Delacroix’s image of revolution, Liberty Leading the People, helps us see the protests in Egypt and Iran in a new light
The flag of liberty flutters over a smoke-wreathed barricade. A crowd of the poor and the desperate and the idealistic rushes towars us, and towards death if they fail to win their freedom. A street child and a top-hatted bohemian defy the cannon of the regime to win their place in history.
This is Liberty Leading the People by Eugene Delacroix, the most romantic and inspiring of all images of revolution. The rising it portrays is the Revolution of 1830 in France, and the battle cry it makes visible – freedom or death! – is once more alive, this time on the streets of Cairo, Tehran and Bahrain.
I happened to see this bloodrush of a painting in the Louvre in Paris just as events were kicking off in Egypt. It hangs in the most impressive gallery in the museum, a hall so grand it would make you think about history even if it were not decorated by awe-inspiring paintings of revolution and war. But to compare Liberty Leading the People to other paintings by Delacroix that hang in that same magnificent atmosphere is to see today’s revolutions in a new light and get a richer sense of their radicalism.
Liberty is European in the art of Delacroix while tyranny, in his eyes, is proper to the Middle East. Opposite his hymn to revolution, so patriotically French with that glimpse of Notre Dame through the battle smoke, hang three pictures that graphically portray Middle Eastern societies as inherently despotic. The Death of Sardanapalus wallows in a fantasy of “oriental” decadence as a tyrant kills himself amid the fabulous erotic abandon of his court. Meanwhile, in The Massacres at Chios, defenceless Greek rebels are slaughtered by cruel Turks. And in The Women of Algiers, we are offered a glimpse of life in a harem.
The message in this group of great paintings is clear. Democracy according to Delacroix is a western passion, a European ideal. In reality, when Delacroix painted his Romantic masterpieces, democracy was as new and exotic – and as rare – in the monarchical and aristocratic societies of Europe as it was anywhere else. Only paintings like his (and novels and histories that shared their sentiment) would rewrite Europe’s story as an invincible forward march to freedom.
Until now, the world has lived with the consequences of this false idea that freedom is inherently European and democracy only a passion of the west. This is surely why the revolt of Arab youth is one of the truly epoch-making moments in world history. Think what is at stake: a truly universal democratic ideal. The end of the corrupting conservatism and disdain that sees human nature as divisible. I don’t know what Delacroix would have thought. But the boy on the barricade salutes his brothers and sisters.
As published in Guardian