When the world shut down over COVID-19, my first instinct as an art teacher was to use creation as a coping mechanism, for myself and my studio students. For my art history students it was clear that I had to use the historical context in a different way, so I showed this work to my upper level art history class: Toilet Paper Hell by Ichiro Fukuzawa 1974. (If you scroll about halfway down the link, you’ll find the image.)
This Japanese surrealist artist responded to the run on paper products sparked by the oil shock of 1973. In the time of all things quarantine(and all memes toilet paper related), I felt that this was a way to look at our similar situation, and therefore observe the power of art and how artists respond to world events. OR how world events influence the artist. Their final assignment of the year was to find and research any artwork that was created in response to a historical event and create a short presentation.
My students surprised me with a long list of works influenced by some serious world events, and even personal events of the artists. I’ll list just a few examples that my students submitted, including, but not limited to:
- The Problem We All Live With. Norman Rockwell, Oil on canvas, 1964.
- Tar Baby vs. St. Sebastian. Michael Richards, Sculpture. 1999.
- Bootleg Mining. Elizabeth Olds, Lithograph, 1936.
- La Hara. Basquiat, Acrylic and oil paint stick on canvas, 1981.
Fast forward to May/June 2020 and we now see the streets lined with protestors for the Black Lives Matter Movement. Out of this art has been a huge way in which many express their sorrow, their anger and their desperate need for change.
Now this is where the art history lesson begins. Below you will see what we in the art world call a “Pietà” or translated from Italian meaning “the pity”. This is imagery that many early European Christians would recognize as Mary, mother of Jesus, holding the dead body of Jesus after he has come down off the cross. The image here is Michelangelo’s version, which shows a younger and calm/serene version of Mary, however there are others that are much more gruesome, try looking at the Röttgen Pietà, which is what we study in AP Art History.
So I will back track a little here, but stay with me. Images depicting Mary and Jesus prior to a certain time in history, typically depict the two as holy and divine figures, distant looking with stoic faces of reverence and maturity. However, as we see in the various renditions of the pietà this is a very emotional moment in which Jesus is limp in the lap of Mary as she cradles him like a child and she is typically mourning, or showing pain at the witness of her sons death. The pieta was meant to bring a sense of humanity and emotion to these divine beings. Jesus wasn’t just some far off distant divine figure, but he too felt the suffering of the human race.
Fast forward to 2014. In response to the deaths of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and Tamir Rice and the creation of the Black Lives Matter Movement, an artist by the name of Jon Henry begins a photographic series entitled Stranger Fruit*. He photographs African American Mothers with their children in a pose reminiscent of a grieving Mary holding Jesus in The Pietà. Henry is portraying every mothers worst fear, in a manner that mirrors the inevitability of death. Henry does not use his work to simply react to “what could be” the future of these sons, but he is responding and raising awareness to the systematic racism and inequitable treatment of Black Americans by the police in our country.
As art historians, we recognize that art is a release – a way to record our emotional response to the events that are happening all around us. Art also serves as a way to document history and remember what was. But we must also recognize that art can be a catalyst, a way to challenge the societal norms, to challenge the way that people think or view a situation.
Most importantly I know that art can be a call for change.
We are surely in the midst of a moment that will change the face of art and history forever.
If you would like to know more about Jon Henry and his work, he is participating in a lecture tomorrow evening June 9th, 2020 at 7-8:30pm EST. The lecture is free for the public so click THIS LINK to find the Zoom information.
A few resources are linked below if you would like to know more:
*Strange Fruit references a song by the same name, listen and learn about its history.