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Witnessing Terror: French Revolutionary Prints, 1792−94

The period of the French Revolution known as the Terror, which lasted from 1792−94, gave rise to many of the most memorable and dramatic images of this crucial moment in modernity. These images were central to revolutionary attempts to regenerate all aspects of life, from clothing and speech to money and maps, and with the introduction of the Republican Calendar, to remake even time itself. In our contemporary political context, in which ‘Terror’ has taken on a variety of disturbing meanings, and in which the proliferation of images plays an increasingly significant role in how we comprehend acts of political violence, it is ever more important to examine this radical period in French history.

Tracing the tumultuous period from the trial and execution of Louis XVI to the fall of Robespierre, Witnessing Terror includes a variety of printed images representing key events and personae. From portraits of revolutionary martyrs to dramatic scenes of Parisian crowds, these prints give us insight into how people understood life during the Terror. As well as a number of caricatures, street scenes, and more overtly artistic prints, the exhibition displays everyday objects, such as paper money, well-worn passports, and playing cards. Drawing out the contemporary relevance of this revolutionary iconography, Witnessing Terror also shows work by the renowned conceptual artist, poet, and gardener Ian Hamilton Finlay (1925−2006) that engages with the long-term legacy of the Terror.

The Terror remains a vexed term that has for many become synonymous with the French Revolution, clouded by myths that emerged in the years that followed. A system of political institutions and practices, the Terror was accompanied by new rhetorical and cultural strategies. It did not happen overnight but developed as a tactical response to a series of military crises, rumours, and fears. Images played a crucial role in the operation of Terror, as well as in its subsequent representation. This exhibition considers what it means to witness Terror, then and now. In particular, it features extracts from the recently discovered letters of Catherine-Innocente de Rougé, duchesse d’Elbeuf (1707−94), who maintained a correspondence with an unknown friend throughout the Revolution. Living in her private residence, the Hôtel d’Elbeuf, which was located only metres from government offices during the Terror, the duchesse d’Elbeuf commented freely on the situation in Paris in a way that would have sent her to the guillotine, had her correspondence been found.

This exhibition is part of a programme of ongoing engagement with UCL Art Museum’s unique holdings of prints related to the French Revolution, acquired via the Cultural Gifts Scheme. It follows Revolution under a King: French Prints, 1789−92 (UCL Art Museum, 2016) and Rousseau 300: Nature, Self and State, an exhibition in collaboration with UCL Centre for Transnational History (UCL Art Museum, 2012).

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