The Politics of the Provisional Art and Ephemera in Revolutionary France

Richard Taws

In revolutionary France the life of things could not be assured. War, shortage of materials, and frequent changes in political authority meant that few large-scale artworks or permanent monuments to the Revolution’s memory were completed. On the contrary, visual practice in revolutionary France was characterized by the production and circulation of a range of transitional, provisional, ephemeral, and half-made images and objects, from printed paper money, passports, and almanacs to temporary festival installations and relics of the demolished Bastille. Addressing this mass of images conventionally ignored in art history, The Politics of the Provisional contends that they were at the heart of debates on the nature of political authenticity and historical memory during the French Revolution. Thinking about material durability, this book suggests, was one of the key ways in which revolutionaries conceptualized duration, and it was crucial to how they imagined the Revolution’s transformative role in history.

The Politics of the Provisional


  • $34.95 paper, 978-0-271-05419-3
  • $74.95 cloth, 978-0-271-05418-6
  • $14.95 ebook, available from Amazon, Google Play, or the iTunes Store.
  • 288 pages
  • 90 illus., 24 in color, 9 x 10 in.

Content Excerpt

Samples are available as a PDF of excerpts, or as an HTML version of the first chapter at the Penn State Press website.

about the author

Richard Taws, a lecturer in the History of Art Department, University College London, teaches eighteenth- and nineteenth-century European art, with a particular interest in the visual culture of the French Revolution and its aftermath. He taught previously at McGill University, Canada, and has been a Getty Postdoctoral Fellow (2006-7) and a Member of the School of Historical Studies at the Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton (2010). He is a member of the editorial board of Art History and the current recipient of a Philip Leverhulme Prize (2013-15). An article derived from The Politics of the Provisional, on assignats and post-revolutionary memory, published in the Oxford Art Journal, won the 2011 Max Nänny Article Prize, awarded every three years by the International Association of Word and Image Studies.

Richard’s recent research focuses on everyday, ephemeral and obsolete forms of visual culture and related issues to do with time, materiality and value in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. More broadly, his work addresses histories and theories of media and technology, the social and political stakes of print culture, the relation between images and concepts of historical time, and the entanglement of artistic and non-art objects in the fifty years either side of 1800. In this vein, he has also written recently on subjects including anachronism and collecting at the Musée des Arts et Métiers, eighteenth-century caricature, and printed and photographic representations of nineteenth-century royal imposters. He is currently working on a new book about the relationship between art and new communication technologies—the Chappe optical telegraph in particular—in France in the first half of the nineteenth century.