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Collective affinities: Art Turning Left at Tate Liverpool

A new exhibition at Tate Liverpool looks at how left-wing values have influenced the production and reception of art. Rakesh Ramchurn reports

Every movement – and every counter-movement – has its band of believing artists keen to create the work to serve their politics. This has been especially true for left wing movements, where the power of the visual image works well to challenge the conservative status quo and to draw attention to the misfortunes of deprived communities. And it’s one of life’s ironies that much of this socially-committed art goes on to be bought and sold within an élitist art market where works are seen as an ‘investment opportunity’ to be reaped when the time is right.

Art Turning Left, a new exhibition at Tate Liverpool, wisely avoids collecting artworks with socialist intentions – such a show would be too vast – but instead asks a more interesting question: how have left wing values changed the production and distribution of art?

The Death of Marat by Jacques-Louis David (1793)

The Death of Marat by Jacques-Louis David (1793)

Two of the oldest works in the exhibition are oil paintings, both of which embody left wing values in very different ways. When Jean-Paul Marat was killed in his bath for his political affiliations, Jacques-Louis David depicted his friend as enlightened martyr in The Death of Marat (1793), a painting that was replicated by his students so that the image and its revolutionary message could be spread across the country, making the work accessible to many and forgoing the idea that an artwork should be unique. Meanwhile, Maximilien Luce’s L’aciérie (1895) depicts a scene of industrial workers painted using the pointillist technique in which individual dots of colour combine to create a unified image, embodying Luce’s own anarcho-communist beliefs.

Designers for the mass market were also affected by the tide of socialism. Marx’s writings on the alienation of workers from their products led textile designer William Morris to turn away from the ‘useless toil’ of industrial production in his factory and towards the use of more craft techniques, believing that labourers would better enjoy their work if it utilised their intellect. And although the artists of the Bauhaus embraced modern production methods, their manifesto details their beliefs in a unification of the arts that would better serve society. A selection of Bauhaus pieces on display includes Marianne Brandt’s Ashtray (1924) and Kandem Desk Lamp (1928) and a sugar bowl by Otto Lindig – objects designed for ordinary homes, not as bourgeois centrepieces.

Desk Lamp by Marianne Brandt, member of Bauhaus school (1928)

Desk Lamp by Marianne Brandt, member of Bauhaus school (1928)

But it’s on the streets that the spirit of revolution is most felt, and a large display of posters from the May 1968 demonstrations in Paris are instantly recognisable as motifs of the left. The posters were created by Atelier Populaire, a collective of radical students and teachers who took over the Ecole des Beaux Arts and who produced these ‘weapons in the service of the struggle’ anonymously as an act of solidarity which considered the individual nature of the artists as irrelevant. The idea of artists wilfully choosing anonymity and disappearing into a collective (a far cry from today’s self-marketing egoists) is also seen in the work of Equipo 57, a collective of Spanish artists who even evolved a group aesthetic to prevent individual flourishes undermining group unanimity, and Guerilla Girls, a collective of female artists who campaigned against inequalities in the art world.

And what happens to art when a revolution reaches the seat of government? An artistically rich period following the 1917 revolution in Russia saw one of the few instances of a state-supported avant-garde movement through the works of Constructivist artists such as El Lissitzky, whose designs to promote a return of the Russian Futurist ballet Victory Over The Sun featured the geometric designs and mechanical figures approved by the Soviet authorities of the time. Many Russian artists wanted to play an active part in the creation of a new, fairer world and, while propaganda has long become a dirty word, the idea of educating (or indoctrinating) the masses after the revolution was seen as paramount. Hence Lissitzky states in 1926 that his ‘most important work as an artist begins: the creation of exhibitions’, and his Design for a Soviet Pavilion (1928), which features films, newsreel, photomontage and animation, aims to make the glories of the revolution easily accessible to ordinary people. The idea is also taken up in Gustav Klutsis’s designs for information kiosks, including one disturbingly titled Down With Art. Long Live Agitational Propaganda. Design for Propaganda Kiosk (1922).

Design for Soviet Pavilion, Pressa, Cologne by El Lissitzky (1928)

Design for Soviet Pavilion, Pressa, Cologne by El Lissitzky (1928)

Disappointingly, no works in the exhibition show the effect of Stalin’s rise to power and his rejection of >> avant-garde styles in favour of Socialist Realism on Russian art, although there are a couple of photographs and paintings made during China’s failed Cultural Revolution which show painfully posed subjects – all cheesy smiles and optimism – in the style that came to typify the Communist bloc.

Back in the West, artists began to empower the ‘man on the street’ in works which reached out to their communities and which shunned the gallery as an élitist institution. Braco Dimitrijevi ´c’s Casual Passer By series saw the artist taking photographs of people he met and blowing these up to huge proportions, which he then displayed in public, making celebrities out of ordinary people while also bringing artworks onto the streets.

Casual Passer-by I met at 1.43pm, Venice, 1976 by Braco Dimitrijevic (1976)

Casual Passer-by I met at 1.43pm, Venice, 1976 by Braco Dimitrijevic (1976)

More impressive still was a video showing the background to Francis Alÿs’s work When Faith Moves Mountains (2002), which saw him enlist hundreds of volunteers in Peru to move a 1,600 foot sand dune using shovels. Participants were asked to give their time and energy for free as a sign of what collective endeavour can achieve, and they succeeded in shifting the massive dune by about four feet.

But before you leave the exhibition, be sure to visit Self Service by Luis Camnitzer. This exhibit consists of six piles of A4 paper, each with a different gallery-related profundity printed on it. ‘Bare Walls are Unerotic’ reads one; ‘Looking Without Paying is Thievery’ states another. The pages are not signed; in fact, a stamp of Camnitzer’s signature is provided and, to subvert the idea that an artwork only becomes valuable once signed by a known and respected artist, visitors are encouraged to complete the process by stamping the artist’s signature onto the works themselves. So you can walk away with six works by renowned artist Luis Camnitzer. Of course, even with a rubber-stamped signature, that clutch of photocopies is worthless. The Tate wouldn’t give valuable artworks away. But art remains art even if you can’t make money out of it, right?

Art Turning Left
Tate Liverpool
Until 2 February 2014


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