Friday, 24 January 2014

Miss Charlotte, In the Bathroom, With a Knife.

Charlotte Corday

The Death of Marat: Jean Louis David

I am a bit of a Jean Louis David fan, so I was excited to read that two of his greatest works would be on display at the NGV during the Napoleon exhibition: Napoleon Crossing the Alps and The Death of Marat. The life-size Napoleon on his white charger was everything I expected, but I was sadly disappointed to discover that The Death Of Marat was a copy, and quite a small one at that. The real McCoy is six feet by four and lives in the Fine Arts Museum in Brussels.

It is a powerful painting, with a high emotional impact, as David indeed intended it to be. David might be the first political spin doctor - he certainly pulled off a tour de force of manipulating public opinion with this one. Here's how he came to paint it:

The French Revolution was in full swing: guillotine operators doing double shifts, Madame Defarge busily knitting culottes for the Sans-Culottes, the Scarlet Pimpernel flat out smuggling aristos to safety, Marie Antoinette promoting her Cake Diet.

In the legislative assembly, the deputies belonged to different political parties, just as they do in our very own Parliament today. On the one hand you had your extreme radical, off-with-their-heads republicans, known as the Jacobins.  And in the opposite corner, the Girondists: a more moderate faction who, while still backing the Republic, tried to apply the brakes to the frenzy and wholesale slaughter of the Reign of Terror.

Jean-Paul Marat, a deputy to the Convention and a firebrand journalist, was one of the most radical voices of the Jacobins and directly responsible for the denunciation and execution of many people, prominent Girondists among them.

Twenty-five-year-old Charlotte Corday, member of a minor aristocratic family and ardent Girondist sympathiser, decided that if Marat were not there to incite the mobs to more violence, the Girondist policy of moderation might prevail. It seemed like a good idea to travel to Paris and save her country by killing Marat.  She could see the headlines already: "Brave Damsel Slays Wicked Tyrant - Saves France!"

Like Baldrick in Blackadder, Charlotte devised a Cunning Plan. She would approach Marat in the guise of an admirer who wanted to give him a list of Girondist plotters, fodder for the guillotine. Stopping only to pack a spare set of undies and the cook's best filleting knife, she set off for Paris.

Marat was not at the Chamber of Deputies, where she went first. He was working from home (so that's not a new concept, either!) so that he could immerse himself in a bath of medicinal herbs to soothe the nasty, itchy, suppurating skin disease that covered his body from scalp to toes. Not a pretty sight, and smelly to boot. He had tied a grubby wet rag round his head and was using a plank across the bath as a desk.

Charlotte's plan worked - after being turned away once, she was allowed in to see him on her second try. She told her story, handed over her list of names, and as he took it, she whipped  out the knife and stabbed him in the heart. She made no attempt to flee, but waited to be arrested. All part of the plan: she would be seen as the lovely young martyr, sacrificing herself to rid France of the tyrant.
It all backfired big-time. 150 years before Goebbels even invented the word propaganda, the Jacobins pulled off the biggest propaganda event of the Revolution. It was Marat, not Charlotte, who was the martyr, he who received a hero's funeral while she was ignominiously guillotined four days later. 

She was jeered all the way to the scaffold.  Her thick chestnut curls were roughly cut off close to her head because the only thing capable of slowing the guillotine blade was human hair. As her head fell into the basket, a young assistant (I imagine an overexcited teenager doing work experience) grabbed it by the hair, brandished it to the crowd and slapped both cheeks. This was considered going a bit too far: he was reprimanded and dismissed. Charlotte Corday's remains were unceremoniously tossed into an open, pestilent, public grave, among those of the other guillotine victims.
Marat was buried in the Pantheon
Jean-Paul Marat, hero/martyr, was buried at the Pantheon, after his coffin was paraded through streets lined by weeping citizens, throwing flowers. (Sadly, Elton John would not be born for two centuries.)

The very day after the murder, David, himself a friend of Marat and a committed Jacobin,  was commissioned by the Convention to paint Marat's portrait. He accepted with enthusiasm, and set about the creation of this idealised image.
The Death of Marat: Jean Louis David
Due to the unsightly skin disease and rapid decomposition, there was no question of painting the actual scene. He painted Marat dying: eyelids drooping, his head leaning on his shoulder, his right arm hanging down. This instant between the last breath and death had an immense impact at the time, and is still effective today.

Marat's flawless body is that of a young, healthy man. The knife is not where Charlotte left it, gruesomely sticking out of his chest, but lying next to the bath. The grubby rag has been transformed into a pristine turban.

The picture is dramatic and poignant; the viewer feels compassion and outrage. David deliberately referenced classic religious art, depicting Marat as a secular martyr. The bloody gash echoes Christ's stigmata and the hanging arm and inclined head has often been compared to Michelangelo's Pieta.

Indeed, the whole pose resonates with the many depictions of Christ's Descent from the Cross: Rembrandt, Rubens, Van der Weyden … Marat recalls them all. David uses Caravaggio's "cinematic" lighting for dramatic effect: spotlight on the body against a dark background.

Winston Churchill was an admirer of Charlotte Corday and kept a reproduction of her portrait on his wall. He said it was a great help when dealing with Charles de Gaulle: he could point out what happened to arrogant Frenchmen who did not mend their ways.


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