The Trouble with Political Art
The Louvre in Paris is home to a magnificent collection of art and on my occasional visits I always find myself drawn to the "Death of Marat" by the French painter Jacques Louis David.
I had no idea who Jean Paul Marat was, and to tell you the truth, I did not really care. For me it was a wonderful and powerful painting. The presentation of the figure, dead in his bath, a quill resting in his limp right hand, a piece of paper in his left. A bloodied knife lies on the floor in a straight line from the bleeding wound in the dead man’s chest.
I enjoyed the artist's use of green and brown to dominate the work, the light and shadow on the figure's white flesh appearing real.
I was mesmerized by this painting. Crowds gathered by the Mona Lisa, not far from where I stood, but it was this unassuming and beautiful work which held my attention.
So what am I getting at? What I knew was Marat was dead in his bath and that he had been a writer, pretty obvious. Only in the last few years when I became curious about the French Revolution did I learn that he was a revolutionary scribe, quite the hot head, who spent a good part of his day in a bath to quell the discomfort from a skin disease.
During the excitement of the revolution he had been a radical Jacobin who propagated the use of the guillotine to rid revolutionary France of her enemies. This gentleman who I had admired so in David's representation had a lot of blood on his hands, and his life was finally taken on July 13, 1793, by Charlotte Corday the anguished daughter of a man Marat had ordered put to death.
As for the artist, Jacques Louis David He was a great painter of the Neo-Classical school. His paintings are often huge, portraying events in history and in revolutionary France as if they were plays recreated on a vast and beautiful canvas stage.
David was as well as being a great painter was also a revolutionary politician , and immersed himself in agitprop to glorify whoever was paying the bills at the time. After supporting and aggrandizing a Jacobin radical, he morphed into a great supporter of Napoleon who turned out to be the dismantler of much of what the revolution had sought to create.
The painting "Napoleon crossing the Alps" is as good an example of a "man crush" that one could imagine in the world of art. The composition shows a strongly idealized view of the crossing that Napoleon and his army made across the Alps through the Great St. Bernard Pass in May 1800.
A splendid Napoleon who looks so posed on a wild steed, its legs raised in the air, before dashing into battle. The horse even seems to be getting into the vibe and over acting for the artist.
Napoleon and his campy "Crossing the Alps" was first commissioned by the King of Spain. David went on to paint four more versions of the event for well heeled patrons of the arts.
So what was I to do? My favorite painting in the Louvre was an idealized version of the death of a revolutionary dude with blood on his hands. And one of my favorite painters was using his great talents to push myths, and fill his pockets.
I do not mind that the artist was a total opportunist who made a fine living, it is just too bad he was able to create such extraordinary beauty from the painting of lies.
That is the trouble with combining art and politics. The visual image is not the best means of scratching the surface of an event and seeing the ingredients that went into the creation of what becomes history and knowledge.
While the artist glorifies the figure he is mythologizing, the viewer is not given an ample opportunity to delve into the details of the person being artistically honored or in some cases skewered. One comes away from David's works with a warped sense of history, as if one is witness to oscillating levels of opacity.
The work hides reality, while creating a glorified and falsified revision of what may actually have happened.
Men and women become heroes, shallow almost two dimensional characters void of the many dimensions that make up the human and our condition.