Catalogue Essay

Chasing Napoleon

Jacques Henric

The Reign of Terror, at its extreme, is no more and no less than conquest achieved through extermination

François René de Chateaubriand (1768-1848)

The World as Theatre

'Oh my sister, my fellow men and my mother, I salute, once more, the beloved earth of the fatherland.' In spite of this expression of affection for his native land, Friedrich Hölderlin had fled Germany for France - the land of revolution, the land of liberty: 'Oh, my friend! The world stretched out before me looks clearer and calmer, yet more sombre than ever before. I am pleased at the turn events are taking.' The poet was searching for a 'way forward, sheltered from all acts of aggression', and hoped to discover 'how to live poetically on this earth'. A few years earlier, in this same, liberating dream landscape, Robespierre had torn up his poetry (something to do with the flowers they contained, especially the roses), Marat destroyed his sentimental novels and Desmoulins his poems, Saint-Just turned his back on pornographic stories, and the young Bonaparte abandoned the short stories modelled on Goethe's Leiden des jungen Werthers that he had been intending to write. It would not be long before heads started flying like so many slates ripped off in a gale, courtesy of these failed poets and novelists.

On the Boulevard Saint-Antoine, in Paris, Catherine Théot, a woman with a heavy responsibility to bear (she thought she was the mother of God) points a grey finger in the direction of the Incorruptible One, declaring him to be the sacred new Messiah. He is pale, powdered with rouge to disguise the scars of smallpox, and his blue-green eyes are concealed behind small, tinted spectacles which make him look oddly like Andy Warhol. He is thinking of his beloved sister, dear Charlotte ... of the little Duplay girl - he is in love with her, but he's never dared to touch her, except for the time when he just managed to graze her breast with his hand while she was mending a rip in his breeches. A little later, a short distance away, in a more cinematic sequence with the soundtrack turned up loud, drowning out everything else, the hysterical voice of Marat (the former veterinary surgeon who made gonorrhoea his speciality) clamours from the underground hiding-place where he is lurking for first 500, then 5,000, then 500,000 heads. Next cinematic take: Danton stares at the lopped-off head of his friend Fabre d'Eglantine, and roars: 'What a tragic mess! If only I could arrange it, Couthon would get my legs, and Robespierre could enjoy the benefit of my balls'. Then the executioner breaks Danton's embrace around his friend Hérault de Séchelles. And Danton's last words thunder out: 'What an idiot! He won't be able to stop us kissing when our heads are rolling about in the basket'. Another scene: a 1792 Septembrist, who emerges from massacring Royalists in prison, his hands red with the blood of 1200 aristocrats and rebellious priests, has cut off the vulva of the Duchess of Lamballe and, shouting with laughter, drapes it round his mouth. Ah, what a pretty little beard ... Desmoulins's sweetheart is trembling in front of the scaffold. 'Camille, my dear Camille ...' They embrace. Saint-Just watches the scene from some way off, a smile curving his distinctly feminine lips. The boy wonder of the college of Saint-Nicolas in Soissons thinks about his mother and his two sisters, lifts some strands of black hair from his delicate, milky skinned forehead and imagines himself back in the country at Blérancourt, whacking at poppyheads with a willow stick. Robespierre, however, who can't stand crowds and blood, is not present. He is drawing up the next list of victims for the guillotine in the shaded quiet of his bedroom.

Paris. The French Revolution. 1789, and the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen. Then the Reign of Terror, Thermidor, the Directoire, the Empire. Slowly, the field of action expands. First the capital, now France, now Europe. Tomorrow the world. In the midst of this dramatic unfolding of events, neither time nor space counted. What exactly was going on? The few images of the Revolution sketched out above give a pretty good idea: love, hatred, obsessions, fantasies, sex, frustration, repression, wounded egos, murderous rivalries, jealousies, wild impulses. There were catastrophic mistakes - all those failed literary men turning up as executioners during the Reign of Terror, prefiguring their counterparts in the twentieth century: the paranoid Nazi exterminators. In the end, as always, it comes down to a dreadful, tragic family conflict. 'The family' wrote Aristotle, commenting on the great writers of Ancient Greece, 'is the ultimate tragic setting'. What happened in the most frenzied moments of the French Revolution, when a veritable storm of persecution was unleashed by the death wish, was not so different from what was first played out in the dramas of Sophocles, Aeschylus and Euripides two thousand years before. Tragedy of the sort that afflicted the families of Agamemnon and Menelaus has never gone away; it has merely become more technically proficient, and has spread to just about every country, across whole continents.

What kind of art has ever managed to bear witness to this phenomenon, or, more importantly, to examine the logic that lies behind it? Which artist today has the technical expertise, the intellectual drive and, above all, the personal will to drag this dark side of existence into the light - event by event, face by face, destiny by destiny - exposing what constitutes the very essence of revolutionary terror, imperial terror, in other words what lies at the core of politics, perhaps even at the heart of the tragedy of human existence. It involves examining the complex and horribly destructive knot of love and hate which acts as a ghastly source of energy, a demonic force which destroys everything that stands in its way. The belief of Empedocles, later taken up by Freud, was that love and discord go together, emanate from the same nature (Jacques Lacan was to talk of hainamoration - falling in hate, as opposed to falling in love), but Empedocles pointed out that discord, or hate, came first. Artists who try to identify and disentangle the conflicts of Eros and Thanatos - and hasn't this always been their primary function? - need the skill identified by Artaud among the writers of Ancient Greek tragedy, the ability to present what is by dissociation from it. This was the task of the Theatre of Cruelty envisaged by Antonin Artaud in the 1930s, which, according to him, would require champions capable of wrestling with the challenge of responding in the cruelty of their art to the cruelty of the real world. Revealing something by dissociation and thereby achieving a liberation - this is what exorcism does. And our century has a pressing need of exorcists.

Inventing a New Body Politic

What kind of art can do this? Which artists? Can the theatre or the cinema do it? Or actors or producers? Artaud believed this was possible, and then changed his mind. Paradoxically, it was in painting that he saw the opportunity for dissociation, for revealing and liberating the element of light which in every human being is concealed by darkness, the quintessential darkness (la Ténèbre suressentielle), as the mystical Pseudo-Dionysius called it in the first century, or, more prosaically, the black silence of the death wish. The challenge is enormous. The difficulty resides in the fact that the vehicle is painting, an art which uses a fixed image, immobile shapes, figures frozen in particular attitudes, to try to inscribe in the thin material of its surface the momentum of history, the collision and rupturing of boundaries, the superimposing and the dove-tailing of scenes, a whole range of protagonists, a dizzying succession of characters, the transparency of masks and the opacity of faces, the layering and multiplication of me's in a single I, the wars of good against evil, the merging of the corporeal with the spiritual.

So we are talking about painting, but what kind of painting? And which painters? Not history painting - that flatly narrative style of art which was revived by the French Revolution and the Empire. Not neoclassical painting which was, in the nineteenth century, to develop into romanticism, and not the nostalgic brand of paintings that harked back to the themes of Ancient Rome. Certainly not the work of Jacques-Louis David, the archetypal artist-courtesan, willing servant and paid employee of whatever régime was in power, who was so utterly dependent on a sitter. Not at all, in other words, this kind of straightforward descriptive representation. And not, either, the kind of painting that has for centuries been dominated either by naturalism or by psychology. Not the kind of portraiture that aims to create the illusion of the presence of a historical figure. Another kind of painting was needed to challenge those whose purpose was simply the glorification of the prince, or king, or emperor, or revolutionary hero, using them to parade the insignia of power and authority, of political or religious legitimacy, which were intended to endorse and promote a political system in which violence was considered a legitimate means to an end. This alternative type of painting has to invent a new frame of political reference, or rather, to depart from the old model, with its elaborately worked images or likenesses (David's portraits of Marat and Napoleon have an almost photographic look); it would work on the old political reality from the inside, hollowing it out, taking its mask and turning that inside out, stripping it bare, peeling away its layers. The paintbrush and the hand (guided by the brain) are endowed with an actual physical acidity which allows them to advance on its darker side, revealing its brilliance and luminosity, as well as its (hitherto invisible) baseness - the marks left by rampaging evil, signs of a soul gone rotten in the old body politic.

What this other kind of painting proposes is a new body without a body which, through a smooth, metonymic shift is represented simply by a head, or a single, inordinately enlarged eye, or, by metaphorical displacement, as a dog, a cockerel, an eagle. Here is power deprived of power; here is glory from which the glory has melted away, weighed down by its burden of foul deeds, whether it is called Robespierre, Charlotte Corday, Marat, Bonaparte, Napoleon, David, Speer, Goebbels, Himmler... here is what Tony Scherman has been painting for the last few years and what you have before you in this book.


Friedrich Hölderlin (1770-1843). German poet who was one of a number of writers including Hegel, Kant and Schiller, who, in its early stages, welcomed the French Revolution.

Maximilien François Marie Isidore de Robespierre (1758-guillotined 28th July 1794). Revolutionary and Jacobin leader. Urged execution of the king. Soon turned against the Girondins (a grouping of more moderate revolutionaries). Elected to the National Convention, and member of the Committee of Public Safety; associated chiefly with Saint-Just and Couthon. Instituted Cult of the Supreme Being in late 1793/early 1794, and effectively led the Reign of Terror. Danton and his followers were purged by him, together with many other erstwhile revolutionary comrades. Provoked by an increasingly dictatorial manner, his enemies united against him, and he was deposed in a coup and executed, discredited in part by his association with Catherine Théot (see note below).

Jean-Paul Marat (1743-assassinated 13th July 1793). Trained physician, known as 'Friend of the People' after his eponymous radical newspaper, who under the ancien régime, was notorious for his violent, democratic opinions and was forced into hiding on a number of occasions. Elected to the National Convention. Alleged to have had a large part in the September Massacres (in four days in 1792, 1200 prisoners were massacred by a mob allowed to invade the prisons), for which he won the undying hatred of the Girondins, whom he was instrumental in overthrowing. One of their number, Charlotte Corday, assassinated him in his bath in July 1793.

Lucie-Camille-Simplice Desmoulins (1760-guillotined 5th April 1794). Scholarship boy, with Robespierre, at the Collège Louis-le-Grand in Paris. A vigorous Revolutionary orator and pamphleteer. Linked with Danton and Fabre d'Eglantine, he served as Danton's secretary in the Ministry of Justice, and violently opposed the Girondins. By December 1793, however, he was calling for a relaxation of the Terror. Arrested in March 1794, tried with the Dantonists and executed.

Louis-Antoine Léon de Saint-Just (1767-guillotined 28th July 1794). Revolutionary leader and orator, initially a protégé of Robespierre. Fanatical, austere. Helped draft the 1793 Constitution. Member of the Committee of Public Safety. Closely linked with Robespierre and Couthon. Attacked both the Dantonists and Hébert and his followers (see below) in the spring of 1794. Stood by Robespierre to the end and was executed with him.

Catherine Théot (c.1716-September 1794). Visionary who, under the ancien régime, had been imprisoned in the Bastille. In 1794 she was alleged to have held séances in which she claimed that Robespierre was the new Messiah. Also said to have advised Robespierre in the establishment of the Cult of the Supreme Being - an association which was to be used against him when he was deposed. She was arrested and died in prison.

Georges-Jacques Danton (1759-guillotined 5th April 1794). Trained as a lawyer, Danton was prominent in the Jacobin Club. Elected to the National Convention, and a founder member of the Committee of Public Safety. Minister of Justice 1793-94. Fell out with Girondins, who hated him for his venality and complicity in the September Massacres. Initially supported the Reign of Terror, but later, like Desmoulins, became associated with the campaign to curb it. He was arrested on Robespierre's orders and executed.

Philippe-François-Nazaire Fabre d'Eglantine (1750-guillotined 5th April 1794). Theatrical career from 1772. Linked with Danton and with Marat, with whom he shared a taste for radical journalism. Elected to the National Convention. Responsible for the introduction of the Revolutionary calendar. His involvement in dubious financial dealing led Robespierre to force him out of the Jacobin Club in December 1793, shortly after which he was arrested and executed with the Dantonists.

Georges-Auguste Couthon (1755-guillotined 28th July 1794). Lawyer, confined to a wheelchair. Elected to the Convention and to the Committee of Public Safety. Closely associated with Robespierre and Saint-Just, he was responsible for drawing up a particularly hated law which significantly speeded up the actions of the Revolutionary Tribunal. Executed as Robespierrist.

Robespierre had a reputation for physical cowardice.

Marie-Jean Hérault de Séchelles (1760-guillotined 5th April 1794). An aristocrat and brilliant young deputy prosecutor in the Paris parliament who welcomed the Revolution. Presided over the drawing up of the 1793 Constitution; member of the Committee of Public Safety. His moderate opinions became increasingly marked, and following the disclosure of links with an alleged foreign plot he was arrested and executed with the Dantonists.

Jacques-Louis David (1748-1825). French neo-classical painter who by 1789 already enjoyed a significant reputation. Threw himself enthusiastically into the Revolution, joining the Jacobin Club. Directed the great Revolutionary and republican festivals in Paris. Elected to the National Convention, he was instrumental in the abolition of much of the artistic and academic establishment of the ancien regime. Member of the Committee of Public Safety. Identified as a Robespierrist. Endured several spells in prison, but in 1797 began a long association with Bonaparte.

Marie-Anne-Charlotte Corday d'Armont (1768-guillotined 17th July 1793). Educated woman from Caen who was associated with the Girondins and assassinated Marat in his bath (13th July 1793). Tried by the Revolutionary Tribunal on 17th July and executed on the same day.