Nineteenth Century French Studies 31.3&4 (2003) 363-365
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McWilliam, Neil. Monumental Intolerance: Jean Baffier, a Nationalist Sculptor in Fin-de-Siècle France. Pennsylvania State UP, 2000. Pp. xiv + 326. ISBN 0-271-01965-4
As we watch wide-eyed at a resurgence of ultraconservative nationalism in France, the examination of its nineteenth-century counterparts and the needs they answered for individuals and groups offers fascinating comparison. Neil McWilliam's project is not to resurrect the work of sculptor Jean Baffier, but to use him as a focus for looking at the roots of such conservatism and the needs it serves. Baffier's convictions and activities offer cogent parallels to those trying to fathom the psychological currents driving similar elements in contemporary society, French or other.
McWilliam has spent enough time digging through archives to feel confident that only Rodin, of all the sculptors of the period, was the subject of more interviews and profiles than Baffier. How could this controversial and flamboyant figure have been forgotten? McWilliam provides us with no check list of Baffier's production, but his failure to achieve commissions for major sites may be one reason why he has been lost to memory. As one pieces together Baffier's chronology from the series of essays that make up the book, one discovers a self-educated peasant who took himself to Paris but, in order to keep going, still had to work for other sculptors (such as Rodin) when he was in his thirties. Frustrated with the course of his own life and sensing a lack of functioning authority about him, he took a knife to Paris deputy Germain Casse in a crowded antechamber of the Palais Bourbon. Although he was charged [End Page 363] with attempted murder, a four hour hearing brought a quick acquittal. The publication of a sympathetic biography during his four months in custody and the presentation of a compassionate medico-legal report at the trial won public good will. His appealing appearance as a naive and bluff country man, a sincere fellow, made him a temporary folk hero, a man driven to despairing action by current political calamities and the unresponsiveness of government. McWilliam's study of the case leads him to interpret Baffier as anything but naive, as having carefully calculated his self presentation. He won his case in this instance, but his tactics did not always work to his satisfaction.
McWilliam organizes his study into a series of essays. He introduces Baffier with a chapter on the attack on Germain Casse. Other chapters which center themselves on problems of memorializing reach far beyond Baffier and his work. His statue of Marat allows a look at the way the Revolution of 1789 was represented during the Third Republic. Then there is the problem of memorializing the debacle of the Franco-Prussian War. The politics of Baffier's monument to the dead of Cher allows McWilliam to move about among sculptors and monuments and especially to read the way a "racial" history is imagined for the sake of national unity.
The essay format frustrates any underlying need that the reader may feel to get a sense of Baffier's work. There is no place for presenting the extent of his œuvre or for providing a chronology. A necessary dependence on old photographs makes it impossible to gauge the appearance or craftsmanship of his work. But these comments are merely reflex action for one with an art historian's itch for a frame work. And these comments are irrelevant to what McWilliam is trying to do with this fascinating series of essays. The variety of memorializing monuments and their various ways of dealing with identity and defeat in late nineteenth-century France are reason enough for historians as well as art historians to enjoy this text.
But there is also this figure of Baffier, his conviction that republican government and industrial capitalism are destroying the true French life of the countryside and his consequent political involvement with conservative groups. A picture of him gradually emerges and...