French Revolutionary Prints as Spectacle


A review of Revolutionary Prints as Spectacle, by Claire Trévien.

Claire Trévien’s dissertation deals with prints produced during the French Revolution, and offers an analysis of the links and interactions between prints and popular theater during that time. The main argument of the dissertation is that printmakers drew inspiration from spectacle in general and theater in particular. The author’s methodology consists of an analysis of both the drawing and the accompanying text, often lyrics of songs, and is grounded on the idea that prints should not be treated as mere illustrations of events but “as a mixture of art and witness” (p. 265). Throughout the dissertation, prints thereby constitute the main object of her analysis, which not only allows her to answer the question of the relationship between prints and theater but also enables her to draw more general conclusions about the Revolution, as prints became “the favoured visual mode of viewing representations of the Revolution” (p. 211).

To the reader, the most obvious interest of this study lies in its subject – the relationship between prints and popular theater – in terms of theater codes being used by printmakers, the subjects being represented, and in terms of the choice of accompanying text. But another interest of this dissertation is the fact that its realization was undertaken as part of an Arts and Humanities Research Council Collaborative Doctoral Award with Waddesdon Manor, and that the author, in collaboration with Paul Davidson, catalogued a collection of 500 Revolutionary prints held at Waddesdon Manor which were then published in four volumes called Tableaux de la Revolution française now available online. This collaboration also led to an exhibition at Waddesdon Manor called A Subversive Art: Prints of the French Revolution.

The first chapter serves as an introduction, with chapters two to five each focusing on a previously neglected aspect of Revolutionary prints by highlighting the role of the theatrical metaphors in prints, as well as the difference between official and non-official prints.

The second chapter of the dissertation, after pointing out the difficulties faced by historians when studying prints, offers an analysis of the interactions between songs and images in prints. The chapter focuses mainly on how printmakers used songs, which were themselves used in theater, in order to communicate their often political messages. Chapter three deals both with the constructions undertaken for the Fête de la Révolution and the presence of the Commedia dell’Arte characters in Revolutionary prints, bringing those two subjects together under the umbrella theme of the “carnivalesque” and its “monde à l’envers” (the world upside down). The author justifies her choice to examine those two subjects under the overall theme of the carnival by arguing that the spontaneous constructions of the Champ de Mars displayed carnivalesque characteristics, such as the idea that disorder created order. The study of those two forms of spectacle also allows the author to question what was considered as patriotism by the contemporary, between rehearsed spectacle and spontaneous fervors. She makes the case that, contrary to the common scholarly argument that the Revolution killed the carnivalesque, it was the subsequent Terror and Napoleonic wars that transformed the monde à l’envers into a “cold and official means of taming a population, unlike its previous unbridled and spontaneous instances” (p. 161). When focusing on the carnival itself, the author links it to the Commedia dell’Arte, justifying this rapprochement with secondary literature linking the two. She goes further and adds that the Commedia was seen as shorthand for the Revolution itself, and goes on to explore how the Commedia transformed in the hands of Revolutionaries and counter-Revolutionaries at various stages of the Revolution.

Chapter four is dedicated to “the spectacle of science” and its depiction in prints. More precisely, the author focuses on the way in which depiction of experimental science in prints provided a commentary on the Revolutionary ideal of “transparency” as well as its attitude to science, with examples drawn from prints representing charlatanism and scientific objects. According to the author, such a study focuses on new elements as, up to now, specific discussions on depictions of science during the Revolution have been restricted to research on magic lanterns. Trévien starts this chapter off with an analysis of charlatanism, which, together with magic, was tied with science in the 18th century. She defines this skepticism for science as a mark of the time as she writes that “fear and intolerance increased with the Revolution with change in the targets of the prints” (p. 173), she also points to a larger fear of conspiracy, expressed in prints as well. She moreover argues that “the figure of the mountebank in prints highlights not only Revolutionary insecurities with appearances and showmanship but also with science” (p. 180).

In this chapter, the author also examines more positive depictions of science in prints, in particular those representing air balloons, which were seen as a potential new medium for Revolutionary war propaganda, enabling the distribution of propaganda material over enemy lines. This chapter concludes itself with the difficulty to assess opinions on science during the Revolution as they varied greatly.

The last chapter of the dissertation focuses on yet another aspect of interactions between spectacle and prints: the depiction of the afterlife, what the author refers to as the “théâtre de l’ombre” (p. 211). The theme of the afterlife was present in both theater and print during the Revolution, with some of the major political figures of the Revolution being praised or demonized by being pictured in heaven or hell. And although death during the Revolution has been extensively studied, in particular through studies of the guillotine, less has been done on representation of the afterlife. The author chapter evolves around the term “ombres,” considered by the author to have two facets as it translates into English as both “shade” and “shadow.” She adds that the term lends itself to the depiction of specters as the term is related to immateriality and visibility. She offers therefore to focus in this chapter on the relationship of ombres to light and on the idea of ombres “as an absent presence in prints and plays” (p. 212). As done in previous chapters, the author extends here the meaning of “plays” to include theater but also opera, and published dialogues and monologues.

When dealing with death, and more particularly the guillotine as the tool that brought death and the afterlife, the author highlights the fascination of contemporaries with the concern with the severed head not immediately dying. This fascination led to representation in prints of headless characters in the afterlife and depictions of the dead haunting the living, both positively and in more negative ways. The link between public execution and theater is not an obvious one as, if the Ancient Regime’s executions were spectacles organized by the royalty, during the Revolution this idea was put to rest and the spectacle aspects of public beheadings were discussed and criticized among contemporaries.

The author’s conclusion, that “prints were an alternative stage of the Revolution” and that they “became a space of performance permeated with the language of theatre” (p. 269) who could themselves be performed, especially when lyrics were accompanying them, is one that will undoubtedly enrich research on the Revolution, on theater studies and of art history in general.

Elise Wintz
Cluster of Excellence, “Religion and Politics”
University of Münster

Primary Sources

Bibliothèque nationale de France, collection de Vinck
Bibliothèque nationale de France, collection Hennin
British Museum
Waddesdon Manor

Dissertation Information

University of Warwick. 2012. 355 pp. Primary Advisor: Katherine Astbury.

Image: L.J. Masquelier, after J.M. Moreau le jeune, “Mirabeau arrive aux Champs Élisées,” etching and engraving, 1792, Voltaire Foundation.

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