In this essay, the painting-The Execution of Maximilian I and the sculptural installation-The Execution of Christ have been selected to demonstrate how two artworks in different periods can have many similarities yet still hold true to their own beliefs, their relationship with the subject and his or their intended viewing audience to create a definitive style. A French impressionism artist, Edouard Manet’s painting, The Execution of Maximilian I (fig. 1),1868–69, oil on canvas, 99 3/16 x 118 7/8″ (252 x 302 cm), Kunsthalle, Mannheim1 and Beijing-based artists, the Gao Brothers’ sculptural installation, The Execution of Christ (fig.
), 2009, bronze, life size, have been selected to represent the historical and contemporary works respectively. In The Execution of Maximilian I, Manet depicts a contemporary event of political significance – the fatal moment when the idealistic but naive archduke of Austria, Maximilian, Emperor of Mexico, was executed alongside two of his generals by Benito Juarez’s Mexican forces in 1867. Clearly, he draws on the model of Goya’s earlier painting, The Third of May (fig. 4), 1808 in which2 the massacre of Spanish nationalists by invading French under the orders of Napoleon I. Hundred years later, the Gao Brothers appropriated from Edouard Manet’s The Execution of Maximilian and created The Execution of Christ (fig. 3).
Both works show the executioners at right, the executed at left. But how the scenes are depicted, the tone and mood set by Manet and the Gao Brothers, are distinctly different. The reasons why both artists create the artworks: Before comparing the visual compositions of two artworks,I am going to discuss what causes them to create such works. Firstly, though not generally a politically motivated painter, Manet paint was inspired to make a statement about Maximilian’s execution. As a republican, he disapproved of Napoleon III’s actions including the controversial French intervention in Mexico3.
4Maximilian, a member of the Hapsburg family of Austria, had been installed in power in Mexico by Napoleon III of France as a ‘puppet emperor’5 with aim of forcing Mexico to pay its foreign debts and establish a European presence there. 6 However, it became a failure miserably, ending with the execution of Maximilian and two of his generals by firing squad on June 19, 1867. It seems Manet was irritated and started work on the depiction of Maximilian’s execution soon after the first reports of it had reached Paris at the beginning of July 1867. Correspondingly, impact from their horrible family’s 7experience during China’s 1966-1967 Cultural Revolution8 and grievance towards Mao Zedong and the Chinese government, the Gao Brothers create works, notably The Execution of Christ, which ‘ranges from the political and satirical to questions of material and spiritual spaces, and takes a humanitarian stance that questions the role government and the individual play within contemporary Chinese society since 1985.
’ Thus, it can be seen that both of them are critical of the dark reign of the role governments and express their disdain for brutality of significant political incident or war through visual methods ironically, even though they are of different origin and in different period. Similarities and differences in visual compositions and tone: Since the composition of The Execution of Christ is a direct echo of The Execution of Maximilian as noted above, both depicts the firing squad and the condemned men. In The Execution of Maximilian I, there are 3 victims, who are the Emperor Maximilian (fig. ) in the center and his two Mexican ally-generals, Mejia on his right and Miramon on his left facing 7 firing squad, and the former – in a show of dignity and loyalty – movingly clasps his hand in their final moment.
Also, to a certain extent, the way Manet has set the scene seems oddly detached from the dreadful violence it implies. This is most obvious in the figure of the sarge on the right, who glances away indifferently and checks his musket while the shots are fired, and the line of rather apathetic spectators (fig. ) and greenery make up a fairly narrow slice of background, separated from the foreground by the high, cool-colored gray wall. To a certain purpose, the wall behind the execution is a bit like the scene of a bullfighting stadium10, suggesting Maximilian and the generals associated with another kind of ritual death. The implication is that Maximilian’s death, like his emperorship, was merely a spectacle. Figure 5 Maximilian and his generals, Mejia on his right and Miramon on his left Figure 6 The spectators peers the execution over a high, cool-colored gray wallIn other hand, in The Execution of Christ, a portrayal of Jesus replaces the figure of the emperor and it is the only victim placed in the scene.
Also, the firing squad are re-made as 7 life size identical Chairman Maos. Meanwhile, the Gao Brothers retains the special setting from Manet’s painting- one of the firing squad stands on the far right checking his rifle, but without spectators over the wall. Instead, we,the appreciators are the spectators to look through the scene, the installation 11. Evidently, to a great extent, the above differences between Manet’s Execution and the Gao Brothers’ Execution lies on a simple change of medium, a painting to a piece of sculpture. Having said that, both works depict an similar execution scene, based on their own imagination, the tone of them are slightly different. Despite their aesthetic claims to objectivity, while Gao Brother’s work includes absolute heroes and villains, the tone of Manet’s work remains coolly ambiguous and implicitly critical of Napoleon III.
The painting functions almost like reportage as Manet seems to resist taking a definitive stance on the controversial events surrounding Maximilian’s execution. Scholar, Bataille saw it was out of the sentiments,notably the indignation that Manet,a republican artist felt towards his emperor’s colonial machinations12. Scholar, George Hamilton also saw ‘nothing whatever’ to stir ‘our sympathies’13. Unlike Manet’s work, Gao Brother’s work functions as an ‘allegory of human emotions14’. Additionally, The Execution of Christ is more dramatic.
Knowing the nature or story of Jesus Christ and Chairman Mao, we, viewers may find interesting in what the Gao brothers convey in their work, s a conflict of God verses a ‘pseudo-God’,a space between life and death, the secular and the religious, but also between presence and absence. What’s more, Manet’s work, it looks like a depiction of the instant of execution at first. Yet only General Mejia, to Maximilian’s right, seems to have been hit with his head bent backward since across his body, the smoke of the muskets is compacted in an ugly, dark grey to convey the thud of the bullets. Maximilian himself still alive, while the other general, Miramon, remains alert and was about to be the next executed .
15Beside him, the smoke drifts, dispersing in time, transparent in places to the wall behind. Manet shifts temporal as well as spatial relationships, showing us not only the instantaneous moment, but also the moment extended in slow motion, which is quite dynamic. Just the reverse, in Gao Brother’s work, the victim, Jesus hasn’t been executed yet. Whether Jesus will be executed depends on the far right Chairman Mao (fig. 7). As the firing squad pointing their rifles towards Jesus maybe deemed as deterrence to Jesus and Jesus peers down the barrels of eight rifles, it implies that death is present as a kind of sill and crux in which there is a potential for transition, rather than a end violence.
Besides, the victims in both works look fearless. In The Execution of Maximilian, although Maximilian and two of his generals are clearly identifiable, comparing to the firing squad, their facial expressions appear vague and hazy. Yet, from their body languages, they seemed fearless facing towards death. Particularly, Maximilian stands slightly frontward his generals as if he is protecting them and his hat cocks upward to frame his head almost like ‘a martyr’s halo16’.
Likewise, in The Execution of Christ, the protrusion of the disconcerting pain and sorrowful sadness arises through details of the scars and wrinkles on the face of Jesus (fig. 8). He is petite and barely clothed, stands with his eyes closed and his palms are facing out to expose stigmata wounds (fig. 9) on his hands as if he is explicitly dauntless and ready to be executed “again”. In addition, both of them are bare-handed, which bring out an image of innocent and defenceless. Apart from that, the Gao Brothers highlighted the proportion of the figures, which Manet did not.
In The Execution of Maximilian, all objects are in same size and eye-level. Contrarily, in The Execution of Christ, the figure of Jesus is slightly smaller than those of the Chairman Maos and projects a visual distortion relative to the power relationships suggested in the formation. It also implies that despite Jesus Christ and Chairman Mao are perceived as sacred and grand icons, it is emphasised Chairman Mao is nobler and more powerful and the drama of overwhelming forces and threats imposed upon the victim. Appreciators experience feelings of panic and shock as they place themselves beside Christ and witness a massive crowd aiming rifles at the viewer at eye-level. Similarities and differences in connotations: Both artists achieved dark humour through utilisation of visual political puns by dressing the soldiers. In The Execution of Maximilian, Manet was inspired by Goya, giving a suggestion to implicate France as the executor.
With his reference from a report and photographs in Le Figaro, he set the soldiers’ uniform to resemble the French uniform and the bullet-riddled clothes that Maximilian had worn. In sheer provocation, he also painted the facial features of the sergeant (fig. 10) holding his musket to resemble those of Napoleon III. On the other hand, in The Execution of Christ, the Gao brothers replaced the soldiers by identical Chairman Maos and implicated the soldiers as identical robots, which were incapable of independent thought and mindlessly following commands, in jest a reflection of the Red Guards17 during the Cultural Revolution. Furthermore, he dressed the Mao soldiers in waggish civilian attire with their belt and pants worn high to mid-chest.
Although the Gao Brothers’ cynical humor is portrayed, they accurately show how the real Mao looked during his reign. Interestingly, it seems the awful and violent nature of the firing squad is moderated by the Mao soldiers’ waggish civilian attire as well. In actual fact, based on his self-assuredness and authoritative character, Mao Zedong believed he was the only legitimate leader in China and no one should dare to oppose him. He insisted that the citizens did not have a need for religion and suppressed any public religious practices as well. Suppression of religion was part of the country’s unification plan and one’s need for religious focus was fulfilled with the image of Mao.
Therefore, the images of Chairman Mao alluded to not only individually Mao Zedong, but also the cruelty of the Chinese communist government. Similarly, the image of Jesus Christ emphasized and symbolized the martyrdom of the innocent in Cultural Revolution, but not only the particular religion-Christian. By recreating the scene of the crime through The Execution of Christ, the Gao Brothers focused on Mao’s nature-‘malicious cruelty’18 and murder of the innocents in their sculpture, The Execution of Christ and wants to bring Mao back from history into the view of the public for what he really was because some wrongdoings of the Chinese government in the past are still censored. Most important thing is that the Chinese citizens deny those wrongdoings and don’t even know the sheer of the history and keep holding on to the Mao’s reign.
In addition, compare to Manet’s Execution, The Execution of Christ has the ability to connect with audiences outside their culture in their origin, due to the fact that the Gao Brothers interpreted human emotions through portrayals of expressive facial and body language, a universal language that surpasses all cultural barriers. Regardless of whether an observer had a knowledgeable background in religion or art history, the Gao Brothers provided enough evidence for any observer to postulate the narrative or allegory portrayed in The Execution of Christ. Conclusion To conclude, The Execution of Maximilian and The Execution of Christ both depicts the firing squad and the condemned men and have similar visual compositions based on the fact that they are inspired to one another. Also, they both created their works historically and politically provocative ,even though they did not know for certain what, precisely, happened at that time.
Due to their own experiences and thoughts, their works appear a different tone and connotation. To a great extent, they look very contemporary is not only the obvious simultaneous with our turbulence society-the malicious consequences of a regime change and military intervention, exacerbated by ignorance of the government.
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