Using Culture for Political Purposes
Liberty Leading the People by Eugène Delacroix (1830) celebrates the July Revolution (Louvre-Lens Museum)

The world-famous painting Freedom Leading the People finds itself presently at the heart of a serious debate in France, in which two Ministers of the Government are involved.

The matter came up when the painting appeared on the list of works that the French Government is to lend to China for the 50th anniversary of the People's Republic, on the 27th of this month. On this occasion, the French Government, in partnership with the Centre Pompidou, the Musée d'Orsay and the Musée du Louvre, decided to lend a series of cultural, economic and scientific French masterpieces, including Freedom Leading the People, to commemorate the French-Chinese friendship.

According to the French newspaper Le Monde, the Minister of Foreign Affairs Laurent Fabius supported the idea that the painting should join the list of selected works, since the Delacroix’s masterpiece is an emblem of both people’s freedom and French culture. On the other side, the Minister of Culture Aurelie Filippetti and the Director of the Musée du Louvre Jean-Luc Martinez do not agree with this idea for several reasons.

First of all, the canvas is very big and fragile, and moreover both the Director of the Museum and the Minister of Culture are worried about the safety of the work. This has already been compromised several times in the past.

For example, in 1999, the painting survived a very dangerous adventure when, it was loaned to Japan following the decision of the former President Jacques Chirac, who wanted to  mark the Franco-Japanese year. A special cratewas built on that occasion to transport the big canvas (2.60 x 3.25 m). Also, the painting was too large to fit into a Boeing 747 and was transported in vertical position inside a special pressurised container with isothermal protection and an anti-vibration device. The only aircraft able to carry it was a Beluga Airbus freighter which had to make stops in Bahrain and Calcutta and reached Tokyo in about 20 hours. To this day, nobody knows how much that flight cost.

However, there are also facts to discourage those who would prefer to keep the painting at home. An example is what happened last February when a 28-year old woman wrote directly on the canvas with a highlighter. This act of vandalism happened in the Louvre-Lens Museum, where the painting has been since 2012. Fortunately, the damage was slight and was resolved very quickly. From then on, the curators of the museum have decided to keep the masterpiece in France. For this reason, the Louvre Museum proposed to lend alternatively two other important works from its collection: the portrait of King Francis I by Jean Clouet and Le Verrou (The Lock) by Jean-Honoré Fragonard. The French Government will have the final say.

Discovering the painting

Liberty Leading the People (in French La Liberté guidant le peuple), painted in 1830 by Eugène Delacroix, commemorates the July Revolution of the same year. The central figure of the painting is a woman famous with name of Marianne. She brandishes the French flag and is viewed not only as a symbol of Liberty and Revolution, but also as the embodiment of the French Republic.

Delacroix depicted Freedom as both an allegorical goddess and a robust "people's woman". The mound of corpses serves as a pedestal for which Freedon strides, barefoot and bare-chested, out of the canvas and into the space of the viewer. Behind Marianne there are many fighters from a mixture of social classes, who all share the fierceness and determination in their eyes.

By the time Delacroix painted Freedom Leading the People, he was already the leader of the French Romantic School. In his masterpiece, the painter was able to recreate the idea and the style of romanticism, by using freely brushed colours. The French government bought the painting in 1831 for 3,000 francs with the intention of displaying it in the throne room of the Palais du Luxembourg in Paris, but the work was removed due to its inflammatory political message and it was given back to the artist. It was briefly exhibited in 1848 after the Republic was restored through another Revolution, and then in 1855. In 1874, the painting entered the collection of Palais du Louvre in Paris. Its first travel abroad was in 1974–75, when it moved to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, and then to the Detroit Institute of Arts for an exhibition organized by the French Government as a Bicentennial gift to the people of the United States.

Conclusion

We do not know yet what the French Government will decide about the issue, but it would be very interesting to hear the One Europe readers' point of view. Would be wiser to keep Marianne at home? Is avoiding loans is the best choice to preserve paintings and other pieces of art? Which of the two French Ministers are you agree with: the Minister of Culture Aurelie Filippetti or the Minister of Foreign Affairs Laurent Fabius? Do you agree with the idea that cultural masterpieces should be used for politic purpose?

Edited by: Izabella Lobinska