This year marks the 150th anniversary of the Paris Commune, known primarily as the first successful Communist revolution. For two months in 1871, the people seized the city, and photographs by Bruno Braquehais, currently in the Getty Research Institute’s collection, depict the drama – and destruction – of the period.
Braquehais is considered the father of French photojournalism for his images documenting the rise and fall of the Commune. Many images depict the wreckage that followed at the end of the reign of the Commune. But unlike other photographers of the time, he also photographed people during the Commune as they posed optimistically in front of monuments and barricades. Her photos suggest sympathy with his subjects.
In 1871, France had just been defeated in the Franco-Prussian War and had formed a new government, the Third Republic, made up mainly of conservative monarchists. But in Paris, the National Guard was largely made up of members of the urban working class. After the war, the National Guard took control of 400 muzzle-loading guns and placed them in popular neighborhoods. Braquehais captured this tension in his image of cannons towering like sentries over Montmartre, protecting its inhabitants from an imminent threat. This apparently minor act, documented almost incidentally by Braquehais, ended up being essential to the success of the Commune.
On March 18, 1871, soldiers of the Third Republic tried to take the guns in Montmartre. A member of the National Guard was shot dead. Word of the shooting spread and a crowd quickly formed. But when a general ordered his men to bayonet the crowd, they refused. Instead, the soldiers broke ranks, switched sides and joined the people in their protest.
As Paris turned against the government of the Third Republic, officials fled the city. In the power vacuum, the National Guard seizes strategic buildings. In the photo of Braquehais, the Communards stand proudly next to a cannon in the rue de Castiglione, in a town they now control. On March 19, a day later, they hoisted the red flag of victory over the Town Hall. The Commune was born.
In the new model, there was not a single head of government. The Commune began to adopt a series of progressive reforms. These included the abolition of military conscription, separation of church and state, regulation of child labor, prohibiting employers from fining their workers, and offering to free education.
The Municipality also resolved to demolish certain monuments. Their biggest target was the Vendome Column, a 130-foot-high pillar topped by a statue of Napoleon in Roman costume and surrounded by bronze plaques made from the cannons of the armies he had conquered. The Commune considered him to be a symbol of imperialism. On May 16, the column was shot down with great fanfare. Once again, Braquehais was present to immortalize the event. The dust had barely cleared when onlookers scrambled to collect memorabilia and snap photos, including this large group portrait Braquehais took of Communards as they took humorous poses in front of the monument to the ancient emperor to himself.
But the government of the Third Republic in exile was plotting to retake Paris. Finally, on May 21, soldiers of the Third Republic marched through the city. The call for barricades was raised, but the Communards were greatly outnumbered. Since the previous revolutions, the old winding alleys of Paris had been replaced by wide boulevards, thanks to Haussmannian renovations, so it was easier for the French army to attack. When they needed to get around a barricade, they just plowed the buildings. Braquehais’ photograph of houses on rue de Ville that have been almost cut in half gives an idea of what everyday Parisians have suffered.
In response, the National Guard set fire to major monuments, including the Tuileries Palace, the traditional residence of French monarchs. Braquehais framed this image of the destruction of the palace around a statue of the Roman god of war Mars, seen in the background, as a commentary on the violence. Between the two camps, Paris was almost completely destroyed.
One by one, the districts fell into the hands of the Third Republic and the prisoners were executed by firing squads. No one is sure exactly how many people were killed, but at the time it was estimated to be over 17,000. By the end of The bloody week – “Bloody week” – it was over. The author Gustave Flaubert wrote about the situation: “The sight of the ruins is nothing compared to the great Parisian madness… One half of the population aspires to hang the other half, which returns the compliment.
The Third Republic asserted its authority in Paris by rebuilding the monuments that the Commune had demolished, including the Vendôme column. In Montmartre, where the revolution had started, they built Le Sacré-Cœr, a massive basilica that is now a tourist attraction.
The tragedy of the Commune has led many people in France and abroad to seek photographic memories of the events. But the French government has been monitoring the footage closely, censoring photos that could lead to public peace disturbances. Images of ruined buildings were acceptable, but portraits of people were scrutinized: they could only portray the Communards in a negative, criminal light, and furthermore, they were often used to track down those who had participated. Braquehais published his images in an album, but unlike other photographers, he did not include any accompanying text to pass judgment on the Commune – an absence which was read as a subtle sign of his pro-communal sympathies.