Tuesday, 24 January 2012

Le Déclin and a fall from grace

Flicking swiftly through hundreds of vintage Paris postcards at a fair recently, my finger was stopped dead by a singularly melancholic picture. Paris is a city that people boast of visiting, but here was a sculpture of two miserable looking figures entitled 'Le Déclin' (the decline), with behind them a thoroughly working-class city vista. Dating from the very beginning of the 20th century, it was as far as possible from the standard image of Paris, and therefore definitely worthy of investigation. 

Some information was given on the postcard, but several other mysteries remained. The sculpture was by the artist Clément Leopold Steiner, and was situated in the Square du Père Lachaise. The statue is not one that I had ever seen before, and I wasn't even sure where the Square du Père Lachaise was situated - understandable, given that it is today known as the Square Samuel de Champlain (a small park probably best known for being the site of Moreau-Vauthier's 'Le mur aux victimes des Révolutions').

Information on the motives and tastes of the postcard sender can often be found on the rear of the card, but here there was just a laconic 'bonjour'. Why was a postcard of this sculpture made, and why would anyone at the time choose to send such a picture to friends or family? The answer can perhaps be found in a brochure printed for the Societe national des beaux-arts exhibition at the Galerie des Machines on the Champ de Mars in 1898 where Steiner's sculpture was first presented.

"Le déclin, de Léopold Steiner, est bien, très bien. Ces deux vieillards simplement assis au soir de la vie, forment un groupe des plus remarquables dans la section de sculpture de la Société des Artistes français."
(Le déclin by Léopold Steiner, is good, very good. These two old people sitting simply in the twilight of their lives, make up a remarkable group in the sculpture section of the French artists' society.)

Clearly it was a sculpture that had artistic merit, and was of the tastes of the day. Sadly for Steiner, he didn't live to see a slow decline into graceful old age himself, and died in 1899 - the year after the presentation of the sculpture - aged only 46.

The sculpture was purchased by the city of Paris, and placed in a new garden directly opposite the Père Lachaise cemetery. The couple were perched at a height that enabled them to look directly over the wall and into a possible future place of rest (and away from the city of Paris), but whether this was a deliberate decision is not known!

The sculpture was seemingly quickly adopted by those in the vicinity of its new home, and looked at more closely it is easy to see why. The couple are not sad, but merely physically tired after a life of labour. They are obviously not wealthy, but contented that they have been able to grow old in each other's arms, something that would have been an aspiration for many people in this working class part of the city. It was positioned on the top of a series of steps, which people would sit on, as another charming postcard I found online shows.


In more recent times though, another mystery has arisen. By all accounts the sculpture was no longer standing in the garden, but where was it originally situated, and where is it now? The only way to find out was to visit the garden, postcard in hand, and investigate.

In my postcard, the only clue was the spire of the Notre Dame de la Croix church in Menilmontant, which is clearly visible in the background. All other visual clues have been demolished and replaced by taller buildings. Fortunately a more recent picture of the sculpture existed which gave me all the evidence I needed.

Somebody who had known the sculpture in better times was surprised and saddened to return to the garden around 15 years ago and find it painted and covered in grafitti. This photo was a rather sad and pathetic sight, but at least it showed me exactly where the sculpture had sat in the park.

 
In its place today is a rather spindly rose garden. Nearby is a bench, but the discarded cans of beer in the vicinity show that this is not somewhere that families come to relax, nor old couples in their twilight years.

The sculpture has therefore been removed, but where is it today and will it ever return or find a new home? To find out, I contacted the Marie du 20eme arrondissement who informed me that the statue had been removed in 2002 following a period of damage and deterioration. More importantly, they also told me that there were no plans to bring it back to the park. Today it sits - probably with many other damaged and discarded creations - in the city of Paris's art collection storage space in the suburb of Ivry. 

Looking at my postcard again I can see why else it attracted my attention. It's a simple image, but one that finally says much about Paris. The background is a city that has changed beyond recognition, but the picture also tells us about changing tastes and changing behaviours. It's a postcard with a story - albeit a rather unhappy one - and one worth saving from the dusty box of memories. 

19 comments:

Owen said...

Great detective work Adam, we can always count on you to get to the bottom of a story... a shame that the statue fell on such crass and disrespectful times. And I'm not sure I had the chance to, but here's wishing you an excellent 2012...

Christine H. said...

What a wonderful post. I think it's a very beautiful sculpture, although I would probably prefer if it had a different name. How I would love to browse through the unused works of art owned by the City of Paris to find something nice for my back yard.

Tim said...

Great piece. Good link through to CPA-Bastille91 too.

One for your "challenge me" file: "Dear Adam, have always wondered (well, ever since last Wednesday) what the city of Paris's art collection storage space in the suburb of Ivry is like. Any further information would be greatly appreciated. Yours sincerely, etc. etc."

Adam said...

Owen: an excellent 2012 to you too. Statue painting is actually quite a common occurence in Paris, and more a sign that a creation is liked and adopted. I think here it was more the case that an oversized sculpture was removed because it didn't fit in with the new layout of the garden.

Adam said...

Christine: apologies for stealing the theme of your blog! Please everybody, visit Christine's Daily Postcard blog where similar stories are regularly told.

The name is an interesting one. The mystery that still remains for me is the story of Steiner. Why did he sculpt this statue, and why did he give it that name? I have his date of death, but not the cause, and there does seem to be this strange twist that he should view old age as a 'decline', then die young himself.

I'm sure that the Paris city art collection archives are full of creations that have gone out of fashion, and here it is quite easy to understand why. When it was created, such a vision of old age may well have been an aspiration. Let's not forget that life expectancy in France in 1900 was less than 50, but today old age and a 'decline' is more something that we fear.

Adam said...

Tim: a very good challenge! The building itself, an old city waterworks, is already an interesting one, and I think it is possible to visit. Perhaps a destination for the next Atlas Obscura day?

dawne said...

A wonderful, fascinating post, and one that sounds like the outline of a very good story for a book or screenplay. My mind was already delving into the mystery as i read, and then you tell us about the city of Paris art storage space in Ivry! Well, now I'm off to look up that building, my mind filming movies as I go...

tap said...

It's really exciting that others are fascinated by the "city of Paris's art collection storage space in the suburb of Ivry" too.
One of my passions is rsearching iconoclasm through the ages (I'm writing a book called "Sculptural Assassination"), so I love hunting down traces of public sculpture that is missing or destroyed. I would be thrilled to get into that place.
Is it ever open to the public?

Anonymous said...

Adam, what a fascinating post. And the idea of an Atlas Obscura trip to the art collection storage in Ivry is mouth-watering. If only I wasn't quite so far away these days...
landscape lover

Adam said...

Dawne: Yes, there it is a good story - sad one's are always the best! I found another postcard that day though with an even more interesting narrative - more information soon!
I love your photos by the way.

Adam said...

tap: I have the feeling that visits are sometimes possible, but I haven't been able to confirm this yet. More news next week hopefully. If it's possible, I'll definitely try to organise a visit.

David said...

What an excellen blog, congratulations. It´s extremelly interesting. And the fact that is from paris is a plus for me. Bye!

Paris Cheapskate said...

This is so great. I am now dying to learn how I can visit the art collection storage space!!

Anonymous said...

Coming to this post late - as I always seem to - I'm struck not only by the statue, its decline and ultimately how it is taken away to be with other statues in a 'retirement home'.

Perhaps inanimate representations of ourselves are treated no better or no worse than our fellow humans beings.

Anonymous said...

On a different but related note and following on from my previous post a few days ago, I was looking at the work of Pierre Jahan, a photographer who documented the destruction of a number of Parisian (metal) statues during the Occupation during WW2.

Some of his images were collated into a book 'La Mort et Les Statues', which I believe is still available today.

Paris en Images has a very useful series of images with a number of English captions at:

http://www.parisenimages.fr/en/event-slideshow-accessibility.html?sujet=jahan



Anonymous said...

I have a copy of 'La Mort et Les Statues' and find it heart wrenching. The captions were written by Jean Cocteau and are pretty easy to translate.
On another note, some statues that were destroyed (like the heads of the kings of Judah which originally graced the front of Notre Dame) have found other homes.

Anji said...

Thank you. I'm just about to put the postcard on my postcard blog*. I was hoping to find that you could see it today. It's such a sad story that a beautiful statue should be vandalised and then taken away.

"Le Déclin" seems to be an apt name in many ways...

(*timeandoft.blogspot.com)

A Lady's Life said...

that is a lovely statue. Too bad it was vandalized like this.
Why people have fun doing such things is beyond me.
They should have caught the vandals and forced them to clean the statue.

amanfrommoab said...

Beautiful photos! Thank you.

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...
Twitter Instagram Write Bookmark this page More

 
Design by Free WordPress Themes | Bloggerized by Lasantha - Premium Blogger Themes | Premium Wordpress Themes