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White Paper: Art & Politics of Jacques-Louis David and Vladimir Tatlin



The Death of Marat by Jacques-Louis David

For centuries politics has played a major role in the lives of artists and their masterful work, whether those artists were for or against the politics of that era. This essay will talk about the politics of the 18th and 20th centuries and the art it inspired in the Neo-Classical and Constructivist movements. Also this essay will explore, in depth, two artists from each of those time periods and their work. This essay will attempt to identify if the art created by these two artists was because of these political movements, or if their art was a production of other art movements and the artist’s own historical backgrounds with minimal aid from these upheavals in politics.


The French Revolution; France: 1789


France, under the rule of Louis XVI, was circling a bottomless hole called debt. The debt of the country had reached and equivalent of $6 billion (in 1999 dollars) and interest payments were half of the annual revenues. The money to pay off this debt was getting harder to come by so the government sought help from prominent nobles and churchmen of the country who blatantly refused to give any aid. King Louis then forced new laws for more taxes and loans from its people. Then the crisis of the country was increased because of poor harvests and devastating hail storms that destroyed the second planting of crop. France subsequently endured the second coldest winter of the century. Merchants with stock in grain raised the price of bread higher than it had been in 75 years (Brummett et. al. 413-414). The country was in bad shape and getting worse.


Soon the lower and middle class people of France stormed the Bastille and demolished the prison building, and peasants across France raged against their lords. As a result nobles and clergy “renounced tithes, serfdom, manorial duties, feudal privileges unequal taxes and the sale of offices” (Brummett et al. 415).


The country was poverty stricken, the price of the meager food they did have was ridiculous, radical revolts against Louis and the government broke out, and opponents of the Revolution began to act against it. King Louis was soon ordered to be executed which in turn caused a full-scale civil war. Many nobles and commoners lost their lives. One such man was Jean-Paul Marat friend of Jacques-Louis David famed Neo-Classical artist of the time.


The Neo-Classical art spawned not only from the French Revolution, but also from the unearthing of two Roman cities, Pompeii and Herculaneum. These two Roman cities hold the only paintings left by Roman artists because they were perfectly preserved by the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius which consequently killed the entire population of both cities. The public was fascinated by these findings, and the “…“Pompeian” style was all the rage” (Kleiner and Mamiya 815).


The period is called such because its artisans looked unto the classical times, more so than their predecessors of the Renaissance, and their ideals of order and rational control (Introduction to Neoclassicism 1), and because Neoclassicism is an art of the classical ideals, artists did not repeat listless reproductions of what they saw, rather they created it anew in each piece of their work (Neoclassicism 1). The art of this time was especially in contrast to the previous styles of the Baroque and Rococo. Neo-classical paintings lacked pastel colors and haziness, and rather possessed strong colors and Chiaroscuro (Neoclassicism 2). Also Neo-classical artists used the guidance of wisdom from their Roman and Greek ancestors and believed “… human nature is imperfect, human achievements are necessarily limited, and therefore human aims should be sensibly limited as well. It was better to set a moderate goal, whether in art or society, and achieve it well, then to strive for an infinite ideal and fail” (Introduction to Neoclassicism 1). Neoclassicist “…aimed [toward] general truth rather than [toward] unique vision, to communicate to others more than to express themselves” (Introduction to Neoclassicism 2). Jacques-Louis David painted in this style and mentality.


David was the fundamental art authoritarian in France. After a few struggles he won the Prix de Rome, there after he accompanied his mentor to Italy and his passion for antiques grew as he traveled to Rome viewing the remnants of Pompeii and Herculaneum. “Consumed by a desire for perfection and by a passion for the political ideals of the French Revolution, David imposed a fierce discipline on the expression of sentiment in his work. The inhibition resulted in a distinct coldness and rationalism approach” (Yahoo Encyclopedia 1). David had modified the classical and academic customs and he defied the Rococo style as an “artificial taste” while glorifying the classical arts as the replication of nature in her gorgeous and most flawless form (Kleiner and Mamiya 816).


Jacques-Louis David was increasingly involved in the French Revolution with its riots and upheavals especially with the Death of his friend Marat. He believed “the arts must … contribute forcefully to the education of the public” (Kleiner and Mamiya 817).

We can therefore understand how the revolution had an adverse effect on him as well as the unearthing of and the exploration of ancient Roman artifacts, architecture and beliefs.

Across time and space another revolution was happening and new artistic movements were being initiated.


Tatlin's Tower by Vladimir Tatlin

Communism and the Revolution; Soviet Russia: 1917


Lenin was the ruling government of sorts in Russia and moved to create Communism which was widely unpopular. In the beginning the new government faced six years of war and civil dissension, industrial production dropped by 13% and crop failure, poor management and the break down of transportation lead to this disaster. Like the times attributing to the French Revolution famine plagued the country. Lenin decided the country needed to take a step backwards, if only in order to take two steps forward. This retreat allowed Russia to get back on its feet. Taxes were set at a fixed rate, farmers were allowed to own their own land again, management could once again take hold in factories, workers received larger incomes, and foreign commerce and technology was favored. After Lenin’s death Stalin took over and meant to build a new secular religion for the Soviet Union. Leninism formed and continued for more than 60 years. Stalin tried to transform peasant lands into government land while paying the peasants and farmers for their land annually. This new policy was a disaster and the peasants rebelled, but thousands were executed for this. The country was in great upheavals while Stalin took to pushing communism in his own ‘improved’ form (Brummett et al. 544-546).


This time of revolution signaled to Russian avant-grade artists that the hated old government was ending and in the new ‘utopian’ fashion they were determined to play a significant role in the new world (Kleiner and Mamiya 1005). Suprematism was first launched after Cubism, Fauvism, Futurism, Dada and Die Brucke, when artists continually re-assessed the role of art, and it became a non-object based art movement as Constructivism soon became. Suprematists created art only for its aesthetic qualities. Although Suprematism had its supporters (Rodchenko, Tatlin, Gabo and Pevsner) its time was short lived. Tatlin arose and fathered Constructivism, and while the Revolution was going on it had an immense effect on some members altering their motives pushing towards designing functional constructions which would aid Soviet Russia. Because of the revolution, however, members began having different ideas of what the movement should and shouldn’t become. Tatlin and Rodchenko requested artists should refrain from creating redundant art and begin producing useful objects. They created objects such as workers Boiler suits, stoves, newspaper stands, new typographic styles and cigarette kiosks using art solely for Soviet propaganda, until Stalin outlawed the style and declared ‘Soviet Realism’ the only tolerable art form (Smith 4).

Vladimir Tatlin was not only the founding member in the Constructivist movement, also dubbed as ‘Productivism,’ but an artist of the movement as well. His most famed work is the ‘Monument to the Third International’ which is also known as Tatlin’s Tower. This tower was made of iron, glass and steel meant to dwarf the Eiffel Tower in Paris by 1,300 feet or one third the Eiffel Tower’s height. This tower was unique because inside its iron/steel structure of twin spirals there were three building blocks enclosed by glass windows meant to rotate at different speeds during the year. The high cost of this expedition and the tremendous amount of resources kept it from being fully realized (Vladimir Tatlin 1). His works were mostly created from a compass and ruler to produce unusual picture spaces using a wide range of materials such as glass, tin, wood and plaster. His aim was to combine these materials and produce an important visual aspect in his art.


While these two artists, Jacques-Louis David and Vladimir Tatlin, lived during two distinctive periods and produced two entirely different styles of art relating to two different movements, they did have some rudimentary elements common.


As stated in Gardner’s Art through the Ages, David believed “the arts must … contribute forcefully to the education of the public” (817). Soviet Russia believed that art should contribute to educating the public on what it would do for the country, which Tatlin truly believed in. These two artists both worked for the revolution, Tatlin believing completely in the Russian government, and David being an active member of his own. Jacques David did not initially begin producing art for the government but eventually did so, and Tatlin followed unbeknownst to him, in David’s footsteps, although the use of the art produced by these two significant artists was utilized for different objectives within each government.


It is hard to compare and contrast the actual art produced by these two artists because they are vastly different in choice of materials and construction. David used paint on canvas replicating and elaborating the ‘Classical’ style of the Greeks and Romans, where as Tatlin constructed work that was almost mathematical using industrial elements and forms drawn from the Cubist and Futurist movements which had flourished after the Neo-Classical time period.


As much as the art from the Neo-Classical and Constructivist movements were evolutions from previous art styles and movements as well as the individual artists contributing to the movement, it was not solely based upon them. Without the French Revolution and the Revolution of Soviet Russia, these artists would never have created such work as they did, David would still have his friend Jean-Paul Manet and Tatlin would not have felt a need to create art for the new government to educate and contribute to it and society. As great as these artists were, their work and its symbolism was very much fueled by those revolutions and those revolutions fueled their work. Both artists will continue to be looked at as important figures in art, and the art created by them will always be valued because it has shaped history and inspired new art and artistic movements.



Works Cited

Brummett, Edgar, Hackett, Jewsbury, Taylor, Bailkey, Lewis, Wallbank. Civilizations Past & Present Concise Version. Addison Wesley Educational Publishers, 2001.


Kleiner, Fred S., Mamiya, Christin J. Gardner’s Art Through the Ages Twelfth Edition. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth/Thomson Learning, 2005.


Introduction to Neoclassicism. 17 Aug. 2000. Brooklyn College. <http://academic.broklyn.cuny.edu/english/melani/cs6/neocl.html>


“Neoclassicism.” Wikipedia. 4 Aug. 2006. <http://en.eikipedia.org/wiki/Neoclassicism>


Smith, David. Constructivism and Suprematism. 1999. <http://users.senet.com.au/~dsmith/constructivism.htm>


“Vladimir Tatlin.” Wikipedia. 4 Aug. 2006. <http://en.eikipedia.org/wiki/Vladimir_Tatlin>

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