Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
August 19, 2009
Hubertus Kohle and Rolf Reichardt Visualizing the Revolution: Politics and Pictorial Arts in Late Eighteenth-Century France London: Reaktion Books, 2008. 240 pp.; 30 color ills.; 156 b/w ills. Cloth $45.00 (9781861893123)

In his pioneering study Understanding Media of 1964, Marshall McLuhan credited Alexis de Tocqueville with discovering in the French Revolution evidence that “the medium is the message.” The “highly literate aristocrat,” wrote McLuhan, had recognized that the Revolution would never have happened had print culture not unified the nation, enabling the conditions for a national uprising (Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, New York: McGraw-Hill, 1964, 14–15). Typography had homogenized France. In contrast, England’s entrenched feudal traditions and the discrete complexities of its oral culture had immunized the nation from the standardizing effects of print and the potential for an English Revolution. Consequently, remarked McLuhan, “the most important event in English history has never taken place.”

Among the strengths of Visualizing the Revolution: Politics and Pictorial Arts in Late Eighteenth-Century France—an ambitious new study co-authored by the historian Rolf Reichardt and the art historian Hubertus Kohle—is the compelling case it makes that prints comprised the art form par excellence of the age, less because of their representational force than because of the special capacity of the medium to embody the “message” of the Revolution. Published in newspapers, sold by street vendors, pirated, re-worked and re-circulated, printed pictures—particularly mass-produced etchings—asserted the new-found and irrepressible power of the many over the few, of the multiple over the singular. Prints, more than illustrating the events of the Revolution, decisively shaped them. Following the king’s ill-fated flight to Varennes on 21 June 1791 and his family’s enforced return to the capital, for instance, royalists reported that “disgusting caricatures flooded Paris . . . disseminated in greater quantities” than had theretofore been witnessed; “villainously prejudicial to the royal majesty,” they spread “public rumours . . . with inconceivable speed” (74–75). It was only a matter of time before prints, in effect, brought down the monarchy.

Visualizing the Revolution is the collaborative work of two prominent German scholars of the French Revolution, and its title signals its place in a trajectory of revisionist studies that have focused on the relationship between Revolutionary culture and politics (one thinks of Joan B. Landes’s Visualizing the Nation: Gender, Representation, and Revolution in Eighteenth-Century France, Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2001; and James A. W. Heffernan’s Representing the French Revolution: Literature, Historiography and Art, Hanover, NH: University Press of New England, 1992) in the wake of François Furet’s Interpreting the Revolution, first published in France in 1978 (Interpreting the French Revolution, trans. Elborg Forster, Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 1981). The co-authored volume extends the work of such scholars of the Revolution as Michel Vovelle, Lynn Hunt, Antoine de Baecque, James Leith, and Claude Langlois (not to mention Reichardt, most notably in Die Bildpublizistik der Französischen Revolution, co-authored with Klaus Herding [Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1989], and The Bastille: A History of a Symbol of Despotism and Freedom, co-authored with Hans-Jürgen Lüsebrink [trans. Norbert Schürer, Durham: Duke University, 1997]; Kohle, who has written several untranslated books on Revolutionary France, is perhaps best known among Anglo-American art historians for such articles as “From the Theatrical to the Aesthetic Hero: On the Privatization of the Idea of Virtue in David’s Brutus and Sabines,” co-authored with Stefan Germer [Art History 9, no. 2 (1986): 168–84]).

What distinguishes Visualizing the Revolution from its predecessors is its offering of what the authors describe as “a new cultural history”—one concerned with melding historiography and aesthetics (9). A rejoinder both to historians who instrumentalize artworks as illustrations and to art historians who favor high art forms largely to the exclusion of popular ones (the relevant example, the authors note, being Philippe Bordes and Régis Michel’s Aux armes & aux arts ! Les arts de la Révolution, 1789–1799 [Paris : Adam Biro, 1988], Reichardt and Kohle’s debts to this 1988 anthology not withstanding), the book proposes a third way: namely, a synthetic treatment of the Revolution’s sprawling visual culture, from paintings, sculpture, architecture, and urban planning projects to prints, medallions, faience, and board games. Tracking the resonances, the common patterns, between diverse media, Reichardt and Kohle claim that all the arts operated in tandem and must be viewed as “interrelated and in mutual support” (32); yet to their credit, the authors are as concerned with the conflicts between high and low—between the elite and the popular—as with the continuities, and thus the story they tell is fundamentally about the inner struggles of the Third Estate as it seized the stage of history.

Reichardt and Kohle, then, bring to their material an approach informed not by the criteria of art history but rather by the structural logic of the Revolution; the frictions between the two, suggest the authors, go a long way toward accounting for what they call art history’s “blind spot” when it comes to much French art of the 1790s (8). Coincident with the overthrow of the social hierarchy, low art forms trumped high ones in their capacity to promote the Revolution, not only because of their availability to a mass audience but also for their ability to keep pace with the swiftly changing events of the day. In contrast, most projects initiated by painters, sculptors, and architects were never completed or else doomed to destruction. Such grounds for the authors’ dethronement of the high and elevation of the low will be familiar to readers acquainted with such famously unrealized works as Jacques-Louis David’s Oath of the Tennis Court (1791) and Jacques-Guillaume Legrand and Jacques Molinos’s proposal for a new parliament building (1792–93).

Less customary, however, is the explanation offered by the authors for why scholars of Revolutionary art are ill served by considerations of originality and innovation. The ultimate import of Revolutionary artworks, the book implicitly argues, lay not in what they meant but rather in what they did: propagandize the principles of the Revolution through maximally powerful visual messages. It was not the aesthetic quality of Revolutionary artworks that made them significant so much as their crystallization of the modes of mass distribution and dissemination that permitted the Revolution to progress—which is why popular prints, as the authors repeatedly show, comprised the quintessential art of their time. Far from fashioning their printed pictures as vehicles for originality and innovation, printmakers mined the potential of ready-made motifs, with their accumulated meanings, to compound their works’ impact. The industry of graphic satires depicting the aristocracy as a hydra, for instance, would never have achieved its potency had not the proto-Romantic artist Jean-Louis Desprez devoted an unforgettable engraving in 1770 to the subject of a chimera—an image that, two decades later, migrated across media, emblazoning almanacs and fans alike. Likewise, the female personification of Liberty was calculated to absorb the sentiments aroused by the Christian Mary.

Indeed, printed motifs operated in a manner akin to words: their meanings changed depending on their contexts. A print featuring the destruction of the Bastille stars a saber-wielding emissary of the Third Estate vanquishing the hydra of despotism. The same heroic figure, transposed to different settings, was soon employed to champion such causes as the reduction of taxes and the repeal of feudal laws. What qualified prints to provide an always up-to-date barometer of the times was the fungibility of the medium: by reworking the copper plate, the widow of the printmaker Vincenzo Vangelisti turned his Monument to the Glory of Louis XVI (1789)—a print published in the joyous days following the meeting of the Estates-General—into The Triumph of Liberty a few weeks later, once the National Assembly announced itself to be the new sovereign. The logic of Revolutionary art, then, was one not of radical rupture but rather of substitution, inversion, and transference.

In short, Visualizing the Revolution shifts attention away from the notion of the singular artwork to examine the standardization of the principles of art making. Its treatment of David—one of the few major painters to be discussed—offers a case in point. In keeping with the authors’ interest in bringing works of different media (and of different levels on the artistic hierarchy) into connection with one another, The Death of Marat (1793)—a painting that elsewhere has been identified with the advent of Modernism—is here placed in dialogue with a 1791 print featuring Voltaire’s funerary procession, produced in the workshop of Paul-André Basset. What painting and print share is an interest in unifying their fractured audiences—in bridging the gap between high and low—contend the authors, once more underscoring that the literal effect of the artworks in question supersedes the matter of their content. David’s painting, we are reminded, fused elements of a Christianity still clung to by the masses with Classicizing overtones that gratified the secular sensibilities of the middle and upper classes, just as surely as the canvas coupled realism and idealism.

This dream of creating a naturally harmonious, universal society innocent of social divisiveness—as well as the impossibility of its realization—took perhaps its most famous expression in David’s unfinished Death of Bara (1794), with its depiction of a body devoid even of the markings of genital difference. For Reichardt and Kohle, such a work—along with Marat—is symptomatic of the difference-dissolving hybridity of Revolutionary art. Just as the reincarnation of the church of Sainte-Geneviève into the Panthéon wed the Graeco-Roman past with Catholic tradition, so too did painters like David create artworks that collapsed the boundaries between genres. Of a piece with Marat’s combination of “history painting, portraiture and reportage” is Louis-Léopold Boilly’s The Flag-bearer at the Festival of the Liberation of the Savoyens, from 1792–93 (166). The painting—a mix of “portrait, genre and history painting”—is effectively employed by the authors at the start of chapter 5, detailing how the arts of the Revolution together supported the elimination of social categories and the fashioning of a “New Man” (152).

This wonderfully illustrated—if not always felicitously translated—book suffers from the dilution of its argument about Revolutionary aesthetics to the extent that it assumes, at times, the labor of a survey textbook; indeed, its chapters bear such benign and expansive titles as “Contemporary Images of Revolutionary Change,” “Reorganizing the Artistic Sphere,” and “Scenes of the New Political and Cultural Order.” Yet the narrative is enlivened by the authors’ adept tracking of the tensions not only between the ranks of artists as well as of audiences but also between the ideals of the Revolution and its means. Thus the second chapter’s discussion of the free-flowing energies of satirical prints contrasts nicely with what the authors describe in the third chapter as the totalitarian impulses—harbingers of the Terror—detectable in the Revolution’s efforts to bring about equality and transparency. In chapters 4 and 5, respectively, the pedagogical aspirations of the Revolution are juxtaposed with the realities of the marketplace, and institutional agendas with the desires of artists for creative license. Chapter 6 examines visual meditations on the Terror and its aftermath executed by artists on either side of the political spectrum. The above, it should be noted, represents only a sampling of the subjects explored in the chapters, which proceed chronologically as well as thematically.

While the authors are to be commended for the wealth of visual evidence they present, equally noteworthy is the book’s underlying provocation to the art historian: namely, that to prioritize the individual aesthetic achievement of works of Revolutionary art is to lose sight of their participation in a collective political project. One wishes that such a bold yet debatable thesis had been brought into greater relief. Many of the most suggestive moments in the book appear in the introduction and first two chapters, where the novelty of the method and the fruitfulness of its application seem most pronounced. Not coincidentally, these pages focus primarily on prints, toward which the authors confess (and justify) a bias. Though prints remain at the heart of the study, as the objects in question become more numerous—and, inevitably, the territory ventured into more familiar—the vigor of the argument withers. Appropriately so, perhaps, as such sapping of energy parallels the authors’ account of the progressive disenchantment of the ideals of the Revolution. Still, from beginning to end, the book navigates admirably between the dynamics of the Revolution and the vast array of objects that “visualized” them. Historians and art historians alike of eighteenth-century France will no doubt receive the volume as a welcome contribution to the field and, perhaps most of all, as a pedagogical resource. Moreover, readers more accustomed to French and Anglo-American scholarship on the Revolution than to the German literature in the field will likely appreciate the book’s fresh perspective on its subject.

Nina Dubin
Associate Professor, Department of Art History, University of Illinois at Chicago