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Review of Richard Clay’s Iconoclasm in Revolutionary Paris

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Richard Clay seems to be destined to divide academics. His clear-sighted BBC documentary, The French Revolution – Tearing up History drew criticism for being too populist and over-eager to draw comparisons between revolutionary Paris and contemporary events. However, these same detractors should prove eager to read his densely written and meticulously researched monograph, Iconoclasm in Revolutionary Paris.

Clay’s book is an invaluable addition to French Revolutionary historiography, examining through a semiotic lens the ways in which iconoclasm was represented, created, championed and opposed across the spectrum. It aims to raise the status of Parisians ‘who have been condemned as barbarians by previous historians’ (5), by demonstrating that their behaviour was based on a sophisticated understanding of the symbolic power of these representational objects in relation to the public space they occupied. In Clay’s hands, iconoclasm is shown to be both an act of creative destruction and the securer of Revolutionary civilisation. Clay demonstrates throughout a refreshingly egalitarian approach to sources, whether verbal, textual, or visual, to observe the tensions between official and non-official attempts to gain control over iconoclastic actions.

The study is largely chronological, considering acts of iconoclasm on a year to year basis from 1789-1795, and richly illustrated by mostly prints. The range of representational objects covered, as well as the diversity of decoding and recoding methods employed, are impressive – from the Barrière de la Conférence which was looted and burned, its marble representation of Normandy decapitated, to the destruction of coats of arms on buildings. Particularly fascinating is Clay’s section on post-thermidorian reactions to the iconoclasm of the Terror, demonstrating how revolutionary iconoclasm could be utilised not only as an example of revolutionary excess, but also as a means of mediation between politically and religiously diverse communities. Clay’s insistence on the polyvalent and polysemic nature of the statues of kings is another highlight of this book, demonstrating the impossibility for any authority to take full possession of any iconoclastic action.

Iconoclasm in revolutionary Paris ends on a curiously apologetic footnote, in which Clay explains the various ways in which the book might have been improved had he had the ‘time, energy and intellectual capacity’. He certainly seems to be lacking in neither energy or intellect, and one can only hope that he will pursue further the avenues he’s outlined, particularly the suggestion to study iconoclasm within a ‘more detailed consideration of sections’ demographic’ (282). Iconoclasm remains as pertinent today as it did then, with the erasure of the ancient city of Dur Sharrukin, or the debate surrounding the Rhodes statue, Clay’s book not only addresses an important aspect of French revolutionary history but should encourage further critical elaboration on how different kinds of vandalism shed light on the processes of history.

Dramatic finances: Jacques Necker etched as a charlatan

I have a bit of a twisted fascination for Revolutionary characters that suffer a dramatic downfall after a large amount of popularity. One of these is three times minister of finances Jacques Necker who, frankly, did not have the easiest ride. His infamous Compte rendu au roi (1781) was a document in which Necker manipulated the accounts to present a more positive image of finances. Through this, he gained a tremendous amount of popularity, sometimes depicted as a saviour of France (there was an outcry when he was dismissed on 11 July 1789, just before the storming of the Bastille). By 1790, however, it was clear that he was not up to the task and his popularity evaporated.

I want to draw attention to two prints from 1790 which depict Necker as a charlatan. They’re part of a much wider trend of prints that are fascinated with the concept of unmasking (but that’s a whole other story).

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The first print is called ‘Et ne devrait-on pas à̀ des signes certains reconnaitre le cœur des perfides humains’ (1790). The title comes from lyrics taken from Act 4 scene 2 of Rachine’s Phèdre, which immediately adds a dramatic layer to the image.

(roughly, it translates as ‘and shouldn’t we recognize from certain signs the deceitful hearts of humans’)

This etching was an illustration in the book Necker jugé par le tribunal de la lanterne (1790), people must have been a bit confused about it as an explanation was also printed (translation mine):

We read the following: “The King accuses Necker of quackery. In his anger, he flipped the table on which were the instruments, such as cups, nutmegs, wand, etc. The gaze of the king is mingled with indignation and surprise, and he looks ready to burst out in anger against Necker. Necker is depicted with the charlatan apron. He wears a hand to his forehead to mark his humiliation, and the other to his heart, and seems to say to the king “ah! Sire, if you knew my heart!” Through one of his eyes, a mocking laugh escapes, which shows that this adventurer trusts the king’s weakness. A deity embraces with one hand a gallows, and on the other, she directs the rays of the lantern to the chest of Necker, where we see snakes emanate, symbols of the passions that animate this minister. The figure of the deity seems to laugh to mark the joy she feels at having unveiled the heart of this false and corrupt man. Both verses that are at the bottom of the print, are ideally suited to the subject. The French should not regret to have not known sooner the uselessness and vices of this minister, that they had adored so blindly.”[1]

The lantern was used very frequently in 1790 prints, in part because this word has a double meaning, referring on the one hand to the illuminations of a magic lantern, and on the other to lynching. Both senses are used here.

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Let’s look at another print, ‘Compte Rendu au roy’, which was published in May 1790 in the Révolutions de France et de Brabant of Camille Desmoulins. The image is without a legend, but earlier in the newspaper, the following appears (my translation again): ‘Necker asked again on Monday for 20 million […] he is always asking for money […] we ask him for accounts, accounts, and he never hands in his accounts […] I demand that […]  Necker the charlatan should be arrested.’[2]

This print is less obvious than the previous one in its satire, until you look at the framed text in the background (‘New way to regenerate France: borrow 1774 / borrow 1775 / borrow 1776 […] product of these operations: deficit’). In the foreground Necker makes a game out of the accounts – but it looks like the king is not convinced.

For now, at least, artists are still willing to give Louis XVI the benefit of the doubt.

Charlatans, as the ultimate manipulators, are no strangers to brutal reversals of fortunes, and Necker’s own iconographical evolution deserves its own study, alongside the more popular Marat, Mirabeau, or Louis XVI.

[1] BNF, De Vinck, 1396.

[2] 7 mai 1790, p. 539.