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Resistance isn't always visible, but when we can see it in art, what does it look like? Step back through global art history and look at Delacroix's Liberty Leading the People, Night Attack on the Sanjô Palace, Henry Oscar One Bull’s Custer’s War, Goya's Disasters of War, and Kara Walker's Darkytown Rebellion. Each revealing in disparate ways the experience of those who have struggled against systems of power.

This episode was made in partnership with Smarthistory, the most-visited art history website in the world (https://smarthistory.org). Subscribe to their channel today: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UC3R-xanNgtoa8b7gpVexVlA.

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 (00:00) to (02:00) It's been said that history is written by the victors and when it comes to art history, you can find plenty of victors solidifying and furthering their power through art, architecture, and culture.  History writing is often in the hands of the powerful, or at least the literate, because it's not just about who's still alive to tell their story, it's about who has the ability to communicate, to train to be an artist or artisan, or access the material and time it takes to make things that have the chance of surviving for millennia, but in the way of all truisms, it's not all true.  We can find ample proof of those who have struggled against systems of power and oppression.  


People have represented or revealed these experiences through the objects they've made, which reach across time to tell us remarkable tales of courage, defiance, and also devastation.  When we can see resistance in art, what does it look like and what has it looked like over time?  This is the third of five videos focusing on a much discussed aspect of life today and looking back to see how people from the past have made objects and artworks that speak to it in some way.  This is art about resistance.  

 Sometimes resistance is easy to see, especially when it takes the form of actual combat and violence.  Take the well-known painting "Liberty Leading the People" by Eugene Delacroix that pictures the July revolution in France.  Not only does it depict an event from 1830, but it was painted in 1830, begun in the months after it happened when it was still fresh in the news.  In it, we see the central figure of Liberty, holding a musket and the tri-color flag of the revolutionaries who would successfully oust King Charles X for his violation of the Constitution and replace him with the so-called citizen king, Louis-Philippe I.  Liberty here isn't a real person, of course, but a symbolic one, shown in profile and nude to the waist, to call back to the ancient Greeks and Romans who first championed democracy. (02:00) to (04:00) She wears a (?~2:02) cap, the kind given to freed slaves in ancient Rome to indicate their liberated status, and which by this point was a potent marker of freedom.  While her presence is allegorical, or representing an ideal, the rest of the scene is based in grisly reality, so much so that critics at the time rejected it for being too realistic.  Liberty leads a charge atop a barricade strewn with bodies of the dead and wounded.  We see a boy who has joined the fight, wielding pistols and wearing a black velvet beret that identifies him as a student.  We know we're in Paris because you can see Notre Dame in the distance, claimed by the revolutionaries with the world's tiniest tri-color flag raised atop it.  Two fighters on the left follow Liberty's lead, one a factory worker in his apron and the other a top-hatted bourgeois fellow holding his hunting shotgun, telling us that this was a fight for the shared ideals of not just one people, but the people, regardless of economic status.


Delacroix witnessed the uprising and was compelled to portray it at a very large scale, unusual at a time when monumental paintings almost always told stories of the distant past.  He supported the revolution despite the fact that King Charles X not only admired but collected Delacroix's work and the artist depended on commissions from both royals and royalists.  In this work, Delacroix reveals his commitment to the cause of Liberty and deep respect for his fellow citizens who had taken up arms in its name.

 His romantic style concerned with showing the intensity and drama of human emotion lends itself to the chaotic subject matter at hand.  While painting it, the artist wrote to his brother, "I may not have fought for my country.  At least I shall have painted for her."  The struggle to establish a republic in France was far from over.  These events only prelude to the June rebellion of 1832, made famous by Victor Hugo's novel Les Miserables. (04:00) to (06:00) The outcome was unsure, and unrest would continue for some time.  DeLaCroix's painting gave voice to a force of resistance that was powerful and also very vulnerable, showing us the ideals that propelled it as well as its horrific costs.  


Images of warfare and battle are gripping subject matter in art history, just as they are in other formats today, and while DeLaCroix chose just one moment to depict, others have found ways to document multiple moments of an unfolding event in a single, two-dimensional image.  One such work is the 13th century Japanese hand scroll "Night Attack on the Sanjo Palace", which illustrates in graphic detail a chapter of the Heiji rebellion that took place a century earlier in 1159.  The action unfolds from right to left across the scroll, a format called (?~4:52) meant to be handheld and unrolled section by section.  

It begins with the calm of a single ox-cart, approaching palace walls and quickly launches into a tumultuous and bloody skirmish, chronicling the abduction of retired emperor (?~5:07) and the bid for power by Fujiwara (?~5:11).  It's a tragedy that unfolds cinematically, vividly describing the horrors of warfare, the crush and confusion of those caught up in it, and the brutality of the attackers.  This type of scroll is called a gunki monogatari, recounting tales of war and the feats and exploits of warriors, and it's considered a prime example of otoko-e, or men's paintings, this one created during the (?~5:36) period that marked the end of control by royal court and the beginning of a feudal Japan ruled by samurai.  

"Night Attack on the Sanjo Palace" can certainly be seen to glorify violent acts, but its viewers would also know that these victors weren't victors for long, later suffering defeat and death at the hands of their rival (?~5:56). 

 We see an alternate way of recording armed conflict with Henry Oscar One Bull's painting "Custer's War", created around the year 1900.   (06:00) to (08:00) It depicts the Battle of Greasy Grass that took place over two days in June of 1876, along the Little Bighorn River in what is today the Crow reservation in Montana.  It's history that's been told frequently from a US centric perspective, often referred to as Custer's last stand, but One Bull's painting describes the events from the perspective of the Lakota who, with their Cheyenne and Arapaho allies, won a decisive victory over US army troops.  


The artist fought in the battle and shows himself carrying the shield of his uncle and adoptive father, Chief Sitting Bull.  This ledger-style artwork offers a version of events that would have been reviewed and approved by Lakota council, providing a comprehensive view of what happened, including the initial killing of an Indian boy named (?~6:53) by US soldiers and five circles of tepees representing the encampments of the Lakota and their allies.  We can see the nearby encampment of women, children, and the elderly and the injured whom General Custer was trying to reach.  The Lakota, whom One Bull renders carefully with identifying details, are moving forward while US troops are riding backward in retreat.  We can also see many fallen US soldiers and the final moments where Custer was surrounded and killed.  

In the battle's aftermath, Custer was often cast in heroic terms, in histories and in popular culture, fulfilling the US's claim of manifest destiny, or the popular belief that God intended the US to occupy North America from the Atlantic to the Pacific, and Custer was undoubtedly the aggressor.  The US government had signed a treaty in 1868, recognizing South Dakota's Black Hills as part of the Great Sioux reservation, but the US broke the treaty after gold was discovered there in 1874.

 Custer was tasked with reclaiming the land and relocating all Native Americans in the area to reservations, including the thousand strong encampment that had joined forces in resistance along the banks of the Little Big Horn. (08:00) to (10:00) After news of the US defeat reached the east coast, where centennial celebrations of American independence were taking place, efforts to drive Native Americans from this land were redoubled and were eventually successful.  By the time One Bull created this ledger, it served as a powerful record of a victory in a war that had subsequently been lost.  Remembering it was an act of continued resistance.  


Bearing witness has been a critical function of art, and we can see this come into play with works like Spanish artist Francisco Goya's powerful (?~8:45) series, "The Disasters of War".  He created these 82 images between 1810 and 1820, but they weren't printed until 35 years after his death, when it was safe for his political views to become public.  Goya had been the official court painter for the Spanish King Charles IV until Napoleon and his French army invaded Spain in 1807, removed Charles from power, and installed Napoleon's brother Joseph Bonaparte as ruler.  

 Goya was sent to record the brave acts of the Spanish in resisting the French, but what he chronicled instead was widespread suffering and brutality from all sides of the struggle.  The first group of etchings in Goya's print series depicts the violent conflict between French troops and Spanish civilians, mass executions of the Spanish, and the sense of hopelessness that accompanied it.  The second group illustrates the catastrophic effects of the famine that hit Spain in 1811 and 1812, leading up to the ousting of the French in 1814.  The third set of prints illustrates the crushing demoralization of Spanish rebels when the monarchy was reinstated, ruled by another tyrant, unwilling to make political reforms.  Altogether, these graphic and unforgettable images make up an indictment of not just the specific occupation of one country by another, but a powerful protest of the horrific brutalities of war writ large.   (10:00) to (12:00) While Goya couldn't share these prints during his lifetime, they have served as a continual reminder since of the senselessness and inhumanity of war, the importance of recording it, and our complicity in watching it unfold.  Histories, however, are forever open to being reconsidered and reimagined. 


Let's look at a work by Kara Walker from 2001 titled "Darkytown Rebellion", an installation that spans roughly 37 feet of the corner of a gallery.  Cut paper silhouettes are affixed to the wall and a projector casts a colorful abstracted setting around them.  We've been given chaotic glimpses into a fictional slave rebellion, some of whose characters were adapted from an anonymous painting titled Darkytown that the artist came across in a book called American Primitive Painting.  The figures are a fantastical amalgam of tropes and stereotypes, drawn from 19th century depictions of African Americans in the rural American south.  We don't know quite where we are or when we are, nor do we understand what and who exactly we're seeing, but we're given a preponderance of visual cues that not only describe grotesque violence, but also demand that we consider how and why we interpret these simplified figures in the varying ways that each of us do.

 What have we seen in popular culture or in textbooks that informed how we read race from the mere outlines of forms?  Who is the master here and who are the slaves?  Which of these horrors are invented and which are based in reality?  The ambiguity is to be embraced and explored.  Walker has explained, "I'm not making work about reality.  I'm making work about images.  I'm making work about fictions that have been handed  down to me, and I'm interested in those fictions because I'm an artist and any sort of attempt at getting at the truth of the thing, you kind of have to wade through these levels of fictions." (12:00) to (14:00) With her work, you're given the task of wading through these fictions and with the light of the projection at your back, you and your shadow become part of the scene.  You're not just a spectator, but a player in this rebellion, and it's your role to acknowledge both the heavy history of racial stereotyping and the power of images in reinforcing them on the one hand or undermining and resisting them on the other.


But resistance isn't always easy to see.  Sometimes all we have left of vibrant empires are the layers of ruins that speak of successions of power, like those at Ingapirka in Ecuador, where we can see how the Incas conquered the resisting Canaris in the 15th and 16th centuries, building over their structures to demonstrate dominance.

Sometimes resistance is architectural, the way religious minorities have constructed clandestine churches as 17th century Catholics did by building one on the top three floors of a canal house in Protestant Amsterdam or the unlikely survival of places of worship, like the still-standing 13th century Old New Synagogue in Prague, Europe's oldest active synagogue and one of few spared by Nazis, and resistance doesn't always look like resistance.

Take, for instance, drawings by Jewish children who passed through the (?~13:25) ghetto during the second World War, nearly all of whom would go on to be killed in the gas chambers of Auschwitz, along with their teacher, (?~13:34)-trained artist Friedl Dicker-Brandeis.  

 Sometimes resistance is quiet, and sometimes it's very, very loud.  Sometimes it's literal and sometimes it's oblique and abstract, and sometimes it's as much about what you can't see, what is absent, or a history that is hiding in plain sight.  Whatever you're affiliation or nationality or cause, what does resistance look like to you?  Let's talk about it, politely, in the comments. (14:00) to (15:01) This episode was made in partnership with Smart History, an outstanding resource for anyone curious about art and cultural objects from around the world.  Their videos and website bring together the expertise of more than 300 art historians, archaeologists, and curators, and cover a huge range of topics and cultures from pre-history to today.  Subscribe to their YouTube channel and visit smarthistory.org to learn about some of the artworks and histories discussed in this video and many, many more.  


Thanks to all of our Patrons for supporting The Art Assignment, especially our grand master of the arts, Vincent Apa.  

(Endscreen/Credits)