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Murals and frescos have been the artistic choice for Populists, Revolutionaries, Propagandists and Proselytizers since the beginning of time.

Or, at least since the moment 17,300 years ago, when the first famous muralist. (O.K. he was a Paleolithic caveman, but let’s not split hairs) sheepishly, we imagine - rolled away a boulder from the door to his private cave in Lascaux, to show the neighbors his horse paintings. Considering the historically consistent pessimism of French art critics, the neighbors may not have been as kind as we would like. But “C’est la vie” - an art style was born.

Murals and frescos have continued to spring up all over the world - and have persisted through many historical eras - manifested even today, in what hipster art-y types refer to as “street art” as opposed to cranky curmudgeons, more apt to call it “graffiti”.

Although the stories told by murals and frescos have changed dramatically, used as they are as a visual “message” sending tool, the medium, i.e. large art in public places - has essentially remained the same.

In a completely arbitrary leap, we can move from the cave dweller (which I have just been told is more PC than caveman) in Dordogne to Pompeii, Italy. The frescos there (literally translated in Italian fresco+fresh) were (a) not surprisingly, for these Sybaritic Roman revelers, predominately painted in every shade of wine- red, and (b) they are perhaps the only works of art in history that owe their “preservation and conservation” work to a volcano. We take our mural chronology straight through to 1512, when the Maestro of the Renaissance, Michelangelo, literally nearly broke his back, attempting to convey, upside-down, the miraculous story of Creation on ceiling of the Vatican’s Sistine Chapel.

Michelangelo’s efforts underscore that frescos were an important propaganda tool even then, as most faith- seekers in 1512 were illiterate, so Bible-reading was out as a tool for spreading The Word. Overlooking, I am sure a great deal of important and notable murals, frescos in between, we jump all the way up to 1930s Mexico, where artist, Diego Rivera - whose looks, how shall we say this kindly, did not mirror a matinee idol. Yet Rivera both wooed and won the temperamental and beautiful, Frida Kahlo, purely through the power of his paintbox. Rivera writ large the story of Spanish conquerors persecuting the poor Mexicans, as well as turning his brush to works exalting the worker - capital W, thereby ushering in the age of murals as a tool for Socialists. This period, say 1920s-1950s, when Socialism was still a dream for millions of intellectuals across the globe, resulted in a hustling trade for Murals That Deified the Proletariat.

Unfortunately, this Socialist ideal, was ultimately twisted by over-zealous Communist dictators, into the art style know known as “Social Realism”. This brain numbing term has come to stand for the large art murals, co-opted by Communist propagandists, as an attempt to brainwash millions of exhausted peasants into feeling a bit better about their wretched lives. The idea, I guess, was that even if they had nothing to eat, if they saw themselves glorified, and painted on a very LARGE scale, looking hale and hearty, they might feel that way too???

Today, if one had to choose the artist who best fits the definition of primo Public Artist, and to whom the mantle of Mural-ing should be passed, it would be Banksy, that master of the hit-and-run tag - using his spray cans to spew irony all over Brixton and LA.

My personal favorite - and I count this as a “mural” was the following.

Riding the subway in New York City in the 1980s, I looked up to see a staid advertisement for a Carnegie Hall concert by cellist, Yo Yo Ma. A “tagger” had cleverly sprayed- in scrawling vermillion paint - just above the cellist’s name, the following question: “How does Sylvester Stallone call his Mother?”. Yep. “Yo. Yo? ... Ma!!!”.

About the Author

Laura Stewart

Laura Stewart

Laura Stewart has been a professional in the art world for 30+ years. Her career has included work as a journalist, editor, public relations professional and non-profit management consultant. She bega...