I haven’t really decided what to do about books that I read for work, but Albert Boime’s Art and the French Commune proposed such an interesting idea that I thought it worth sharing.
By way of background, the French Commune was the short-lived radical government that ruled Paris between March and May of 1871, at the tail end of the Franco-Prussian War. The official French government only reclaimed control of the city by means of bloody and destructive street-by-street fighting. The Palace of the Tuileries was burned, the mairies of most arrondissements were torched, and, famously, the Hotel de Ville went up in flames. Tens of thousands of Communards were executed in reprisal.
Albert Boime’s thesis is that the Impressionists, who first exhibited together in 1874, used their new style of art to recover the image of Parisian public spaces as places of leisure and light where the classes could mingle. And indeed, when you think about the goals of these painters – to depict everyday life in all its fleeting moments – you think Boime might be right. He walks you through certain locales that had seen fierce fighting, and shows you canvases from a few years later… la la la, it never happened. A railroad bridge blown up in 1871 is intact in a Pissarro canvas from 1872. Renoir’s famous Moulin de la Galette was a major arms depot during the Commune. On and on.
Boime’s irritation and disappointment in the Impressionists does weaken his argument. Most of them sympathized with the left and he is angry that they appear to have bought into a national agenda of repression and erasure. (The French term for this is “oubli” or forgetfulness: it came in handy repeatedly during the 19th century.) It makes him furious that Monet, in a painting of the Tuileries, manages to make the wreckage pretty. Boime doesn’t succeed in convincing me that this was a concerted effort. Those Impressionists could barely manage to exhibit together every few years. I can’t see them actually agreeing on a strategy to wipe out the memory of a civic disaster. But it is interesting, still, that these artists, each on a strictly individual artistic journey, all made paintings that reclaimed the sites of war as sites of civic pleasure.