The best record we have of Paris in transition from a compact medieval city to the grand network of broad boulevards masterminded by Haussmann is the photographs of Charles Marville (presently the subject of an exhibition at the Met in New York). In the 1870s he made a series of more than 200 images of the new street furniture gracing the boulevards – newspaper kiosks, Morris columns, vespasiènnes, Wallace Fountains, as if he was already aware of the extent to which they would define the future image of the city. None of these features is unique to Paris but taken together they are integral to the way the city is perceived in the eyes of visitors. Another observer of Paris en flanant was the painter Jean Béraud whose keen eye for telling detail was all too often undercut by a tendency to add an ingratiating element of fashionable caricature to the scene. While artists like Caillebotte and Pissaro looked to reveal deeper truths about the urban experience, Béraud gave his attention to getting the detail right.
Vintage postcards are the next best guide to the spirit of Parisian streets and the enormous volume of cards produced in the first decade of the last century provide a comprehensive archive of imagery. While Paris was swept by waves of political agitation and the second campaign of anarchist bombings (almost nothing of which disturbed the surface of the postcard universe), postcard photographers explored every corner of the city leaving behind a mountain of documentary evidence. Sometimes, as here, the evidence is in the foreground in the choice of subject but often it’s to be found in minute examination of the margins and periphery from which many of the details below have been taken.
Victor Serge (in Memoirs of a Revolutionary) described the sight of newspaper kiosks burning on the Parisian pavements when a mob of demonstrators protesting against the execution of Francisco Ferrer denied access to Boulevard Malesherbes vented their fury on the Grands Boulevards in October 1909. They made an easy target and being well stacked with combustible material, a satisfying conflagration was guaranteed. An artistic response to this social turbulence can be seen in the Musée d’Orsay in a painting entitled La Charge (photographed in 2006 when still permitted), a vertiginous description of a clash between police and demonstrators on the Boulevard Montmartre. The artist was André Devambez (1867-1944), a junior member of the famous dynasty of Parisian printers of the same name, a significant part of whose workload was printing the posters that were displayed on the Morris columns. Between 1927 and 1934 this painting was on display in the office of the Prefèt de Police, Jean Chiappe, who, in another age of ideological conflict on the streets, became notorious for the enthusiasm with which he repressed demonstrations by socialists and communists while showing very little interest in responding to the violent activities of the right, mostly from the odious Action Française. Chiappe also campaigned unsuccessfully for the elimination of the vespasiènnes from the city streets – another 50 years would pass before this was finally achieved. Today’s Parisian kiosks are made from polycarbonate in a modified traditional form. Reports suggest an insecure future with a collapse in the sale of print media. The Morris columns are no less threatened with plans to reduce their numbers by 25%.