The Keep archives in Moulescoomb hold many treasures. But perhaps none which reflect violence and political conflict as vividly as The Paris Commune Archive. Caroline Marchant-Wallis, University of Sussex Special Collections Supervisor at The Keep, has written this guide to the history of the Commune and to the collection.
We are extremely lucky to hold within the University of Sussex’s Special Collections The Eugene W Schulkind Paris Commune archive (SxMs162). A large and varied collection, it consists of around 2,500 items, including a huge number of newspapers from 1870-1871, posters, photographs and a wonderful selection of satirical cartoons. There is no other collection of such breadth on the subject available in the UK.
The Paris Commune (La Commune de Paris) lasted only 70 days. Although a relatively short time, those days in 1871 formed a dramatic and bloody moment in France’s history. The insurrection of liberal Paris against the Conservative government of France saw the staunchly anti-clerical and socially progressive Communards fight for equality for all. Ahead of their time, the collective established new ideals which saw better provisions for the poor, feminist movements created and civil partnerships introduced. Sadly, the Commune was unable to survive the force of the government and its army; on the 21 May 1871, thousands were killed and, along with them, the dreams of the Commune.
The revolution may have been short lived, but the concepts put forward had a profound impact, and we are still fighting to achieve some of them today. There is a historical message from this period that clearly still has resonance, which makes this collection even more interesting – so much can be learned from it.
The collection is largely in French, making it appear inaccessible to someone like me, who regrettably never progressed past the very basic teachings of French at school. However, with the presence of such a large number of illustrations and cartoons (SxMs162/3) the messages of the Commune are powerfully communicated, transcending the need to understand the written word. Whether this was a conscious thought in 1871, when these cartoons were being produced, we do not know, but what they demonstrate is the ability of images to break down barriers of communication and increase the number of people who can engage with and understand a subject.
Cartoons have a long relationship with political insurgency, and France in particular has a history of using the artistic format to communicate. From the French Revolution through to 21st century magazines such as Charlie Hebdo, the politically charged cartoon has been and continues to be a powerful tool. Promoting ideals, provoking and embarrassing those in power and rejecting organised religion are just some of the ways The Communards used cartoons, included in the images shown is one openly mocking the politician Emile De Girardin. Both obvious in its derision of the politician, but at the same time subtle –his shadow appearing as a monkey for example – the cartoon is a fine example of not only the satirical prowess of The Communards but also their artistic merit of cartoons.
The Paris Commune archive is a significant and poignant collection representing a fascinating moment in history and, with the 200th anniversary of the uprising in 2021, it will be exciting to see how the collection will be used to mark those remarkable 70 days of 1871.
Full details of the collection can be found on The Keep website
All content of this blog is © East Sussex County Council and its respective partners University of Sussex and Royal Pavilion, Museums and Libraries, Brighton and Hove.
Many thanks to The Friends of The Keep (FOTKA) for permission to reproduce this article which appears in their Spring 2019 Newsletter. More details of FOTKA at http://www.fotka.org.uk