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Tate exhibition shows how art has always blossomed through revolt and revolution

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Issue 2379
The Death of Marat, Jacques-Louis David (1793)	Picture: Tate Liverpool

The Death of Marat, Jacques-Louis David (1793) Picture: Tate Liverpool


Art has never been separate from politics, or indeed from life. The Art Turning Left: How Values Changed Making 1789-2013 exhibition drives that message home. 

It brings together pieces from the French Revolution, the Russian Revolution, France during May 1968 and right up to modern day movements of resistance and revolt and everything in between. 

The coherence of the exhibition does not lie in the outward assembly of the art. Here for example, you will find Jacques-Louis David’s painting The Death of Marat (1793) alongside an Art and Soccer (1986) television installation from the Zvono Group of Bosnia and Herzogovina.

Rather, this extraordinarily diverse collection is organised through a series of provocative questions, such as “Is the identity of the artist more important that the artwork itself?” “How can art infiltrate everyday life?” “Can pursuing equality change how art is made?” and so on.

Art interacts with social movements, national liberation struggles, community protests, revolts and revolutions in many different ways.

In the photomontage and prints of the constructivists Rodchenko and El Lissitzky, celebration of the socialist revolution mixes with a conceptual belief in the humanisation of technology.

In the May 68 section, the posters of the Atelier Populaire workshop testify to the democratic creativity of a revolutionary moment. It emerged from a spontaneous meeting of art students and protesters at the Ecole des Beaux Arts

The works of the Spanish Equipo Group established in Paris, 1957 show the values of rationalism and anti-individualism that are points of return for the successive generations of left-wing artists on display. 

So also does the piece Collective Operation from the first Congress of Free Artists held in Italy in 1956, which shows artists merging their individual efforts into a single work.

Similarly the works of the US feminist Guerrilla Girls who in 1985 asked “Do women have to be naked to get in to the Met. Museum?” were produced as an anonymous collective. 

A photographic commentary on the disaster of war by Bertolt Brecht is placed alongside a small Brechtian theatrical installation. Art of the movement is also displayed in the work of Walter Crane, the socialist illustrator, cartoonist and designer of grand old trade union banners. 

Running through the exhibition are the questions of the value and purpose of artistic production. The Arts and Crafts movement inspired by the work of William Morris presents one answer—that art should be a salvation from the degradation of life under capitalism, a “redemption from slavery”.

The continuation of that idea is shown in the German Workers Council for Art movement in Germany, from the Bauhaus movement that came after and in the Productivist art of Liubov Popova in the 1920s in Russia. 

The sheer range of this exhibition is breathtaking—and the relationship between art and revolts against capitalism is striking.

Art Turning Left: How Values Changed Making 1789-2013  Tate Liverpool until 2 February, £8.80/£6.60

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