Art and Politics: Part 1

History clearly has a wrong side. While many would like to forget the past, the following artists have chosen to confront it – head on, and with a vengeance.

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ABOVE: J.M.W. Turner, The Slave Ship, 1840, oil on canvas, 35.7 x 48.3 inches, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Great art is often political in nature. These pieces certainly are:

Francisco Goya, The Third of May 1808

In 1807, Napoleon took over Spain and made his brother Joseph, the new King.

On May 2, 1808, hundreds of Spaniards rebelled.

In retaliation, the rebels were rounded up, and executed by the French on May 3, 1808.

Completed in 1814, The Third of May 1808 commemorates the Spanish resistance, and is a powerful depiction of man’s inhumanity to man.

Goya’s masterpiece has inspired many political artworks, among them, Picasso’s Guernica.

Eugène Delacroix, Liberty Leading the People

The July Revolution of 1830 took place in Paris and resulted in the toppling of  King Charles X.  In its wake, Louis Philippe took the throne and ruled under the July Monarchy until 1848.

In Liberty Leading the People, a woman (symbolizing Liberty) leads the people over the bodies of the fallen, while holding a musket and the French flag. Behind her, are fighters from a mix of social classes.

Quite controversial in its time, the work was seen as a staunch anti-monarchist symbol, and it enraged royalists and monarchists alike.

After the June Rebellion of 1832, the painting was returned to the artist where it was hidden in an attic for being too revolutionary. In 1874, it entered the collection of the Louvre.

In the years since, the female figure – commonly known as Marianne – has come to symbolize the French Republic and France itself. She was also the inspiration for the Statue of Liberty.

J.M.W. Turner, The Slave Ship

In 1781, the captain of the slave ship Zong ordered that 133 slaves be thrown overboard so that insurance payments could be collected. It is believed that this event was Turner’s inspiration.

Although the British Empire outlawed slavery in 1833, Turner and many other abolitionists wanted it outlawed around the world. As such, he choose to coincide its exhibition with a meeting of the British Anti-Slavery Society.

The famous art critic John Ruskin was the paintings first owner, but he grew to find the subject too painful, and decided to find the work a new home.

The Slave Ship changed hands a number of times before it was purchased by the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. It has been on display there since 1899.

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3 responses to “Art and Politics: Part 1

  1. Pingback: J.W.M Turner at the Art Gallery of Ontario | David McDonough's Art Blog

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