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The pink pussy hat, and what came before it

From the liberty cap to the pussy hat: a history of radical objects

How subversives through the ages have expressed dissent

How subversives through the ages have expressed dissent

Marion Coutts | October 17th 2018

“A History of the World in 100 Objects”, a hugely popular book and radio series by Neil MacGregor, the former director of the British Museum, had a simple premise: that objects have as much to tell us about history as events, ideologies, battles and dates. “I Object, Ian Hislop’s Search for Dissent”, presents an alternative collection, drawn again from the British Museum, but centred on the history of subversion. The artefacts he uncovers are by turns mocking, defiant, fierce, angry, jokey and deadly, and together they present a history of the world in the form of anti-authoritarianism. 

Hislop is the editor of Private Eye, a long-running British satirical and current-affairs magazine. With notable exceptions, the pieces he lights on are not the work of artists or the professional commentariat but of anonymous artisans, activists and campaigners, designers and printers, expressing themselves with the tools they had to hand. So we see modified banknotes and defaced coinage, downloadable posters and misprinted bibles, messages woven in cloth and parodic pottery. Dissent takes many forms, and though some of the pieces are comic, the objects haven’t been chosen for laughs. 

The remit is broad and international. One of the earliest items is a striking bronze head of the emperor Augustus, taken as a spoil of war in 24 BC and buried face down at the entrance to a shrine, so that all who entered would trample on the enemy. Among the most recent is the pink, knitted Pussy Power hat, designed in 2017 in opposition to President Trump, not long after a tape emerged in which he had bragged about being able to “grab” beautiful women “by the pussy”. Now it is enshrined in feminist social history. Some of the most powerful acts of subversion are also the simplest. The yellow umbrella, used by marchers in Hong Kong during the 2014 protests against Chinese authoritarianism, served as a symbol of collective unrest – and offered some protection against tear gas.
 

“Louis XVI, king of the French” (print, 1792 or later)

The simplest devices can be the most effective. In this print, Louis XVI is made to wear a bonnet rouge, the blood-red cap of liberty, associated with the French revolution. By simply altering a conventional print, the king is sharply mocked: the cap fits! The image refers to the king’s public humiliation by a mob, which had broken into his residence, forced him to wear the cap and toasted the health of the revolution. Seven months later, he was executed. 

 

“Head – and Brains” (1797) by Richard Newton

The severed heads of William Pitt, a prime minister, and King George III are served up on a plate, one wig to share between them. Coming so close after the bloody executions of the French revolution, the image was unacceptable to the authorities, and the print was suppressed. The artist was Richard Newton, a precocious talent who had his first caricature published when he was 13. During his career he managed a radical print shop and produced a prodigious number of prints. His targets were slavery, the royal family and the iniquities of the social order. This print would have got Newton into deep trouble, had he not died of typhus the following year, at the age of 21.  

 

“Fascination of Nature” (painted silk scroll, c.1321) by Xie Chufang

An exquisitely observed, three-metre-long scroll painting presents a natural world of plants, creatures and insects. Though beautiful, it is far from harmonious. A toad hides under a leaf waiting for a meal to walk by, ants feast on a butterfly, a helpless cicada will be eviscerated. It was painted several decades after the Mongols had overthrown the Song dynasty, subjecting China to foreign rule for the first time. Many artists and scholars refused to participate in cultural life while the Mongols were in power. Others, like Chufang, expressed their critique more obliquely. Nature painting was a popular genre, and the scroll subverts this tradition by drawing attention to the struggle for survival that connects predators and prey. A verse accompanying the scroll spells out Chufang’s message: “Immoral men seek profit not according to justice.” 

 

Tender longing, sweet hope/ Thus we live, thus we live (50 pfennig Notgeld, Niederlahnstein, Germany, 1917)

Notgeld is emergency money, issued locally in times of crisis, and this 50 pfennig note comes from Germany at the tail end of the first world war, when metal was scarce, the currency was collapsing and food was short. The note shows a civic scene flanked by a hock of ham on one side, some turnips on the other. So far, so innocuous, but in the elaborate scroll-work of the background are hidden two tiny messages. Above the ham is a quote from Friedrich Schiller, a German poet, playwright and philosopher, that reads “Tender longing, sweet hope”. The quote above the turnips says, “Thus we live, thus we live”. The engraver was arrested. 

 

The skin of the leopard is beautiful, but inside it is war. (cloth, Democratic Republic of Congo, 1970s–1990)

This hand-woven raffia cloth was probably made for a private house. The French inscription is a translation of a Congolese proverb, “The skin of the leopard is beautiful, but inside it is war”. It has been read as a veiled criticism of Mobutu Sese Seko, the military dictator of Zaire, now the Democratic Republic of Congo, who notoriously inflicted more than 30 years of staggering brutality and corruption on his people. Mobutu took the leopard as his symbol. He was rarely pictured without his trademark leopard-skin hat.

I object: Ian Hislop’s search for dissent British Museum, London, until January 20th