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Saddam, Maxmiliano, Napoleon III, George W. Bush and Eduard Manet

6 January 2007

John Elderfield looks at Mexico’s most famous execution, — which was not captured on cell phone video for instant replay (and endless exegesis)  — but creatively imagined — to give meaning to the lying superpower leader’s who lead their nation into war in the 1860s… and 2000s. 

The Execution of Maximillian by Edouard Manet. Image: National Gallery

Last week images of the execution of Saddam Hussein were beamed around the world. News travelled much more slowly in June 1867, when a political execution took place under very different circumstances: the idealistic emperor Maximilian of Mexico, who had been installed three years earlier by a French intervention, faced a firing squad of resurgent nationalists. Learning the news, Edouard Manet made some of the greatest of all political paintings.

…We must also imagine him piecing together fragments of news, knowing that they did not realistically or completely describe what had happened, but offered, rather, the means of an imaginative act of rediscovery to create truly political art. Most of what is generally referred to as political art is really polemical art, simply asserting or reinforcing a belief, or often a blame. Truly political art, in contrast, does not reduce human affairs to slogans; it complicates rather than simplifies.

…Manet made this explicit. He had learned …that the soldiers’ uniform had resembled the French uniform, and he had probably seen photographs of the execution squad and the bullet-riddled clothes that Maximilian had worn. He brought into his studio a squad of French infantry to pose for the picture, and – in sheer provocation on his part – he also painted the facial features of the sergeant holding his musket so that they resembled those of Napoleon III. There was no way that Manet could, then, have received permission to exhibit this painting. Indeed, a photography dealer had been jailed simply for being in possession of some of the photographs of the execution that were then in clandestine circulation.

Manet gave the Sergeant the “real” executioner’s face. The Unapologetic Mexican might be surprised to hear it, but I don’t think he’ll object to being compared to a French 19th century master. 

2 Comments leave one →
  1. 6 January 2007 7:36 pm


  2. 15 March 2007 10:38 pm

    um… buoni, realmente buoni luogo e molto utile;)

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