First as Farce, then as Tragedy: art, vaudeville and modern painting after the French Revolution

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What might art history look like if it was reconstructed using only primary sources? What structures, practices and discursive conventions might crop up, how would we reconcile them with existing art historical narratives and who are the methodological mentors to whom we might turn to help negotiate the abrasions between art histories past and present?

In this chapter, I re-examine the well-worn modernist trope of art's autonomy and its origins in the divinely-inspired psyche of the deracinated painter, at odds with society at large and whose alienation is a inverted sign of the merit of his (and they are largely men) work. This is hardly new. Pierre Bourdieu famously addressed some of these issues in The Rules of Art (1982). Here, however, I locate some of these tropes - not within the well-established vein of modernism from Baudelaire to Greenberg and beyond - but within the Vaudeville, comic drama performed in Paris in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.

The figure of the alienated artist can, I show, be traced back to the very start of the eighteenth century and seems to emerge as part of the profession's liberalisation. It is important to note, however, that this isn't an alternative start for modernism, more an illustration of art history's narrative arc in a state of aporia, riddled with hitherto un-contextualized points of discontinuity.

For instance, through a close reading of eighteenth-century comedy about the life and work of artists, I show a set of gendered relations between the absurd pretentious of male painters and the steady hand of women who as wives and lovers - oversee and regulate the domestic sphere art so often threatens to disrupt. In one comedy we learn that the rent is due on Aufinello's home and a collector is waiting in the wings to buy a work that will save the day. To the exasperation of the Marie, the artist's wife, Aufinello is horrified that art should be subject to the base exigencies of trade and promptly defaces the work in question.

This is hardly insightful art criticism, but it is arguable no less telling. The work's destruction may be an early example of eighteenth-century abstraction, or at least an incarnation of Lacan's "objet petit-a", the creation of an object charged with thwarted desire. Aufinello's case is not unique. There are numerous other instances of art's destruction or defacement as a riposte to the incursions of domestic economy.

And when all it goes horribly wrong, there is another instructive trope on hand: the image of the artist as drunk. Here we have the prospect that alcohol fuels a sequestered imaginary for the making of art. In this world, art's pretensions are absurd; in another world, however, they are wholly credible. Here we have "vin-rouge" as a the chemical conduit to modernism appears well before its time.

By way of a conclusion, I show the fabric of art history can also be stretched in two directions. If abstraction has its origins in eighteenth-century France, the idea that comedy might provide a telling insight into art with the same pretended threats of domestic disruption can still be seen over 200 years later when "Aphrodite at the Water-hole", Tony Hancock's signature sculpture from Robert Day's 1962 film "The Rebel", falls through the floor of his apartment, narrowly missing Mrs Cravat, his landlady. She escapes unharmed and domestic order once again prevails. It is at this point, however, that Tony heads for a bar in Parisian Bohemia where modern antics forest rehearsed centuries early can once again be played out. Read in a spirit of provocation, the article makes art history hard to write.

Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationTime, Media and Visuality in the French Revolution
EditorsRichard Taws, Iris Moon
Place of PublicationLondon
PublisherBloomsbury Academic
Number of pages28
ISBN (Print)9781501348396
Publication statusPublished - 29 Jul 2021


  • French Revolution
  • Art
  • Comedy
  • Modernism


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