Saturday, February 25, 2012

"Revolution! The Atlantic World Reborn"

Last Sunday GH and I went to the New York Historical Society to look at a few of its current exhibitions. "Harlem," a show of photographs by Camilo José Vergara, was only of passing interest.  "Hudson River School Highlights" was a small show of Romantic landscapes mainly by Asher B. Durand. We also saw "Urban Views: American Cities 1717-1986." That show concluded with a photo-montage of Canal Street, New York City, by architect and photographer Claude Samton. GH who lived in the neighborhood in the 1980's was very happy to see restored his memories of various stores selling art supplies, metal scrap and rubber tires.

After he left, I took in the wonderful show "Revolution! The Atlantic World Reborn." From the Society's website:

Revolution! The Atlantic World Reborn is the first exhibition to relate the American, French and Haitian revolutions as a single, global narrative. Spanning decades of enormous political and cultural changes, from the triumph of British imperial power in 1763 to the end of the Napoleonic wars in 1815, Revolution! traces how an ideal of popular sovereignty, introduced through the American fight for independence, soon sparked more radical calls for a recognition of universal human rights, and set off attacks on both sides of the Atlantic against hereditary privilege and slavery. It also recounts the famed careers of such revolutionaries as Thomas Paine, Jean-Baptiste Belley and Dominique Toussaint L’Overture.

The show gathered together a fascinating array of artifacts. Displayed for the first time outside the U.K., the original Stamp Act passed by Parliament in 1765 that set off the riots leading to the American Revolution. The only known surviving copy of the first printing of the Haitian Declaration of Independence. A wooden model of the slave ship Brookes, produced for the French revolutionary leader Mirabeau, intended to be used as a prop in the National Assembly’s debate on ending slavery in France. Three vodou sculptures and a video interview of a Haitian vodou practitioner. Anne-Louis Girodet’s portrait of the Saint-Domingue military and political leader Jean-Baptiste Belley, which the curatorial write-up carefully analyzes for the painter's mixture of admiration and condescension.

Having read Wordsworth's sonnet on Toussaint L'Overture for the first time last summer, I was especially pleased to learn more about this Haitian revolutionary--Catholic, inspiring, conservative, tyrannical--at the show. As always, the man is more complex than the poem. But the poem is rousing, a reminder of the idealism of young Wordsworth.

TOUSSAINT, the most unhappy man of men!
   Whether the whistling Rustic tend his plough
   Within thy hearing, or thy head be now
Pillowed in some deep dungeon’s earless den;—
O miserable Chieftain! where and when
   Wilt thou find patience? Yet die not; do thou
   Wear rather in thy bonds a cheerful brow:
Though fallen thyself, never to rise again,
Live, and take comfort. Thou hast left behind
   Powers that will work for thee; air, earth, and skies;
There’s not a breathing of the common wind
   That will forget thee; thou hast great allies;
Thy friends are exultations, agonies,
   And love, and man’s unconquerable mind.

No comments: