Photography and the Paris Commune

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Sun May 7 11:25:29 MDT 2000

New York Times, May 7, 2000

The Uses of a Young Art at a Devastating Moment


THE Paris Commune of 1871 is one of those smoldering ash heaps in French
history, like the 1968 riots, stirred habitually by left and right to
inflame old class allegiances and fears. To the left, the Communards are
secular martyrs who refused to accept the humiliating peace imposed by
Bismarck after the Prussian army crushed the French in 1870. With Napoleon
III readily conceding defeat, these die-hard nationalists had no choice but
to replace the capitulators with leaders of their own. To the right, the
Commune is a vital lesson in the perils of social disorder. Without respect
for the central authority of the state, chaos ensues and Robespierre's
reign of terror is reborn.

One uncontested fact in the struggle over national memory is the bloody
trauma of the uprising. In 72 days during the spring of 1871, many of the
official symbols of Parisian culture and might were leveled by Commune
arsonists or stray artillery shells from government troops. The Palais de
Tuileries and the Hôtel de Ville were set ablaze and gutted; the Louvre,
Palais de Justice, Palais Royal and Notre Dame were slated for destruction
but saved by fire brigades. Generals, priests, judges, even the Archbishop
of Paris were put to death by the Commune. But the government exiled in
Versailles soon recaptured the city, hunted down the rebels and exacted a
brutal revenge. The numbers tell the story. Perhaps 1,000 Versailles
soldiers died in actual fighting compared with 4,000 Communards, while
17,000 to 20,000 others were executed by the Third Republic, more than
perished in any battle during the Franco-Prussian war.

As the first news event in French history covered by photographers, the
Commune and its aftermath also left a unique visual record, as a compelling
new exhibition at the Musée d'Orsay, on view until June 11, makes clear.
"La Commune Photographiée" is a small show, with fewer than 100 prints, but
the curator, Quentin Bajac, has chosen his examples well. Instead of taking
sides, either political or artistic, he has exposed the multiple identities
of photography at the time, illustrating how the Communards and the state
adapted the medium for their own ends. Whether used to document common
people in the streets or to meditate on the nature of ruins, to produce mug
shots for wanted posters of the rebels or to embellish bizarre tableaus for
government propaganda, photography emerges in this show as politicized as
the events themselves. . .

Photographers, as they surveyed their once-tidy capital, seemed also to
oscillate between sadness and astonishment. As they had when Baron
Haussmann's decrees bulldozed old neighborhoods in the 1850's, they seized
the opportunity to peer into the intestinal structure of a city known until
then mainly by its graceful and often pompous facades. More than one art
historian, while examining these lovely X-rays of ashen destruction, has
glimpsed the roots of French surrealism. (A fine selection of digitized
photographs and artifacts from the Siege and Commune of Paris is available

Louis Proyect
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