Tuesday 8 December 2009

Art Nouveau in Argenteuil

In the house where I grew up there was a reproduction of a Claude Monet painting on the wall; “Les Coquelicots à Argenteuil” a simple, bucolic creation that the painter produced in 1873. I had never visited France then, and this picture provided my vision of how the country might be. I knew that Argenteuil was somewhere in the vicinity of Paris, and it amazed me that such pastoral scenes could exist so close to a big city. Was the reality truly like this painting?

After moving to France I discovered that the answer was of course a negative one. Argenteuil today is the archetypal Paris suburb; sprawling, cumbersome and grey, with rows of tower blocks pointing skywards in the place of an artist’s poppy meadow. Was Monet’s painting ever the reality though, and is there truly nothing left in the town today to inspire an artist?

Walking through Argenteuil today, there is an immediate sensation that something is not quite right. It is an ancient site, which has been inhabited for thousands of years. The river Seine still flows powerfully past the town, but it is cut away from the centre by a very busy four lane road. It has become literally impossible to walk down to and alongside the river. Running adjacent to the river are the historical arteries of the town, ancient roads with low stacked buildings and houses, many still fulfilling a commercial role that has been theirs for generations.

This is the town that Monet would have known. An agricultural centre, and one of the most important producers of grapes and figs in the region. The heart of the city, where Monet’s home was situated, was still built around ancient fortifications. Of course, industry had arrived in the area after the construction of a bridge and the arrival of the railway in 1851, but the site offered sufficient calm and inspiration to attract not only Monet but also Sisley, Manet, Caillebotte, Pissarro and Van Gogh. None of them would recognise the town today.

It is certainly not an attractive place, albeit very interesting for any students of urbanisation, but I was glad to find that even in these fields of concrete there are still some flowers. Perhaps the most surprising of all are two Art Nouveau constructions along the historical axis of the city. At one end, the Post Office designed by the architect Léo Batton in 1909, and at the other, a similarly decorated house dating from 1906. Batton’s bureau de poste is a fascinating polychrome building, featuring curved stone balconies and a handsome carved entrance doorway.

Tellingly, the inside of the building today is as banal as any other post office, the original fittings surely hidden behind false ceilings and modern panels. Tacked on to the back of the construction is an ugly post-war concrete extension. These buildings mark perhaps the last time that the city cared about its appearance. Art Nouveau was decoration with no specific purpose, bourgeois frivolity that would no longer be acceptable in the city of the worker.

Like much of Western Europe, the schism came during the Second World War. The town now sheltered many industrial sites and became an important target for air raids. Much of the centre was destroyed during this conflict, but the longer lasting damage came afterwards. In 1935 the city elected a Communist council, and the focus changed from agriculture to industry. After the war, it would become the heart of the famous ‘ceinture rouge’ around Paris, and would celebrate the worker and the practical. The urbanist Roland Dubrulle drew a new plan for the city, turning the centre around 90° and running a wide central boulevard up to a new town hall from a bridge across the river. On either side, 15 and 20 story tower blocks sprang up, and the population of the town reached 100,000, ten times more than it had been in 1900. The ancient streets that wound through the centre were cut in half by the boulevard and dwarfed by the new scale of the plan, and found themselves demoted to the role of simple side-streets.

Monet’s escape from Paris is now the third biggest town in the Ile de France region, and the brutal urbanisation of the 1950s and 60s has left deep scars on the landscape and on the social conditions of the inhabitants. Somehow Art Nouveau survived, but what new art will grow here again?


Christine said...

Thank You...
This is fascinating. Countless cities made that same mistake (though I'm not sure why) of separating towns from the water with a busy highway. Luckily it's not permanent. They are disappearing as people place a higher priority on access to the water. With any luck, this will happen in Argenteuil too.

Anonymous said...

Anything that goes up, can come down.
Upon our move to Chicago I found those horrific, 1950s-60s public housing towers of my youth gone - bulldozed away.
A few new things have cropped up in their place, but I'm not sure I'd call it art.

Tim said...

Is this post setting a precedent for Invisible Paris in the suburbs?... If so come and cover Conflans!

Adam said...

The suburbs are indeed a fascinating subject and a peculiarly French paradigm. If I was writing about Invisible London or Invisible New York, the 'suburbs' would be considered to be part of the overall city, but here they are cut away despite the fact that 5 times as many people live in them as in the city of Paris itself.

In a place as well preserved as Paris, they give an insight into social issues that are difficult to spot in the city, but also offer little historical features that are unique too. It's interesting to visit these towns and just try to feel their soul and discover how they chose to develop in the face of the Paris sprawl which slowly engulfed them.

I'm sure there would also be plenty to say about Conflans!

Starman said...

Artists can find inspiration in almost any location.

Therese Cox said...

Mmm... I want that #20! Beautiful, crazy honeycomb detail on that house. A gorgeous, quirky find.

Natasha said...

Did you know that Heloise became a nun in a convent in Argenteuil, in the 12th century, after she was seduced by Abelard?

I like my word verification: inglun. A ridiculous football chant. Does someone get paid to think them up? I can't believe they are merely randomly generated. And how does it know I'm English??

Phil Beard said...

A fascinating post and very impressive fieldwork. If you feel inspired, take a trip to Courbevoie, the home of Banania and Bébé Cadum!

Cergie said...

Tiens, j'ai vu ce tableau de Monet GRATUITEMENT et sans faire la queue mercredi dernier au musée d'Orsay pour cause de grève (j'avais un billet pour l'exposition temporaire "James Enson", il n'a pas été composté). Ce tableau est tout petit et bien dans les tons de la reproduction que tu as mise. Il y avait aussi le pont d'Argenteuil du même Monet. Et l'église d'Auvers sur Oise peinte par Van Gogh
Près de Cergy, là où je vais chercher mon pain, il y avait en 2006 un champ de coquelicot, une jachère plutôt. Bien sûr je l'ai mise à l'époque sur Cergipontin ainsi que ce tableau de Monet

FotoMarg said...

Thank you for showing us the the comparison of today's urban landscape with the landscape as it was in Monet's time in Argenteuil and also telling us about some of the buildings and their architects. It's sad about the destruction of the interiors of wonderful building or the buildings themselves. In Australia we have precious few historical buildings and in the 70s there was a mad rush to pull them down and put up "modern" monstrosities. I am especially sad about our Post Offices as they were usually one of the few architecturally significant buildings in any town or city. They were mostly built in the late 1800s in a solid British colonial style of architecture with colonnades and balconies to "keep out the heat" . They have mostly all been sold off and put to miscellaneous use or none at all. The occasional few that are still post Offices have been "renovated" inside covering up the beautiful, original fittings with the current, bland, soulless Post Office-type interiors.

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