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Vive La Revolutión: Famous Political Paintings
The very best in activist art
Art Stuff 02 Aug 2022

Far from being just fanciful, decorative items, paintings have been used for generations to make bold political statements and support important causes. Sometimes this is overt, like Shepard Fairey’s Hope poster for Barack Obama’s presidential campaign, or more discreet like the motifs in the portraits of nobility in the 17th Century. Truly, any artwork that takes an investigative look at the way society functions, is “political”.

We’re highlighting 5 of our favourite political paintings from the past 100 years, representing the very best in activist art.

Keith Haring, Ignorance = Fear, 1989

Image: Tate Liverpool, Collection Emmanuelle and Jérôme de Noirmont

At a time where misinformation about HIV/AIDS was rife, homophobic hate was skyrocketing, and hundreds of thousands were dying, Keith Haring made a series of artworks to bring awareness to the real science behind the illness. Before he died from AIDS-related complications, the artist founded The Keith Haring Foundation which does incredible work to this day.

Dmitri Vrubel, My God, Help Me to Survive this Deadly Love, 1990

Perhaps the most famous piece of street art on the Berlin Wall, this painting shows Leonid Brezhnev (General Secretary of the Communist Party in the Soviet Union) and Erich Honecker (German Democratic Republic Leader) in a ‘Socialist Fraternal Kiss’. Vrubel was making a satirical statement on the intimate proximity of Communist leaders and the wall that was created to separate their countries.

Faith Ringgold, American People Series #20: Die, 1967

Image: MoMa

Faith Ringgold has created many politically-charged masterpieces. With this painting, Ringgold shone a light on the race-related brutality and race riots occurring in the United States. When the work was first shown at a solo show of Ringgold’s work in New York, it is said that a woman saw the painting – screamed – and disappeared straight away into a lift.

Jean-Michel Basquiat, Defacement, 1983

Image: Photograph: Allison Chipak/Collection of Nina Clemente, New York

This painting, showing a scene of police brutality, was inspired by the death of the artist Michael Stewart. Michael Stewart and Basquiat moved in the same circles, were said to look quite similar, and Stewart was even dating one of Basquiat’s exes, so, when he died from injuries sustained by being beaten by police officers on a train – it shook Basquiat to his core.

Frida Kahlo, Moses, 1945

Frida Kahlo was a staunch communist and made political art throughout her career. Moses was inspired by Sigmund Freud’s Moses and Monotheism and includes references to ancient histories, world-leaders, and religious imagery. In the centre a newborn baby with a third eye absorbs the complex political world into which he has been born.

Author: Verity Babbs

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