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Aux Morts de la Commune: Photographs from the Paris Commune of 1871

Updated: Dec 11, 2021

On a wall tucked in the back of the Père Lachaise cemetery in Paris — famous to most Americans as the resting place of rock 'n' roll bad boy Jim Morrison — is a simple plaque reading Aux Morts de la Commune, “To the Dead of the Commune.” The site, called the Mur des Fédérés, is pastoral now: in spring, the well tended flower beds blossom, and a grand, old horse chestnut tree spreads its branches over the spot. But on May 28, 1871, the wall was the favored site for the summary execution of those taken in the last, bloody days of the Paris Commune. Once captured, the Communards were lined up, 20 at a time, and gunned down, their bodies falling into a ditch that served as their mass grave.

For more than a century, the spot served as a point of pilgrimage for leftists coming to pay tribute to the Communards of 1871. But the triumphant march of capitalism in the last decades of the 20th century rendered places like the Mur des Fédérés among the casualties of history. Commemorative wreathes once hung from the iron prongs nailed into the wall there; today, someone still lays flowers at the site, but the wreathes are long gone.

Despite its brevity — it lasted just 72 days — the Commune has enjoyed a powerful hold on the French political imagination and, coupled with the war that preceded it, haunted European history well into the 20th century. As Quentin Bazac points out in the exhibition catalogue that accompanied a 2001 show that collected these images together at the Musée D’Orsay, it was also the first significant event of French history to enjoy extensive photographic documentation, and the products of that effort were “abundant and varied” — images taken in the streets during the insurrection, portraits of the leaders, later views of the city in ruins, and the first politically inspired photomontages.

The story of the Commune, much simplified, goes thus: following the French defeat in the Franco-Prussian War, a victorious Bismarck exacted punishing reparations from the French government in Versailles (to the tune of five billion francs). What was worse to Parisians, the Germans insisted on staging a victory parade down the Champs d’Élysées at the beginning of March. Having already suffered considerably under a five-month Prussian siege, Paris was in no mood to capitulate. And while the Germans’ triumphal march transpired without incident, the city exploded two weeks later. On March 18, when the Versaillais government sent its own troops into the city to take several cannons that had been used for its defense (and paid for by public subscription), Paris — and in particular working-class Paris — staged an impromptu rebellion. Challenged by the city’s civilian militia (the Garde Nationale), the government troops deserted en masse. In the ensuing fracas, two Versaillais generals were killed by the mob, and the people and their militia began erecting barricades. A government was improvised, with elections called for on March 26. Two days later, what came to be known as the Commune took power.

Much ink has been spilled over the years about the exact character of the Commune, which, short-lived as it was, has been hard for historians to pin down. In the hysteria that followed its defeat, the Communards were portrayed as criminals and rabid Communists and, in later decades, as heroic martyrs of the left. In fact, they seemed to have been a mixed bunch: there were workers and socialists among them certainly, but more of the Proudhonist than the Marxist variety, as well as men of the middle class and artisans. Their program, to the extent that they had an opportunity to formulate one, was direct democracy.

We’ll never really know, of course, what they might have accomplished given the twin luxuries of time and peace. In fact, most of their brief incumbency was spent in battle gear, for no sooner had the Versaillais armies been routed than they regrouped. Within a week after the declaration of the Commune, the government troops were on the attack. Seventy-two days after it had begun, at the end of what came to be known as la Semaine sanglante, the bloody week, the Commune went down in flames. Paris was, literally, burning — the Tuileries, the Palais Royal, the Ministry of Justice were all set on fire — and as the Versaillais troops began hunting down Communards, the insurgents who remained retaliated by executing hostages, clerics among them. In the ensuing years, much was made of Communard brutality, but a quick glance at statistics argues that the Versaillais army had more than its fair share of blood on its hands. For every regular soldier who died in the fighting, four Communards fell, and by its own admission, the government slaughtered 17,000 of the insurrectionists and took some 35,000 prisoner.*

* In the following year, 20,000 were acquitted, some 4,500 transported to New Caledonia, and the remainder sentenced to prison.

The whole sorry affair seems to have served as a dress rehearsal for later history, with the old animosities between the French and the Germans resurfacing in 1914 and again in 1939. Certain events of the two world wars bore an uncanny resemblance to those of the Franco-Prussian war and the repression of the Commune. Just as the Prussians had been eager to exact crippling war reparations in 1870, the French were keen to bankrupt the Germans in 1918, and some 20 years later, the Germans got their own revenge by parading, once again, down the Champs d’Élysées. What is more, many of the tactics the Versaillais government used in the repression of the Commune were to reappear, to even more ghastly effect, during World War II, specifically, the use of surveillance photography and concentration camps.

And throughout it all, the cameras were clicking. The photographers of the Commune are mostly unknown today, but they produced an impressive body of work: rudimentary street shooting, formal portraits of the Communards, and exquisitely composed images of the city in ruins as well as some of the first morgue and ID photos ever taken and the first politically inspired photomontages. It’s a wide-ranging list, eloquently documenting that if the events of 1871 at times foreshadowed what was to come, the men who photographed them likewise anticipated the future. Even in its early decades, the medium had already laid out many of the terms by which it would live for the next hundred-odd years.

In one of its first official acts, the Commune hired a number of photographers — Eugène Disderi among them — to document the unclaimed bodies of Garde Nationale who had fallen in combat against the Prussians. The rough-hewn images they made are the original morgue photographs and, in turn, distant relatives of Andres Serrano’s morgue series, but made for far more pragmatic — and solemn — purposes than Serrano’s existential meditations on death. Taken in the early days of the Commune, they were a public service, designed to help families identify their dead. Disderi and his fellows photographed the bodies, sometimes in individual portraits, sometimes in chilling group shots with the shrouded corpses lined up next to one another in their caskets.*

* The signature image from the Commune — the one that is reproduced in virtually all the texts on the subject — is a Disderi photograph that has been widely accepted as depicting insurrectionists killed by Versaillais troops in the Semaine sanglante. But Bajac suggests that this image has been misidentified for over a century and, in fact, comes from one in the series commissioned by the Commune to aid in the identification of the war dead.

At the same time Disderi and his colleagues were making these grisly records, other photographers were leaving the studio to document what was happening on the streets. Constrained by the limitations of their equipment, they had to satisfy themselves with images of the barricades that had sprung up all over the city, formal portraits of the leaders, and the occasional interior shot of the Hotel de Ville, the administrative center of Paris. The vast majority of the photographs made under the Commune feature groups of rigid figures posing formally before whatever monument was at hand — the Hôtel de Ville, the barricade at the place de la Concorde, the place Vendôme — and in short time, many of these pictures made their way onto the marketplace for, after the Commune had fallen, a brisk trade sprang up in individual images and albums of the events of 1871.

By far the most popular of these post-Commune products, though, featured images of Paris in ruins. During the Semaine sanglante, much of the city was in flames*, but when the fighting had stopped, a small army of photographers (all of whom seem to have stayed safely home while the blood was flowing) dusted off their dark cloths and hit the streets again. The ruins made an irresistible subject, and they were, as well, exactly the kind of topic deemed suitable for photography. Heroic subjects — battle scenes, state events, and the like — were reserved for painters and, at the least, the draughtsmen who churned out illustrations for the press, but the charred ruins of Paris were considered the perfect subject for the camera, with its ability to render precise detail and perspective.

* Who set them is still a matter of some debate: after the dust had settled, the Versaillais government, not surprisingly, pointed to the burning of Paris as yet more evidence of the barbarity of the Commune. On the other side, the fires were imputed to the ruthless bombardment by the Versaillais army.

Moreover, following the defeat of the Commune, the government censors kept a watchful eye on what was made available on the marketplace, and in a decree of December 28, 1871, banned anything that would disturb the public order. The innocent images of the ruins, however, escaped the ban and thus became the most readily available souvenirs of the time. Not surprising then that they sold like hot cakes. They sold to Parisians returning home after the ordeal, to provincials curious to see what had happened, and to the mostly English tourists who signed on for hastily organized Cook’s tours of the devastated city. They were shown in exhibitions that traveled from Paris and Versailles to London and Liverpool, and they served as models for the engravings that appeared in the popular press. They became, in short order, the quintessential imagery of the Commune, and as Luxenberg observes, in the absence of any open discussion of what had transpired, they served as the only means of contemplating what had been lost. Even now, they retain much of their power, and while perhaps lacking the majesty of George N. Barnard’s documentation of Sherman’s scorched-earth campaign through the American South or the heart-breaking immediacy of our own images of the World Trade Center towers in ruins, photographs such as those collected in J. Andrieu’s elegiac Désastres de la guerre seem to ask, with an air of bewildered melancholy, how this came to pass.

What’s missing in this collection of imagery is, of course, the action. There are no epic photographs from the front lines, no pictures of any of the street fighting nor even, with one notable exception, of the daily work of soldiering. The medium was only some 30 years old in 1871, and the state of the art made photography a cumbersome affair. The bulky equipment, long exposure times, the whole wet-plate process itself — all argued against the kind of speed and spontaneity that we of the 35mm world associate with camera work. The exception was Bruno Braquehais, whose work is marked by a level of spontaneity unusual for the era. Certain of his images — specifically those picturing Garde Nationale at their posts and Versaillais troops in the camps they set up in the Tuileries — have an anachronistic quality, as though a time-traveling James Nachtwey arrived miraculously on the scene toting wet plates, an 8x10 camera, and a rudimentary street shooter’s sensibility.

As with most of the photographers represented in this exhibition, little is known about Braquehais. His manifest sympathy toward his subjects and open access to the inner corridors of Communard power have led many observers to conclude that he was himself a champion of the new government or even its quasi-official photographer. His pictures have a relaxed, Sunday-picnic air about them that was unlike anything else in the exhibition. In one, a group of insurrectionists is gathered in front of the Vendôme column. At first glance, this image looks like every other group shot from the era: a collection of stiffs standing at attention for the photographer. Look closer, though, and you discover people mugging for the camera: one fellow affecting a distinctly martial stance, with hand on saber, stands right next to young boy inexplicably lying face down on the ground, while behind them the drum corps makes ready to beat out a tattoo. As Bajac points out, there is a freedom of attitude here and a complicity between subjects and photographer that is exceptional for the time.

One remarkable group portrait taken by Braquehais at Porte Maillot, one of the batteries set up on the Left Bank, may be unexceptional as an image. But it is distinctive largely because, unlike others of its ilk, the scene looks completely unposed: a group of soldiers, largely oblivious to the photographer, stands around a cannon. But this photograph is poignant as only a photograph can be: at the righthand of the image, Braquehais has captured one of the soldiers in mid-stride. He looks directly at the camera and, it seems, directly at us across the span of 130 years.

In direct contrast to Braquehais stands the far more troubling figure of Ernest Eugène Appert. Appert worked enthusiastically with the Versaillais government in the days after the repression of the Commune and enjoyed nearly unlimited access to Communard prisoners. Appert made an extensive series of portraits of these men and women and built up quite a thriving enterprise out of them: the pictures were mug shots, destined for the official dossiers being compiled on the Commune. They made their way onto the marketplace, though, and were snatched up by an insatiably curious public until the nervous authorities of the Third Republic clamped down on the trade.

But Appert’s most striking contribution to the imagery of the Commune was the series of photomontages he made depicting various events from its brief history. Billing himself as peintre-photographe, painter photographer, he registered a series of photomontages that depicted the execution of hostages by the Communards under the name Crimes de la Commune and several additional images picturing the internment, trial, and execution of the rebellion’s leaders.* With these patently fabricated images, Appert proved himself the compleat reactionary: on the political front, he set out to demonize the Commune and on the aesthetic, he aspired to ennoble the lowly camera. Confronted with the question of how the medium of photography might create the kind of heroic tableaux that hung on the walls of the Salon, Appert came up with the answer “cut and paste.” He “painted” the scene, much as Gerôme would have painted his Death of Caesar or Louis XIV and Molière at Dinner; only Appert used bits of cut-up photographs instead of oils. He hired actors to play the various principals in his dramas and then, drawing on his stash of prison images, pasted on portraits of the real-life Communards, touched up the seams, and then re-photographed the whole assemblage.

*According to the decree of February 10, 1852, all photographs intended for the commercial market had to be approved by the ministry of the interior. Sporadically enforced through the Second Empire, the law was stringently applied following the defeat of the Commune.

Appert’s work may seem downright postmodern, right at home with Jeff Wall’s Dead Troops Talk (A Vision After an Ambush of a Red Army Patrol, near Moqor, Afghanistan, Winter 1986), but his motives were not those of a sophisticated, media-saturated deconstructionist. His are propaganda pictures, pure and simple, varying greatly in their powers of persuasion. While some at least strive to obey the laws of perspective, others are far more concerned with rhetoric than veracity. Massacre des dominicains d’Arceuil, route d’Italie, no 38, le 25 mai 1871, à 4 heures et demi, for example, purports to depict the Garde Nationale gunning down Dominican brothers in the streets. But the central figure gestures with all the swagger of a ham actor in a penny-arcade melodrama, striking a pose that’s a direct quotation of St. Sebastian. Even the arrows that have defined Sebastian’s martyrdom in religious paintings since the Middle Ages are included, now transformed into the trajectory of Communard bullets.

While the whole trumped-up scene looks manifestly bogus now, at the time it was made — and for many years after — pictures from Crimes de la Commune enjoyed an air of authority. The more savvy among Appert’s audience would have spotted the manipulation, but for the rest, Bajac concludes that these images were, most probably, interpreted as authentic documents, taken from life. They survived well beyond the era, resurfacing in the early years of the 20th century as part of a series titled Documents historiques. The collection, which included straight images of the Commune as well, made no mention of the manipulation and, Bajac gathers, were taken by many viewers as creditable photographs.

At first blush, such blind faith in the image seems like a quaint relic from a more innocent time, but recent examples like National Geographic’s digital relocation of the Pyramids or Tanya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan’s faked reunion on ice might inspire us to forgive the past its naiveté — and to take from it a lesson in vigilance. After all, Appert, snipping away at his collages, is not so far removed from those PhotoShop practitioners adjusting their pixels to darken up OJ’s skin for the cover of Time.

Bajac saved the most outlandish — and most post-modernistic — work for the last. Jules Raudnitz’s fabricated stereo views tracing the Commune’s last days partake of that over-the-top melodrama of those images that illustrate supermarket tabloid articles like “US Battles Japan over Lost City of Atlantis” or, better yet, “Homosexual Cats Can Be Cured, Doc Says.” At their most exalted level, though, Raudnitz’s work calls to mind the work of Sandy Skoglund and David Levinthal, both in the rudiments of the technique employed and the surreal edge of the finished product. Like Skoglund, Raudnitz started out with sculptural tableaux created for the camera. He turned to Pierre Adolphe Hennetier, a sculptor who specialized in such work, having created similar scenes — from mythology, the fables of Fontaine, and the like — for other stereo photographers. Under Raudnitz’s direction, Hennetier modeled clay figures, measuring 30 centimeters in height, and arranged them in front of theatrical backdrops painted to resemble the sites where key events of 1871 had transpired. Raudnitz then photographed them as stereo views and marketed them under the name Sabbat Rouge, or Red Sabbath. The title, with its dual references to communism and witchery, sets the tone for the early images focusing on the destruction of Parisian monuments by the Communards. These early pictures involve what Skoglund, in describing her own work, calls “the physical manifestation of emotional reality.” Apparently made just after the events themselves, they imagine the Communards literally as demons, with grotesque faces and distorted expressions. Their titles alone — Saturnales de la place Vendôme, Les Infernaux de la Bastille — hint at the incendiary nature of the work.

But the harder the Versaillais government cracked down, the more sentiment seems to have softened toward the insurrectionists. Horrified as public opinion may have been at the destruction wrought by the Communards, it shifted at the spectacle of the summary executions, the holding pens set up at Versailles, the prison ships, and the deportations to New Caledonia. And as the series proceeds, it reflects that change. The rhetoric gradually calms down, until in L’Expiation, one of the last of the images, the now-imprisoned Communards appear as figures of great pathos. On their way into exile, they huddle in a boat casting off from the shores of France. From the pier, family members frantically wave goodbye, while on board, a woman cries into the arms of a companion, and a man stands to take a last, longing look at his wife and daughter. This highly theatrical scene, carefully stage-managed to engage the viewer’s pity, is a far cry from demons tearing down the Vendôme column and harpies torching ministry buildings.

Walking through the museum galleries, one was struck, again and again, by the sheer breadth of invention on display — when the medium was barely 30 years old — and by the eerie ways in which these pictures prefigured the present. The formal parallels between these antique relics and much of contemporary photographic practice are indeed uncanny. It doesn’t take much imagination to trace the lineage of many of these images down to subsequent developments: morgue photographs, mug shots, propaganda pictures. Look even more closely, though, and the Commune photographs bear a remarkable family resemblance to much of the fine-art photographs we have been seeing galleries for the past few decades: from Disderi to Serrano, Appert to Wall, Raudnitz to Skoglund.

But compared to all the challenges to meaning issued by a generation of post-modernist practitioners, Appert’s collages and Raudnitz’s tableaux are all innocence. It is an innocence born of the conviction that there is an important, and singular, truth to tell, and it renders their work — all the distortions and manipulations notwithstanding — utterly devoid of irony. For who would pursue irony when the world was at stake? And indeed, from Braquehais right down to Appert, on the left and on the right of the political spectrum, the photographers of the Commune were completely on the level: they made their pictures in grim earnest.

This article first appeared in The Photo Review, 24:4 (Fall 2001).

© Nancy Brokaw

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