HAA 177K - Art After State Violence: The Paris Commune & its Repression





Maria Gough

Tuesdays, 12:00 pm - 2:45 pm

How have artists responded to state violence? How has their work remembered, suppressed, erased, or otherwise forgotten acts of violence administered by states against their own citizens? When confronted by this type of violence, what is the responsibility of the artist who is neither its victim nor perpetrator?

Prompted by such questions, this course analyzes photographs produced during, and paintings and drawings made in the three decades following the Paris Commune of 1871. An urban uprising motivated by the anarchist belief that power should be held by those directly affected by its exercise, the Commune existed for just over two months before its violent repression, which resulted in the death of thousands of Parisians. Precisely how many lives were lost in this civil war remains a matter of debate.

We begin with photography, then still a young medium. One of the first major historical events to be photographed, the Commune drew the attention of numerous professionals who documented its barricades (a longstanding architectural typology for urban resistance), and its demolition of the Vendôme Column (a notorious monument to French imperial violence). After its suppression, photographs of victims, prisoners, and the city in ruins circulated widely. Key issues for us concern whether the “instantaneity” of the photograph precludes its capacity for historical reflection, the limits of the medium, the transformation of slaughter and destruction into spectacle, the manipulation of photographs through montage, the police use of photographs to identify participants, the acquisition of photographs by collectors, and the state’s belated attempt to control their proliferation for fear of their mnemonic (and thus potentially incendiary) power.

We then analyze the work of leading modernist painters over the next three decades, considering the extent to which their work grapples—directly or indirectly—with this major historical trauma. Courbet, one of the few modernists to have participated in the Commune as an activist, was incarcerated in its aftermath and then fled abroad; we study his prison drawings, and the still lifes he painted in exile. We situate the extraordinary representation of barricade executions by Manet, who was neither a participant nor a supporter, within the overall trajectory of his work dealing with violence. How do we understand the fact that Impressionist painting, seemingly so oblivious to violence in its famous emphasis on urban leisure and modern spectacle, flowered in the wake of the Commune? Do its aesthetic tropes of instantaneity and forgetting serve to repress memory of this traumatic history? Other questions we probe include the efficacy of considering, for example, Morisot’s depiction of wet nurses and other female workers, or Degas’ representation of laundresses, through the lens of the Commune’s valorization of women’s labor. Our final sessions consider the complex relationship between, on the one hand, the resurgence of anarchist thought and discussion of the Commune in the 1880s and 1890s, and, on the other, the development of Neoimpressionist painting, focusing on Seurat, Signac, and Luce, and their brilliant supporter, the writer and critic, Felix Fénéon.


--Weekly preparation of readings (all available on Canvas); 

--Attendance and participation (via Zoom) at our weekly two-hour class meeting;

--One or two 10-minute class presentations on the reading (dates to be assigned);

--Initial proposal for Research Paper, due Friday, March 19;

--Presentation to the class of a section of written draft (or a written overview) of Research Paper, on Tuesday, April 20 or Tuesday, April 27;

--Research Paper of 10-12 pages (undergrads), 15-25 pages (grad students), due Monday, May 3.