Eugène Delacroix's celebrated “Liberty Leading the People” (1830) pays tribute to the July Revolution that had taken place in France earlier that same year. The French master portrays a group of revolutionaries climbing over an improvised barricade surrounded by the bodies of the fallen. Marianne, an allegory for liberty, leads the charge and beckons the diverse crowd in the background to follow in her footsteps. Since its completion, “Liberty Leading the People” has become one of the most enduring depictions of freedom, revolution, and the battle against tyranny. In the context of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Christian Guémy (known professionally as C215), a French street artist based in Ukraine, and Nikita Kravtsov, a Ukrainian artist based in France, have been inspired to create their own versions of Delacroix’s masterpiece.
C215, created his version of “Liberty Leading the People in Kyiv.” In this stenciled rendition, the blue, white, and red of the French tricolor are replaced by the blue and yellow of the Ukrainian bicolor. Aside from the new colors, C215 is faithful to Delacroix’s original. Still, by placing the work within the context of the war in Ukraine, C215’s version takes on new meaning. For example, the barricade now calls to mind the improvised barriers in Ukraine, where citizens have volunteered to fill sandbags and construct anti-vehicle obstacles. C215 emphasizes that location is an important element of art. Significantly, C215 stenciled the mural on the walls of the French Embassy in Kyiv. On May 16, C215 posted an image of the artwork on his Instagram page with a caption that says it also serves to “symbolically mark the return of France by its diplomatic corps to the [Ukrainian] capital.” Thus, both the mural’s content and context reinforce a sense of solidarity among the people of Ukraine, as well as a sense of solidarity between Ukraine and France.
In March 2022, Nikita Kravtsov completed the mural “Vive la Résistance Ukrainienne” near the Centre Pompidou in Paris. Kravtsov’s rendition does not adhere as closely to Delaxroix’s original. All the figures from the original are absent, with the exception of Marianne. In their place, Kravtsov adds a double-headed serpent, toppled crown, and falcon. Kravtsov incorporates symbols from the Russian coat of arms but adapts them to have a more menacing effect. Instead of a crown above a double-headed eagle, Russia is now represented by the two-headed serpent, a much more sinister creature. The crown from the Russian coat of arms has fallen and broken, and the creature that usually wears that crown is trounced by Liberty and an accompanying falcon, an animal associated with the tryzub of the Ukrainian coat of arms. Once again, the French tricolor is replaced with the Ukrainian flag, which also features the tryzub. The flag underlines a message which serves as the work’s title: in English — “Long Live the Ukrainian Resistance.”
Soon after the completion of “Liberty Leading the People:” Delacroix wrote a letter to his brother saying, “I have undertaken a modern subject, a barricade, and although I may not have fought for my country, at least I shall have painted for her.” Artists like C215 and Nikita Kravtsov have reimagined this same subject and, in doing so, have made their own contributions to the Ukrainian resistance. It is also important that this form of art — murals displayed on prominent buildings and then widely shared on social media — is public and available to all, speaking to the democratic impulse behind the French revolution and Ukraine’s defense of its sovereignty. The use of this famous French painting in a Ukrainian context adds new layers of meaning while expressing solidarity among different peoples – not just in Ukraine, nor solely between the people of France and Ukraine, but among all people bound together by the shared pursuit of liberty.
Research by Peter Di Re ’23