Politics is intrinsic to any society and the ways in which politicians have been visually represented through the medium of art is vast and varied. Ranging from perfect ideological images of political leaders to opinionated and outspoken portrayals. Throughout the 20th and 21st centuries politically charged artwork has become candid and controversial, often causing debates as to whether particular pieces of artwork can be shown to the public. Here are just few of the politically charged artworks that have made the headlines in some shape or form.
Maggie, Marcus Harvey, 2009
Best known for his painting of Myra Hindley, in 2009 Marcus Harvey portrayed Britain’s first female Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in the same style. In Myra, Harvey composed his image with plaster casts of children’s hands. In a similar fashion Harvey portrays Margaret Thatcher in a black and white portrait composed from plastic casts of masks, (such as of herself and Tony Blair) skulls, vegetables and hands. The allusion to vegetables was inspired by Thatcher being the daughter of a green grocer, and the reference to Tony Blair might seem quite random. However, it could perhaps be interpreted that one of Thatcher’s legacies was in fact the former Labour Leader, and Prime Minister, Tony Blair; By Thatcher removing the domination of trade unions, it forced Labour to reinvent itself and to become New Labour with Tony Blair, seen by some as more right wing than left wing, to lead the party. Alongside these main images, the painting also refers to various parts of British history.
Finding modern visual representations of Margaret Thatcher proved a hard task, making Harvey’s image one of the very few portraits of the former Prime Minister. In stark contrast to the formal and very conventional portraits of Thatcher, Harvey has produced an image that is thought provoking, provocative and highly interesting. The use of monochrome colouring provides the image with a melancholy feeling, being further intensified through the various inclusions of plaster cast items.
Mao, Andy Warhol, 1972
Using the silkscreen technique, Andy Warhol moved on from the popular celebrities of his time to this portrayal of the Chinese Communist leader Mao Zedong. In his Mao series of 1972, Warhol transforms a once politically charged image to one that became a part of the mass-produced consumer products that is Andy Warhol’s ‘work’.
It was after President Richard Nixon’s 1972 visit to China that Warhol created his Mao series. Warhol creates a mix between Communist propaganda and American media, to create his vibrant series. Using the main image of Mao from the former leader’s ‘Little Red Book’ which contained the writings and thoughts of Mao, Warhol uses this form of propaganda to create a highly colourful and graphic set of images transforming Mao into a worldwide celebrity icon.
In 2012 Warhol’s Mao series continued to stir controversy, as his portraits of the former Chinese dictator were excluded from being exhibited in China. It is understood that the Chinese authorities found the portraits disrespectful. This denial of displaying the Mao series serves to show how politically charged art, whether charged consciously or unconsciously, can be seen as a source of anxiety in today’s society.
Che Guevara Portrait, Jim Fitzpatrick, 1968
Jim Fitzpatrick’s portrait of the Revolutionary figure Che Guevara has become an iconic image, enduring through the years and being a source of inspiration for other political artworks. The image of Che Guevara was taken from a photo called Guerrillero Heroico which shows the political revolutionist wearing a black beret. Through the use of stencil-like technique, Fitzpatrick transforms the controversial leader into a widespread image that became prevalent within popular culture. The Che Guevara portrait is said to be one of the world’s most famous images, which is emphasised by it being mass reproduced on a variety of mediums and objects. It was Fitzpatrick’s aim for the “image to breed like rabbits”, and safe to say it has. The Che Guevara Portrait has thus become an enduring image of the notion of revolutions.
The Barack Obama ‘Hope’ poster, Shepard Fairey
The Barack Obama ‘Hope’ poster became an iconic image during the American Presidential campaign of 2008. The use of bright colours, alongside the stylised stencil graphic design of Obama, made the ‘Hope’ poster highly original and unique. This design also became one of the most recognised images of Obama’s campaign, and can be found on various types of different media – such as mugs and clothing.
This poster is somewhat reminiscent to the stylised image of Che Guevara made by Jim Fitzpatrick, and carries on the tradition of inventive and new ways for political candidates to produce campaign publicity. Since its creation in 2008 has become a source of inspiration for many different parodies, even becoming part of the anti-Obama campaign.
Obama Bust, Wangechi Mutu
Once again Obama makes another appearance in ‘The Art of Leaders’ – but for a different reason. Obama is fast becoming one of the most visually represented Political Leaders, and this sculpture by Wangechi Mutu shows the variety of ways which the leader is being depicted.
Currently there is an exhibition in the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History in Detroit, called ‘Visions of Our 44th President’. ‘Visions of Our 44th President’ aims to celebrate and recognise the historical significance of the first African American President of the United States of America, and hopes to inspire present and future generations with its messages of diversity, hope and possibility.
The exhibition displayed the work of 44 contemporary African-American artists, all which were based on a blank bust of President Barack Obama. Each artist had their own bust to create their own individual interpretation of what Barack Obama meant for them.
Wangechi Mutu’s Obama Bust invites the viewer to encounter the bust on a personal level. At first, what seems predominately black sculpture is in fact made up of a variety of different colours. As the viewer gets closer to the Obama Bust the proximity and the lighting reveals shades of red, blue and green. By bringing out different hues each time, Mutu makes her bust a personal and temporal sculptural – each encounter is different. This experience mirrors the way that each individual view of Barack Obama is different, subjective and entirely personal.