The difference between History and the Past
Updated: Mar 5
The factual definition of History means to narrate or record the Past. These two terms could be poised as Art and Artist. Imagine this; History in their studio, painting the Past how we see it today, they throw colours to canvas; depicting their version of events, informed by their personal disposition, background and context. The Past we now see in the works exists as the muse does before their lovers gaze; can we trust this version of documentation wrapped up in the subjectivity of its creator?
Many may feel History and the Past are interchangeable terms used to describe the same events. Though, one could argue that the difference between History and the Past is that the prior is a documented, specific version of occurrences taking place during a time period who’s namesake is the latter. But, like bread and cake, it takes different ingredients to produce and define what the use of these two terminologies specifically refer to. I would deem the Past an abstract uncharted series of events, and History; that which is documented. In light of this; Art, Literature and Academia become artefacts which track stories and tales long lost by first hand human account and memory. In this essay I am exploring whether History, as narrated to us through Art, truly is a thing of the Past.
In the oils of Jean-Etienne Liotard, Marie Antoinette appears as a child unaware of the controversial Historical figure, and symbol, she will be to a future past of France. The seven year old girl is poised central to the composition, her body angled starboard. Her demeanour is plain, with small creases either side of her mouth. Does this suggest a similar “sweet mocking mouth” to that of Mrs Darling in Sir James Mathew Barrie’s Peter Pan?
A Mona Lisa smile maybe…
Emerald paint used to describe the dress could suggest the envy of her mother, Empress Maria Theresa, (presuming she chose the garment) over the child thieving her youth and beauty. Just seven years later, Maria’s maternal instincts inspired her to sell her child to King Louis XV (of France), for just 200.000 Crowns to secure the treaty of Versailles. Here, knowing Green is the healing aura, her garnet could be a signal to how superficial power became so influential to the young Delphine. It is know the future Queen was deeply problematic when it came to politics, but here she is painted as a baby bird before being thrown from the nest, at the midpoint of her childhood and development in her love of Things and not Wars. The materiality she is presented in channels a spiritual sign that the girl is desperately seeking remedy from the traumatic experience of being a beautiful aristocratic girl in the 18th century. The pink bowes, notably a colour associated with femininity, positioned on her neck and biceps are like gaudy shackles signifying how trapped the girl is by her circumstance; destined to fall from the towering pedestal of wealth and privilege that a golden stalk dropped her upon.
The young dauphin’s large, dead eyes tell no tale of such foresight however; Jean-Etienne Liotard, said to have been of an extravagant disposition himself, would view this girl as the epitome of perfection; his Lolita to France’s Humbert Humbert. She is presented as the product of decadence beyond wealth; a sweet marionette (future) Queen of France caught in a game of chess between Patriarchy and Marxism. Given this, it is no surprise her amplified voice was so naive; and it is no doubt the sweet Marie died not seeing a problem with the quip; “if they cannot afford bread, let them eat cake!”.
In relation to my thesis, this painting brings to light the rife elitism of the Arts. The past of France that a modern reader is aware of is completely apart from Princesses masquerading in muslin to dress up like common farmers. At the end of her delicious reign over France, it turned out that all the Bourgeois’ horses and all the Bourgeois’ men couldn’t put Marie back together again. And as the muse of France passed in the Past, she remained the motif of a revolution fought by the third estate: working class people struggling to buy bread due to the rising taxes she was spending on…clothes.
The argument put forth in British Marxist Historians that “History was not just written from the perspective of the top, but was also often limited to studies of the top [italics original]” by Harvey J. Kaye begins to unpack the tricky nature of using sources from a time where accessibility to Academia and the Arts was not possible for anyone outside of nobility (and their amusing court of jesters and performing interns). Such a comment supports my train of thinking that History is not a truly accurate depiction of the Past, and therefore is a whole other thing entirely. Drawing this back inline with the earlier mentioned relationship of Artist and muse; one could say that the Muse can exist without the Art, but the Art cannot exist without the muse; and in the same way: History cannot exist without the Past, but the Past exists outside of History.
The Third estate is depicted later in Liberty Leading the People by Eugène Delacroix. His oils present the July revolution of 1830 against Charles X. This revolution was successful in dethroning the Bourbon King, after a period of restoration from ultras following the fall of Napoleon.
The spirit of the time is personified by Liberty holding the tricolour French flag, breasts bare; mother to a new period of liberation for the working class. When drawn up next to Louis’ past version of femininity, pushed by the rich right wing, Delacroix shows a woman exuding far more autonomy of character. She may still only be represented as a zeitgeisty token of the time, and sexualised by the male gaze, but in contrast to Liotard’s Marie; at least she is a grown woman.
She stands in front of many men, bearing the brunt this brutal scene and leading those who were too fragile to take charge. The boy child next to her could be likened to many past failed figures of power, baby men like Napoleon Bonaparte, standing only five foot two, and valuing military motives over personable liberation. The poor androgynous figure at the feet of her ladyship looks to Liberty as a beacon of hope; a women knowing her direction with no regard for the observer, (later called the fourth wall in relation to film and video) without shoes, but with passion and belief in the moral cause of justice.
The left shows us a conservative fellow of a scared disposition. He represents all that France was, with sideburns that Abraham Lincoln would be jealous of later that century when he tussles with the same civil unrest in an even further left world of American. The city scene to the right is a clear space; a place for the youth to inhabit once the fires have died down. This is a utopia of modernity built on the dead bodies of French men who fought for the wrong side in a war for peace. The boy’s demeanour is of even more of interest here, suggesting peace is not what the men want, or will ever truly desire; but that power and turmoil are at the heart of man; a part of his make up. With the face of Lady Liberty rising higher than any other in the ton of characters described; does Delacroix mean to suggest that femininity is the only antidote in the face of a utilitarian world? This belief could be seen in the gift of Lady Liberty from France to America in 1885, postwar yet pre gender equality of any kind.
During the pre-covid days of Galleries, I ventured to Marian Goodman in the Winter of 2020 to see Nan Goldin. I feel it relevant to bring her show Sirens in the mixing pot of my thinking, due to how she explores female presentation in a contemporary context. Casting my mind back before the past year, I remember the great halls of Golden Square hung with the beautiful faces of her many muses; all young and, generally, ‘passing’ members of the trans community. It was interesting to see how she chose to represented a community she is not, herself, a part of.
Having already touched on the discourse of the relationship between Artist and muse; drawing on two examples of male portrayals of women, the flipping of the dynamic to a woman observation a even further suppressed group brings to light how female empowerment has grown throughout the last three centuries. To of obtained a show at Marian Goodman, a influential (male directed) space is definitely an achievement to our sisters of the revolution. Yet there is still room for critique of how the show may use the LGBT community in a tokenistic way. Many of the works show women nude, or seminude, and while exploring the use of the room structure of the space it was interesting to see that many of the more ‘unconventionally beautiful’ characters were pushed to the back, out of the sight of a gaze.
Most interesting to me in this show was her video work Salom, shown in a curtained room. Goldin had three screens poised in front of the viewer, angled like a wrap-around virtual reality simulator. The screens showed segment of Fritz Lang’s 1927 film Metropolis, a film depicting a utopian view of the future where the protagonist tries to fight against the rule of King capitalism and Queen classism. Spliced with this was a eastern-stylised drag performance. As you observe the dancers, there are men (resembling penguins) in three piece tuxedos eyeballing you, implying shame over the sight you are enjoying. Here, Historical belief systems and Past traditions come to the forefront of what Goldin is bringing into question. Due to the judgement my community has faced in the Past, there is very little documented of Trans identities in a humane way throughout History.
Nan Goldin’s work is import to begin this expression of the culture and bringing the normal lives of many people to others that view such an way of life is alien to. However, it is tricky to do this through Art, as the medium can become commercialised and lose it’s original meaning when thrown before the masses to digest and critique. Often times, this critique is what suppressed groups are trying to flee, due to observers taking the power of validation from them. Visibility is not something I always feel is positive, as a trans person, for it can sometimes invite abuse. In 2021 the importance of movements such as Trans Lives Matter lay more in the hands of our allies. The female trans body is a vulnerable condition for one to be in a male dominated world, one that can make you feel helpless under the weight of Histories smeared with bloody rapes, murders and otherhood due to diseases such as HIV.
Henceforth, shows such as Sirens (the name of beautiful genderless beings that seduce men) can mount the pressure of Past belief systems of suppression against trans women, just as much as the shows normalise us existing in the world openly. As with Marie and Liberty, the trans women Goldin presents do not just exist as objects before an internalised misogynistic gaze, but as whole people who make mistakes, fall and rise, in their own stories beyond a portrait, without shame.
A Past often not talked about is that of Queer people, before sex became so profitable as an industry. Yet, in the opening chapters of Sex and the Constitution by Geoffrey R. Stone he discusses how Greek men would often take boy lovers. There was no shame in same sex relations in classical grease, yet their was extreme shame in receiving penetration. This system is wrapped up in so many outdated ideas of masculinity inline with who has the biggest ego, that many young men still fall victim to today. As people gained more morals than the Greeks, men stopped having sex with young boys, yet at the same time their beliefs became so coy around the topic that all relations with the same sex got wrapped up in the same parcel of judgement as pedophillia. This is a narrative used to bring hate toward many queer people still, which falls into the same category as victim blaming women for sexual assault; blaming them for their own self presentation for example. Of all the atrocities of the Past, violence against women and children has to be the greatest in History.
Before I conclude, I will offer you the manner Nicolas Bourriaud describes history. He views the topic as “the last undiscovered continent”. In the spirit of this, I don’t feel History, or the Past can truly ever be understood enough to ever differentiate the two entirely, but more they are like sisters that borrow one another’s clothes, dye their hair the same maybe, yet at the core are different beings communicating different messages raised around the same contextual factors. To draw my thoughts to a point, I would say that the more time that passes the more embellished stories of the Past become. Looking back as far as classical Greek Art, one is seduced by Boaticelli describing the birth of Venus. In the Past such works, with their shells and cherubs, were seen as religious depiction of the old gods. Yet now, these stories are but relics of an ancient land we use as modern tokens of beauty and decorum. As L.P Hartley put it; “The past is a foreign country, they do things differently there”, and so can we ever begin to understand events we did not witness first hand and trust that there was absolutely no creative freedom taken by the party relaying this information to us? I don’t believe so, and like bread, truth always tastes better when you add a pinch of salt.