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October 2, 2011 | by  | in Arts Visual Arts |
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Top 5 Political Artworks

The Temple of Bacchus at Ephesus (I’m sorry ex-NCEA Level 3 Classics students, but we had to bring it up) is a characteristically Roman take on political art. The Romans needed a symbol of their dominance in the unruly Eastern Mediterranean. The temple is a harmonious fusion of eastern religious symbols put to the service of a western deity that simultaneously incorporates the culture of the occupied while projecting the Romans’ powerfully eternal imperial message. What better way to celebrate imperialism than with the God of wine and revelry.

Eugene Delacroix, Liberty Leading the People. For those who have any grounding in the French Revolution (or have a copy of Coldplay’s Viva la Vida), you will be all-too familiar with this Delacroix classic. The graphic violence of the blood-drenched soldiers in contrast with the celestial, flag-bearing Liberty leaves the viewer with an overwhelming sense of the brutality of the revolution. The painting not only creates a brilliantly visceral visual personification of the uprising, but also demonstrates the tremendous political resonance an image can possess.

Francisco Goya’s The Third of May—1808 is a potent political image remembered as much for its assertion of Spanish nationalism as for its subversion of artistic norms. As the French troops round up and execute Spanish rebels, Goya uses their single lantern to subvert the place of light as the sacrosanct symbol of good in art. Here, light is used to sniff out the heroes in the shadows, to cement their martyrdom in earthy skin tones resilient to the candle’s sickly pallor. It is simultaneously a memorial and a powerful artistic precedent echoes in Pablo Picasso’s Guernica.

Unknown to many as Guerrillero Heroico (“Heroic Guerilla”), the beret-wearing Che Guevara has become an icon of rebellion in the 20th century, as well as a staple fixture on the wall of any student flat. Although the image holds highly political connotations, it is perhaps more reminiscent of Warhol’s Pop Art screens of the 60s than the Cuban Revolution which took place in that same decade. Rather than representing a time and a place, Che has become an emblem of whatever the viewer decides him to be, demonstrating the power of an image through mass circulation, in contrast to what it is supposed to symbolise.

Banksy’s Gaza Strip Graffiti is a potent contemporary example of the power of the political image. Banksy appropriates popular media imagery to make a political statement. Unlike images in the gallery space, Banksy’s media appropriated imagery relies heavily on its geographical context to form a political one. The work, showing two children digging to paradise is a prime example of this—on the gallery wall it would be meaningless, on the wall dividing Israelis from Palestinians it is a powerful political statement.

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