PRINT March 2007


images and sovereignty

IN ORGANIZING “Manet and the Execution of Maximilian” at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, a recent exhibition that united all five representations by Édouard Manet of the notorious demise of Napoleon III’s puppet emperor of Mexico, curator John Elderfield intended an explicit if muted political gesture. As he writes in his catalogue introduction, “Some readers will wonder whether it is purely accidental that an exhibition and publication appearing in 2006 are devoted to works that depict the baleful consequences of a military intervention and regime change. It is not.” What was accidental was that during the course of the exhibition, Saddam Hussein, the contemporary target of the particular regime change to which Elderfield refers, was himself executed under controversial circumstances.

While the differences between these two political figures, Maximilian and Saddam, are enormous—despite their shared commitment to the promulgation of “Western” (whether secular or capitalist) values—the comparison Elderfield implies is nonetheless productive in how it illuminates the relationship between political sovereignty—or, more accurately, its moment of collapse—and the spectacular image of a leader. Maximilian’s execution entered visual culture ex post facto—the emperor was killed, alongside two of his generals, on June 19, 1867, but news of his death did not reach Napoleon III until July 1, and the first detailed newspaper reports and illustrations were published even later. But the execution of Saddam was instantly experienced as a visual event, both through official video documentation intended to authenticate his death, and, more notoriously (and influentially), through unauthorized cell phone videos that captured the disrespectful treatment he received from guards in the last moments of his life and the sordid surroundings and unceremonious haste of his execution. As is well known, this cell phone footage was disseminated rapidly across the Internet, causing outrage at Saddam’s treatment not only in Arab nations but also in the West. The circulation of these pictures succeeded in creating a halo of martyrdom around a sovereign who was unquestionably heinous in his abuse of power, and who had hitherto lost the support of almost everyone.

It is evident that the power of images has shifted in the modern period as bracketed by these two executions, and that this shift has as much to do with how (and with what speed) images circulate as with what they represent. If my supposition is true, then it presents a challenge of sorts to art history and criticism—namely, the challenge of tracking and interpreting the momentum of images instead of simply reading their face value.

Accounts of the execution of Maximilian, a Hapsburg noble who had been installed as emperor by a European coalition led by France, only to be abruptly abandoned by Napoleon III a few years later, reached Europe slowly, sporadically, and in contradictory form, with various sources unable to agree on even basic facts, such as the time of day Maximilian was shot. As a staunch republican, Manet was attentive to these reports of Napoleon III’s failed adventure in Mexico, and Elderfield carefully demonstrates that, in working on his three major history paintings (there is also an oil sketch and a print), the artist sifted through available textual accounts, and probably studied some widely circulated photographs of the firing squad and of the emperor’s bullet-riddled frock coat and waistcoat. Manet self-consciously constructed the image of a historical occurrence by adhering to some details while ignoring others. In the spirit of T. J. Clark, we might identify this very work of construction, in which visual discontinuities may formally embody modernity’s blurring or merging of social roles such as class (or sovereignty), as the source of a painting’s modernity. The strange discontinuous arrangement of the executions, in which figures seem to be collaged rather than distributed in plausible space, may thus be a residue of Manet’s very modern effort to blend contradictory media accounts. And indeed, there are abundant visual traces in the first and last of the paintings (the second survives only in fragmentary form) of an irrational pictorial organization that seems, in Manet’s latest and most resolved version (completed in 1869), to place the executed in an entirely different space from their executioners, as though they hovered beyond the explosive discharge of muskets to which they are nonetheless impossibly close. If the paintings are themselves the result, as Elderfield suggests, of sifting and editing, their circulation was limited by a similar set of procedures undertaken by a considerably more powerful set of editors: government censors. The Maximilian paintings could not be shown in France during Manet’s lifetime as they were potentially embarrassing to the government, and in fact did not begin to be appreciated, according to Elderfield, until the 1905 Salon d’Automne exhibition, where two of the major paintings (the first and last) were exhibited together. Because images were still understood as material objects with limited capacities for circulation, they could be subject to equal but opposite operations of editing (Manet) and censorship (the government). In the Second Empire it was still possible to believe that a political sovereign could control images. Now the balance of power has shifted, to the point where sovereignty must constantly maintain itself within an unruly network of images where political crisis (as Abu Ghraib and Saddam’s execution demonstrate) can erupt without warning. As the Retort collective (of which T. J. Clark is a member) argue in their 2005 book Afflicted Powers: Capital and Spectacle in a New Age of War, spectacle is itself an arena of terror and conflict—the cell phone footage of Saddam’s execution was destined for just this battleground of images.

Exactly how can one fight spectacle with spectacle? This is a question that calls for much more sustained analysis than I can offer here, but the executions of Maximilian and Saddam do provide a particular example. It seems that the spectacle of authority, or sovereignty, which must always transcend the biological body of s/he who occupies that sovereign position (Ernst Kantorowicz’s famous analysis of the king’s two bodies still pertains), may be assaulted or undermined by calling attention to this body as a biological entity subject to humiliation, and that such humiliation will exceed the person to assail sovereignty itself.

Simply put, I think the images of Maximilian’s and Saddam’s executions arose as a response to an effort to undermine sovereignty by demonstrating its mortality. It is certainly true that the sympathy Saddam attracted was entirely on account of his “dignity” in the face of taunts, and that, conversely, the jerky handheld cell phone footage, by representing a claustrophobic and unseemly killing, was meant to undo this sovereign dignity. The effort backfired because Saddam maintained his calm, just as Maximilian does in Manet’s last (and definitive) version of the Execution. The strangest aspect of this painting for me is that Maximilian’s pale head seems almost to float free, out of the line of fire, as though he is a holy visitation instead of a victim. I might hazard that Manet was, in his painting, allowing Maximilian to save face. While this image of the emperor cannot be considered heroic, it does suggest the leader’s indifference to the violence directed toward him: Whether Manet saw Maximilian as a gullible dupe to Napoleon’s ill-conceived ambition or as a well-intentioned martyr is perhaps less important than the artist’s representation of sovereignty’s two bodies. Indeed, Elderfield at the very end of his discussion of this painting, almost as a postscript, indicates that the execution in actuality was grotesquely mismanaged: “Maximilian has fallen backward but obviously is not dead. So the NCO steps over Maximilian’s body to deliver the coup de grâce; only, he bungles a close-up shot, hitting him in the right lung. This not only fails to kill him but also aggravates the problem because the flames of the musket ignite Maximilian’s vest and someone has to throw water on them to extinguish them. He is now writhing on the ground, pulling at his vest, and all is in confusion.” Maximilian’s death was hideous and undignified, but Manet’s history painting constructed a space apart for him—an image of the sovereign independent of his savaged body.

David Joselit teaches modern art at Yale University in New Haven. His book Feedback: Television Against Democracy is forthcoming in April from MIT press.