From the Archives: Fragments of a Revolution

Antoine-Jean Gros: La République, 1795, oil on canvas, 28⅜ by 14 inches. Musée National du Château, Versailles.


In recognition of Bastille Day, we searched the archives for this review by contributing editor Linda Nochlin from A.i.A.’s October 1989 issue. Nochlin assesses “La Révolution française et l’Europe 1789–1799” at the Grand Palais in Paris, an exhibition mounted on the occasion of the bicentennial of the French Revolution. Although critical of the show as a whole, Nochlin identifies a key paradox inherent to representing the Reign of Terror: “Creation as well as destruction was part of the revolutionary project,” she writes. Even in a work that she deems “incoherent,” Nochlin recognizes that a certain instability may be just what defines it as revolutionary.” –Eds. 


A sprawling exhibition at the Grand Palais explored the diverse and sometimes contradictory roles played by the visual arts in the French Revolution. Embracing both high art and mundane objects, the exhibition reflected the passions that marked an era.


My first thought on entering “La Révolution française et l’Europe 1789-1799” at the Grand Palais [Mar. 16-June 26] was that I had walked into the wrong show or the wrong museum—or even the wrong city. For this odd assortment of second-rate portraits of anemic, bandy-legged princelings and bewigged grand duchesses, historiated toby jugs and indecipherable coarse-grained prints, awkwardly and apparently haphazardly crammed together in a dimly lit vestibule, looked less like the opening salvo of the Parisian bicentennial exhibition commemorating one of the most momentous events in history, and more like the back gallery of a provincial museum in central Europe during the off-peak season. Nor was much light shed on the situation by wall texts or any other sort of explanatory material. After a certain amount of searching, the determined visitor discovered that this gloomy, crowded space dominated by mediocre portraits was in fact dedicated to the theme of “Political Power.” A small wall label placed well above eye level made this stipulation; a somewhat larger placard in an equally out-of-the-way position indicated that the whole initial series of small, overstuffed galleries—a sort of rag-and-bone shop of historical curios, obscure paintings, scientific paraphernalia and variegated prints—was in fact devoted to a more all-embracing category, “Europe on the Eve of Revolution,” the first of the three major divisions of the show, the other two being “The Revolutionary Event” and “The Creative Revolution.” Yet there was little way for the visitor unarmed with the three-volume, ten-and-a-half-pound, 400-franc catalogue 1 to realize that there was indeed some rationale behind the seemingly haphazard and unreadable arrangement of images and objects.

This was an exhibition that cried out for wall texts, simply because of the heterogeneous nature of the material on display, if for no other reason (none was supplied). The miniversion of the catalogue and the Petit Journal summary both helped in their ways, but neither really connected up with the plethora of works and disjunction of meanings created by the display. One might almost think that the planners of the show, organized under the august aegis of the Council of Europe, had conspired to demonstrate that the social history of art could under no circumstances result in a successful museum exhibition. Yet of course it is probable that nothing so deliberate was intended. Given the complexity of the issues and the political heat generated by the historiographical situation—the antagonism between the various schools of revolutionary interpretation and the present-day political implications of these antagonistic viewpoints—and, on a more practical level, the seemingly intractable variety of the objects, culled not only from France itself but from all over Europe, a decision must have been made at one point during the genesis of the exhibition that it might be best to let the objects “speak for themselves,” as it were.

The trouble is, of course, that objects do not speak for themselves. The difficulty became particularly acute in a section of the exhibition devoted to “Le Monde Rural”—a section, it must be added, almost indistinguishable from the preceding ones devoted in turn to the aristocracy and to state-sponsored production of luxury items. The cramped gallery dedicated to the rural world on the eve of the Revolution was dominated by two enormous plows set among a bevy of tarares, fléaux, faucilles, moulins à sel and other agricultural implements of the time; their relation to the French Revolution, while suggestive, is rather tenuous at best.

The presence of the plows, however, raises some interesting theoretical questions about the nature of the exhibition under consideration—and about exhibitions in general. Are actual “objects” like plows or cannons or swords (all were on view) transparently meaningful, as opposed to “representations,” which require interpretation? To a certain curatorial mind this would seem to be the case. Plows, cannons and such were therefore inserted into the exhibition context totally without commentary, as though, in their status as real objects from the period, they were self-explanatory. But of course, in the context of an exhibition an object like a plow or a flail ceases to signify as a mere thing or as a useful object; on the contrary, it assumes a powerful role as a representation, or even a symbol of larger values, more sweeping generalities. One might conceivably choose to look at the plow from an esthetic viewpoint—not a few viewers, after all, have sought to justify Duchamp’s “objects” like the urinal or the bottle rack on esthetic grounds—but it is hard to believe that this was what the curators had in mind in the case of the everyday implements on view. It is more likely that the tempting idea of “magic communication” came into play.

When I was a child, I believed that if I touched one of the mummy cases in the Brooklyn Museum, I became in some way directly, magically connected (or in communication) with a little Egyptian girl who had touched the same object almost 4,000 years earlier. History, in this naive view, is conceived of as magic, a miraculous vivification of fragments culled from the past speaking directly to l’imaginaire (the imagination or the imaginary?) of the contemporary museum-goer, without any mediation. Through this mystificatory sleight-of-hand, objects from the past are removed from the socially imbricated realm of representation and offer themselves directly through the eyes or the sense of touch to the intuitive grasp of the individual spectator. This is an error, of course. Objects do not “mean” on their own in any serious way; they assume meaning only within contexts, in relation to other objects and within the signifying system of language. The plow does not speak; handsome, moving, appealing to the imagination though it may be, plopped down in the salle d’exposition it is just so much dead wood unless it is brought to life by the enlivening support of words and ideas.

The same might be said, in a different way, about a group of paintings representing women in domestic settings within the gallery space dedicated to “Urban Society.” Without the help of wall labels, the average museum-goer undoubtedly took these images as documentary evidence of woman’s role in 18th-century society rather than as what they almost certainly are—variations on certain popular topoi current among the genre painters of the period. No doubt a certain amount of information about the domestic practices of the period or country in question can be culled from works like Woman Seated in a Kitchen (attributed to Jacques Sablet) or Antoine Raspal’s Dressmakers’ Workshop in Arles. But without the necessary textual differentiation between the traditional moralizing imagery of the idle servant girl in the first and a descriptive scene of up-to-date, quite prosperous and concretely located industrial production in the other, the historical specificity of these representations is completely lost. 

This first of the three major divisions of the exhibition ended with a room dedicated to “New Themes in the Plastic Arts.” Here, for the first time, for the art historian at any rate, was a semblance of coherence. Clearly, patriotism and civic virtue were thèmes à la mode in the years immediately preceding the Revolution. Mucius Scaevola, Regulus, Manlius Torquatus and, of course, the Horatii were duly exalted. The victims of ungrateful tyrants like Belisarius and Miltiades were amply represented, as were the self-sacrificial heroines of antiquity like Cornelia, mother of the Gracchi, and the generous Roman women who gave up their domestic treasures for the good of the state. Despite the fact that the artistic representations of such exempla virtutis were encouraged by the French monarchy itself, especially by Louis XVI’s intendant, d’Angiviller, nominated Director-General of the King’s buildings in 1774, it is hard to avoid a certain prematurely revolutionary reading of many of these works, which now look like such pointed, if tactfully classicized, critiques of contemporary ruling-class mores and practices.

It was interesting to see a wide range of talents dedicated to similar themes and—for the art-historical professional, at any rate—to compare David’s interpretation of the Oath of the Horatii (present here in the form of the Louvre painted sketch) to the far less exciting, less readable work of other academicians, such as the ponderous and illegible later version of the same theme by Caraffe. It was also informative to be made aware [pq]A major challenge faced by artists and printmakers of the period was the invention of an appropriate imagery to embody republican ideals.[/pq]of just how popular the Belisarius theme actually was during the prerevolutionary period, interpreted in a wide variety of modes and mediums, from the Poussinesque monumentality of David’s well-known canvas to the small-scale charm of a colorful porcelain group by Paul-Louis Cyfflé. Porcelain also served to commemorate feminine virtue in The Return of Alcestis, a group created by Konrad Linck, an endearing little masterpiece complete with ruined columns and realistic shrubbery, which apparently owes its liveliness and sense of dramatic complexity in miniature to Christoph Wieland’s opera Alceste, one of the most advanced musical-dramatic productions of its time.

This section of the exhibition made it painfully clear, even without the benefit of wall text, that it was not always easy to make ambitious history paintings work. One would think that, given the thoroughness of academic training and the rather formulaic process by which the standard history painting was brought into being, that a relatively high level of professional competence—a basic knowledge of how to get a picture to communicate its message with directness and a certain elegance—would be maintained by French painters. Quite the contrary; the rate of failure, whether judged by today’s standards or those of the period, was high. It is equally clear, even from the few painted sketches by David on view, how much better he was than his contemporaries. The recently discovered painted sketch by his rival Peyron of the Death of Socrates, a clair-obscur shambles of grimacing, gesticulating and swooning figures dispersed in unrelated and meaningless groups across the drapery-strewn canvas, makes David’s superiority clear and reveals just how structurally and expressively coherent his version of the theme in the Metropolitan Museum really is.

The first section of the show, then, despite some genuinely interesting moments, demonstrated the difficulty of representing in visual terms that which is really not representable visually—unless supported by a meaningful juxtaposition of works supplemented by a full measure of explanatory text. A semicircle of portrait busts of Voltaire, Rousseau and Diderot, even if they are by Houdon or Pajou, can hardly be said to body forth in any serious way the intellectual program of the Enlightenment. Nor can engraved images of Swedenborg or Lavater cue us in to the complexity of pre-Romantic speculations about the irrational.

The second major division of the exhibition—”The Revolutionary Event”—seemed more promising. The actual historical events of the Revolution are certainly more amenable to visual representation than its vaguely adumbrated “background,” although even here the three final subcategories of display, “Propaganda and Counter-Propaganda,” “The War of Images” and “The Engagement of Artists,” dealing as they do with issues of imagery and representation, would seem to suggest an entirely different level of discourse from the apparently “objective description” of facts or mere reportage suggested by the titles of the earlier subdivisions of this section, “The Taking of the Bastille” and “The Fall of the Monarchy.” A painting like Thevenin’s Taking of the Bastille, with its melodramatically emphasized individual groups of victims and heroes (not unlike Delacroix’s much later Scenes from the Massacres of Chios in its conception), or, at the lower end of the spectrum, the laconic but telling anonymous hand-colored popular engraving Adieu Bastille, is as much—and indeed more properly—to be considered as an instrument of propaganda or a counter in the War of Imagery or a token of its creator’s engagement as it is a simple description of events. Not that most of the public would tend to see a popular image as mere reportage, yet the arbitrary separation of revolutionary images into one category which assumes transparency and another which assumes that the viewer is to relate to the image qua image, and the admixture of real cannons, model warships, uniforms, pikes and swords with both, leads to confusion.

Nevertheless, the first sight of the enormous, high-ceilinged gallery, spacious and relatively uncluttered, in which a large portion of “The Revolutionary Event” was installed was impressive. After the stuffiness and crowding of the preceding galleries, it came as something of a revelation, an opening-out into more promising, more exciting territory. One might even have suspected that the organizers of the exhibition had indeed planned such an effect for the weary visitor, much as Bernini had employed the dark and crowded alleyways of the old Roman Spina as a prelude to the exciting, climactic open space of the Piazza San Pietro.

The initial installation in this gallery was certainly brilliant and suggestive. On one side of a floor-to-ceiling screen was a kind of giant sculptural still life made out of fragments—mammoth toes, a giant hand, a horse’s hoof—of mutilated equestrian statues of Louis XIV, Louis XV and Henri IV, as well as a fallen bust of Louis XVI himself. On the other side of the screen were nothing but a small engraving by Bertaux of the destruction of the equestrian statue of Louis XV and a single, beautifully modeled foot from this colossal sculpture, as eloquent in its isolation, its suggestion of the passage of earthly grandeur, as Fuseli’s famous drawing of the Artist Overwhelmed by the Grandeur of Antique Sculpture.

This installation set the tone for the rest of the “Revolutionary Event” division of the exhibition, certainly for the subsection dedicated to the “Fall of the Monarchy and the Death of the King.” Fragmentation, mutilation and destruction might be said to be the founding tropes of the visual rhetoric here. At the same time, the installation evoked actual historical acts of revolutionary iconoclasm, such as the déboulonment of the statue of Louis XV to make way for a representation of Liberty surmounting a pedestal festooned with fragmentary symbols of royal power—crowns, orbs, scepters—for David’s Festival of Unity and Indivisibility on August 10, 1793. 2 Similarly, David’s projected statue of Hercules, a colossus dedicated to the glory of the French people, was symbolically to overcome the “double tyranny of kings and priests” by standing on a base constructed from the debris of the statues of kings removed from the porticoes of Notre Dame. 3 Yet in the absence of encouragement to see the exhibition in any terms other than eclectic “appreciation,” magic historicism or positivist fact-gleaning, this viewer was forced to create such meaning for herself.

Put in its simplest terms, the omnipresence of the fragment—in a variety of forms and with a wide range of possible significance—in the exhibition had something to do with the fact that “the French Revolution was caught in the throes of destroying one civilization before creating a new one.” 4 Yet the actual task facing those who sought to carry out the revolutionary [pq]Imagery of destruction, dismemberment and fragmentation remained a powerful element of revolutionary ideology at least until the fall of Robespierre.[/pq]mandate was far from simple. If David maintained that the Revolution must begin by “effacing from our chronology so many centuries of error,” it nevertheless remained to decide exactly what the “errors” were and how they were to be effaced. The notion of “vandalism”—wanton destruction of culturally valuable objects by the uninstructed popular will—arose almost simultaneously with the notion of conservation—officially sanctioned saving of the nation’s cultural patrimony. Little by little, the people were deprived of the right to destroy the icons of feudalism in the name of a higher good. 5 Nevertheless the imagery—and the enactment—of destruction, dismemberment and fragmentation remained a powerful element of revolutionary ideology at least until the fall of Robespierre, and even after.

The exhibition provided ample opportunity for the construction of a discourse of revolutionary dismemberment, starting with the section devoted to the taking of the Bastille, which in fact included a significantly dismembered “souvenir”—hors catalogue—in the shape of one of the many miniature “Bastilles,” useful as a doorstop or even an oversize paperweight, carved from the stones of the wrecked fortress by that canny purveyor of revolutionary relics to the populace, Pierre-Francois Palloy. 6

At the heart of this iconography of destruction, however, lies the representation of human dismemberment—the guillotining of the victims of the Terror. If an actual guillotine was absent from the show—and one wonders at the omission of this central object of revolutionary symbology, given the presence of such obviously peripheral instruments as plows or cannons—representations of it certainly were not. Most significantly, this iconography is centered about that primal scene of political transgression, the beheading of the king. The topos of the execution of the monarch is central to the revolutionary symbolism of destruction, the wresting of the head from the fleshly embodiment of the state constituting an irreversible enactment of the dismemberment of the old regime.

Representations of the execution of the monarch range from the laconic ferocity of a memorable engraving published by Villeneuve—an ostensio of the severed head displayed, like that of the Medusa, by a detached hand to an invisible crowd 7 —to the complexity of a richly allegorized drawing of the scene by Pierre-Etienne Leseur—a beautiful, fully worked-out project submitted to the revolutionary Competition of the Year II. Here, the topos of the ostentation of the severed head, the allegorization of various members of the animated crowd (embracing, pledging allegiance to the state not on swords but on the body of a strategically placed cannon, holding aloft a banner surmounted with a Phrygian cap and inscribed with the words “Death to the tyrants,” “Liberty, Equality,” and “Long live the Republic, One and Indivisible,” or engaging in an extraordinary ritual dance, half-classical, half-carmagnole at the foot of the scaffold) and the juxtaposition of the scaffold itself, with its guillotine, decapitated corpse and executioner, with the empty, ruined socle recently divested of the equestrian statue of Louis XV—all conjoin to create a sense of ecstatic transcendence that is far removed from mere reportage. , like that of the oath, participates in a notion going far beyond that of the Revolution itself: it is that of a founding gesture, which implies the social contract.”‘]8 Even more naturalistic, ostensibly eyewitness accounts of the guillotining of upper-class victims were often enriched by allegorical addenda. A nude, club-wielding classical Hercules, emblem of the power of the people, occupies the foreground of a pen-and-wash drawing of a multiple execution of aristocrats by a Swedish admirer of the Republic, Carl August Ehrensvärd.

Yet it was in the medium of the print—and from the vantage point of the anti-Revolutionary artist—that the representation of execution reached its full fantasy potential. A work like Les Formes acerbes (La guillotine de Cambrai) is a graphic frenzy of the macabre; the terrorist mayor of Arras stands on the headless bodies of his victims as he simultaneously drinks their blood and operates the two guillotines that supply him with his horrid beverage. In the paradoxically elegant post-Thermidor representation of Robespierre himself guillotining the executioner who has finally succeeded in guillotining every last Frenchman, Robespierre is surrounded by a surrealistic forest of guillotines surmounted by a commemorative pyramid inscribed with the words “Here lies all of France.”

The opposing poles of the figuration of fragmentation as an exemplary revolutionary trope are represented by two of the most startling images in the exhibition. The first, embodying the notion of fragmentation as sacrifice, is an odd little anonymous painting—awkward, silly, horrifying and moving all at once—representing a hero so devoted to the nation that he has literally given his right arm for it. The arm itself, painted with a high degree of naturalism, is displayed prominently on an altarlike table in the foreground, tenderly wrapped in white linen; in its macabre isolation, it looks back to the holy relics of the saints and, at the same time, forward to the entirely secular still lifes of fragmented limbs created by Géricault early in the 19th century. This revolutionary sacrifice is observed with stoical appreciation by a fellow soldier and an entourage of women and old people.

At the other extreme of revolutionary representation lies the topic of fragmentation as obscenity, as figured by Britain’s prime satirist of revolutionary excess, James Gillray. Gillray’s sense of the grotesque knew no limits of decorum or propriety. Our far-out, radical cartoonists of the 1960s look positively timid and repressed in comparison with prints like “Un petit Souper à la Parisienne: A Family of Sans-Culotts [sic] refreshing after the fatigues of the day,” a colored etching included, quite rightly, in the “War of Images” section of the exhibition. Fragments and dismemberment are at issue here, too; again a table is featured prominently in the foreground, but in this case, it is the setting for cannibalism rather than sacrifice. Two bare-bottomed revolutionaries—literally sans culottes!—are making a meal of their human victims. The monster on the left, his bony legs thrust into appropriately plebian sabots, is about to tuck into a tasty eyeball culled from the human head on the plate before him; he has an ear ready in the other hand. His companion at table, equally bare-bottomed and seated on the naked corpse of a decapitated young woman, a bloodstained axe tucked into his belt, is about to bite into an arm, while three women in the background chew indelicately on a heart and several unidentifiable human fragments. Above their heads, a ceiling larder is stuffed with further supplies of human flesh, while to the left, a group of baby revolutionaries dig into a bucket of entrails as voraciously as if it were a bowl of spaghetti. In back of them, a hideous grandma is turning a baby on a spit over the fire, basting it with a little blood-sauce. Revolutionary destruction is here interpreted, with the blackest of black humor, as ultimate transgression. The Revolution, in Gillray’s version of it, is hyperbolic in its monstrosity, its partisans gross, crass, demonic—and déclassé.

A final instance of dismemberment—this time as the result of an actual act of anti-Jacobin iconoclasm—is represented in the exhibition by the seven extraordinarily suggestive fragments which are all that remain of Philippe-Auguste Hennequin’s daring celebration of Jacobin values during the Directory, The Triumph of the French People on August 10, painted in 1798-99, mutilated after 1814, and dispersed among the museums of [pq]The notion of “vandalism”–the wanton destruction of culturally valuable objects–arose almost simultaneously with the idea of conservation. [/pq]Rouen, Angers, Le Mans and Caen in 1820. The only remaining clue to the original composition of Hennequin’s monumental and impassioned political allegory is apparently the elaborate description which appeared in the catalogue when the work was triumphantly exhibited in the Salon of the Year VII. The fragments, however, some of them infused with an almost hysterical intensity, convey some notion of the political commitment inspiring the work and may appeal more to the modern viewer as separate fragments than the recondite allegorical totality would.

But of course creation as well as destruction was part of the revolutionary project, as the third and final major division of the exhibition, “The Creative Revolution,” attempted to make clear. In the construction of the new republican consciousness, images played a role as important as that of words, and the invention of an appropriate imagery with which to body forth republican ideals and aspirations was a major challenge to the artists and printmakers of the period. Indeed, as Klaus Herding points out in his admirable introduction to the exhibition catalogue, “It was the secret power and strength of the visual arts to provide what reason seemed to refuse, that is, a justification of the emotions in a (supposedly) rational society.” 9 In their special appeal to the unconscious and the irrational, the visual arts might be said to have played a role rather similar to that played by cinema in later moments of cultural change.

At the same time, the creators of this new imagery, like film producers, had to appeal to a mass rather than an elite audience. This was of course particularly true for the makers of prints, but it was also the case for the creators of a wide variety of other visual manifestations, ranging from the revision of playing cards and children’s games to the construction and execution of the all-important revolutionary festivals. Indeed, one of the major problems facing the leaders of the Revolution was that of giving concrete, easily comprehensible embodiment to the more or less abstract ideas of the Enlightenment, thereby making them accessible and popular. 10

Here, the role of gender in the construction of new forms of representation looms large, with the female figure a primary signifier both in allegorical imagery and in more straightforward cases of simple descriptive record. Female sexuality functioned as a potent negative signifier for both sides of the Revolution. Anti revolutionary artists often sexualized what they saw as the wanton destructiveness of sansculottes and revolutionary masses, just as, in a different way, supporters of the Revolution had often directed their venom at the alleged sexual perversity of upper-class women. In a violently antirevolutionary painting like Zoffany’s Le Massacre du Champ-de-Mars, the bloodthirsty impulses of the common people are emblematized by the figure of the knife-wielding, bare-breasted—i.e., murderous and sexual—femme du people standing astride the bodies of the fallen; innocent victimhood is also figured in feminine form by her opposite number, the lovely young aristo—a mother at that—clasping her hands in anguish in the left foreground of this orgy of destruction. 11

Prorevolutionary artists and draftsmen, on the other hand, frequently emphasized the heroic—i.e., nonsexual—roles played by women of the people, as exemplified in the prizewinning drawing for the Competition of the Year II of the so-called “Citoyenne de Saint-Milhier,” a legendary young mother who presumably was prepared to set her own house—and children—on fire rather than let them fall into enemy hands. Now attributed to Vincent, the drawing represents an interesting attempt to superimpose the imagery of the heroic on what is basically an anecdotal genre scene. 12  Relying heavily on Davidian precedent, the poses of the male figures are like disorderly and multiplied Horatii; those of the heroine and her fainting daughter a remake of the horrified wife and daughter from David’s Brutus. The ambiguous position occupied by actual rather than legendary women activists in the iconography of the Revolution is represented in the exhibition by a satirical print, more anti-feminist than antirevolutionary, of “Le Club des femmes patriotes,” perhaps a caricature of the radical Société des républicains révolutionnaires founded by Anne Pauline Léon, a group destroyed with the closing of women’s clubs in 1793 and the general repression of women’s power in the public arena of politics during the course of the Revolution. 13

Ambiguity marks, to some degree, many of the allegorical formulations of republican ideals on view in the “Rights of Man” galleries of the “Creative Revolution” division of the exhibition. In part, this ambiguity—at times, outright ambivalence—may be attributed to a certain awkwardness of execution, ingratiating rather than irritating, as if the rather uncertain formal construction of the images in question reveals the youthful vulnerability of the ideas they inscribe. There may even be a positive aspect connected to a certain incoherence in a revolutionary work of art; indeed, a certain instability may be just what defines it as revolutionary. As Klaus Herding puts it, “Artistic novelty often consists in questioning codes and norms; incoherence, lack of harmony is actually the (sometimes involuntary) mark of revolutionary art.” 14 Thus there is an appealing freshness and charm to the youthful Gros’s apple-cheeked, bare-bosomed, miniskirted figure of the Republic, despite, or perhaps because of, the fact that she looks like the captain of the hockey team decked out in the appurtenances of revolutionary allegory—spear with Phrygian bonnet, helmet, triangular mason’s level, fasces, tricolor outfit—and more than a little embarrassed by them. This is a Republic one would make allowances for, precisely because she seems so stiff and unpracticed. Yet in other cases, the gendered allegories of the revolution reveal more disturbing contradictions based, it would seem, on deeper ambivalences governing the conceptual collocation of women and power. These contradictions bear some further consideration.

The universality of the gendered ideology of power, and the degree to which it, like all ideological formations, is for the most part unrecognized and simply taken for granted as “natural,” are strikingly revealed in Leo Steinberg’s seminal study of the sexuality of Christ. 15 Revealing the degree to which Renaissance representations of the infant Christ focus on his (undraped) penis, Steinberg convincingly equates this representation with a new emphasis on Christ’s humanity. For the feminist reader, Steinberg’s study suggests that the humanity of Christ was equated with possession of a male organ, which, in its manifestation as the phallus, has always been the sign of masculine power. Why else is it the penis and not an arm, or a leg, or a stomach or a heart which is the signifier of Christ’s humanity, since the latter, being gender-neutral, would have indeed included both sexes? The answer is obvious and underlies all such gender-specific definitions of “humanity” before and since. Christ’s penis signifies a notion of the human which is by definition masculine; humanity as masculinity; masculinity as power. 16 In this view, women, since they lack the penis and indeed are defined by this lack, must be incompletely, or imperfectly, human—and powerless.

The dilemma facing those constructing visual signifiers for the ideals of the French Revolution becomes clear. The Revolution, after all, was conceived and fought in the name of a universal humanity. Liberty, Equality and [pq]There may be a positive aspect to the incoherence in a revolutionary work of art; indeed, instability may be just what defines it as revolutionary.[/pq]Fraternity are nothing if they are not universal, applicable to humanity as a whole, women included. Yet the ideology of gender was in many ways more compelling than the relatively recently formulated doctrines of revolutionary egalitarianism, universality and justice. Enlightenment stipulations of women’s equality were no match for the mystique of the phallus, newly reinscribed in Rousseauist affirmations of the natural subordination and inferiority of the female sex.

How, then, might the image-makers of the Revolution construct a representation of women which included their important role in the revolutionary process without violating so-called “natural” laws determining their subordinate position within the social order of the Republic? And how might the signifier “woman” function within a visual discourse of revolutionary theory and practice? Obviously, woman might play a major role in allegorical representation, since allegorical figures are by definition not identical with their meanings. Yet even in the case of the allegorical female figure, especially for an uninstructed, literal-minded member of the mass public, the signifier “woman” might have easily been misinterpreted as literally rather than figuratively powerful, as threatening rather than benevolent—a figurative position which came too close to the activities and demands of actual women within the historical context of the Revolution itself. 

These dilemmas found their visual expression over and over again in the exhibition. Sometimes the difficulties were overcome by substituting the masculine figure of Hercules-as-the-French-People for the feminine one of Liberty or the Republic. In a drawing by Augustin Dupré, a powerful, nude figure of the antique demigod, politicized by his Phrygian bonnet, holds two properly subordinate little female figures representing Liberty and Equality incongruously in his hand, while a worshipful feminine personification of nature kneels at his side. In another instance, a terra-cotta statuette by Chinard, Liberty in the form of a kind of miniballerina is hoisted in the air by her masculine partner, again the French People in the guise of Hercules, so that she may crown him with a laurel wreath. 17

Perhaps the most successful of the gendered allegories of revolutionary virtue is also the most overtly political: Regnault’s Liberty or Death, which appeared in the Salon of 1795 and was almost immediately taken to be Robespierrist propaganda rather than revolutionary doctrine. 18 Uncannily suspended above the surface of the globe, a beautiful male winged génie de la France, based on Raphael’s Farnesina Mercury, indicates with either hand the objects of choice—or rather the only choice and the price to be paid for choosing it: to the left, a beautiful yet self-assured feminine Liberty floating above him on a cloud, and below to the right a dark, skeletal Death, a disengendered figure if ever there was one.

The sheer amount of high art dedicated to the representation of revolutionary themes on view in the exhibition was impressive, as was the variety of experimental approaches, ranging from direct, almost genrelike transcription to elaborate allegory. Even the most forthright representation of a revolutionary event was almost always subject to a certain allegorical heightening of meaning and implication. In addition, many of the works in this final section of the exhibition were virtually unknown, not merely to the general public but to art historians not specialists in the field as well: Gérard’s elaborate prizewinning drawing of August 10 for the Competition of the Year II, for example, a stirring representation of the popular uprising; or the astonishing allegorical invention by Jean-Jacques Forty, The Peoples of the World Paying Homage to the Supreme Being, which features, in the foreground of an elaborate setting taken directly from Raphael’s School of Athens, a group of blacks celebrating their release from slavery with an impassioned dance. Equally impressive are the elaborate allegorical triptychs by Belle père and fils, the first an Allegory of the Republic, the second an Allegory of the Revolution, both originally intended as tapestry cartoons and then transformed into Revolutionary paintings for the Jury of Arts of 1794.

The final division of the third section of the exhibition, “Artistic Creation Under the Revolution,” featured the winners of the various competitions and prix d’encouragement sponsored by the revolutionary government. Without the help of any sort of explanatory panels, however, it was completely impossible to discern any relationship whatever among the various paintings, drawings and sculptures on view. In some cases, even identifying labels were missing, so that one had to plumb the depths of one’s mythological memory to figure out that the huge melodramatic canvas dominating the salle, representing what seemed to be a wounded hero struggling up a mountain to reach a dead or dying albatross, was actually a prize-winning canvas of Philoctetes by Lethière. This room was practically empty of visitors, and no wonder. Lacking the smallest shred of a story line, the evidence for revolutionary support of painting and sculpture was not merely incomprehensible but positively frustrating. But what was a failure in the gallery space was a great success in the catalogue, which in this case, as in so many others, overshadowed the exhibition. An excellent essay on revolutionary Salons and competitions, in combination with the excellent essay dedicated to revolutionary Salons by Régis Michel in Aux Armes et Aux Arts!, 19 makes vivid sense out of this important and complicated aspect of revolutionary art politics.

Of course, no one exhibition or publication could possibly include the enormous range and variety of visual objects related to the Revolution and, at the same time, make sense of them in terms of their diverse roles in constructing—or deconstructing and challenging—revolutionary consciousness. For this, one would have to consult a wide variety of sources: for the graphic arts, works like Robert Darnton and Daniel Roche’s Revolution in Print, or the excellent exhibition catalogue prepared by the Grunwald Center for the Graphic Arts at UCLA, French Caricature and the French Revolution, 1789-1799; for every aspect of revolutionary art production but prints—painting, sculpture, the Salons, the relation between art and politics, art theory, the museum, revolutionary festivals, interior decoration and the intriguing subject of the continuation of revolutionary mythology in later art—Aux Armes et Aux Arts!, an exemplary publication edited by Philippe Bordes and Régis Michel. 20

If “La Révolution française et l’Europe” was a failure as an exhibition—uncommunicative, confusing, [pq]If “La Révolution française et l’Europe” was a failure as an exhibition, it was nevertheless a gold mine of material for future investigation.[/pq]overloaded with irrelevant material at the outset and lacking in political incisiveness and specificity throughout—it was nevertheless a gold mine of material for future investigation. The catalogue is an unparalleled source of information about the art and objects of the period, not merely in France but in other countries as well.

After spending more than nine hours on three successive days at the Grand Palais, I realized that the exhibition’s greatest virtue—the sheer extensiveness, range and variety of visual material of all levels and qualities and mediums, and the concept of the “total Revolution” which seems to have inspired it—was also the source of its failure, its incoherence as a commemorative event. One could only be overwhelmed rather than instructed by such anarchic diversity and such curatorial silence in the galleries. What emerged, however, despite the confusion and the effective suppression of meaning, was the fact of the intense and relentless politicization of every aspect of visual culture during the period of the Revolution.

“What seizes our attention,” writes Klaus Herding in an introductory catalogue essay which is certainly one of the best texts ever devoted to the subject of art and the French Revolution, “are . . . the revolutionary ideas themselves . . . , the way in which art made them concrete, rendered them accessible and popular, . . . and the astonishing attempts to institute a new popular culture.” 21 This assertion holds as true in the case of a single portrait bust as it does for the most elaborate allegorical representation of revolutionary doctrine. One of the most striking examples is represented by the work of an old, established sculptor, Houdon, whose Portrait of Barnave is indeed “a breath of fresh air,” an expression of populist feeling, to paraphrase Herding. 22 There is certainly something new emanating from this bust—an enormous, ever so slightly canaille sensuality, an immediate impact of the flesh we today associate with a pop star like Mick Jagger or a dancer like Baryshnikov. In short, there is something “sexy” about this persona, to use the term colloquially as it is used today to denote a universally attractive vitality, a carnal arrogance and intuitive grace which owe nothing to traditional modes of decorum or conventional standards of representation. Houdon, in his Barnave, has indeed embodied not merely the ideas of the Revolution, but its deeper, even its repressed, feelings, precisely those that escape rational articulation. And he has done so in a way that still speaks powerfully to us, the children of that society of mass communication founded with such energy and originality 200 years ago.