Sensationalism.The aesthetic of violence in the Society of the Spectacle. The birth of the agitated space and a relishing of absurd charismatic appeal. Art, like the society around it, became caught between the joy of freedom and the fear of chaos. The beginning of the modern condition brought about by the emergence of a bourgeois class and shifting of feudalism onto conquered colonies. For Girodet it wan an opportunity to posit the theory of infinity in art. To use myth to convey emotional reality and to fracture the ego-centric over control of classicism with elements of lunacy and madness; a corrupting of the classical vision in favor of romantic mad liberation. The devil in the details of democracy.
The idea was to discard the soul murdering propensity of classical sanity, and place it within a new context, the Madness and Civilization of Foucault, Adam Smith’s other “unseen hand” of the irrational and illogic role in shaping society. This meant a rejection of the ideals of inner and outer control. It was not a clean break with Jacque-Louis David, but an evolution where the inherent entitlement of the ego in classicism would be removed from the Academy and re-packaged to appeal to the emotions of the mass. In fact, Girodet probably reinforced the destructive potential of the ego establishing a kind of sanity of the insanity, a first step down the path to kitsch and rubbish culture. The romantic vision, the upredictability and capriciousness of attacks of madness could be deconstructed into the seemingly infinite madness of the unconscious. An overturning of the prevalence of common sense.
…In what is by far his most imposing history painting, The Revolt in Cairo , Girodet demonstrates that even a modern historic event has the capacity to fire his quirky imagination. Commissioned in 1809 by Napoleon, through Vivant Denon, to decorate the galerie de Diane in the Tuileries Palace, The Revolt in Cairo reenacts a minor, but especially bloody episode of the Egyptian campaign: the 1798 uprising in Cairo of indigenous Mamelukes against their French occupants. The revolt was swiftly repressed, and it is the brutal crushing of the insurrection by French Revolutionary soldiers, rather than the uprising itself, that is the proper subject of Girodet’s painting. Girodet’s assigned military theme, however, posed an exceptional challenge: the 1798 revolt in Cairo was a poorly documented event with few eye witness accounts, and there were neither celebrated French officers, nor daring heroic feats associated with the incident. But as we shall see, Girodet managed to capitalize on what would have been a severe handicap for most of his contemporaries, and turn the limitations of the commission to his distinct advantage. Read More:http://www.19thc-artworldwide.org/index.php/spring06/164-girodet-1767-1824a
Due to its size, over five meters wide, Girodet’s Revolt is shown in the rotunda of the Louvre at the entrance to the exhibition. The painting has been cleaned to reveal Girodet’s remarkable gifts as a colorist. Indeed, the splendid uniforms of the French soldiers, and the exotic costumes of the Mamelukes provided Girodet with an unequaled opportunity to indulge his penchant for deep, saturated color and striking surface textures. In no other painting does Girodet’s fascination with contrasting colors of human skin receive such stunning and disturbing expression. The Revolt is an overwhelming assemblage of riveting, closely observed details, all precisely painted and polished to a brilliant mineral hardness. On the right side of the painting, to take only the most famous passage, the expiring bey, arrayed in layers of lavender-colored silks, woolen paisley shawls, and a great rose-colored, fur-lined robe, collapses on the arm of his fierce, naked Arab servant (fig.18). At the servant’s side, a red-turbaned, otherwise naked Moor raises a flashing, gold-embossed steel dagger with his right hand, and supports himself by wrapping his left arm around the extended bare thigh of the bey’s servant. In his left hand the Moor holds a grisly trophy, the beautiful, mask-like, severed head of a French officer. Read More:http://www.19thc-artworldwide.org/index.php/spring06/164-girodet-1767-1824a
Next to the great Napoleonic battle paintings by Gros, Girodet’s Revolt seems curiously detached, un-heroic and unreal. Girodet’s scene is highly charged and intensely ferocious, but the fury, savagery and suffering of the frenzied confrontation have all been subjected to a process of aesthetic rarefaction and abstraction. On the left, a superbly outfitted hussar leaps into the scene like a prince in a French romantic ballet. Other figures are elegantly disposed or posturing, whether charging, recoiling, agonizing or dead. Girodet’s rhetoric of violent movement and gesture is idealized, but not baroque in tendency, and neither for that matter is his conception of pictorial space and structure. His crowded, chaotic composition is devoid of any rational geometric schema. The scene is drastically compressed from all sides and teems with fierce, intricately entangled soldiers and Mamelukes, who twist and turn, attack and slaughter one another in a series of narrow, receding corridors of space. Girodet’s compositional eccentricities call to mind those of roman battle relief sculptures and mannerist battle murals; and his Revolt does not look forward to either Géricault’s baroque compositions with their powerful, plunging, diagonal axis, or the sweeping synthetic visions of Delacroix’s orientalist paintings. Girodet’s Revolt is sui generis. He was commissioned by Napoleon to paint an essentially undocumented battle, one that was “without generals, without heroes, without destiny and without any historical consequences” (p. 308). But in the end, the commission turned out to be perfectly suited to Girodet’s special genius—it allowed him to give free reign to bo
is aberrant aesthetic instincts and his strange, troubling imagination.Read More:http://www.19thc-artworldwide.org/index.php/spring06/164-girodet-1767-1824
Girodet, Grisgsby argues, subverted the very political purpose he was commissioned to serve:
Girodet prominently displays the ‘orientals’ and eclipses the French hussar’s face by a cast shadow. The painter thus deprives his primary French protagonist not only of highest rank–there is no general here–but also of individual celebrity. He is neither Murat nor Bonaparte but an anonymous French soldier and the picture refuses to grant him the stature of portraiture. He remains, moreover, despite his tightly fitting clothing, a flattened pattern of rotating limbs…. Boots, pants, jacket, cape, we dress him like a paper doll… In the Revolt of Cairo, the naked warrior, unlike the spinning hussar, is irresistably charismatic…. In Girodet’s painting of colonial warfare, it is the insurgents not the French colonizers who are aligned with the classical narratives of passion, loyalty, and courage so revered within the French tradition.
So much for Edward Said. Even this officially-commissioned work, to commemorate a (short-lived) French victory, has the power to subvert. But to appreciate that, you need a sense of irony.
…The French occupation of Egypt seems to me especially relevant. That brief intervention ended in military failure, but as the Syrian Sadek al-Azm has written, it “made a clean sweep of all that had become irrelevant on our side of the Mediterranean–the traditional Mamluk and Ottoman conduct of warfare, the supporting production systems, local knowledges, and forms of economic, social, legal, and political organization.” The French left in defeat, but their ideas became thoroughly embedded in the minds of those who resisted them. Read More:http://www.martinkramer.org/sandbox/2005/10/from-bonaparte-to-bush/a