Monday, December 16, 2013

The Romantic Era (pt. 8)

At the age of 33, our Romantic artist par excellence suddenly died from a fall off of a horse, leaving his friend Eugène Delacroix to take up the Romantic Movement after he died, even though not everyone liked him.  His famous painting of Liberty Leading the People has, even through to today, come to define the Romantic vision of the French Revolution of 1830 (not to be confused with the 1789 Revolution).  This is so much more than a political painting.  A magnificent homage to the overthrow of Charles X, this painting is nothing if not Romantic.
A pile of bloodied corpses lays across the ground on the bottom half of the painting, the beaten bodies of military officials on the right and, on the left, one sacred cadaver stretched out in the sunlight with his pure, white garment and the naked flesh of his humanity both being blessed from heaven above with the lighted splendor of the sun shining down upon his ended life and the cause for which it was given: the glory of death.  One among the pile leans weakly forward and looks up at the spectacle which immediately bursts out of the canvas.  A woman, clothed in majestic, golden, flowing robes and with the full light of radiant truth behind her, stands tall (the tallest in the scene) over the sprawling death underneath her, the slain gendarmes and the one, nobly sacrificed martyr who fought for the right side.  She is Liberty, and she carries a musket rifle in her left hand, as well as holds up a splendid French flag in her right.  Beside her is a poor boy, of all warriors, with patches sewn on to his pants and a poor man's cap, fighting wildly with two pistols, one in each hand.  He even has his mouth open, no doubt shouting fierce war cries to further express his courage and determination in the face of battle.  Recognizing him as not much more than a child, we instantly fall sympathetic to his cause because of the youthful innocence and purity of his age—and how much more are we to join him since he is so passionate!  On the other side, a wealthy man, too, fights for the same cause as the poor boy.  This is the aristocrat in the top hat, pointing his rifle forward to show the enemy no mercy—his image bears striking resemblance to that of Delacroix himself and may in fact serve the role as a cameo self-portrait.  Behind him, another man of the lower-class with a holstered pistol and a drawn scimitar charges forward; behind him: the entire mob of French peasants, farmers, landowners, rebels, and revolutionaries, all with drawn weapons and banners proudly displaying La Tricolore.  Way far back in the distance behind these, we can see the cathedral of Notre Dame being overtaken, with French flags raised along its towers and buttresses.  Even above, notice the three colors with which the artist paints the very sky above: I see bleu, blanc, et rouge.  Leading all of this—the boy, the rich man, the entire French mob, and the overthrow of the whole city of Paris (and, in turn, the entire French nation)—is Liberty, equally as beautiful as she is fearsome and mighty.  She walks barefoot over the strewn corpses like the Messiah, Christ, who stepped barefoot over the Sea of Galilee to save His drowning disciple, Peter.  We see a stunning profile image of her face as she glances back to her loyal followers and ushers them, with the flag of their own beloved country, forward.  The crimson sash across her waist is symbolic of the loss of life which the fight for their cause will entail—revolutions are bloody affairs; but for what cause and what more noble emblem would you not risk all for the victory?  And the cause is: Democracy.  To overthrow the absolute monarch and institute a democratic government alike to that of the Ancient Greeks—that would be freedom, or liberty, indeed.  Liberty herself invokes reference to Ancient Greece in the sculpturesque uncovering of her chest, very much similar to the Nike of Samothrace, whose breasts project outward in a heaving inhale of graceful might and vitality.  But in Delacroix's painting, Liberty's bosom is bared to display her honest-natured, maternal humanity.  She is pictured not just as the leader of her people, but as their mother, who will ever more fiercely watch out for her own: Liberty will guide her followers safely and supply them with all the strength they need.  And all of this is just a brief overview of this iconic painting.  Propaganda—perhaps, yes; romanticized propaganda—yeah, it is.  Nevertheless, what a painting!
I said Romanticism was unconcerned with political propaganda, having adopted their larger focus onto human elements of pathos and emotionalism.  While a painting like Liberty Leading the People deals itself heavily in a political subject (a revolution), its more everlasting and more quintessentially Romantic overtones do rest with a very honest and emotional look at people.  Its propaganda elements are only ankle-deep, for anyone, loyalist or revolutionary, French or British, can look at this work and receive an emotional reaction from it.  The little boy and Liberty's bared breasts are symbolic of these characters' humanness, their childhood or motherhood, etc.  These symbolic images are commonly understood by all humanity, and in that sense the work is not merely a painting of a single historical event or a contextualized political philosophy.  This is a painting of humanity, of people rather than politics and revolutionaries rather than revolutions.  Hypothetically speaking, even if I'm opposed to the French Revolution of 1830, I can still look at this painting and identify with the human spirit depicted herein: the heart of the individual to fight for his cause and the heart of the united masses to stand up against tyranny and oppression in general.  It's universal because the human spirit is universal.  That is the Romantic ideology of it, at least.

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