Given the nature of the political climate, I have no doubt that we will see many politically motivated works of art. The intent and message of these works depends on what’s in the artist head and heart. Some artists are looking for attention to drive sales while others are trying to push their own views on their viewers. Still, others are simply trying to tell a story or report on the state of the world through the use of their brush. This kind of political art is nothing new and when I think back to some of the most powerful art dealing with politics, I always end my trip on Jacques-Louis David. You may or may not know the name David, but you have most likely seen his art. While it’s easy to appreciate the incredible realism his hand portrayed, have you actually looked at his subjects and wondered what story is being told? It’s a powerful one – one of revolution and blood.
Think of those two words: revolution and blood. What comes to mind? Many of us turn our thoughts to that of the French Revolution because you can’t think of that revolution without thinking of the guillotine and the prolific public executions that took place. This isn’t a history lesson, but to understand David’s work we have to have a basic understanding of what was going on during the French revolution. What caused it? Who were the opposing forces at work?
While there were multiple forces that sparked the revolution, the main force was simple: the poor were enraged with the aristocracy and their decadent lifestyle and the poor choices made which took France down a dark path. After helping the Americans gain their independence, France was near bankruptcy. The ill-fated solution of the monarchy was to tax the poor even more. The aristocracy, unlike the peasants, didn’t contribute with more taxes; the plight of the peasants was ignored. The sparks were about to ignite into a full fledged inferno. The man there to describe the social apocalypse and even contribute to it was Jacques-Louis David.
During the 1950’s America suffered through McCarthyism: the wrongly accused and blacklisting of Americans thought to be communist traitors. Jobs were lost, friendships were broken, lives were ruined. Now take that paranoia and multiply it by a thousand. This was the darkness that the wealthy of France lived under during the revolution. A key figure behind the darkness was Jean-Paul Marat. As the revolution began, he wrote in a paper for the people a list of aristocrats, politicians, and royals who (usually without any evidence) he deemed plotters, schemers, and general enemies to the liberty that the people now sought. His words fueled a wave of conspiracy theories and paranoia that drove the now ostracized aristocrats and royals to the guillotine. With little evidence, all Marat had to do was write a name, attach an unfounded accusation, then give it to the fanatical public, who were longing for upheaval and revenge, and often (within days) that person was rendered headless. Marat was an author for a condemned list of souls, whose only crimes, in most cases, was an apathetic attitude towards politics. What has history taught us about the fate of such fanatics?
Marat’s reign of paranoia and influential words would finally come to a bloody end. He was assassinated in his bathtub for which he had to spend most of his time to compensate for a painful skin disorder. A single woman, under the guise of one of his informers, handed him a list of names of supposed conspirators against the cause. Without any evidence he responded to her, “I’ll have them in the guillotine within a week.” Those were his last words. The woman pulled out a knife from her stocking and threw it into his chest. Marat’s wild accusations came to an quick end, but did his message of liberty at all costs also come to end? That’s were David comes in as he painted “The Death of Marat.” David, a supporter of Marat, agreed to paint the now rotting corpse as it lay in the tub as a tribute and rallying cry to the burgeoning republic. What could be a more powerful political statement of the time than a hyper-realistically rendered portrait of a martyr? The painting not only captures the figure in his lifeless form, but it also portrays him as helping the people. Indeed, the letter that he holds is a letter from someone seeking his help. David, in his not-so-subtle-manner has rendered the letter to appear as though it originated from the assassin herself Ms. Corday. So now we get that sense that Marat was betrayed by someone he was helping. He was innocent, he died trying to protect the country from the very treachery that eventually killed him. This was the sentiment that David wanted the viewers to walk away with in order to elevate Marat’s image and give the revolution its’ continued direction. In short, this painting was propaganda.
When the revolution came to an end, this painting was actually hidden in storage for decades. Many people felt it summoned back the memories of some of the darkest days in the history of France. Guilt must have been buried deep in the psyche of the french populace. Once the republic fervor was over and enough time had passed to allow for a retrospective frame of mind, how could the french come to any other conclusion other than they had killed thousands of seemingly innocent people? The painting, initially a tribute to a man whom the people regarded as the soul of the revolution, became a symbol of the epicenter of strife. When the people turned on David and threw him in prison for his support of the reign of terror, he mustered the resources to create another painting with a message. A self-portrait of the artist simply holding brushes and a palette as if to say, “What? You’re blaming me for the bloodshed? I’m just a painter!”
Political paintings – why do they grab us so? Perhaps because like religious beliefs, our political stances are intrinsic parts of our mind and soul. Rarely do our beliefs change on such powerful subjects, but that won’t stop people from posting their views on social media, writing editorials in politically biased papers, or more eloquently, painting depictions of controversial people or events. Given the controversial time we live in now, I expect to see a powerful painting that marks our current state. For myself however, the best of the political paintings will always be “The Death of Marat” by Jacques-Louis David.