The Power of Pictures
Friday, October 4, 2013 to Monday, December 16, 2013

Faces of Protest and Revolutionary Art

    Visual images present themselves for immediate perception. Pictures appeal directly to emotions, concepts, and attitudes in ways that words cannot. Unlike the linear sequence of language, visual images are less susceptible to logical critique. Recognizing their seductive power, commercial advertisers and political activists frequently employ images to similar ends, to define a product or cause and rally support without recourse to written analysis. The right images can quickly and efficiently erode established ways of thinking and contribute to a new social consensus, whether it is about the virtues of Apple’s digital technology or the merits of social reform.

     Vladimir Mayakovsky entered the Moscow Art School in 1911. A poet, playwright, actor, and artist, he emerged as a leading spokesman for the Russian Futurist movement. He also became a prominent proponent of Marxist-Leninist ideas. During and after the Russian Revolution, he worked for the Russian State Telegraph Agency (ROSTA), creating satirical posters to build support for Communist Party programs. Following the October Revolution of 1917, an agitprop (agitation and propaganda) train transported artists and actors across the country to perform simple plays and broadcast propaganda on behalf of the new government. The train carried a printing press which allowed ROSTA employees to reproduce posters on demand as the train passed through small villages. Among other work, Mayakovsky produced a twelve-panel poster that explained and encouraged the revolt of the working class against capital. Meant to be hung in the windows of telegraph and railroad offices throughout the Soviet Union, few copies of any sheets from the series have survived. In 2010 Beinecke Library acquired a full set, shown here.

    During the social and political protests of the 1960s and 1970s visual artists provided the general populace with images that made explicit the personal commitment of individuals to broad social movements. As a printer and photographer in San Francisco, Jon Lewis followed and supported the efforts of César Chávez and others on behalf of migrant farm workers. In March and April 1966, he walked with union activists from Delano to Sacramento. His portraits of Dolores Huerta, of marchers passing a vineyard, and of three women participants are drawn from the more than 10,000 photographs that constitute his archive at Beinecke.

     As minister of culture for the Black Panther Party, Emory Douglas used simple, inexpensive posters and newsprint illustrations to challenge popular images of African-Americans as helpless, ignorant people who needed others to rescue them. He portrayed African-Americans not as victims but as righteous, angry men and women prepared to defend their families and communities against forces that sought to oppress them. Douglas’s images unapologetically asserted the necessity of the community arming itself to defend its children. His powerful images are as disquieting today as they were controversial in the 1960s, but their strength, then and now, lies less in the violence they may imply than in the dignity of his characters. They dress with pride, love their children, and are committed to helping each other. Douglas’s posters were a call to unity and collective action in defiance of stereotypes that undermined the autonomy and freedom of African-American communities.

     In 1970, Black Panther Party activists Bobby Seale and Ericka Huggins were tried for conspiracy to kidnap and murder a fellow Panther, Alex Rackley. Neither was present during the murder and many people speculated that the charges were primarily an effort to destroy the Party. Although the judge barred artists from the courtroom and prohibited sketching during proceedings, CBS News commissioned Robert Templeton to produce illustrations for their network newscasts. Templeton worked surreptitiously, quickly making small sketches in his notebook in court and during breaks. Afterwards, often on a helicopter to New York, he prepared larger drawings for the nightly news. Shown here is a sketch of Charles R. Gary and Bobby Seale, as well as a larger, more formal drawing of defense lawyer, Catherine Roraback.

     For nearly fifty years, Tano D’Amico has photographed Italian students, workers, and feminists as they have agitated to reform Italian institutions and customs. Four images from Beinecke’s extensive collection provide a street-level perspective of the often violent confrontations that shook Rome in 1977 and 1978. In one of his most powerful photographs, a female student peers past two Carabinieri. The woman’s decorative scarf seems out of place as a mask, but her eyes, despite their youthful appearance, are full of purpose. The rifle strap across the shoulder of the policemen reinforces the seriousness of the confrontation.

Contesting the Power of Pictures

     Images can as easily contribute to unthinking conformity as to social revolution. After World War II, new ways of printing and marketing magazines led to a proliferation of internationally distributed journals replete with glossy, commercial pictures selling products which threatened to overwhelm local, regional, and national customs. In the early 1960s the Italian painter Gianni Bertini and French poet Jean-Clarence Lambert pushed back against the reductive power of images in a collaborative project that satirized the sexist materialism of Elle, the Paris-based fashion magazine. Recognizing the difficulty of using words to challenge the magazine’s graphic design, Bertini and Lambert combined cardboard cutouts created from advertisements in the magazine with watercolors and molded plastic sheets to create Les folies françaises, an experimental artist’s book that employed collage and free-form re-organization of the book’s contents to critique the way that Elle’s imagery reduced women to possessions. It seems appropriate to close this exhibit on the power of pictures with a display of parts of Les folies françaises that reminds us to contemplate rather than merely absorb what we see.


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