In 1802 a prominent collection of Parisian waxworks was transported to London, commencing what was to become a nearly thirty-year tour of the British Isles. The collection had been modelled by Philippe Curtius (1737 – 1794) and his apprentice and heir, Madame Tussaud (1761–1850). Waxworks displays were not uncommon at the time, but Philippe Curtius’ collection stood apart. The typical display, often at a fairground, might represent a scene of allegory or fantasy, or even portray a story from classical literature. Two of the better-known waxworks collections of the eighteenth-century, the Dutch Doolhof collection and Mrs Salmon’s in London, exhibited such scenes as Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, Salome dancing before King Herod, David slaying Goliath, and Queen Thomira with the overthrow of Cyrus the Great. Philippe Curtius distinguished himself from these shows by presenting figures taken from contemporary history that were cast from live subjects. He cultivated personal relationships with men such as Benjamin Franklin, François-Marie Arouet, and Rousseau, all of whom were said to have sat for Philippe Curtius to have their wax portraits made. Philippe Curtius’ collection was in this way unique, claiming direct ties to the notable and notorious figures that were presented to the public.1
Madame Tussaud capitalized on the singularity of the collection when she opened the show in London, revealing to the public a set of figures that had been secreted away while in France. Alongside the display of figures from the French and British monarchy were a set of death heads — wax busts cast from the severed heads of the most famous villains of the French Revolution. These were accompanied by other markers of the recent violence in France: a scale model of the guillotine, models of the Bastille before and after its destruction, and a staging of the “villainous” proponent of the Terror, Marat, stabbed and dying in his bath. The actual bloodstained shirt in which Henri IV had been assassinated was also included in Madame Tussaud’s display, augmenting both the authenticity and the intimacy of her show. Madame Tussaud, it was later said, “stops at nothing for the satisfaction of her public.”
Madame Tussaud’s display, like many other entertainments of its day, blurred the line between the representational and the real, creating a phenomenological terrain arguably ushered in by the French Revolution itself. Looking across the channel in 1789, Edmund Burke had seen with prescient clarity the aesthetic character of the events unfolding in France, that “monstrous tragicomic scene.” There the politics and the aesthetics of representation had collided; abstract ideals were manifested through spectacular action and given visual, theatrical form. Edmund Burke was one of the first to recognize that the French Revolution would constitute nothing less than a complete metaphysical break with the past. The equality sought by Revolutionaries in France necessitated a seamless correspondence between individual identity and collective power. Were it obtainable, this ideal would collapse all distinctions. The paradoxical achievement of the French Revolution was to locate a politics of difference at the core of modern liberal selfhood. With the overturn of the Old Regime, sovereign individuals would form not in relation to a pre-ordained divine order, but in their contingent difference from non-sovereign beings.
The violence associated with the French Revolution, that central “attraction” of Madame Tussaud’s collection, forcefully asserted the legitimacy of the sovereign individual. The sovereign individual could be understood as first and foremost a separate, autonomous being. Revolutionary executions were staged to re-enact the bodily and psychic distance of the citizenry from one another; even during the excesses of the Terror, victims faced the guillotine’s blade singly, one by one. The Revolutionary government’s assertion of individual autonomy culminated in and depended upon the literal destruction of the king’s body. The king’s execution signalled that final rupture between a hierarchical symbolic past and the new order, in which the autonomous individual might possess a real and present power.
In her first shows in London, Edinburgh, and Glasgow, Madame Tussaud mingled violated bodies and their accoutrements with her more civil compositions of royal celebrities. Soon, however, she moved the former to an “Adjoining Room” — later dubbed “The Chamber of Horrors” —and began to charge the public an additional sixpence for admission. One of the longest-running exhibits of Revolutionary violence, Madame Tussaud’s Chamber is a quintessentially modern spectacle; both commodified and privatized, Madame Tussaud’s display is “popular” in all senses of the word. The graphic scenes of suffering and torture that pervade early modern history were legitimized by the religious and pedagogical purposes to which they were put; collective identities and power relations were explicitly and openly enacted across their stage. Madame Tussaud’s displays of wounds and weapons — their fragmented nature, as well as their status as a pure attraction — operated on a different logic. Eschewing the traditional social and psychological hierarchies of the Old Regime, Madame Tussaud courted an intriguing — and ambiguous — reciprocity between spectacle and spectator.
This article considers the specific rhetorical and aesthetic mode developed at the Chamber of Horrors in relation to emerging notions of selfhood in the wake of the French Revolution. In its early days, Madame Tussaud’s show purported to operate as a tool of enlightenment understanding and moral sociability. Eventually, however, the exhibition came to function openly as a site of entertainment, curiosity, and fascination. Increasingly, Tussaud commodified not only contemporary history and society but also individualized experiences of violence. I argue that Madame Tussaud employed a rhetoric of fragmentation and disjunction — both between the individual figures and between the figures and the context of their display — to create a viscerally engaging fantasy of pleasurable trauma, founded on sensate experiences of the self. This form of violent display developed alongside, not against, the very production of the liberal modern subject.
Also published on Medium.