Wednesday 28 December 2011

The Top 5 posts of the year

As seems to be traditional at this time of year, here is yet another list. Rather than just simply present the top 5 posts though, I have also added a few notes to explain why I picked the subject, why I think it found an audience, and what has happened since.

Firstly though, on top of thanking everyone for visiting the site this year and for reading the posts, I'd just like to say how pleased I am that the list
- which includes architecture, history, street art and a kind of diluted psychogeography - reflects the range of topics I try to present on this blog.

Top 5 most consulted posts of the year:

1. Stephen Sauvestre: The forgotten architect of the Eiffel Tower

When I began working on this post, I had no idea that there had even been an official architect of the Eiffel Tower. Stephan Sauvestre was just a name that I kept seeing etched into buildings in the 17th arrondissement, and the range of the creations he was involved with encouraged me to dig a little deeper. Discovering the connection to Gustave Eiffel was quite exciting, and it was clear that it should become the focus of the post. I had vowed to myself to never feature the Eiffel Tower on this blog, but this was an invisible angle that I couldn't resist. Finally, including the name 'Eiffel Tower' in the title of a post also obviously helps bring in new readers!

2. Peurs sur la Ville - "Paris is a battlefield"

I try to keep up to date with exhibitions in Paris, but it is rare that I choose to feature them on this blog. This exhibition though - a look at Paris as a battleground, both in reality and the imaginary - seemed worthy of investigation. I managed to get myself on the press list for the vernissage (perhaps because they somehow confused me with a journalist from The Guardian newspaper!) and found enough material for a post, possibly helped by the contrast between the sometimes gruesome pictures and the luxurious surroundings (including the champagne and petits fours at the vernissage)!

I was particularly pleased with the fact that this post made it onto the list of links of interest on BLDGBLOG, one of my favourite blogs, and that consequently many of the visitors came from that site (enough to send the post into the top 5!).

3. Noise Maps of Paris

When I read an article in a newspaper about the launch of a series of noise maps of Paris, I knew that it would be a subject that I would have to feature on this blog. I was initially struck by the choice of word - 'bruit' or noise, rather than 'son' or sounds, which instantly transformed the maps into something that would be negative and slightly sinister. On discovering the maps themselves, I was then struck by how graphically interesting and almost beautiful they were, which offered a fascinating contrast to their declared role.

Despite the name of this blog, the subjects are almost entirely physical, so it was interesting to treat a subject that was truly invisible. This blog is also very much about keeping eyes open, but this was a reminder that our ears are also just as important, and that we cannot generalise about such topic and always equate noise with nuisance. This was demonstrated in one of my favourite comments of the year from a reader called Dom who commented that he lives "in the west close to the periph and rather than it being an intrusive 24/7 hated noise, I in fact embrace it as a monotonous, calming lullaby".

4. The Maison Galvani

A house with a tree growing out of its facade cannot be anything but interesting, but what I particularly appreciated about this post was how a link I'd provided to the architect's website became a reciprocal link back to mine. Another of my self-imposed rules is that I avoid subjects that have been amply treated elsewhere, and whilst I was aware that this house was a staple of course material for students of architecture, I wanted to look at how it had changed since delivery.

The project seemed to demonstrate some of the tribulations of being an architect for private clients. The architect, Christian Pottgiesser, is clearly very proud of his creation, but once delivered it is no longer his baby. Following a slightly withering remark - "as far as we know, the ground floor has recently been transformed into a cellar. The two courtyards have been demolished, maximising square meters", there is now a link back to this page.

5. Challenge 1: The mysterious man on a ladder

Over the three years that I have been running this blog, I have occasionally attempted to launch new features, with more or less success. I'm pleased to see that the 'challenge me' feature has made this year's top 5, as it is something I enjoy doing, and it also offers me a chance to interact with readers.

I had some hesitations about accepting this challenge. Uncovering the identities of street artists is not the done thing, but this artist seemed to be doing something a little different. His identity was not hidden as such, but it simply appeared that his creations had become more important than the person who had painted them. The artist is somebody who has had success in galleries and who had developed a certain renown, but he seemed to feel that his creations were in some way trapped by the limits of a frame, and had to move out onto the streets in order to survive. Unless of course it is simply a way to develop some 'street' credibility in order to better sell his more traditional work!

I have since published five other responses to challenges, answered a few others directly and failed with one or two. I have three others that I will answer at the beginning of the year, but always welcome any questions or challenges, so please don't hesitate to send them!

Saturday 24 December 2011

A Christmas message from Paris

Street artist Michael Beerens has been given the freedom of a wall in my street over the last six months or so, and changes the creation displayed there on a monthly basis. This week, a rather sobering Christmas message has appeared (Merry Christmas to those who sleep outside).

Beerens uses his art to share messages, but lightens the sometimes heavy themes with humour and a wide range of fantastic animals. Although the message here is a reminder of our privileged positions at this time of year, I'd like to think that it can also be taken at face value, and that he is genuinely addressing those who sleep on the
floor of the city gallery. Taken this way, it may seem slightly crass, but at least he is directly addressing those to whom most people turn a blind eye.

Thursday 22 December 2011

Things to do in Paris over the holidays

I will be away from Paris over the holiday period, but for those who will be in the city during that time, I have posted a few suggestions of things to do on the Paris Weekends blog.

Magic, fairground attractions, spiders, kitsch musicals and sport - there should be something for everyone!

Wherever you may be over this period, I wish you bonnes fêtes. For me it is also a time to escape from all forms of digital communication (although I have programmed a couple of posts...), but I'm sure I'll be itching to get online again as soon as 2012 ticks round!

Monday 19 December 2011

Introducing...Invisible Bordeaux

Those with very sharp eyes may have noticed a recent addition to my list of favourite blogs - Invisible Bordeaux. The writing, research and photography make the blog worthy of recommendation in its own right, but it is also interesting because it is...the first blog to be inspired by and to adopt my Invisible Paris concept!

When I began this blog I had a very specific idea in mind - that there are many blindspots in our lives, and that what we see and remember is not necessarily the reality of our surroundings. Paris is my home, and so had to be the subject of the blog, but it also seemed to me to be the archetypal city of the invisible, purely because it has such a strong visual identity, even for those who have never actually visited the place.

However, I have always thought that cities all over the world are the same in some respects. Those that live in them are trapped in routines, or become blinded by over-familiarity, whilst those that visit are restricted by obligations to follow safe paths trodden by generations of previous visitors and simply don't have enough time to become absorbed into the place.

If there is an Invisible City concept then, it is the desire to hunt out the overlooked, and to recount the forgotten stories of your environment. Above all, it is about being curious and keeping your eyes open (and making sure you always have a camera, a pen and some paper with you!).

Tim, author of the Invisible Bordeaux blog, and faithful reader of this blog since its inception, believed that the concept could be adapted to his city, and he has already found quite a stock of material. Already featured in just the first month of its existence have been a hidden milestone, the secrets of the city's tramway, a city-centre race track and a Thai restaurant that was previously a theatre...and a place that once hosted sessions of France's upper parliamentary house!

Although I have not actively sought out acolytes, I would be delighted if one day I could make a claim like that of Eric Tenin on his excellent ParisDailyPhoto blog - the blog that started the City Daily Photo community. Blogs need an audience to survive, and bloggers need support to continue producing material, and what better way to ensure this than through the creation of a community?

Long life to Invisible Bordeaux, and if anyone else thinks their city might be invisible, let me know!

Wednesday 14 December 2011

A ghost sign of Christmas past

On the Rue Marx Dormoy in the 18th arrondissement is one of the clearest ghost signs in Paris, and one which is particular relevant at this time of year.

Those who have spent the winter in France may be familiar with 'Les Pyréneens', a seasonal chocolate that
only appears in the shops during the Christmas period, but few will be aware of its history. This ghost sign gives us a clue to its origins.

The Rozan chocolate brand was launched in 1924 by Maurice Rozan de Mazilly. The company's headquarters were in Paris at 21 avenue Niel, but production took place at Oloron Sainte-Marie in the Pyrénées mountains. This information can be read clearly in the ad, but what is not so clear is the company's graphic identity, which seems to have been some kind of clown holding four bells. Who was Maurice Rozan de Mazilly though, and what was so special about his chocolate?

Born in 1893, Rozan de Mazilly did not come to the chocolate business on an easy route, but rather as a way of rebuilding his life. Originally from a working class family in Normandy, he began working at the age of 15 as a sailor, before signing up with the French army at the beginning of the First World War.

Although he survived the conflict, he didn’t escape injury. He received severe injuries to his face, which required a two-year stay at the Hôpital du Val de Grâce in Paris and over twenty operations to repair the damage. Despite the pain and suffering, this period gave him time to reflect, and his first act after leaving hospital was to become a chocolatier.

He managed to persuade a number of people to support him financially, including an American millionaire called Frank Jay Gould, but his success came after he discovered a new way to create chocolate. His inspiration came from the Austrian pastries he tasted during a visit to Vienna which ‘melted in the mouth’ whilst at the same time offering a sensation of freshness. He wondered if something similar would be possible with chocolate, and after two years of research and testing, he found a technique. In 1927 he launched the Les Pyrénéens brand, and his recipe for these chocolates (which should be served chilled from the fridge, and seem to melt in layers in the mouth) remains a secret to this day.

Above: the brand identity today. Below: where the inspiration for the packaging came from.

Rozan de Mazilly sold his brand to the Swiss group Lindt in 1956, but stayed on as ‘président d’honneur’ of the company, and was able to ensure that production remained in France, in his original factory in Oloron Sainte-Marie. To this day, the Les Pyréneens chocolates are sold only in France, and only when the snows begin to fall on the neighbouring mountains.

Monday 12 December 2011

A Psychogeographic field report from the Palais de Congrès

Wilfried Hou Je Bek, writer, psychogeographer and editor of the Cryptoforestry blog, has compiled a series of nineteen psychogeographic field reports and created 'The Zine'. I'm delighted to say that a field report I wrote after a 'dérive' around and inside the Palais de Congrès in Paris has been included in the collection.

It's an honour to not only feature alongside people producing genuinely interesting and challenging work, but also to be included in a creation that exudes a homegrown spirit. As Wilfried says, "the zine contains a varied range of approaches and styles, is a great read and has a crappy design that adds to the pleasure by not detracting attention from the natural psychogeographic flamboyance that is bursting from every page"!

Click here for information on how you can order a copy, and thanks to Wilfried for his hard work on this project.

Wednesday 7 December 2011

The Tour Bois-le-Prêtre: making the social desirable

The Tour Bois-le-Prêtre, standing alongside the périphérique autoroute on the very limits of the city, has recently been transformed from a crumbling outcast to an award-winning structure. Could it show the way forward for high-rise structures around the world?

Last month, architects Anne Lacaton, Jean-Philippe Vassal and Frédéric Druot picked up the Equerre d’argent 2011, an annual architecture prize awarded by the Moniteur press group. The judges saluted the way that the team had reimagined a structure that was originally built in the 1960s, transforming it from a banal concrete block to a sustainable building that is open to its surroundings and filled with natural light.

The architects' leitmotif is 'détruire, c’est gaspiller' (destruction is waste). For this project, nothing was removed, but 3500m² of space was added to the 100 apartments, mostly by adding 'winter gardens' and balconies. For the people living in the tower block - none of whom needed to be rehoused during the work - an additional 20 to 60m was added to their homes. On top of this, heating costs will be drastically reduced and noise pollution from the neighbouring motorway will almost completely disappear.

The tower when originally built, in its 1980s form and how it looks today.

The exterior of the building now looks like the kind of modern, smart block that would attract young professionals worldwide, but according to the residents, it is from the inside that the changes have been most noticeable. Looking at the slideshow on the website of the city of Paris, it is almost possible to forget that the building not only overlooks the motorway, but also the Batignolles cemetery!

Tower blocks are still the subject of great debate, particularly in Paris, but it is difficult to see how this particular project could be seen as anything but exemplery. Organisations such as SOS Paris claim to want to preserve the architectural heritage of the city, but exactly what heritage is there to save in these city-limit corridors alongside busy roads, cemeteries, factories and warehouses? If people have to live in these zones, shouldn't we at least give them the chance to rise up above their surroundings?

Another argument against towers is that they are community destroyers, but alongside the tour Bois-le-Prêtre, the city of Paris is currently creating an entirely new street (Rue Rebière) of mixed social and private housing - and the results are surprising to say the least!

The nine architectural agencies involved in the creation of these buildings worked together from the beginning of the project, in association with the city of Paris and local residents. In total, 180 new apartments will be available from 2013, 140 of which have been earmarked for those in most need of accommodation.

A far cry from sterile Haussmannian uniformity, each building on this street is different from the next, and each stands alone. And yet there are still very clear links between them all, noticeably through their playfulness and through the regular use of openings (balconies, terraces) that look out onto the street or towards neighbouring properties (see the M building for a good example of this).

There is one other feature they all share - they all back onto the Batignolles cemetery. Experimental housing perhaps, but at least we can be sure that there will be no complaints about noisy neighbours!

Sunday 4 December 2011

My Paris Soundlandscape

I was very pleased to be invited by Des from Soundlandscapes to speak about my favourite place in Paris for a series of guest pieces on his blog. I chose the Hopital Salpêtrière which I have always found fascinating, and which is a place that has become personally important for me.

We recorded the piece on a sunny Saturday afternoon, and whilst it was a pleasure to show Des around my favourite spots, it was a little daunting to speak about everything from a personal perspective (something I generally try to avoid doing on Invisible Paris). I'm not sure whether I succeeded or not, but I least hope that I sound sincere!

As is the nature of these things, after recording stopped I instantly thought of hundreds of other things that I wished that I had said. At the same time, I am also happy that it will survive as a snapshot of one moment of reflection, which is a luxury that we don't allow ourselves very often. It was also a privilege to be able to capture these thoughts on top quality audio equipment and be part of Des's project.

Click here to listen to my thoughts on the Hopital Salpêtrière:

Wednesday 30 November 2011

Yola: le Circle Vicieux

Those who take the Line 2 of the Metro will surely have seen the monumental creation on an abandoned building between the stations of La Chapelle and Stalingrad, but the story behind the work is as interesting as the creation itself.

It is the work of a young artist called Yola (Jola Kudela), who is an atypical street artist for several reasons, and not only for the size of the creations. She's female and originally from Poland, although today she divides her time between London and Paris, and is a recognised compositing artist with credits including the special effects on one of the Harry Potter films!

She describes her work as 'photos mixed with graphic elements', but beyond the beauty of the piece, there is often a social element to her creations. This work, entitled 'le circle vicieux', is an update of a creation of the same name by Polish painter Jacek Malczewski, which dates back to the end of the 19th century. Malczewski was a symbolist who surrounded himself with his demons in the painting, but Yola instead chose to portray photos of people living in the community nearby.

The circle is an important theme in her work, and historically an important theme in Polish culture. She has linked this particular creation to the 'infernal circular dance' of people who have no nation, seeing in these faces the dreams, desires and frustrations of individuals who have come to Paris to find a a new life, or simply to survive.

The building has been empty for as long as I remember, and the work was first placed there to coincide with the Nuit Blanche event in October. Bringing life to abandoned spaces and linking them back to the community in which they are situated is also one of Yola's leitmotifs. "I don't want to vandalize" she said in a recent interview, "but to add something to a worn space".

She is also aware that her works are ephemeral, saying elegantly that "they are objects to live with the time, and they'll ultimately be destroyed by time".

Winter is beginning to fall on Paris now, and small corners of this creation are starting to peel away. Snow, frost and rain will probably remove the rest, if it is not bulldozers coming to pull down the building. From its ruins, something new will rise, completing the circle of city life.

More information on the artist can be found here:

Monday 28 November 2011

Free, downloadable street art walk finally updated!

Two years ago I published a free downloadable walking tour (in PDF format) on the theme of street art, the third of my Free Paris Walks. I've always wanted to publish others, without ever managing to find the time to see the projects through (those who have tried will probably know how much work goes into the creation of a walking tour), but the least I can do is ensure that those I have already published are still up to date.

This is particularly true with a theme such as street art, which by nature is something that is constantly changing. The area in which this walk is situated - Belleville and Menilmontant - is my home, so I know that many of the featured areas have remained vibrant spots, but I have now updated some points that have disappeared and changed several of the photos.

To download the new version of the walk (Walk 3), click here:

I recently did the walk again on a sunny Sunday morning to confirm the final details, and found that it's probably the best time of all to do the walk! Although street art is the thread that stitches the walk together, it is an interesting route for several other reasons, one of which being the market on the Rue des Pyrenées where you can get excellent Pasteis de Nata cakes! Several other points on the walk have also been featured on this blog, so for those who can't do the walk, here's an idea of what can be seen en route:
Enjoy the walk!

: There seems to be a problem downloading the PDFs with certain combinations of browsers and operating systems. If you do have problems,
send me a mail and I'll find another way to get a copy to you. For those who have previously bought the app for iPhone or Windows 7, your updated walk will be available soon.

Friday 25 November 2011

From the Archives: What is the significance of the Saint Catherine day?

November 25th is Sainte Catherine's day, otherwise known in France as the day of the Catherinettes. On this day, young women aged 25 who are not yet married have the opportunity to wear a hat and go looking for a husband!

Although the event has little relevance in today's society and is no longer celebrated (apart from in a slightly ironic manner or as a family rite of passage), it was a historically important occasion, and this has been captured by a sculpture in the Square du Montholon in the 10th arrondissement.

The sculpture shows five young working-class women, most probably from the hatmaking or dressmaking trades (of which there were many in the district) celebrating the Sainte-Catherine. It was an important tradition in these communities in French cities in the 19th century, giving young working women the opportunity to break away from the harsh conditions of the workshop. They would put on their best clothes (and a specially made hat) and attend organised balls and parties, events that were sometimes considered their last chance to find a husband!

In this sculpture, the work of an artist called Julien Lorieux, you can see five women linked arm in arm, each wearing an extravagant hat (although not as extravagant as in the photo above!), with two or three of the women also carrying orange blossoms or papier-mâché oranges. These young women have probably been caught by the sculptor at the moment they left their place of work before heading off to the evening ball, an event that they seem to be very much looking forward to.

Julien Lorieux didn't live to see his sculpture being unveiled. As with many men of his generation, he was to die prematurely during the First World War, and although he had created the sculpture in 1908, and sold it to the city of Paris in 1913, it wasn’t displayed to the public until 1923.

By that time, was the tradition already beginning to seem like old-fashioned folklore? The event was off course originally a religious one. Girls were traditionally thought to be under the protection of Sainte Catherine, while Saint Nicolas looked after the boys. On November 25th, girls participated in devotion groups where they created a headdress to place on her statue. Young women left the group when they got married, and therefore taking part in the ceremony became synonymous with still being single after 25.

Although developments in society saw first the religious elements dropped, then the need to find a husband at an early age, it is still pleasing to see a popular tradition commemorated in this manner. So, if you know any unmarried 25 year old women, don't forget to wish them a happy Sainte Catherine's day on the 25th!

Wednesday 23 November 2011

Socialism and Sects at the Square des Saint-Simoniens

Near the summit of Paris sits what seems to be one of the quietest parks in the city, with little remaining to trace it back to its time as the centre of a curious - but very influential - social movement called saint-simonianism.

Today the park is surrounded by apartment blocks, including one large tower that dominates the eastern edge. In the morning sun, a small group practices tai chi moves under the bare cherry trees. Well wrapped children brave the dew drops in the playground, whilst a group of teenagers play football as seriously as if it were an important cup final. It is a scene of serene egalitarianism, and one the saint-simonians would no doubt have approved of.

The movement
Saint-simonianism was
a kind of utopian socialism, inspired by the ideas of Claude Henri de Rouvroy, comte de Saint-Simon, particularly those in the journals he published in the early 19th century. His profound belief was that science and industry would liberate people from medieval theocracies, and that useful work would create true equality. To this end, he has been recognised as an influence to a diverse range of people, including Auguste Comte (
featured here previously on Invisible Paris, and who was once Saint-Simon's secretary), Karl Marx, and John Stuart Mill.

Amusingly, one of his works, 'De la réorganisation de la société européenne' (On the reorganisation of European society), seems to predict today’s European Union, with the exception being that he placed the United Kingdom at the heart of the institution, rather than as a meddlar on the fringes!

Towards the end of his life though, Saint-Simon reverted back towards a kind of benevolent christianity, a move that led his followers to veer off in two different directions after his death in 1825.

Those still promulgating the power of science and industry were less visible than the other branch - led by the charismatic Prosper Enfantin - who twisted saint-simonianism towards what would be today classed as a religious sect. Enfantin declared himself to be the Père Suprême (Supreme Father) of the movement, and began making declarations such as the fact that ‘the tyranny of marriage’ would be replaced by a system of ‘free love’.

Enfantin always wore a badge on his breast displaying his title of ‘Père’, and was known by his followers - who were encouraged to wear a special uniform - as ‘the living law’. He gave some of his missionaries the task of finding him a ‘female messiah’ who would be the mother of the ‘new saviour’, but no suitable person was ever found.

With his activities becoming more and more bizarre, Enfantin began to attract the attention of the authorities, and in 1832, his offices in Paris were closed by the government. Following this, he chose to retire to the estate in Menilmontant his mother had left him (on the site of today’s Square des Saint-Simoniens park, but at that time a large country house conveniently far away from the city and the authorities). Joining him were 40 disciples, all men, who would jointly attempt to create a new defining text - Le Livre nouveau – which would reveal the truth through mathematical formulas.

On Saturdays and Sundays the community would open its doors to visitors (quite a trek up the hill in those days), but when this too began to attract too many people, Enfantin and his followers were arrested (strangely enough, by a ‘commissaire de Belleville’ called Maigret!). At his trial, Enfantin would not let his followers speak without his permission, and asked to be defended himself by two women ‘because the subject was of particular importance to women’. This request was refused and he was sentenced to one year in prison.

Prison though was no hardship for Enfantin. He continued to attract followers behind bars, and was even invited to dine with the director of the prison. Indeed, being 'retained' in a four-room apartment, he was even able to write to those outside that ‘nous sommes ici comme des princes’ (we live here like princes)!

In reality though, Enfantin was highly discredited by the trial and the imprisonment, and had become a figure of ridicule in the press. His branch of saint-simonianism died out at this point, although he himself continued to hold positions of responsibility and influence, for example in the new railway companies that were being created.

Other followers of Saint-Simon also took on posts of great importance, and the ideals of the movement lived on in many of the actions of the French state, as well as in the creation of a feminist movement. It is a movement that is still much studied today, with some claiming that it forms the basis of modern socialism.

The house and park
The Square des Saint-Simoniens park was created in 1937, and it is perhaps a little strange that it has kept the name of the movement, particularly as it was only associated with it for a short period in 1832. Little is written on what happened to Enfantin's house after his release for prison, but what is known is that
he died in another house on the Rue Ballu in 1864. He was buried in the Père Lachaise cemetery, and you can still see his tomb - with a superbly bearded bust - today.

Although saint-simonianism is a much written about subject, Enfantin's house in Menilmontant seems to have not attracted much attention. However, from the sketch below - dating from 1869, 5 years after his death - it looks as if it must have been a very impressive place, albeit not especially egalitarian!

Perhaps it fell into ruin after Enfantin's death, but nothing else is listed for the site until 1925 when building permits began to be issued. Several constructions are listed for the site up until 1935, with the park being finished itself on the house's grounds in 1937. Nothing seems to remain from the original construction, but perhaps it had a typically saint-simonian ending. A space which contained just one large house which was home to one person is now filled with a mixed range of housing and a shared park for people of all ages, sexes and races!

Friday 18 November 2011

Born free

As an immigrant, my place of birth has taken great signification. Despite living in France now for more than a third of my life, I am still defined by my country of origin. Is it something that ever really leaves you?

One person who might be able to tell me is an old lady who
was born in Paris but now lives in New York. Her place of birth was so important that there is still a plaque today on the very spot that she came into the world. Her name? The statue of liberty.

Like many other immigrants, she has become more closely connected with her country of adoption than her country of origin, even going as far as becoming a symbol of her new land. In truth, it was easy for her. She was welcomed as a star on her arrival, and went to a place which has always been defined by immigration, and where almost all its inhabitants can trace their origins back to other lands.

Artist Paul Joseph Victor Dargaud captures the birth of the statue of liberty, before she grew too large for Paris.

In France, the relationship with immigrants has always been more difficult, and there is no symbol holding out a shining light to welcome new arrivals (ironic therefore that she should be born in this land). I know that I am in a privilieged position to be an immigrant by choice and not financial or political necessity, and to come from a place that is seen positively (albeit with some suspicion!) in the country, but to my French friends, colleagues and family I will always be the Englishman.

However, there is no plaque at my birthplace. In fact my exact place of birth no longer exists - the hospital in which I was born was demolished several years ago - but I still have a paper, a language, an accent, physical traces and roots that refuse to snap.

A mystery - solved!
The statue of liberty was born on the Rue de Chazelles near the Parc Monceau in the 17th arrondissement. Like my hospital, the atelier (the foundry of Gayet where the casts were made)
has been replaced by something else in what is now a very residential environment.

The question I had asked was who was Milt Forrest and what was his role in this initiative? Thanks to Philippa from the Parisian fields blog, I now have the answer. This Milt Forrest was a Hollywood businessman with a passion for stamp collecting. He just happened to be in Paris at around the 75th anniversary of the statue, and bought a special edition stamp - by chance from a shop opposite the studio in which the statue was built. After discovering that there was no permanent marker for this spot, he vowed to pay for one to be put up, something that was done a few months later. 

Is this the same Milt Forrest? ('Milt Forrest, Hollywood advertising man and originator of the air mail postcard') I hope so because it's a great photo!

Monday 14 November 2011

Collapsing dreams

Middle-class Nogent sur Marne to the east of Paris is not the kind of place you would expect to find eastern-bloc styled architecture, but the suburbs of Paris are in fact liberally sprinkled with such designs. Although Nogent was not one of the 'banlieu rouge' (or ceinture rouge) towns, in another recent era it did apparently share some of the same social policies - and dreams - as its more left-leaning neighbours.

In the centre of the town stands pure concrete functionalism. Housed here is the town's market, with a larger sports centre looming above it. It reminds me of the buildings of Hungary, a country I lived in for a year, and everything about this structure seems familiar - right up to the font face (and colour) used for the sign on the sports centre.

A giant red 'municipal' - a word announcing public ownership, something that is becoming more and more difficult to find in a world of PPPs. Here is equipment provided for the town's population, good food, and sport for the soul. Healthy, happy people, the dream of all local authorities. Significantly, no fast-food or soft drink logos are visible inside or outside the building.

This 1960s vision of city life though is in steep decline. The structure is condemned, destined to be replaced by a new model. Few will mourn the passing of this installation, judged to be ugly and impractical today, but it should not be forgotten from which dreams this building was born.

Earlier this year I visited the Nogent town museum and discovered an exhibition - a short history of shopping in the Paris region in the last two centuries. Amongst pictures of 19th century market stalls and 1960s supermarkets, I was struck by one particular photo - a black and white image of a building crushed under the weight of exceptional snowfall.

I can find almost no evidence online for this event, and the photo now seems like something I dreamed. The only reference is two lines on a website - 'the market in Nogent sur Marne, built in 1912, suffered a terrible accident in 1942 and was demolished. The new market was built a little further north in 1970'. As I remember it from the exhibition, it was an accident that killed dozens of people, trapped during a simple shopping trip. Death and destruction stands out when placed alongside smiling market stall holders and brightly coloured fruit and veg.

1942 - 1970. Apparently it took the town authorities 28 years to build a new market building, but by the time it was built, the era had changed. People wanted solidity. Historical buildings were subject to fire and collapse, and new dreams were needed.

But how long do dreams last? All buildings begin with a vision, a sketch, an idea, a design that tries to fit with the desires of those that will use them. This building was hefty practicality, a functional strength that reassured those who still remembered war and disaster. Ironically, it is now labelled as unsafe itself, and not up to today's standards. Born the same year as me, it is now defunct. Will the new dream last longer?

Thursday 10 November 2011

From the archives: The First World War at the Gare de l'Est

This post was first published on this blog three years ago (have I really been running the blog for that long?), but is still just as relevant today. As content sometimes tends to get lost on blogs, I thought I'd republish it for people who many not have time to waste sifting through the archives!

The eleventh day of the eleventh month is better known as the Armistace, the day when the First World War was finally brought to an end. Strangely, Paris does not have a monument to commemorate this conflict, but there is one place in the city you can visit which is still imbued with memories – the Gare de l’Est.

The war ended famously in a train carriage in the forests of Compiegne just outside Paris, but for many it also began in trains, at the Gare de l’Est. Hundreds of thousands of soldiers were sent out to the eastern front-lines from this station, and the Hall des Departs was a permanent buzz of comings and goings. Despite a recent renovation to welcome the TGV Est, this departure hall retains its original structure, and you can still imagine young recruits joking and laughing, couples saying tearful goodbyes and children waving to disappearing fathers. Most thought these separations would be simply an au revoir, but for more than 1 million French soldiers, it was an adieu.

The significance of this site is celebrated in a painting which still hangs today in the hall, although it now has to compete with the bright lights of retail outlets and flashing information screens. Most visitors to the station rush through, perhaps quickly grabbing a drink or a magazine before catching a train, but this immense, remarkable painting, entitled ‘Le Depart des Poilus, le 2 aout 1914’, deserves greater consideration.

The canvas, more than 60m2 in size, is the work of the American artist, Albert Herter. He presented it to the company running the station in 1926, but it was more than just a generous gift. Herter lost a son in the conflict, and the painting is a monumental tribute to his memory. Executed in soft, melancholic blues, greys and browns, it describes a scene which would have been a typical one in this railway location during the conflict.

When we investigate more closely however, we find that it contains not only universal themes but also intensely personal details. It is in fact a fantastic montage built around a triangular trinity of the father, the mother and the departing, soon to be dearly departed son. The artist/father is on the right-hand side, whilst his wife (the artist Adele McGinnis Herter) is facing him on the opposite side of the painting. Both seem to already be in mourning, with the father carrying a bouquet of flowers, hand upon heart, and the mother clasping her hands together. They seem elderly, certainly older than they would have been in 1914, and probably closer to their physical appearance in 1926.

It is the son, Everit, however who is the principal, central focus of the composition. At first glance he seems triumphant and unconcerned, with his arms held aloft whilst people at his feet weep and embrace. Look more closely though, and you’ll notice the flowers sticking out of the rifle in his hand and his head thrown back. With the knowledge of what became of Everit in mind, you may notice that his arms form a cross, and that he seems almost to be a Christ-like, sacrificial figure.

Everit Herter, like his father and mother before him, had chosen an artistic path, and had studied to be a painter. His privileged background offered him no protection, and indeed it was almost a rite of passage for the wealthy young men of his generation to sign up for this ‘just’ cause. His father had spent several years in France, and perhaps this explains why Everit signed up with the French army. Tragically, Everit was killed only months before the armistice. He was one of the wasted generation, but a spark of that youth is forever immortalised through the defiant figure depicted in this painting.

Wednesday 9 November 2011

19th Century Paris: 'Elle coud, elle court, la grisette'

The third exhibition with strong links to Paris in the 19th century that I am featuring is 'Elle coud, elle court, la grisette' running at the Maison de Balzac until January 15th 2012. The exhibition takes a look at one of Paris's historical cultural icons, la grisette, who although born in the 17th century, was particularly prevalent in the 19th century.

Here I talk to Nathalie Preiss, co-author of a book to accompany the exhibition, about the life of the grisette in Paris, and what we can learn about her through the exhibition.


Who was la grisette?

: We can trace the origins of the grisette back to the 17th century. She typically worked in the textile industry, making or selling clothes, and was named after the grey material she wore. The name stuck, even if by the 19th century she was wearing far more colourful clothes.

The myth of the grisette grew thanks to the many representations of her that could be found in all media forms, dating back to La Fontaine’s ‘Joconde, ou l’infidélité des femmes’ written in 1664.
Although there were grisettes in all French cities, the ‘reine des grisettes’ was undoubtedly the Parisian model!

Did the grisette really exist, or was she just the creation of male artists?

: She most certainly did exist, and we have a lot of archive material on her working life and what she did in her free time, as well as on her social and living conditions. However, it is also true to say that her image was magnified in society through the work of authors such as Auguste Ricard, and above all, Paul de Kock.

What is more difficult though is to pin the grisette down to one particular identity. Throughout her lifespan, what typifies her is how she is constantly evolving. We find her in many different trades, at many different hierachical levels, right across Paris, during the day and of course in the evening too. She is often elusive and always in movement. Indeed, she was often compared to a bird by contemporary observers.

What role did the grisette play in 19th century Paris?

: In many ways she represented modernity in society. She was completely implicated in the transformation of the textile industry, which was moving from small-scale operations towards the ‘grands magasins’ that were born in the 19th century, and which are of course still with us today.
She also played many roles in the cultural and social life of the city, for example at the bals and guingettes, as well as at the theatre which was growing in importance.

Was the grisette a ‘soumise’, or was she instead the first truly independant woman?

: We can perhaps say that she was in a submissive position in her work, but even here that depended on her post. There was a distinct hierachy amongst the grisettes, from the ‘trottin’ who was the youngest member of staff in a shop, up to the skilled couturier who worked independantly at her home – which of course was still a small room under the mansard roof!

The grisette was never wealthy, but she was someone who tended to look after the man she loved, rather than be someone who was looked after. In her relationships with men she could be both sentimental and practical. It was often said that she had two lovers – an ‘amant métallique’ generally a married member of the bourgeoisie who gave her money, and an ‘amant de coeur’, typically a penniless student, whom she financed.

In the 19th century, there was also much talk about la lorette. What differences were there between her and the grisette?
NP: They were not the same animal at all! The lorette was invented by a journalist, Nestor Roqueplan, in 1841, and referred to women who lived around the Notre Dame de Lorette district. She dressed differently from the grisette, and certainly avoided all forms of work. She was the classic ‘femme entretenue’, linked to one wealthy man only, and she rarely ventured outside of her immediate ‘quartier’.

The grisette could of course become a lorette, but it entailed such a radical change in appearance and lifestyle, that she would have nothing of the grisette left in her at all!

How is the exhibition at the Maison de Balzac organised, and why was it organised in this particular location? Are there any links between Balzac and the grisette?

: She was often featured in the works of Balzac, for example in ‘Une double Famille’, where the married Comte de Granville seeks solace in the arms of grisette, so the Maison de Balzac is an entirely appropriate location in which to situate the exhibition!

What we didn’t want to do with this exhibition is offer a thematic path, showing only representations of her working and social life. We were more interested in capturing the fleeting nature of the grisette, and how she was constantly changing.

For this reason, the first rooms look at all the conditions of the grisette - mostly showing where this hard-working person was employed - and her ‘constellation’, in other words the kinds of people who surrounded her, and the possible evolutions she could experience - both upwards and downwards in society!

We then show how it was possible to recognise a grisette, and try to list and show all of the principal profiles she had. A room called ‘Les plaisirs et les jours… et les nuits’ shows how she enjoyed herself when not working!

We are very fortunate because the grisette was featured in so many different media forms. For this reason, we have been able to create an exhibition that covers a very wide range of supports, including literature, caricature and painting - and of course the clothes she wore.

One of the most important ways she was described was in the songs of the time, and we felt it was essential to feature music in the exhibition. Working with Le Hall de la chanson (nb - you can listen to some extracts here), we have been able to faithfully recreate the exact original melodies of the songs, so visitors will hear exactly the same music and songs as the grisettes themselves listened to.

When did the grisette disappear?

NP: Throughout her existence people were always announcing her death only for her to reappear again in another slightly different form. The lorette took over some of her roles in the popular imagination, and later words such as cousette and midinette begun to become more popular, but overall we can say that the grisette never really died - she was simply transformed!


Until January 15th
Maison de Balzac
47, rue Raynouard 75016
Tuesday to Sunday, 10am - 6pm, except public holidays

Entrance: €3 - €6

Note: a very interesting catalogue to accompany the exhibition has been written by Nathalie Preiss, and is available both at the Maison de Balzac and in bookshops.

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