Looking back History through Activist Art
Images have a persuasive power that can influence the human mind greatly, making art a great medium for activism. Activist art is not a recent phenomenon, it has been a driving force for social change for centuries and witnesses the turn of time. Here, we take a look back at some important parts of our history through the lens of activist art.
The Death of Marat - Jacques Louis David (1793)
Jacques-Louis David, Death of Marat,1793 (Collection of Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium)
Considered to be one of the greatest images of the French Revolution, the painting depicted his friend, the revolutionary leader Jean-Paul Marat, lying in his bath after he was murdered. David painted the scene with near-photographic simplicity with idealised details. This important piece of art also went on to become an important political propaganda piece after it was turned into an engraving and circulated in public.
The Third of May 1808 - Francisco Goya (1814)
Francisco Goya, The Second of May, 1808, 1814 (Museo del Prado)
The painting depicted the chilling scene of the massacre of Spanish freedom fighters at the hands of the French. Differ from the typical 18th century arts, which usually represented warfare with little emotions and bloodshed, this was revolutionary in presenting an emotive and critical perspective on war’s impact on humankind.
Francisco Goya used the painting to admonish the spectators for being complicit when the violence took place around them, and went on to become a powerful anti-war statement.
Cut with the Kitchen Knife through the Last Epoch of Weimar Beer-Belly Culture in Germany - Hannah Höch (1919-20)
The Dada movement revolted against the traditional beliefs of racism, sexism, and pro-war sentiments. Hannah Hoch was one of the few German women to be associated with the movement. This artwork was a photomontage of the social and political climate of post-war Germany and a social commentary on the prevailing gender issues. While one part of the painting featured the artists, communists, and radicals, the other part represented the army and the Weimar government. She used motifs such as kitchen knife and beer-belly to make social commentary around feminism and womanhood. It demonstrated the Dadaist rebellion during a time of strict cultural and political conformity.
Guernica - Pablo Picasso (1937)
Pablo Picasso, Guernica, 1937 (Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía)
Arguably the most famous political art to date, the huge painting was a testimony to the tragedies of war and the suffering of civilians. Under the backdrop of the increasing popularity of National Socialism and General Francisco Franco, the painting which portrayed the 1937 bombing of the Spanish city of Guernica by the German Air Force advocated against Franco and championed the previous democratically-elected government. The tapestry replica of the work has been displayed at United Nations headquarters in New York for decades until the original owner, the Rockefeller family, requested it back in 2021.
‘Anatomic Explosion’ Happenings - Yayoi Kusama (1968)
After the escalation of the Vietnam War in 1965, the art scene moved towards more direct commentary and satirical activist art. In 1968, Yayoi Kusama staged the first ‘Anatomic Explosion’ in front of the New York Stock Exchange (“NYSE”) on 15 October 1968. Before the first staging, a press release said that the money from the stock exchange allowed the war to continue. More happenings were held at locations like Wall Street and the Brooklyn Bridge. Participants showed nude bodies with paintings and burned American flags to protest against the Vietnam War.
The Problem We All Live With – Norman Rockwell (1964)
An iconic piece during the Civil Rights Movement, the painting showed a young Ruby Bridges walking solemnly to school while being escorted by four white US Marshals. Through this artwork, Rockwell took a stand against racism and advocated the civil rights of the African-American community.
Do Women Have To Be Naked To Get Into the Met Museum? – Guerrilla Girls (1985)
Created by the group of anonymous female artists called the Guerrilla Girls, it is widely considered to be a landmark piece in feminist art. The artwork aimed to criticise the racial and sexual discrimination in the world of art and the wider cultural arena. It was created in response to an exhibition in the Museum of Modern Art in New York, which featured 169 artists, of whom only 10% were women.
The Kiss - Dmitri Vrubel (1990)
This world famous mural depicted Erich Honecker and Leonid Brezhnev in a socialist fraternal kiss that marked the foundation of the German Democratic Republic in East Berlin in 1979. The mural was created in 1990 on the eastern side of the Berlin Wall, which did not allow graffiti until the Berlin Wall came down.