Richelieu’s theatre of cruelty

In the film A Fish Called Wanda Kevin Kline’s character Otto parrots Nietzsche’s unorthodox view that all high culture is based on brutality. While mocked in the film (Otto thinks the London Underground is “a political movement”), support for this radical belief can be found in the fascinating exhibition “Richelieu: Art and Power.”

The exhibition explores how Cardinal Richelieu used the visual arts to help centralize France, strengthen the monarchy and consolidate his power, often masking his brutal policies. During his reign as Prime Minister under Louis XIII from 1624-1642, he was probably the most important man in France and he commissioned a lot of beautiful artwork.

An admirer of the neo-classical style Richelieu founded the famous Academie d’Art Francais that would later become so influential modern art would practically define itself by going against its dictates. Cardinal Richelieu had his painters, such as Nicolas Poussin, Georges de la Tour and Simon Vouet, depict Greco-Roman or Biblical images allegorically to reflect the increasing power of the French monarchy.

Painters got paid well, but their artwork had to reflect the historical glory of France and the divinely sanctioned rule of Louis XIII. The viewer, then, approaches these undoubtedly beautiful works with some ambivalence.

A commanding painting, for example, of ruthless crusader Simon de Montfort who led the slaughter of thousands of Christian heretics during the 12th century symbolically represents the violent suppression of Protestants in 17th century Catholic France and Louis XIII’s majestic rule. Of course one must put the work in historical context, but it makes one think about how the beauty of art can help justify brutal policies.

Richelieu didn’t only sponsor paintings, as the variety of works included in this exhibition makes clear. Medallions, military plans, architectural models (some for the Louvre, which was rebuilt during his reign), theological treatises and sculptures all demonstrate ways in which Richelieu wished to have the French state understood as a bastion of civilization and order.

However, to be fair, Richelieu didn’t only sponsor works highlighting the glory of King and country. In fact, a whole section of the exhibit is devoted to art representing the different social classes of the time including painfully realistic portrayals of poor families and beggars.

Moreover, in the same section, the traditionally sanctioned view of combat as glorious is undermined in a series of sketches entitled “The Large Miseries of War” by Jacques Callot. In these we see the fate of soldiers fighting in the utterly unnecessary 30-year war, which ravaged the European continent for over three decades (itself partly due to Richelieu’s foreign policy). In a small detailed sketch entitled “the Hanging” we see two-dozen men hanging from a large tree, as a priest blesses soldiers to be executed. An army surrounds the scene at attention holding rifles and flags.

Richelieu: Art and Power is a thoughtful, well-organized exhibition that offers a glimpse into the regal and scheming world of 17th century France. Nationalism was more advanced here than anywhere else in Europe and it is interesting to view the exhibition with the oncoming French Revolution in mind. The revolutionaries (who during the Terror had several thousand people arbitrarily murdered) would scrap the monarchy but expand French nationalism also using it as a key propaganda tool through the visual arts.

Considering nationalism’s importance on the global stage, this exhibition is a must-see for those with an interest in world history or for those who would just enjoy a view at a world long gone but that has significant bearing on our own.

Richelieu: Art and Power is at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts until Jan. 5.

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