Art is a powerful tool for advocacy and human rights awareness. As a visual medium, it transcends language and even cultural barriers. While a viewer may not be an expert on what they’re seeing, the use of color, form, and symbol triggers an emotional response. People feel a connection to events or causes that they may otherwise be ignorant about. This encourages them to research a painting’s subject further. For this reason, human rights and art have always been linked. Here are six powerful human rights paintings:
Considered one of the most powerful anti-war paintings of all time, Picasso painted “Guernica” while in Paris. It is a response to the bombing of Guernica, a town in northern Spain. The painting was first exhibited at the 1937 Paris International Exposition and toured to raise funds for the Spanish war relief. It depicts humans and animals suffering, their faces and bodies contorted in pain and grief. Picasso had originally planned another painting. When he heard about Germany and Italy bombing Guernica and talked to poet Juan Larrea, he decided to focus his painting on the horrific event. There’s much debate about the symbolism in the painting, but there’s no doubt that the work provokes a strong emotional reaction in anyone who sees it. It’s credited with drawing more international attention to the bombing. A tapestry reconstruction hung in the UN Headquarters for almost 25 years.
Iconic surrealist painter Salvador Dali was often inspired by war. He completed this work between the Spanish Civil War and WWII. It shows a disembodied head. The empty eye and mouth sockets are filled with smaller skeletal faces. In the sockets of those faces are more faces. Snakes coil around the head, which sits in a lifeless desert. The repetition of the ghastly faces speaks to the cycle of grief and pain caused by war. While many war/anti-war paintings show specific events or battles, this work represents their emotional toll.
In 1945, British soldiers discovered the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. They found 10,000 bodies and 60,000 dying prisoners. The British also captured German nurses and doctors at a nearby hospital. A well-known painter at the time, Doris Zinkeisen worked as an artist for the Red Cross. “Human Laundry” shows the captured nurses and doctors washing and delousing the recently-freed camp prisoners. After their treatment, the malnourished prisoners were sent to an improvised Red Cross hospital. The contrast between the white-clad, well-rounded medical professionals and skeletal, colorless former prisoners is striking. Paintings like “Human Laundry” were some of the first visual records of the Holocaust. They forced the world to reckon with the horrors of the war.
Nakamura Hiroshi was trained by the Japan Art Alliance, a post-war group that focused on realist paintings with political themes. He covered protests on the U.S. military bases in the mid-1950s. In the small town of Sunagawa, the U.S. military planned to take land to extend the airplane runway. This order would have evicted over 100 families from the land their ancestors cared for. Naturally, the farmers protested, attracting the attention of student groups and labor unions. Sunagawa #5 depicts the protesters and police locked in violent conflict. A small priest stands at the center of the painting, facing the police. The “Sunagawa Struggle” would continue for years. In 1968, the military canceled the runway expansion. In 1977, the entire base was given back to Japan.
Many people aren’t aware of how political American artist Norman Rockwell was. They think of his slice-of-life work, like the famous Thanksgiving dinner painting, that depicts romanticized life in America. In the 1960s, he did something different with “The Problem We All Live With.” The painting was originally published in 1964 in Look. Rockwell had recently left the Saturday Evening Post, where he had worked for decades. The publication restricted political themes, so Rockwell went to Look. The piece shows 6-year old Ruby Bridges in 1960. As a black girl going to an all-white school, deputy marshals escorted her for protection. The presence of smashed tomatoes, the initials “KKK,” and the N-word on the wall heighten the tension. From July-October 2011, the painting hung in the White House at Ruby Bridges’ suggestion.
Barbara Jones-Hogu was a co-founder of the African Commune of Bad Relevant Artists (abbreviated as AfriCOBRA). This collective incorporated Afrocentric aesthetics and perspectives. The screenprint “Unite” depicts black Americans raising their fists, a symbol of black power. Strong and solemn, the figures represent boldness and determination. The word “unite” crisscrosses above and through the figures. Jones-Hogu, who passed away in 2017, was known for incorporating words into her art, making her meaning clear. “Unite” was displayed at the Detroit Institute of Arts’ 2017 exhibition. The message of “Unite” continues to resonate.