I have yet to be able to think of a good title for this post. It comes of looking at too many paintings set in the decade before the French revolution, while trying to get an idea of clothing, costumes, hair and wigs, and so on and so forth. (Upcoming trilogy set during the French Revolution and involving vampires and the Scarlet Pimpernel, first book SCARLET, you know the drill.)
The figures stare out with faint smiles or thoughtful expressions – genuine? Or added by the artist because that was what was wanted and the subject was paying the fee? – well, we can’t tell now. Their gloved hands or white fingers are so very fragile. The silks or muslins of their clothing are rich, expensive, fashionable, beautiful. Were the paintings intended as gifts for lovers, or heirlooms for families, or simply the joy of the artist? Did that pretty Fragonard painting of a young girl on a swing, kicking off her slipper in a flurry of petticoats so that her reclining lover (one assumes) could catch it, mean anything? Or was it . . . just art? (Okay, that one’s 1767, so a little earlier, but . . .)
Very shortly it won’t matter. The paintings may remain, but the subjects will be exiled or executed. The whole of the ancien regime is about to come crashing down like an expensive vase. (Or would it be more appropriate to compare it to one of those “one of a kind” commemoration pieces of china which look so gilded at the time, but so tacky afterwards?) Marie Antoinette’s belongings will be sold off at public auction. The Law of Suspects will make suspicion sufficient for execution. The King himself will go to the guillotine. Notre-Dame will have its ancient statues beheaded. But the pictures will remain, like fractions of light caught in a stained glass window and somehow preserved there. Faces which don’t see the future coming.
I think the feeling which has grown on me, painting after painting, is that nobody sees the future coming. We talk about Revolutions and Collapses of Empire and so on as though the paths leading there were obvious at the time, and the pictures which come down to us should display some sort of foreshadowing.. It’s easy for an author to write in foreshadowing when she knows what the end of the story is; she can go back and add it to make the whole thing a complete work of art. But at the Point Before, we don’t know. Artists don’t know. Writers don’t know.
The influencer stares into the camera and smiles. The media focuses on the latest show business divorce trial. We don’t know, we can’t know – or at least, we can’t be certain – what the future may bring, even if after the fact people may say that “the oncoming X was obvious”. They may even be right. But all those paintings stare back at me in their expensive clothing and their fashionable hairstyles, and they know nothing of the oncoming Revolution and the guillotine.