Emma Vernon explores the insurgent nature of art meandering through the most notorious historical revolutions
Throughout recorded history, rebellions and revolts have shaped social landscapes, propelling humanity forward, sending it scuttling back and forming the ideological world as we recognise it. Often astonishing, often at terrible human cost, they have displaced systems that seemed to be indestructible, ousted dictators and toppled empires and religions. It would seem on the surface that the violent disorder of rebellions and insurgencies is about as removed from the artistic world as could be, but art and revolution have a relationship that is as old as the concepts themselves.
It would seem on the surface that the violent disorder of rebellions and insurgencies is about as removed from the artistic world as could be
Art has not only depicted revolution and its consequences, but it has shaped and defined the movements themselves. Artists have utilised this power to influence and change the systems in which they found themselves. Of course, there are some classical examples of this association, namely art from the French Revolution. The Death of Marat (1793) by Jacques-Louis David depicts murdered journalist Jean-Paul Marat lying Christ-like in the bath in which he was killed by royalist Charlotte Corday. This painting heroized radical Marat, who was an extremist revolutionary held personally responsible for inspiring the violent and unforgiving political climate in Paris. Every detail in the painting is designed to evoke sympathy for the radicals, and it succeeded, with the extremist group to which David belonged becoming the dominant power in the French revolutionary government.
The equally famous example is Liberty Leading the People (1830) by Eugéne Delacroix which has remained one of the most visited works in the Louvre since its purchase. It depicts the July revolution of 1830, in which the restored monarchy of Charles X was destroyed. The deeply allegorical figure of liberty, portrayed as a goddess from antiquity, bearing the tricolour and leading the peasants of the oppressed working classes over the barricade, is an image seared into the popular consciousness.
Revolutionary art demands that immoral and authoritarian structures are questioned
Later examples include Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso, who rejected all the artistic principles they had been taught and pioneered cubism, a movement that shook up all the laws of perspective and realism and created techniques and styles never before employed. These are of course epitomised by Picasso’s masterpiece Guernica (1937), thought to be one of the most powerful anti-war paintings of human history. Political art has remained potent for centuries. Frida Kahlo is a figure whose attitudes to sexual identity and political liberation make her seem anachronistic in her time. Paintings such as The Broken Column (1944) and The Wounded Deer (1946) show the self-reflective Kahlo redefining herself and her physical disabilities. Her work only became more famous after her early death, adopted by progressive 1970s feminists.
Today, the East Side Gallery in Berlin stands as a monument of how art responds to oppression and rebellion. The Berlin Wall stood as a literal and metaphorical divide between the democratic west and communist east for 28 years. It was first breeched in 1989, and the following year artists from all over the world travelled for the opportunity to paint it. The resulting murals stand testament to art’s power, featuring expressions of elation at the western world’s new-found freedom. Banksy, the elusive street artist whose graffiti made its way from Bristol to the rest of the world, highlights the hypocrisy at the heart of our current world systems, condemning economic slavery and disenfranchisement. One of his most famous works features a homeless man for a subject, holding a billboard that painfully states, ‘Keep your coins, I want change’. Revolutionary art demands that immoral and authoritarian structures are questioned, it calls on individuals to think about the world around them politically and forces the viewer to imagine a fairer world, in whatever form that might be.