“Agitprop” is a word I never learned in my art history classes, despite the fact that there has pretty much always been political art. I guess the term sounds too Communist for the classroom. Historically, political motivations were generally seen in portraiture, monuments, and materials, with artwork intrinsically linked to wealth, power, and faith. In the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, artists have increasingly found ways to create politically charged artwork that speaks for the oppressed rather than the privileged, often moving into the public sphere with poster campaigns, performances, protests, and press.
Ever since I read my first X-Men comic and fell in love with the fuzzy German mutant Nightcrawler, I’ve been interested in German language and culture. Some people find it surprising that such a silly, kitschy thing spurred a passion that became academic, as I made twentieth-century German art and culture one of my specialties in school, and even studied there for a semester in undergrad. Today I’m feeling that the comic book connection would have been appreciated by the artist at hand, irreverent Pop and experimental kitsch genius Sigmar Polke, whose first full retrospective is currently on view at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
As an art form, posters have been popular in Poland since their development in France in the 1880s and 90s, whether advertising gallery exhibitions and theater performances or promoting travel to foreigners. After the region gained political independence in 1918, industrialization and the new trade market led to a barrage of advertising and product-specific posters, incorporating new styles (mainly Cubism) and techniques. After World War II, Poland came under Soviet rule, and an official “Polish Poster School” was founded to spread propaganda through poster art. (In the USSR, graphic designers were actually considered better than fine artists, because they produced useful objects, as opposed to bourgeois painting and sculpture that served no function.)
In my final semester of grad school I took what turned out to be my favorite course, a class focusing on Latin American art made during the Cold War period. I find Cold War history fascinating, and am always interested in how culture played a major role and how artists responded to events of the time. Imagine my sheer glee when the MFA opened its newest contemporary art exhibition, a show highlighting the collection of Ella Fontanals-Cisneros, who founded CIFO, an organization dedicated to supporting Latin American contemporary artists. Permission to be Global/Prácticas Globales features a number of major contemporary artists from various countries in Latin America…
Known for her colorful renderings of classical masterpieces encased in furniture, as well as derisive Pop paintings culled from media images of Colombia’s current events, Beatriz González began her artistic career in the early 1960s with a series called Las Encajeras (“The Lacemakers”), which re-imagined Vermeer’s The Lacemaker (a painting that was also referenced heavily by Dalí) into abstracted paintings. She studied at the Studio Art School of the Universidad de los Andes in Bogotá, where Western art history was a focus despite the dearth of European masterpieces in Colombian museums.