Monday, June 30, 2008

"O Heart of Marat"

This is a famous picture of a famous murder. This is Jacques Louis David's painting of the crime scene following Charlotte Corday's murder of the revolutionary leader Jean-Paul Marat. In the summer of 1793, Charlotte Corday fatally stabbed Marat as he was bathing. She used a note feigning family distress to gain access to Marat. It was this crime that began the wave of executions and massacres across revolutionary France known as "The Terror."
David was commissioned to paint the murder almost as soon as it happened. He had extraordinary access to the crime scene and to Marat's corpse, making drawings and sketches as he examined it.
This is a painting that practically shrieks accusations at us. The dead Marat holds in his hand, the harshly lit note from Corday (turned conveniently so we can read it) pleading, "It is enough that I am unhappy to have the right to your benevolence." On top of the orange crate that Marat used as a desk while bathing, in contrast to Corday's perfidious letter, is a note from Marat instructing her where to go for relief for her 5 children whose father died for the patrie. Next to it is a bank note. Marat's right hand, still gripping the pen, dangles lifelessly from the edge of the tub. Next to it in shadow is the murder weapon, the ivory handled knife.
This is arguably one of the most brilliant pieces of political propaganda in history. While remaining true to the facts of the scene (more or less), David transforms Marat's lurid murder into a heroic martyrdom, conspicuously borrowing upon the legacy of Christian imagery of dead martyrs and, above all, the pieta where the body of Christ is laid out in His mother's lap for the adoration of worshipers. While Charlotte Corday's note is harshly and brightly lit, the play of light and dark over Marat is softened, his face turned to us. David has really cleaned him up. Marat bathed daily in the summer to relieve painful arthritic psoriasis, which David dared not show. David gave him the body of a dead hero (or more explicitly, the dead Christ). He transformed the tub into a kind of sarcophagus from which Marat's body emerges. The orange crate is turned into a solemn grave monument bearing the inscription "To Marat." There is blood everywhere in this painting. There's blood on the ivory knife handle, blood on Corday's note, and Marat practically bathes in blood as the bath water is stained red. "May the blood of Marat become the seed of intrepid republicans!" declared one orator at Marat's funeral, giving it a kind of sacral quality.

David played a central role in the Revolution. He was a member of the powerful (and dreaded) Committee of Public Safety. He was one of the National Assembly who voted for the death of the king, Louis XVI. He was in charge of all the public pagaentry for the revolutionary regime, and he was in charge of staging Marat's funeral.
It was held in a secularized church, and like the painting (which was finished later), the funeral was intended to transform Marat into a kind of holy martyr. The body was embalmed hastily (it had begun to rapidly putrefy in the hot summer weather, the wound began to gape, and the right arm fell off and had to be sewn back on as the body was installed), it was displayed semi-nude on a high plinth surrounded by some of the very same items seen in the painting; the bathtub, orange crate, pen, knife, and treacherous note. His heart was removed and placed in a carved agate urn. In the funeral orations, the links to Christian concepts of sacred martyrdom could not be more explicit:

O heart of Jesus, O heart of have the same right to our homage. O heart of Marat, sacre coeur...can the works and benevolence of the son of Mary be compared with those of the Friend of the People and his apostles to the Jacobins of our holy Mountain?...Their Jesus was but a false prophet but Marat is a god. Long live the heart of Marat...Like Jesus, Marat loved the people ardently...Like Jesus, Marat detested nobles, priests, the rich, the scoundrels. Like Jesus, he led a poor and frugal life...

Unlike Jesus, Marat was an inflammatory and temperamental orator whose enemies frequently found themselves strung up from the nearest lamp post by mobs whipped up into homicidal frenzies by his speeches.

With the French Revolution, the age of ideological politics begins. What was once a game of princes, soldiers, and statesmen competing for power and glory, now takes on the all-encompassing doctrinal qualities of religion, and the Christian religion in particular. Political ideologies now make total and exclusive demands on their followers, requiring their complete faith and loyalty. Political ideology now promises salvation, the end of history, and a new heaven and a new earth. The doctrinal wars of the Christian Church become the ideological wars of modern politics, only now with armies and industries at the direct disposal of the high priests. History becomes a meatgrinder of competing abstractions, grinding up the flesh of legions of ordinary mortals caught in the middle.

I must confess to the most profoundly mixed feelings about David; such a brilliant artist, and what a bastard!


Grandmère Mimi said...

Counterlight, why did you wait so long to start a blog? I love yours. I'll let you educate me about the art that I love so much.

Ive seen this painting in illustrations so often that I imagined that I had seen the real thing, but it seems not. It's in Brussels, and I've never been there. Unless it was in an exhibit somewhere else.

Counterlight said...

My dear Grandmere,

As you know, blogs are such work, and I'm still figuring out mine. I enjoy freeloading and commenting on other people's blogs, but finding something of my own initiative to say can be a real challenge. In the meantime, I'm reverting to Professor Blanchard mode (though I hope to do a little better than that) as I publicly ponder some history that has bugged me for years and years.

You are always so very kind.

Grandmère Mimi said...

I'm loving Professor Blanchard - free and right here in my own home. It's not kindness, either. It's genuine appreciation.

Blogs are hard work. I don't know how Fr Jake, Tobias, Jonathan, etc. do it. I've been tempted to quit my paltry offering more than once - like, you know, totally every day.

Ruth Hull Chatlien said...

This is such an informative post. I've always found this painting so vivid--and as a writer / editor of history textbooks, I've run across it often in source material. Thanks for helping me understand it as a propaganda piece.

Tony said...

Thank you for this. I have been searching the net looking for a translation of the note Marat holds in his hand.

Has there been any other thoughts about what this note meant? Besides selfish, obvious ones?