Review of Time, Media, & Visuality in Post-Revolutionary France
Bloomsbury, London, UK, 2021
280 pp., illus. 61 b/w, 32 col. Trade, £85; epub and PDF, £76.50
ISBN: 9781501348396; ISBN: 9781501348402; ISBN: 9781501348419.
This book is a delight, and it would be a pity to think that it is only of interest for cultural historians, more specifically for specialists interested in the immediate aftermath of the French Revolution (roughly speaking the first half of the nineteenth Century). What Iris Moon and Richard Taws have managed to do in this exemplarily edited collection is a fascinating attempt to analyze the artistic and cultural changes produced by a historical political and ideological disruption (actually, when reading this book, which covers a very wide range of visual techniques and media, one does not have the impression to read a collection of essays, but a single-handed monograph). The French Revolution remains the prototypical example of such a moment that turned the world upside down, while the post-revolutionary period, actually a sequence of politically very different forms of “restoration”, is no less the perfect illustration of how a society tries to find a new balance after such a traumatizing transformation. The term of “restoration” may indeed be applied to more than just the period following the fall of Napoleon in 1815 until the July Revolution of 1830: Napoleon’s Empire, which consolidated many of the Revolution’s principles, was also a return of certain forms of pre-Revolutionary society, while the reign of Louis-Philippe, the “Citizen-King” (1830-1848), did affirm the power of the upper-bourgeoisie at the expense of the Ancien Régime aristocracy but was also a further step in the reduction of Revolutionary freedom.
In the field of visual culture, the Revolution both reinforced ongoing changes, such as the blurring of boundaries between fine arts and mechanical arts, and shaped a completely new cultural environment by the abolition of old hierarchies and professional structures (academies, exhibition venues, state sponsorship, etc.). In the Revolutionary years, the title of “artist” was no longer the outcome of a royal privilege, financially profitable for all those who could get it but aesthetically and politically restrictive (for instance via the imposition of a strict genre hierarchy, with history painting on top, genre painting at a lower step and decorative arts at the very margins of the system). It was opened instead to all those who believed to have enough talent, imagination, and energy to exhibit their works, something they could do now in venues that were until strictly reserved to the happy few of the state-sponsored and state-controlled of the academies. Yet this radical change did not only generate an increased competition, it also took place in a context where artists had to sell their work to new patrons—no longer the State or the Church, but private and generally less-spending customers who were also interested in different, generally smaller objects for home decoration— and to use new techniques and materials, a result of the vanishing boundaries between fine arts and applied arts.
Time, Media and Visuality focuses on the relation between “media” and “visuality”, as shown for example in asset of outstanding case studies of the use of surprising techniques and materials shaping a new world of visual culture in which the distinction between “high” and “low” totally disappears (I did not know for instance that the copy of famous masterpieces with the help of porcelain painting was seen in the official Restoration period as the best possible way to create what we would call today a museum without walls). But the book does much more than that. On top of all the fascinating information and new insights brought by the exploration of generally understudied if not simply ignored visual artists and art forms (and each chapter of the book learns a lot on hardly acknowledged forms and aspects of the visual culture of that era), all essays offer highly thought-provoking ideas on the temporal dimension of art.
In this book, the link between visual art and history is mainly tackled from two points of view. First of all, the contributors do not only show how post-revolutionary artists, artistic practices, and techniques as well as the resulting works take a stance toward the Revolution, which after all is quite unsurprising (an animal painter suddenly moving from the tradition of still life and hunting scenes to the portrait painting of a lion family in the Republican zoo, the heir of the Royal menagerie, is of course a painter who tells us something on the issue of “bestiality” during the years of Terror as well as on the position of the “lion king” after the return of the monarchs). They also hint at something less banal: the overlap of very different relationships with past, present and future, as shown for instance in the intertwining and simultaneity of progressive feelings and nostalgia, of optimism and fear, of a terrible sense of loss and the pride of a new beginning.
Second, Time, Media and Visuality also challenges the simplifying teleological view of artistic progress, as constructed by later histories of modernity which emphasize the abolition of old privileges as a first step toward the progressive emergence of the modern artist as social bohemian and revolutionary thinker. The success of this modernist history, which continues to be hegemonic in contemporary art history, is in danger of projecting today’s ideas and convictions on past situations and events that obey a different logic. This logic is not that of the Modernist Grant Narrative but that of the constraints and opportunities of an era that is at the same time much more modern than we thought (as seen for example in its radical deconstruction of the high versus low divide), but also much more different (as revealed by the presence of value systems and new hierarchies totally unrelated to current conceptions).
Let me repeat it: a real delight. Time, Media and Visuality is brilliantly composed and written, with great essays on a wide range of topics that put forward new objects and well as new ideas. It is also excellently illustrated, with a gallery of color plates that represent a kind of alternative art history. And it encourages us to rethink the relationships between art, technology, and politics in other periods of historical turmoil and subsequent (partial and not always successful) restoration.