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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.