French Public Art in the Third Republic: Interview with Irina Markina

By Kathryn James

Irina Markina has been awarded the 2017 The Walter J. Jensen Fellowship by The Phi Beta Kappa Society. The Walter J. Jensen Fellowship, created in 2001 to support students and teachers of the French language and to improve education in French language, literature, and culture in the United States, provides for a $15,500 stipend and a round-trip ticket for study in France. Jensen Fellows must study in France for at least six months and communicate with the Phi Beta Kappa Society about their research in both English and French. 

Markina is currently a doctoral student in French literature and art at Princeton University. Her project for the Jensen Fellowship, “Appropriating Revolution: The Paris Commune and the Mural Art Campaign of the Third Republic,” focuses on the public art campaign of the Third Republic, specifically in buildings in Paris. The mural art of the Third Republic is the focus of her doctoral work. 

She completed her Bachelor of Arts in Romance Languages at the University of Pennsylvania in 2013. Her prior research also emphasized French art and literature of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Much of this work, like her current interest in the Third Republic, explored conceptions of francité, the “quality of what is French.” Francité was a contentious topic at the time of the Third Republic, given the French loss of the Franco-Prussian War. 


Your academic work has a clear and early focus on French arts. What led you to this interest, and why did you choose to specialize in 19th century works? 

MARKINA: It is difficult for me to pin down a point in time when I became interested in French culture. This is probably because I grew up in Saint Petersburg, Russia, where French art and literature have played a key role since the 18th century, if not earlier. Therefore, ever since I can remember, France has held a special place in my imagination. 

I have chosen to focus on the second half of the 19th century because I see it as a pivotal literary, artistic, and political moment. This is when monarchy recedes and a frail republican government takes root; this is the age of daring literary and artistic experimentation, a time of scientific and technological innovation that altered people’s worldview. These developments manifested themselves in art, as painters developed new styles and modes of expression to represent their ever-changing reality. Official mural art holds a fascinating place in this context, since it is an age-old genre that evolves in the 19th century, reflecting the ideological shifts that characterize this period. 

What aspects of your specialization/research do you find particularly challenging or particularly rewarding?

MARKINA: The biggest challenge posed by this project is the lack of scholarship. While Marie-Jeanine Aquilino, Aimée Brown Price, Jennifer Shaw, and Pierre Vaisse have published excellent volumes pertaining to the Third Republic’s mural campaign, much work remains to be done. However, this is also what makes this project so fascinating for me. 

Moreover, my dissertation is interdisciplinary in nature and may be understood as a nexus of art, architecture, politics, and history. Although this poses methodological challenges, I find this holistic approach to be extremely fruitful. 

Throughout your proposal, you note both that murals typically are not studied iconographically and that you intend to do so. Why do you feel it is important to depart from convention in this way, and how do murals fit into the narrative of French art?

MARKINA: My decision to examine the iconography of the murals is motivated by the fact that they are significantly understudied. Indeed, iconographical analysis is the conventional mode of analyzing art; the issue is that most murals have yet to be examined as “art” in their own right. 

As Pierre Vaisse has noted, mural art commissioned by the Third Republic is difficult to place in the art historical narrative. Most of the murals were commissioned in the last three decades of the 19th century. Impressionism, which was contemporary with the official decorative campaign, was for the most part deemed stylistically inappropriate for the monumental, rigidly planned mural surface. Realism, which was burning out in the 1870s, had just enough afterglow to be assimilated into official décor, but only in particular contexts. Symbolist artists, who were developing their pictorial language in the 1880s, were inspired by Pierre Puvis de Chavannes, who had been painting murals since the 1860s. Official mural art of the Third Republic therefore occupies an uncertain, liminal position in the art historical narrative, adopting a fading style and giving birth to a new one. There are also many mural cycles exhibiting classicized, idealized figures, which are today grouped under the large, ambiguous umbrella of “academic painting” or “art pompier,” terms that have not been sufficiently unpacked. This resistance to easy classification was certainly a factor that contributed to the lack of scholarship on official mural art of the 19th century. 

In my project, I do not wish to forcefully insert the murals into an overly rigid structure, but rather to highlight how they eschew conventions. Unlike easel paintings, circulating on the market and displayed at the Salon for the admiration of the wealthy, mural art has a broader civic dimension. Because of this, it engages with artistic movements differently, adapting varying pictorial languages based on the spectatorship targeted by the mural. 

When reading your description of Third Republic’s campaign of civic art, the American WPA projects of the 1930s come to mind. Are there similarities in the modes (murals, sculptures, paintings, etc.), the content, or the artists between these two programs? 

MARKINA: Although the scope of my project does not allow me to address this comparison in any great depth, preliminary research reveals that the historical and political contexts of the Third Republic’s mural campaign and the Federal Art Project in the Unites States are rather different. The latter was a relief measure implemented during the Great Depression, whereas the Third Republic employed relatively well-established artists and did not seek to extensively broaden its employee base. In other words, the primary goal was not to create new jobs, but to spread republican values. 

Another point of difference is the scope of the subject matter. Whereas in the American context artists seemed to have more liberty in what they chose to represent, in France commissions were much more specific and themes were determined by a combination of state organs ahead of time. 

How will winning the Jensen Fellowship affect your future education/study plans? 

MARKINA: The Jensen Fellowship will enable me to conduct vital research on site. Without a direct examination of these murals, this project would not be possible, and I am therefore extremely grateful to Phi Beta Kappa for this opportunity. I plan to use my findings as a Jensen Fellow to write a series of articles and a monograph that will contribute to scholarly research in this neglected subject area. 

Kathryn James is a senior at the University of Mississippi where she is studying public policy leadership, Southern studies, and economics. The University of Mississippi is home to the Beta of Mississippi Chapter of Phi Beta Kappa.