The relationship between artwork and revolution has been special for a long time. If we take a look back at history, we can see the connection to how certain pieces of artwork have revolutionized and narrated a story of history, either for protest, or propaganda.
Whilst in the past art was mainly entitled to empower politics, to commemorate the dominance of a certain rule through the display of meaningful symbolism; in current times art acts also as a form of protest and complex satire.
Let’s find out more about the stories behind some of the most revolutionary artworks:
1) The Battle of San Romano - Paolo Uccello
This exquisite triptych depicts the prominent battle between Florence and Siena, in which the Florentines, who were about to be defeated, managed to win thanks to the heroic intervention of Micheletto da Cotignola. As it was of common use during earlier times, this painting was commissioned to celebrate the transcendence of the winning House. Besides being an illustration of how commissioned art worked earlier, this painting is still one of the highest levels of composition and painterly technique.
2) Liberty Leading The People - Eugene Delacroix
Eugène Delacroix painted revolutionary leaders and thus the painting of Liberty tells us about the birth of nationalism. While Delacroix finished the painting in 1830 following a different French revolution, the painter addressed several turbulent decades of the long French history in one work. The Uprising of 1830 predated the June Rebellion of 1832 which once again brought people to the forefront, highlighting the same theme of violent transformation and the idea of unity and sacrifice. Liberty Leading the People is a historical painting and a reflection of contemporary events, wrapping together the very disposition of the French revolution.
3) Lenin in His Coffin - Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin
Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin made one of the most controversial paintings of the Russian Revolution, telling the story of the Soviet Union’s rise to power with one image. Lenin in his Coffin is not praised for its glorification of the Russian Revolution nor for its unique stylistic approach to depicting its history. Rather, it is one of the rare pictures that dared to question the immortality of the great leader Vladimir Lenin.
With his body maintained and displayed in a mausoleum, Lenin was not supposed to be thought of as dead. Symbolically, the leader and his revolution had to live on so that their influence would still matter.
4) The Storming of The Bastille - Jean-Baptiste Lallemand
For the French Revolution, this event would certainly be the storming of the Bastille on July 14th, 1789. What distinguishes that day has little to do with military triumphs or strategic planning. Instead, the fall of the Bastille had a symbolic meaning, associated with oppression and the Ancient Regime.
What makes this revolutionary art special is the lack of grandeur and the presence of reality. The Storming of the Bastille represents chaotic, injured figures partaking in a battle that turns into chaos, flooding in cannon fire. None of the figures has a detailed face so none can be called the protagonist, and several are lost in battle. The painting mirrors the messy reality rather than the pristine mythology. The grand event that would be commemorated for centuries to come could certainly have looked like clandestine brutality before artists and historians decided otherwise.
5) Marie-Antoinette Being Taken to Her Execution - William Hamilton
William Hamilton discovered the French Revolution to be an endless source of fear and fascination. But what shocked him most was the end of the extravagant and powerful queen Marie-Antoinette, who heeded her executed husband after almost a year of trials.
In the painting, defiant soldiers are seen to escort the former queen to her execution while holding back an angry crown outraged by her earlier lifestyle. The queen stands against the background of darkly dressed men and women, her face looking both self-sustaining and sorrowful.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of this painting lies in the distinction between the rage of the crowd and Marie-Antoinette’s saddened demeanor.
All images via Wikimedia Commons
Written by Sara Ayoob