Art has always lent a hand to strengthen the political movements of its time. In a sense, it is reminiscent of the times we live in; a pictorial representation of the political will of the people. The relationship that art shares with society is multi-dimensional, it may represent the beauty of the times, or vice versa. An instrument of pure expression, it may often have some socio-political elements, making it an influencer of social change.
History is riddled with examples of revolutionary artists who have left an indelible mark on the minds and hearts of people. Jacque Louis David for instance was not only a powerful artist but an important political figure of the French Revolution. A master of his art, David specialized in combining the heroic with civic virtue. His work the ‘Oath of Horatii’ surmised in it the agitation of the common masses towards the aristocracy and advocated a rejection of the diversions pursued by them. The image’s ethical and political implications were visible in its thematic representation that urged the masses to be loyal to the state rather than a clan or a clergy; a plea to return to the traditional and austere values of the early Roman Republic. The Oath became the defining image of the French Revolution. In a similar patriotic vein, David followed this with his ‘Socrates Drinking Hemlock’ and ‘The Lictors Returning to Brutus the Bodies of his Sons.’
In a world where ideas ignite minds, art has been an efficient propagator of political thought. A cornerstone of political revolutions, art has also seen many revolutions in its own circles. During the Bolshevik Revolution, Soviet painter and architect Vladimir Tatlin helped cement and propagate the ideas of Soviet Russia. His most iconic artwork is the unfinished sculpture ‘Tatlin’s Tower’, which has in many ways become an object of antique futurism and has greatly influenced modern day art and architecture. An important figure in the Russian avant-garde movement, Vladimir deconstructed the arts as the Tsar’s saw it and put in place a new art order: Constructivism.
Often the oppressed have found meaning and a voice in the confines of the arts. It acts as a medium of truth, an expression of the undying voice of the righteous against oppressors of the time. A window into the reality of the actions of man, art and artists have berated man for his transgressions time and again. Kathe Kollwitz, a celebrated German artist, used prints to depict the decay and horror in the society. She realized the potential of prints in social commentary as they could be easily replicated, and went on to produce work that moved the masses and urged them not to fuel the fire of war. Her most famous art cycles ‘The Weaver’ and ‘The Peasants War’ depict the struggles of people embroiled in war and the toll it takes on society. Her work depicted the decay of society in the midst of war. A socialist and devout pacifist, she became the first woman to be elected at the Prussian Academy of Art, but was soon removed from her role by the Nazi Party.
During the 1930s, another artist amidst war-embroiled Spain exercised his political and artistic muscle. Pablo Picasso’s ‘The Bombing of Guernica’ not only changed the artistic landscape but also shocked the political foundation of the world. His work portrayed the macabre act of the bombings in Guernica by the Luftwaffe. In a shameful display of power the Germans mascaraed the residents of Guernica which comprised mostly of innocent women and children. The mural was much more than just a visual masterpiece of the Cubist era, it was a truthful account of the tribulation of the residents of Guernica. Picasso’s work has transcended as an anti-war symbol and a constant reminder to the world of the tragedies of war.
A democracy gives us the right to protest but that may often not be true, given that most of us are subject to certain reasonable constraints. The hesitant may often back down but artists still find a way of subtly inducing the seeds of apprehension. Iri and Toshi Maruki spent almost 32 years of their life covering the pain and suffering endured by the people of Hiroshima. After the nuclear bomb Little Boy was dropped on the city of Hiroshima, the husband wife duo travelled to Hiroshima and worked tirelessly to produced a series of panels depicting the devastation wrought upon Japan by US forces. ‘The Hiroshima Panels’ were a graphic portrayal of how the people of Hiroshima came to terms with the atomic age. These panels were a castigation of the actions of the US on the 6th day of August, 1945, and an unpleasant reminder to everyone about the devastation that follows war, an immemorial protest against the use of nuclear weapons.
During the 1960s and 70s, the works of artists such as Martha Rosler and Elizabeth Catlett made the socio-political rounds. Catlett’s wood-block prints highlighted the oppression faced by the black population during the Civil Rights Movements and became an important figure of the Black Arts Movement. Whereas Rosler’s work ‘House Beautiful: Bringing the War Home’ was a series of photo-collages that juxtaposed idyllic scenes from magazines with photos from the Vietnam War. Her work questioned the futility of the Vietnam war and criticized the American media and politics of their “rah rah” attitude.
Art across the globe has been an emissary of ideas, educating people visually. It presents a pictorial commentary on the evolution of man and society. A record of the countless wars we have fought, and the ones to come.
The author, Vidushi Kala, is a Senior Editor at Indus Dictum. Her work focuses on public policy and legal reform.
Tweet at Vidushi: @kala_masala
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