Extremism. Just by reading such a word various thoughts may come to mind. One might think of an ideology, maybe, linked to a violent form of conflict, but do you know how extremism expresses itself? Can we become extremists? What can be considered extremism?

Art portraying Extremism 1 (2019)Faculty of Arts and Humanities of University of Porto

Well, anything, really. Every single action, activity, ideology can be seen as extremism. It doesn’t have to be necessarily bad. It all depends on the moral standards or sense of justice of whose judging. The cultural background plays a big part in this trial, as social rules change from culture to culture, so does what is socially acceptable and what is not. Each individual’s particular life experience plays an even bigger part, so it is all a very subjective matter.

Art portraying Extremism 2 (2019)Faculty of Arts and Humanities of University of Porto

A single idea in one’s head can be as extremist as an active ideology followed by a reasonable amount of people, the difference is their repercussions in society. One idea is silent and mostly inoffensive if left alone, but when many individuals, sharing a variation of that same idea, think collectively, the power they achieve can be unlimited, the levels of violence unimaginable. The consequences affect the whole of society to feel, affecting countless individuals unfamiliar to the cause.

Art portraying Extremism 3 (2019)Faculty of Arts and Humanities of University of Porto

Amazing feats in social evolution and justice can also come from a collective idea born as a reaction to the social code. In the beginning, the most conservative minds might have perceived them as a threat to the existing norm. But, over time, as the population sees the positive consequences that come as a result of this initial reaction, the general opinion tends to slowly praise and shift in favor of such movements, now in line with the ever changing social concept of moral acceptance and fairness.

Art portraying Extremism 4 (2019)Faculty of Arts and Humanities of University of Porto

Nevertheless, either good or bad, recent or in the past, extremism always rises slowly and steadily, taking advantage of its outcast status to be dismissed and undermined by most. Here is where the danger lies, it always seems too extreme to become mainstream. Extremism hides itself in plain sight.

Art portraying Extremism 5 (2019)Faculty of Arts and Humanities of University of Porto

You notice it and you can even see how it spreads and florishes but you never consider it as a true threat. You never think that such extreme beliefs can amount to something. Cruelty, pain, anguish, as an end result, rarely crosses your mind. The suffering of someone, just like you, under any form of extremism, just never seems likely. It is extremism’s surreality of ever becoming reality that allows human beings to ignore its presence until its roots have grown stable and the dire consequences begin to be felt.

Art portraying Extremism 6 (2019)Faculty of Arts and Humanities of University of Porto

Art, that takes so much from the cultural and social context in which it is created, has, throughout the centuries, documented the consequences of what we would, today, understand as extremist’s actions, movements and ideologies.
Every artwork’s reproduction in this exhibition is to be seen not as a distant past or an idealised scene, but as a present possibility for an incomprehensible future.
This is a call on attention to the levels of cruelty we, as human beings, can achieve. This is how art and history have recorded our horror.

The Religion ([1794]) by Innocenzo SpinazziGalleria Civica di Arte Moderna e Contemporanea Torino

Religion, for all its qualities, has been, perhaps, the most notorious cause of extremism. Some of the most horrible events in history, those we have such difficulty understanding from our 21st century lens, have streamed from religious convictions. To Western societies, where State and Church have been separated for more than a century, it feels like something from the past. Even when restrictions to religious freedoms are put in effect, religious extremism doesn’t pop into our heads.  What may be surprising is that, even today, people die for such a basic right as freedom of faith. The drive to alienate, and all together remove people who differ from the majority, has long been present in human beings. If you are a religious minority, you are an outlaw and, therefore, you will be discriminated and harassed. Today, in North Korea and Afghanistan, living as a Christian means a life of persecution. In Myanmar, the Rohingya people, like so many Muslim minorities around the world, are also under active attack from the Buddhist majority. Yet, since we don´t feel it directly or even witness it in the slightest, the news reports fade, life goes on and religious persecution goes back to relating to the distant past of castles and cathedrals. Looking at history through art, we can see how extremism, going against the established rules, has played a significant part in some of the most popular historical narratives and events. 

Still Life with Bible (October 1885 - 1885) by Vincent van GoghVan Gogh Museum

Let’s take, for example, the founding story of the Christian Church and we see two very different forms of extremism, which may remind you of countless others events.

The triumphal entry into Jerusalem (1510/1515) by Jorge Afonso (?)Convent of Christ

On one hand, the reactionary, the religious movement and ideology created and spread by Jesus Christ with the intention of improving human relations…

And on the other, the conservative parties, the Jewish and the roman authorities alike. One trying to preserve their way of religious cult and the other trying to prevent an uprising against the empire.

Ecce Homo (1543) by Tiziano Vecellio, called TitianKunsthistorisches Museum Wien

Jesus Christ would be judged and sentenced at the hands of the romans with the involvement of the Jewish authorities.

Crucifixion (1450) by Jacopo Bellini (c. 1400-1470)Museo Correr

Crucified for the claim that he was the king of Jews and the son of God.

A martyr because he stood for his beliefs in a kind and loving society and preached against what was religiously and socially acceptable at the time.

The Supper at Emmaus (ca. 1542) by Jacopo TintorettoMuseum of Fine Arts, Budapest

Although the intention of Christ’s crucifixion was to quiet the rising of his doctrine and disband his followers...

Saint Paul preaching in Athens, after Raphael (ca. 1517–20) by Raphael (Raffaello Sanzio or Santi)|Marcantonio RaimondiThe Metropolitan Museum of Art

The execution, however, only fueled the Christian message.

Soon, by the hand of his followers, it spread across the known world.

Corpus of Christ from the Altarpiece of the Crucifixion, Jacques de Baerze (Netherlandish, active before 1384–after 1399), 1391–99, From the collection of: The Art Institute of Chicago
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The Crucifixion, with the Virgin and Saint John the Evangelist Mourning, Rogier van der Weyden, Netherlandish (active Tournai and Brussels), 1399/1400 - 1464, c. 1460, From the collection of: Philadelphia Museum of Art
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The Small Crucifixion, Matthias Grünewald, c. 1511/1520, From the collection of: National Gallery of Art, Washington DC
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The Crucifixion, Lucas Cranach the Elder, 1501, From the collection of: Kunsthistorisches Museum Wien
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The Crucifixion, Luca Signorelli, c. 1504/1505, From the collection of: National Gallery of Art, Washington DC
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Christ on the Cross, El Greco (Domenico Theotokopoulos), 1600–1610, From the collection of: The J. Paul Getty Museum
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Christ Crucified between Two Thieves (The Three Crosses), Rembrandt Harmensz. van Rijn, Dutch (active Leiden and Amsterdam), 1606 - 1669, 1653-1655, From the collection of: Philadelphia Museum of Art
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The Crucifixion, Francisco de Zurbarán (Spanish, 1598–1664), 1627, From the collection of: The Art Institute of Chicago
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The Crucifixion, Unknown author, 18th century, From the collection of: National Palace of Ajuda
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The Crucifixion- from a Bas Relief., Adolphe Bilordeaux, Bisson Frères, about 1855, From the collection of: The J. Paul Getty Museum
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Crucifixion I, Wilhelm Morgner, 1913, From the collection of: National Gallery of Art, Washington DC
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Christus am Kreuz (The Crucifixion), Lovis Corinth, 1919, From the collection of: National Gallery of Art, Washington DC
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Which comes as an important lesson about extremist movements with idol-like leaders: their death, usually, only brings more focus and fervour to the cause.

The Christian Martyrs' Last Prayer (1863-1883) by Jean-Léon Gérôme (French, 1824-1904)The Walters Art Museum

Credits: Story


CURATORSHIP: Laura Fabíola Esteves Pereira (CITCEM), Lúcia Rosas (FLUP/CITCEM) & Maria Leonor Botelho (FLUP/CITCEM)

TEXTS: Laura Fabíola Esteves Pereira (CITCEM)


SPONSORS: Embaixada dos Estados Unidos da América em Portugal / US Embassy Portugal ACP - American Corners Portugal

Art Gallery of New South Wales
Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum
British Museum
DDR Museum
Fondazione Cariplo
Freer and Sackler Galleries
Galleria Civica d'Arte Moderna e Contemporanea di Torino
Getty Images
Kunsthistoriches Museum Wien
Leopold Museum
LIFE Photo Collection
Los Angeles County Museum of Art
Mafra National Palace
Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen
Museum of Fine Arts, Budapest
Museo Correr
Museo de San Marco, Florence
National Azulejo Museum
National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.
National Museum of Contemporary Art - Museu do Chiado
National Museum Soares dos Reis
Palace National of Ajuda
Philadelphia Museum of Art
Royal Ontario Museum
The Art Institute of Chicago
The J. Paul Getty Museum
The Metropolitan Museum of Art
The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston
The National Gallery, London
The Walters Art Museum
Van Gogh Museum
Yad Vashem


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