Culture and Politics
The Supporting Principle of Art
Publication: 11 October 2021
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Let us put aside the differences in ideology and artistic form and focus on the quite capacious concept of propagandist values, that is on the persuasive power of artwork, as it is usually called; the measure of this power is common recognisability and hence the ability to capture the collective imagination.
Almost since time immemorial art has served various ideologies and reflected the needs of the customers rather than the artists themselves. The eternal principle of supporting the ruler through art was revealed both in the content of the work and in its external form. The propagandist message, showing the power of the mighty, was present not only in painted or sculpted panegyrics but also in the monumental character of their residences – both for worldly living and as eternal abodes. The Egyptian pyramids as well as contemporary mausoleums also come under this category – it is enough to recall the items found in kurgans which marked civilisations from the Elbe River to the South China Sea. The famous Terracotta Army from Xi’an, with its eight thousand figures, was created to serve the post-mortem needs of the first emperor of the Chinese Qin dynasty; while his worldly ambitions were satisfied by the Great Wall of China, built over decades. And thus one ruler left behind two monuments which count among the wonders of the world. History does not mention the artists, architects and constructors who designed these wonders. We do not know who invented and designed the canonical wonders of the world (there are fifteen of them now). Whose talent, efficiency and imagination was behind the magical names and symbols marking the highest peaks of human ability – from the Pyramid of Cheops finished in 2560 BC to Machu Picchu which dates to the second half of the 15th century? Four thousand years of anonymous service. We know the names of all the rulers, gods and historical figures to whom these works were dedicated – be it the prematurely deceased wife of the Emperor Shah Jahan (The Taj Mahal) or Semiramis, the Queen of Babylon (the Hanging Gardens); we even know those who destroyed these works (Herostratus) – but we know nothing about those who conceived and executed the majority of them except of those who made some of the monuments from the Hellenist period in ancient Greece, such as Fidias (the statue of Zeus in Olympia) or Skopas (the sculptures in the Halicarnassus mausoleum). But even their works were subordinated to an ideology defined by the high and mighty.
Throughout the whole ancient Roman Imperium we find triumphal arches, obelisks and columns with bas-reliefs commemorating the successful conquests of the Caesars and the armed glory of their legions. Needless to add, this model proved to be so universal that it was used in various versions until the mid-20th century, especially in the period of Classicism. The Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, for example, is crowned with a quadriga ridden by the goddess of victory, holding a staff with the insignia of the Roman Empire – despite the fact that Prussia did not yet belong to the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation. Thus, the symbols of the Caesars had already been firmly grounded in the iconosphere of the city when Adolf Hitler was looking for expressive logos to symbolize the Third Reich. Napoleon Bonaparte also made use of the symbols of ancient Rome, as did Otto von Bismarck, under whose rule the famous victory column Siegessäule was raised. The Siegessäule in its turn probably inspired those who instigated the construction of many towers dedicated to the “Iron Chancellor”, which are still found in Germany and western Poland. They offer an interesting combination of the pre-Christian phallic cult with the attraction towards industrial technologies from the turn of the 20th century.
But using art for purely propagandist purposes did not always have such an overt character even in ancient Rome. Artists from that era, if we may use such a word, also offered their techne through more delicate strategic procedures, aimed at shaping the appropriate image of the ruler. It was not only about masterful rendering of details: the texture of the waves of the toga, the locks of hair or the shape of the foot. The ruler was meant to be shown as being equal to the gods or even as a god himself. The image, although bearing some similarities to the not necessarily handsome model, was to be beautiful in face and body, captured more often in an Apollonian rather than Martial pose; the emperor had to be familiar and accessible but also unparalleled. This school of artistic servilism has survived two millennia and shows no signs of going away. The global “gallery” of such portraits probably numbers thousands of pieces. The canons of beauty have changed, as the costumes, props, decorations, techniques and means of artistic expression did – from figures carved in marble to “frottage portraits” hanging on the public buildings of the Eastern Bloc. The approach to the task has remained. It is enough to take a look at elections’ campaign billboards to know that the approach to the job has remained the same. But today these works are not signed by anyone.
It was slightly different during the Middle Ages. In the Ravenna mosaics, the Byzantine Emperor Justinian and his wife Theodora were able to fill the apse of Basilica San Vitale and sideline the saints with their posture and location, moving them to side walls. However, such practices were soon stopped. Lay figures of the high and mighty sometimes found their way onto the altars but only if they had been canonised. This is what happened to Prince Alexander Nevsky, although this was probably not the rea‑ son why Sergei Eisenstein made a film about him. The work was commissioned by Stalin and aimed at showing the defence of Russia from the Teutons rather than the defence of the Orthodox religion from Catholicism. And these referred to the times when the nation category was not used and when virtually no lay works of art were created (except for crafts). Although more churches meant more donors, even the donors respected the established order of importance, clearly illustrated by the artists through varying the scale of the painted or sculpted figures: the saints were the largest figures and placed high up, while the donors, usually in prayerly poses, were the smallest figures and positioned at the bottom. It meant that the sponsors adopted the posture of relative modesty aimed at receiving their just deserts in the afterlife. Academic art history claims that this was why the tallest buildings in medieval cities were cathedrals. But there are also economic theories, according to which the most important aspect was the distance from where a travelling merchant could see the steeple. Taller towers amounted to more trade for the city.
The imperative of modesty in medieval Europe, putting the mighty on equal footing with their subjects, did not eradicate human weaknesses. Before the full flowering of the Renaissance, the powerful once again demanded that their images be placed among those elevated by the Church. Vanity was expressed in a way compatible with Church dogmas and the courage of putting the lay on an equal footing with the saintly was neutralised by the mastery of the artists, who perfected their craft and revived the long forgotten ability to capture human likeness.
Therefore, on Jan van Eyck’s painting from around 1435, the Chancellor of Burgundy Nicholas Rolin talks to Madonna as an equal (Madonna of Chancellor Rolin or Madonna from Autun). The scene is set in a small room rather than in an abstract “mystical” space, and although the Virgin Mary is seated and the chancellor is kneeling, his knees rest on the soft fabric of a kneeler and his elbows are comforted by a similarly soft pulpit. Moreover, despite the regular composition of the work, the eye of the beholder only slides over the figure of the Madonna and stops at the massive, quite realistically rendered figure of the chancellor. The elaborate iconographic programme of the work, as well as the presence of an angel painted in a dif‑ ferent scale, seem to be intended as an excuse which forestall various accusations against both the model and the painter.
Étienne Chevalier, treasurer and secretary of Charles VII, went much further in carrying out his purpose. He commissioned a diptych from Nicolas Fouquet to be hung above the grave of his wife (Melun Diptych, c. 1450). On the left panel we see the figure of Chevalier in the company of St. Stephen, while on the right panel the Madonna is surrounded by cherubs and seraphim. The boldness or even outrageousness of this work does not consist of making all the figures similar in size or in putting Chevalier at front of the saint, but in the lay approach to the figure of the Madonna, underlining not only the beauty of her face but also the roundness of her fully exposed breast. It was common knowledge that the model for the Madonna was Agnès Sorel, the lover of both the king and his treasurer. Sources do not say who sat for St. Stephen but it is possible that the painter endowed him with his own features. It would not be the first or an isolated instance of such a method. A decade before, Rogier van der Weyden stood in for the figure of St. Luke drawing a portrait of the Madonna (St. Luke drawing the Virgin, 1440). The composition is without angels and, quite realistically, translates all of the symbolic message into the secret language of attributes, in order not to disturb the clarity of the composition.
So while the paintings by van Eyck or even Fouquet may reflect the audacity of the sponsor, the work of Rogier van der Weyden speaks about the audacity of the artist, who in a way puts himself above the high and mighty, despite the fact that he was serving them. Later history would show a lot of such painted declarations. This did not liberate artists from making commissions bend reality to fit the current political requirements, but the social configuration was changing; individual sponsors were gradually replaced by groups representing their own interests and needing their eulogists. The Reformation also had its visual propaganda, for which it used the fast communication media of printed texts. The Germans not only read Luther’s Bible in their native language, they also looked at illustrations created by the best engravers of the time which contained plain allusions to the “dirty” role of the Vatican in the process of promoting the faith. Defenders of the Roman Church reacted to these attacks using a similar weapon – publishing illustrated pamphlets against Luther’s propositions. But the biggest beneficiaries of this struggle for human souls were the publishing houses. And from there it was only a short step to the familiar journalistic practices based on inciting conflicts which led not only to propaganda wars but also to real ones. Whole legions of engravers remained at the service of newspapers until the invention of photography, which very quickly, in the early 20th century, became accepted as a form of art. And so essentially nothing has changed.
Of course, the development of printing and printmaking techniques not only supported the production of newspapers, maps and books: portfolios and series of engravings also covered a very wide range of subjects, although a significant percentage of commissions were connected with “promotional campaigns” of various groups of interests. The assembly of traditional clients was soon supplemented by cities and their authorities. While engravings were aimed at spreading messages among the poorer strata, the costly works of painters and sculptors were to satisfy the vanity of the new class. And this is probably why rich and thus “equal to the kings” Boners, commissioned from Hans Suess von Kulmbach an altar retable with a collective portrait of their entire family depicted in the scene of St. John the Evangelist descending to the grave (still in the Cracow St.Mary’s basilica). Isaak Van den Blocke painted elaborate eulogies of Gdańsk for The Artus Court, Herman Han created a panorama of the city with allegorical scenes containing a moral message, and the city councillors had themselves portrayed in tapestries meant for public places. The clear intention of the Gdansk citizens was to catch up with the Italian, Flemish and Dutch cities which specialised in similar practices – to mention the principal citizens of the Venetian Republic who were depicted in the huge Wedding at Cana (1563) or even bigger Feast in the House of Levi (1573) by Veronese. And it is no coincidence that Rembrandt devoted his largest canvas to the wealthy inhabitants of Amsterdam, although this particular work did not find much favour with the sponsors (The Company of Frans Banning Cocqa and Willem van Ruytenburch, otherwise known as The Night Watch, 1642). It was not solemn enough, even for their Calvinist mentality.
All these works, which contained more or less covert messages coming not from the artists themselves but from the customers, cannot be compared with the elaborate “glories” and “apotheoses” in which the rulers were portrayed – just to mention the cycle of twenty-four paintings devoted to Marie de’ Medicis created by Rubens (The Story of Marie de’ Medici, 1622–1625). The centuries that followed also abounded in works “commemorating” the achievements of great commanders and kings. Particularly popular were battle scenes, offering a rewarding field for a properly illuminating look at history. We can compare Grunwald by Jan Matejko (1878) with a slightly earlier and much smaller canvas by Alexander Ritter von Bensa (1869) showing the same battle. These two works have a similar composition and both highlight the central figure. In Matejko’s painting it’s Witold while in Bensa’s work it’s Ulrich von Jungingen. The first painting indicates the glorious victory, while the second one tells the story of heroic sacrifice of life on the battlefield. Matejko aimed at cheering up the enslaved Polish hearts under the Partitions of Poland, while Bensa alluded to the lost might of the decimated Teutonic Order. In both cases the aim was to bring back the forgotten glory of the past.
The 20th century, a time of rapid change in the artistic paradigm, did not liberate the artists from po‑ litical servitude. Even abstract art, devoid of a clear narrative, had its ideological foundation, both in post‑revolutionary Russia and in many other coun‑ tries, including interwar Poland. The avant‑garde fought not only for freedom of art but also for a new social order. Among the reactions to this international movement we have Soviet socialist realism and Fascist art (and architecture), especially in its Nazi version. The national element – whatever it was supposed to mean – contained in the ideologies of these two cur‑ rents was also underlined by Polish artists, above all in the field of design. References to folk costumes and “Slavic idols” in the art of Zofia Stryjeńska, or to folk motives in artistic craft proposed by the Ład Cooperative may fairly be called national modernism. Interestingly, this style was smoothly transferred over to post‑ war times and found its place in the Stalin era when abstraction was banned. This ban endowed the works of many “socialist” artists with an ideological flavour, although the supposedly subversive message did not stem from the work itself – which was after all abstract – but from the very fact that the artist had not complied with the imposed decree. The system re‑ acted to this quiet rebellion by absorbing the modernist traditions, which it later successfully utilised in its new city‑planning programmes. Thus the style currently defined as socmodernism is not the effect of a simple evolution of forms but, to a large degree, is the result of a covert ideological struggle.
And so the art of the 20th century became independent enough for the artists to present their own political views in their works. However, history testifies that these views often resulted from a particular ideology. Is there an essential difference here between the patriotic art of Matejko and the Russian revolutionary works of – for example Eleazar Lissitzky – since both gave expression to their views and worked in response to “social demand” rather than for particular sponsors? Let us put aside the differences in ideology and artistic form and focus on the quite capacious concept of propagandist values, that is on the persuasive power of artwork, as it is usually called; the measure of this power is common recognisability and hence the ability to capture the collective imagination. In Spain, Picasso’s Guernica would become such a work, in France – Liberty Freedom Leading the People by Delacroix. In Berlin we should probably still recognise the Brandenburg Gate in this context, while in Mexico, Diego Rivera’s frescoes in Mexico City Town Hall come under this category. In the US – the portraits of presidents carved in rock, forming the Mount Rushmore National Memorial. In Poland the indisputable winner is The Battle of Grunwald, known to every Polish child – at least from reproductions. All these works refer to the founding myth of modern states. Any piece of Avant-garde cannot compete with the above mentioned, national key works of art though they do not succumb to the homogeneous categories of normative aesthetics, defining the axiology of art history. They were created in various periods and circumstances, but each of them entered the sphere of national consent on which social bonds are built. Attempts at directing attention to works less embedded in national mythologies, appealing to a universal system of values or even to elementary ethics, are very quickly forgotten. It happened to socialist realism in Russia; the same fate befell the strongly political art of Polish Martial Law, filling the churches in the 1980s, and the same fate also probably awaits Polish critical art. And yet all these artistic and ideological formations played their role in building the awareness of the recipients and shaping their views.
The essence of politically committed art is that it has an occasional character, although the messages behind it were usually (and still are) meant for eternity. The glory of the Pharaohs and emperors – both Roman and Chinese – was to last eternally, just like the eternal memory of the beautiful queens and kings’ mistresses, of the ever‑living Lenin, the Third Reich and the Soviet Union. It so happened that in many cases, this idea of desired eternity materialised in works of art and survived thanks to them, although the works themselves have long‑since vanished. The contemporary world is looking with disbelief at the impressive street shows enacted by thousands of people in North Korea to celebrate their successive divine rulers. As we know, they are chiefly aimed at the inhabitants of North Korea, so that they be‑ lieve in what they see on television rather than what’s around them. The mechanism is familiar and very often successful. The present is simply a launch pad to a better future. This future is worth all the sacrifices, including the sacrifice of life. If people did not have such faith, what would motivate them to acts such as terrorism or suicide bombings?
The answer to the question about the role of art in these processes will not be unambiguous. Artists are not blamed for humanity’s bloodiest acts, but they have supported many a regime with their talents. On the other hand, the fall of many a tyrant would not have come about without them. And it is certain that all the wonders of the world owe their existence to them.
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