Art has always had a long tradition of political messaging. In today’s day and age of 24 hour news cycles, live camera phone coverage of events, and hashtags for peace, its important to remember that art has at times, and still is, at the forefront of political argument and philosophy. In light of recent events in Paris, I offer a brief survey of some of history’s most famous political art.
(Please refrain from political commentary, this post is meant as an artistic historical context, and not as any statement of political position. I’m leaving out political cartoons and photo-journalism. There are many more examples, so please share your favorites.)
This primitive engraving by silversmith Paul Revere was spread throughout the colonies as anti-British propaganda. More than any other image, this helped galvanize the revolution.
One of the most controversial paintings in history, David was actually a member of the Paris Assembly under Robspierre that sent thousands to the guillotine. Marat was the mastermind behind the carnage and David has him slumped in death like a martyred saint bathed in golden light.
This is one of Goya’s most famous and extreme images. Napoleon’s soldiers line up the Spanish rebels for execution. Goya pulls no punches in the depiction of the horror, and attempts no romantic glorification of the fallen. The likeness to the Paul Revere engraving is almost uncanny.
Delacroix was right in the middle of the action when the July Revolution took place. His studio was one of the buildings in the background, and actually used locals off the street as models. This image is still used today as an international symbol of freedom.
Gustave Dore became so disgusted with the living conditions of the poor in industrialized London during the Victorian period he did a series of stunning engravings that are still haunting.
German Expressionist Beckmann was persecuted by the Nazi’s for his work, deeming it “degenerate”. He fled into asylum. Many painters, poets, and politcal artists suffered far worse fates during the war, and countless paintings by European artists were destroyed.
Rivera was a well known social activist when he was commissioned to execute this massive mural for the lobby of the new Rockefeller Center. His patrons were not amused, and the painting was destroyed.
One of the most iconic images of the 20th century, Guernica depicts the abstract visceral chaos of the bombing raid on a Spanish village by the Nazi air force. During WWII, when Nazi officers visited Picasso’s studio and saw a print of the famous image, they asked, “Did you do that?”. Picasso answered, “No, you did.”
One of Rockwell’s most famous images, it continues his life long association with depicting civil rights and freedoms.
Before tweets and Instagram there was graffiti art, and the Berlin wall was the Pinterest of the world.
This was both social and artistic politics. WeiWei documents the destruction of a “priceless” Han Dynasty urn. He spent years in a Chinese prison for critiquing the government.
Banksy was the rock star of guerilla art at the beginning of the 21st century.