On display at the British Museum at present is one of the most brilliant propaganda campaigns ever launched. Something very different from the glossy philistinism of Saatchi and Saatchi ('An ace café with some quite good marbles attached' perhaps?); something more sinister and more powerful. Wander in and you can see wax models of the severed heads of Maximilien de Robespierre and Antoine Fouquier-Tinville, dabbled with painted blood and based - or so Madame Tussaud claimed - on the mutilated originals. For the more sentimentally-inclined, there are paintings, prints and ceramics showing the agony of men and women on the eve of their own slaughter. Louis XVI embracing his family before his execution, his daughter swooning in his arms; or Camille Desmoulins, most elegant of revolutionaries, weeping with manly sensibility as he writes his last letter to his beloved wife. Harshest and most searing of all, however, are the cartoons. In James Gillray's Un petit souper à la Parisienne, published in 1792, a scraggy woman bastes the body of a baby dangling over a fire; her companions squat bare-arsed on the dismembered carcasses of their victims, feasting on their flesh. One devours an eyeball; another tears at a heart. Some children gorge themselves with human offal piled up in a tub. And if you look carefully, you can see that these characters are not human at all. Their nails are turning into claws, their teeth into fangs. French revolutionaries are becoming monsters before our eyes.
LRB 22 June 1989 | PDF Download