Great Paintings: Bolívar Marquez by José R. Alicea
For the past two days, I’ve been discussing the art of conflict and how artists respond to war. I’m going to continue that today with a look at a different kind of conflict: political struggle.
Art has long been a part of politics and political conflict. It is an excellent tool for spreading political messages and ideas; and history is dotted with political posters and paintings that changed hearts and minds. In the history of Puerto Rican art, political art tends to bend towards one cause: Puerto Rican independence and an end of colonialism.
José Alicea clearly demonstrates this tendency in his print Bolívar Marquez. The print references a real historical event-the Ponce Massacre-however, Alicea’s print is more interested in conveying a political message than documenting the event itself.
The Ponce Massacre occurred On Palm Sunday, March 21, 1937, when members of the Puerto Rican Nationalist Party and other civilians gathered in the main plaza of the city of Ponce to stage a march in protest of the unjust imprisonment of Pedro Albizu Campos, a key figure in the Puerto Rican struggle for independence. All protesters were unarmed, and the organizers had obtained permits for the protest. However, On the day of the protest, they were confronted by the Insular Police force, which was armed with riot control equipment and submachine guns. After a brief argument between the mayor, the captain of police, and a Nationalist leader, the protesters were ordered to disperse. The protesters decided to march anyway, and the band began to play “La Borinqueña,” Puerto Rico’s unofficial national anthem. Just as they began to march, the Insular Police opened fire, killing fourteen Nationalists, three bystanders-including a thirteen year old girl-and two police officers who were caught in the crossfire.
Bolívar Marquez memorializes one of the victims of the massacre (a man by the same name). As he lay dying on the streets of Ponce, Marquez famously scrawled a message on a wall in his own blood. It read: “¡Viva la República, Abajo los asesinos!” (“Long live the Republic, Down with the Murderers!”). Alicea captures this moment in his print using his characteristic bold, visual style. As the Flint Institute of Arts notes, Alicea was inspired by the expressionist movement, which stressed emotional truth over pure realism.
In Bolívar Marquez, Alicea tries to summon the outrage and anger that was sparked by the massacre and redirect it towards the Puerto Rican nationalist movement, which he supported. He does this by dramatizing and visually exaggerating Marquez’s death. His body lays in a dramatic position that calls to mind depictions of Christian martyrs, drawing additional sympathy for Marquez and his cause. The red letters scrawled behind Marquez’s body serve as a call to action for viewers (they are especially effective in contrast with the rest of the print, which is monochromatic black). The message is clear: if you want to avenge this man’s death, support the nationalist cause.
As a piece of visual rhetoric, Bolívar Marquez is extremely effective. It conveys a political message, yet it also taps into a deeper emotional reality, one that recognizes the pain and anger occasioned by the Ponce Massacre.
Originally published at https://artisthesolution.blogspot.com on May 30, 2020.