The 1789 French Revolution was a key period in European politics. From poetry to theater, to philosophy and painting, this gruesome but crucial event has been described countless times and to this day symbolizes its nations identity and beliefs. The art of that period, neoclassical and romantic paintings to be precise, embodied the intellectual consequences of these political events on the French people. Romanticism is an art movement that represented the parallel between the chaotic politics and the stimulating enlightenment. In fact, Romanticism is more than just an artistic style, it is also a political and philosophical movement. Although rigid in its academic rules, austere lighting and muted colors, it remained groundbreaking in its grandiose scenes borrowed from Greek and Roman religious/mythical themes. This resulted in the creation of a new artistic vocabulary that not only articulated current political turnovers, but also a national identity that is rooted in intellectual thought and appreciation for the aesthetic.
2: Palestinian occupation and its gendered and labor-intensive artistic expression
Arguments (comparing, contrasting, etc)
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is one of the major crises of our century.
One of the complexities of the crisis as that its narrative is controlled by Western superpowers. Palestinians being thus stripped from their agency have resorted to unconventional and artistic forms of expression in order to tell their story and revive their national identity. It is interesting to place these two major political conflicts side by side in order to critically analyze the contrasts between time periods, geographical locations, political power and art platforms that were dominated by men for one and by women for the other.
1: La Marianne
Liberty Leading the People by Eug?ne Delacroix is an oil painting that depicts the victorious Revolution against the monarchy and nobility of the time. Art of the 19th century was very much controlled by the Academy of Fine Arts and its rules. Yet, Delacroix took a risk and went above the strict regulations in order to truly depict the French revolution and its moment of glory for the people of France. He states: My bad mood is vanishing thanks to hard work. I’ve embarked on a modern subjecta barricade. And if I haven’t fought for my country at least I’ll paint for her. Although dark, his rendering of this historical moment is also poetic as he personifies the idea of liberty, as a woman.
Known as La Marianne, Liberty wears a yellow tunic falling from her shoulders exposing her torso and a Phrygian cap which was previously worn by freed slaves during the period of the Roman Empire. Many art historians associate her bare chest with the birth of democracy as well as the Ancient Greek and Roman tradition. La Marianne is at the foreground of Delacroix’s composition and is climbing the cobblestone barricade built by the defensive Royalist troops. Although her body is propelled forward, her face looks back as she invites all classes and ages to climb over it. The profile angle of her face is a nod to classical Ancient Greek and Roman features and a reminder of its neoclassical nature. La Marianne stands as a symbol of inclusivity as she is calling rebels from all social classes into action. This clash of classes is exemplified in the far left of the painting, as we can identify both a worker from the lower class and a nicely-dressed middle class man following La Marianne.
Regardless of the chaotic atmosphere in the painting, the formation of a hierarchical pyramid with Liberty at the top creates a sense of order. This shows how most of the attention gravitates towards the allegorical figure, despite the wounded and dying citizens that lie at the bottom of the painting, portraying the heavy costs of the Revolution.
Over the years, La Marianne has become a symbol of a newly constructed national and cultural identity, representing the Republican values of Liberty, Equality, Fraternity which to this day are very much part of French politics. It is striking and ironic to see a woman being placed at the center of Frances cultural identity, yet the country is mostly articulated by men.
2: The Palestinian woman
As for the second case study, an acrylic painting made by Nabil Anani, we see a woman placing her head on her shoulder while carrying a cityscape with her arm. We are able to identify the city as Jerusalem because of its central golden dome. The womans body is as though she is following the prolongation of the city. She seems to be wearing a traditional item of clothing, which is called the thob. Its skirt is composed of detailed patchwork and embroidery. In Palestine, thobs reveal a womans regional identity as well as her socio-economic background. Every region has its own style of patterns and we can also differentiate each style from the fabrics and motifs used. Not only do they have their own designs, but they also use different techniques in stitching and embroider a variety of clothing accessories such as belts, handkerchiefs, etc.
Labour of Love is a book written and curated by Rachel Dedman in which she interviewed many women from all corners of Palestine who have shared their story and the meaning behind their clothing. Throughout the numerous conversations with women, Dedman describes the gradual change in the symbol of the thob; from its cultural context to a marker of national identity. Labour of Love is a significant piece of literature in regards to my research on Palestinian embroidery as it explains it through the lenses of gender, labour, symbol, capital and class. We can find a variety of topics raised through the pages, such as cultural appropriation, the topic of nudity, and the analysis of several paintings including Mothers Embrace. Dedman has researched, and collected around one hundred dresses from across the years of the Palestinian occupation. This shows how much significance thobs carry for the Palestinian people and the ways in which they symbolize Palestinian identity. (
In regards to Mothers Embrace, the patchwork of the skirt represents everyday village life. As previously mentioned, clothing and embroidery in rural areas are known to be different in urban areas, representing social classes. Moreover, the skirt creates contrast with the cityscape, each representing a different social class.
Through painting, Anani portrays the unity of culture: both the Jerusalem cityscape and the woman are an allegorical figure of Palestine. Women were very much respected during the second half of the 20th century. However, in the 1970s, the Israeli state aimed to adopt a national culture. This led to stealing the Palestinians cultural heritage, including their traditional thobs. A call for action was made and one woman stated in Labour of Love, I am unable to fight with a rifle, so I will fight with a needle. Consequently, Palestinian women aimed to revive their traditions and cultural heritage through an initiative called Samed. Embroidery workshops were introduced in neighbouring countries such as Syria and Lebanon, and traditional production in different fields took place such as cinema, textiles, photography, agriculture, etc. It was the womens active approach and artistic contribution that allowed them to reclaim their cultural and national identity. Embroidery became an active form of agency and women were considered as political militants.
The role of women strengthened even more due to the ongoing protests against the occupation and oppression of Israel. Palestinian women, unlike the men ruling the country, were not motivated by authority but by love and teamwork for a better outcome. This is why they are metaphorically seen as the motherland. Today, Palestinian women stand as the symbol of resistance, one that preserves its cultural identity and perpetuates it post the 1948 Nakba.
3: Narratives (France VS Palestine)
The French Marianne and the Palestinian woman are seen similarly in the eyes of their people; symbolic, victorious and untouchable. However, there are a few differences between the two mighty allegorical figures.
In regards to clothing, the Palestinian woman is fully dressed and covered while La Marianne is bare-breasted and almost undressed. This shows the differences in the perception of gender roles, levels of freedom and forms of expression in both situations. It is true that both represent the male gaze on the female body but it does so through a cultural lens that created two polarized representations. In addition, the French people had the power and the ability to start a revolution and express their outrage towards the injustices of ruling monarchs, whereas the Palestinians were stripped of their voice and all sense of agency in comparison to their Israeli counterparts that was backed up by Western superpowers.
We can therefore conclude that the Marianne holds a bigger symbolic meaning in the history of modern art than the Palestinian woman. However, that is the sole effect of misinformation and underrepresentation that Palestinian women and the rest of the Arab women will continue to face as long as our media platforms remain eurotic and apathetic towards minority groups.
After decoding the image of both figureheads and their attributes, this analysis allowed us to effectively examine the Palestinian and French cultural identity through the representation of women in its art. In the case of Palestine, the political, social and economic issues that are faced daily, are woven into the thob. As for the French Marianne, we can see those issues through her Phrygian bonnet, her tunic that purposely does not cover her chest and her pikestaff. We were able to find many symbols that carry meaning and identity. Both personifications share a universal call for freedom and liberty while representing the culture of their nation. It is known that women provide an alternative conversation within their patriarchal societies: they are at times peaceful and at times warriors. They are not motivated by power but by serving the needs of their people. This explains why they are considered as the motherland. However, men feel the need to protect the women when they uphold a nation in order to maintain the same level of honor and freedom they get. In both case studies, we can sense the irony of the nation constructed as female in patriarchal societies where it is mostly men in the political arena.
Although the Palestinian woman and the French Marianne come from contrasting cultures and struggle with patriarchy in different ways, they do not fail to gloriously represent resistance and national identity.