Public space has long served as a venue for the staging of activist activities, from the organization of demonstrations to the display of guerrilla art. The print medium—distinguished for its multiplicity, relative cheapness and ease of production, and capacity for wide circulation—is ideal for responding to the revolutionary possibilities that the public sphere offers. In a pre-digital age, prints acted as visual parallels to pamphlets, news reports, and editorials. Today, artists continue to engage printmaking to display and disseminate messages advocating for social change.
The works currently on view in Selections from the Department of Drawings and Prints: Revolution, Resistance, and Activism investigate the role art has played in revolutions, protests, and social activist movements from the eighteenth century to the present. Some images serve as records of recent events while others offer commentary; when examined closely, all reveal a distinct perspective. These works represent conflict in public space, and those that made use of public space as a site of activism and resistance.
There is a long history of occupying urban space as a tactic of resistance and printmakers have often created works that respond to and comment on the day’s significant events. An early American example is Paul Revere’s iconic The Boston Massacre (1770), which pits colonial Bostonians against British redcoats five years before the outbreak of the American Revolution.
The March 5, 1770, event helped to push the colony of Massachusetts toward revolution, and this widely distributed engraving did much to shape public opinion. Before this violent confrontation, tensions had mounted as two thousand British troops were billeted in the city to maintain control and enforce the collection of taxes. On the night in question, locals began throwing stones and ice balls at a lone guard stationed outside the custom house. After reinforcements were called, a standoff ensued and shots were eventually fired. No one knows who fired first, but Revere’s print presents the five fallen Americans as martyrs shot by callous executioners.
Only two men died but, by casting the event as a massacre, the artist created a visual rallying cry that was widely copied and distributed, persuading many hesitant colonials to consider breaking with monarchy.
Throughout the nineteenth century, prints remained indispensable in disseminating information and opinion about political revolts. Following France’s defeat in the Franco-Prussian War and the fall of Napoléon III, thousands of working-class Parisians rebelled against the new royalist-leaning, Versailles-based government and declared Paris an independent commune on March 28, 1871. The British artist and illustrator Arthur Boyd Houghton was in the French capital at the time. His drawings, published as wood engravings in magazines such as The Graphic and Harper’s Weekly, helped British and American audiences visualize the uprising. This depiction of a street barricade appeared in both publications on April 8 and May 6, 1871, respectively. Constructed with overturned carriages, furniture, and cobblestones, the barricade was a potent symbol and a practical means by which revolutionaries occupied public space during the Paris Commune, as it had been in the preceding revolutions of 1789, 1830, and 1848.
Fin-de-siècle artists Théophile-Alexandre Steinlen and Félix Vallotton were both involved in anarchist causes during the last decade of the nineteenth century. Their works offer two contrasting depictions of demonstrators faced with authority. Steinlen’s photomechanically reproduced drawing served as the cover design for La Feuille, an anarchist single-sheet newspaper, on October 20, 1898. The issue reported on a builders’ strike that halted major public construction projects such as the site of the 1900 World’s Fair and the new Parisian subway system. Fearing riots, the government called in sixty thousand troops to the city. Against a background of scaffolding, Steinlen shows a group of workers, who stand casually but gaze unflinchingly at the rigid soldiers with their long rifles.
The tense stillness of Steinlen’s scene contrasts with the fleeing panic of Vallotton’s, in which the authorities’ presence is only inferred by the bolting protestors. To convey the urgency of the demonstration dispersing along a Paris street, the artist balanced the density of the hastening crowd in the upper third of the composition with the radical blank space of the foreground. Included in an avant-garde portfolio aimed at a luxury market, the woodcut omits any reference to a specific cause for the demonstration—perhaps making the print more palatable to a broad audience.
American protest movements of the 1960s encouraged artists to use printmaking to respond to events they saw images of in magazines and on television, using cropping and focus to add personal commentary. In 1964 Andy Warhol ironically titled a print representing peaceful Black marchers a “race riot,” a loaded term he borrowed from contemporary press coverage that supported an aggressive response to public demonstrators. Based on a photograph published in Life magazine in May 1963, the image shows unarmed men being attacked by police dogs in Birmingham, Alabama. The artist enlarged his source and rendered it slightly out of focus, omitting details of the setting apart from some background trees. As a result, we seem to stand, like the marchers, amid menacing dogs and frightening batons, elements that underscore a profound power imbalance.
Like Warhol, Richard Hamilton used printmaking to respond to tragic events associated with a peaceful public demonstration. The artist was taking photographs of television news in May 1970 when he captured an image of an antiwar student protestor at Kent State University shot by a National Guardsman. His jarring print centered on a fallen, bloodied student took multiple screens to create and eerily echoes the figures that Revere showed in the left foreground of his Boston Massacre three centuries before. Hamilton acknowledged the image’s disturbing immediacy, later stating, “It was too terrible an incident in American history to submit to arty treatment.”
When political powers shift, monuments honoring previous regimes are often reevaluated, moved, or destroyed. This print documents one such dramatic toppling carried out in New York on July 9, 1776. When the pro-revolutionary Sons of Liberty learned that the Declaration of Independence had been signed in Philadelphia, they decided to remove a statue of George III standing at Broadway and Bowling Green. (It was later melted down to make bullets.) Ironically, most of the men laboring to pull down the statue in the print are enslaved and free Black men whose rights would not be expanded by the coming Revolution. While the German printmaker who created this print had no idea what colonial New York actually looked like—and mistakenly showed the king on foot rather than on horseback—the image offered Europeans a compelling glimpse of an unprecedented challenge to monarchy unfolding across the Atlantic.
Murals have long interested activist artists for their accessibility to a broad public, particularly in Mexico, which has a venerable history of mural painting. Together with Diego Rivera and David Alfaro Siqueiros, José Clemente Orozco was one of “Los Tres Grandes,” or the Three Greats—a term designating the country’s three most influential muralists. Orozco’s Rear Guard is part of a series of lithographs based on his 1926 mural at the National Preparatory School in Mexico City. The print consists of a mass of civilian soldiers of the Mexican Revolution (ca. 1910 to 1920). Made up of men, women, and children, the figures are clustered closely together and seen from behind, emphasizing their group identity and collective effort.
To challenge established authority, modern and contemporary artists have often sought to show their work in unconventional public spaces distinct from commercial galleries and museums. In the 1970s Jenny Holzer began to post printed sheets she called “Truisms” in unexpected places, allowing unknown viewers to simply find and take them if they wished, an exchange known as an intervention. This example contains uncredited, acerbic quotes, and the print itself is unsigned. This kind of social progressivism, which includes elements of irony and the absurd, was influenced by the playwright Samuel Beckett.
The Guerrilla Girls, a collective of feminist artists who maintain their anonymity by wearing gorilla masks in public, were commissioned by the Public Art Fund in New York to design a billboard in 1989. In response, they visited The Met and found few works by women artists in the modern art galleries but numerous examples of naked female bodies on display. This inequity led them to pose the question at the heart of a now iconic poster, “Do women have to be naked to get into the Met. Museum?” The Public Art Fund ultimately rejected it as a billboard, citing reasons such as lack of clarity, prompting the Guerrilla Girls to instead display their poster in city buses. The poster, which features the female nude in Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres's painting La grande odalisque (1814) donning a gorilla mask, made an impact for its message about the lack of gender diversity at the Museum and the art world at large as well as for its eye-catching design.
Artists have long made use of paper’s innate portability to create prints that can be easily distributed—and displayed—in public spaces. Flowchart of the Declaration of the Occupation of NYC by artist and organizer Rachel Schragis, with the Call to Action Working Group and other members of the General Assembly of Occupy Wall Street, features a diagram of collectively written grievances of the Occupy Wall Street Movement. The movement took hold when activists occupied Zuccotti Park in New York’s financial district in the fall of 2011, calling for greater economic equality after the global financial crisis of 2007–8. Schragis and others handed out Flowchart to protesters at Zuccotti.
Another collective work, Injustice Anywhere Is A Threat To Justice Everywhere was made at New York’s Center for Book Arts for use in protests against systemic racial injustice in response to the murder of George Floyd and other Black individuals at the hands of police. Staff members at the center suggested phrases that studio coordinator Elizabeth Castaldo designed and printed as posters. This example is inspired by the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who wrote the celebrated phrase in a letter from jail at the height of the Civil Rights Movement in 1963. The center freely distributed the posters to the public for use in the 2020 protests.
Tanekeya Word draws on womanism in her work, a theory that engages the histories and experiences of Black women; the term itself was coined by the writer Alice Walker. Word’s poster We Were There. We Are Here. We Are In the Future. (2020) shows a woman whose clothing is inscribed with the names of Black women reformers, including leaders of the African American women’s club movement and those who fought for voting rights. “Black women continue to support and fight alongside disenfranchised groups for an equitable United States of America,” Word has written, “yet, they are rarely credited in movements.” The image was inspired by the cover of Homecoming (1969), a book of poems by the writer and activist Sonia Sanchez. The pin-back button on the figure’s top is an homage to Emory Douglas, Minister of Culture for the Black Panther Party whose work often included buttons of this type. Here, it is left blank to invite our participation. Originally published as an open-edition in January 2020 by Du-Good Press, the poster was reissued soon after in response to popular demand.