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Art as a Political Statement:
Political Art in the 19th and 20th Centuries
Art 144: Modern Art History
November 15, 2006
The visual artist plays a very unique role in society. Not only can an artist be inspired by his surrounding culture, but in fact, he can also inspire his surrounding culture. In this way, artwork can have a profound affect on society.
Artists throughout history have been inspired by a variety of different circumstances. Whether it is personal relationships, morality, social, or political issues, art is influenced through every facet of our lives. It can also be said that art itself can equally influence these aspects of our world. There have been many artists throughout the ages that have recognized this powerful idea and have used it to their advantage. None, however, are more apparent than those artists who have exercised this power to make political statements.
The political artist has undoubtedly played a very important role in our world, and their artwork is evidence of the fact. I will compare and contrast, through use of examples, how artists of the 19th and 20th centuries have used their art as a political statement.
As the 19th century began, we saw the Neoclassical period draw to an end and give way to Romanticism. Although he did most of his work before the turn of the century, Jacques-Louis David is one Neoclassical artist who recognized his influence in the political scene. David, “who was the official artist of the Revolutionary Government” (Gombrich 485), mainly used his artwork as political propaganda for Napoleon’s military campaign. In 1801 he painted Napoleon Crossing the Saint-Bernard (Stokstad 470) which depicts an idealized Napoleon on a great white horse, decorated in heroic outfit. Instead of depicting him on a donkey, which is what really occurred, David chose to highlight the heroic event by placing him on a grand white steed instead. By using his artwork in this form, David was stating to the country that these were heroic actions that France’s political leaders were engaged in, and subsequently influenced many people. Although he was paid by the French political leaders, his art was most definitely a very influential political statement.
The Romantic period produced another artist of the 19th century who also utilized his abilities to make political statements, Francisco Goya. One of his most obvious attempts to use his art in this way can be seen in his Third of May, 1808, finished in 1815. The painting “shows the random executions of the Spanish citizenry” (Weems, The Third of May) as a result of the French’s occupation of Spain. While he was originally welcoming to the French “enlightenment” Napoleon’s brutality eventually ended whatever affection he had for the French (Weems, The Third of May). As a result, Goya painted this piece, and although it was after the fact, it was used to “warn men never to do it again” (Stokstad 475). In a political statement toward all future monarchs, Goya’s work cannot be overlooked. To exemplify the influence of his work, we can note that “after the Napoleonic Wars were over, Ferdinand had promised to rule with a written constitution. But when he went back on this promise… this sparked a liberal revolt in Spain in the 1820s which was brutally suppressed” (Weems, The Third of May).
Not to be outdone by the 19th century artists, the 20th century might be considered the greatest period of political statement in art. Most of the ideas and controversies revolved around the two World Wars and the impact that the Great Depression had throughout the world. In the beginning of the 20th century, one thing that is very notable is the fact that painters “shocked the public by refusing to see only the bright side of things” (Gombrich 568). This was largely seen in the various expressionist movements throughout Europe. Although having no direct political objective, works like Oskar Kokoshcka’s Children Playing, created in 1909, were instrumental in inspiring some of the century’s later artists. In this particular Die Brucke painting, two children are depicted in “awkward….disharmonies” (Gombrich 569) which starkly contrasted the accepted portrayal of children as “pretty” and “content”. These expressionistic movements laid the groundwork for the political art to come.
One standout artist whose work was directly related to political changes was Dorothea Lange. Lange, a student of New York photography, was hired by the Farm Securities Administration to photograph the plight of the rural American worker. In one of