I became interested in the grandes frescos when I was making The Hypothesis of the Stolen Painting, and for the first time I studied the official painting of the nineteenth century, the peintres pompiers. This characteristic representation of the rise of democracy and capitalism is common to both France and Britain. I became interested in all forms of official art, including socialist realism, and for the first time I saw painting as an actual site of political struggle.
Perhaps the persecution of artists – or the importance they are given in socialist countries and at times of struggle elsewhere – is a form of economy, concentrating the struggle in a symbolic way. As a result, I became more respectful of such work and its significance.
So there is the question: What kind of official art? Is it to be political art reflecting the aspirations of the state, or is it to be the model of a future state? And there is also the question of dissident art, which is not official and therefore not art. I tried to learn more about official art and this led me to make the Handbook of French History, which is a two hour compilation drawn from the very worst of the French television grandes frescos dealing with French history.
This stereotypic history has three sources in France – Victor Hugo, Alexandre Dumas and Jules Michelet – and it seems to be the first strong expression of a history that goes from primitive tribes to the perfection of society, with a succession of heroes as the key figures.
Interestingly, the stereotypes are the same as in Latin American history, and the idea of the ‘invention’ of Latin America is not far from the virtual invention of France that occurred in the nineteenth century. Now everyone knows who was good and who was bad, and the films that were made by Communists and right-wingers are exactly the same, with the same themes of unity, the conjunction of power and centralism, nationalism.
I think there has been a real drive toward centralisation of the Latin American continent, which is analogous to the unification of France. Or perhaps the Latin American movement was a parody, since they even named the battles after European battles: Bolívar called himself Caesar and referred to his battles as Thermopylae, Waterloo, Trafalgar and the like. But if we call this a parody, we must remember that a parody is a very mysterious thing.