Academic journal article Nineteenth-Century Prose

The Ambivalent Picturesque of the Paris Commune Ruins

Academic journal article Nineteenth-Century Prose

The Ambivalent Picturesque of the Paris Commune Ruins

Article excerpt

References to "picturesque ruins" and scenes frequently appear in accounts describing the condition of Paris in 1871 in the aftermath of the civil conflict known as the Commune. Though ruins have often evoked poignancy for the way they trace the passage of time, the picturesque in this context frames the image of the devastated capital in a way that strips these ruined spaces of their immediate political resonance. The conservative recourse to the picturesque aesthetic is primarily ideological and not aesthetic in motivation, so that it encourages one to forget the violence that produced the ruins and the brutal reprisals against the Communards, while drowning itself in scenic pleasures and furthering the image of Paris as one of the great ruined capitals of history.


Pittoresque, adj. B.--Painting capable of producing a grand effect, by means of the contrast, the richness of the coloring. C.--1. Worthy of being painted, of providing subject matter to a painter, an engraver; by ext. that which pleases, charms or is striking by its beauty, color, originality. 2. Having an original aspect, a markedly colorful, exotic character. 3. Astonishing, surprising by its unusual and strange character; not lacking in flavor and piquancy. (1)

Tresor de la langue francaise: dictionnaire de la langue du XIXe et du XXe siecle, 1789-1960

As soon as one could take stock of the disaster, as soon as it was possible to circulate freely in the streets and to see with one's own eyes how extensive the damages were, hearts were stopped, the imagination dumbfounded. Crowds of foreigners rushed to visit the ruins of Paris; it was a spectacle like any other.... From a picturesque point of view, nothing will be said of the strange and marvelous beauty that the work of [Communard] arsonists produced in certain places.

Georges Bell, Paris incendie (138).

This study assesses the meaning of the picturesque in nonfiction prose accounts of Paris after the 1871 revolution known as the Commune. In the wake of conflict that saw so much human and material loss in such a fiercely contested urban space, the capital could not have appeared further from the "picturesque" landscapes imagined by William Gilpin a century before. Nevertheless, despite Georges Bell's claim that "nothing [would] be said of the strange and marvelous beauty that the work of [Communard] arsonists produced in certain places," a ruinist picturesque had ubiquitous currency in the months after the Commune. On the one hand, I will try to show how recourse to the picturesque as a frame for imagining Paris in ruins diverted attention from the politics of the moment and thus became a strategy for bourgeois consciousness to reclaim the city from the radicalism of the Commune and to resituate the city's place in an historical continuum. Likewise, I underscore how the Commune ruins aesthetic pressured the picturesque to connote something other than scenes of tranquil nature.

In finding itself in another context--urban, revolutionary, Baudelarian modernity--the picturesque not only maintained a strange etymological connection to painting and color, but also shifted in meaning, and the Commune ruin is the index for registering this differentiated usage. In order to provide their readers with a descriptive frame for understanding the ruins, writers used the picturesque to hark back to an inherited romantic discourse of ruins not entirely in alignment with the spirit and space of the times. Moreover, the particular urban pleasure the public located in the picturesque of Commune ruins in the midst of this political catastrophe is fraught with contradiction. To praise local color, to identify rustic or quaint features of a site of bloodshed, would clash with the immediate history. Two problematic ambivalences emerge from the analysis of the Commune ruins picturesque. (2) First, that it violated a pleasure principle central to the ruinist aesthetic in France in that it could not properly negotiate the relation between the violence committed against the urban entity during the Commune, the violent reprisals against the Communards, and the subsequent pleasure sought in the ruins--the picturesque tenuously depoliticizes the ruins. …

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