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Witnessing Terror: French Revolutionary Prints, 1792-94 (2020)
Exhibition and events
14 January - 12 June 2020

What does it mean to witness Terror and what role to images play in how we comprehend acts of violence?


The period of the French Revolution known as the Terror, which lasted from 179294, gave rise to many of the most memorable and dramatic images of this crucial moment in modernity. These images were central to revolutionary attempts to regenerate all aspects of life - from clothing and speech to money and maps, and with the introduction of the Republican Calendar, to remake even time itself. In our contemporary political context, in which ‘Terror’ has taken on a variety of disturbing meanings, and in which the proliferation of images plays an increasingly significant role in how we comprehend acts of political violence, it is ever more important to examine this radical period in French history.

Tracing the tumultuous period from the trial and execution of Louis XVI to the fall of Robespierre, Witnessing Terror includes a variety of printed images representing key events and personae. From portraits of revolutionary martyrs to dramatic scenes of Parisian crowds, these prints give us insight into how people understood life during the Terror. As well as a number of caricatures, street scenes, and more overtly artistic prints, the exhibition displays more everyday objects, such as paper money, well-worn passports and playing cards. Drawing out the contemporary relevance of this revolutionary iconography, Witnessing Terror also shows work by the renowned conceptual artist, poet, and gardener Ian Hamilton Finlay (19252006) that engages with the long-term legacy of the Terror.


This exhibition is part of a programme of ongoing engagement with UCL Art Museum’s unique holdings of prints related to the French Revolution, acquired via the Cultural Gifts Scheme. It follows Revolution under a King: French Prints, 178992 (UCL Art Museum, 2016) and Rousseau 300: Nature, Self and State, an exhibition in collaboration with UCL Centre for Transnational History (UCL Art Museum, 2012).

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Terror and Witnessing

The Terror remains a vexed term that has for many become synonymous with the French Revolution, clouded by myths that emerged in the years that followed. A system of political institutions and practices, the Terror was accompanied by new rhetorical and cultural strategies. It did not happen overnight but developed as a tactical response to a series of military crises, rumours, and fears. Images played a crucial role in the operation of Terror, as well as in its subsequent representation. This exhibition considers what it means to witness Terror, then and now. In particular, it features extracts from the recently discovered letters of Catherine-Innocente de Rougé, duchesse d’Elbeuf (170794), who maintained a correspondence with an unknown friend throughout the Revolution. Living in her private residence, the Hôtel d’Elbeuf, which was located only metres from government offices during the Terror, the duchesse d’Elbeuf commented freely on the situation in Paris in a way that would have sent her to the guillotine, had her correspondence been found.

The letter series, found among police files in the French national archives by Professor Colin Jones (Queen Mary University of London), is the subject of an ongoing research project of transcription and editing. It is the starting point for a broader discussion of how, in the period of censorship and surveillance under the Terror, individuals strove to maintain freedom of expression and develop a critique of government.

The Duchesse d’Elbeuf’s Letters to a Friend, 178894 AHRC Research Grant (20182020), Principal Investigator: Professor Colin Jones, History Department, Queen Mary University of London

About Ian Hamilton Finlay

Conceptual artist, sculptor, gardener, and poet Ian Hamilton Finlay returned frequently to the topic of the French Revolution throughout his career. It represented for him a moment of profound change, signalling a moral as well as political leap that heralded advances in secular democracy and social progress. Revolution provided a rich subject; he first received international attention for his guillotine installation A View to the Temple at Documenta 8 in Kassel in 1987 and thereafter the guillotine became one of the most enduring elements of his iconography. 

On diplay is Translation of a Line from Chénier: A Line of Thin Pale Red. Here Finlay refers to André Chénier, a poet who, despite having written several poems in support of the Revolution – including Jeu de Paume, dedicated to Jacques-Louis David, and an ode on the subject of Charlotte Corday – was guillotined on 25 July 1794, just days before the end of the Terror. His brother Marie-Joseph, himself a famous playwright who spoke out against censorship of the theatre, had become a member of the National Convention during the Terror. In this work made in 1989, the bicentennial of the French Revolution, scarlet and white neon form a homage to the executed poet, riffing a quotation from the poet Stéphane Mallarmé. The line of red refers to the guillotine, as well as the red ribbon worn around the necks of those who had lost their loved ones to the blade.

Two of Finlay’s prints, made with Gary Hincks and the Wild Hawthorn Press, are also shown in this exhibition on the entrance wall. These images appropriated Jacques-Louis David’s portraits of revolutionary martyrs, as well as prints of the dying Marat, and Finlay also made versions of them as stone wall pieces.  

Translation of a Line from Chénier: A Line of Thin Pale Red is on loan courtesy of the Artist’s Estate and Victoria Miro, London/Venice.

Contributors and acknowledgements

Witnessing Terror is curated by

 

Professor David Bindman, UCL History of Art

Professor Colin Jones, History, Queen Mary University of London

Dr Richard Taws, UCL History of Art

In collaboration with

Dr Andrea Fredericksen, Curator, UCL Art Museum

Dr Nina Pearlman, Head of UCL Art Collections

 

This exhibition is supported by funds from the British Academy and Arts and Humanities Research Council. Thanks are extended to the Institute of Historical Research, School of Advanced Study, University of London and The Estate of Ian Hamilton Finlay and Victoria Miro, London/Venice for their loans.

 

The exhibition is produced in association with Darren Stevens (Exhibition Manager), Lucy Waitt (Curatorial and Collections Assistant) and Mohammed Rahman (Community Engagement and Exhibitions Associate), with Angela Scott (Senior Graphic Designer, UCL Digital Media). Learning and engagement contributions from museum education consultant Jenny Pistella and artists Sean Curran and Rebecca Loweth.

Special thanks are extended to Dr Alex Fairfax-Cholmeley (Senior Lecturer, History, University of Exeter), Dr Simon Macdonald (Research Fellow, School of History, Queen Mary University of London) and Dr Matthew Shaw (Librarian, Institute of Historical Research, School of Advanced Studies, University of London). This exhibition has benefitted from the research and input of our volunteers and residential placements Lisa Bull (UCL MA Museum Studies), Jackie Lui (UCL History of Art with Material Studies), and Yan Huang (UCL Centre for Digital Humanities) and Rosa Rubner.

 

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