Arts & Crafts and the Paris Commune

I’m going through Walter Crane’s autobiography. Crane was a painter and illustrator, one of the central figures of the Arts & Crafts movement.

Crane’s memoirs are full of fascinating insights. For instance, he crosses paths with several famous exiles from the Paris Commune, such as Louise Michel.

A remarkable passage describes the events of the uprising, where Crane speaks of the Second Empire as “rotten and pretentious.” He condemns its vindictive massacre of the communards, “sacrificed in the thousands,” adding that the radical significance of these events wasn’t immediate to him, only becoming clear years after.

Interestingly, this passage precedes Crane’s first mention of William Morris’s design work. According to the illustrator, its growing popularity was partly due to a “reaction against the heavy and vulgar taste borrowed from the French Empire, which had for twenty years or more dominated the Victorian taste in English house decoration and furniture.”

It’s impossible not to connect this rejection of the French taste and the condemnation of the “rotten and pretentious” French Empire.

The formal characteristics of English design are polar opposites of the French style: flat, “honest” surfaces, linear contour against Trompe-l’oeil, and fuzzy outlines. The formal opposition continues in the ethical and political plane: the utopian and dreamy socialism of Arts & Crafts contrasts with the violent, bourgeois rottenness of the Second Empire.

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