Saturday 1 November 2008

Statue at Liberty

(Bd de Clichy, 75018)
A plinth without a statue is a sad sight, but on the Boulevard de Clichy there is one which has been transformed into a curious piece of street furniture. This plinth features a metal staircase leading towards a plexiglas box perched up on top. This strange set up is in fact an unofficial art installation, a creation to tempt passers-by to climb up and be famous for 15 seconds. The city of Paris though has sealed off access to the box and has yet to decide what action it will take, but the debate it has stirred is simply another installment in the bizarre history of Charles Fourier and his statue. Who was this rather controversial character though and why did he disappear from the plinth?

Charles Fourier, though little known today, is considered to be an early socialist, utopist and feminist. He was born in 1772 in Besançon, but he formulated most of his theories whilst working as a travelling salesman throughout France. With no formal classical education, Fourier was the archetypal self-made man, and his ideas sprang from the many encounters he made on the road as well as what he was able to read in his spare time. By the time of his death in 1837, he had managed to create several volumes of work, most notably his theory of the ‘quatre mouvements’ (four movements).

Today, his rather precise findings and recommendations make him seem more like a guru than a philosopher. He described how each individual in society should live, notably in four-level appartment buildings with the richest at the top and the poorest at the bottom. His links to early socialists came from his recommendation that every worker should have a decent wage, and that those doing the most indecent jobs should be paid the most. He is also considered by many to be the originator of the word feminism, which came from his insistence that society could only advance if women were able to play a fully active part. His radical free-thinking however upset many groups, with his theories on Jewish people and his avocation of complete sexual freedom being the most divisive.

His findings did however find a wide audience, notably in America where branches of his ‘cult’ quickly developed, and there was a particularly well-known attempt to build a Fourieresque society in Utopia, Ohio. His renown grew throughout the 19th century, and in an era of statuemania, a group of his followers set out to create a permanent memorial in Paris. After many years of discussions and fund-raising, the Fourier group eventually gathered enough money together, and his bronze was added to the Place de Clichy streetscape in 1899.

The statue though was never particularly successful. It was disliked by the local community and was not recognised by the majority of the Fourier followers who preferred to gather around his tomb in the nearby Montmartre cemetery. It was a rather large, gloomy representation of the man, and featured a long and obscure inscription that people struggled to understand. The statue nevertheless survived until 1941 when the invading German army requisitioned the bronze from many of the statues around Paris in order to make ammunition. Fourier was taken away, never to be seen again.

Since this time there have been many debates about the statue-less plinth, but as time has gone on, Fourier has become less and less important. Following the 1968 uprisings however, a group of situationists, attracted perhaps by Fourier’s radical free-thinking, created a plaster copy of the original statue and quickly erected it one night. This was no mean feat considering that even this copy weighed over 100kg! It lasted three days before it was pulled down again, and the plinth remained headless until 2007 when an art collective, known as Aéroporté decided that the space had been empty long enough.

Aéroporté describe themselves as civil disobedients and agitators, and believe that art can only advance a city if it is installed spontaneously. Once in place, a debate will then be held on the merits of the piece and how it lives and adapts in its environment. Aéroporté have no particular view on Fourier, but simply feel that 60 years without a decision on what would replace him was too long, and that a solution needed to be imposed. It is far from certain that they will be successful in this particular case, given the fact that the plinth is classed as a historical monument, and that it is unlikely to ever receive the relevant safety certificates for its intended purpose.

Fourier is not well-respected enough today to merit a statue, and given the cost of replacing a bronze effigy, it is unlikely that the statue will ever reappear. Aéroporté have proposed a solution, but do cities need to have all of their spaces filled? Rather than push people towards a desire to be immortalised, would it not be better simply to leave an empty space to remind people of the ephemeral nature of fame?


PeterParis said...

Very interesting! I (again) learnt a lot by visiting your blog! The absent statue is an issue that I have often noticed. Only in "my" park, Square des Batignolles, there are a number of empty pedestals (I have seen stautes on them on old postcards). So, the statues may have disappeared during the war(s).
On of these pedestals (the pedestal only) was recently by some locals here dedicated to Pierre Desproges.

Adam said...

If they were bronze they would have been particularly valuable. It seems that at the end of the 19th century there was an explosion in the number of statues erected, and many of these were celebrating really quite obscure people. Once removed, it became quite difficult to justify putting them back up again.

Anne said...

Thanks for filling us in. I passed by that empty glass box a couple of weeks ago and for the life of me, couldn't figure out what it was for.

Anonymous said...

Adam, I arrived here from Peter's blog which I follow regularly.

I have found the origin of the name Hopital des quinze-vingt from you.

The gaulois traditional measure of numbers was twenty.
The hospital could hold 300 people, i.e. 15x20 = 300. Hence the name quinze-vingt (15-20).

You find the same logic in the number 80 = quatre-vingt (4x20).

Fun eh?

Anonymous said...

And let me tell you how much I enjoyed your post about ghosts a couple of days ago.

Is the lack of spooks here cultural? Could well be, but I'd never thought of things that way. Isn't that fun?

Ghost tours of Sydney started a couple of years ago and they seem quite successful - if you say there are quite a lot of them in the UK I'm sure an entrepreneurial mind could set one up in Paris and be quite successful. Idea up for grabs!

Adam said...

Hello Nathalie - yes, I'm sure somebody could set up a ghost tour in Paris, and it could be popular, but I think there is something that would make it difficult. The city is just not very creepy, with even the most gothic corners being constantly awash with people! It would be a great challenge to find the dark side of the city of light!

Anonymous said...

Charles Fourier's socialist views figure prominently in the wonderful Whit Stillman movie "Metropolitan", which everyone should see, especially as the debutante season approaches.

Anonymous said...

Queremos que el gobierno alemán pague una nueva estatua de Fourier, ¡¡¡cagondiós!!! Fourier era un tipo que tenía dos cojones, no como el maricón de Sarko con la Bruni de los cojones. Hijos de puta, no borréis la memoria del gran Charles Fourier, cabo furriel del ejército francés que se montó una comuna a su gusto. ¡Menudo putero sibarita!

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