Thursday, 30 April 2015

The French Revolution à la Jean-Claude Carrière

Full title: The Sky over the Louvre
Author: Jean-Claude Carrière
Genre: Graphic Novel
Attributes: 72 pages, hardcover
Publisher: Louvre (2011)
Between 0 and 1Zero (i.e. borrowed from local library)

The French Revolution is the backdrop of this first attempt by Jean-Claude Carriere at writing a script for a graphic novel. The book starts with Robespierre visiting the painter Jacques-Louis David while the latter was perfecting his famous Marat Assassinated. David thinks he’s brought religious art to a standstill by making Marat play the role of what had previously been considered the monopoly of the Christ. The wounds, the naked body, the head tilted to one side – all of this brings back the central image of Christianity, piety and heroism and all. But there's a problem in the painting. A problem quickly noticed by Robespierre who, riding the wave of the Revolution, has been left with an emptiness to fill, as well as with a fullness to empty. Unlike Christian icons, where the background is filled by swarms of angels beating their wings to revitalize the air, in David's painting nothing work to bring life back, nothing promises to lift the martyr to the Heavens. "The new Heaven is empty, Maximilien," explains David. At which Robespierre answers with a doubt that doesn't quite belong in any revolution: "Too empty."
August 1793, which coincides with the opening of the Louvre, is also the time when this little boy from distant Khazaria, Jules Stern, arrives in Paris slightly disoriented, searching for his mother. He sees Robespierre delivering a speech, and then he hears David, the painter, who fires a speech at the official opening of the Louvre:
"To paint the energy of a people that has burst from the bonds of humankind, we must have proud colors, a vigorous style, a bold brush, a volcanic genius!"
In this rhythm of change, art is made anew with the same passion with which heads fall by the guillotine (the Widow, the beheader).
The young Khazar, the stranger who comes to see the truth of the Revolution before its materialization, turns out to be the perfect model for a symbolic project. As everything is new and without beginning, the Revolution needs symbols. The Revolution needs an image to stand for its newness. Jules’ perfect, androgynous beauty causes David to lose his focus. The artist immerses himself in this project to the detriment of other, more “revolutionary” projects, which would have required his verve and his talent with much more force.

Jean-Claude Carrière. Source: Quobuz
Based on Carrière's erudition, the book explores the time of the French Revolution by singling out a set of events (some real, some fictional) and by combing through concepts to find the ones that fit the narrative ambition of the book.
This is no place to provide spoilers, so I won’t dwell into that. The book in itself is rather brief. It doesn't take long to read it cover to cover. Its brevity, though, allows for surprise to settle in with violence. Suffice it to say that death and life (first the one, than the other) meet on the page as they met in history. The characters partake in both of them with equal passion, children of one great revolution, victim of its own voracity.
The Cult of the Supreme Being, the creation of Robespierre and his idea of a Revolution, is perhaps the most prominent element in the book. David, the artist, wants it to be a representation of beauty; Robespierre, the ideologue, wants it as a representation of power. The two ideals clash with the force of aesthetics opposing politics. In fact, they seem to be the same thing every now and then, as art creates the icons needed for the adoration of political idols.
The Sky over the Louvre discusses utopias as well as more feasible, if hurtful, ideals. It talks about beauty and about terror, about the symbolic order and about the mechanics of ideology. It is a book of monsters and a book of historical fictions. It is, in other words, an encyclopedic take on one of Europe’s most important events. And it is, for these reasons at least, a book of admirable beauty.