Art of the Radical Left (Coast)

Throughout art history, politics have inspired, informed and incited the cultural production of artists throughout the world. In today’s context of social and political unrest, the subject seems particularly relevant. Two major exhibitions in San Francisco and New York currently bookend the country with the art and politics of the radical left. In both Pissarro’s People (on view at the Legion of Honor through January 22, 2012) and Diego Rivera: Murals for the Museum of Modern Art (on view at the Museum of Modern Art through May 14, 2012), the political beliefs of the artists are placed front and center.

Pissarro Harvest

Camille Pissarro. The Harvest, 1882. Tempera on canvas. 27 11/16 x 49 9/16 in. The National Museum of Western Art, Tokyo, donated by the heirs of Mr. Kojiro Matsukata, P.1984-3

Although at first glance, Camille Pissarro and Diego Rivera appear to share much in the way of political ideology–they both believed in the equal distribution of wealth, the rejection of personal property and that revolution was the inevitable (and only) catalyst for change–their perspectives were ultimately divergent. The key to understanding these political differences can be found by breaking down the -isms to which each artist subscribed.

For the majority of his life, Pissarro was an ardent student of anarchism, dedicated to the abolition of a state sanctioned authority in favor of a communal form of self-government.

Camille Pissarro. Self-Portrait, 1903. Oil on Canvas. 16 1/8 x 13 1/8 in. Tate: Presented by Lucien Pissarro, the artist's son, 1931. NO4592 (PDR 1528)

Rivera, on the other hand, was an avowed Marxist. Marxism was a foundational form of communism that maintained the need for a centralized government that would own and distribute all collective property.

Diego Rivera speaking at a communist party meeting

In his recent article, Diego Rivera at MoMA Makes Us Ask, What Happened to the Radical Left in Art?, G. Roger Denson draws the unavoidable conclusion that Diego Rivera would have been a champion of the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) movement. Rivera’s depictions of the proletariat uprising, complete with requisite police or military clashes, undoubtedly resemble current news reports of the OWS protests, especially in light of recent events in Oakland. Pissarro’s more subtle approach, however, is perhaps a closer approximation of the OWS movement’s ideals as exemplified by its refusal to appoint a centralized authority, adherence to shared property and aspirations toward communal living.

In only one instance (to be examined in a forthcoming post from curator James Ganz) did Pissarro blatantly address political themes; rather, Pissarro’s artwork addressed what would today be called "the 99 percent."

Camille Pissarro. The Marketplace, 1882. Gouache on paper. 31 3/4 x 25 1/2 in. Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, private collection, L.1984.54

For Pissarro, nothing resembled the utopian future he envisioned more than the French countryside, wherein farm workers collaborated to provide food for their families and the community at large.

Camille Pissarro. Apple Harvest, 1888. Oil on canvas. 24 x 29 1/8 in. Dallas Museum of Art, Munger Fund, 1955.17.M

Raised in a Sephardic Jewish family in the Caribbean, Pissarro was comfortable with people of all races and at the outset of his career painted scenes representing the life of the Afro-Caribbean population of Saint Thomas.

Camille Pissarro. Two Women Chatting by the Sea, St. Thomas, 1856. 10 7/8 x 20 7/8 in. National Gallery of Art, Washington, collection of Mr. and Mrs. Paul Mellon. 1985.64.30

Pissarro’s sympathies toward service industry workers are revealed in an entire section of the exhibition dedicated to his empathetic portrayal of maids and other household servants.

Camille Pissarro. The Little Country Maid, 1882. Oil on canvas. 25 x 20 7/8 in. Tate: Bequeathed by Lucien Pissarro, the artist’s son, 1944, N05575

The representation of politics in art ranges from the blatantly obvious to the obliquely metaphorical, and whereas Rivera used his art to clearly articulate his political beliefs, Pissarro subtly infused his work with visual referents to his individual brand of politics.

To learn more about the myriad influences that helped Pissarro forge his political identity, visit Pissarro’s People, on view at the Legion of Honor through January 22, 2012.

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Further reading: Pissarro's People.