Johanna Drucker: A review of TJ Clark’s Farewell to an Idea
The following essay is part of the Los Angeles Review of Books special series “No Crisis”: a look at the state of critical thinking and writing — literary interpretation, art history, and cultural studies — in the 21st century. Click here for the full series.
T. J. CLARK begins the first long essay in this book with a measured but keen sense of drama, reporting two major historical events while gesturing to pressing issues offstage: On October 16, 1793 (or 25 Vendémiaire Year 2), “a hastily completed painting by Jacques-Louis David, of Marat, the martyred hero of the revolution […] was released into the public realm.” At midday on that same day, “Marie-Antoinette was guillotined. Michelet tells us that her death, so long demanded by Hébert and the Paris wards (the so-called sections), in the event went off quietly. People’s minds were on other things […].” In an immediate engagement with the portrait of the dead Marat in his bath, we can easily forget intimately its production is bound to those “other things” — ongoing upheaval and revolutionary struggles — and yield to a reductive iconographic reading of the image through its overt references to a deposed Christ. But universalizing Marat’s depiction in David’s work misses the import of its identity as a modern work, situated in and formulated in response to a specific set of conditions and circumstances. continued