From daily The Guardian in Britain:
Poverty lines: where are the poor in art today?
Tuesday 30 December 2014 10.00 GMT
Art has a long history of entertaining the rich. From ancient artisans who made gold drinking cups for kings, to the artists of today who sell installations to plutocrats, art has been a luxury product, the servant of money. And yet it also has a social conscience. At this consumerist time of year, it is worth looking at some of the ways artists portray poverty.
This Italian video is about Caravaggio’s Madonna of Loreto.
Caravaggio never lets you forget the reality of Roman street life in the 17th century. His two pilgrims in The Madonna of Loreto look poverty stricken. The man’s feet are bare and dirty. Shoeless feet appear time and again in Caravaggio’s art, and from him this marker of poverty was adopted by other baroque artists. Even that great flatterer of the rich, Anthony van Dyck, imitated Caravaggio by showing unshod feet of the poor in Adoration of the Shepherds.
These shoeless feet in baroque art are a clue to the massive social contrasts of pre-modern Europe. It is only by looking at these paintings that we can see, as a stark, visible fact, the reality that the poor had no shoes in the Rome of Caravaggio’s day. Of course, there are plenty of places where people today go shoeless. The poverty Caravaggio depicts is no thing of the past; that is one of the reasons he remains so powerful.
But what drew artists to show the extreme polarities of wealth and poverty in their age? Were they revolutionaries? There were massive popular protests in Naples in the 1620s, at the height of baroque art. José de Ribera painted poverty in Naples with acute compassionate realism in this period. Is he a radical critic of the social order?
More often, artists, whose main work was religious art, were drawing attention to the paradoxes of the Christian message. Churches were full of fine art, yet Christianity praises poverty. When Velázquez portrayed a water-seller on the streets of Seville, he was showing Christian virtues of humility and patience.
And yet … it is truly astonishing, given that all their income came from the wealthy and powerful, how much detail of the lives of the poor painters have preserved.
The urban poor, shoeless and ragged, populate baroque art. In Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s painting The Harvesters, peasants enjoy lunch in the sun in a golden wheatfield. Maybe it’s an idyll, but this painting shows that you do not need to be a lord or lady to enjoy the sunshine. It’s free.
This video is called Van Gogh on The Potato Eaters.
Some 300 years later, Vincent van Gogh set out on a personal mission to the poor. The son of a pastor, he was torn between religious and artistic vocations. His most ambitious portrayal of poverty, The Potato Eaters, is a passionate attempt to put the lives of poor country people into art.
Van Gogh admired the social conscience of Charles Dickens and of British artists who depicted workhouses and the underside of Victorian life. These included Dickens’s friend Luke Fildes, whose painting Applicants to a Casual Ward portrays homelessness in 1870s London. Another stark image of British poverty by Luke Fildes is simply called Houseless and Hungry. One to remember at Christmas.
Van Gogh and his contemporaries were still motivated by the same ambiguous mix of Christianity, compassion and honest observation that had drawn artists to the realities of poverty back in Caravaggio’s day, but the world was changing fast. The poor were no longer passive objects of pity. Socialism was stirring.
This video from Italy is about Giuseppe Pellizza da Volpedo’s painting The Fourth Estate.
In Guiseppe [sic; Giuseppe] Pellizza da Volpedo’s painting The Fourth Estate, the rural poor march towards you, into history. It is the start of the 20th century: the painting dates from about 1901. The forward march of labour has begun.
So here we are in the 21st century. The forward march of labour ended some time ago. How do today’s artists portray poverty? Interesting question – for perhaps wealth has never been more raw and obvious in the art world. This is the age of the diamond skull. Compared with the compassion of a Caravaggio or Van Gogh, contemporary art really does seem to take the rich collector’s view on life.
Where’s our Luke Fildes? For images of economic injustice in today’s art you probably have to look outside the gallery world. Banksy’s Maid in London is the definitive image of inequality today. Perhaps it will be remembered when Hirst is forgotten, just as we have forgotten all the stuffy portraits of Victorian capitalists but crowd and queue to see The Potato Eaters.