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Musée Carnavalet - La Révolution Française, Trésors Cachés


Text by Brendan Seibel 

Louis XIV stands alone in a barren courtyard surrounded by evidence of renovation. A stark introduction to the Musée Carnavalet is fitting preparation for the special exhibition La Révolution Française, Trésors Cachés. This rarely shown collection of over 200 pieces follows the chronology of the French Revolution as presented in three acts: The Fall of the Monarchy; Republic Jacobine; The Directory.

Visitors are immediately confronted with a timeline chronicling eighteenth century France's final decade. The cavernous, tomb-like ambiance of art museums is replaced by an almost oppressive scholarly tone, the weight of history palpable in the low lighting. Well-spaced etchings, which constitute a large part of the exhibition, create an atmosphere of a history book swollen beyond capacity, disgorging its pages to be scrutinized and contextualised. Historical artifacts are few and far between and as a result this wing of the museum will satisfy well-read Francophiles and political malcontents but leave curiosity seekers and culture hounds disappointed.

A small antechamber collects prints, delicate portraits of royalty and a table of artifacts rescued from the Bastille. Continuing into a second room the walls serve as chapters, assembling key military and political figures, a table of military regalia, and the beginning of political caricatures and drawings which will permeate the entire exhibition.

Pressing onward shifts focus to the rise of The Terror, beginning with the 1792 capture of the Tuileries, which brought down the monarchy. A collection of portraits portrays the leaders of the Girondins, the highly influential political theorists deposed in 1793, later massacred. There is also a series of paintings by Pierre Alexandre Wille depicting the sans-culottes and an encased display of clothing worn by the Dauphin and Marie-Antoinette. The rest of the room is filled with historical paintings of street battles and mobs.

Next come the Montagnards, the political ideologues behind The Terror, their portraits circling the visage of Robespierre. However this room's centerpiece is clearly a collection of pages from the French Revolutionary Calendar. Each month is celebrated with a colorful, Romantic rendering of a woman steeped in the symbolism of Revolutionary ideals. Amidst the sombre etchings and muted paintings this explosion of color captures the aspirations of the revolutionaries in their purest form.

The inevitable conclusion, the fall of the revolution and rise of Napoleon, comes as a post-script to the exhibition: A small collection of trinkets; paintings of bourgeoisie seated on a terrasse; books being sold by The Carnavalet. Almost hidden in the recesses are the tattered remains of military standards, examples and descriptions of revolutionary symbolism and a curious assortment of works by Jean-Baptiste Lesueur, seemingly cut from parchment and hung like disused puppets. Their depictions and handwritten notations attempt to collect the participants of the Revolution, from the sans-culottes to the petit-bourgeoisie, in a deeply satirical theater. The frayed and worn remnants of a bygone era share corner-space with a splintered and frozen grandfather clock.

From here there is nowhere to go but to turn around and return from whence you came.


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