The Secret Art of Pinochet’s Chile

Having been forced to call free presidential elections on 14 December 1989, Chilean dictator General Augusto Pinochet was finally removed from power, bringing to an end 16 years of military rule. Pinochet had taken the presidency in 1973 following a US-backed coup d’état, which deposed the elected socialist government of Salvador Allende and established a junta in its place.

The restoration of democracy in Chile also enabled the artistic collective Brigada Ramona Parra (BRP) to come out of hiding. The group had been founded by young communist artists in 1968 and for five years had covered Santiago’s streets with colourful murals campaigning for radical social change.

Following the 1973 coup BRP activists were arrested and their murals were painted over by the military government. Although not defeated, the artists were driven underground, continuing to paint secretly in defiance of Pinochet’s regime. The danger of being caught meant large murals were impossible, so the artists instead created a tag: a letter R within a circle with a star next to it. The R stood for resistance, the circle for unity, and the star as a symbol of the BRP.

Since their liberation, the BRP artists have once again brightened the streets of Chile with murals championing contemporary causes including indigenous rights and educational reform.

This wonderful story is told more extensively in Gideon Long’s report on the BBC News website: The Chilean Muralists Who Defied Pinochet.

Image: BRP mural honouring Jecar Nehgme, a left-wing activist shot dead by Pinochet’s forces in 1989 and one of the last victims of the junta.

Featured Artist: Thierry Noir

Thierry NoirOn 9 November 2014 the world looked back to the momentous day, 25 years earlier, when the Wall came down.

French street artist Thierry Noir is credited as the first person to paint on the Berlin Wall, in April 1984. Noir had moved to the west side of the city two years earlier and was living in a squat that overlooked the infamous crossing. Saddened by the sight, one day he spontaneously decided to begin his illegal artwork in an act of defiance. Instead of intending to make the wall beautiful or joyful, Noir painted to highlight its strangeness, to “transform it, make it ridiculous, and help destroy it.”

Noir had to paint quickly to avoid arrest by East German guards, developing a ‘Fast Form’ style by simplifying the figures into a continuous line formed of one or two bright colours. Over the next five years Noir painted on the wall daily, with his colourful cartoon animals and human faces eventually covering an entire kilometre of its surface.

Many artists followed Thierry Noir’s lead in painting on the Berlin Wall, from Keith Haring’s stick men to Dmitri Vrubel’s cheeky picture of Brezhnev and Honecker in a clinch. Yet despite these years of work, Noir was relieved to see the wall destroyed: “It was not an art project, it was a deadly border. One hundred and thirty six people were killed because of the wall – everyone was just happy that it went away.”

Thierry Noir continues to live in the German capital and to produce work in his signature style, which since the end of the Cold War has became an iconic symbol of freedom. Noir’s Berlin Wall paintings remain on the portions of the wall held in the East Side Gallery and in New York City, and in 2009 the artist was invited to contribute to the restoration of what is now a historic monument by repainting several sections of his work.

Images: Top – Thierry Noir painting on the Berlin Wall, 1989; Bottom – View from Thierry Noir’s bathroom, Berlin, 1989.

Featured Artist: Shepard Fairey

faireyBest known as the designer of the Barack Obama ‘Hope’ poster, created for the 2008 presidential campaign, American street artist and illustrator Shepard Fairey is one of the most influential artists of his generation. Fairey honed his skills in the skateboarding scene of the late 1980s before bringing his distinctive style to the walls of some of the world’s premier art museums.

Make Art Not War [Converted]Although he is considered one of the coolest and most current artists working today, Fairey’s illustrations also keep alive the aesthetics of the Cold War. In particular the artist fuses contemporary street style with the iconography of state propaganda posters, while also making strong reference to Russian constructivist design, art nouveau and pop art. His series of works on the themes of Obey (Propaganda) and Make Art Not War further subvert the discredited rhetoric of Soviet, American and Chinese propaganda from the Cold War era to support his own political activism.

While focusing on accusations of plagiarism in Fairey’s designs, an interesting article written in 2007 by Mark Vallen points out numerous examples where Fairey has appropriated Cold War imagery, recontextualising it for a post-Cold War audience.

Shepard Fairey Providence Mural

Images: Shepard Fairey, Make Art Not War, 2004. Shepard Fairey, design for mural in Providence, Rhode Island, 2010. Courtesy AS220

The Nuclear Symbol of Peace

With the signing of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty on 8 December 1987 Reagan and Gorbachev finally brought to an end the nuclear standoff between the United States and the USSR. For the preceding four decades, the ever-present threat of atomic warfare caused consternation across the globe. In the UK, the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) was formed in 1957 to call for an end to nuclear weapons. The following year British artist and designer, Gerald Holtom, created the group’s logo, which would become one of the most famous symbols in the world. What began as a symbol of despair during the Cold War is now seen as a universal symbol of peace that remains potent to this day.

Banksy SoldiersAlso widely used as a protest symbol, the CND circle has often been incorporated into politically-engaged street art. In one corner of London, the emblem can be seen transformed from a peace dove in the Nuclear Dawn graffiti. More recently, Banksy featured the symbol in his anti-war stencil, Soldiers Painting Peace. The work was famously removed from outside the Houses of Parliament for supposedly violating a law against unauthorised protest, before being recreated in a display at Tate Britain in 2007.

Featured Artist: Keith Haring

Keith Haring2A recent exhibition at the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris highlighted the significance of Keith Haring as ‘a subversive, militant Pop icon’. The American artist used his apparently infantile and comic images of stick men and barking dogs to engage with challenging political themes as he campaigned tirelessly for social justice and the freedom of the individual.

Imbued with the street culture of 1980s’ New York, Haring’s paintings often expressed the dominant concerns of the Cold War, such as the threat of nuclear war, the preponderance of mass media and the dangers of rampant capitalism. The artist-activist was also an outspoken critic of racism, homophobia, drug use and ecocide. Towards the end of the 1980s Haring’s output became increasingly fixated on the theme of AIDS, before he sadly succumbed to the disease in 1990 at only 31 years of age.

From his subway sketches to his mural on the Berlin Wall, Haring frequently used the public space to deliver his messages. His energetic and humorous style and commitment to the democratisation of art continue to inspire new generations of politically-active street artists.

Haring - Subway
Images: © Keith Haring Foundation

Keith Haring Paints the Berlin Wall

130816 Keith Haring

On 13 August 1961 construction started on the Berlin Wall, tearing apart the German capital. For the next 28 years, the Wall would be a symbol of Soviet oppression and a literal representation of the ‘Iron Curtain’ between East and West.

With the rise of the graffiti art movement in the 1980s, the West Berlin side of the Wall became a Mecca for street artists. Keith Haring, the New York artist credited with bridging the gap between the street and the gallery, was invited by the Director of the Checkpoint Charlie Museum to paint on the Wall during a visit to Europe in 1986. On 23 October Haring began work on his 350-foot mural, intended to symbolise the solidarity of the divided peoples of Berlin.

In Haring’s words: ‘I decided on a subject, which is a continuous interlocking chain of human figures, who are connected at their hands and their feet – the chain obviously representing the unity of people as against the idea of the wall. I paint this in the colors of the German flag – black, red and yellow.’

Read more about Haring’s Berlin Wall Mural in the Tate’s Gallery of Lost Art.

Image: Photo by Tseng Kwong Chi, 1986. Copyright Muna Tseng Dance Projects Inc. Courtesy Keith Haring Foundation