Wednesday 8 February 2023

An encounter with David's "Bara"

An interesting perspective on David's Death of Bara was provided by the exhibition of the painting  held in  Avignon in 1989 as part of the bicentenary commemorations. Jean-Clément Martin described his reactions in an essay of 1990, updated for his 2012 book La machine à fantasmes.

EXHIBITION:  La mort de Bara.  De l'évenement au mythe.  Autour du tableau de Jacques-Louis David.  At Avignon, 18th January to 15 March 1989.  

J.-C.M. remarks that he remembered illustrations of Bara from his earliest schoolbooks and was confident and well-informed about the historical figure.  The exhibition was not held in the Musée Calvet, where David's picture is normally display,  but in the former Jesuit chapel in the rue de la République, now a Lapidary Museum.  Despite the busy main street outside, the church, with its Baroque facade, was an effective venue; the atmosphere of a silent grandeur encouraged a mood of contemplation and reflection. (The effect was only slightly marred by the prominence of an expanse of red netting under the roof.)

David's painting took central stage, enthroned in the middle of the chapel, on what was once the site of the altar.  Although he was very familiar with the image, Jean-Clément found himself taken by surprise:

The young Bara, tricolour cockade pressed to his heart, was stretched out, naked, at the top of  three steps where the altar once stood, bathed in a golden light.   The picture, which I had seen a thousand times in reproductions, both black-and-white and coloured, was larger than I expected, more golden, and also more empty, since the child's body occupied only the lower part.  The main space was a golden brown, full of astonishing shadows.   A clump of trees could be made out behind the recumbent figure, and in the bottom left corner a group of horsemen rode away with their banner flying in the wind.  Thus the dying Bara is not just  heroic and symbolic; the image is set in an enigmatic narrative, suggested by the horsemen and by an asymmetrical layout that is not part of the historical tradition.

 In addition, the child's pose struck me as astonishing: the angle of his head,  his long legs bizarrely pressed together, the genitals which are both hidden and at the same exposed.  This was  a far cry from the little drummer boy I had come to meet.  The feminine pose of the legs was particularly disturbing; they might have come from  a "déjeuner sur l'herbe".  Thus Bara had a body  for which the reproductions and drawings in history books had not prepared me. (p.165)

J.-C. M. notes that, even if he had not wished to consider this sensual, quasi-erotic aspect of the painting, the exhibition itself would have forced him to do so.   Many of the items on display were not related directly to Revolutionary iconography, but to the neoclassical tradition from which David drew inspiration.   A series of  sculptures, largely naked and recumbent figures, were arranged "in a hopscotch pattern" from the museum entrance to the foot of David's canvas -"a dead world of stone, but one charged with a surprising, even shocking, sensuality":

Jean-Baptiste Stouf,  "Abel dying".  
Marble, reception piece for the French Royal Academy, 1785. Louvre

Alexandre Falguière, "St Tarcisius", 1868. Musée d'Orsay

The naked figures were orientated towards Bara in a sort of mute adoration, in an elaborate geometric pattern, their forms softening as the eye moved towards the dead adolescent on the altar.  The closest to the entrance, Jean-Baptiste Souf's dying Abel, was angular, with protruding bones.  Not far beyond the Christian martyr Tarcisius, was enveloped in a sheet which revealed only his head. Then came the granular plaster of David d'Angers.  Finally, at the back on the left, at the height of the nave, a final recumbent figure, the most highly polished, offered to the view the roundest of buttocks.  This was the famous Hellenistic sculpture, the Borghese Sleeping Hermaphroditus , or rather the copy by Milhomme...It was set off by the feline sensuality of Bosio's figure of the Wounded Hyacinthe coiled erotically around an adjacent pillar. (p.166)

François Milhomme, "Sleeping Hermaphrodite" (1808),  Palais des Beaux Arts, Lille

 François-Joseph Bosio, Hyacinthe (1817). Louvre

Jean-Clément Martin realised he must discard his martial image of the patriotic little drummer boy and recognise  David's Bara as "one of these naked ephebes" 

I had always looked at his head, but I now realised I must also take into account his legs, and recognise that Bara had buttocks.  David's picture cried out to me that the infant Bara was not just an otherworldly and immortal hero, but a corporeal and sensual presence,  that his indeterminate gender represented a deliberate androgyny.  The alternative would be to interpret the presentation as a sort of "artistic" disregard for carnal reality.(p.166)

Anne-Louis Girodet, "The Sleep of Endymion", 1791. Louvre.

This impression, this revelation, was clearly the deliberate result of the way the exhibition had been laid out.  To his right J-C. M could reassure himself with the sight of several monumental 19th-century works of  realism, including the "Bara" of Weerts which had earned the artist the Legion of Honour.  But to his left, in a side chapel, virile and relaxed, lay the Dying Abel.  There were also 18th-century political works - the first busts of Bara and Viala, the triumph and death of Marat, David's austere image of Lepeletier de Saint-Fargeau, even a depiction of the young Désilles, forgotten hero of the 1790 mutiny in Nancy.  But  juxtapositioned to them was Girodet's Sleeping Endymion - "sweetly morbid, gently sulphurous", while in a nearby chapel Amour wept over Psyche in the canvas of Meynier. 

Charles Meynier,  "Adolescent Love crying on the portrait of Psyche whom he has lost",
1792.  Musée des beaux-arts de Quimper

Revolution as the satisfaction of desire

J.-C.M. assures us there was nothing personal about his astonishment or the time it took him to accept this reorientation. There had been many complaints about the exhibition. But he felt that the mise-en-scene was wholly legitimate:

The presentation was justified by the concordance of dates.  All the works on display dated from the final decades of the 18th century. They could not exist without each other - they expressed a common contemporary sensibility.  Only my ignorance had made me forget that David's Bara belonged rightfully to to this current, whereas I had wanted to read it only as  a political paradigm.  The painting responded to certain imperatives of the period.  The first was a Europe-wide reflection on "beauty" and "grace"  inspired by Winckelmann - a context well-known to the artists and the critics of the salons in which almost all these works were exhibited.   The second was the need to participate in the political life of Revolutionary France; the First Republic encouraged artists to enter public competitions, for example for the death of Marat.  These conditions encouraged collective debate among artists on essential questions concerning the invention of a new man and the  elaboration of a new society - issues which had preoccupied thinkers from Montesquieu to Rousseau and Wincklemann.  The nudity of Bara expressed a fundamental allegory.  (p.168-69)

This confluence was also reflected in the literature of the time, of the marquis de Sade and the "roman noir".

The essay finishes with a brief review of the rest of the exhibition , which was more conventional. Two side chapels displayed contemporary documents and popular engravings. Works of art from the Third Republic placed Bara in a robustly historical and martial context  -  as a determined hussar, a dead drummer-boy, an antique bust, or even (in the case of Henner) a naked corpse sprawled on his back.  However, to contemplate this historical and ideological legacy, it had been necessary to "negotiate the products of dream and imagination which have held audiences for so much longer" (p.170)

Anonymous,  "Student of the École de Mars, with sword, toga and Phrygian bonnet"
Musée de Vizille.  (Jean-Clément Martin draws attention to this painting in a note to his essay)
My photo. 


Jean-Clément Martin, "Les fesses de l'enfant Bara", La Machine à fantasmes (2012), p 163-70.  Originally published:  303, Arts, recherches et créations, 1990. no.XXV, p.60-67.

See also: 

Morris Fraser, "Bara: of death, desire and drumsticks", Paidika: The Journal of Paedophilia, No.12 (Vol.3 No.4), pp.2-12

Jean-Claude Féray, "Pederastic implication of J.-L. David's painting, The Death of Bara", Greek Love through the Ages [website] - English translation of a 2018 article in French.

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