Eugene Delacroix (1798 – 1863) “Liberty Leading The People” and my favourite Delacroix painting.
The louvre will host a retrospective of his most famous and also his scandalous works in July this year. It is billed as a once in a generation tribute to Delacroix, consisting of 180 works. Alexandre Dumas wrote that: “The genius of Delacxroix is not debatable, it is not demonstrable, it is something one feels.” Delacroix was acknowledged in his lifetime as the leading painter of the Romantic school, but not one who was idealistic, instead he was noted as being passionate about passion. Clearly his paintings are from the heart.
This painting is significant in France because it depicts the the 1830 revolution against Charles X. Liberty leads the people under the Tricolour – liberty, equality, and fraternity, over the dead bodies of struggle. Liberty is a type, a depiction of liberty goddesses. Liberty became a symbol of France and the Republic known as Marianne. Liberty has a long history and was early represented by the Roman goddess Libertas. Ever since there have been various representations, none so grand as the gift of France to the US which we all know as the Statue of Liberty. Latvia has the Freedom Monument in Riga, which is quite impressive to view.
The most poignant for me was the short lived Goddess of Democracy errected by the Democracy Movement during the protest in Tiananmen Square, the hastily constructed statue re-ignited the focus of the waning passion of the movement, only to be crushed by the Peoples Liberation Army (an oxy moron if ever there was one), as the protesters were dispersed, the statue was destroyed, but working from footage of the protest replicas appeared in – Hong Kong, Taiwan, Canada, and several in the US.
The statues, the painting, show how symbols can work to unite, galvanise, enthuse and encourage peopel to a cause. Delacroix shows how the principle of liberty is noble while the destruction of the Goddess of Democracy shows how little liberty is valued by those who hold power. This of course, was the irony of the first French Republic which degenerated into infighting, murder, and the macabre spectacle of the overworked guilotine. True liberty is hard won, and even harder to keep.
What I like most about the painting is the sense that liberty, equality and fraternity are important, and history shows we are drawn to these values to the point that we will gather and fight for them even if we have little chance of winning. The Goddess of Liberty, in whichever form she appears, is a torch, a beacon of hope to rally around. But I don’t see one at the moment! Perhaps this time around we won’t have a singular unifying symbol, but rather, many symbols.
In a more personal sense it raises the question as to what matters most in our lives. In daily practical application will I practice these values on public transport and in public spaces, at home, and in my work? Will I speak justice into the public space? Will I hold more than just my liberty as precious? Will I stand with others? If the WordPress community is any example, then my hope is well founded that I/we can hold and live those values.