Examples of artists using the tools of visual media to comment on the current state of affairs in their communities can be found both today and in past centuries. To demonstrate the use of satire in the visual arts through time, I chose The Family of Charles IV, painted by Francisco de Goya. This is a Romantic era canvas of heroic size dating from 1800-1801, commissioned by Charles IV (Goya). The second work I chose is entitled Flag, or sometimes, Tesco Bag Flag Tesco Generation (Banksy).
This guerilla piece is attributed to the post-modern street artist known as Banksy (Banksy) and surmised to have been created in 2008. At first glance, these two works could not seem more different. Goya painted the royal family of Spain using oil paint on a 110 ½ X 123 ¼ “canvas (Goya.net).
Banksy used spray paint, what appear to be stencils, and possibly additional mixed media on an exterior wall in London, for his creation (Franklin). Both works, however, communicate an unrest and dissatisfaction with the government and culture of their times. I chose them both because they satirize the state of affairs at the time of their creation, and because even across a span of 200 years, their messages of skepticism are so remarkably similar.
Goya reveals himself to be a crafty mastermind when it came to expressing his political opinions. While the picture seems at first glance to be merely a court painting, he manages to make the royal family seem a bit odd. This impression does not arise merely from the fact that that the studies for each individual portrait appear to have been created at different times and perhaps in different places.
The very structure of the group seems to convey a variety of messages. In the portrait you see that there is not an obvious hierarchical structure reflecting the rank of the subjects. There is not, for example, the king enthroned with his family below him. Instead, family members appear to be just milling about the room absent-mindedly while only incidentally getting their portraits painted.
The queen is more centrally located than the king, suggesting that her role is as important, or more so than the king’s. This suggests that the accepted order of things is not always as it seems.
Another indication of Goya’s lack of respect for the royal family appears in his treatment of their personal appearance. This artist does not indulge in the 19th century equivalent of photo-shopping. Instead, Goya clearly paints the queen’s double chin and her heavy arms. He does not soften her hooked nose either. In this way he makes her seem particularly human and even similar to the wife of a tradesman. This can be interpreted as a commentary on the weakness of the claim of divine right.
The figure assumed to be Charles’s son’s fiancée is not even looking in the direction of the viewer. This allows the viewer to infer that the identity of whichever fortunate young lady fulfills the role of his wife is not really all that important. Goya also painted most of the ladies in matching sashes, suggesting that they are all interchangeable. Although 1800 is very early for such feminist commentary, it strikes a modern viewer.
For a royal family portrait Goya did almost everything one could do at that time to make a mockery of it. Theopile Gautier, a French philosopher of his era, described them looking like “the corner baker and his wife after they have won the lottery.” (Licht) This refers to the gaudy gold lace on their dresses, and their awkwardness. Although, Goya was well-known, and admired by the court, he clearly did not reciprocate the feeling, and was not afraid to show the royal family as human, and fallible.
Banksy uses anonymity and non-institutional street art to accomplish his satirical commentary on contemporary life. There is no confirmed information on Banksy’s actual identity, date, and place of birth. Additionally, he often produces his art works secretly, and frequently in direct breach of municipal laws and institutional rules, sometimes implementing what Valesi terms “museum interventions” (Valesi, Marco).
Thus, the exact date of the work known as Flag is unknown, but can be inferred to fall between Banksy’s first appearance as a street or graffiti artist in 1992, and the present day. The press took note in 2008 when it is reported to have appeared overnight on Essex Street, one of Islington’s smaller byways, in the north of London (Franklin).
In Flag Banksy takes a seemingly innocent and traditional display of saluting the flag and replaces it with the truer, less acknowledged thing that people are loyal to. In placing a Tesco bag at the top of the “flagpole”, he is suggesting that money and consumption of products and resources are that which modern people in the western world revere.
The scene could be in any school yard. The stenciled children surrounding the flag appear as copied/blown figures from a 1950s children’s book. However, The Tesco bag replacing the British flag provides delicious contrast. Tesco is the British version of Wal-Mart. Located everywhere, although nicer than Wal-Mart, Tesco is known for their emphasis on high volume and low cost. Many fear this is leading to the “Americanization” of Britain.
In juxtaposing the scene of flag reverence with the shopping bag, Banksy questions whether we as a culture are teaching our children to respect and consume responsibly. The Telegraph inferred that Bansky was critiquing the use and abuse of plastic grocery bags. This seems too limited. He is critiquing the worship of materialism today. The clear, almost religious, devotion that you can see in the posture of the children is reminiscent of Sunday school texts from the 1950s.
The flag is arranged such that the stripes echo the stripes of the American flag, which offers a wry nod to the Americanization process that so many Britons decry. The pole appears to be some sort of utility pipe, perhaps protecting some wires or cables.
Banksy has used what is there, what is available without renting the space or stretching a canvas, to create the illusion of a flag raising and reverencing scene that actually has a sense of depth. This is another satirical jab, since one of the objections to giant retailers such as Wal-mart and Tesco is that they are not genuine parts of the community.
These works are similar in that both artists take a traditional scene and change it enough to make a powerful statement about the reality of the times in which they are living and working. Although these two works are 200 years apart the message of discontent with the way governments and populations behave is strong. Goya and Banksy have more in common than one would think. In many respects, these two works they are constructed and executed in exactly the opposite manner.
Goya took over a year to complete all the technical aspects of a giant, multi-subject oil portrait. Banksy probably spent about half of an hour painting, although stencils can be time consuming. The fact that they are so different in materials, setting, and execution, but so similarly satirical of the powers of their day is what shows that these two artists share more than they differ.
Banksy. Flag/Tesco Bag. 2008. Stencil and mixed media. Site installation, Essex Road. Islington.
Franklin, Katy. “Banksy backs ban on plastic bags.” Telegraph. 2008.
Goya, Francisco. The Family of Charles IV. 1800. Oil on canvas. Museo del Prado, Madrid.
Goya.net. “The Family of Charles IV.” goya.net. 2014.
Licht, Fred. “Goya’s portrait of the Royal Family.” The Art Bulletin 49.2 (1967): 127-128. 2014.
Valesi, Marco. “Topsy-Turvy-Tricksy…Banksy!” On the Waterfront. Revistes Catalanes amb Accés Obert (RACO). 2014: n.p.