With polarizing presidents, environmental tensions and news programs that alert us to daily controversies, it’s almost impossible to escape politics in 2018. And with the American midterm elections having been held this week, ideas about political engagement and their relation to art and media have been particularly pertinent.

To add our voice to the freedom fervour, we’ve decided to look back at some famous politically-charged paintings and photographs. Regardless of whether it was Trump or Truman leading the free world, art has always been a site for political expression, inquiry and protest. Take a look…


Ai Weiwei: Study of Perspective Tiananmen Square

This photograph taken by famous Chinese artist Ai Weiwei takes a classic tourist trope and turns it into protest. By raising his middle finger in front of Tiananmen Square – the site of the 1989 state massacre of peaceful protestors, the blatant disdain for state power – along with the irony of an act of protest against the response to a previous act of protest – is both clear and chilling.


Ai Weiwei, Study of Perspective Tiananmen Square, 1995. Photograph.


Graham Sutherland: Portrait of Winston Churchill

Sometimes we don’t get what we want for our birthdays. This was certainly the case for Winston Churchill who, at the 1954 celebration of his 80th birthday in Westminster Hall, was presented with this portrait by Graham Sutherland. The painting failed to impress the prolific politician – in fact, he was so offended, he promptly took it with him to Chartwell and had it destroyed. With mixed reactions across the board, this incident marks a memorable example of how politics – and art – have always been divisive.


Graham Sutherland, Portrait of Winston Churchill, 1954. Oil painting.


Norman Rockwell: The Problem We All Live With

Known for his illustrations on covers of prominent magazines including Life, The Saturday Evening Post and Look, Norman Rockwell earned a new kind of recognition – and respect – when he published this 1963 depiction of Ruby Bridges’ historic walk as the first black child to desegregate Louisiana schools. Rockwell wasn’t afraid to stand up and show the issues facing his country, and the contrast presented here between an innocent school child and evidence of discriminatory protest leaves little room for interpretation.


Norman Rockwell, The Problem We All Live With, 1963 (published in 1964.) Oil painting.


Dmitri Vrubel: My God, Help Me to Survive This Deadly Love

The famous socialist fraternal kiss between Brezhnev and Honecker took place more than ten years before the fall of the Berlin Wall – photographed by Régis Bossu in 1979. Dmitri Vrubel’s subsequent depiction of the embrace in 1990 – removing it from its original context and stamping it with satire – now stands as one of the world’s most famous graffiti paintings. It remains on the wall today, reproduced by Vrubel himself after restorations to the East Side Gallery.


Dmitri Vrubel: My God, Help Me to Survive This Deadly Love, 1990. Graffiti painting.


Frida Kahlo: My Dress Hangs There

With a desperate desire to return to Mexico but a husband happy to stay in the US, this painting by Kahlo portrays her vision of American capitalism and superficiality. Marrying images of American icons with items of decay and destruction, she highlights how her dress – in a traditional Mexican style – hangs in the middle of a rotting concrete jungle, but her body, face and soul are nowhere to be found. A critical look at a nation built on freedom, in which she feels trapped.


Frida Kahlo; My Dress Hangs There, 1933. Oil painting.


These five pieces demonstrate how art can and has always been political: in responding to major events, in becoming political controversies themselves, in making statements and satires, in reflecting an artist’s personal political views.

And with all the creative manipulation, dancing around topics and fervent pursuit of ideas that take place in governing cabinets the world over, one might argue that politics is an art in itself.


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