Introduction to Art and Politics

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  • Introduction
  • International Historical Background of Resistance Art
  • References

Throughout history, culture and art have always been the celebration of freedom under oppression.” – Author unknown

Resistance art describe those that use art as a way of showing their opposition to powerholders, which can be against an oppressive government, legislation or political power . The term has been used to define art that opposed such powers as the German Nazi party, and the Bolshevik Revolution. The term has also been applied to artists opposed to apartheid in South Africa. (Ref)

Russian Revolution – 1922 – Ian Simakov

Protest art is a broad term that refers to creative works that are produced by activists and social movements. There are also contemporary and historical works and currents of thought that can be characterized in this way.

Social movements produce such works as the signs, banners, posters, and other printed materials used to convey a particular cause or message. Often, such art is used as part of demonstrations or acts of civil disobedience. Protest art also includes performance, site-specific installations, graffiti and street art, and crosses the boundaries of art genres, media, and disciplines. Protest artists frequently bypass the art-world institutions and commercial gallery system in an attempt to reach a wider audience. (Ref)

Throughout history, Art has played an important role in documenting war, violence and social injustice. Creative freedom from government and church restraint, is a relatively new phenomenon. The 19th and 20th century were a time of revolutions and wars in many parts of the world, resulting in widespread images of resistance and reaction. Although human conflict is nothing new, it was during this time that art began to reflect the pain of the conflicts. Allegorical history paintings carried very explicit political messages, and a Romantic interest in madness shed new light on how war inflicted psychic as well as physical wounds. (Ref)


In France, a growing number of art dealers and middle class art consumers began to liberate artists from the restricted ideals and patronage of both church and state. The focus of artists shifted from heroic depictions of warriors and statesmen to images of the masses – ordinary people and the artists themselves.

Whereas some artists are interested in solving the problems of style and technique, others use style and techniques to express their social and political views. –  A. R. Nagori

Artists have used various techniques to express these views such as allegory, caricatures, satire, distortion and symbolism. In this way, they force the viewer to confront or experience an unpleasant socio-political reality which the viewer would prefer to avoid.

Jacques-Louis David, The Oath of the Horatii (1784)

The Oath is not merely an expression of a new style – Neo Classism. The Oath of the Horatii represents Jacques-Louis David’s individuality, an individuality that would lead him to contradict the French Académie in order to pursue his own understanding of the art of painting, an understanding that was based on past and modern ideologies and which represented a synthesis that would be soon adopted by supporters of the French Revolution. Perhaps David’s greatest intent in The Oath of the Horatii was to make a statement about individuality and human strength. He expresses his understanding of his study of painting in a manner that flies in the face of convention, but that is true to the ideals which he feels driven to embody. As a result, his characters speak boldly about choice and perseverance.  (Ref)

In Liberty Leading the People, French painter Eugène Delacroix uses allegory commemorating July Revolution of 1830, which toppled Charles X of France and brought about Louis-Philippe’s ascension to the throne. The painting shows the attempt by Parisians to re-establish the Republic. The figure of the Republic, carrying the tricolor flag, urges people from different classes of society to follow her. Delacroix’s non-idealized depiction of the Republic as a dirty, half-naked woman created a scandal at the Salon of 1831. Louis-Philippe, recognizing the painting’s powerful message purchased it and hid it away from public view. The painting has been seen as a marker to the end of the Age of Enlightenment, as many scholars see the end of the French Revolution as the start of the romantic era. (Ref)

Eugène Delacroix, Liberty Leading the People (1830)

In The Third of May, 1908, Francisco Goya, rather than depicting the glory of battles won as commemorative works had done for centuries, focused on the brutality of war. Goya has shifted our vantage so that we more directly face the victims while the faces of the Napoleonic guard are obscured. This successful strategy increases our sympathy on the one hand while reducing the soldiers individuality and perhaps even equating them with the guns that become their faces on the other. Goya multiplies the terror of the immediate ordeal by trailing the line of unfortunate captives into the distance, suggesting the that this action will by repeated throughout the night.

Francisco de Goya, The Third of May (1808)

In Goya’s painting the figures are rendered in comparatively broad and rough strokes of the brush. Like the mature work of the Great Spanish Baroque painter Diego Velasquez whom Goya so much admired, there is in the Third of May… an effort to invigorate and humanize the frozen compositions of the previously dominant styles (the High Renaissance and Neo-Classicism respectively). This newly recovered aggressiveness is also expressed through light and color. Goya intensifies the painting’s emotional pitch by the interaction of sharp contrasts; light collides with expansive darks; white and yellow are sharp and vivid against the deep blacks, browns and reds.

Our eyes are drawn to the young man in white and yellow. In contrast to the pleading and terrified faces that surround him, he stands with arms up facing his enemy. While at first the figure’s raised arms might be read as a sort of active surrender, Goya is in fact mimicking Christ upon the cross. Note the stigmata that appears in the figure’s right hand. Goya has cast this massacre as a martyrdom. (Ref)

The Execution of Emperor Maximilian is series of paintings by Édouard Manet from 1867 to 1869, depicting the execution by firing squad of Emperor Maximilian I of the short-lived Second Mexican Empire.

Goya’s Third of May inspired the basic compositional elements of Edourd Manet‘s Execution of Maximilian series. The horizontal placement of the figures, the direction of the firing squad, and the position of the victims on the left remain consistent throughout all five of Manet’s works. (Ref) However, unlike Goya’s paintings which clearly differentiates heroes and villains, the Manet paintings are more ambiguous. The officer on the far right, calmly inspecting his rifle and the apathetic spectators convey a detachment from the violence of the execution. It seems to be serving as a journalistic record, objectively recording the event. (Ref)

Edouard Manet, The Execution of Emperor Maximilian (1867)

Max Beckmann, The Night (1918-19)

The Night was painted by Max Beckmann during 1918 and 1919. The painting was made during years of revolution and counter-revolution in the short-lived Weimar Republic.   It is an icon of the post-World War I movement, Neue Sachlichkeit, or New Objectivity.eckmann sees no purpose in the suffering he shows; there is no glory for anybody, no compensation, no gloating over justice accomplished-only enseless pain, and cruelty for its own sake. Beckmann blames human nature as such, and there seems to be no physical escape from this overwhelming self-accusation. Victims and aggressors alike are cornered. There is no exit. (Ref)

This famous self-portrait shows Ernst Ludwig Kirchner after his nervous breakdown and subsequent dismissal from military service. Kirchner wears the uniform of the 75th artillery regiment. The fictive amputation stump on his right arm represents the trauma he experienced in the war. It also symbolizes the anxiety he felt about the possible negative effect of the war on his art: simply put, Kirchner feared that his failing mental health would prevent him from painting. Kirchner committed suicide in 1938, after the Nazis had branded his artwork “degenerate.” (Ref)

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Self-Portrait as a Soldier (1915)

Käthe Kollwitz, The Volunteers (1922)

The feverish mass hysteria, which had gripped the nations at the outbreak of WWI, is portrayed through a group of young men following blindly the figure of Death. Kollwitz was internationally known for her etchings, woodcuts, and lithographs, but also her posters for leftist organizations and humanitarian leaflets contributed to her fame. (Ref)

Pablo Picasso‘s antiwar point of view is very clear in Guernica 1937. Using both abstraction and symbolism, Picasso presents a powerful image of of chaos and violence. The chaos unfolding seems to happen in closed quarters provoking an intense feeling of oppression. There is no way out of the nightmarish cityscape. The palette of black, white and grey evokes the look of  a newspaper, and emphasizes the documentary nature of the work, and suggests the mourning that occurs after a tragedy. (Ref)

Pablo Picasso’s Guernica (1937)

Mexican muralism was the promotion of mural painting starting in the 1920s, generally with social and political messages as part of efforts to reunify the country under the post Mexican Revolution government. It was headed by “the big three” painters, Diego Rivera, José Clemente Orozco and David Alfaro Siqueiros. From the 1920s to about 1970s a large number of murals with nationalistic, social and political messages were created on public buildings. (Ref)

Diego Rivera, Indian Warrior

Mexican muralism represents a significant challenge to the commonly accepted view of the role and position of the artist in Western society. Western artists seem to be separated, hermetic, isolated, self expression, while Mexican muralists are in touch with the Mexican society and its social problems. The muralist played a central role in the cultural and social life of the country following the 1910-1917 nationalist revolution. These artists grew up during the period of ‘porfiricto’ named for the pre-Revolutionary society under the dictatorship of Porfirio Diaz. This society was marked by enormous divisions of wealth, property, and power. (Ref)

These three artists may not have been able to alter the history of events in the Mexican Revolution, but they were successful in creating thought provoking and emotion stirring artwork. They were revolutionaries when it comes to the media of their work. The idea to paint on huge, public surfaces with political content was new. The major difference between the three was how hopeful and optimistic the messages in the paintings were. Rivera was very optimistic. He used bright colors, soft lines, and often showed the peasants and workers in a utopian setting. This hopeful out look may be related to the fact that he was out of the country during most of the revolution.Orozco and Siqueiros however, were major participants in political events of the revolution and experienced its horror first hand. The work of these two is usually gruesome and done in dark colors, with harsh lines. Their work shows the stark reality of the Revolution. Orozco’s depiction of the ideal differs from Rivera because he separates it from a historical context. (Ref)

Diego Rivers depicting the history of Mexico, National Palace or Palacio Nacional, Mexico City

Part Of Diego Rivera’s Mural Depicting Mexico’s History (1929–1945)

In 1934 Diego resumed work in the National Palace on an impressive mural called The History of Mexico. It focused on the struggle of Mexicans throughout history. He was able to skillfully fuse together many historical subjects without the use of divisions into frames or panels.

To the right of the “Huelga” poster, meaning strike, two rebels are shown hanging: one and agrarian rebel and one and communist. Three other agaristas are shown moments before they are to be shot. Their fearless expressions illustrated the determination of the revolutionaries to continue the fight despite the horrific consequences. In this major mural, The History of Mexico, Rivera combines the historic struggles of the oppressed and his hopes for the future history of Mexico.

Close up part of Diego Rivera’s Mural Depicting Mexico’s History (1929–1945)

Jose Clemente Orozco, Prometheus (1930)

Jose Clemente Orozco could be considered the most complex of the Mexican muralists. He was dedicated to depicting the truth and had a greater sense of realism that Diego Rivera. This is illustrated by his violent displays of conflict and chaos and misery. He realized the enormous gap between social ideals and social realities. He focused on showing personal suffering in a pessimistic, skeptical, yet sympathetic way. Prometheus was painted at Pomona College in California. This was his first mural in the United States. It illustrates Orozco’s belief that all the events of history are in a never ending circular sequence.

Catharsis shows the never ending cycle of Humanity’s self destruction and moral decay in a frightening manner. It explores the theme of man being obsessed by modern advances in technology and machinery. In front of a fiery background, humans are being “sucked into mechanical quicksand”. Theft is symbolized by an open safe. Murder and prostitution are also shown. (Ref)

Jose Clemente Orozco, Catharis (1934)

David Alfaro Siquerios, The Proletarian Victim (1933)

David Alfaro Siquerios was a sophisticated political ideologist who was involved in the political conflicts of the Mexican Revolution serving as a protestor, demonstrator, and soldier. His radical political beliefs eventually got him expelled from Mexico. He spent many years in jail for his actions and this influenced his art greatly. Siquerios often painted the sufferings of prison life. His travels to Europe brought him in contact with the artwork of Goya. The themes and images of war in their works are very similar. Classical art, Italian Renaissance art, and Italian Futurism also influenced him greatly. Siquerios believed that “art must no longer be the expression of individual satisfaction (which) it is today, but should aim to become a fighting educative art for all.” (Ref)


The Proletarian Victim expresses the personal impact that social oppression has on the human. The ropes binding the body symbolize the oppressive government and upper class over the peasants. The title also shows his class-consciousness. (Ref)

His most famous painting was Echo of a Scream. This piece was inspired by his experiences during active combat and his observations of suffering. By illustrating a baby, this piece emphasizes the internal suffering of the innocent victims of the Revolution. (Ref)

David Alfaro Siquerios, Echo of a Scream (1937)

David Alfaro Siqueiros, The New Democracy (1944-45)

New Democracy depicts a woman who is trying to shatter the bonds of oppression and exploitation. She is shown carrying a torch of freedom to symbolize the new order. He includes strong visions of the future, similar to Rivera. Classical influence is shown in his approach to idealize human body form. Sometimes he exaggerates with expressive emotion, similar to Diego Rivera. (Ref)

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