Finding a Place for Lady Liberty: Thoughts on Sukorov, Napoleon, and Morrison

Next week, I’m introducing Alexander Sukorov’s Francofonia, a history about the Louvre under Nazi occupation and a philosophical inquiry into art and historical consciousness, at BYU’s International Cinema. In this genre-defying film, the figure of Marianne, the French iteration of Lady Liberty who emerged during the Revolution, is occasionally shown flitting about the empty and darkened galleries of the Louvre, declaring the republican maxim “liberté, égalité, fraternité” in her best stage whisper. This character is juxtaposed with that of Napoleon Bonaparte, who strides arrogantly around the museum, bolding appropriating King Louis XIV’s famous dictum, “l’état, c’est moi.”

Given that my primary area of research is Revolutionary France, I’m well acquainted with these figures and the roles they played at this historical juncture. The allegorical Marianne became one of its most potent representations, and the First Consul and Emperor Napoleon became one of the most powerful tyrants the modern age has produced. Marianne’s mantra embodied republican ideals, and Louis XIV/Napoleon’s articulated those of the absolute ruler. It was during the revolutionary era that the Louvre became the largest repository of art in the Western world—an institution made great by dint of Napoleon’s plundering of art during his military campaigns throughout Europe, Africa, the Middle East and the New World, and one that bore his name during his reign. After Napoleon’s rise to power, his portraits replaced images of Marianne, who was essentially taken out of circulation until Eugène Delacroix painted his now iconic Liberty Leading the People to commemorate the Revolution of 1830.

One of the ironies of the age—and the grand argument of my scholarship—is that women flourished in the cultural sphere as artists, writers, musicians, and other creative types under the rule of this notorious misogynist. Case in point: when Napoleon exiled the brilliant philosopher and his outspoken critic, Germaine de Staël, forbidding her to come within forty miles of her beloved Paris, she formed a salon in Coppet, Switzerland that became a locus for the development of European Romanticism. And when Napoleon passed his Civil Code, which not only revoked legal gains women had made under the Revolution but also added new restrictions, Staël responded with her bestselling and critically-acclaimed novel Corinne, or Italy, a thinly veiled critique of his oppressive regime that made the radical proposition that a woman could be a genius. So despite Napoleon’s attempts to thwart Staël’s intellectual and political activities, she carried on . . . and how. Opposition can be a productive thing.

The day after the election, an artist friend of mine posted this quote on social media:

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Toni Morrison speaks truth. A year ago, I arrived in Paris to do research shortly after the deadly terrorist attacks. I witnessed artists create installations, give performances, take to social media in response to this devastation and I took solace in this (see my previous HC blog post). And when artists ZaG & Sìa produced a tribute to Delacroix’s Liberty last March, I cheered. With their self-described “anamorphic street art performance,” Marianne was released from the hallowed halls of the Louvre to take her rightful place on the streets of Paris. There, she can remind le peuple of their shared convictions and their sacred obligation to honor these.

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ZaG & Sìa, La Liberté guidant le peuple, March 1, 2016, 13e

arrondisement, Paris. Image posted to Facebook by the artists (image in the public domain)

I want to return to Sukorov’s Francofonia, and to the final scene featuring Marianne and Napoleon. In it, we see the two sitting on a bench side by side, gazing upon the Mona Lisa and engaging in their battle of words. Whereas the delivery of his “c’est moi” becomes increasingly agitated, even pathetic, her repetition of the “liberté, égalité, fraternité” becomes stronger and more assured. Watching Sukorov’s film and giving some time and space to its suggestions about the power and place of art has been surprisingly restorative, as has returning to Morrison’s words. And after a few dark and difficult weeks, I’m eager to be about the important work of speaking, writing, and doing.

This blog post was written by Heather Belnap Jensen, Department of Comparative Arts & Letters, Humanities Center Fellow

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