The iconography of the Paris Commune, 150 years later


In the last weeks of May 1871, French President Adolphe Thiers ordered soldiers to ravage the Paris Commune, resulting in massacres throughout the city. Seven days of repression by the bourgeois government culminated in the execution by the Versailles army of the remaining Communards against a stone wall in the Père Lachaise cemetery. More than 20,000 Parisians were killed during The bloody week (or Bloody Week) and 45,000 people were imprisoned, many of whom were subsequently executed or exiled. Thus ended the first fully formed proletarian state in modern history.

Louise Michel, leader of the Montmartre Women’s Vigilance Committee, wrote that “blood flowed in the rivers of every arrondissement taken by Versailles. In each place, the soldiers did not stop their carnage until they were satisfied, like wild beasts. Artists living in Paris have documented the bloodshed they witnessed. Paintings, drawings and photos from the era tell a story of revolution, counterinsurgency and mass destruction in just 72 days.

B. Moloch, Barricade in Place Blanche, defended by women during Bloody Week (c. 19th century), lithograph

Unlike the bourgeois revolution of 1789, the Commune began as an uprising of workers who had lost confidence in the National Assembly of landowners and capitalists. The Franco-Prussian war, fought over royal alliances and territory, had led the Prussians to rout the French army and besiege Paris. Food shortages and massive inflation resulted, exacerbating poor living conditions. When a new wave of protests drove Thiers and the bourgeoisie from Paris, the workers’ associations seized the means of production and resumed their activities in the factories closed by their owners. From March to May 1871, the Commune quickly deconstructed what was left of the Second French Empire by redistributing resources, separating Church and State, promoting free and accessible education, lowering government salaries, fixing term limits and separating the police from political power.

Ernest Charles Appert, Group of men in front of the remains of the Vendôme column shot down by the Communards on May 16, 1871, Paris (1st arrondissement) (1872), photograph

A photograph by Ernest Charles Appert shows Communards standing in front of the collapsed Vendôme Column, a monument of the First French Empire under Napoleon. This highly symbolic gesture accompanied the burning of the guillotine, marking a break with the blind violence of the 18th century. The Commune transferred economic and military power to wealthy elites and made positions of authority revocable for politicians, soldiers and police. The flight of private landlords reduced violence and petty crime in the city, as described by Karl Marx in Civil war in France.

The artists questioned what gives landowners the right to control and privatize art, laying out plans for decentralized practices separate from bourgeois nationalism. In mid-April, a coalition of artists including Gustave Courbet and Eugène Pottier – the lyricist of the workers’ anthem “The Internationale” – published a series of proposals for a new paradigm of public art. The Manifesto of the Federation of Artists of the Paris Commune called for entrusting artists with the management of their own interests, to establish common modalities of accountability and promotion of the public’s right to culture, all maintained by a committee elected at Universal suffrage.

The women of the Commune pleaded against the imperial heteropatriarchal order, taking up arms alongside the men and fighting for better working conditions. Socialist illustrator B. Moloch depicted French women defending a barricade in Place Blanche during Bloody Week. The workers of Paris were the first to seize the guns of the National Guard in March and prevent them from firing. They sewed and stacked barricades and fought Versailles troops while treating the wounded, leading to a new public image based on autonomy and leadership. A lithograph by W. Aléxis is one example: a woman waves a red flag and looks disdainfully at the hideous caricatures of Thiers and the German Emperor William I.

W. Alexis, Paris (1871), lithograph

The rise of socialist feminism has also provoked reactionary representations in some political cartoons. Pictures of the petroleum spread among anti-communal propaganda, which accused peasant women of having burnt down major government buildings such as the Town Hall and the Tuileries Palace. These buildings were in fact more likely cremated by male Commune soldiers, revealing how women’s empowerment inspired political misogyny. Some artists have represented the oil with admiration, while others were more obscene and degraded. Many have adapted their resemblance to the mythical Marianne of the Revolution of 1789. This stereotype undoubtedly contributed to the demonization and mass execution of female Communards.

Ferdinand Lefman, The Barricade (circa 1871), lithograph

Indecision led to stagnation and infighting among the Blanquists and Prudhonists – who roughly represented the socialist and anarchist tendencies of the Commune, as respective followers of Louis-Auguste Blanqui and Pierre-Joseph Proudhon – ultimately allowing to the French bourgeoisie to retake the city by force. German leader Otto von Bismarck agreed to help the government at Versailles, freeing more than 100,000 French soldiers imprisoned to aid in the counter-revolution. Together, the German and French armies surrounded Paris, besieging the Commune.

Maximilien Lucé, A street in Paris in May 1871 (1903-1906), oil on canvas

Anarchist artist Maximilien Luce painted slaughtered Communards in shades of deep blue. Édouard Manet, André Devambez and Gustave Boulanger each created visceral battle scenes. Manet’s brother, Gustave, worked in the League of Republican Rights of Paris (Republican League of Rights of Paris), which unsuccessfully attempted to forge a peaceful resolution. Edward, who also identified himself as a Republican, was not in Paris in March or April, but arrived in time to witness the destruction of the Commune and the corpses scattered throughout the city. Two of his lithographs from this period, the barricade and Civil war, use sparse line art and shadows to convey their gravity. While Manet was not a staunch supporter of the Commune, these drawings reveal his own conciliationism and his sympathies with the victims.

Edouard Manet, Civil war (1871-1873), lithograph

Since its disappearance, the Commune has remained an influence for artists and revolutionaries around the world. In 1883, Russian artist Ilya Repin painted a memorial near the Communards’ Wall, with a large crowd stretching out of the frame. During the Cultural Revolution, the Chinese Communist Party proposed to establish a democratic electorate with open discussions in the style of the Commune. Vladimir Lenin made comparisons between Napoleonic France and pre-revolution Russia in 1908. Lenin then danced in the snow after the Bolshevik revolution passed 72 days – the length of the Commune’s existence.

Ilya Repin, The Annual Commemorative Meeting near the Communards’ Wall at the Père-Lachaise Cemetery in Paris (1883), oil on canvas

The Paris Commune remains a hot topic of political debate, yet art criticism is sorely lacking. The left-wing media tend to channel their analysis towards party and state politics, but as the philosopher Alain Badiou explains, its real lessons lie in its application to the current revolutionary experience: within 40 years, young Republicans and the fall of two monarchies and an empire. These works of art may not receive as much attention as the well-known Impressionist and Post-Impressionist movements that followed, but the liberal jokes of the Third Republic would never have materialized without the radical coup that introduced new ways. to think.

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