LIBERTY: TWO DIFFERENT EXPRESSIONS ON CANVAS
The political histories of nations can be traced in several areas which may not look related at first glance. What I am intended to do in this essay is to follow two different nations’ histories by comparing two artworks that each were composed to illustrate an important event in their own histories. The main theme in both is “Liberty.” The first painting might be the one of the most well-known artworks in the world but the second one is even rarely known in its home country. Inherently, I’ve seen France-themed one before but when I saw the Turkey-themed one my brain instantly linked it to the first one. The theme and the symbols that were picked up to convey the idea are quite similar to each other. On the other hand, I’ve noticed that as much as similarities, there are numerous differences between the two paintings. Although they’re aiming to indicate the same sentiments, I think that the ways they’re doing it have distinct divergences. So that I’ve come to the conclusion that the correlation between these two paintings is worth investigating.
Initially, it is important to mention some preliminary knowledge about the concepts on the paintings. The political ideas of 1789 had been spread from France to all over the world, primarily in Europe. What is the significance of 1789 is that it is a remarkable point which declares the born of the nation-states in world history. The dominant economic activity of the medieval ages, which is the agricultural mode of production, created feudalism in Europe. In feudal order, there are a king, lords, the church, and serves, basically. Back then, there was not a consciousness of citizenship among the ordinary people of the European countries. However, with the advent of a new social class that overthrew the obsolete social classes namely, aristocracy and clergy, absolutist monarchies started to be succeeded by democratic regimes that brings their institutions with them like parliament, constitution, etc. However, it is a fact that this historical process has not gone through in Turkish society. It needed a Westernization effort to transform the society into a modernist structure. We are also able to observe this difference on paintings.
After briefly explaining the background of the characterized events on the paintings, it is time to talk about the first painting, Liberty Leading the People (1830) by Eugene Delacroix. Surprisingly, the painting has not been made for 1789 Revolution actually. It represents the July Revolution that happened in 1830. However, usually, people think that the painting is about the 1789 Revolution at first glance, including me. Yet, it is not an obstacle for us to get the painting in this context. In the rest of the essay, I will recognize the painting as an illustration of 1789.
Another painting I wanted to introduce and compare with the first one is Hürriyet 1908 (a word for Liberty in Turkish) by Italian artist Fausto Zonaro, who served as the head painter of the sultan in the Ottoman palace and created several artworks on Ottoman history and daily life. As we will see, the Liberty theme has been described in this one too by using pretty much the same figures as the first one. The historical event which caused Hürriyet to have existed is the declaration of the Second Constitutional Regime in Turkey, which was gained against the absolutist sultan, Abdülhamid II. The parties who pioneered this revolution are young military officers, Ottoman intellectuals, and university students who don’t share the same vision for the empire. What had been keeping this alliance together was the notion of Westernization which is granted to all by the educational institutions of the empire.
Rather than explaining the paintings separately, I prefer to go by explaining symbols on both. As for the Liberty Leading the People, the most prominent figure is the woman who is leading people to revolt with a rifle and the national flag of France on her hands. This woman is basically representing the theme, liberty. The personification of the term Liberty on a female figure is a prevalent issue in artworks such as the Statue of Liberty in New York, in which there is a woman carrying a torch. Depiction of the woman as half-nude on the painting may give us the idea that liberty is not perceived just in the political context but also in a feminist approach. Women are expected to cover their bodies in a proper way in the traditional perception but here woman is in a protagonist position and leads people. It implies that this leading character should be taken as independent from their sex. Just like if there had been a man in the leading position as half-nude instead of a woman, nobody would have thought something related to his gender issue, so the painter argues that the same is valid for the women. So, I believe there is a strong feminist message here. On the other hand, when we look at the Hürriyet, liberty has been picturized as women either. Yet, there are distinct separations from the French example. Firstly, the woman is entirely dressed, although this kind of depiction of woman in Ottoman society is still progressive when the date is considered, yet we do not see a defiant attitude here in a feministic way.
After explaining the woman figure, I want to move on to the general atmosphere in both paintings. In the French one, the atmosphere is quite dark. We see a rifle and a French flag on the hands of the leading woman. The characters on the painting are attacking something evil. They are fighters of freedom, and they are under the effect of behavior that causes them to take their liberty by using coercive power. There are people laying down, most likely they have been shut down by the enemy. All people are armed, angry, and seem to be ready to commit everything to capture liberty. As opposed to this example, in the Turkish painting, we do not see a state of chaos. People are calm, they’re celebrating the declaration of the liberty. They haven’t spent so much effort to get it from the monarch, as it is explained above, young officers and intellectuals have done it for them. They are in one of the high hills of Istanbul, enjoying the Bosphorus view. Instead of carrying a rifle as the French counterpart does in the first painting, the Turkish woman carries some kind of leaf, I’m not sure but it represents peace most likely.
Now, it is time to talk about other characters on both paintings. At first, there is a man carrying a rifle and dressed up a suit and a hat. The outfit of this man reminds us the factory owners in the 19th century. In fact, I believe that this man represents the bourgeoisie class in French society. As I briefly summarized the background of the 1789, the bourgeoisie class was the pioneering power of the revolution. They were demanding the same equal conditions with aristocracy before the law, and they would have it soon because they are the new controller of the money. So, bourgeoisie is in a struggle against absolutist monarchy together with peasants, farmers, workers, women, and mid-class intellectuals. Furthermore, the bourgeois is the financier and provocatory actor of the revolution. Right beside him, there is another man with a sword in his hand. He was probably put there to demonstrate how lower-class people are in an alliance with bourgeoisie, against the oppressive authority. On the contrary, we do not see something in the Turkish painting to infer a similar meaning. Actually, not seeing somebody representing the bourgeoisie is not surprising because as I explained above Turkish society was not a complete class society back then. However, we see another figure here, a man wearing a clerical hat at the right bottom of the painting. What we are supposed to understand the existence of this man is that the concept of Liberty, which is granted to the people thanks to the Young Turks Revolution, is not something contradictory to religion. Contrarily, liberty is something that entirely complies with religion. Sadly, there is not a challenger attitude against traditional values of the society, in contrast to the French one, sad but true.
One more significant difference between France and Turkey with regards to the time that these paintings have been created is that France was in process of transformation from a monarchy to a nation-state and strugglers were in favor of nation-state. However, in Turkey’s example, both rebels and the sultan were in favor of the empire. The idea of nation-state had not matured in the Turkish mindset. So that, this revolution had been seen as like a glue that will bind the different ethnic and religious groups of the Ottoman empire by recognizing their democratic representation. History has evolved differently, obviously, but it is important to be aware of these differences while we are looking to the then from now. All in all, the characteristics of the French and Turkish nations are visible on these two paintings. By putting them in evaluation, it is possible to explore even other similarities and differences that I missed.
Art Analysis: Liberty Leading the People by Eugene Delacroix Retrieved from: https://blog.artsper.com/en/a-closer-look/art-analysis-liberty-leading-the-people-by-eugene-delacroix/