Last modified: 2012-01-13 by rob raeside
Keywords: flag art |
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Early paintings to use flags as a feature were political or historical allegories. Most famous of these is probably Eugène Delacroix's "Liberty leading the people", which includes prominent use of the French tricoleur. James Tissot's "Still on top" (1874)  also falls into this category. Though less famous, the latter is perhaps more interesting from a vexillological point of view, due to the presence of many now archaic flags (such as those of imperial Germany and the Norway-Sweden Union)
The sheer vibrancy of the colour of the flag, and the effect on the eye of one fluttering in the breeze, made the flag a popular element in the art of the impressionists. Childe Hassam in particular is famous for his flag paintings, such as "St Patrick's Day" (1919) , and at least one work by Claude Monet - "La rue Montorgueil, Juin 30, 1878" (1878)  features flags as a major element.
Among the cubist and surrealist painters of the early 20th century, Miro is worthy of mention from a flag point of view. Several of his works feature Spanish and Catalan flags, notably "The tilled field" (1923) .
Much agit-prop art was being produced in the Soviet bloc during the early to mid 20th century, much of which featured the Soviet Union's flag. Similar images were found in a number of works made during the great depression in the U.S. under the Federal Project for the Arts scheme, which employed several thousand U.S. artists on mural-creation schemes. The first and second world war and the uneasy peace prior to the latter also led to several anti-war works which featured flags, such as John Steuart Curry's "Parade to war" (1938).
Of mid-twentieth century western art, the most famous use of flags was by the American abstractionist Jasper Johns. Using the American flag as an icon in much the same way that Warhol used Campbell's soup cans, Johns created several works in which the central image was the US flag, such as "Three flags" (1958) .
Also worthy of note is Kit Hinrich's 1987 book "Stars and stripes" (Chronicle Books, San Francisco), the culmination of a project by the American Institute of Graphic Arts which saw 96 top designers and graphic artists present their personal interpretations of the U.S. flag.
Let's have a look at the work of a rather famous French artist, Jean-Pierre Raynaud. I knew him until now for his works on plant pots (especially a golden one in front of modern art center Georges-Pompidou in Paris), but it seems that flags too have been inspiring him. I found articles (with images) :
- at http://www.denoirmont.com/expos/archives/raynaud_tension.html about his soviet flags in an exhibition in Paris in 2001 (see below)
- and at http://www.universes-in-universe.de/car/habana/bien7/lam2/e-raynaud.htm about a Cuban flags series, commented like this :
"For this work the artist was awarded one of four UNESCO prizes. The jury's decision, with Pierre Réstany as presiding judge, can hardly have been determined by artistic considerations ... At least most people with whom we spoke in Havana agreed that it was one of the dullest works of the entire Biennial."
I also saw somewhere else an exhibition by Raynaud with French flags.
contributed by Olivier Touzeau
Here is an attempt to translate the first article at denoirmont.com. Note the rather stupid commentary about the history of the USSR flag: it looks like they believed that the flags of the SSRs (which are the flags that can be seen at denoirmont.com) were historical USSR flags prior to the one I enclose here in my e-mail.
"For the first time at the Gallery Jerome de Noirmont, which is the only habilitated to represent him from now on, Jean-Pierre Raynaud will reveal his series of flags of the ex-Soviet Union in an exhibition entitled 'Under Tension', where about fifteen different Soviet flags will be presented. The climax of this exhibition will be without any doubt the work entitled Soviet Union, an impressive part made up of nine flags emblematic of the ex Soviet Union. In this new work, the flag leaves the domain of politics to become a work of art, by the simple fact that it is chosen by the artist and is tended on a frame. "Tended, energized, [flags] deliver to the glance what they are. With this gesture, they become Raynaud objects and I take care not to not make any other intervention." However, in spite of his smoothness of aspect and because it preserves all its integrity, the flag of Raynaud cannot in any case be seen like a picture : it remains a true object, a "Raynaud". The force of Raynaud is to stay at the first degree of these manufactured objects. For this reason, the flag is an eloquent enough object in itself to make any other artistic intervention superfluous. Raynaud chooses to simply insert it "in the domain of art". By its political and historical symbolic system, the flag is certainly one of the objects which raises most passion for any individual, because in charge of emotions. It is difficult to depoliticize, to impassionate it, it is however the bet of Raynaud. This work is not in a critical dimension, it is an artistic appropriation where each flag is considered at the same level, in a total neutrality: "I am very conscious that I take an object which comes from the politics but, insofar as this object becomes artistic, one must accept that it is lived through my glance of artist" For the first time, Raynaud presents flags which are not actual any more, since the bursting of the Soviet Union in 1991. Taking into account their history, some flags are whole, others are only fragments, that Raynaud, faithful to its principle of integrity, also presents like fragments, simply tended on frame. The Soviet flag has changed a lot before finding its ultimate form, and was declined in distinct alternatives which one finds in the exhibition with the recurring hammer and sickle, the communist star and the revolutionary red, closely related to our History, which are strong aesthetic symbolic items. These flags summarize, with a considerable saving in means, the ideas and strong feelings that are universal and deeply anchored in our unconscious collective. "the flag became the new prototype of the language of Raynaud: a timeless work of art whose cultural dimension transcends the political symbology in the same object. The entry in art of the object-flag releases it from the vicissitudes of the History attached to the national symbol".
Olivier Touzeau, 10 October 2002
The painter Alain Balzac (b. 1957) lives and works in Paris. In 1995, he exhibited at the Praz-Delavallade gallery, in Paris, a series of paintings showing flags. A partial view of the exhibition and a few paintings can be seen on the gallery website: http://magg.w3sites.net/fra/artistes/balzac2.html .
The view of the exhibition shows the flag of Georgia, on a pink background, hanging on a blue wall, and the flag of Palestine, on a yellowish background, hanging on a wall vertically divided orange-blue.
Paintings shown in details are:
- "de la Chine" (1995, acrylic oils and wax on canvas, 75 x 100 cm, 3,200 USD). The flag of the People's Republic of China is shown as an orange field with greenish stars, on a red background, hanging on a green wall.
- "de la Palestine" (1995, acrylic oils and wax on canvas, 75 x 100 cm, 3,200 USD), as described above.
- "de l'Afrique du Sud" (1995, acrylic oils and wax on canvas, 75 x 100 cm, 3,200 USD). The flag of South Africa is shown with the upper stripe gold-orange, like the fimbriation of the black triangle. The background is light pink.
The website shows two more paintings, seemingly exhibited earlier:
- "de l'Union Sovietique" (1995, acrylic oils and oils on canvas, 150 x 200 cm, 6,400 USD). The flag of Soviet Union is shown black with a dark gold hammer and sickle, on a red background.
- "de l'Arabie Seoudite" (1995, acrylic oils and oils on canvas, 150 x 200 cm, 6,400 USD). The true flag of Saudi Arabia is shown on a dark red background.
Alain Balzac wondered about the autonomy of the painting. What should be considered as the artwork, the painting alone or the whole exhibition? Can the painting be extracted from the context in which it is shown?
Balzac is linked to an American art movement called "Hard Edge".
Ivan Sache, 17 September 2003
The culture supplement to the news magazine "Der Spiegel" (KulturSpiegel 10/2003, pp. 16-21) contains an article on the British action artist Simon Starling. One of his artworks was buying an old (Italian-built) Fiat 126 in red colour, driving all the way to Poland, buying and including some white-coloured parts in the car, thus making a "white-red striped" car recalling the Polish flag. The project therefore was called "Flaga". The idea behind the project was to show early manifestations of globalization, namely the move of Fiat production facilities from Italy to then communist Poland in 1974.
Marcus E.V. Schmöger, 29 September 2003
Rarely do women get involved into the deeper appreciation of flags; one notable exception being Theresa Byrnes. Born in 1969 in Australia, I met her once in her studio/gallery five years ago. She's pretty cool, even though she's on a wheelchair. Theresa is now in New York, continuing her artistic pursuit. Her website
www.theresabyrnes.com has several photos from her performance in the gallery section, titled 'Flag'. Basically she painted herself into a mess of red, white and blue, recalling the Stars and Stripes
Miles Li, 30 October 2003
The US artist Jasper Johns, who used the S&S as the basis for many of his works of what I suppose one would term Op Art, is currently in the UK and has been interviewed by The Times newspaper today. An exhibition of his works, including many of his US Flag portraits, will be held at the Edinburgh Museum of Modern Art from 23 July.
I am not certain whether this belongs here, but as Johns has used the US flag as the basis of much of his work, and in fact it is for these paintings that he is best known, I thought that a mention of this forthcoming exhibition would be relevant.
Ron Lahav, 3 July 2004
There are several artists who use flags as a basis of their art.
In New Zealand, the best known such artist is probably Ralph Hotere (who is widely considered the country's top living artist), with his "This is a black Union Jack" series. I had the pleasure and honour of meeting Mr Hotere last month. Sadly, his health is very poor these days, but he is still active.
Some examples of Ralph Hotere's "Black Union Jack" series can be seen at
and details on his latest exhibition (which includes more flag-based art) can be found at http://www.listener.co.nz/default,2061.sm
James Dignan, 3 July 2004
Another artist who uses flags as the basis of is art is Japan's Yukinori Yanagi. His most controversial works involve ants building their homes into coloured sand which is formed into national flags (see http://www.yanagistudio.net/works/photo3.html and
http://www.yanagistudio.net/works/photo8.html). Another of his better known works ("Hinomaru Illumination") used neon tubes as found in advertising signs to form the Japanese flag.
James Dignan, 3 July 2004
More than a few flags can be seen in the works of painter Hieronymus Bosch (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hieronymus_Bosch,
~1450-1516), some of them are fictional, more exactly allegoric. In
Fools, 1490~1500, a very long pink streamer with a yellow crescent pointing
up at the hoist (slightly offset to the hoist) stands not only for Islam, its
obvious sense, but also metaphorically to heresy (owl) and "other" forms of
foolishness (try to see this from the eyes of a mediaeval Christian, utterly
alien to most of us).
A similar flag can be seen in the Hell panel (right wing) of The Garden of Earthly Delight (c. 1504; 220 x 97 cm; in the Prado, Madrid) (context: http://www.ibiblio.org/wm/paint/auth/bosch/delight): a long triangular white pennant with a back crescent pointing up at the upper hoist.
António Martins-Tuválkin, 5 August 2008
"The Pan-national Flag is comprised of the linear structure of all
internationally recognized nation-state flags juxtaposed on top of one another.
The drawing, as such, produces an imbroglio of nation-state graphic ideology,
where a complex black ‘whole’ emerges."
Here is a link with images of this flag: http://www.aestheticmanagement.com/pan-national-flag and photo of a flag: http://www.flickr.com/photos/saschapohflepp/4555042960.
Aleksandar Nemet, 2 May 2010
At http://www.aestheticmanagement.com/wp-content/uploads/2009/02/untitled-pannational-09.png is some detail (away from the messy middle) can be seen if contrast is enhanced: apparently good quality clipart was used.
shows that it was produced on the cloth, though. Like some others, and more than
many, this flag-inspired piece of art *is*, in a way, a flag.
António Martins-Tuválkin, 3 May 2010