Crimes de la Commune


Throughout the 19th century, the body politic in France was marred by tumult. Starting with the revolution of 1830, there had been anti-clerical riots in 1831, barricades in 1832 and 1834, and two revolutions in 1848. Between 1827 and 1849, Paris saw barricade action eight times, and it all culminated in the Paris Commune of 1871 — the bloodiest since the 1789 Revolution. Historians still differ on motives and legacies of the Communards, but their revolt was directly prompted by France’s humiliating defeat in the Franco-Prussian War and disenchantment with the royalist and conservative elite they held responsible for perceived social, economic and military failures.

The Communards declared Paris independent and set about establishing their own institutions. Weeks of fighting followed, including the semaine sanglante of 21-28 May 1871. The Bonapartist victory column at the Place Vendôme was pulled down. The Louvre and the Versailles were attacked, and as it was in Victor Hugo’s novel Notre Dame, the cathedral was surrounded and nearly burnt down; the Archbishop of Paris was murdered, along with several judges and politicians. The Palais des Tuileries, the Palais Royal, the Palais d’Orsay, the Palais de Justice, and the Hôtel de Ville were all set on fire, although not – as it was claimed hysterically at the time – by bands of female communards known as pétroleuses who walked around throwing bottles full of petroleum into bourgeoisie homes and businesses.

The revolt was eventually put down brutally by the military. Soon afterwards appeared a series of nine photographs entitled, “Crimes of the Commune” which depicted firing squads, murders and other excesses of the Communard revolutionaries. Although they were based on real events, the photos were fabrications — one of the earliest photo manipulations, not by the government but by a royalist zealot. Eugene Appert, a failed painter, ardently attended the trials of the Communards and took their portraits. Then, he hired actors to recreate firing squads, pasting the faces from the trial photos onto the restaged tableaux. Appert’s photos were so effective as political propaganda that even the embarrassed government had to ban them for they were “disturbing the public peace” by sustaining anti-Communard sentiments.

The government was less coy about other means of using photography to stamp out the Communards; the police pored over the photographs of Bruno Braquehais (who documented the Commune as it unfolded) to identify and arrest of agitators. Appert and Braquehais were just two of many photographers who made their name during the Commune, in those early heady days of photography. Their names and works are long forgotten now, but both photographers and governments still use photographic techniques and possibilities first revealed during the Commune in 1871.

The Paris Commune, 1871

cont2.jpgCommune de paris, la colonne vendôme à terre”, Bruno Braquehais, 1871

28565597.JPGFrancois-Marie-Louis-Alexandre Gobinet de Villecholle Franck, the Destruction of Vendrome Column, 1871

It was a short-lived madness–1871 Paris Commune. A reactionary measure in the wake of France’s defeat in the Franco-Prussian War. During a week [Semaine Sanglante (“Bloody Week”)], 20,000 Communards were executed and 7,500 were jailed or deported.

The column at Place Vendrome was erected by Napoleon to celebrate the victory of Austerlitz; Napoleon as Mars the Peacemaker was originally atop the column but the statue was torn down and replaced a few times after that. During the Commune in 1871, the painter Gustave Courbet proposed the column to be disassembled and re-erected in the Hôtel des Invalides, arguing, “Inasmuch as the Vendôme column is a monument devoid of all artistic value, tending to perpetuate by its expression the ideas of war and conquest of the past imperial dynasty, which are reproved by a republican nation’s sentiment, Citizen Courbet expresses the wish that the National Defense government will authorise him to disassemble this column”.

On April 12, 1871, the dismantling of the imperial symbol was voted, and the column taken down on May 8, with no intentions of rebuilding it. The bronze plates were preserved. After the assault on the Paris Commune by Adolphe Thiers, the decision was taken to rebuild the column with its statue of Napoléon. Rather than pay 323,000 francs for its re-erection as he was ordered, Courbet fled to Switzerland. During 1873 – 1874, the column was rebuilt at the center of Place Vendôme with a copy of the original statue on top.

In addition to the abovemost picture entitled, “Commune de paris, la colonne vendôme à terre”, Bruno Braquehais took 109 pictures during the Commune, which he published in a book, “Paris during the Commune”. Tragically, these pictures of various Parisians posing with Communards were used to identify and condemn the ‘rebels’, who were then punished or executed by the government.

The Commune would also give rise to another type of photo crime. Eugene Appert hired actors to re-stage the events of the Commune and photographed them; then he pasted the heads of the prominent Communards onto the photo and re-photographed the scenes. This handful of contrived images, sanctioned by the government, were complied in the book, “Crimes of the Commune”.