In 1977, a construction crew conducting excavation work in the courtyard of the Banque Française du Commerce Extérieur in Paris uncovered a cache of buried limestone. What they found was extraordinary: the remains of the original statues that had once adorned the west façade of Notre Dame cathedral. Dating from the mid-13th century, the statues had represented the Kings of Judea, the spiritual lineage of Christ. In subsequent centuries, however, the 28 statuary kings that lined the façade had come to be known to Parisians as the Kings of France, the progenitors of a political rather than spiritual régime. Digging up the pieces, the work crew found 21 of the original 28 heads, as well as several of the bodies and a number of other statuary fragments.
The statues had been beheaded during the French Revolution. Like their living counterparts in the political world, the figures were decapitated and removed from their ceremonial position on the cathedral’s façade. Victor Hugo, in his 1831 novel about Notre Dame de Paris, mourns such acts of demolition as a crime against art: “it is thus,” he writes, “that people have been in the habit of proceeding with the marvelous churches of the Middle Ages for the last two hundred years. Mutilations come to them from every quarter, from within as well as from without.” As vernacular symbols of the monarchy, however, the Kings of Judea were beheaded for specific political reasons. Beyond purging France of its nobility, the revolutionary National Assembly also sought to rewrite the nation’s very history, striking out the emblems and insignia of the Ancien Régime from its bridges, its buildings, its public squares. The Kings of Judea followed in 1793. And whereas many artistic works deemed to be ideologically complicit with the Ancien Régime were removed to the newly created Louvre museum, the Kings of Judea and other icons from Notre Dame were left in a heap near the base of the structure, later to be sold as building materials.
The preservation of the statue fragments from Notre Dame is no less remarkable than the discovery. In 1796, the lawyer Jean-Baptiste Lakanal bought the limestone fragments, which were being sold as wall stone; Lakanal was in the midst of having a house built for himself in the 9th arrondissement, a hôtel particulier that would later be known as the Hôtel Moreau after the bankrupt Lakanal was forced to sell it to a general in Napoleon’s army. The Hôtel Moreau would later become the home of the Banque Française du Commerce Extérieur. Rather than incorporating the limestone into the building’s walls, however, Lakanal cushioned the heads in plaster and buried them, face down, in the courtyard. The heads were scrupulously, even ceremoniously, interred; we can only speculate as to his precise intentions for doing so. Was this an act of tacit royalism, of Christian piety, or of an appreciation for medieval art? Regardless of his objectives, Lakanal’s gesture provides us, over two centuries later, with significant portions of the medieval originals. But it also leaves us with a monument to the revolutionary iconoclasm that took them down, and whose own effects have long since been erased in turn. The chiseled-out insignia of the overthrown royalty were, after all, later replaced by those of Napoleon and subsequent heads of state; even the missing statues from Notre Dame were rebuilt in the 19th century, as part of Eugène Viollet-le-Duc’s massive restoration of the cathedral. With the recovery of the severed heads, we witness the Revolutionary project in concrete terms: we see not just the allegorical tableau—the statues’ ecclesiastical form—but also the place where the axe of history has fallen. The Kings of Judea gaze toward a transcendental horizon, but their chipped faces bear witness to the material frame of their destruction and preservation alike.
Now housed in the Musée de Cluny in Paris, the recovered statuary heads offer an elegant testimony to both the splendor of medieval religious art and the iconoclasm of the Revolution as it edged toward the Terror. The same moment that gave rise to the modern museum—the Louvre—also furnishes us, belatedly, with a story about the ways in which art can be translated into the future, commuted to a different time and place at the very moment of its obliteration. Indeed, the French Revolution has much to tell us about this kind of translation, understood here less as a linguistic act than as the work of carrying something—a work of art, a limestone statue—from place to place, from meaning to meaning, or from one historical moment to another. In defacing the cathedral whose walls bore the living history of Paris, as Victor Hugo would claim, the revolutionaries sought to translate a politically charged monument into a neutral or at least ideologically consistent one. Unlike the Bastille, which was demolished entirely, Notre Dame remained otherwise intact: the revolutionaries kept the building but altered its political meaning. The Louvre was likewise founded as way to translate works of art beyond their immediate physical and ideological context; the magnificent structure that once housed the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture was repurposed during the Revolution as a national museum. The Louvre might thus be considered the first art squat, as well as the first of many prisons for artistic masterpieces: a “Center for Art Detention,” as Ishmael Reed puts it, referring to the Louvre’s post-revolutionary New York counterpart, the Met. Such institutions are sites for the struggle to control the political meaning of art. The important thing is to keep this struggle going.
To translate art is to establish the parameters of its future. Translation carries, but it also does so across a gap or void: the trans of translation can span a distance or a linguistic divide, or even an expanse of time. Underwriting all such divides is the abyss of silence and non-meaning it is the task of translation to span. Translating art is not the same thing as making art, but translation makes it possible for art to exist. More than the work of isolated individuals, the task of translation falls also to collective groups and institutions, whether national assemblies or artisanal cooperatives, workshops, and work crews. Such groups forge the conditions of possibility for artistic life: its hardware, if you will. They are not uniformly benevolent. Among such institutions, the more iconoclastic seek to neutralize the historical force of art, to translate it into the very silence it strives to surmount. Other institutions comport themselves far more stubbornly in art’s favor; they strive to continue making it possible to carry on making it. Alas, there is no shortage of iconoclasts today. And whereas certain iconoclasms continue to target individual works—think of the Buddhas of Bamiyan or the ever-extending litany of banned books around the world—so many others have taken aim at the very institutions that struggle to carry on the work of art. In place of threatened, decapitated works, we now have institutions threatened with budgets cuts, closures, and slashed programming: cooperatives, gathering places, studios, museums, colleges, public libraries, school art programs, galleries, the print media, government funding.
We cannot save every work of art from destruction, whether we lock it up in the Louvre or bury it in the garden. In spite of Lakanal’s remarkable gesture, the future of art lies not in how or where we store the masterpieces of the past. The Lakanals of the future will not be burying heads in the sands beneath their homes. The Lakanals of the future will occupy the houses themselves: the future of art demands maintaining, as well as multiplying, the institutions for translating it.
A few blocks up the street from the Louvre—and a virtual stone’s throw from Notre Dame cathedral—stands a former art squat at 59, rue de Rivoli. Like other art squats around the world, from Brooklyn to Berlin, the site had once been abandoned and in danger of demolition. Repossessed by the banks, the structure was occupied in turn by a group of artists who converted it into studio space; after a long civic struggle and years of organizational work, the space is now a legalized public art space. Rehabilitated as a nonprofit organization, 59 rue de Rivoli is no longer an art squat. It might be easy to sneer at such legitimacy as an erasure of the squatters’ formerly clandestine existence; the underground is more revolutionary, we often hear, than the not-for-profit. But Revolutions also take place above ground, in broad daylight; this guarantees neither their success nor their failure. Instead, it marks the point at which their struggles for political meaning, for translation, become public. To preserve the institutions for translating art into the future, we would do well to continue bringing them to light. We do not need to bury our squats, our pop-up galleries, our digital environments, our schools, and our public works in order to preserve them. They, like art, need to be translated: our task is to occupy and transform the spaces of an old regime, much as it was for the French Revolutionaries. Over two centuries later, the Louvre no longer stands out as a Revolutionary institution either, but it most certainly was. A palace art squat, it provided a way to translate existing works of art into something other than silence and erasure. It was, and remains, no less a detention center: a holding cell. It would be wrong, though, to think that we might simply liberate the works themselves—as if releasing a Rembrandt into the wild would breathe new life into our collective veins. The point instead is to build more cells, more centers, and to live within them—no longer lying face-down, but standing up, and looking straight ahead.
ContributorJonathan P. Eburne
Jonathan P. Eburne teaches Comparative Literature and English at Penn State University. He is the author of Surrealism and the Art of Crime (Cornell UP, 2008), among other essays and edited volumes; he is founding co-editor of ASAP-Journal, the new scholarly journal of ASAP: the Association for the Study of the Arts of the Present. He lives and works in central Pennsylvania.