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

  1. I just finished reading a classic English language biography of Marat by a fellow named Gottschalk. It was written in the 1920’s, but the edition I found was a reissue from the ’60’s when the play “Marat/Sade” was popular. I saw a brilliant student performance of Marat/Sade in the ’60’s. Marat was played by a young Black actor. Very daring but very appropriate for the time.


  2. Bush’s Dangerous Liaisons
    Posted by: “Jack” miscStonecutter@earthlink.net bongo_fury2004
    Sun Oct 28, 2007 8:05 pm (PST)

    A terroriste was, in its original meaning,
    a Jacobin leader who ruled France during la Terreur.


    Bush’s Dangerous Liaisons

    by François Furstenberg
    The New York Times
    Sunday, October 28, 2007

    MONTREAL – Much as George W. Bush’s presidency was ineluctably shaped by Sept. 11, 2001, so the outbreak of the French Revolution was symbolized by the events of one fateful day, July 14, 1789. And though 18th-century France may seem impossibly distant to contemporary Americans, future historians examining Mr. Bush’s presidency within the longer sweep of political and intellectual history may find the French Revolution useful in understanding his curious brand of 21st-century conservatism.

    Soon after the storming of the Bastille, pro-Revolutionary elements came together to form an association that would become known as the Jacobin Club, an umbrella group of politicians, journalists and citizens dedicated to advancing the principles of the Revolution.

    The Jacobins shared a defining ideological feature. They divided the world between pro- and anti-Revolutionaries – the defenders of liberty versus its enemies. The French Revolution, as they understood it, was the great event that would determine whether liberty was to prevail on the planet or whether the world would fall back into tyranny and despotism.

    The stakes could not be higher, and on these matters there could be no nuance or hesitation. One was either for the Revolution or for tyranny.

    By 1792, France was confronting the hostility of neighboring countries, debating how to react. The Jacobins were divided. On one side stood the journalist and political leader Jacques-Pierre Brissot de Warville, who argued for war.

    Brissot understood the war as preventive – “une guerre offensive,” he called it – to defeat the despotic powers of Europe before they could organize their counter-Revolutionary strike. It would not be a war of conquest, as Brissot saw it, but a war “between liberty and tyranny.”

    Pro-war Jacobins believed theirs was a mission not for a single nation or even for a single continent. It was, in Brissot’s words, “a crusade for universal liberty.”

    Brissot’s opponents were skeptical. “No one likes armed missionaries,” declared Robespierre, with words as apt then as they remain today. Not long after the invasion of Austria, the military tide turned quickly against France.

    The United States, France’s “sister republic,” refused to enter the war on France’s side. It was an infuriating show of ingratitude, as the French saw it, coming from a fledgling nation they had magnanimously saved from foreign occupation in a previous war.

    Confronted by a monarchical Europe united in opposition to revolutionary France – old Europe, they might have called it – the Jacobins rooted out domestic political dissent. It was the beginning of the period that would become infamous as the Terror.

    Among the Jacobins’ greatest triumphs was their ability to appropriate the rhetoric of patriotism – Le Patriote Français was the title of Brissot’s newspaper – and to promote their political program through a tightly coordinated network of newspapers, political hacks, pamphleteers and political clubs.

    Even the Jacobins’ dress distinguished “true patriots”: those who wore badges of patriotism like the liberty cap on their heads, or the cocarde tricolore (a red, white and blue rosette) on their hats or even on their lapels.

    Insisting that their partisan views were identical to the national will, believing that only they could save France from apocalyptic destruction, Jacobins could not conceive of legitimate dissent. Political opponents were treasonous, stabbing France and the Revolution in the back.

    To defend the nation from its enemies, Jacobins expanded the government’s police powers at the expense of civil liberties, endowing the state with the power to detain, interrogate and imprison suspects without due process. Policies like the mass warrantless searches undertaken in 1792 – “domicilary visits,” they were called – were justified, according to Georges Danton, the Jacobin leader, “when the homeland is in danger.”

    Robespierre – now firmly committed to the most militant brand of Jacobinism – condemned the “treacherous insinuations” cast by those who questioned “the excessive severity of measures prescribed by the public interest.” He warned his political opponents, “This severity is alarming only for the conspirators, only for the enemies of liberty.” Such measures, then as now, were undertaken to protect the nation – indeed, to protect liberty itself.

    If the French Terror had a slogan, it was that attributed to the great orator Louis de Saint-Just: “No liberty for the enemies of liberty.” Saint-Just’s pithy phrase (like President Bush’s variant, “We must not let foreign enemies use the forums of liberty to destroy liberty itself”) could serve as the very antithesis of the Western liberal tradition.

    On this principle, the Terror demonized its political opponents, imprisoned suspected enemies without trial and eventually sent thousands to the guillotine. All of these actions emerged from the Jacobin worldview that the enemies of liberty deserved no rights.

    Though it has been a topic of much attention in recent years, the origin of the term “terrorist” has gone largely unnoticed by politicians and pundits alike. The word was an invention of the French Revolution, and it referred not to those who hate freedom, nor to non-state actors, nor of course to “Islamofascism.”

    A terroriste was, in its original meaning, a Jacobin leader who ruled France during la Terreur.


    François Furstenberg, a professor of history at the University of Montreal, is the author of “In the Name of the Father: Washington’s Legacy, Slavery and the Making of a Nation.”

    Copyright 2007 The New York Times Company



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  17. Michal Boncza

    Revolutionary journalist and doctor Jean-Paul Marat has had a particularly bad press since his murder on July 13 1793 and Jean-Paul Marat by Clifford D Conner attempts to redress the balance.

    Marat was an implacable and politically astute agitator for the cause of the urban labourers and poor and had an enviably loyal following.

    No understanding of the complexity of the political background and conflicting interests inherent in the French revolution is possible without an unbiased look at Marat and the cause he so single-mindedly embraced.

    He did not mince words and remained a thorn in the flesh of centrist and right-wing tendencies within the revolution, working to radicalise its programme.

    His tactical acumen is perhaps best illustrated by the forging of the politically ground-breaking alliance between the reasonably well-to-do Jacobins and the sans-culottes, the urban poor. Empowering.



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