- Art in the Age of Civil Struggle, 1848-1871. Vol. 4 of A Social History of Modern Art
Art in the Age of Civil Struggle, 1848-1871 is the fourth volume of Albert Boime's ambitious five-volume series, A Social History of Modern Art. As indicated by the title of the series, Boime applies a materialist approach to cultural production, reconstructing the process by which paintings assume resonance and construct meanings, politically, socially, and ideologically. The dates coincide with the rise and heyday of Realism, a style engendered by the 1848 revolutions and the inability of either Romanticism or Classicism to adequately signify the political situation. Biome defines "radical realism" as the shearing away of the dominant belief systems and treats the artist as a kind of sociologist through whose prism the "ugly in life is faithfully portrayed" and even magnified, "giving speech to the culturally voiceless" (81). Radical realism's distinctive and repellent "ugliness" by Salon standards wedded the style to the February 1848 revolution in France and to the dread of socialism among the bourgeoisie that fueled the "ugly revolution" of June 1848. This counter-revolutionary backlash brutally squelched the workers and signaled the death knell of the Second Republic, sending aftershocks throughout Europe.
Clearly Boime considers France in 1848 as the progenitor of realism in its most extreme, politically potent form, establishing the standard against which other and later manifestations are measured. However, national permutations underscore Realism's elasticity in prostelytizing myriad ideologies, evident in Boime's analysis of the changes in France—traced from the Second Republic to the Franco-Prussian War—but equally apparent through contrasts with the English Pre-Raphaelites, Italian Macchiaioli, German Biedermeier culture, and Civil War America. Stressing its inherent subjectivity, Boime admits that Realism is "less a style or a movement than a state of mind committed to reproducing aspects of the unstable world of sensory perception" in order "to understand it, fix it, and even to change it" (77-78). Specific artists considered paradigmatic of the political circumstances in each country are spotlighted, using a "life-work" approach with a decidedly psychoanalytic bent. This additional interpretive prism seems at odds with the underlying Marxist premise that art bubbles up from the economic base, rather than as the expression of an individual author's aesthetic preference or personal psyche. Throughout, Boime facilely shifts perspective from the macro level of national politics to the micro level of individual biography. While economic and political forces are privileged, psycho-dynamic motivations are sandwiched amid discussions of class consciousness and social upheaval, at times to surprising effect. [End Page 155]
Analysis of Thomas Couture's The Enrollment of the Volunteers (1848-1879) in chapter one exemplifies Boime's argument for a one-to-one correlation between politics and art. Intended as pendant to his famous critique of Louis-Philippe's July Monarchy, The Romans of the Decadence (1847), the unfinished canvas bears witness to Couture's inability to fabricate a paean to class solidarity, whose fiction was unmasked by the dissolution of the National Workshops, suppression of the workers' uprising, and ultimately by the December election of Louis-Napoleon to the presidency. For Boime the ambiguities and conservatism that derailed the Second Republic are visually paralleled in Couture's aborted "hybrid composition," an uneasy amalgam of realist and allegorical features. Similarly Boime credits the shift to agrarian themes to the politicization of the "rustic hinterlands" (82), attributing the emergence of controversial rural imagery to peasant struggles sparked by 1848. Chapters two and three spotlight "radical realists," Jean-Francois Millet and Gustave Courbet respectively, relative to their thematizing of peasant life in the aftermath of revolution. Political and personal fuse in analysis of Millet's contentious canvases, as Boime speculates that the artist privately identified with the biblical "captive Jew" separated from his homeland, a metaphor for the artist imprisoned in the Salon system and the Parisian market. Millet's breakthrough painting, The Winnower (1848...