Actors and Agents pursue; can a spirit pursue? 1

CURRENTLY screening at Dublin’s Hugh Lane Gallery and commissioned by the Hugh Lane, Declan Clarke’s film Wreckage in May (2015) rolls out like a Möbius strip, beginning and ending in the same toilet-flush of white lead paint, man and animal found in Gustave Courbet’s painting The Diligence of Snow (1860). The thirty-five minute film, one of three by the Irish artist to be screened at the Hugh Lane between now and September*, begins – context-specifically – in the Hugh Lane. 

When discussing Clarke’s films there is an obligation to reference French New Wave Film and auteur theory as the press release does. And if that’s your thing on with you. But my experience of Clarke’s art so far is more everyday familiar than exclusive avant-garde. Further, Wreckage in May comes across as more boyhood fantasy than historisation. Perhaps the boyhood fantasy of Clarke’s father’s generation when the Cold War thriller was plastered in the Brylcreem of espionage.

In Wreckage in May an agent (played by Clarke who wears a grey rain mack to highlight his personification) tails an elegantly dressed female character through the streets of Paris. First, we follow the agent and this person of interest into the Hugh Lane, then, a library, a museum lecture, the woman’s apartment, and finally we watch the agent checking out the Hugh Lane collection, alone.

Wreckage in May is almost entirely shot from behind the actors’ heads. In the first scene in the Hugh Lane we get a partial view of the woman’s profile – the first and last time – and a glimpse into her character – she has a thing for Gustave Courbet and the French Impressionists. Fast-forward thirty-minutes: the film ends where it began, in the Hugh Lane, with the protagonists’ roles reversed. This time around the mack-less and seemingly off-duty agent takes-in Courbet and the Impressionists on his own time. Gone is the agent’s intensity of brow and rigid coat-hanger shoulders. Gone is the anxiety of getting caught looking. We are left to lazily look at a man in a gallery looking at paintings. Wreckage in May is a mediation on looking and indeed, laziness (more later). But before we get to the tail of the tale it may be helpful to try an unearth the history that undergirds the plot of the film.

The title Wreckage in May refers to the human wreckage following the Versailles’ (French Army’s) reconquering of Paris from the left-wing Communards that seized power from the French government in March of 1871. The government, led by Adolphe Thiers, was already forced by Bismarck to politically bend-the-knee after France lost the Franco-Prussian War in January of 1871. The French gave up Alsace and Lorraine in the terms of surrender, but not Paris. So the potential for political hurly burly in Paris after France lost the war was a given. Especially when you consider “The people of Paris [being] farther to the left than the rest of France”2, plus the emergence of a women’s socialist movement and a pre-Habermasian public sphere with the legalisation of public meetings in 1868.3

These burgeoning sociopolitical elements forecasted an already emerging proletariat politics that was mentally locked and loaded for a leftist revolution well before the Prussians entered the fray. This short lived détournement  (occupying the “proper place of the dominant social order”4) by the workers of the Paris Commune, what Lenin referred to in impotent phraseology as “The Festival of the Oppressed,” and Marx and Engels “the dictatorship of the proletariat,” would, according to Adam Gobnik, end up being one of the “four great traumas that shaped modern France [including] “the 1789 Revolution, the ascent of Vichy, in 1940, and ... May, 1968”.5

Although the subject of the Paris Commune is the historical pivot on which Wreckage in May turns, it is the transformation in art and society that Clarke succeeds in elegantly advancing beyond the events of 1971. For instance, in the film the agent’s surveillance on the female character explicitly signposts the seeds of socialist egalitarianism among women during and after the suppression of the Paris Commune. Further, in the library scene we are given a glimpse of a book the young woman is researching titled The Women Incendiaries  (Edith Thomas), pointing to the “female proto-suicide bombers pétroleuses” 6, who debatably set fire to much of the city when in retreat from the advancing Versailles. There is also the moment in the woman’s apartment when the agent sniffs at a portrait of Rosa Luxemburg, the Polish-born German revolutionary and agitator who played a key role in the founding of the Polish Social Democratic Party, and who coincidently was born on the same year and month the Paris Commune came into power. 

However, it is the film’s focus on women bathing in the light of Degas, Morisot and Renoir in the Hugh Lane that signposts the de-politicised space of the canvas post-Commune. In some ways French Impressionism gave French society the facelift that the Commune failed to do – if we define social change as a question of appearances, which it invariably is to those in power. Government policies didn’t change all that much in the succeeding years following the suppression of the Commune. Conversely, French society portrayed through the Impressionists’ paint brush was a world in which light and leisure went hand in hand, not the guns and barricades of the Commune. We could be critical of the likes of Monet for painting burning sunsets not burning buildings. It is this “De-Politicisation”7 and “Re-writing”8 of the canvas post-Commune that affects the reputation of the main historical player in Wreckage in May, Courbet, who was charged, fined and forced into exile after he allegedly vandalised the Vendôme column as an elected member of the Paris Commune.

Displayed alongside Clarke’s Wreckage in May in what is a marvelous curatorial touch,  Courbet’s The Diligence of Snow – jointly owned by London’s National Gallery and the Hugh Lane – makes its presence felt in both the film and Hugh Lane. This painting in this context could be viewed as an Event Horizon from which Wreckage in May infinitely emerges or self-cannibalises; or, alternatively, a metaphorical sinkhole where dirtied reputations go to be cleansed for the sake of man’s or country’s posterity. What I’m getting at here in a appropriately round-about way is Courbet’s dirtied reputation post-Commune. Because the actions of the Paris Commune was described as “repugnant” in the eyes of the “intellectual class”9, including highly regarded intellectuals like Zola and Flaubert (and contrary to most accounts, Manet10), Courbet’s reputation was in great need of identity rebranding. Especially in the case of his most important patron, Alfred Bruyas, and not to mention the sociocultural image of France after the humiliating terms of surrender in the Franco-Prussian War. Dirty then, dirty now, art critics are put on the case of rebranding Courbet and his art in an effort to erase the post-Commune perception of the sociopolitical Courbet, and replace it with the poète maudit Courbet of French painting, alongside his en plein air offspring, the contemporary Impressionists. 

these critics, [Jules-Antoine] Castagnary especially, attempt to transform Courbet into a suitable great artist by inserting him into the ongoing, uninterrupted tradition of great art – great French art above all – in a ploy that is at once aesthetic and nationalistic, elevating and neutralising. The Courbet of 1889 has been assimilated to the pantheon of national artists who shed glory on the republic. In so doing, Courbet is, like his predecessors, transformed into a kind of commodity – a French tourist attraction, as it were – and hero at once.11

We will never know whether Courbet was more instinct “than a brain”12 (Camille Lemonnier). What we can know when it comes to the actors, agents and pawns of history is anyone’s guess. As Linda Nochlin concludes in her essay ‘The De-Politicisation of Gustave Courbet’: “Artists’ biographies must be considered as artistic creations, mediating the various ideological and psychological positions of those who create them.”13

In line with this notion of myth-making, but in reverse, Kristin Ross tells us Bertolt Brecht’s phrase for the French poet Rimbaud, “an eccentric poet going for a walk,”14 was a way of removing the “mythic interpretations” of solitary genius from the poet’s legacy – in the exact opposite way Castagnary critically isolated Courbet from the Commune through historical revisionism. In the late nineteenth century believing the artist was an ‘outsider’ or ‘genius’ was part of the creative profile. As an artist you were seen as either drunk on genius or lead paint. Today, “The banal imagery invoked by such models is all too familiar: the fixed gap between isolated and misunderstood but clairvoyant prodigy and the inauthentic society”.15 Ross, although describing Rimbaud’s legacy in relation to his suspect affiliation with the Commune, like Courbet, this somewhat explains the reasoning behind the critics’ baptism of Courbet’s reputation in the fire of fabrication.

What we are talking about here are mirages and ghosts of history, and Clarke’s art is full of them. For instance, there is a moment in Wreckage in May when the agent follows the woman to a traffic junction on the streets of Paris. Although the woman’s Sherbet Dip outfit of yellow top, orange pencil skirt and liquorice black tights distracts as she throws shapes through the streets of Paris, you can just make out the Vendôme column like a mirage on the urban horizon: seemingly there, and not there. Although the Vendôme column was rebuilt after being allegedly toppled by Courbet and his Communard mates, I personally don’t know Paris well enough to be convinced of the authenticity or reality of Clarke’s mise-en-scène. Is it a fabrication? A fantasy of the auteur’s making? Has Clarke just slotted the column into the vista? I don’t know, and don’t care to know. Because being ambivalent is just more fun.

Repeating Brecht’s phrase “eccentric poet going for a walk,” this can also be recycled to describe ‘Clarke the agent’ in Wreckage in May and ‘Clarke the flâneur’ in We Are Not Like Them. This banal description for the artist connects with what I mentioned earlier with regard to Wreckage in May being a meditation on laziness. This notion comes from Paul Lafargue’s argument for the worker’s ‘right to be lazy’, what Kristin Ross interprets as a “threat to the existing” ... “boundaries between labour and leisure, producer and consumer, worker and bourgeois, worker and intellectual”.16 The question of work with regard to artistic  production is a tricky one, falling between the boundaries of all the above. 

But, in Wreckage in May – all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy. And it is in that moment when the agent lowers his guard when off-duty to play, in a manner of speaking, in the final scene in the Hugh Lane, that things get turned around. With his peripheral senses dulled the agent falls foul to a moment of bourgeois laziness; consumption over production. A sudden gunshot and the agent is thrown onto his back to skid and flop, till dead, on the parquet floor. This spectacular event is overlaid with an audio of piercing tinnitus (ringing in the ears) – asking the question are we the shooter or bystander? A question that was as relevant in 1871 as it is Now.

[James Merrigan]

*Advice: make sure you are not chasing your own tail when planning to see Clarke’s Wreckage in May (2015) and We Are Not Like Them (2013). Combined, they add up to 1hr and 17mins, but (to my mind) are worth every second.


1.    Kristin Ross, May ’68 and Its Afterlives Paperback, University Of Chicago Press, 2004, p. 183.

2.    Adam Gopnik, ‘The Fires of Paris: Why do people still fight about the Paris Commune?’, The New Yorker, 22 December 2014. [online]. Available from: [accessed 4 May 2015]

3.    John Merriman, Massacre: The Life and Death of the Paris Commune, Basic Books,2014.

4.    Kristin Ross, ‘Rimbaud and the Transformation of Social Space”, Yale French Studies, No. 97, 50 Years of Yale French Studies: A Commemorative Anthology. Part 2:1980-1998 (2000), Yale University Press, pp. 36-54.

5.    Gopnik, op.cit.

6.    Ibid.

7.    Linda Nochlin, ‘The De-Politicization of Gustave Courbet: Transformation and Rehabilitation under the Third Republic’, October, Vol. 22 (Autumn, 1982),  The MIT Press, pp. 64-78.

8.    Ting Chang, Rewriting Courbet: Silvestre, Courbet, and the Bruyas Collection after the Paris CommuneOxford Art Journal, Vol. 21, No. 1 (1998), Oxford University Press, pp. 107-120.

9.    Ibid.

10.    “...unlike Monet, was far less sympathetic. After participating in the defence of Paris during the Prussian siege, Manet condemned the insurgents of 1871 as ‘grotesque imitators of the Commune of ’93’ and ‘cowardly assassins’. He later attended the trials of the Communards at Versailles where he disapproved of Courbet's written and verbal pleas of innocence. In a letter to Theodore Duret Manet asserted: ‘you write of Courbet. He behaved like a coward in front of the Tribunal and is no longer worthy of any interest.’ Ting Chang. op.cit.

11.    Nochlin, op.cit.

12.    Ibid.

13.    Ibid.

14.    Kristin Ross, ‘Rimbaud and the Resistance to Work’, Representations, No. 19 (Summer, 1987), University of California Press, pp. 62-86.

15.    Ibid.

16.    Ross, ‘Rimbaud and the Transformation of Social Space’. op.cit.

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Dressed to the Mack.

IMAGE CREDITS: ©Declan Clarke and The Hugh Lane Gallery.

Thank you to the Hugh Lane for images and additional information.


Wreckage in May  (2015) and We Are Not Like Them (2013)

Hugh Lane Gallery, Dublin.


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