Artful exploration of rebellions that shook the world

Wed, Jan 18, 2012, 00:00

A cacophonous exhibition in New York argues that the modern world is a product of revolution, and examines how progress was made with the bullet and the brain

IN DEFINING the deficiencies of American art in the 19th century, James Jackson Jarves noted laconically that if one was “to be limited to what actually exists in America of indigenous art, it would be almost as brief as that on snakes in a certain History of Ireland”. Although Jarves admitted that the US artist “is no longer obliged to rob the tail of his mother’s cat to make a brush”, he argued that America was “only a step in advance of the rudimentary savages who fail to discriminate in a painting between a man, horse, house, tree or ship”. The only solution, he concluded, was to look to Europe.

America’s great 19th-century museums purchased pedigree by buying prime art and artefacts in Europe. While its museums are now outstanding repositories of international art, such insecurities led to bizarre cultural dislocations, such as the Metropolitan Museum constructing its Cloisters site from the stone of five medieval French monasteries, or the transportation of London Bridge, granite block by block, to a planned community on the shore of Lake Havasu, Arizona, in 1964.

Not so the New-York Historical Society at Central Park West. Founded in 1804, its sights were on its native origins, history and culture. As one of the US’s oldest cultural institutions, it recently reopened after a $70 million (€55.3m) restoration programme, and it packs a punch. It serves as a national forum for debates on the making and meaning of history. It has an outstanding library, and preserves one of the world’s greatest collections of historical artefacts and American art.

But its greatest contribution is to knowledge; it has a rigorous, innovative and original research culture that permeates everything it does.

The society was founded in the immediate aftermath of the defining revolutions of the late 18th century in America, France and Haiti – the subject of its re-opening exhibition – “that reverberated like rolling thunder back and forth across the Atlantic, with consequences that are still felt today”. Indeed, its rumbles were heard in Ireland in 1798.

Revolution! The Atlantic World Rebornis a groundbreaking exhibition, demonstrating new scholarship, presented in an engrossing way. It shows how the American fight for independence sparked radical calls for universal human rights, and against hereditary privilege and slavery. One outcome was an insurrection in the French colony of Saint-Domingue (now Haiti), leading to the world’s only successful slave revolt, and the establishment in 1804 of the independent nation of Haiti, founded on the principles of freedom and equality for all.

Revolution! is the first exhibition to relate the American, French and Haitian struggles as a single global narrative, and it demonstrates that it was out of revolution that the modern world was born. In the 20th century, universal human rights became a global ideal, resulting in the 1948 UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights, rooted in these events.

The narratives are presented in galleries designed to evoke gathering places, where people exchanged news and argued the big ideas of the day. The settings allow the drama of the events to unfold, pulling the visitor into the action and debate. Exhibits include a leg-yoke, used to shackle captives, taken from a French slave ship; the original Stamp Act, passed by the British parliament in 1765, setting off the riots that led to the American Revolution; a first edition of Thomas Paine’s Common Sense (1776); the “Africa Box” filled with craftworks and agricultural products from Africa, used by abolitionist Thomas Clarkson in his lectures against slavery; the only known surviving copy of the first printing of the Haitian Declaration of Independence; a wooden model of the slave ship Brookes, produced for the French revolutionary leader Mirabeau, which was used in the National Assembly’s debate on ending slavery in France; and voodoo sculptures, produced by secret societies in Haiti.

While the exhibition displays important paintings, such as Anne-Louis Girodet de Roussy-Tioson’s imposing portrait of the great Saint-Domingue military and political leader Jean-Baptiste Belley, the “most important image of a black revolutionary”, one of the fascinating aspects of this exhibition is how it draws on broadsides, political and satirical cartoons and other manifestations of popular culture, and is not reliant on high art to carry a message from a single elitist perspective.

The exhibited artefacts tell the complex political, social and economic stories and explore the worldwide ramifications of revolution. Visitors are introduced to the new public sphere of political argument as the great issues of colour, class and power are played out over a 40-year period that changed the course of world history.

It begins in 1763, when the British defeated French and Spanish forces in the Seven Years War.

There is a tavern in the Caribbean, which is the cacophonous setting for arguments against the palace, the churches and the landlords. This is a highly argumentative exhibition, presented less as a chronology than as a set of ideas. As colonists argued for independence and sovereignty, the reform of slavery and related aspects of emancipation became the burning issues of the day.

Abolitionists used propaganda images – techniques of mobilisation that are now standard in the modern world – that make fascinating viewing today. By 1807, Britain had abolished the slave trade and turned its maritime attentions to hampering the human trafficking of its own rivals.

The French Revolution and the fall of the monarchy also led to the independence of its prize colony, Saint-Domingue. The rich sugar planters bid for autonomy from France, and their mixed-race children – often wealthy, free people of colour – responded to the calls for Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité by calling for racial equality within economic class structures. But the colony’s poor whites agitated for the overthrow of all hierarchies. Paradoxically, none of these wanted the abolition of slavery, but in 1791, the 90 per cent majority, which was African and enslaved, rebelled. Enter Toussaint Louverture, the military genius and mastermind of the rebellion that achieved the total abolition of slavery in 1794.

The formerly enslaved now sought to create a distinctive national identity out of the enormous diversity of their various African backgrounds, through the development of a new form of spirituality (vodoun), a new national language (Krèyol), and a new form of household organisation (the lakou).

Napoleon’s 1802 invasion of Saint-Domingue was intended to reinstitute slavery (by killing the freed slaves and importing a new workforce from Africa). But he was defeated by General Jean-Jacques Dessalines, who declared the independence of Haiti. Remarkably, Haiti became the first nation to enshrine equality and emancipation in its constitution –­ indisputably one of the great achievements of this era of revolution.

The ramifications of these revolutions, good and bad, are explored but the long-term legacy of this period, “an ineradicable aspiration for democratic rights in the Atlantic world and beyond”, is argued in the superb catalogue, edited by Thomas Bender, Laurent Dubois and Richard Rabinowitz. This exhibition tells a series of interrelated stories that are about the very foundation of the modern world, and in a time of global depression, it is important to remember that the life of the mind is what makes progress possible.

Revolution! The Atlantic World Reborncontinue until April 15, then tours in the US, the UK and France