on canvas.

 

9. Massacre in Korea – Pablo Picasso

Even Pablo Picasso studied Goya’s compositional genius, and not only as widely known in Guernica. In “Massacre in Korea” (1950), Picasso absorbed and transalted the spanish model into a powerful and incredibly expressive image, creating what looks like a comunist political painting. In this work, the focus is put on the comparison between the oppressive Napoleonic troops and the Imperialistic forces that Reigned over North Korea. 

 

Pablo Picasso, “Massacre in Korea” (1950). Oil on canvas.

 

10. Guernica - Pablo Picasso

When thinking of political art and activism, Picasso’s Guernica immediately comes to mind. In times of war and dismay, the Nazi-fascist troops, united with Francisco Franco’s illegitimate government, bombed the Basque town of Guernica, in an act of terrorism and extremist supremacy. Picasso depicted this horror in a magnificent and politically engaged way, allowing art and its subtle symbolism to speak the truth about the crudeness and violence brought by war. This incredible work of art still stands today as one of the highest examples of artistic political activism. 

 

Pablo Picasso, Guernica, (1937). Oil on canvas.

More work by Pablo Picasso on Kooness.

 

Revolutionary art: the expressive power of Civil War

11. I Martiri di Piazzale Loreto – Aligi Sassu

Once again focusing on revolutionary art, we cannot avoid looking once more into Aligi Sassu’s paintings, expecially focusing on the mastepiece “I Martiri di Piazzale Loreto” (1944). This particular scene, creates a narration around death and dismay, around the sufferance tha hit the partisan resistance in Milano’s Loreto Square (10th August 1944). The rebellion was harshly repressed by the Italian Repubblican Army, leaving piles of bodies on the streets for the people to see and take pictures at; the reference for this painting is in fact a famous black and white picture, taken by some anonymous civilian, in which bodies are stranded on the sidewalk in an atmosphere of apocalyptic silence.

 

Aligi Sassu, “I Martiri di Piazzale Loreto” (1944). Oil on canvas.

 

12. Diego Rivera: a lifelong research surrounding revolution

Greatly famous, Mexican painter Diego Rivera, is know not only for being Frida Kahlo’s fellow partner, but also for being an incredible artist in terms of political art and spending his life painting murals that depicted the Mexican revolution. It is undoubtadely important to spend some time to analize some of his greatest masterpieces. 

 

 Diego Rivera, “The Arsenal” (1938). Mural.

 

13. The Arsenal – Diego Rivera

One of Diego Rivera’s most famous works is “The Arsenal”, a fresco that can be seen in Mexico City's Court of Fiestas. This pristine piece was driven mainly by the Mexican revolution, and shows also the influence that the artist felt towards Frida Kahlo, as can be seen by the shapes and features embodied by the subjects. This incredible mural depicts Kahlo herself while distrubuting weapons to working-class soldiers and revolutionaries, framed by a drape, in which themes of rebellion are enhanced by the phrase “Así será la Revolución Proletaria” (“So Will Be The Proletarian Revolution”), “Son las voces del obrero rudo lo que puede darles mi laúd” (“It is the voices of the rough worker that my lute can give them”).

 

Diego Rivera, “The History of Mexico” (1929-1935). Mural.

 

14. The History of Mexico – Diego Rivera 

On the stairwell of the National Palace (Mexico City), between 1929 and 1935, Diego Rivera produced an immense mural in which a saturated composition, similar to the ones used in past times by Paolo Uccello, gave space to a powerful symbolic narration of the rise of the Mexican Revolution. This gigantic mural, depicts scenes of struggle suffered by the Mexican common people, due to the dominance of the Spanish and French Reigns throughout the countries history. Covering a surface of 70 meters by 9 meters, this fresco is divided in four parts and was commisioned to specifically celebrate the overthrow of the Porfirio Diaz dictatorship. 

The theme of political resistance is celebrated throughout most of Diego Rivera’s research and can be seen in many other pristine examples of revolutinary art like the famous: “Triumph of the Revolution” (1926).

 

Diego Rivera, “The Triumph of Revolution” (1926).

 

15. Man at the Crossroads – Diego Rivera

Moving now in the land of the free, in the United States of America, specifically in the Rockefeller Center (New York City), we will find another example of revolutionary art in Diego Rivera’s fresco named “Man at the Crossroads”. This mural was at the center of many controversies, due to the anti-american symbolism that was displayed in it. Commisioned by the Rockefeller descendance, this masterpiece displayed anti-american and anti-consumerism symbols and reached some of the highest levels of expressive propaganda. In the composition, Lenin and a representation of the Soviet May Day Parade, acted as main subjects around which gravitated revolutionary figures and working class rebels. Rivera’s contemporary society saw men in front of the crossroad between the Soviet Comunist model and its American Capitalist counterpart; a theme that enchanted the artist and awoke his political involment. Tragically, Nelson Rockefeller ordered the mural’s distruction before it was completed, leaving only black and white photographs as documentation of this unfinished masterpiece. 

 

Diego Rivera, “Man at the Crossroads” (unfinished). Mural.

 

Political Art: contaminations in modern and contemporary times

16. Europe After the Rain – Max Ernst 

Even in the Surrealist research of Max Ernst, we can find some glances of revolutionary painting. An example of what just stated can be experienced when looking at Ernst’s “Europe After the Rain” (1940-1942). In this scene, a surrealistic landascape of a dystopian Europe, creates awareness regarding the disruption brought by World War II, and allows the artist to speak about his own sufferance connected with the Nazi abuse of power. Ernst’s canvas gives space to feelings of emotional solitude and desolation, physical exhaustion and deep fear.

 

Max Ernst, “Europe After the Rain” (1940-42). Oil on canvas.

 

Faces of supremacy

In past times, but probably even more in our contemporary society, the most powerful governative tools were public information and propaganda. During the period when absolute power was predominant and the world was divided by dictatorships, what mostly circulated as political art were the icons, the faces, of supreme commanders. In Fascist Italy, the Dux was constantly depicted by a variety of artists who were required to enhance the public figure of Benito Mussolini, or else be considered as opposition and suffer the harsh consequences of not accepting a totalitarian supremacy. In Nazi Germany, Adolf Hitler was depicted as a fierceful persona, represented using the same compositions that were used to show the greatness of Roman emperors, and always displaying a variety of nazist symbols, like the infamous swastika, and the same type of approach was adopted by the communist dictatorships like the one embodied by Mao Tse-Tung. These governors used their iconic image to enhance their charismatic dominance over the mass, and the artists had no choice but to obey the orders of their Supreme Commanders and bend their artistic production towards strict political purposes.

17. Mao – Andy Warhol 

During the period immediately after the decadence of most of the dictatorships around the world, Pop art started its rise towards the Olympus of fine arts. It was back then that Andy Warhol developed his artistic research regarding the so called “Star System”, a complex social mechanism that elevates mass cultural figures to icons of supreme political power. Warhol worked quite a lot on the figure of Mao Tse-Tung, enacting a transposition of the uniqueness of the role of the Dictator, into the large scale reproduction that is characteristic of Pop culture.

 

Andy Warhol, Mao, (1972). Silkcreen ink on canvas.

 

18. Big Electric Chair – Andy Warhol

Dated 1967, the “Big Electric Chair” is an example of the themes of death and abuse felt by the american population due to the approval of the death sentence and its new executioner, the infamous electric chair. Death by electrocution was a controversial subject in New York city during Warhol’s times, due to two famously debated sentences that took place at Sing Sing correctional facility. A strong diversion from the historical theme of the execution is given by Warhol’s choice to use photographic references to produce this screenprint, a decision that creates distance from Goya’s famous compositional model.

 

Andy Warhol, “Big Electric Chair” (1967). Silkscreen print on canvas.

 

More work by Andy Warhol on Kooness.

19. Berlinguer’s Funeral – Renato Guttuso

If we move to the Italian artistic landascape, we find ourserlves once again stocked by of Renato Guttuso’s incredible paintings, especially by the majestic “Berlinguer’s Funeral” (1972). This masterpiece celebrates the youth’s resistance that occured during 1968, when numerous groups, organized around Univeristies and scholastic movements, created a series of protests that brought to a conflict between the dominant party and the people. The choice of the artist to represent Berlinguer’s funerals was driven by the enourmous consent that this political figure had from the partisan youth resistance; Berlinguer was in fact one of the last remaining symbols of Comunism in an unequal social context, such as the one embodied by the Italian society of the 1960’s and 70’s. 

 

Renato Guttuso, “I Funerali di Berlinguer” (1972). Oil on canvas.

 

Political art in Africa

In times of great political change, Africa remains one of the harshest realities, one of the places on earth where art is useful to combat against social inequality and unlawful environments. In a continent where racial discrimination has always been present throughout the centuries, artists like William Kentridge and Michael Armitage speak the truth about the harsh reality that has characterized their motherland. From Apartheid to the corruption that is still present nowadays, Africa has always been subject to a high level of social inequality, which has brought the artists close to political engagement and allowed the production of magnificent works of political art. 

20. More Sweetly Play the Dance – William Kentridge

Having grown up in South Africa during Apartheid, Kentridge is widely known for being a witness to the segregation condition. Despite being the spokesman of an epochal change in history, his work is never resolved in a univocal position but rather unravel the continuous questioning of "identity" and "truth". It exrercises the awareness of the sight.

 
William Kentridge, More Sweetly Play the Dance, (2017). Multichannel video installation, megaphones and wooden chairs.

 

21. The Promised Land – Michael Armitage

The stories that Armitage wants to communicate, find their setting in the urban and rural landscape that is typical of these countries, places where lush vegetation and wildlife create a stage for the artist’s whispery denunciation of Kenya’s crude reality. In works like “The Promised Land” (2019), symbols of welfare disparities, social inequalities and violence create a void in which the painter finds a number of everyday aspects towards which he directs his attention, giving birth to a phantasmagorical vision of the society, its iconography, and those naturalistic elements that define the African culture.

 

Michael Armitage, The Promised Land, detail, (2019). Oil on Lubugo.

 

When we discuss the relations between art and politics we must always keep in mind that expression is of course a field characterised mainly by freedom, but it also stands as a response to the environment in which it arises. The artistic research finds itself connected to the social and political context in which it is generated, and is by consequence a semi-autonomous practice, which will always respond to the inputs given by society. 

 

Cover image: Renato Guttuso, “I Funerali di Berlinguer” (1972). Oil on canvas.

Written by Mario Rodolfo Silva

 

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