Tate Liverpool’s new show looks at how left-wing values have influenced how artists make and distribute art. Artistic director Francesco Manacorda explains the background behind five works

Jacques-Louis David The Death of Marat (La Mort de Marat) 1793–4 Oil paint on canvas depicting Marat lying dead in his bath as he was writing a letter
Jacques-Louis David
The Death of Marat (La Mort de Marat) 1793–4
Oil paint on canvas
1113 x 856 mm
Musée des Beaux-arts

Jacques-Louis David The Death of Marat 1793–4

One of the earliest works in the show is this famous painting, lent from the Museum of Fine Art in Reims. It shows the French revolutionary leader Jean-Paul Marat murdered in his bath. David didn’t want it to be a unique work – he had his studio reproduce it so it could be distributed across France and spread the message of the revolution. Apparently it was not meant to be just hung in museums but it was displayed in public spaces and paraded around in revolutionary performances. The work stops being this single object that is to be kept and shown just to the happy few in a museum. We also have some of the prints that were made from it which emphasise that it was aimed at the vast majority of people rather than the elite.

William Morris fabric
William Morris Rose and Thistle Furnishing fabric, printed cotton 1881–82

William Morris

You wouldn’t necessarily think of William Morris’s wallpaper as being ‘socialist’ when you look at it, and people who have that wallpaper in their house nowadays might not be working class. But it is socialist because of the way that he wanted it to be produced: he wanted to bring back crafts in order for people to see the full product of their creativity and avoid the alienated work of producing a fragment but never seeing the whole thing. He reorganised the way that work was done in order to produce a kind of art, a product that would be perfect but also fully linked to a human being. 

Bertolt Brecht War Primer 1939–56

The War Primer is a book that Brecht prepared just after the Second World War. He experimented using ‘distantiation’, the theatrical method by which you are made aware of the construction of the narrative or the fiction by exposing it, in a two dimensional medium. He used collage and poetry, taking images from the war – sometimes crude images or at other times quite famous images from newspapers – and he juxtaposed them with short poems which he wrote to completely change the understanding of the image, revealing its hidden messages.

Atelier Populaire poster
Atelier Populaire Une jeunesse que l’avenir inquiéte trop souvent 1968

Atelier Populaire

Atelier Populaire started in May 1968 in France, when the universities were occupied. It was a workshop where people could go and produce imagery that had a political message. The principle was that everyone could come and produce a work. The print production machines were for everyone to enjoy. No one was allowed to sign the work and the gallery was the street: they were meant to be hung in the public space for everyone to see. It was an experiment of producing art by a collective body, a collective intelligence rather than a single person.

Ruth Ewan A Jukebox of People Trying to Change the World (close-up)
Ruth Ewan
A Jukebox of People Trying to Change the World (close-up)

Ruth Ewan A Jukebox of People Trying to Change the World 2003–

Ruth Ewan is a young artist who in the last few years has been working around issues of political history. And in this case she has produced a jukebox of protest songs. This is in the section that is dedicated to participation – the songs have been partly compiled by public suggestion and the jukebox can be used by visitors. Ruth is also working with Tate Collective, our young people’s group, to make a new map of Liverpool that includes social and political stories written and collected by the group.

‘Art Turning Left: How Values Changed Making 1789–2013’ is on display at Tate Liverpool until 2 February 2014