by Jill Glessing
Resistance to oppression takes many forms. Antonio Gramsci, incarcerated during Mussolini’s fascist dictatorship, struggled to understand the workings of power. Developing his concept of hegemony, published later in Prison Notebooks, Gramsci proposed that power is always in flux and unstable, hence always vulnerable to popular contestation. Within this modern dialectical framework of political change, Georges Didi-Huberman, art historian and curator of the exhibition Uprisings,1 further delineated the processes whereby bodies and societies rise up against oppression.
Resistance to power must be old as the hierarchical structures that provoke it.2 Since dissent was an unlikely subject for commissioned art, however, we have little record of its early depiction. Only with the development of republican revolutions and, concurrently, mass-reproduction technologies would such documentation be produced and disseminated. Walter Benjamin noted the value of emerging photography and film media to political movements.
For these same reasons, these media dominated the exhibition, alongside videos, engravings, documents, installations, Internet sites, drawings, and paintings. Two hundred and seventy pieces amassed on two large floors of the Jeu de Paume ranged from the early nineteenth century to the present day, with three new pieces commissioned by the museum. Admirable in its international scope, the exhibition’s greater emphasis on European, and especially French, materials is forgiven as its host city, Paris, is legendary for popular rebellions, from the French Revolution to the 1968 student and worker strikes. As it travels to Barcelona, Buenos Aires, Mexico City, and, finally, Montreal, the exhibition will morph to include more works relevant to these cities’ regions.
Important within the rich theoretical web informing Didi-Huberman’s approach are three twentieth-century figures who engaged in image production or analysis: Austrian art historian Aby Warburg, Russian filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein, and French filmmaker Chris Marker. Warburg created an art-historical typology of expressive gestures and iconic forms – what he called Pathosformel; Eisenstein introduced film montage, an editing technique that juxtaposed disparate scenes to create revolutionary meanings; and Marker, in a brilliant synthesis of Eisensteinian montage and Warburgian gesture, built a collective narrative of uprising…
2 Jean Nicolas noted in La Rébellion française (Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 2002) that at least 8,528 uprisings between 1661 and 1789 were needed to trigger the French revolutionary process.
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