Schemes of Political Iconography

Peter Krieger

Response To:

“You Don’t Even Represent Us”: Picturing the Moscow Protests

These images of mass political demonstrations represent unified protests against a political system and possible fraud in the elections. They confirm popular unity against a hegemonic position, although no agreement about a political alternative. They simplify complex political processes, but at least they expose democratic power. In historical terms, they continue a tradition initiated in 1792 by French revolutionary painter Jacques-Louis David, depicting the Tennis Court Oath of May 1789. In that painting, he configured the revolutionary mass as a diverse but unified entity of political power; before this watershed in political iconography, masses were represented either in dissociated clusters or as controlled groups posed to affirm political power and religious apotheosis. The conceptual continuity to the photographs of the Bolotnaya square manifestations of December 2011 lies in the fact that we see an active mass, challenging ancient regimes. This schema of political iconography was interpreted in the course of the 20th century in various visual media, especially in the moving images of films and television. However, static images –paintings or photographs– never lost their attraction as tools for (counter-)propaganda. At present, when “smart” cell phones all over the world serve as flexible tools of photographic documentation distributed by social networks on the web, the self image of the masses and their individual human components also fulfills socio-psychological functions of vanity –“I was there, look at me.” These collective images even allow the secret services to identify possible instigators of anti-authoritarian revolts, thereby introducing a certain irony into the history of political images.

The spherical view of the masses at Bolotnaya Square, an icon of the movement, uses a visual scheme established as early as 1524 by the Italian renaissance painter Parmigianino’s self portrait in a hemispherical mirror. This mode of individual self-representation was used by many photographers  in the 20th century. It is used in this aerial view of the Moscow demonstrations as an effective means of abstraction, even distortion, which focuses the essence of self-referential perception: we see the huge crowd as a face, which claims symbolic importance in its political and socio-cultural setting.

Many of the spherical images are framed by architectural groupings that strengthen the visual abstraction. Within the contours of the monumental Stalinist buildings, the crawling political mass creates an even more intense symbolic effect: what once was used as a frame for totalitarian mass acclamations, is now converted into a scenography of protest. Thus the petrified authoritarian political iconography of the city –understood with the ancient Roman (and Greek) concept of civitas– receives democratic re-codification. The demonstrating demos converts the symbolic architectural products of the Stalin era into a framework for plural political expressions, by mass as a unit (seen from above) and as a patchwork of different groups and individuals (from the street perspective).