Wednesday 7 January 2009

Behind, the Gare St Lazare

From the Gare St Lazare we can take a trip around Europe, through Amsterdam, London, Vienna and finally Rome. It’s a fascinating journey through art and history and the history of art, but it should only take us about 30 minutes.

But where should we meet? The Gare St Lazare is the most historic station in Paris, but certainly not the easiest to navigate around. Perhaps by the Hotel Concorde St Lazare (Terminus), the street-facing extension of the station, and the first such hotel to be part of a railway building. Maybe a more atmospheric starting point would be under the disused passerelle which previously connected the two buildings. However, beside this great, stone muse, an artistic meeting place would be best, so why not next to one of the artist Arman’s twin statues, the clocks of ‘L’heure pour tous’ (above), or the piled up luggage of ‘Consigne à Vie’, positioned on the station concourse.

As we head north up the Rue d’Amsterdam past the grafted on 60s and 70s office blocks, we can reflect on how trains and train stations have inspired generations of writers, photographers and painters since they first started appearing in the city landscape. Emile Zola was amongst the first to notice this switch from naturalism and modernism, writing that "artists have to find the poetry in train stations, the way their fathers found the poetry in forests and rivers". He was writing in 1877 about the series of paintings the artist Claude Monet had produced in and around the Gare St Lazare.

It is easy to see why 19th and early 20th century artists were inspired by the train station. We can look at the Gare St Lazare from the Rue de Londres, across the 27 lines, towards the zig-zagging roof canopy and central clock tower, and we will see an almost unchanged vision of the iron and steel revolution that cut into the heart of the city. The vista is perhaps unaltered, but today’s quiet diesel and electric trains are certainly less romantic. Edouard Manet, who had his studio within earshot of the station (4, rue St Petersbourg) famously captured the age of steam, in his ‘Chemin de fer/Gare St Lazare’ painting, a portrait of woman, child and dog positioned before iron railings at the end of a friend’s garden above the rail lines near this spot. Behind them, steam from unseen trains rises skywards. This symbol of a naissant industrialisation was roundly criticised at the time, but Manet knew that he had captured a new reality. “Faire Vrai Laisser Dire” (Be truthful, let people say what they will) he wrote when later inviting sceptical critics to his studio.

Walking onto the Pont de l’Europe, we’ll arrive at the heart of our trip. It was Gustave Caillebotte who best captured this scene with perhaps his most famous painting being situated here (Le Pont de l’Europe, 1876). Living nearby on the Rue de Miromesnil, Caillebotte saw and painted the changing face of this Europe district from his studio window, defining the new city order and man’s interaction with his changed surroundings. On this bridge Caillebotte painted a couple of flaneurs walking alongside the vast iron structure, but also more tellingly, a man in working clothes looking down towards the revolution beneath him. Caillebotte had transported the peasant away from his traditional agricultural environment and placed him in his new, radically changed situation.

Zola himself later captured the schizophrenic sentiments that existed around the subject of trains in his novel, ‘La Bête Humaine’ (1890). Set largely in this part of Paris, particularly at the Gare St Lazare, his machines are murderous, as they had been in Tolstoy’s ‘Anna Karenina’ 10 years previously. Perhaps it was this sense of impending danger coupled with a fear of the creeping dehumanising industrialisation that attracted large quantities of walkers and flaneurs to the Pont de l’Europe. The city pedestrians were clearly fascinated by the new sights and sounds, but perhaps secretly terrified of the great, noisy iron beasts.

The Pont de l’Europe next cropped up in a 1932 photo by Henri Cartier-Bresson, ‘Derière la Gare St Lazare’. He captured a moment when the bridge was being transformed from an imposing iron structure into a smoother concrete form. The station backdrop is identical, but the narrower bars give a softer view. A puff of smoke is just visible, and workmen still feature in a scene which finally is not far removed from Caillebotte’s vision.

It is a bridge that is indeed worthy of celebration. Captured from above in a Google maps satellite image, it is easy to appreciate the elegant X design, and see how it is in fact the meeting point of six different roads (or European cities). It also manages to house several elegant buildings each with tree lined, lawn gardens and the Europe Metro station.

Step across to the Rue de Vienne and we see the station as it finally became in 1889. The site saw several major developments from 1837, when it was a simple wooden structure and the first station in Paris, to 1889, when it was celebrated as the largest and busiest in the country. On this western side it incorporated brick, today housing train company offices, and curiously some interesting decorative touches. The most prominent is a miniature lighthouse which is tagged on to the end of the roof canopy, and which seems to serve no purpose other then perhaps to recall the sights seen at the seaside destinations of many of the trains that leave from this station.

What is left to inspire artists today? It may now be the age of the train, a cleaner, slower form of transport, but their powerful symbology has diminished over time. Outside though in the Rue de Rome, there is a sight that could well inspire surrealists or absurdists – a staircase and pair of handrails descending into solid set concrete. This is surely a blocked up under-road passageway, but the visual aspect is surprising.

Finally, turn the corner and I'll return you back to 21st century Paris and the station concourse. If you have some more free time, I’ll take you inside the station. There’s plenty more to see!


CarolineLD said...

A fascinating and unexpected walk, one to remember on my next visit to Paris.

Anonymous said...

Another fine post! lovely lovely lovely! I love Zola... and he's always very quotatble. I recall the odd hot dogs at a kiosk in the Gare du Nord, they took a small loaf, drilled a hole, and slid the dog inside!


Anonymous said...

Great stuff. Spent a good many years transiting through St Lazare every morning and evening and you know what? Although I'd "seen" the "light-house" almost every time, it's only reading this item that I've actually got around to "looking" at it! That underpass is also familiar territory. Not really up on the full reasons for it being cemented up, but I reckon it may have been because it became quite a haunt for the homeless, who would harrass passers-by more or less aggressively depending on what time of day it was and how much they had "consumed". The corridor also stank...

Coming back into St Lazare every day from Levallois on line 3, I'd always get off at Europe - a far better bet for hopping over to the trains at St Lazare whilst avoiding the hordes of people transiting via the main St Lazare metro station... And of course, if there were any puddles on the bridge you could reproduce the Cartier-Bresson shot!

PeterParis said...

I'm again impressed! You are defintiely not yet retired - how do you find the time?

I made some posts about Gare St. Lazare some 18 months ago ( and some of the info is similar, but you have a lot of additional very interesting stuff to tell!
About the "light-house", I often wondered (have photographed it a few times with the possible intention to make a post). Anyhow there seems to be a staircase inside, leading to a passage over the roof...

Cergie said...

Adam, encore un coin que j'aime parce qu'il mène à Cergy : nous sommes desservis par le RERA qu'on prend à Aubert ou le train gare St Lazare. Lorsqu'il n'y a pas de connection RER on doit descendre à Aubert et marcher via les Grds magasins vers St Lazare. Je connais donc bien. Surtout la rue de Rome qui est la rue de la musique : marchand de guitares (la guitareria) d'instruments à vent (feeling musique) et de partitions (la flute de Pan) tu peux deviner que j'ai des enfants qui ont joué de la musique en conservatoire

Il y a aussi le lycée Chaptal. Oui c'est là que les étudiants de Cergy viennent le plus naurellement en classe préparatoire

Cergie said...

La mare derrière la haie c'est un peu l'invisible à dénicher. Ce sont aussi les rencontres. C'est une métaphore. Essayer d'être prêt pour de nouvelles rencontres.
Tu as mis le doigt sur les deux voitures qui m'ont attirées : la new beetle et la 2CV. Seules couleurs avec l'écharpe de la dame dans cette photo.
Tu viens avec un navigateur qui te permet de voir l'effet roll-over de mon blog, ce n'est pas le cas de 70% des visiteurs. Un petit coté Cergipontin invisible
Bon week end à toi, Adam

Adam said...

Caroline: If you want walks, I have plenty! It's my principle leisure activity in Paris!

Squirrel: There are many similar things here and they even have machines for this. Never buy a hot-dog in Paris!

Tim: Ah, so you used this underpass! I can't say that it seems particularly necessary, but the temporary solution that they have found is quite amusing.

Adam said...

Peter: I'm particularly happy to live in a country that respects the lunch break! If anybody were to study the majority of my posts they'd see that the subject is within a 10 minute walk of my place of work!
The lighthouse intrigues me too. I found it sketched on an architect's sketches at the end of the 19th century, so I presume it was added then. I did check whether you'd posted on this subject before, but I forget to check your previous site!

Cergie: Je pense que la Gare St Lazare est peut être la plus importante pour les Parisien(ne)s, et la seule a garder encore des traces de la 'belle époque'. Mais pour combien de temps encore?
J'avais pas remarqué l'echarpe, mais les voitures m'ont toute de suite frappés. Je savais pas que j'étais parmis les priviligiés!

ArtSparker said...

Believe it or of the most beautiful structures I've ever seen is the Poughkeepsie train station. smaller scale, of course.

Starman said...

A great walk written with fantastic visual affect. And the pictures are nice, too.

Anonymous said...

How are you?
I regularly visit your blog.
Keep on challenging!

Anonymous said...

That underpass was actually quite a good way of avoiding having to resort to the unprotected zebra crossing across the two lanes of traffic plus an additional lane used by buses and taxis in a hurry. By the end of the two-year period that I was using it though, I ended up opting to cross the busy road rather than face the underpass, its smell of urine and occasionally excrement, and - I'm ashamed to say - the panhandlers.

Is that mid-level rue de Rome to the station still open? I think they've blocked off the mid-platform entrances across the station, which hooked up with that entrance and a similar "back-door" entrance on rue de Londres I used to use when coming in from Europe metro station. I think they're now channelling all commuters through the main entrance hall and the revamped side entrance on rue d'Amsterdam, plus the access lower down on rue de Rome. But I'm not totally sure as I only ever really use St Lazare at weekends now for tourism/shopping so no longer need to use those cunning little side entrances (which were never open at weekends anyway).

Adam said...

Artsparker: I had to Google that one, but it does look very attractive - almost like an old Saxon church!
There are some fantastic stations around the world, which is more than can be said for airports. My favourite is in Antwerp, but St Lazare is as interesting as it gets in Paris in my opinion.

Starman: Thank you. I think that there is so much to see and say here that I've divided it into two posts. Inside the station is next!

Yui: Welcome! Where are you reading from?

Tim: The two entrances have certainly been open when I've visited. I think big plans are afoot with the huge renovations taking place at the moment, and I think they'll want to start directing footfall via new shops!

martha said...

Hi Adam,
I've just started reading your blog and this is my first comment. I too love European trains and (some) train stations. I agree with you about Antwerp - That's totally over the top wonderful.

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