Rebecca Geoffroy-Schwinden, ‘Politics, the French Revolution, and Performance: Parisian Musicians as an Emergent Professional Class, 1749-1802’, Thesis, Duke University, 2015

This term’s reading group was dedicated to the notion of the ‘emergence of a professional class’, for which Jonathan chose Rebecca Geoffroy-Schwinden’s recent doctoral thesis. The aim of this session was to help us think about this phenomenon within our own Revolutionary artistic communities at the centre of our research.

 

We agreed that this was a conceptually useful and stimulating approach, which emphasised how informal ancien régime relationships became institutionalised by the Revolution. In her third chapter, which was the focus of our discussions, Geoffroy-Schwinden uses the history of the Conservatoire as a ‘history from below’ instead of the traditional top-down approach, she investigates French actors outside of France, and how musical activity whilst in emigration could licence an émigré’s return: the regime had an inherent belief in music’s didacticism.

 

Geoffroy-Schwinden’s work created much discussion and forced us to reflect on our own approaches. Fabio, who has worked on both real and imaginary networks around Cherubini advocated for a more contextual approach; Jonathan wanted to look at the relationships not just between composers, but between composers and librettists, and how the wider network, which invariably involved the Church, the military, and other teachers in the Conservatoire impacted on these friendships and the works themselves. What about the international scene and how did the identity of ‘French’ fit into this? Essentially, we just wanted to know more about our own and different case studies.

 

This brought us onto a more detailed methodological dialogue, reflecting on topography. Cosmin rightly argued that such an approach was necessary to underline the social context at the time which can all too easily be left aside but that such approaches could run the risk of generalising. In our interdisciplinary environment we wanted to know how topology differs between the disciplines, both now and at the time. The principle question was simply how do we do this? How do we track these networks and measure their impact? How do we move beyond the institutions which are at the basis of our studies? This harked back to our discussions on the Revolution as a moment of continuity or rupture. Was 1789 really such a moment of rupture?

‘Revolution Under a King: French Prints 1789-92’, UCL Art Museum, London

After the Napoleonic exhibitions which have dominated the scene recently, it was very refreshing to return to some earlier, Revolutionary prints and we are very grateful to Dr. Richard Taws for welcoming us to the UCL Art Museum and giving us a guided tour.

 

Whereas the Terror attracts the most British attention, the curators, Emeritus Professor David Bindman and Dr. Richard Taws, wanted to focus on the period before this, whilst Louis XVI was still alive. The exhibition displays an intriguing collection of prints, from those of the three Estates, to the women marching on Versailles, the hidden silhouettes of tobacco boxes, Louis XVI for target practice, and contemporary political figures to name but a few subjects. However, whilst we might be familiar to some of these prints, this exhibition puts them into context. For example, in the ‘Réunion des trois ordres’ we are used to the image of the third estate carrying the noble and the clergyman, but in this example there are three etchings printed together: that we know well, but also one where all three estates embrace each other and where the third estate rides the back of the noble, who is dragged by the clergyman, all three men donning cockades: http://www.ucl.ac.uk/museums-static/obl4he/frenchrevolution/1_reunion_de_trois_ordres.html We were forced to reconsider our assumed knowledge: in ‘Il faut en goûter’ the traditional revolutionary bonnet is green instead of red. Is the bonnet an earlier form of Father Christmas whose subsequent marketing has made us think of him as dressed in red?

 

Dr. Taws talked in depth about revolutionary print culture animating a rich discussion. He explained about print culture at the time, about the speed of printing and appropriation of former images with the change of events, but also how a normal household could own between 4 and 6 such prints, and whilst a print might lend itself to a certain reading, this interpretation was in no means unified. The objects we see set behind glass become astonishingly alive.

 

The democratic side of these objects was fascinating. Taws described how minor or side-lined artists could make a name for themselves as salon culture became more democratic. These images in turn allowed people to engage more actively in politics: they recognised political figures, the most famous example of which would be the recognition of Louis XVI at Varennes after his flight from Paris. This complimented our discussions from December on Lilti’s Figures publiques, l’invention de la célébrité, where Lilti pays significant attention to the role of images in the rise and democratisation of celebrity.

 

The most thought provoking point though was the role prints played in how Revolutionary events were historicised, for example by creating a cult around the Bastille, or by pre-producing prints for political events before they had actually occurred. These images significantly impacted on the contemporary, and our, understanding of the French Revolution.

 

More information on the exhibition can be found at: https://www.ucl.ac.uk/museums/uclart/visit/exhibitions/Revolutionunderaking and there is an excellent blog: http://blogs.ucl.ac.uk/museums/tag/revolution-under-a-king/