Saturday 26 January 2008

Postcard of the Day No. 12 – Marseille, le Prophète

Paul Signac and Albert Marquet are two French artists who frequently returned to Marseille to record the port and harbour of France’s gateway to the Mediterranean and its colonial possessions. My image of Marseille has been conditioned by Edward Burra’s sharply focused vision of seedy waterfront bars with a louche air of romance and criminality. The sense of infinite possibilities in terms of travel and changing identity that great port cities offered was equally appealing to his sensibility. Given that Burra’s trips to Marseille took place in 1927 and 1930, it must be conceded that this source is far from topical. To see an example, in this instance, painted along the coast in Toulon click here. Another English artist, Edward Wadsworth had made several visits to the city earlier in the Twenties where among other things he made a series of detailed drawings of the cast-iron signs displayed outside the city’s brothels.

At the other end of the Modernist spectrum, Moholy-Nagy and Germaine Krull were visiting the city in the late Twenties to take advantage of the dizzy perspectives offered by the “Pont Transbordeur” to create photographic images of near-abstract geometry. Follow this link to view. I like to imagine Burra skulking on the shady side of the street in search of another bar or tabac while on the sunny side, Moholy-Nagy is collecting his freshly pressed boiler suit from the dry cleaner.

All this lay some 20 years in the future when today’s postcard was written. The message that Violet wrote to her friend, Mrs. King in Gravesend, on February 12th 1910 was conventional enough but confirms the character of the city as transient. “Pleasant voyage.....rough friends in the East....went for a drive today round the place on this p.c.” The image on the front shows a coast road leading to what appears to be a genteel suburb of villas with sea views. A tram enters the picture lower right and the only hint of the demi-monde is the enormous poster in the distance advertising absinthe (Oxygénée Cusenier).

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