A conservative exhibition on art in the age of the French and American revolutions

This video says about itself:

The Death of Marat, by Jacques-Louis David. Music – Dante’s Prayer by Loreena McKennitt.

From London daily The Morning Star:

Don’t mention the revolution

(Monday 05 March 2007)

EXHIBITION: Citizens and Kings: Portraits in the Age of Revolution, 1760-1830

Royal Academy, London

CHRISTINE LINDEY finds gaping holes in a Royal Academy exhibition that’s supposed to be about citizens and kings during the French Revolution.

The publicity for the Royal Academy’s exhibition shows a detail of Jacques-Louis David‘s Marat murdered in his bath.

But beware. If you want to see this most moving homage to the martyr of the French Revolution, you will have to go to the Museum of Fine Arts in Brussels.

As soon as I saw it, I knew that something was wrong. This is a lifeless studio copy.

You have to look at the small print to find out. The selection and interpretation of works is equally misleading.

The exhibition begins well.

Of nine themes, the first focuses on giant state portraits.

Swathed in silks, furs, sashes and jewels, ancien regime kings and queens clutch absurd spectres or globes signifying their divine right to rule.

They look down at you with such pompous disdain that you eagerly anticipate seeing portraits of the revolutionaries who toppled them.

But no. The second room greets you with The Status Portrait: Before, During and after the Revolution.

Nodding references to political activists are made with portraits of George Washington, Samuel Adams and the French republican [rather: constitutional monarchist] Mirabeau, but most of the portraits here, including all of the women, are of the titled.

Joshua Reynolds’s Mary, Countess of Bute walks her dog, yet we see no portrait of Olympe de Gouges, author of the Declaration of the Rights of Women and the Female Citizen and founder of the working class Society of Revolutionary Republican Women.

It gets worse. Room three, The Cultural Portrait, manages to deal with “the various manifestations of the Enlightenment” without including portraits of the world-shaking intellectuals Thomas Paine [see also here] and Mary Wollstonecraft [see also here, and here].

Yet it finds room for the obscure, such as Francois Tronchin “a banker and collector … man of taste and discrimination.” This section completely excludes women.

By room four, all thought of revolution evaporates and the theme is The Artist: Image and Self-Image.

Moreover, this is defined in so conservative a way that neither the celebrated portraitist Vigee-Lebrun nor the equally well-known Angelica Kauffmann, founder-member of the Royal Academy, appears.

Indeed, Hortense Haudebourt-Lescot is the only woman artist here.

The studio version of David’s Marat is slipped into room five, The Portrait After the Antique, which is mostly populated by marble busts in the antique manner.

After this, we get a celebration of family life, followed by a look at the allegorical portrait.

The latter, at least, includes depictions of successful professional women including Vigee-Lebrun’s lively portrait of Madame de Stael and Houdon’s sensuously carved bust of the singer Sophie Arnould.

Nature and Grace: The Figure in the Landscape in room eight introduces us to portraits of the rich discovering pleasing vistas or other wonders of tamed nature.

With a cosy sigh of relief, the final room announces the restoration of the monarchy in 1815 and, with it, the consolidation of bourgeois power.

Of course, commissioned portraiture by its nature was and still is mostly the province of the rich.

But where are the prints of revolutionary heroes such as Marat, Olympe de Gouges, Tom Paine and others which were widely used as a means of popularising republicanism?

Where are the prints of the working-class sans culottes and the American foot soldiers who made the two revolutions?

You will have to look very closely to find a cockade or a phrygian cap here.

Moreover, most of the women portrayed are defined only in terms of their relationship to men as wives, mothers or widows.

In the 1960s, Frenchman Regis Debray wrote a book, Revolution within the revolution.

Now, this exhibition, sponsored by British Conservative daily The Daily Telegraph, also known as The Daily Torygraph, seems to have discovered the secret of Revolution without a revolution …

A review of Danton’s Death by Georg Büchner in a new version by Howard Brenton at the National Theatre in London, directed by Michael Grandage: here.

53 thoughts on “A conservative exhibition on art in the age of the French and American revolutions

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