‘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/


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