Paris in Despair: Art and Everyday Life under Siege (1870-1871).

Author:Wright, Alastair
Position:Book Reviews - Book Review


Paris in Despair: Art and Everyday Life under Siege (1870-1871)

Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002. 472 pp.; 36 color ills., 181 b/w. $55.00


Manet, Flaubert, and the Emergence of Modernism: Blurring Genre Boundaries

Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003. 371 pp.; 9 color ills., 85 b/w. $90.00


Dream States: Puvis de Chavannes, Modernism, and the Fantasy of France

New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002. 255 pp.; 24 color ills., 31 b/w. $50.00

On Friday, December 2, 1870, Edouard Manet wrote to his wife, Suzanne, "Yesterday I was at the battle that took place between Bry and Champigny. What a bacchanal! The shells went off over our heads from all sides!" (quoted in Clayson, p. 214). Betraying little of Manet's trademark nonchalance--note the repeated exclamation points--the letter signals instead something less expected: the artist's active involvement, in the closing months of 1870, in the Franco-Prussian War. Against the myth of Manet as detached ironist, this is Manet as engaged citizen, a man who attended political rallies in the capital and who signed up for the National Guard to defend Paris following the collapse of the Second Empire. The note also reveals--and this is both expected and at the same time quite odd--a man reading the war through the filter of his own art historical imagination, a painter experiencing battle as bacchanal. Perhaps he recalled, as he watched the fighting unfold before him, the scattered and intertwined bodies of Titian's Andrians, seen some five years earlier in Madrid, or the stormy sky of Nicolas Poussin's Bacchanale, housed in the Musee du Louvre, Paris. If so, the mismatch between the pictorial language of these bacchanals and the reality of the siege of Paris is striking. If Manet the painter of the museum meets Manet the painter of modern life, if an artistic intelligence saturated by the history of painting here faces up to the events of its time, the encounter produces a strangely dissonant analogy between art and reality, an analogy whose insufficiency speaks to the difficulty of picturing the war, of imagining how artistic traditions might be retooled to answer to this modern scene.

Manet's incongruous turn of phrase raises a series of questions: How did artists seek to represent, and with what success, the forms of modernity--its particular conditions of warfare, say? How was tradition altered and deformed in the process? And how did modernism emerge from this field? It is to such questions that Clayson attends, taking as her subject the ways in which the Prussian siege of Paris in 1870 and 1871 was figured in the arts. It is striking, as she notes, that a catastrophic event, and one, moreover, that took place in the city that stood at the heart of the European art world, is generally assumed to have left little trace in the artistic record. The same cannot be said of other struggles that marked the capital. The revolutions of 1789, 1830, and 1848 were each accompanied by significant artistic developments, and art histories of those earlier moments invariably place artists and historical events in close contact. Yet histories of the art of the early 1870s--most notably, early Impressionism--give a decidedly secondary role (if any) to the events that shook Paris at the start of the decade. The war, as Clayson observes, remains "an obscure conflict without celebrity in the annals of modern art" (p. 4). Her goal is to remove some of that obscurity (equally noteworthy, though not addressed here, is the absence of the Commune from so many standard art histories).

To this end, Clayson brings to light a wide and at times apparently inexhaustible range of visual material, much of which has rarely been studied. (1) We are introduced, for example, to a series of thirty-six paintings by lesser-known artists that represent, in conventional Salon naturalist style, a number of episodes from the war and siege. Commissioned by the little-known entrepreneur A. Binant and displayed at the Durand-Ruel gallery toward the end of 1871 (a useful reminder that such works circulated in the familiar sites of avantgarde exhibition, though Durand-Ruel himself, not yet back in Paris after the fighting, probably had no hand in the show), the series allows Clayson to set the historical scene and also to advance what will be her central thesis: that if the war had an impact on the arts, it was less in the shape of battle paintings than in the ways in which images reflected the changed rhythms of everyday life in a city under siege. For Parisians, the fighting was almost always at a distance, often heard but rarely seen. Privation was the primary experience, punctuated only rarely--and only late in the siege--by sporadic shelling of the city; the siege was suffered not as combat but as an endless stasis and as an ongoing disruption of the habits of daily life. Urban spaces came to be occupied in different ways as "[t]he conventional (the expected) symbiotic link between the spaces and practices of metropolitan modernity, leisure, and consumption was ruptured" (p. 12). It is this rupture that Clayson sets out to map, sifting through the visual material for evidence of the remaking of life in the city. In the Binant series, for example, she spies amid its endless crowd scenes a number of recurrent figures: first, the middle-class citizen laying claim to the space of the boulevard in an effort to hold at bay the wider public who, during the siege, increasingly impinged on what had become the privileged realm of bourgeois self-display under the Second Empire (exhibited after the fall of the Commune, the series probably also betrays a desire to take the boulevards back from the workers who had briefly held control); second, soldiers and women, whose appearance reflects what Clayson calls "new and thoroughly contingent forms of Parisian city-scape" (p. 42). The appearance of these new social actors on the stage of the Parisian boulevard, would--this is one of her larger claims--leave its mark in the ways in which the city came to be represented in French painting in the years following the siege.

With this argument in place, Clayson devotes the first half of the book to examining in detail how the war altered the terms of everyday life for the Parisians. She reproduces a vast array of prints and occasional paintings depicting the blockading of the city, the interaction between civilians and soldiers, the notorious food crisis (with its well-known images of elephants and rats in butchers' shop-windows), and so forth. Many of the images are straightforward illustrations of life in the sequestered city and require little interpretation; others are given a closer reading. Clayson is interested in how artistic conventions themselves flexed under the pressure of the siege. Shifting assumptions about gender and the role of women in public life, for example, are shown to have influenced the diverse allegories of Paris that represented the city as either a decadent or a robust woman (and very occasionally as a man) acquiescing to or resisting the advances of the Prussians. Such images, Clayson argues, were a way of controlling women, of keeping them in their place at a time when they were beginning to play a more prominent role in public life. In satirical prints of political leaders, too, traditional forms were put to new uses and given new gender inflections. At times Clayson's readings are a little belabored: the meanings of such prints are for the most part clear and demand little amplification (we hardly need four or so pages explaining that images that feminized Adolphe Thiers, the despised head of the republican government, were intended to insult him). Nevertheless, Clayson has uncovered a rich trove of material and furnished a thoroughly charted contextual framework within which to read it.

If the first half of the book manifests an interest in decidedly noncanonical works and shows little interest in those who produced them, the second half signals a shift in approach, directing our attention toward specific artists who are for the most part better known (though not always: the sculptor Jean-Alexandre-Joseph Falguiere, hardly a regular fixture in art historical accounts, here has a chapter to himself). Clayson justifies this approach in the opening chapter to the book, announcing that she will "rely less upon some of the procedures and assumptions usually employed in a social history of art, especially the view that artists are exemplars of a collectivity, usually of a social class" (assumptions to which she has herself, as she says, long been sympathetic) and that she will instead concentrate on "the agency of artists as individuals" (pp. 6-7). The call for a renewed attention to the individual is one that is heard increasingly in recent art historical writing, and it has its merits--in particular when it allows us to get closer to the material conditions under which works of art are produced. One might question to what degree that happens here. Although we are given copious biographical information, the book tends at times toward what the Russian formalists dismissed as the "did-Pushkin-smoke" school of literary analysis: every fact about an artist's life during the period of the siege is detailed, but it is not always clear what purchase the exhaustive biographies have on Clayson's readings of the images. This is so in part because the "individuals" who emerge from her account are rather uniform. Each manifests similar symptoms, notably, anxiety, discomfort, and a disruption of work habits. Though Clayson declares her "frustration with the neglect of artistic individuality in the work of some social and political art historians" (p. 7), that neglect reappears here in altered form: one...

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