Painting the Iranian Nuclear Threat

American Israeli artist Andi Arnovitz recently made headlines in the New York Times with a new series of collages crafted in response to the perceived nuclear threat posed against Israel by Iran. The painter and printmaker, who has lived in Jerusalem since 1999 and works out of the Jerusalem Print Workshop, recently exhibiting the works at the city’s L.A. Mayer Museum for Islamic Art as part of a larger exhibition of her work entitled Threatened Beauty.

The cheerful appearance of the painted medallions belies their menacing subject matter. Fordow’s Underground refers to Iran’s secret uranium-enrichment plant and below the ornate flowers and bright blue sky men in turbans are shown operating machinery. In other works the dreamy, swirling landscapes and seascapes gradually reveal sinister objects and figures, demonstrating the artist’s personal fears.

Taking inspiration from the decorative traditions of the Islamic world, in particular the intricate designs of Persian carpets and the lush visions in Persian miniatures, Arnovitz has actively sought to subvert these alluring visual legacies by manipulating them to reflect the current political turmoil in the Middle East. While other works in Arnovitz’s recent exhibition dealt with the menace of Islamic fundamentalism, the theme of nuclear threat was at its heart. The artist is a vocal opponent of the Obama administration’s efforts to negotiate a deal on Iran’s nuclear programme and she claims she would like to hang her work “on the walls of Congress” and force the US president to “look at this every night before he goes to bed”.

Reflecting on the benefit of using art as a form of political propaganda, Arnovitz says: “It’s so much easier to get your message out there with art, because you’re not standing in front of a microphone and banging people over the head. Art is quieter, art gets under your skin more.”

Images: Andi Arnovitz, Fordow’s Underground, 2014. Mixed media on paper, 56.5 × 56.5 cm.

The CIA Comic Book Airdropped Over Grenada

Operation Urgent Fury, the controversial US-led invasion of Grenada, concluded with a decisive victory for the United States on 15 December 1983. The Reagan administration claimed that this action, the country’s first major military operation since the end of the Vietnam War, was launched in response to appeals for help by Grenada’s neighbouring islands. However, it has also been widely argued that the campaign was instead a ploy aimed at quashing Cuban and Soviet influence in the Caribbean.

In the aftermath of the invasion an aggressive piece of artistic propaganda appeared in support of the official line. GRENADA: Rescued from Rape and Slavery, a 14-page comic book, was printed in its thousands and airdropped over the island. The eye-catching, brightly-coloured pamphlet presented Operation Urgent Fury as a glorious defence of democracy by the United States, reimagining its military not as invaders but as liberators from “imminent totalitarian danger”.

The comic was ostensibly sponsored by the fictitious organisation V.O.I.C.E. (Victims Of International Communist Emissaries) … but it later transpired that the book had in fact been produced by the CIA. The agency had secretly commissioned Malcolm Ater of the Commercial Comics Company in Washington, DC to write the script, with illustrations provided by veteran comics artist Jack Sparling.

A PDF version of the full comic book is available for free download from the Government Comics Collection at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

Images: Front cover and detail from page 3 of GRENADA: Rescued from Rape and Slavery (New York: V.O.I.C.E., 1984).

Featured Artist: Alexander Calder

Perhaps the most celebrated American sculptor of the 20th century, Alexander Calder is especially well-known for his abstract and seemingly innocuous mobiles. These would become a common feature in official American exhibitions at world fairs and international art festivals during the 1950s – including at the 1959 American National Exhibition in Moscow. In this context they were presented as examples of ‘free’ art produced within a democratic society and devoid of political meaning. Yet the use of Calder’s work as state propaganda would increasingly run into conflict with the artist’s own politics.

As the recent article ‘Unstable Motives: Propaganda, Politics, and the Late Work of Alexander Calder‘ explores in detail, in the 1960s and ’70s Calder become increasingly activist and critical of US foreign policy, with his new-found radicalism reflected in his artwork.

In later life Calder began to produce prints, posters and even badges in support of presidential candidates, anti-war protests and refugee relief operations. Calder was also one of a group of artists who publicly refused to take part in the White House Arts Festival of 1965, in a show of opposition to US involvement in the Vietnam War. Yet against the artist’s wishes his work Whale II was placed centre stage at the event, having been lent by MoMA. This story perfectly sums up the often difficult relationship between American artists and the US government as the changing politics of the Cold War challenged their ability to work together.

Images: Top – Senator J. William Fulbright and President Lyndon B. Johnson examine Calder’s Whale II at the White House Festival of the Arts, 1965. Photo: Yoichi Okamoto; Bottom – Alexander Calder, Mankind Must Put an End to War or War Will Put an End to Mankind, 1975. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress, Washington, DC. Art © 2012 Calder Foundation, New York / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

Featured Artist: Sean Snyder

Sean Snyder is a contemporary American artist living and working in Berlin, Kiev and Tokyo. Acclaimed for his unique ‘research-based’ art, Snyder works predominantly in film and video to explore the role of images in the global circulation of (dis)information.

This fascination has repeatedly led him to engage with the politics of images produced during the Cold War. Using montages and cut ups of content drawn from official news channels to clandestine websites, Snyder challenges our understanding of what we see by questioning the lines between truth and propaganda, transparency and manipulation.

Some of Snyder’s recent Cold War themed artworks have included Exhibition (2008) which reappropriates footage from a 1965 Soviet documentary about an art exhibition in eastern Ukraine; Two Oblique Representations of a Given Place (Pyongyang) (2001–4) which juxtaposes screens showing official footage celebrating the technological advances of Pyongyang with a tourist-filmed video that gives an altogether more eerie view of the North Korean capital; Afghanistan, circa 1985 (2008–9) which captures the strange banality of war using footage shot by soldiers during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan; and Dallas Southfork in Hermes Land, Slobozia, Romania (2001) which recounts the bizarre role of the American TV series Dallas in bringing down the USSR.

Snyder’s work is informative, compelling and unsettling, as we are confronted by our susceptibility to the wealth of images we are exposed to on a daily basis.

For a more in-depth account of Sean Snyder’s work, read Stranger than Fiction on Frieze.

Images: Sean Snyder. Top – Exhibition, 2008 (video still); Bottom – Dallas Southfork in Hermes Land, Slobozia, Romania, 2001 (video still). Courtesy of the artist; Galerie Chantal Crousel, Paris; Lisson Gallery, London; and Galerie Neu, Berlin.

Exhibition of the Month: Is It Propaganda? Or Is It Political Art?

Is It Propaganda? Or Is It Political Art? is the latest exhibition to open at the Charles Krause/Reporting Fine Art Gallery in Washington, DC. Assembled from the personal collection of the veteran PBS and Washington Post foreign correspondent, the exhibition features political and poster art from Cold War USSR, Cuba, Ukraine, China, Poland, Germany and the US.

Krause became a collector of art during his 30 years covering wars and revolutions across the Americas, Eastern Europe and the Middle East. He was particularly interested in art that was able to overcome language barriers by the strength of its visual imagery, engaging with work often dismissed from consideration by mainstream galleries and museums. In this exhibition, Krause invites visitors to question the line between ‘political art’ and ‘propaganda’ and to consider the value of the art object outside its political content.

The exhibition remains open during weekends and during weekdays (by appointment) until 31 May 2014.

Featured Artist: Sun Mu

Sun MuSun Mu, as this painter is known, has a greater understanding of the ongoing repercussions of the Cold War than perhaps any other living artist. Born in North Korea, where he was trained to paint propagandistic posters and murals, Sun fled in 1998 during one of the country’s many famines, and today lives and works in South Korea.

Sun Mu (Kim Jong Il)The artist’s real name and appearance are not widely known. Sun Mu is instead a pseudonym, chosen to protect the family he was forced to leave behind in North Korea, and he avoids photographs of his face. He has carved out a noted career, adapting his training as a Socialist Realist painter for the North Korean Army to reveal the melancholy of his native land. Ranging from the satire of a grotesque depiction of Kim Jong Il in sunglasses, tracksuit and uncoordinated Nike and Adidas trainers, revealing the hypocrisy of his brutal regime; to the haunting Manga-style face of a frightened girl, the North Korean flag reflected in her eye; Sun Mu’s work is at once bitingly satirical and quietly chilling, subtlely revealing the failings of an artistic doctrine which dominated the communist world for half a century.

Sun Mu (Girl)Even so, his work has been criticised by those who have misread his irony for genuine communist propaganda, leading to his paintings being occasionally removed from exhibitions in South Korea. Sun Mu has countered these attacks by stating: ‘I cannot help being political. How can I ignore the reality of the North, where my parents are still suffering?’

You can read a more in-depth introduction to Sun Mu in the New York Times.

Recommended Read: Parting the Curtain

Walter L. Hixson. Parting the Curtain: Propaganda, Culture, and the Cold War, 1945–1961. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 1997.

Despite its slim appearance, Parting the Curtain is a detailed and informative read. Its concise format makes it a good starting point for readers new to the topic of Cold War culture and the book provides a helpful overview of the central themes and stories.

Hixson focuses upon the efforts of the Truman and Eisenhower administrations to deploy art and culture as propaganda to wage psychological warfare against the USSR. From the end of World War II to the establishment of the Soviet-American cultural exchange treaty at the end of the ’50s, Parting the Curtain chronicles the role of governmental and media agencies in this campaign of cultural infiltration. While reference to the visual arts is limited, the assessment of the stakeholders that controlled official artistic displays in the early Cold War provides a clear basis to support further reading on the subject.

Parting the Curtain: Propaganda, Culture, and the Cold War, 1945–1961 is on sale at Palgrave Macmillan and at booksellers including Amazon.


Image: Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev and US Vice President Richard Nixon visit the American National Exhibition in Moscow on 24 July 1959, the setting for their infamous ‘Kitchen Debate’.