Art as a weapon: artists and anarchism

This is the second part of an article that appeared in Organise!40

Although anarchist artists have come from a variety of countries and artistic schools, the anarchist aesthetic which unites them has three major characteristics, succinctly described by Michael Scrivener:

“(1) an uncompromising insistence upon total freedom for the artist, and an avant-garde contempt for conservative art; (2) a critique of elitist, alienated art and a visionary alternative in which art becomes integrated with everyday life; (3) art as social change - that is since art is an experience, it is a way to define and redefine human needs, altering social-political structures accordingly.” (Michael Scrivener: An Introduction to Anarchist Aesthetic)

The catalyst for the continuing alliance between art and anarchism has frequently been provided by the anarchist periodicals. In France, magazines such as La Revolte and Les Temps Nouveaux, both edited by the anarcho-communist Jean Grave, Pere Peinard, an anarchist weekly written entirely in slang, and edited by anarcho-syndicalist Emile Pouget, and La Feuille, edited by the flamboyant individual Zo d’Axa, all succeed in attracting the most innovative and class conscious artists, including Maximilien Luce, Paul Signac, Grandjouan, Kupka and others. In Germany, Franz Pfemfert’s Die Aktion combined the revolutionary nature of expressionist art and literature with the revolutionary writings of Muhsam and Bakunin, and a strong anti-militarist sentiment, to produce one of the most influential and political art magazines of the 20th Century. Among many artists who illustrated Die Aktion was Franz Seiwart, who provided graphics to Ret Marut for use in the clandestine Ziegelbrenner. Marut edited Die Ziegelbrenner while hiding from the Freiekorps, having narrowly escaped execution for his role in the Munich Republic of Councils, 1919, and is better known for the many novels he wrote as B. Traven.

In the Netherlands, Bakunin’s biographer Arthur Muller Lehning edited a seminal I-10 Internazionale Revue, which treated art, science and philosophy as key factors in the evolution of all political end economic situations. Informed by Lehning’s anarchist background I-10 provided the artistic avant-garde of the late 1920’s with a vehicle for international communication attracting contributors such as Walter Benjamin, Piet Mondrian, Kathe Kollwitz, Kandinsky, Kurt Schwitters, El Lissitsky and Malevich. Other members of the editorial collective included the architect J.J.P. Oud, and the Hungarian artist Laszlo Moholy-Nagy. Lehning summarized the policy of the review:

“The charter and meaning of this magazine are not set forth by any dogma stating what a new culture shall or will be, but rather a illustration of how each expression of contemporary life becomes aware of its own choices” (I-10, issue no 13, 1928)

Working Alliance

It is interesting to note Malevich’s continually connection with the anarchist press, as during the Russian Revolution he had originally written about his artistic theories for the anarchist press, until the Bolsheviks closed down the anarchist papers.

In London, the anarchist magazine Liberty, edited by the tailor, James Tochatti, and its contemporary The Torch, edited by the young Rossetti sister, Olivia and Helen, briefly forged a working alliance with some of the more socially aware artists of Victorian England. Walter Crane designed the Liberty Press logo and contributed a poster design depicting the Haymarket martyrs to Liberty. G.F. Watts also contributed illustrations to Liberty, while the young Lucien Pissarro provided a series of graphics to the Torch.

Walter Crane’s connections with the anarchist movement are usually ignored by his biographers, but were in fact central to his concept of socialism. Not only did he contribute to Liberty, but also to Freedom, and to the anarchist influenced Commonweal, the newspaper of the Socialist League. In 1896 he made an unsuccessful attempt to have the anarchist accepted by the Second International. Immediately after the Haymarket incident, he wrote a poem on the “Suppression of Free Speech in Chicago”. Crane wrote another poem “Freedom in America” expressing his disgust at the travesty of justice in the Haymarket trial, and attended the protest on Bloody Sunday which was attacked by the police. He narrowly escaped injury and arrest. On a subsequent trip to America Crane was a speaker at a commemoration meeting in honour of the Chicago anarchists, appearing on the platform with Benjamin Tucker. Attacked by the press for his stand he wrote in his own defense in the Boston Herald:

“Anarchism simply means a plea for a life of voluntary association, of free individual development - the freedom only bounded by respect for the freedom of others.”

Artistically his most interesting contribution to the anarchist cause was the cover he produced for the prospectus of the International Socialist School run by Louise Michel while she was in London. The guiding committee of this school included Kropotkin, William Morris and Malatesta.

Many of the artists who were involved in the anarchist movement took their involvement well past the point of contributing the occasional illustration, often at considerable personal risk. Maximilien Luce, for example was placed on trial for his anarchist beliefs and activity, in the Trial of Thirty, which took place in 1894 in the wake of several bombings by Parisian anarchists. Luce and most of the others were acquitted, but the incident is recorded in Mazas, an album of lithographs depicting life for the imprisoned anarchists awaiting trial in the infamous Mazas jail. In the same year, the Italian divisionist painter Plino Nomellini was placed on trial in Genoa, with several other Italian anarchists including Luigi Galleani, for conspiring to overthrow the state.


Another artist Aristide Delannoy, was imprisoned for his anarchist art. Delannoy was a prolific contributor to anarchist periodicals, ranging from the satirical L’Assiette au Beurre, to the revolutionary Les Temps Nouveaux. Together with the journalist Victor Meric, Delannoy produced the magazine called Les Hommes du Jour, and in the issue of October 3rd 1908, he portrayed General d’Amade, the occupier of Morocco, as a blood stained butcher standing amidst his colonial victims. This illustration cost Delannoy a 3,000 franc fine and a one year prison sentence. Public pressure, including mass protest meetings addressed by Anatole France, eventually forced a pardon. On his release he was soon in trouble with the authorities again, this time for a series of anti-militarist drawings, but the months in La Sante prison had aggravated a hereditary lung condition, and he died on April 5th, 1911, aged just 37.

The basis of involvement by artists in the anarchist movement has been summerize by the Italian artist Enrico Baj, in an interview of A-Rivista Anarchica:

“There is one driving force of an artist that always has a basis in anarchism; that is, the desire for freedom and the rebellion against the dictates of conformity in art. We can say that every artist has a certain degree of the anarchist spirit and, in me, it is perhaps the greater because I have considered by ideas deeply and I have cultivated this sensation which, for other painters, is only superficial. In order to invent one must break the bonds that bind us to pre-determined formulae. The most important thing is not to passively submit but to understand what is happening around us. I believe that an artist must build and signify his own freedom.”

Baj’s anti militarist collages have been both contriversial and internationally acclaimed, but he is best known for the long series of works around the theme of the police murder of Guiseppe Pinelli, Baj’s major work on the theme “The Funeral of the Anarchist Pinelli” was the subject of censorship in 1972. Earlier works were also the subject of censorship and right wing attacks in both Italy and Brazil. Among Baj’s recent work was the vivid depiction of liberty and authority for the poster advertising the anarchist gathering in Venice in 1984.

One time merchant sailor Flavio Constantini has, like fellow Italian Baj, depicted the murder of Pinelli. The stark simplicity of the image of Pinelli’s broken body contrasting sharply with the artists more ornate and brightly coloured depictions of other scenes from anarchist history. Constantini’s work has appeared in numerous anarchist publications in many different countries and a second edition of a collection of the illustrations, The Art of Anarchy, has been published by Black Flag to raise funds for the Anarchist Black Cross. In a short autobiographical article published in the now defunct Wildcat (not to be confused with the current magazine with the same name), Constantini writes of “an isolated but insistant voice, an ancient Utopia” which presents an alternative to capitalism and communist authoritarianism. “I have tried” he writes, “within the scope of my own possibilities, to publicise this uncompromising alternative”.


In France several innovative artists are associated with the anarchist movement, including cartoonist/illustrators Cabu and Tardi. The exciting graphic artist Luciano Loicono has been a member of the French Anarchist Federation for many years contributing to many of their publications including Le Monde Libertaire and Magazine Libertaire. Luciano’s single most powerful work, was a poster he designed in the immediate aftermath of a police raid on Radio Libertaire. The police smashed the transmission equipment, hoping to put the radio off air. Within 24 hours more that 5,000 took to the Paris streets in protest, many of them carrying Luciano’s posters which also covered the Paris walls, depicting a young woman with a padlock throught her lips, symbolising the brutal denial of speech.

Among the many contempory artists who link their art with the need for revolution is the American avant-garde artist Carlos Cortes. Cortes has produced exciting posters of anarchist heroes like Ricardo Flores Magon and Joe Hill, but is also involved in community struggles throught the Industrial Workers of the World, and through Chicano groups.His posters and graphics are fly posted at night protesting about police brutality, racism and social injustice, and articulate the fear and anger of the repressed.

As anarchists our concern cannot just be with the past or the present, but must also be with the immediate future. Speaking personally it seems that our central concern must be to democratise artistic creation. Posters, comics, postcards, magazine illustrations, and other forms of art have helped to spread and democratise the consumption of art, but as a movement we hve yet to put Herbert Read’s idea of “every person a special kind of artist” into practice. We should attempt to organise workshops to explain techniques and methods and establish collectively-run resource centres in each community. If, however, these are to avoid the degeneration exprerienced by the arts lab movement they must have closer links with the social needs of the community and with the revolutionary movement. We must also begin to redefine what we mean by the term artist, so that the artist ceases to be a person apart.We all need to develop the artist’s skills and vision.

Third and final part of thisticle will appear in next issue of Organise!

<Back to Issue 41 Contents>
<Back to Organise Page>