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).

Wednesday, 23 January 2008

le Bouillon KUB

The distinctive graphics of the Bouillon Kub package have inspired artists as various as Cappiello and Picasso. Not bad for a humble stock cube, introduced by Julius Maggi in Switzerland and sold all over Europe. The image of a brooding, disembodied bull’s head in which a Bouillon Kub is superimposed over the left eye has become one of Leonetto Cappiello’s (1931), best known poster designs (click here to view). In the pioneering days of Cubism, Picasso and Braque were greatly amused by the ubiquitous and prominent outdoor advertising for “le Kub” and extended the joke in 1912 by including references to the product in their paintings. The best example is the “Paysage aux affiches” where a bouillon Kub is captured in a cubist townscape mesh along with a Pernod bottle.

After so many decades, it is pleasing to discover that some remnants of this publicity blitz can still be glimpsed as they fade gracefully away and an example recorded recently in Vincennes can be seen by clicking here. There is also a book published in France under the title “Maggi et la magie du Bouillon Kub” which is a copiously illustrated cultural history of the Kub in all its manifestations. As an accumulator of advertising ephemera and packaging, it was a great joy to discover, not one, but two Bouillon Kub tins in a local antique market. So, here they are, flaunting themselves, on a kitchen dresser in our home.

Saturday, 19 January 2008

le Métro aérien

Unlike London Underground, the Paris Métro has no inner circle line but it does operate two distinct lines (2 and 6) that between them form an outer circle. Line 2 (Nation – Porte Dauphine) and line 6 (Nation – Charles de Gaulle Étoile) create a loop around the city at the point where line 2 passes through Charles de Gaulle Étoile. Both lines have extensive sections where they run on elevated structures above the city streets giving rise to the designation, “métro aérien”.

The elevated sections offer spectacular views of the city below especially where they fly across complex road intersections revealing dramatic plunging perspectives. The other attraction is the opportunity to intrude into the privacy of Parisians as your train sails past at 2nd or 3rd floor level. This inspired Richard Cobb (in his book, The Streets of Paris) to write about the “suggestive, tempting, if fleeting views of third- and fourth-floor interiors: bedrooms, kitchens, figures silhouetted at night against drawn blinds...”

Bande Dessinée artist and author, André Juillard makes frequent references to the “métro aérien” in his book, “Le Cahier Bleu” (1994) which tells the story of Louise, resident of boulevard de Grenelle who becomes the object of obsessive interest on the part of the voyeuristic Victor, a regular traveller on line 6, who spies on her from his train. It develops into a narrative about points of view. Juillard returned to this area in 2001 when he included a view of the Eiffel Tower from Bir-Hakeim in his homage to Henri Rivière, “Trente-six vues de la tour Eiffel”.

The photographs here come from line 6 between La Motte-Picquet and Bir-Hakeim and from line 2 in the vicinity of Jaurès station where the rail tracks soar high above the Place de la Bataille de Stalingrad which itself is constructed above the Canal Saint-Martin. Both locations are dominated by the “métro aérien” which with its almost constant overhead movement greatly enhances the pulse of urban flux.

Saturday, 12 January 2008

la Petite Ceinture

There still exists in the outer suburbs of Paris an orbital railway which last ran a regular passenger service in 1934. Originally conceived as a means of linking all the main line terminals in Paris, it evolved into an outer suburban orbital railway. With the development of the Métro in the early 1900’s it quickly lost custom to the greater convenience the Métro offered. It continued in use for the movement of freight and it was still being used to convey carriages between Gare du Nord and Gare de Lyon as late as the 1970’s as part of through services between Calais and southern destinations. Richard Cobb wrote of his fascination with it in his book, “The Streets of Paris” (1980). The freight traffic dwindled away by the early 1990’s and the line has been out of use ever since.

In Britain it would never have survived this long. The holders of purse strings and the auditocracy would long ago have insisted that the tracks be ripped up for their scrap value and that the 20 metre ribbon of land be sold off, on a piecemeal basis, to any developer with the ability to exploit the commercial potential. In defiance of Anglo-Saxon economic orthodoxy, the French continue to maintain the tracks, suppressing the incursion of weeds and keeping the ballast in good order while a long and intermittent debate continues as to future use. There is an association dedicated to campaigning for its preservation with a website that can be reached from here. Urban explorers with a passion for insinuating themselves into areas from which the public is excluded are frequent invaders of the undisturbed permanent way and their photographs can be seen on Flickr where they have formed their own group.

The tracks can be clearly seen in two of the city’s best known parks, Buttes-Chaumont in the north east and Montsouris in the south west. Also shown here below, are two photos taken from rue Brancion (XVe.), one of which shows what appears to be an abandoned station, possibly Vaugirard-Ceinture, or a freight depot serving the Vaugirard abbatoir. There is much more to be discovered about this anachronistic survivor which is very much part of the vanished Paris (Paris disparu) celebrated by Richard Cobb in his always entertaining essays.

Tuesday, 1 January 2008

Le Grand Palais

The Grand Palais is a grandiloquent structure combining engineering ingenuity with the decorative excess of the Belle Époque constructed for the Universal Exhibition of 1900 on the site formerly occupied by the Palais de l’Industrie (built for the 1855 exhibition). It was used to display exhibitions of both fine and applied arts during the fair and retained for a variety of uses thereafter. This may be the reason that an enormous amount of expense and energy appears to have been devoted to the provision of vast flamboyant sculptures and elaborate external decoration. Essentially it’s an iron and glass building that has been covered with classically decorated stonework up to the roof level to create an impression of monumental mass. The true glory is the interior where an immense glazed nave runs north and south of an enormous glazed central dome. These features are at present displayed to perfection thanks to many years of painstaking restoration, the final stages of which were concluded in 2007. The sheer scale of the nave and the visual rhythms created by the glazing bars are exhilarating. The painted and decoratively formed structural ironwork is equally impressive, enclosing the generous space with minimum effort. Further information on the restoration project can be found by following this link.

A team of architects was employed on the original building. Henri Deglane designed the main building and frontage, Louis Louvet designed the mid-section and Albert Thomas designed the back of the building on the Rue d’Antin (now Avenue Franklin D Roosevelt). Despite the efforts of a co-ordinating architect, Charles Girault (who also designed the Petit Palais opposite), there is an obvious lack of unity between the component parts. The nave has had a chequered history. In addition to hosting trade exhibitions and events, it served as a medical centre in the First World War and a truck depot in the Second World War. It sustained war damage from fire and explosives and the glazing was replaced with a solid roof. In 1993 the nave was closed to the public when a section of the roof fell to the ground and a programme of restoration was prepared. Over the following 12 years the entire foundations (formed of oak pilings) were replaced and the glazing was reinstated. Every element of the building was renewed and the nave reopened for business in late 2005.