In terms of graphics and brand identity, the 20th century’s totalitarian states are some of the best. A new book by Steven Heller analyses how they did it, while Quentin Newark says dictator iconography would be laughable if it weren’t rooted in misery
One of the visual treats of the past few years was the discovery of Saddam Hussein’s bedroom murals. On the walls of his private apartments in each of his many palaces were lurid pictures of muscled, blond heroes struggling with giant snakes, impossibly big-breasted women chained to pillars and scaly, fanged demons emerging from swirling smoke. These are the images Saddam would gaze at every night as he sipped whisky, plotting the death of hundreds of thousands of Shiites and Kurds.
The paintings – mostly pure ‘sword and sorcery’ – are by Rowena Morrill. The American artist is painting a world that never existed. It is an amalgam, a soup made of choice morsels from history: a dash of the Ottoman harem, a spoonful of Celtic metalwork and some coiling Chinese dragons. Every woman sports Carmen Electra’s silicone breasts and every man has Arnold Schwarzenegger’s steroid-inflated body. Everything is overwrought: fierier, bloodier, bigger, more bulbous than it ever could be in reality.
This risible nonsense has two features that abound in all totalitarian art: the looting of history and the need to make everything not just perfect, but super-perfect. It is the art, design in its broadest sense – posters, stamps, murals, brochures, commemorative books, pamphlets, uniforms, emblems, sculpture, architecture and desk mementos – that unifies these otherwise geographically or historically separate regimes. We can see stark similarities between the portraits of Bashar al-Assad, lifetime president of the secular Baathist Syrian Arab Republic, painted on 3m-high concrete tablets lining Syria’s roadsides, and the apartment block-sized murals of the deeply religious ‘supreme leader’ Ali Khamenei that fill the streets of Iran’s cities.
The word ‘totalitarianism’ was first used by philosopher Giovanni Gentile, an ally of Benito Mussolini, as a positive term. Totalitarismo meant the state was strong enough to exert control over every aspect of the life of its citizens. The word now covers any regime that dominates its people; its characteristics are a one-party government headed by an individual, an official ideology and extensive use of terror tactics by a secret police. This is usually taken to have originated in the 1930s with the simultaneous advent of Mussolini’s Italian Social Republic, Adolf Hitler’s National Socialism in Germany and Joseph Stalin’s Soviet socialism in Russia, but the real origin of totalitarian ideas and methodology was the thousand-year domination of the Western world by the Christian church.
As well as the art, there exists another shared characteristic: all totalitarian states derive their ideology from a book that claims to be the ultimate and complete truth. Either Karl Marx’s Das Kapital or On the Juche Idea by Kim Il-Sung, it does not matter what the book actually says. All that matters is that it can provide the foundation stone for all subsequent dictats.
Christianity spawned a whole range of totalitarian states, using the Bible as their raison d’être. Completely disregarding such fundamental pronouncements from the New Testament as ‘Let who is without sin cast the first stone’, the Catholic church created the original secret police force – the Inquisition – to root out any whisper of opposition. Punishment for being found guilty varied: burning was popular, or breaking on the wheel – involving the un-Christian apostate being bound to a wagon wheel, and an executioner slowly smashing every single bone in the heretic’s body with a hammer. Perhaps he muttered ‘Thou shalt not kill’ as he died.
As well as inventing the secret police, the politics of fear, novel forms of public torture, the single-party state and the infallible leader, the Christian church also developed a hugely effective communication system. Modern totalitarian graphics can all be traced back to Christian iconography. The stars, billowing clouds, sun rays, reaching arms and faces raised to the sky seen in every image of Mao Tse-Tung or Stalin can first be found in the art of Ludovico Carracci and El Greco. The colossi of Christian Rome are the inspiration for the giganticism characteristic of socialist sculpture. The remnants of the vast stone statue of Emperor Constantine in the Palazzo dei Conservatori – a pointing fist, a bug-eyed head – exactly match the outsized fragments of Vladimir Lenin and Marx abandoned in fields after Soviet socialism collapsed.
Since we are dealing not with people like you and me, but with ultimate beings, they must be depicted appropriately. Stalin’s lumpy, acne-scarred complexion is smooth as cream, al-Assad’s tiny, triangular head is gently lengthened, given stylish sunglasses and surrounded by a nimbus, like a saint. Che Guevara – who, in reality, was a pudgy asthmatic with scraggly beard who founded concentration camps and filled them with political opponents and gay men – is shown staring ahead and slightly upwards, with shaggy, bed-head hair and beret with a star, a little hint of heaven. Perfectionism of this kind is always funny. It is completely self-unaware and detached from reality. Kim Jong-il, the leader of North Korea, bears innumerable titles that contort every superlative in the attempt to exceed. They are also ungrammatical. He is known as ‘World’s Best Ideal Leader with Versatile Talents’, ‘Master of the Computer Who Surprised the World’, and ‘Eternal Bosom of Hot Love’. You might laugh, but laugh in Pyongyang and you would never laugh again.
Totalitarianism of any stripe could not survive without the promise of paradise for all right-thinking people – all the people left alive, in any case. The idea that perfection is just around the corner here on Earth (socialism) or soon in heaven (religion) is meant to make the oppression tolerable.
Victor Hugo, who catalogued the poverty and suffering he saw in late 19th century France, longed for a better world than the one he knew. ‘There is nothing like a dream to create the future,’ he said. ‘Utopia today, flesh and blood tomorrow.’ But there are always so many problems in ‘creating’ this perfect future. There has been so much blood spilled in creating Utopia, so much squandered flesh, that we have to wonder if it is ever worth the journey.
Iron Fists: Branding the 20th-Century Totalitarian State, by Steven Heller, is published this month by Phaidon, priced £45