Thursday 21 May 2015

Challenge 10: The vomiting god and species of spaces

Could I track down the location of an unusual Paris façade and unveil the story behind this building's cover? If the jacket proved relatively straightforward to find, the contents of the book were richer than first imagined!

I enjoy receiving unusual missions, and the one sent by reader Dave was atypical to say the least. “Somewhere in the 16e arrondissement is a building with a vomiting man sculpted into the façade,” he wrote. “Please can you tell me where it is and the story behind it?

Vomiting sculptures didn’t throw up any immediate memories, so I requested a few more details.

About 15 years ago, following a guidebook, I went on a walking tour that linked up many of the Art Nouveau façades in the 16th arrondissement. The vomiting man was one of the highlights of the tour,” he added. “I lived in Paris for several years, and know the 16th arrondissement quite well, but I've never been able to find this building again.”

A search through guides to the district and on Paris Art Nouveau architecture didn’t reveal any mentions, so I turned to the most faithful and reliable resource of all: Twitter.

The answer – and I’m still not sure how she found it – was given by ‘Elodie's Paris’ (@Paris_by_Elodie), although as a ‘Travel trade pro, licensed guide and volunteer Greeter’ she surely has a lot of knowledge of the city.

After confirming with Dave that this was indeed the building he remembered, half the job was done. Now all that remained was to find out who created the sculpture, when and why.

At this point though, a new character entered the story; Georges Perec. The French writer is probably best known for ‘A Void’, a Oulipo book and the first novel to be published without using the letter ‘e’. What is perhaps not so well known is that he once called this building home.

Flick through Perec’s ‘Species of Spaces’ book of essays though and you’ll find the following passage:

Georges Perec
18, Rue de l'Assomption
Staircase A
Third Floor
Right-hand door
Paris 16e
The World
The Universe


Perec arrived here in 1945, aged barely nine, after being adopted by his uncle and aunt following the death of both his father (in battle) and his mother (deported to Auschwitz) during WW2. He was seemingly - and perhaps understandingly - never very happy in this location, but it – like most elements of his life – did leave a lasting impression that he was later keen to investigate.

As he wrote in ‘Species of Spaces’, "In 1969, I chose, in Paris, twelve places (streets, squares, circuses, an arcade), where I had either lived or else was attached to by particular memories."

His goal was to write a description of two of these places each month; one on the spot and one somewhere other than in the place itself. Whilst the later description would concentrate on memories he had of the place, the first would be a neutral description of "the houses, the shops and the people that I come across, the posters, and in a general way, all the details that attract my eye."

One of these places of observation was his childhood home, published* as ‘Comings and goings on the Rue de l’Assomption’. Despite being fascinated by the minutiae of Paris, it seems the peculiar sculpture on the building never caught Perec's eye.

Perec though was not alone. Almost nothing has been written about this building and its unusual façade, despite it apparently being signed by a relatively well-known architect, Charles Lemaresquier.

Why apparently? I am immediately suspicious of information found on the internet, and this building – seen on Google Street View – seemed to be older than the listed date of 1925. To find out more, I had to go and see the building for myself.

Arriving at the Rue de l'Assomption, a quiet street in a neighbourhood that itself is far from being boisterous, the date began to look a possibility. Despite the floral fussiness and neo-classic columns - features more commonly seen on turn of the century constructions - there were some more modern features; the curved balconies, the ironwork, the rounded cornering on the windows. Unfortunately though there was no signature or date anywhere to be seen on the building. To find out anything else I would have to go the Archives de Paris.

At the Archives, I was warned that there might be nothing at all on the building as full detailed building permits only became obligatory at the end of the 1920s. Nevertheless, whilst waiting to see what treasures may be unearthed from the storerooms, I was able to consult the documents on the connection of water to the address. This would give me the date of construction they explained, and this proved to be the case. 1925 did indeed seem to be a possibly correct date (the water was connected in 1928).

There was an additional satisfaction in laying out these large sheets under the table lamps. Georges Perec may have investigated life from his bed to the universe in 'Species of Spaces', but I'm pretty sure he never studied the plumbing layout in the building of his childhood and adolescence.

When the boxes containing the building permits arrived, I was delighted to discover that they contained more than I could have hoped for - and the documents were signed; Charles Lemaresquier, September 1925. Interestingly, it seems that additions were made to these original drawings, notably the mention 'y demeurant'. In addition to designing the building, Lemaresquier had also at some point made it his home.

But what of the sculpture? Lemaresquier didn't forget that either, although here again there was an interesting twist. In the earliest document - below on the left - an entirely different sculpture was planned, and the space where the bacchus would later appear is completely blank.
The later drawing - bottom right - includes our vomiting god and seems to correspond entirely with the final design (the running stone balcony rail above). It's impossible to see from ground level whether the second naked god was ever sculpted into the building or not.

Thanks to Twitter and the Archives de Paris I now had the where, the when and the who, but I was still missing the why. And here it becomes purely a game of speculation. The building permits do give another couple of items of information. The building replaced a house that was demolished to make way, and the whole enterprise was managed by a company calling itself the 'Société foncière de la Rue de l'Assomption'. Lemaresquier took one of the plots, but it seems the project was speculative. To this end, the company would have wanted to avoid risk, and the safest way to do this would be to make the building blend in with its earlier neighbours.

Lemaresquier had a solid grounding in florid neo-classical styles, having previously designed one of Paris's most well-known examples - the headquarters building of the Felix Potin shops on the Rue Réaumur. Nevertheless, that was in 1910, and he must have been fully aware that this latest design on the Rue de l'Assomption was already somewhat passé. It is not as if Lemaresquier was an architect stuck in his ways. At exacly the same period, he was already working on this much purer Art Deco design in Paris's 18th arrondissement.

Was this god then some kind of comment on a design brief he felt had been too restricting? Lemaresquier later gave up architecture and became a full-time artist in the South of France, and I can't help seeing the addition of the vomiting Bacchus in his later draft as the exasperated scribble of a bored artist. Either that or he was as drunk as Dionysos the night before he had to hand in the completed design. 
*The essay was published in a magazine called L'Arc in 1979. I have not been able to track down a copy of the magazine.


Susan said...

Fabulous detective work. I really enjoyed this post.

I have a couple of mystery architectural features and objects down here in the Touraine. One is a very curiously decorated floor in a church, which is not mentioned even in passing in the church's info leaflet -- even though it is the first thing you notice and the most striking feature of the church even with pews all over it!

When this sort of ommission occurs my suspicion is that no one knows anything about it, so the approach is to behave as though it doesn't exist. Very odd!

I would guess that the floor in question is 19th C, although it could be older. It's interesting how quickly local memory fades and history is lost.

Thérèse said...

Vous êtes un détective hors pair !

John Schnick said...

Thanks for a very cool post. Your guess as to the message of the work seems probable: the "Take this job and shove it" of the roaring twenties.
I'll visit the wall this Fall for sure.

thbz said...

You're looking for a vomiting Bacchus and you find Georges Perec's childhood home. Excellent!

Anonymous said...

It is incredible how Georges Perec suddenly appears everywhere. I attended a walk in Belleville, and in the street where he was born, the guide read extracts from the book you quote. I went to Marseille, and at the MuCEM there was an evening about Perec. I read your blog, and Perec pops up again.Perec seems to be the flavour of the season!

Anonymous said...

Perhaps he was making a statement about alcoholism?

Chanterelle said...

I came across this fellow a couple of years ago and posted a snapshot on Facebook. One friend suggested it was Silenus, Bacchus's older, more degenerate brother, though I can't find an image of Silenus losing his cookies.

Another iconographic possibility is the traditional English Green Man, a face made of greens and leaves. There are so many renderings with leaves coming out of his mouth that this version is known as the "disgorging" Green Man, though I've never seen a vertical stream of leaves like that. This head is made of leaves and grapes, though, which suggests a conflation of the two figures. Perhaps the original naked Bacchus was censored by the developer?

All the ornamentation seems added on to this fairly severe art deco building. The articulated oak (and holly? hard to tell) leaf trim above the windows was pretty common about 20 years earlier than this building; the small photo of flower-like buds with the crossed stems (where are they?) are hops, used in beer making. The grape clusters stuck onto the pendant at the bottom of the balconies would be consistent with the original Bacchus in the plan. Hard to read this as a temperance message. Could there possibly be any connection with the Musée du Vin, only a few blocks away? (web site is down right now)

Great research!

Adam said...

One point I didn't mention and which could have a certain relevance - they building sits directly opposite a convent. Nuns at the window of their retreat therefore constantly see images of feasting, drinking...and vomiting. However, I'm not sure if the convent was there or not when Lemaresquier designed the building.

Chanterelle said...

Hmmm....maybe that's why they nixed the naked Bacchus with his knees apart facing the convent (if it was there at the time)?

As to date of construction of the convent, does the street name with its church reference hold a clue?

Face it, researching one Paris mystery is a trip down the rabbit hole!

Jethro said...

I remember a friend of my mother's telling me that Perec used to work in the archives nationales, and that he used to hide little pieces of writing in them for other researchers to discover years later... It's possible that memory (mine or my mother's friend) is playing tricks and it wasn't the archives nationales (his bio says he worked in the archives at the hopital st antione, but he strikes me as a man who might have spent some time in the archives nationales as well...) but perhaps another little link in the story?

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