Eugenia Calvo

Essay: The Comedies of the Bourgeoisie and the Tragedies of its History. From the book "Eugenia Calvo". Siete trece, Buenos Aires, 2014

Author: Santiago García Navarro



1. Among a myriad of curiosities on exhibit at the Carnavalet Museum in Paris, there is one small group of objects in the hall dedicated to the 19th Century that is particularly notable due to its diminutive extravagance. The rarest and most complex of these objects is a small, truncated column made out of marble dust from the Tuileries Palace, destroyed in conflicts with the Paris Commune in 1871. It is a perfect copy, executed with meticulous detail. As if this in itself might not be sufficient somehow, it is accompanied by a document signed by the concessionaire in charge of the palace’s destruction that certifies the authenticity of the raw material involved. The words “Ruines des Tuileries” are also carved into the column’s marbled beige shaft in Roman letters, somewhere between an epitaph and a monumental inscription. The second object is a wood cigar box bearing an image of four advocates of the Commune barricaded behind an improvised wall of cobblestones, one of whom stands high, waving a red flag. “Vive la Commune” can be read on the lid of the box, and “Souvenir de la barricade du Temple” on the back panel. There is another, larger wood box whose purpose is unclear, with an almost identical inscription: “Souvenir de la barricade de Belville”, this time written along three sides of the box, as if to ensure an adequately paused reading. The last object is called “Vue de Paris. 1870-1871”, a scene of the capital at dusk, painted on a piece of mortar shell by a minor artist, François-Fréderic Grobon, while he was in Versailles, to which he had been evacuated by the government due to the virulence of the fighting.

Three of these objects are, in effect, souvenirs of the 1871 Commune, conceived of and executed while the Tuileries, the Hôtel de Ville, the Louvre and the building that preceded the d’Orsay station (later a museum) were still in flames. What is the nature of the underlying desire that motivated the gesture of producing souvenirs of the revolution during the heat of the revolution itself? If I mention Grobon’s painting it is in order to highlight the contrast between the attitude of someone who, as immersed in melancholy as he may have been, was conscious of the fact that he was, above all, bearing witness to the battlefront atmosphere and that of someone who recognized the future potential of an object he might elaborate as a souvenir.

Between the war cries of Paris’ workers, forcibly expelled by the Second Empire to the outskirts of the city and the fringes of society, and the decision to produce mementos—so ubiquitous in 19th Century passageways—in a portable format there is a mismatch; here we have two worlds that do not coincide although they do overlap. In this collapse of meaning, then, what is it that comes tumbling down or is shot out of the picture, with either a comic roar or a deafening crash?

Objects like these that talk too much but remain mute at the same time, bring Eugenia Calvo’s work to mind, though I cannot say exactly why. The only relationship between the two that would seem to be evident is that elements from the bourgeois world—the socio-cultural matrix of the home during the last third of the 19th Century—and the proletarian sphere—barricades from 1830, 1848 and 1870 in addition to those raised during minor revolts in between—also intermix and intermingle in Eugenia’s work. History scandalously cries out from behind rebellious furniture in the contemporary Rosario homes that appear and disappear in her videos, and yet is suffocated at the same time, or perhaps just the opposite; maybe it is there lying in wait, hidden among the furnishings. I did at least understand that if there was any similarity to be found between a revolutionary souvenir and a barricade raised inside the home, it had something to do with the extraordinary nature of everyday occurrences.

2. An explicit notion of the bourgeois home would therefore be absolutely necessary. Its form would have to be untangled—what makes it perceptible, albeit not evident, its hierarchical structure, repressive mechanisms and the bourgeois world system’s promise of happiness—in order to shed light on a particular experience: the immediacy and distance that simultaneously result from putting the repressed intimacy of the home and the spacious breadth of an insurrection’s eternal instant on the same stage at the same time.

Michelle Perrot and Roger-Henri Guerrand are among those who have much to contribute to this topic. To begin with, in the fourth volume of Histoire de la vie privée (The History of Private Life) they bring an excerpt from Kant to bear that, despite having been written during the 18th Century, would lay the foundations for a new type of domestic environment essential to consolidating bourgeois society:

“The house, the home, is the only barrier against the horror of chaos, night and dark origins; it encloses everything that mankind has patiently gathered over the course of centuries within its walls; it is opposed to evasion, loss and absence since it organizes mankind’s internal order, civility and passions. His freedom flows forth in what is stable and contained, and not in what is open or infinite. To be at home is to recognize life’s slow pace and the pleasure of still meditation. […] Therefore, Man’s identity is to establish residence; this is why a revolutionary, with neither possessions nor perspectives and as such, neither faith nor lawfulness, condenses all the anguish of a vagabond within himself. […] A man from nowhere is a potential criminal”.

The ideological function implicit in Kant’s distinction between moral and immoral forms passes off modes of constructing civilization and social control as the effects of an immutable Nature. As such, one need look no further to detect a key to the cover-up. The home, result of a tradition that gains more authority the further it is lost in the depths of history—the fact that this tradition had never been contradicted was precisely what guaranteed its “natural” character—was the pivot-point upon which the human race was organized, as opposed to anything that might threaten to disturb its equilibrium. This, in turn, favored believing the source of all evil to be exclusively external, and differentiating the intimate realm as the opposite of the external one in terms of identity. Foreign provenance would thus determine non-identity and this lack of pertaining would oppose the laws of the home. Shifted to the political-judicial sphere, a text of this sort would be functional for any of today’s anti-immigration positions, particularly within the map of Europe.

3. In order to illustrate the essential core of Surveiller et punir (Discipline and Punish), Foucault might well have chosen this excerpt. The home that Kant described as the opposite of mobility and instability played a fundamental role in Western European institutions during the 17th and 18th Centuries, reaching its culmination in the 19th Century. Expressed in terms of Foucault, you could say that for every one of the four interdependent operations that make up the basis of spatial and corporal disciplinary systems, the home provided precise training and fine tuning mechanisms: it set the minimum social unit within a closed space—which was, in addition unassailable—in order to combat nomadic ways of life; it segmented the home into as many spaces as members pertaining to it or functions carried out by its inhabitants in order to combat communication (particularly “sexual communication”, the ultimate cause of inaccessibility and a source of taboos, ambiguously repressive and perversion-stimulating); it unified identities under patriarchal law in order to combat multiplicity; it shaped bodies according to the roles and hierarchy pertaining to each—establishing protocols for gestures, composure, hygiene and expressing emotion—in order to combat singularity.

4. Though the 19th Century may have been the century for European discipline, it would also witness strange forces that gained influence simultaneously: socialism, Marxism, libertarians, bohemians, artistes maudits (damned artists) and art for art’s sake[1]. There was one common denominator that ran throughout this wide range of radical ideologies, which was hatred of the middle class and everything that lifestyle represented: a world view based on economic factors, social pretensions, aesthetic mediocrity and moral banality. If the home is a mirror of the soul, as the saying goes, then it is there we should look in order to observe the peculiarities of the small merchant’s soul.

In their own homes, the middle class imitates architectural styles that historically pertained to the aristocracy in order to flaunt the palatial patina that destiny had deprived them of in their less-than-noble origins. In a middle class home, sizes, functions and room arrangement are reorganized in order to prioritize the rooms and spaces designated for social use, combining patrimony and worldliness within the home. Placing special emphasis on evidencing hierarchies, servants’ quarters are shut off in a smaller sector, separated from the rooms occupied by the family. Health and hygiene are maximized, with innovations implemented that would mark a contrast with the squalor and promiscuity of peasant shacks. Decorative objects are accumulated, another distinction from the simplicity of a poor home.

5. In a letter from 1854, Flaubert wrote: “How many good people there are who could have lived perfectly well without Fine Arts a century ago but today cannot live without statuettes, musical tunes and minor literature!” Abraham Moles critically dissects the quotidian art of the statuette in his Psychologie du kitsch. L’art du bonheur (Kitsch Psychology. The Art of Happiness. 1971). The “authentically false” as a “way of being” is a style that exaggerates things as much as possible while remaining inside a psychological comfort zone; it came about with the massive socialization of consumer goods in Munich, the arcades of Paris, Düsseldorf, Brussels, and Chicago between 1860 and 1910.

Moles characterizes kitsch in such a way that the solemnity and the shine of the bourgeois home reverberate to the point of spontaneous combustion. Moreover, kitsch is capable of arousing an entire network of subjective movements: “security in the face of any eventuality from the outside world is proposed as an ideal value; self-affirmation: a way of life or economic system based on creation via accumulation and preservation is never questioned […]; a possessive system as an essential value […] Gemütlichkeit (at one’s leisure) […], one’s heart at peace, pleasant and affectionate intimacy, the virtue of feeling comfortable, the Anglo-Saxon civilization’s coziness; lifestyle rituals: having tea, how service is organized, rules for receiving, the “Jour de Madame” (day on which the lady of the house receives guests in the parlor)[2], fundamental rites of the bourgeoisie, handed down by way of imitating one’s elders to our own times”.

6. In addition to conceiving of the bourgeois home, the elite nouveau riche with connections to monarchial power during the last quarter of the 19th Century generates or finally defines three other complex design models: architectural design—with the École des Beaux-Arts’ historical eclecticism, academia’s zenith and final point of culmination—, urban design—cities with major traffic axes and long perspectives that simultaneously facilitated circulation and controlled movement—, and patterns of consumption—the serialized, industrial production of decorative objects that Flaubert laments. These models, assimilated from Berlin to Buenos Aires, would become the new premises upon which Western civilization was based. However, due to the social mobility generated by this same mass of urban energy, capital cities during the 19th Century would also be epicenters for new types of mobilization: worker organizations and urban guerilla warfare strategies. 

Following every 19th Century political rupture, royalty, aristocracy, bourgeoisie and proletariats (incipient during the 18th Century, fully configured in the 19th) all deploy their pieces in different ways on the game board, but the overall process would eventually culminate with the abolition of the monarchy, economic and political hegemony on the part of bankers and industrialists, the consolidation of a middle class and petty bourgeoisie and stability for the proletariat with all the benefits of a secure place in society.

7. During this revolutionary cycle French contemporary artists—Daumier, Meissonier, Rethel, Raverat and Millet but above all, Delacroix in La Liberté guidant le peuple (Liberty Leading the People, 1831), along with an army of anonymous printmakers—clearly evidence the power of the barricade no longer as merely a tactical construction, but as an icon, in their recurring use of the motif. Author T. J. Clark dedicates the first chapter of The Absolute Bourgois. Artists and Politics in France 1848-1851 to it, and Eric Hazan similarly refers to it in La Barricade, histoire d’un objet révolutionnaire (The Barricade, History of a Revolutionary Object, 2013).

For one moment during that first uprising in 1830, as Delacroix admits in his masterpiece, the barricade pertains to workers and to the bourgeoisie. However, during the second half of the century, it would become exclusively an instrument of street groups opposed to Haussmann’s Paris. The contrast between the barricade and the bourgeois home is so patently clear that, as Michelle Perrot suggests in his Histoire…, two years after the Commune, architect Viollet-le-Duc, an expert in restoration and a main proponent of the neo-Gothic style—considered to be one of “kitsch’s greatest pedagogues”—published Histoire d’une maison (History of a House, 1873), a novel-construction manual that disseminated domestic protocols for the ruling class with the aim of reinstating order, under threat by urban uprisings.

8. Along the same conservative lines but with innumerable subtleties and several quite notable advantages, from the 1850s on businessmen and the government undertake the construction of workers’ housing, a category that spans from phalanstery-palace (the motto might well be: “if each cannot have a palace of their own, then one palace for all”) to the worker’s slum and collective housing. This process led to making the ideology of the individual home universal: workers’ lives were organized in terms dictated by the bourgeoisie, with priority given to domestic spaces in order to discourage use of the streets to revolutionary ends.

9. Leaps in time, history and geography would eventually lead to finding one’s self in the presence of Buenos Aires’ grand thoroughfares in the times of Torcuato de Alvear, with academy-style institutional buildings in the majority of Argentina’s and Latin America’s urban centers, with boulevards like Oroño or Olleros, cottages like those found in the Fisherton neighborhood, picturesque villas followed by Mar del Plata style summer chalets, until reaching the small, Peronist style ranch houses found in Ciudad Evita or the El Martillo neighborhood. In all these cases, the middle-class model is applied without significant alterations and it is this model, rather than particular expressions of it in any specific place or region that Eugenia explores and questions.

10. In fact, I think that almost every aspect of Eugenia’s works toward condensing, evoking, installing and disassembling these scenes. She cites them in a very broad sense, going beyond their specifically 19th Century manifestations to involve the kinds of space and middle-class imagery that have defined the West. This is why the house and the objects in it essentially recall the 19th Century in Eugenia’s work. The solicitude underlying each arrangement gives it away, in the tranquility it exudes, the propriety with which relationships are established, the comfort provided, the protection promised, the dreams invoked of isolation from the outside world.

Reiterated decade after decade in the nesting place of the family, rites of the mundane and the intimate persist and organize life. Collective corporal memory does exist, as does the materiality of the images and volumes by way of which history reappears and is either accepted or questioned. What Eugenia does is extract from the silent presence of objects the still smoldering structure of their past. She comprehends that it is within this structure—both material and immaterial at the same time—that objects take on the power necessary to continue to shape our way of living.

11. In a room, a kitchen, on a table or under a bed, the 19th Century system of objects teeters on edge due to the actions of a person apparently uninvolved in the situation, executing peculiar acts of vandalism. The individual acts are carried out with what could be called the cool calculations of the criminal mind, by someone “with neither possessions nor perspectives and as such, neither faith nor lawfulness“. However, this character is too neutral for that; or too impersonal, as any sensation tends to be. In fact, what we have here is less than a character: it is a genetic corporal memory that touches, caresses, pushes, sniffs, penetrates, breaks, flattens, throws, cuts, piles up, shakes up and rearranges.

All this is done in a tone that can be stealthy, robot-like, vague or virulent, depending on the occasion. Her sensitive presence tangibly transmits how certain models of behavior have been repeated during almost two centuries. It can be seen in the way that furniture moves around the house, as if animated by the rhythmic phases of slow breathing; how they slip into the normal functioning of the house, corroding it year after year without anyone noticing, until it’s too late; how things are suddenly destroyed or mistreated and beaten without explanation or excuses, as if the attacks had no prior history, as if they were simple acts of injustice and barbarity. This character, or to be more precise, different characters, constitute an abstract entity disguised as an animal, a butcher or a phantom to invade the enveloped heart of the home.             

12. On the one hand, then, when Eugenia works with bourgeois imagery she is asking herself in what form it still exists today, why, and what its effects are. In spite of the aroma of camphor, however, this imagery does exist as a vivid memory, at least for generations born prior to 1950. It is most likely from the perspective of these generations and through them that these images reverberate for younger generations, including those who remain children today.       

Strictly speaking, the bourgeois house no longer exists: it began a slow process of decomposition following the cultural revolutions of the sixties—when the barricade once again became an epicenter for the final coup de grâce—and was finally devoured by acceleration and the increasingly horizontal nature of contemporary consumerism. It perseveres in society’s imagination, however, where it can travel from generation to generation if it has the strength to do so.

In addition, typical discourse from the conservative middle class as well as from the political class that depends on them as an electoral base attempts to reconstruct this imagery as a positive alternative to a present that they perceive to be in ruins or a future they naively imagine as an apolitical utopia when they manage to delude themselves that far. When sincerity prevails in private, they are only able to configure this on an apocalyptic horizon. In any case, the dream-nightmare that the bourgeois house represents keeps subjectivities captive, enveloped in nostalgia for what has irremediably been lost. For the middle-class unconscious, this is presented as nihilism in the face of what is to come and serves as the basis of a conservative plan under construction.  

In some way, the undaunted, alienated, neutral or impersonal way in which Eugenia’s work destroys, dismantles and corrodes carries out the function of pointing to not only the model’s inherent violence, but also its imminent expiration. In the latter case, its impersonal nature can be seen as a mirror held up to a presence that is no longer there. 

Among the different actions this character carries out, some seem to be more specifically tailored to these ends than others: cutting, breaking, flattening or throwing. By not committing to any personal feelings in these attacks, it is as though the character were demonstrating that in the end, no one destroys anything; destruction takes place by itself. Consequently, any attempt to revert the situation would constitute a crime in opposition to the most structural level of the currently existing flow of making and unmaking reality.

13. On the other hand, Eugenia does deal with history in her work, redefining the terms of combat between the bourgeois world and the barricade in her private realm. It is no longer the barricade that turns against the bourgeoisie, but the furniture of the bourgeois home itself that turns into a barricade.

In the minimal scripts that Eugenia writes for her barricades, things that had been pushed into dark corners within the house take center stage. Not the perversion or criminality that might well have been made manifest along with the act of protest at the moment of rupture, but the pure force of liberation and its potential capability to reorganize everyday events is what becomes the principal protagonist. 

Transformed into a character, the barricade no longer questions the laws of the house alone. Although it acts within the house, it is not domestic. It comes from outside, from the infinity of the street and yes, it is potentially criminal. When the fragments of a piece of furniture that has been cut apart are placed on a shelf or table, as if to put them on display, it is the old order that is  dismembered, exhibiting the cadaver and, as if this weren’t enough, arranging the parts to compose a new figure. In this way a new order is apparently inaugurated, but the reorganization is ironic. The action is real, but the effect actually achieved is comedy.

Making use of furniture as the material basis for its construction, the barricade brings the energy of the house, the building and the city into contiguous contact, even in a physical sense. For this reason, Eugenia’s entire series of works involving barricades fulfills a role that links them directly to political history.                    

14. Where can a remedy be found for the demon of conservativeness, if not in the tabernacle of its own temple? Benjamin would have said that as in the case of Surrealist objects, here the forces of the antiquated are also liberated[3], albeit in a different manner. Objects in rebellion perpetuate an attack on their own temple, with no hopes that anything in particular might arise from its ruins. This is the story of the Trojan horse and the destruction of the Spanish Armada on a smaller scale: a victory so absurd and unexpected that it obliges us to rethink everything.        

Weren’t these objects already tired of participating in meaningless rituals? In destroying the tabernacle, it’s as if Eugenia’s objects were saying that the irretrievable past is one that can be acted out again, but also that the future can only exist if that past is acted out in a different way.

By rebelling, the objects in turn declare that everything in the imagery constructed around that supposedly better past is false in every last one of its details. It is purely a condensation and transposition of a fear of new forms of chaos, of an urban social fabric where everything is perceived as being potentially criminal. 

15. The image in this work could unfold in such a way that, when Eugenia sets up barricades inside the house, in addition to furniture insolently rebelling against its owner, a labyrinth of traps set unconsciously by the bourgeois in their own backyards or dining rooms might also be revealed, begging explanations that psychoanalysis will need to unravel sooner or later. Eugenia’s work proposes situations that are simple at the outset, but that only accelerate, the images multiplying: what is direct immediately becomes indirect, what seems to be evident fogs over in an instant and wakefulness suddenly cedes to slumber.

16. In this process of unfolding, then, memory plays the most sinuous of games. Middle-class pleasures and anguish impregnate the body’s very substance to describe a situation that becomes more and more ambiguous. The calm bliss that familiarity brings, completely equilibrated, meets head-on with the torturous delirium of repression, generating constant bifurcations that emerge from the clash, barely contained by the present.

These are works of memory and creation, whose main character pushes, sniffs, caresses and penetrates the materiality of the house as a way of exploring the world, conscious and dreamlike at the same time. It is this infantile, sensorial approach—with no boundaries between imagination, fiction and reality—that guides each excursion, opening fields of experience and of perception wider and wider. At the same time, logic redistributes memory’s matter in such a way that the happiness of this perpetual game cannot be enjoyed without also feeling law-imposed anguish.

The scenes of gentlemanly life miniaturized on porcelain plates (another element for Flaubert’s repertoire) become an inverted nightmare, where what is real horrifies the dream. Given that the inversion is duly enunciated, reality occupies the viewpoint of kitsch daydreaming. The real (or hyper-real, if we contrast the porcelain’s blunt visual aspect with the sharp detail of the mashed potatoes) nightmare devours the kitsch dream of a castle by the river (and the miller’s daughter) as a kind of punishment or vengeance: this is because kitsch lives in perverting what we perceive, avoiding by any means possible and without hesitation what is now presented before us: a storm right in the middle of the coziest of plates.

And to think that this horrific scene might actually take place or does take place in any middle-class home, without anyone showing a hint of reaction! From the viewpoint of the everyday, once the micro to macro conversion has been made, what one observes is the family around the dinner table. As the silverware moves, the chicken slides a bit more to the right or to the left on the plate, but the castle remains unchangeable on the riverbank. The castle is the invisible seal that guarantees the spiritual infrastructure of the bourgeoisie. During lunch or dinner, the forces of order operate on an unconscious level, though the family may plunge into terminal crisis.   

However, authority cannot be awarded entirely to a denouncing narrative or critical observation. It must also be understood that thanks to the fact that the fictional universe contained on the porcelain overlaps with the fictional incidence of chicken parts on the same plates, memory can reach out and connect with dreams, creating not only the world presented to us in this work, but all the worlds that effervescent bourgeois vulgarity opens to us incited by the food’s attack, all there for us to explore.

17. This may well be what made me think that the Carnavalet cigar box might have something in common with Eugenia’s work. Although revolutionary forces are obliged to lose a great deal of themselves in order to fit into the little heart of a souvenir, nothing impedes the souvenir from turning into an amulet for the next revolutionary. And if a bit of chicken and mashed potatoes are capable of devastating huge tracts within the interminable dominions of kitsch, that doesn’t mean that kitsch’s fictional power will cease to serve us as an entrance into worlds that are no less interminable and that might even somehow coincide. By creating and destroying in the same act, memory accesses the forces of the object and propels them beyond its limits.                          


Paris, December 4, 2013



[1] Bourdieu’s almost novelesque way of presenting the relationship between the two in Les règles de l'art: genèse et structure du champ littéraire (Rules of Art: Genesis and Structure of the Literary Field, 1992) is indispensable here.

[2] The Caranavalet’s exhibition label for Charles-Edouard Boutibonne’s oil painting Le Jour de Madame (1875) explains: "The «jour» [day] as a social institution dates back to the large literary salons organized during the 18th Century, and its use extended throughout the 19th, disappearing with the advent of the Great War. Every lady of the house concerned about her status would designate one day of the week when she would officially be at home to receive anyone from her circle of acquaintances who might pass by to visit; since it was physically impossible to be present at all the salons that were open on any given day, visits could be symbolized in the vestibule of the house".

[3] All of the following involves a direct or indirect dialogue with W. Benjamin’s Passagenwerk (Arcades Project) and essay Dream Kitsch.