BERLIN (AP) — An American art museum is demanding that a German far-right party stop using one of its paintings, portraying a 19th-century slave auction, on an anti-Muslim campaign poster. The case is drawing attention to the ways in which populist parties are playing on fear of foreigners to win votes for upcoming European elections.
The dispute over the painting, which shows a Middle Eastern slave trader displaying a naked young woman with much lighter skin to a group of men for examination, highlights the aggressive and fear-mongering portrayal of Muslim migrants by the Alternative for Germany, or AfD, party as it attempts to capitalize on concerns about the huge influx of asylum-seekers in recent years.
The director of the Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Massachusetts, condemned the use of Jean-Leon Gerome’s 1866 oil-on-canvas painting “Slave Market,” by the AfD.
“We are strongly opposed to the use of this work to advance any political agenda,” Olivier Meslay told The Associated Press. “We did not supply the painting to the AfD.”
In the description of the work of art, the museum writes on its home page that “this disturbing scene is set in a courtyard market intended to suggest the Near East. The vague, distant location allowed 19th-century French viewers to censure the practice of slavery, which was outlawed in Europe, while enjoying a look at the female body.”
The AfD’s Berlin branch said they put up 30 posters of the painting across the German capital with the slogan: “So that Europe won’t become ‘Eurabia!’ Europeans vote for AfD.”
The party said it won’t take down any of the posters.
Meslay said the museum had written to the party “insisting that they cease and desist in using this painting.” However, he acknowledged, the painting is in the public domain and “there are no copyrights or permissions that allow us to exert control over how it is used other than to appeal to civility on the part of the AfD Berlin.”
A spokesman for the Berlin branch of the AfD called the museum’s request “a futile attempt to gag the AfD.”
“The German public has the right to find out about the truth about the possible consequences of illegal mass immigration,” said Ronald Glaeser. He did not explain further.
Riem Spielhaus, a professor for Islamic Studies, told the AP on Tuesday that the poster is meant to invoke old fears and stereotypes in western societies of the dark-skinned foreign man threatening to take away the white, defenseless woman.
The message of the posters is that “the German man, or the AfD, is the only one who can protect the white woman from the evil Muslims,” said Spielhaus, who teaches at the Georg Eckert Institute for International Textbook Research in Braunschweig.
Currently, the AfD, which was elected to Germany’s national parliament for the first time in 2017, is polling at 10%-12% for the European elections. Their campaign posters also feature among others an open toll gate at a border control with the slogan “One thing is sure: our borders are not secure.”
The AfD and other far-right groups have blamed Chancellor Angela Merkel’s decision in 2015 to allow in hundreds of thousands of asylum-seekers from war-torn countries like Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan for multiple social problems.
Some far-right supporters argue that migrants are responsible for an increase in serious crimes, especially attacks on women. Last summer they paraded through the eastern town of Chemnitz carrying posters of German women they allege were killed by migrants.
One of the AfD’s leaders, Alice Weidel, also alleged that immigrants, especially Muslims, will threaten the German economy.
“Burkas, head-scarved girls … knife-wielding men and other good-for-nothings will not secure our wealth, economic growth and especially the welfare state,” Weidel said in parliament last year.
The party’s anti-Muslim stance is being echoed by far-right parties across Europe, from France and the Netherlands via Britain to Hungary and Poland.
In the current campaign for the European Parliament elections, which take place May 23-26 throughout the bloc, populist parties on the continent have been increasingly aggressive, using old stereotypes and anti-foreigner sentiment to win the vote.
In Austria, the country’s vice chancellor and head of the nationalist Freedom Party, Heinz-Christian Strache, created an uproar when he told local daily Krone on Sunday that his party was fighting against a “replacement of the native population” or Bevoelkerungsaustausch — a term used by far-right groups in Europe that is also reminiscent of the Nazi terminology used to justify Germany’s occupation of Eastern Europe during World War II.
Strache, whose party is part of a conservative-nationalist coalition government, said that “we don’t want to become a minority in our own country.”
On Tuesday, Germany’s AfD and Austria’s Freedom Party announced they would combine forces and campaign together in Germany later this week for a “Europe of homelands.”
To spread their message ahead of the elections, the tech-savvy parties are not only using old-style campaign posters and newspaper interviews but have shifted much of their campaign into the cyber world trying to appeal to young voters via social media.
During the fire at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris earlier this month, the local AfD group in Solingen, in western Germany, suggested on Twitter that Islamic extremists were behind the destruction of the church, tweeting that “attacks on Christian landmarks will massively increase in coming years, and we all know why.”
As for the “Eurabia” campaign posters, AfD’s Berlin spokesman Glaeser said “the museum should be grateful that we’re helping to increase the degree of popularity of this painting — instead of trying to use censorship.”
Glaeser complained that opponents of the party have been continually destroying this and other campaign posters in Berlin and that party workers have had to repeatedly put up new copies, only to see them destroyed again the following night.