Friday, 30 April 2010

Unconcerned but not indifferent

A trip to a Parisian cemetery is not to be missed. Memorials to bygone celebrities, literary heroes, artists and philosophes rest side by side with generals and admirals and leaders of business and finance. Montparnasse is the Manhattan of cemeteries – none of the winding paths that follow the undulating topography at Père Lachaise – all is laid out on a grid on a site that could not be more flat. A plateau of morbidity in marble.

Sartre and de Beauvoir occupy a prime position just inside the entrance, against the perimeter wall. Over the wall is Boulevard Edgar Quinet which, conveniently, is where Sartre lived in his last decade. So he would have had no need of the Métro tickets scattered by pilgrims over the marble slab. There are also flowers, hand-written tributes in a variety of languages and a scallop shell. The Métro ticket offerings have no obvious symbolism beyond an act of witness.

Elsewhere, the pre-eminent flâneur, Baudelaire reached his final destination in the family tomb of his step-father, Jacques Aupick, military man and faithful servant of the state. Baudelaire too gets his fair share of tribute in the form of recycled paper products.

The memorial to Tristan Tzara displays the sort of restraint not normally associated with Dadaism. A simple inscription on a slab laid on the earth surrounded by plant life. Brassaï and Man Ray each re-imagined Parisian life in their photographs – now they are near neighbours in Montparnasse. Man Ray’s epitaph, Unconcerned but not indifferent strikes a defiantly nonchalant note. And Susan Sontag gets an apple for the teacher.

Monday, 26 April 2010

Noisiel Insolite

Only 40 minutes from central Paris on RER A brings us to the small town of Noisiel. The station is positioned at the centre of a new (post-1970) community of apartment blocks and shopping centres. The streets and apartments have been named after notable philosophers and a mischievous municipal bureaucrat has arranged for the Catholic church to be blessed with an address in Allée Jean-Paul Sartre. It’s a 20 minute walk via the Parc de Noisiel to the bank of the River Marne and the assorted buildings of the Usine Menier dedicated to the manufacture of what was once France’s leading brand, Chocolat Menier.

In the 19th. century a channel was diverted from the river to supply the factory with water power and a turbine mill designed by the company architect, Jules Saulnier (1817-1881) was constructed in 1871. It was the first significant building to be supported by a steel box girder construction with an external skin of brick and ceramic infill. Three large turbines were powered by the river and supplied electricity to the entire site. It’s a magnificent building to be treasured for its audacious engineering and the polychrome splendour of the surface treatment. Manufacturing ended in 1993 and in 1997 the Menier site was renovated and converted into office accommodation as the corporate HQ of Nestlé France. The restoration work on the Saulnier building was especially detailed due to its status as a Monument Historique.

Another building of interest is located between the channel and the riverbank. This reinforced concrete structure dates from 1906-1908 and was known as la Cathédrale. The intention was to create a public showcase for the chocolate manufacturing process in the double height internal spaces. The project engineer was Armand Considere. There is a covered bridge to connect the building with its neighbour across the water.

There is no public access to the site and the only way to get a closer look is to join one of the guided tours that are offered every few months. A public footpath follows the perimeter fencing but views across the site have been obscured, deliberately or otherwise, by planting. The photo below of the Saulnier mill from the riverside was taken by my son and guide whose height and agility is greatly superior to mine. The interpretation boards seem a little redundant in the absence of decent sightlines.

The association of chocolate and philanthropy crosses national boundaries and the Menier family built a small community opposite the factory between 1874 and 1911 to house the workforce known as the Citè Menier. Some 300 dwellings were provided together with public buildings. All have survived in good condition and remain occupied.

Friday, 23 April 2010

Gare de l’Est

With Monet, Manet and Caillebotte fully occupied painting in and around Gare Saint-Lazare it was left to artists of lesser stature to explore the Gare de l’Est. This station was the principal point of departure for the Front in the First World War. Maximilien Luce, the most politically committed of the Divisionist painters, employed the station and its surroundings as the setting for a number of compositions showing new recruits departing in a fervour of patriotism and returning in a state of shattered desperation. Around the back of the station is a flight of steps leading to rue d’Alsace from which there’s a strangely unsettling aerial view of the platform canopies. Luce’s painting, Escaliers de la rue d’Alsace, 1916, shows a location little changed in almost a century although the footbridge that Luce includes in the upper right has either been removed or perhaps never existed in the first place.

Gare de l’Est is the only Parisian station to display a painting, a large mural sized work donated by the artist, Albert Herter (1871-1950) entitled Le Départ des poilus, août 1914. Herter was an American artist, resident in Paris who presented the painting in memory of his own son, a casualty of war. The painting serves as a solemn reminder of the shockwaves of armed conflict.

Wednesday, 21 April 2010

Rue de Londres

Rue de Londres runs at an angle across the tracks leading out of Gare St-Lazare between the Place de l’Europe and Sainte-Trinité. The reason for exploring this street is the blue and green tiled facade at No. 30, designed to serve as a giant advertisement for a former occupant of the building, Société Française des Eaux Minérales. The use of ceramic tiles has conferred a degree of permanence that a painted facade would never have acquired. The building is of late 19th. century origin and the ceramic facade was installed around 1920 by the firm of Fourmaintraux & Delassus, specialists in faïence and stoneware based in Desvres, near Boulogne, most of whose work is to be found in the north of France. The mineral water business has long since departed leaving behind twin cascades of gas bubbles, gently descending the building.

Friday, 2 April 2010

Turn Your Radio On

Today we have a small sample of publicity from the pioneering days of radio when the humble valve was an object of veneration for its mysterious ability to bring broadcast sound into every home in the land. The Ediswan valve stands proud in all its glory, buffed up and glamorised to mark its exalted status. Osram and Mullard have both gone for high-end cultural associations despite the contrasting dress codes – from loin cloth to evening dress. Ormond and Brown invoke traditions of craftsmanship and the simple pleasures of the fireside in their appeal to the consumer. British early adopters of the 1920s took to the radio with enthusiasm – as an essentially passive and often solitary activity it was a good fit with our long traditions of inward looking, defensive domesticity.

Thursday, 1 April 2010

Engineering for Boys

I was never convinced by Meccano. As a modelling material it seemed crude and inflexible especially when applied to the task of modelling vehicles. The results obtained by clamping together assorted perforated metal rods looked very feeble when compared with the developing trend towards detailed realism in the production of die-cast toys. And there was always the suspicion that Meccano was basically an educational material and therefore to be resisted on principle. It has to be conceded that it’s the ideal medium in which to model a Manure Distribution Cart, if such an idea appeals. And the same goes for a Transporter Bridge if you’re on the lookout for an unusual table decoration with the added value of safe conveyance of salt and pepper.

The conventional view of Raoul Dufy was that he was a lightweight when compared with fellow Fauve, the saintly Matisse. His oeuvre was seen as a steady decline from the robust brilliance of his Fauve paintings to become Court Painter to the world of Haute Couture with a queasy combination of ingratiating colour and a slick, calligraphic drawing style. I began to revalue his work when I viewed his wonderfully inventive textile designs and his mastery of the woodcut in his illustrated edition of Apollinaire’s Bestiaire. There’s also the Black Freighter – the image of a hard-edged black hulk that intrudes on the horizon of Dufy’s most intensely hedonistic visions of the Côte d’Azur and strikes a single sombre note as an untimely reminder of human mortality. In this example, Dufy’s brush deftly reduces the mighty engineering of le Transbordeur de Marseille to a cluster of lines applied with rapid touches. This wasn’t the only occasion on which Dufy took up some less refined subject matter. For the 1937 Exposition Universelle he painted a gigantic (33 by 200ft) mural, La Fée Électricité that was displayed in the Pavillon de l’Électricité. The result was a stunning symphonic celebration of the role of electricity in the modern world that can still be seen at the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris.