It is naïve to compare their actions to the toppling of Saddam Hussein’s statue in Iraq, or the fall of the Berlin Wall – reactions to present-day oppressions directly experienced by those involved. The Colston case is what Bristol Mayor Marvin Rees has called ‘performance activism’. I call it ‘re-enactivism’, role-playing a historical battle already won. An anti-slavery protest in 1821 would have had a point: but in 2021?
The word ‘vandalism’, to describe the deliberate destruction of artworks, was coined during the French Revolution by Henri Grégoire, an anti-slavery campaigner and priest. I was reminded of an incident in Arras in the 1990s, after the Bicentenary of the Revolution. Vandals dressed up as jeunesse dorée –Royalist dandies of the 1790s – beheaded figures on a monument to the Rosati (a local literary society), probably because the prominent Revolutionary Maximilien Robespierre had been a member. They were never caught. The sculptures have since been restored. But it was as pointless as dramatic and damaging: a protest for a cause two centuries in the past.
Robespierre: controversial revolutionary
Arras is a good place to look at contested histories and controversial monuments. Plans are now finally underway in Arras to make Robespierre’s House into a museum and study centre on the French Revolution. Siblings Maximilien, Charlotte and Augustin Robespierre rented a town-house for a few years in the late 1780s. The building spent much of 20th century as a typing school – losing many of its period features – and was only acquired by the council in the 1980s.
Disputes over commemorating Robespierre (like Grégoire, also an opponent of slavery) go back many years. The Counter-Reformation left the town – once part of the Spanish Netherlands – with a strong traditionalist Catholic component. As a border territory, threatened with invasion during the Revolutionary wars, it saw harsh local repression under Joseph Le Bon. A guillotine operated in the Place du Théâtre. After the coup of Thermidor, Year 2 (July 1794), Maximilien Robespierre was made a convenient scapegoat locally as well as nationally.
The fiercest memorial battles arose during the reconstruction of Arras after the First World War, as Steven Kaplan describes in Farewell, Revolution: Disputed Legacies, France 1789/1989. The Renaissance town hall had been smashed to rubble, but rose again. The squares and streets were pieced back together, new monuments planned. The left-wing mayor proposed a bust of Robespierre.
Jeanne d’Arc: Catholic nationalist icon
The religious right retaliated by demanding a memorial to Jeanne d’Arc, who was said to have been briefly imprisoned by the Burgundians in the keep in 1430. Her cult is closely associated with right-wing nationalism, even monarchism. It took off in 19th century, especially after the Prussians seized Alsace and Lorraine in 1871, because Jeanne had been born in Lorraine (then part of the Holy Roman Empire). She was beatified in 1909 and promoted as a patriotic icon in World War I, in which France aimed to retake Alsace and Lorraine. Her 1920 canonisation recognised her wartime propaganda role and served the Vatican’s fightback against the French Republic’s laïcité.
However, she presents another problem in Arras. She was a prisoner there because Arras was not then in France, but in the Burgundian State, allied to England in the 100 Years War. This later became the Spanish Netherlands, from which Arras was taken by France in the Thirty Years’ War (and formally ceded in 1659). Commemorating a French national heroine in a town which was not part of France in her time – indeed, where she was an enemy combatant – could be seen as rubbing Arrageois noses in their own annexation, all the more perplexing when driven by locals.
Robespierre and Jeanne d’Arc: commemorating opposites
Despite stunts such as mock-guillotines, the pouring of red paint in the street by Royalists, and vandalism against a commemorative plaque on his house, Robespierre got a rather chunky Art Deco bust by Marius Léon Cladel, a sculptor from a pro-Communard (and part-Jewish) literary family, in 1933. It is kept inside the rebuilt Hôtel de Ville, partly for its safety and partly because the marble used is not weatherproof, although there are casts of it in his house and also at the Lycée Robespierre. Jeanne, meanwhile, has a much larger bronze and stone monument outside the Cathedral of Saint-Vaast. It is by Maxime Réal del Sarte, a right-wing Catholic, a supporter of the Orléanist monarchist cause and of L’Action Française, who had lost an arm in the First World War.
The idea that an artwork deserves protection only if you ‘approve of’ its subject is troubling. Who decides? Many Renaissance and Baroque rulers would be in trouble. I have a deep antipathy towards Peter I and his war-mongering, repressive autocracy; but the world would be poorer without Falconet and Collot’s Bronze Horseman, and the literature (by Pushkin and Bely, among others) it has inspired. Also, a statue or portrait is not a witch’s poppet: damaging or destroying it cannot harm its subject, living or dead. It harms only the work of art.
And what about the artist? John Cassidy (1860–1939), Colston’s Irish-born sculptor, whose Manchester grave carries the epitaph ‘His hands fashioned the beauty he saw’, has been erased from the discussion. His other works include more radical figures: a plaque to Henry ‘Orator’ Hunt and sketches for a monument to Theobald Wolfe Tone. His Colston figure is an elegant, if generic 17th century gentleman, who could as easily be repurposed as John Evelyn or Isaac Newton, or ‘answered’ by an anti-slavery figure placed in dialogue.
Living with competing narratives
A mature society should be able to live with multiple and conflicting historical narratives. To applaud the vandalism of art depicting characters you dislike leaves no defence when your opponents attack those you prefer. Arras – indeed, France generally – has experienced several past iconoclasms and seems, on the whole, to have come out the other side. The southern city of Montpellier’s Place de la Révolution Française has busts of figures from rival factions, copied from 18th and 19th century originals, all now sharing the same space.
What worries me most, though, is that young people seem more energised by this kind of re-enactivism than by the real dangers we currently face: assaults on democracy; assaults on the NHS in the face of covid; the theft of our European identity and citizenship. Tearing down 19th century statues, instead of Tufton or Downing Street, is a self-indulgent displacement activity.