On Jacques Louis-David’s moral foibles

800px-Jacques-Louis_David_-_Marat_assassinated_-_Google_Art_ProjectHenrik Bering at The New Criterion:

When we think of propaganda art, images of Soviet Stakhanovites furiously exceeding their production quotas, heroic tractor drivers on their mighty machines, and fresh-faced collective farm girls in abundant wheat fields fill the mind. Above it all rules Stalin, the Man of Steel, who comes in two basic versions: as the unshakable defender of Mother Russia against fascism, or as the bountiful father of the nation, whichever suits the occasion.

F. S. Shurkin’s Morning of our Fatherland from 1948 has it all: Stalin—the man who had dismissed the famine of 1932–33 as just a minor bureaucratic foul-up by a few overeager officials who were “dizzy with success”—positively glows with benevolence as he surveys the landscape, while the combine harvesters whir and the power lines sing. About the portrait, the wonderfully sycophantic artist has pronounced: “In the sound of the tractors, in the movement of the trains, in the fresh breath of the spring fields. In everything I saw and felt the image of the leader of the people.”

“Official” propaganda art, we have all been taught, is crude and laughably primitive, invariably inferior to real art. Except, of course, when it isn’t. And here the career of Jacques-Louis David is highly instructive. David became France’s leading artist during the nation’s most turbulent period, first acting as the high priest of the Revolution, then switching horses to become the celebrator-in-chief of Napoleon.

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