Saturday, 24 November 2012

Revving Down on the French Revolution

Thought you could never survive the Bicentennial Blitz unleashed by the French (and Francophiles the world over) in memory of their revolution? Well, it was a case of Tricolor Overkill. But oddly, two of the best exhibitions seem to have been saved for last.

I speak of the Lafayette show at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania (through Jan. 21) and “Architects of Liberty: 1789-1799,” at the Ecole Superieure des Beaux Arts in Paris.

I have only the vaguest image of the Marquis over the years. I knew he was a goodie, but I had no conception of how exemplary a man he was. A French noble couldn’t volunteer for duty outside the country without royal permission until he was 25, but 19-year-old Lafayette wasn’t going to let any Ancien Regime regulation keep him from serving in the American Revolution, which he considered the wave of the future (long before Francis Fukuyama declared the End of History in 1989).

He sneaked out of Bordeaux with his retinue, and when American patriots sniffed at the major-generalship our American man in Paris had given him, he said he’d pay for his participation out of his own culottish pocket.

Washington, who had no natural son, came to regard the enthusiastic nobleman as his adopted one. And the Marquis, whose natural father had died in his infancy, repaid the compliment by thinking of the noble Virginian as his adopted father.

How grand that he named his first son George Washington Lafayette (I haven’t been so pleased since learning that Mark Rosenthal’s son Theo was named after the fabulous Monk, or that Yale dean Eugene V. Rostow was really Eugene Victor Debs Rostow—I hope there will be a surge of Max Weiner Somebodies in the future). Lafayette named his first daughter “Virginie” after the American state closest to his heart.

My bicentennial reading had filled me in on how the Marquis had formed the National Guard (to guard the new “nation”) and that he was in the thick of the turbulence that led to the Terror and the regicide. But I had missed the sad fact that he had languished in an Austrian jail for five years.

So much the more just, then, that his triumphal tour of the United States in 1824-5 gave thousands of Americans (including the largest crowd—20,000—in Philadelphia) a chance to revere publicly this idealistic, principled man. I love the scene of a float of the Philadelphia Printers’ Guild grinding out a tribute to the honoree as they rolled down Market Street.

The catalog makes a marvelous evening’s reading. In our present muddled state, it’s more than edifying to remember how much America meant to a Europe eager to throw off the shackles of the Ancien Regime.

How pathetic that, as with our vaunted bipartisan foreign policy, we somehow managed during the past two centuries to let our ideals stop at our frontier—perfectly willing, for example, to let banana republics parody our first, fine, careless rapture for democracy.

There is rue of a different kind in the “Architects of Liberty” exhibition. Not since I visited the Pushkin Museum in Moscow in 1981, to see the first great showing of Russian avant-garde since Stalin lowered the Socialist Realist boom, have I felt so sad about unrealized architectural idealism.

The architectural section in Moscow displayed project after project of Constructivist buildings that never saw the light of day. Tatlin’s “Monument to the Third International” is but the most famous failed fantasy. Hundreds of buildings designed to accommodate the new vision of socialism never got past the drawing boards of the Soviet architects.

So it was in France, where there were plans for temples to the Goddess of Reason, monuments to Liberty, new assembly halls where the shape of the sphere would exemplify equidistant equality (which I covered in more detail here on December 6). Their classical vocabulary speaks more eloquently to my eye than 80% of buildings actually erected in the West.

Rather than palaver over the decade that ended in despair, let me use the space to show you an Etienne-Louis Boullee and a quirky non-architectural Jean-Jacques Lequeu, suggesting why the anti-clericalism of the revolutionaries led inevitably to a turbulence in French life that eclipsed the first fine careful rhapsodies of revolutionary idealism.

From Welcomat: After Dark, January 3, 1990

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