thinking about realism and the sublime

two paintings of similar (not the same) events: people fighting in the streets of Paris

The first painting is by Eugene Delacroix, LIBERTY LEADING THE PEOPLE, depicting the fighting in Paris during the 1830 revolution. Delacroix did not himself participate in the Street fighting but he knew plenty of people who did. Writing to his brother about the upheavals, he wrote if I cannot fight for the revolution at least I can painted. This is an example of a painting with sublime action. There’s a sense of rapid intense forward movement led by the symbolic figure of lady liberty and the surging crowd behind and around her which occupy the upper portion of the picture feel as if they’re about to hurtle out of the canvas. If you go and see the picture itself hung on the walls of the Louvre its immense size really does give a sense of everything about to fall on top the viewer.

liberty

[source: self]

There’s something definitely sublime about this, something overwhelming, dangerous, frightening – the kind of delicious terror that Burke wrote about. At the same time, because it’s an artwork we – like Delacroix, who’s painting it – don’t have to actually be there, risking being wounded and trampled on like the figures in the lower part of the picture. Off to the distance on the right-hand side,  we see the massing troops of the regime with their heavy weaponry,  which is also frightening.

Horace_Vernet-Barricade_rue_Soufflot

[source: WIKIMEDIA COMMONS]

The second painting is much less well-known, it is Horace Vernet’s Street Fighting on the rue Soufflot 1848, a depiction of the June days of the 1848 uprising in Paris when the workers rose up against the regime to protest working conditions.
I don’t know much about this particular historical incident, nor why Vernet chose to painted except that Baudelaire refers quite disparagingly to Vernet  as a “journalist.”  And we can certainly see that what we’ve got in this painting is something much more documentary-like and concerned with actually showing us what it might’ve actually been like to witness the Street fighting. Vernet’s picture is not theatrical: there is no heroic Phantom of Liberty leading the charge; in fact the composition itself is not structured in the highly dramatic pyramid that we see with the Delacroix.  Instread,  it’s much more diffused;  although there is a big, dramatic diagonal in the running through the centre of the painting with a number of converging lines, there isn’t a single dramatic focus. The most eye-catching detail in the painting is the red flag of the workers juxtaposed against the white Sacre Coeur. Vernet’s intention here is much less clear; what is he trying to persuade us? He is not trying to involve us in some kind of heroic identification with the figures. Instead he shows us something quite dreadful: the  civil guard shooting the workers and the workers hurling huge stones of the guard.* Yet for all its lack of theatricality and emotion it’s a compassionate vision. We see the destruction of the city; we see the clear inequality between the shirt-sleeved, unarmed workers and the uniformed armed guard.

A film I’ve always admired that has a great street violence scene is The Baader-Meinhof Complex directed by  Uli Edel and shot by the great cinematographer Rainer Klausmann  (who shot one of my favourite German films Head-On). In an early scene, protesters get caught up in extreme violence when they are attacked by both police and militants. It’s terrifying.

All three works have something strong to tell us about street fighting – when violence engulfs the city’s streets and there is no where to go, nowhere safe to run. And all three are based on eyewitness accounts.

 

* According to Wikipedia “Things did not go peacefully and over 10,000 people were either killed or injured, while 4,000 insurgents were deported to Algeria.”

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