Fight the power: Coral Stoakes's placard used in the London protests of 2011
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The things they carried: the ingenious props of modern protest

A new exhibition at the V&A celebrates the hardware of protest movements, ranging from Solidarity to the Guerrilla Girls by way of Greenham Common and the anti-apartheid campaign.

Disobedient Objects
Victoria and Albert Museum, London SW7

 

Stepping into “Disobedient Objects” at the Victoria and Albert Museum is like entering a counterculture craft fair. Instead of handmade knick-knacks – all bent-wire jewellery, turned-wood bowls and wobbly pottery – here are gas masks made from plastic drinks bottles, a slingshot fashioned from bits of an old shoe and placards painted in back bedrooms. It is a display of the props of agitprop, the hardware of protest movements ranging from Solidarity to the Guerrilla Girls by way of Greenham Common and the anti-apartheid campaign.

The show bills itself as an exhibition of “art and design from below” but there is little here that is recognisable as either art or design in a gallery sense. Aesthetic considerations are barely evident: the objects show ingenuity rather than artistry. The raw materials used are all cheap, almost none of the items was made to have a life beyond a particular protest and many of them are repurposed – if not swords turned into ploughshares, then anti-riot police shields decorated as book jackets. Collectively the objects represent an ad hoc creativity, in which the materials of protest are made on the hoof and often under conditions of duress. The result is a charity-shop response to the couture weapons of the state.

Apart from a delicate cup and saucer espousing votes for women, the exhibits date from the 1970s onwards and stand in for the long history of societal and trade union protest that preceded them. The objects do not, however, need the provenance of the French Revolution, the événements of 1968, the Chartists or the Jarrow marchers, because each has an evocative backstory of its own. The first item on display, for example, is a cooking pot lid battered out of shape during the street protests that took place in Buenos Aires in 2001, when the Argentinian government froze the bank accounts of 18 million of its citizens. The protesters’ slogan – “All of them must go!” – proved both prescient and potent. Four presidents were forced out of office in the space of three weeks. Though an object with no intrinsic merit whatsoever, this simple cooking utensil helped to change history.

If noise is one of the established weapons of protest, another method is stone-throwing. While the Palestinian shoe slingshot was made to inflict physical damage, the marchers of the 2012 May Day events in Berlin and Barcelona hurled cobblestones – historically the demonstrators’ projectile of choice – to humorous effect. Rather than prise real cobbles out of the streets, they lobbed giant, inflatable versions at the police. It was both a surreal subversion of the staples of violent protest – kettling, a hail of missiles, the percussion of truncheons on riot shields – and an inventively effective way of getting across the protesters’ message that “We come in peace”, if not in jest.

The power of humour was utilised, too, by Coral Stoakes (almost all of the other items here are anonymous), who painted a placard wielded during the 2011 demonstrations in London against spending cuts. She dreamed up its slogan – “I wish my boyfriend was as dirty as your policies” – in part for self-preservation in case things turned violent: “I thought it would be difficult to hit me with a baton if they were laughing.” Her placard is on its way to becoming the Che Guevara poster of our time.

A darker humour is evident in the Phone Story app, a game that guides players through the production process behind the device they are playing it on. To win, you must force children to mine coltan in Congo, dispose of the toxic waste in Pakistan, and so on. It is almost a surprise that this subtle response to indifferent capitalism managed to last four days on Apple’s App Store before it was removed. Meanwhile, the designers of the “Regime Change Begins at Home” playing cards turned the gag against the set issued to US soldiers in Iraq in 2003, replacing Saddam and his cronies with Messrs Bush and Blair and assorted industrialists: from Ba’athists to the military-industrial complex in one fell swoop.

Many of the other objects – defaced banknotes, “bust cards” listing your rights in case of arrest and mechanisms for safely bolting yourself to a perimeter fence – are more earnest but no less inventive. But the main feeling provoked by this show of disaffected folk art is one of nostalgia for protests past. The Occupy movement may be fresh in the memory and the Gaza march in London was only weeks ago, but they aren’t congealed in the emotional aspic that swaddles the old battles of Wapping, Orgreave colliery or Rock Against Racism. Even protests, it seems, have a golden age. l

Runs until 1 February 2015

Michael Prodger is an Assistant Editor at the New Statesman. He is an art historian, Senior Research Fellow at the University of Buckingham, and a former literary editor.

This article first appeared in the 13 August 2014 issue of the New Statesman, A century of meddling in the Middle East

SAMUEL COURTAULD TRUST
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The paintings designed to better sculpture

In Pieter Bruegel’s hands, even black and white paintings can be full of colour, as a new exhibition at the Courtauld Gallery shows.

Grisailles – monochrome images usually painted in shades of grey and white – have a long tradition. Early examples appeared in the 14th century as miniatures or manuscript illuminations and then later on the outside of the folding panels of altarpieces, where they imitated sepulchre statues and offered a stark contrast to the bright colour of the paintings inside. With their minimal palette, grisailles also offered painters a chance both to show off their skill and to add their bit to the age-old artistic debate about paragone: which was superior – sculpture, with its ability to show a figure in three dimensions, or painting, with its powers of illusion? By pretending to be sculpture, grisailles could better it.

The first artist to paint grisailles as independent works for private enjoyment and contemplation was the Netherlander Pieter Bruegel the Elder (circa 1525-69), whose folk scenes of peasants carousing or of hunters in a snowy landscape have long been staples of art’s quotidian, earthy strand. Only about 40 works by him are now known and of those, just three are grisailles (not a term he would have recognised; he referred to the pictures simply as “painted in black and white”). This trio of survivors has been reunited for the first time, at the Courtauld Gallery, with an accompanying selection of copies and engravings – a mere ten pictures in all – for a fascinating one-room exhibition.

The grisailles show a deeper and more intellectual artist than the sometimes slapstick figure who would dress as a peasant in order to gatecrash weddings in the Brabant countryside and record the drunken and playful goings-on in his pictures. They reflect the position of the Low Countries in Bruegel’s time, caught between the Catholicism of their Spanish overlords and the emerging Protestantism that had been sparked by Martin Luther only eight years before Bruegel’s birth. These tensions soon erupted in the Eighty Years War.

Of the three paintings, two show religious subjects – The Death of the Virgin (1562-65) and Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery (1565) – and one is a scene that would have been familiar in the streets around him, Three Soldiers (1568). This last, lent by the Frick Collection in New York, shows a drummer, a piper and a standard-bearer in the elaborately slashed uniforms of German Landsknechte mercenaries. Such groupings featured often in German prints and Bruegel’s small picture is a clever visual game: painting could imitate not only sculpture, but prints, too. What’s more, the gorgeously coloured uniforms (mercenaries were exempt from the sumptuary laws that restricted clothing to sedate colours) could be shown to be just as arresting even in black and white.

If this is a painting about painting, the ­religious works have, it seems, added layers of meaning – although it is always difficult with Bruegel to work out what that meaning is and how personal it might be. The Courtauld’s Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery shows Jesus stooping in front of the Pharisees and saving the accused woman from stoning by writing in the dust, “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.” That he spells out the words in Dutch rather than Hebrew, which was more usual in other images of the scene (and which he uses on the tunic of one of the learned men observing the mute play), suggests that this picture – a plea for clemency – was intended to serve as a call for religious tolerance amid mounting sectarian antagonism. While the gaping faces of the onlookers recall those of Hieronymus Bosch, the flickering calligraphic touches and passages of great delicacy are all his own.

The picture stayed with Bruegel until his death, so it had a personal meaning for him; more than 20 copies were subsequently made. Included in the exhibition are the copies painted by his sons, Jan and Pieter the Younger (a coloured version), as well as the earliest known print after it, from 1579, by Pieter Perret, which shows some of the detail in the crowd around the central figures that has been lost in the discoloured panel.

If the sombre tones of grisaille are suited to the pared-down faith advocated by Luther, the death of the Virgin was a familiar topic in Catholic and Orthodox iconography. Bruegel’s picture, from Upton House in Warwickshire, depicts an episode that doesn’t actually appear in the Bible. A group of Apostles and mourners has gathered around the Virgin’s bed, the scene lit by the heavenly light emanating from the dying woman and the five flames from the candles and the hearth that correspond to the five wounds suffered by her son on the cross. Domestic items litter the room – a slice of orange, slippers, a dozing cat – and there is a sleeping attendant, unaware of the miracle of Assumption that will shortly unfold. Here is a moving nocturne in which the mysteries of religion emerge from and disappear back into the shadows.

While Bruegel’s peasant works display a delight in physical pleasure, these three bravura works, painted for humanist connoisseurs and for himself, portray the sober, spiritual concerns that come to the fore once the last drop has been drunk. 

The exhibition runs until 8 May. For more details, go to: courtauld.ac.uk

Michael Prodger is an Assistant Editor at the New Statesman. He is an art historian, Senior Research Fellow at the University of Buckingham, and a former literary editor.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle