Forgotten Revolutions: When the Radical Becomes Routine


Delacroix Self Portrait 1837

Sometimes a revolution can be so successful that its principles and values become a new mainstream. Ironically the force of the original revolutionary impulse can be lost with the passing of the years, because, viewed from the perspective of history and hindsight, it all seems rather obvious. What was once incendiary and anarchic quickly becomes unthreatening and conventional.

Forgotten revolutions are worth revisiting because we may also be forgetting insights and perspectives that could be useful and relevant to the modern day. In remembering what sparked the revolutions of the past, we can challenge our own assumptions about the future.

Consider three great French revolutionary artists of the nineteenth century: Delacroix and the Lumiere brothers, Auguste and Louis.

Delacroix’s Sentimental Revolution

There’s currently an exhibition dedicated to Eugene Delacroix at the National Gallery in London. (Delacroix and the Rise of Modern Art runs until 22 May)

Delacroix certainly looks revolutionary. In his self-portraits he sports lustrous dark locks and he stares out at us with poise and a knowing confidence. He was greatly admired by many of the titans of modern art that followed him: Cezanne, Renoir, Van Gogh and Matisse. They copied his work, wrote about his influence, painted bizarre tributes to him.

‘We all use Delacroix’s language now.’
Paul Cezanne

But to today’s eyes Delacroix comes across as rather classical and traditional. He painted landscapes, lion hunts and harems; triumphant heroism from history and sensual scenes from the Bible.

So what was it about Delacroix’s art that his successors so admired? In what sense was he a revolutionary modernist?

We need to understand the context in which Delacroix was working in the first half of the nineteenth century. He was reacting against the stiffness and formality of conventional French Academic painting. He shunned its cold intellectualism, its rigorous adherence to the rules of composition. He abhorred its ‘slavish imitation’ of reality.

‘The first merit of a painting is to be a feast for the eye.’
Eugene Delacroix

Delacroix’s work is vibrant, colourful, sensual. It is energetic, always on the move. He painted at speed, with freedom, vigour and distortion. The artist Odilon Redon said that his was ‘a triumph of sentiment over form.’

Delacroix - Christ on the Sea of Galilee

Having had it drawn to my attention, I found myself admiring Delacroix’s commitment to sentiment and spontaneity. He is conventionally said to represent the end of romanticism. But now I understood why the exhibition positions him at the beginning of modernism.

Have we in the marketing world, I wonder, slipped back into the easy conservatism of the bourgeois Academy, the slavish commitment to structure, form, accuracy and reality? Would we not benefit from some of Delacroix’s instinct, emotion, energy and immediacy?

And, more importantly perhaps, are we writing a final chapter or a first? Do we represent the culmination of a way of thinking about brands and communication, or the commencement of something new? Are we an end or a beginning?

The Lumieres’ Train and the Suspension of Belief

The Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat Station is a modest film. It’s only 50 seconds long, black and white, and silent. It shows a steam train approaching a station; the train stops; men with moustaches and hats jump off and jump on; a husband and wife cross the screen, she in shawl, long skirt and hat, he with his hands in his pockets; guards busy themselves; a dapper young chap with a flat cap and bow tie looks awkward and leaps to get out of the way. That’s all, folks.

And yet, in its own way, The Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat Station is also completely sensational. It was created by the brothers Auguste and Louis Lumiere and was originally presented to an audience in Paris in January 1896. It was one of the world’s first films.

Not having seen a movie before, the audience was stunned, particularly by the sight of a steam train, heading straight towards them. Hitherto theatre audiences had learned to ‘suspend disbelief’ when they attended a show. Now they had to suspend belief. They had to correct the compelling notion that the train was indeed there in the stalls, speeding directly towards them.

Legend has it that many fled to the back of the auditorium, so convinced were they that the oncoming engine was about to crash in upon them.

Of course, over time we have learned to live with the wonders of film, and today The Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat Station seems rather ordinary. It’s often the case that we are startled, shocked and frightened by the new. But we have a phenomenal ability to come to terms with change; to accommodate it; to see its advantages and opportunities.

How do we recreate an equivalent sense of wonder today? What new technologies can surprise and delight in the way that the Lumieres’ train did one hundred and twenty years ago? Perhaps robots, AI, 3D printing and Oculus Rift can shake us from our scepticism; stimulate our jaded senses; challenge us once again to suspend our belief in what is real and unreal.

Whatever the technology, you have to side with the optimists. You have to imagine that there were a few Parisians glued to their seats at the first showing of the Lumiere brothers’ new film. They may have been a little scared, unsure of what they were witnessing. But they were also thrilled by the possibility of change and the wonders of a revolutionary modern age.

No. 74