By CHUYI YE, Guangzhou, China
Stanford Summer Humanities Institute, 2015
Professor Dan Edelstein
Graduate Teaching Assistant: Sarah Grandin
This paper is an examination of several specific artworks with background information of their corresponding revolution. It begins with a brief introduction of French art history and Russian art history in the time of revolutions and segues into interpretation and analysis of specific artworks. The paper ends with a concrete comparison between propaganda art and artists during the two revolutions and an evaluation of their effects in a broader scope.
The world has witnessed an explosion of revolutions and experimental regimes since the 17th century. The French revolutionary fervor culminated in 1789, caused by the decadence of the Bourbon monarchy and followed by decades of turbulence and terror, including the attempts of two republics and two dynasties as well as the dictatorship of the Jacobin club. Violent political turbulence triggered intellectual responses in different places in the world wherever messages of the French Revolution could reach, including Russia, which was deeply influenced by Communism. The later Bolshevik Revolution in Russia in October 1917 ended with a “proletariat dictatorship” over the expansive Soviet Union. Both revolutions endured turbulence and terror while people were venturing into new political systems and establishing authority. As a tool for recording human events, art had pivotal development during these periods of instability. It reflects social events and changes in terms of the personal emotions and personalities of painters including Jacques-Louis David, a revolutionary neoclassical artist who had also been closely involved in Jacobin clubs and harbored a friendship with Robespierre and Marat. Sometimes, it is the patron instead of artists who influences the spirit of artworks, depending on who was monitoring the production of artworks. For instance, Soviet dictator Vladimir Lenin and his official Bolshevik artists modeled a utopia type of Soviet citizens who could fit well in communist society. Both French artists like David and Bolshevik artists recycle traditions to lend legitimacy to their present revolutions. This new combination of tradition and non-tradition connoted different meanings in the two revolutions: a mixture of reality and utopia in Russia, and an anti-monarchy sentiment and response to revolutionary instability in France. This difference of ideologies led to the discrepancy between David and Bolshevik artists in terms of the degree to which they were influenced by the revolution. This paper is an examination of several specific artworks with background information of their corresponding revolution. It begins with a brief introduction of French art history and Russian art history in the time of revolutions and segues into interpretation and analysis of specific artworks. The paper ends with a concrete comparison between propaganda art and artists during the two revolutions and an evaluation of their effects in a broader scope.
French painting underwent drastic changes after 1789. Before the start of the French Revolution, the royal family favored the lavish Rococo art. Rococo is characterized by fancy decorations. It is sometimes so decorative that it seems disconnected from reality. Rococo themes are always positive and playful, recording gay and cheerful events. However, as financial crisis and social instability contributed to public resentment that led, finally, to revolution, Rococo became a symbol of the material life of the corruptive monarchy, and was soon replaced by Neoclassicism in response to an anti-monarchy sentiment prior to the French Revolution. Neoclassicism literally refers to a new classicism which usually alludes to Greek and Roman art. Indeed, it was considered, by most art historians, a revival of Roman art, not only in forms and characteristics but also in the spirit Roman painting conveyed, especially the loyalty and patriotism widely advocated in the Roman Republic. Also, in contrast to the luxury in Rococo, Neoclassicism emphasized an austerity that appealed to the public and revealed resentment toward the degraded monarchy.
Because of the sentiment in Neoclassicism paintings that urged French people to fight for France and protect their country from the debased monarchy, revolutionaries soon overthrew the old regime, and people started discovering new systems to govern their homeland. Revolution soon inflamed this socio-politically sensitive city of Paris, robbing people of their daily news and conversations. Revolutionary clubs were prevalent in Paris, and among them the most famous was the Jacobin club led by Maximilien Robespierre, Jean-Paul Marat and Georges-Jacques Danton. The dictatorship of the Jacobins, however, promoted the use of terror in solidifying its regime. As the leading figure Robespierre noted, “Virtue without terror is powerless, terror without virtue is evil.” A brief period of joy and hope after the end of Bourbon dynasty in the future was then followed by the Reign of Terror. Censorship and the threat of death from the guillotine haunted people every day. Even the Jacobin members started to wonder if they would be the next under the guillotine. Artists reflected this mixture of desperation, hatred, fear, and determination by applying striking colors in paintings to evoke powerful emotions. Patriotism and the fight for the country were no longer the sole themes in art during the revolution. Art began to revolve more and more around the society and individuals. Paintings now reflected people’s emotional states. This new art style was a response to the extreme violence and turbulence in the society that culminated during the Reign of Terror and lasted till 1848 when the Bourbon dynasty was completely toppled in France and authority and power were returned to the people (Davies et al. 832).
A famous neoclassical artist who was also actively involved in politics during this period of volatility was Jacques-Louis David. Born in a broken family, David had begun learning art and architecture at a very young age with his uncle who brought him up. He was brought to Italy by his mentor, Joseph-Marie Vien, a famous Rococo painter who also embraced the growing Neoclassicism, and this sojourn had a profound impact on David’s artistic career. In Italy, David studied paintings with Raphael Mengs, a firm supporter of Neoclassicism. Mengs was strongly opposed to Rococo, which, according to him, softened the ancient Roman subjects in paintings, who were supposed to be angular and rigorous (Gontar, par. 6). Mengs’ study in Roman art and opinions on Neoclassicism contributed to the birth of a master of neoclassical art, David.
One famous example of David’s neoclassical art was The Oath of Horatii. This painting was an illustration of a patriotic Roman story. Three Horatii brothers vowed to protect Rome against the Curiatii brothers of Alba Longa with their blood and life before their father. The father, a symbol of authority in the family, granted his sons swords and fully supported their loyalty to the Roman republic, even though one of the Curiatii brothers, Rome’s prospective enemies, would be the husband of one of the former’s own daughters. The message in this painting is clear - loyalties and patriotism before family and life - making this painting successful French Revolution propaganda, which encouraged people to willingly sacrifice their lives and family for the future of France. Aside from the spirit, Roman characteristics are obvious on this painting: the armor on the Horatii brothers, the Doric columns and arches prevalent in Roman construction, and the style of the clothes on the remaining figures. Austerity and solemnity, instead of playfulness and joy, are the themes in this painting. Also, there are hardly any decorations on this painting – neither on the plain clothing, nor on the columns and arches. The dearth of signs of wealth in this painting adds to the anti-monarchy and pro-revolution propaganda spirit in this painting (Gontar, par. 5).
Another Neoclassical example that had been designated for political propaganda and more strongly show David’s personal connection to politics was The Death of Marat. In this painting, Marat was heroized by David, who himself was a close friend of Robespierre and Marat and an advocate for the Jacobins. Ironically, Marat prosecuted and sent to the guillotine lots of members in his opponent club, the Gironde club, which was much milder, and was, because of this, labeled “counterrevolutionary”. Before Marat’s assassinator, Charlotte Corday, ended the life of this murderer, the former was actually recording the names of Girondins, as reported by Corday, whom he would send to the guillotine. David’s painting, however, glorifies this bloody action. The focus of this painting was purposely on Marat, as David advertently depicted a very plain background with dark color, in contrast to the light colors on Marat’s body. Doing so set off a gloomy mood, lamenting Marat’s death. David also chose a very specific moment during Marat’s death to fulfill his commission. In his painting, Marat, with wounds on his body and blood in the bathtub, is shown holding a pen and an open notebook with lines on it. This indicated that even when death was upon him, Marat was still fighting for the revolution and the republic. Moreover, when painting Marat, David also mimicked the posture and emotion of Jesus Christ in Lamentation, adding sacredness to Marat’s work and death and implying the heroic spirit of Marat. By doing so, David claimed that Marat was a hero of the republic and thus justified his prosecution of the Girondins. The Death of Marat was a huge success of Jacobin propaganda.
Russian art had gone through milder changes than that of France. At the beginning of the October Revolution, Russian artists sought Western artistic ideas that were new compared to their traditions. The attempts of Cubo-Futurists, non-representationalists, the Jack of Diamonds Group, and the Rayonnists fit easily into the Avant-Garde movement in Europe (Mikhail 3). To describe the revolutionary Avant-Garde, Russian art historian Mikhail Guerman had concisely and trenchantly said, “They tried to do away with the tradition.” (6).
After the establishment of the USSR, however, Vladimir Lenin, attempting to solidify his regime, aimed at the majority Russian masses - peasants and workers - by utilizing art propaganda. The primary purpose of art at this moment became political propaganda. Lenin used art propaganda particularly to reinforce his “proletariat dictatorship” in Russia. As most of the Russian population could hardly read and write, brochures and other dialectical materials elucidating Marxism and the Soviet ideology became less appealing than visual art propaganda, which was deeply rooted in Russian tradition. Because of the emphasis of tradition in this comprehension of artworks, Avant-Garde soon became lukewarm to both the Russian people and Soviet politicians, since its novelty was elusive to illiterate proletariats (Tsiara, par. 3). Also, artists started to heroize proletariats in artworks that expressed a combination of socialism-realism and a utopian vision of communism. Officially approved art in the Soviet Union needed to embody the Soviet ideology of socialism-realism, which, as Marx noted, was divorced from “the formation of revolutionary consciousness in relation to the practice of severance” (par. 8). The explanation of the application of socialism-realism in literature, as provided by Communist Party secretary Andrei Zhdanov, could also be applied to fine art, as he pointed out that “In the first place, it means knowing life so as to be able to depict it truthfully in works of art, not to depict it in a dead, scholastic way, not simply as ‘objective reality’, but to depict reality in its revolutionary development” (par. 8). By glorifying peasants and workers, paintings instilled a sense of confidence in those groups to carry on fighting for the revolution. Such a revolutionary consciousness would convince its audience that the permanent revolution would at last segue into the utopia of communist society where equality ruled. Thus, this style of propaganda art, with its appeal to mass audience, soon replaced the style of art produced during the Avant-Garde movement. Paintings did not only depict conventional and traditional themes of relatively conservative peasants and workers, but also added more political elements and novel characteristics, including religious icons of worship, that would facilitate the purpose of the artworks (par. 5). As Guerman described, this was “revolutionary classic art” (35).
The massive project, “monumental propaganda,” initiated by Lenin, epitomized the importance of artworks in political propaganda and the way that Lenin monitored the productions of artworks and manipulated the public. Artworks did not only feature politicians, but also Soviet citizens, including peasants and women, who became a significantly important theme in paintings. The Master of the Earth by Sergei Gerasimov, for instance, featured a man in flaming red, holding a flag. A sheaf of wheat beside him indicates his identity as a peasant. This painting was commissioned for the decoration of the Duma building in Moscow in 1918. The most conspicuous characteristic of the painting is that the peasant’s posture is emblematic and almost biblical, taking the politician’s role and resembling a leading revolutionary figure by calling for public action to foment the proletariat revolution. Combined with the title of this painting, The Master of the Earth, Gerasimov implies the important Soviet political ambition that proletariat revolution, or peasant revolution, as indicated in this painting, would eventually lead to a proletariat dictatorship that would spread to the whole world and contribute to a worldwide communist society. Also, by featuring peasants instead of politicians, Gerasimov appealed to the mass of Russian population, the proletariats, and thus pursued his purpose of spreading this Soviet political ambition to them and calling for their support and actions (Tsiara, par.27).
Another public feature of monumental propaganda is women. March 8 Women's Emancipation by Adolf Strakhov explores the role of women in Soviet Russia by adding masculinity to women, and challenges traditional gender stereotypes that were usually related to youth, beauty and gentleness. This painting featured the women’s upper body, without showing too much of her body line, such as breasts, wasp waist and long legs, which would feminize her. Instead, she is very masculine. She has an angular nose bridge and muscles on her face that are delineated clearly by her wrinkles. She is wearing a turban that completely covers her hair and unisex clothes with buttons up to her neck, making her less feminized. She is holding a gun, with solemnity in her face shown by her knitting eyebrow and closed lips, and she seems ready and determined for a revolution. In contrast to the dark background of a factory, which is apparently in work because of the smoke coming out from the long chimney, the women’s face is polished with light which gives her “metallic, almost mechanical, brilliance” (Tsiara, par. 29). By applying masculinity on women, Strakhov shows an equality between the two sexes in terms of both bodily and psychological or mental strength, and therefore justifies women’s participation in revolution. This woman is well prepared for the ongoing proletariat revolution and is determined to fight as a man would. By conveying this message to the audience, Strakhov is calling on the women in Soviet society to stand with their men and fight for the ultimate communist society (par. 30).
Artworks served as powerful political propaganda in both, the Bolshevik Revolution and the French Revolution. The difference between the roles of art in these two revolutions, however, lies in the fact that Soviet dictators transformed artists into revolutionary figures for spreading their ideology, while in France, artistic propaganda lay in the professional ambition of artists. Lenin, for instance, initiated the monumental propaganda. After a horrific period of Civil War between the White (opponents of the Bolsheviks) and the Reds (the Bolsheviks) and the terror campaign, instability in Russian society urged Lenin to solidify his rule immediately after the Bolsheviks’ victory. He nationalized galleries and demanded all artists available to help build his project, in order to fully demonstrate to his people how mighty the proletariat dictatorship of USSR was. An appeal of the Soviet of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies stated that, “Citizens, take good care of this legacy [our former masters have left behind], all these pictures, statues, and buildings. They embody your and your forefathers’ spiritual strength.” Artists in Russia thus became professional political artists, building monuments of leading revolutionary figures to commemorate their efforts. This national propaganda solidified Lenin’s dictatorship over Soviet Union. It was a tyranny of mentality that forcefully imposed the glory of the October Revolution and the proletariat dictatorship on the public’s mind.
In contrast, artists in France were less political. Even David himself, although he had a close relationship with Robespierre and Marat, was by no means a revolutionary professional political artist. In fact, the revolution imposed on David a fake revolutionary persona that covered his own identity as an artist, a commoner, and a single father with two children. David’s student, Etienne Delecluze, contributed to a concrete account of his teacher’s “political life.” On the Festival of Supreme Being, Delecluze wrote that “...everyone’s attention was distracted by a voice of a man shouting as he walked very quickly: “Make way for the Commissary of the Convention!” (Lajer-Burcharth 13). Delecluze depicted David as a revolutionary figure, working for the republic and “the Commissary of the Convention” and leading people in the right direction. He seemed to have held his own power and authority.
However, the Festival of Supreme Being was reminiscent of the “Divine Right” of monarchy during the Reign of Terror, and the people who had been living under terror and dictatorship for such a long time, started to fear that Robespierre would deviate from the republican path and crown himself as King instead, establishing a new absolute monarchy. Therefore, right after the festival, Robespierre himself was sent to the guillotine he designed for the revolution and died a grave-digger. The remaining Jacobins were sent to trial by the National Convention and sentenced to death. David, a close friend of Robspierre and Marat, was also among the arrested Jacobin figures. Delecluze recorded the arrest and trial of David, and in this account, David was by no means a political figure. Delecluze wrote that “The representative of the people, the painter David, was at the tribune, whence he stammered some muffled words with which he sought, in vain, to counter the rage of several colleagues determined to indict him. He was pale, and sweat was dripping from his forehead and rolling down his clothes to the floor, where it left large stains” (Lajer-Burcharth 13). Here, in this trial, David was not the heroic political figure of the revolution that Delecluze depicted in his previous account of the Festival of Supreme Being. He was a normal artist, so afraid of sentence that he could not speak properly to defend himself and sever himself from the tyranny of the Jacobin club. He was not a hero as Marat who “fought to his death”, nor was he a Jacobin hero who would bravely defend the Reign of Terror or claim that it was for the good of the republic. Later, when Napoleon boldly crowned himself in 1793, David soon “betrayed” the Jacobins and turned to Napoleon’s regime, painting the famous painting Le Sacré de Napoléon (the Coronation of Napoleon Bonaparte). The revolution might have momentarily made David a professional political artist working dedicatedly for the Jacobins, but as soon as the Jacobins left, David’s own personality was left alone, returning to what he really was before: a common neoclassical worker working for his own artistic ambitions.
The Soviet Union existed for 69 years (1922-1991), while the Jacobins and the Terror lasted for less than 10 years (1989-1995). The stability of the Soviet regime lay in assimilation and encouragement, while the Jacobins solidified their authority with suppression and terror. The Jacobins seldom thought of making political propaganda and convinced the public with their political ideology. David indeed promoted revolutionary spirits and heroized leading political figures in his paintings; however, he himself was ambiguous in the political ideology of the Jacobins’ dictatorship and the future of the Republic. The Soviets, on the other hand, had been spending a lot of effort in spreading their political ideology to gain support from the public. Under such a dictatorship, terrifying artistic propaganda helped “refine” the dictatorship hidden under a utopian society. The art raised peasants to biblical figures of revolutionary leaders in Gerasimov’s The Master of the Earth, for instance, calling for a peasants’ dictatorship and encouraging peasants to join this unceasing fight. Art also contributed to a genesis of women, such as in Strakhov’s poster, effacing the boundaries of the sexes and rendering women for the social reform (Tsiara, par. 30). The tyranny of art deprived people of the true reality and left them wandering in the daydream of an ideal communist society. It was this tyranny of art that reflected the tyranny of Soviet leaders through its manipulation. It was also this tyranny of art that engraved the “reality” of socialism-realism and the “utopia” of communism, and helped the Soviet Union reach a period of political tranquility.
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