Sept/Oct/Nov 2007

Anarchy and Art: From the Paris Commune to the Fall of the Berlin Wall

Irene Gammel


“When I am dead let this be said of me: ‘He belonged to no school, to no church, to no institution, to no academy, least of all to any régime except the régime of liberty.’” By capturing the anarchist spirit in this June 1870 letter, written the year before the Paris Commune, freedomloving realist painter Gustave Courbet makes an appropriate opening subject for Allan Antliff’s exploration of the relationship between European and American art and anarchist activism. Antliff considers “anarchism as a catalyst for social liberation” and points to the artist’s provocative depictions of the French peasantry as a critique of the Paris Salon’s elite culture. Focusing on the era between the Commune and the collapse of Communism in Eastern Europe, Anarchy and Art draws on theoretical and activist positions including those of French utopian Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, Lithuanian-American feminist Emma Goldman, and German libertarian Max Stirner.

Anarchism—the term is derived from the Greek meaning “contrary to authority”— is a dangerous concept, as the book ably illustrates. A carefully staged photograph of sixteen shrouded and coffined bodies of Communards in 1871 is a remarkable symbol of both militant anarchism and government repression. So is the Russian poem “That Day,” which commemorates the Soviet government’s brutal raid on the anarchist-held Morosov mansion in April 1918: “Shots. / Shots. / A crackling machine gun. / Again. / Guns! / God! What is it? Why?” A rare copy of the Moscow journal Anarkhiia, in which the poem appeared, allows Antliff to resuscitate the once-vibrant culture of Russian anarchism. Aleksandr Rodchenko furnished the aptly named Café of the Revolutionary City according to avant-garde stylings, and when the theatercafé opened in 1918, it “quickly became notorious as Moscow’s most radical artistic experiment.” Vladimir Tatlin experimented with relief sculptures he called counterreliefs, illustrating his intent to “throw off the old to admit a breath of anarchy.” Lenin’s regime, however, forced these artists to renounce anarchism and embrace the principles of “scientific communism”; under Stalin, former anarchist artists were persecuted, and some were executed.

In twentieth-century America, Antliff follows a trajectory from New York Dada and its provocative fight against “Comstockian” censorship to Brooklyn-born Susan Simensky Bietila’s more recent protest art and street theater. In between, he examines life-affirming forms of anarchist art, such as the ecological anarchism of San Francisco painter and former plutonium chemist Jess. His 1962 painting If All the World Were Paper and All the Water Sink depicts a pastoral dance of children with a mushroom cloud in the far background. The book ends with a consideration of the pacifist anarchism of Gee Vaucher, a British illustrator for the punk-rock band Crass, and New York artist Richard Mock’s “Gulf War,” 1991, a series of linocuts that addresses “an ecologically catastrophic, socially oppressive power structure at war with nature.”

Antliff’s research, which builds on the work of noted anarchist historian Paul Avrich, has yielded new theoretical insight into a genre not often considered. Unfortunately, the book contains a number of typos (Alfred Stieglitz’s name is consistently misspelled), but it is illustrated with beautiful black-and-white images of paintings, posters, and prints, as well as sixteen color plates. Anarchism, as Emma Goldman noted, stands for the liberation of the human mind and for “free access to the earth and full enjoyment of the necessities of life, according to individual desires, tastes, and inclinations.” Anarchist artists have heeded this motto, and the diversity of their visual expression is richly captured in the book.

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