Documenting Revolution Through Art

by Enakshi Chatterjee

“Painting is not made to decorate apartments; it is an offensive and defensive instrument of war against the enemy.”-Pablo Picasso

From the Lascaux cave paintings, dating back almost 20,000 years, to Norman Rockwell’s painting of ‘Rosie the Riveter’, art has developed gradually into an extension of expression and a vessel of change.

Russian Revolution (1917)

The abolition of Imperial Russia and the inception of the Soviet Union saw the first crucial uprising of the 1900s and openly used art as tools of propaganda (see below). The socio-political landscape was also captured in George Orwell’s anti-utopian novel Animal Farm (1945). Songs like “Katyusha” (КАТЮША) and “Boldly, Comrades, in Step” (Смело, товарищи, в ногу) encapsulated the Russian transition to Communism and represented the defining epoch in movies and documentaries for decades to come.

German Revolution (1918–19)

Heavily nuanced by its Russian counterpart, the German Revolution of 1918–19 replaced the German Federal Constitutional Monarchy with the Weimar Republic on November 9th 1918 following the forced abdication of Kaiser Wilhelm II.

This reconstruction of the nation provided the opportunity for art to establish itself as an element of national identity. The people of Germany revered music as the adhesive that kept them united amidst the socio-economic upheaval. Richard Strauss, Max von Schillings and Paul Graener are a few of many prominent composers of the time whose music embodied German nationalism and the fundamental values of the people. Hans Pfitzner, a celebrated composer, once expressed,

“It is not, I believe, possible to consider the essence of an art without also considering the issue of nationality”.

Books such as Alfred Dӧblin’s “Berlin Alexanderplatz” manifest the ethos and pathos of the time whilst Adolf Hitler’s “Mein Kampf” served as the political manifesto of the notorious leader of the National Socialist German Workers’ Party. Music, literature and culture carry tradition, ethics and ideologies and have since become intrinsic components of German politics. Political campaigns and movements utilise art to bridge the gap between the government and the people.

Mexican Revolution (1910 to 1920s)

The Mexican Revolution (Revolución Mexicana) was a complex and brutal event, which involved a sequence of armed struggles lasting roughly from 1910 to 1920, and led to the loss of 900,000 people. The Revolution began with a “letter from jail,” known as the Plan de San Luis Potosí, sporting the slogan Sufragio Efectivo, No Re-elección (“free suffrage and no re-election”). It proclaimed that the Díaz presidency (under Mexican president/dictator General Porfirio Díaz) illegal and called for a revolt against him, starting on 20 November 1910 to overthrow their current ruler and dictator.

On his deposition, Francisco I. Madero became president and the Madero presidency became increasingly ensnared in a string of unfortunate events called the Ten Tragic Days (La Decena Trágica), comprising of a coup d’état resulting in the arrest of Madero and his vice president, José María Pino Suárez, who then resigned. Although there was the possibility that they could go into exile similar to that of former President Porfirio Díaz in May 1911, however in a violent turn of events Madero and Pino Suárez were murdered on 22 February 1913. The following period consisted of conflicts between opposing contingents of the Mexican army assaulting or defending Madero’s presidency with the arbitrary nature of artillery and rifle fire carried out resulting in significant losses among uninvolved civilians and major damage to property in the capital’s downtown.
Under his successor, Venustiano Carranza, Mexico faced a series of reforms including the introduction of women’s rights and began intermingling with a superpower to the immediate north, United States of America. However, the relationship between the United States and Mexico soon turned sour as America began encroaching on territory to the north as a response to loans granted to the Carranza Government. This led to the Punitive Expedition which ended with American troops returning without any concrete progress and considerable increase in anti-American sentiment among the Mexican people. This period of civil unrest prompted many artists to express themselves and their perspective in the form of paintings, murals and photographs.

Several pieces of art including movies, music and paintings have been created on the revolution, cementing its place in history. ‘Si Adelita Se Fuera Con Otro,’ (1948) is a popular movie falling under the Mexican ranchera genre which paints a loose picture of the revolution and its mishaps, with its inspiration being the well known corrido, “Adelita.”

Maria Herrera-Sobek, author of The Mexican Corridor: The Feminist Analysis, described the revolutionary song “Juana Gallo” in the following words: “the song casts her (Juana) as a female Hercules who is invincible and whose enemies, even the most stout of heart, tremble at her audacity.”

In his piece, Paisaje Zapatista (1915) famed muralist Diego Rivera stakes claim to his Mexican identity and aligned himself with the Mexican Revolution and the mexicanidad movement, which ridiculed colonial influence and honoured traditional Mexican culture and craft. With his contemporaries David Alfaro Siqueiros and José Clemente Orozco, Rivera launched Mexican Muralism, a movement which was lionised by illustrious art historian Meyer Schapiro in 1937 as “the most vital and imposing art produced on this continent in the 20th century.”

Cultural Revolution (1949)

The establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949 constitute one of the most cataclysmic periods in recent Chinese history. The government led by Mao Zedong strived to modernize every aspect of pre-existing Chinese society resulting in the ‘Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution’ (1966–1976), which involved suppressing or destroying much of traditional culture and creating a new one to appeal to the Chinese public. Artists were urged to translate evolution into their pieces and abandon traditional methods.

Beginning with the replacement of ink paintings (called ‘literati paintings’) with oil paintings and themes veering towards revolutionary ideals, such as workers and soldiers and further away from conventional inspirations such as natural landscapes, birds and flowers. This period of reformation (often referred to as the decade of catastrophe) saw senior artists (especially ink painters)publicly humiliated, in some instances tortured, with their homes and art pieces left in ruins.

This vehement intolerance of past tradition extended beyond the art world, killing tens of thousands of artists and artisans alike. Music as well, adopted a patriotic and nationalist style with songs like “The East is Red” becoming the de facto national anthem of the era. The revolution was, in fact, activated by the photograph of Mao Zedong’s historic swim in the Yangtze river which put Beijing in the spotlight and acted as proof of his robust health and China’s power.

Cuban Revolution (1953-57)

Cuba formally gained independence from the United States of America on May 20, 1902 and was plunged into a period of political and social instability and endured a number of coups and revolts. Fulgencio Batista served as elected president from 1940–44 and then again in 1952, after staging a military coup and the cancellation of elections. Supplementing this, was a shift from moderately progressive policies and governance in his first term to significantly dictatorial and ignorant to the needs of his people. His ties to organised crime units and the permitted infiltration of American companies and their dominance in the Cuban economy, sparked large spread contempt within the Cuban population.

The Cuban revolution (Revolución Cubana), which was brewing since Batista’s re-election, set into motion with the multi-pronged attack by the paramilitary organisation “The Movement”, headed by Fidel Castro and his brother Ruiz on 26th July, 1953. The conflict only escalated after this, leading to the subsequent arrest of Fidel and of his accomplices, some being brutally murdered and the torture of the revolutionaries. In 1955, Fidel Castro and his fellow rebels were joined by the Argentine Marxist revolutionary Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara. In 1956, Cuba saw a rise in communal violence and the Batista government resorting to brutal methods to keep uprisings in control. On 29 April 1956 at 12:50 PM during Sunday mass, an independent guerrilla group consisting of 100 rebels led by Reynol Garcia attacked the Domingo Goicuria army barracks in Matanzas province. The attack resulted in ten rebels and three soldiers being killed in action, and one rebel summarily executed by the garrison commander.

A CIA linked Frank Sturgis assisted Castro and the Movement by supplying guns and ammunition. An arms embargo — imposed on the Cuban government by the United States on 14 March 1958 — contributed significantly to the downfall of Batista’s forces. The Cuban Air Force rapidly deteriorated: it could not repair its airplanes without importing parts from the United States

On 31st December, 1958 with the Battle of Santa Clara occured amidst a scene of great confusion. The city of Santa Clara then fell to the combined forces of Che Guevara, Cienfuegos, and Revolutionary Directorate (RD) rebels led by Comandantes Rolando Cubela, Juan (“El Mejicano”) Abrahantes, and William Alexander Morgan. Upon hearing the news of his defeat, Fulgencio Batista fled to the Dominican Republic and the revolution had come to an end.

An important part of the visual memory of Cuba’s struggles was embodied in the masterpieces by artists such as Raúl Martínez, Servando Cabrera Moreno, Eduardo Muñoz Bachs, Antonio Pérez González, René Azcuy, Antonio Fernández Reboira and others skilfully employed various techniques while embracing a more sophisticated tint of pop, abstraction, figuration and the Art Nouveau movement.

It had a dignity and an aesthetic standing that turned the utilitarian poster into a milestone of Cuban cultural history in the second half of the twentieth century.

Peaceful Revolution (1989–1990)

The ‘Friedliche Revolution’ was the process of sociopolitical growth that led to the reunification of Germany in October 1990, marking the end of the Socialist Unity Party of Germany regime in East Germany. This was advocated by non-violent initiatives and demonstrations by the people. This period of change is also referred to in German as ‘Die Wende’ or “The Turning Point”. Graffiti played an influential role in this conflict-free movement.

The Berlin Wall was an intricate system of concrete walls, separating the East side from the West, embodying the hostility of the Cold War. The wall was raised to 14 feet tall in the 1980s, which created the perfect blank canvas for disgruntled artists and individuals of West Berlin to portray their views on the socio-political scenario.

Young people orchestrated major demonstrations under the banner “Wir sind das Volk!” (“We are the people!”), participating in peace marches and human chains across the country in the early 1980s, protesting against the escalating arms race of the world’s superpowers. Saxon’s song “For Whom the Bell Tolls.” eerily predicted events in Berlin in 1989: “A city divided, the West and the East. Tear down the walls, and give them release. People are marching, they’re out in the streets, shouting for freedom, shouting for peace.”

The Civil Rights Movement (1954–1968)

The decades-long struggle started in the late 1800s by African-Americans to end legalized racial discrimination, disenfranchisement and racial segregation in the United States, lead by Martin Luther King Jr. and several notable leaders created a greater world for African Americans in America and led to the future empowerment of minority groups around the world.

Freedom songs like “We Shall Overcome” became the anthem of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s.

The unfortunate circumstances surrounding the killing of George Floyd, and several members of the african-american community, by the very policemen who swore to serve and protect them, portray a grim reality that the racism and discrimination which existed prior to the civil rights movement is yet to be extinguished.

Women’s Liberation Movement(1960s-Ongoing) and The Suffrage Movement (1850s–1930s)

The Women’s movement, inspired by the women’s suffrage (which began officially on 10 October 1903, was actually conceptualised in the 1850s but lost its momentum when the Civil War began), urged women to question their status in society and set of a chain of events which brought up the issue of a woman’s right to initiate divorce proceedings and “no fault” divorce, their right to make individual decisions regarding pregnancy (including access to contraceptives and abortion), and for the their claim to ownership of property. It has also resulted in a demand for women’s employment at more equitable wages, and unbarred access to university education.

On the heels of World War II, the United Nations (UN) extended feminism’s global reach by establishing a Commission on the Status of Women in 1946., which later combined with the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC). In 1948, the UN issued its Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which protects “the equal rights of men and women”, and addressed both equality and equity. With the World Conference of the International Women’s Year in Mexico City (1975) spearheading their Decade for Women period (1975–1985), the UN went on to conduct a series of global conferences on women’s issues. The Nairobi convention in 1975 disseminated that feminism was not homogenous and concluded that it “constituted the political expression of the concerns and interests of women from different regions, classes, nationalities, and ethnic backgrounds.”

There is and must be a diversity of feminisms, responsive to the different needs and concerns of women, and defined by them for themselves.” -UN Conference on Women’s Issues in Nairobi (1975)

While the first-wave feminism focused mainly on suffrage and overturning legal obstacles to gender equality, the second-wave feminism focused on a wider range of issues: sexuality, family, the workplace, reproductive rights and involved critiquing the patriarchal, or male-dominated, institutions, and cultural practices throughout society. It also brought to light then-controversial issues of domestic violence and marital rape. Artists were the driving force behind the propagation of this movement. Yoko Ono famously performed her 1964 “Cut Piece” where the artist sat on the floor in a traditional, passive Japanese pose and let complete strangers cut pieces of her clothes until she was naked. This act was loudly protesting violence against women and it was the first of its kind to cry out for women’s rights. A group of women artists called Guerrilla Girls organized protests, created posters, stickers, billboards and artworks to promote the liberation of women.

The third wave of feminism began in the United States and can be traced to the emergence of the Riot Grrrl feminist punk subculture in Olympia, Washington, in the early 1990s and continued until the rise of the fourth wave in the 2010s. The third wave saw the emergence of new feminist currents and theories, such as intersectionality, sex positivity, vegetarian ecofeminism, transfeminism, and postmodern feminism.

Feminist leaders rooted in the second wave such as Gloria Anzaldúa, Gloria Jean Watkins, Cherríe Moraga, Audre Lorde, Maxine Hong Kingston, and other feminists of color set the stage for an emphasis on the intersection between race and gender became increasingly prominent.

In her 2009 dissertation “The Fourth Wave of Feminism: Psychoanalytic Perspectives”, Researcher Diana Diamond defines fourth-wave feminism as a movement that “combines politics, psychology, and spirituality in an overarching vision of change.” This ongoing wave of the movement has maintained its original ideals with only technological advancements and better global connectivity as it’s addition.

Queer Liberation Movement (1960s-Ongoing)

The Queer Liberation movement, also known as the homophile movement is a social and political movement of the late 1960s through the mid-1980s which urged gay men and lesbian women to engage in radical direct action and to counter societal shame with gay pride.

The Stonewall Riots of 1969 marked the official beginning of the LGBT liberation movement, characterized by increased public visibility of homosexuality, the aim of decriminalizing homosexuality, and increased social and political integration. This movement was overshadowed by a negative social response which was partially driven by the HIV/AIDS pandemic.

The sexual liberation movement saw artists such as Elton John, Freddie Mercury, Cyndi Lauper, Gloria Gaynor revolutionise the world and bring in acceptance with their music. A general shift in mindset could be observed among the citizens of the western world and it gradually steeped into developing nations to the east.

Until the early 21st century, homosexual relationships in many eastern countries were considered unlawful. In 2018, the Supreme Court of India decriminalised homosexuality by declaring Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code.

Homosexuality, which was officially criminalised by the British during their rule in India, was an accepted theme in ancient Indian and traditional culture such as the Arthashastra and Rig Veda. As of April 2014, Kinnars or hijras are a recognised third gender and are considered neither male or female and are not required to undergo surgery as per laws concerning gender identity-expression by country or territory. Bangladesh and Pakistan also recognise Kinnars as a third gender, however Bangladesh does not permit the surgical alteration of gender yet.

Members of the queer community in most of the African nations face discrimination, persecution, and potentially even death (homosexuality is responded with death by stoning in Nigeria). Homosexuality is capital punishment in Mauritania, Sudan, and other nations. In several countries in the Middle East same-sex relations are punishable by death.

The 20th century has seen many uprisings, revolutions and the futures of many nations around the world being changed forever. These momentous transitions were forged through violence and bloodshed, civil unrest and chaos. However, they inspired artists to embark on immortalising them through their pieces for future generations to come. The art, music, cinema and other mediums of expression spawned from the most destructive points in time give us a unique perspective, showing us a version otherwise lost or tainted.

This is an updated version of my original article posted on Shuffle blog, if you would like to read it please refer to this link:


Russian Revolution

German Revolution

Mexican Revolution

Cultural Revolution

Cuban Revolution

Peaceful Revolution

Civil Rights Movement

Women’s Liberation Movement

Queer Liberalisation Movement

Aspiring writer with a keen interest in UX/UI design, textiles and business.

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