Old Paris

Asphalt layers, Paris, 1899-1900, by Eugène Atget (From the website of the National Gallery of Art, Washington).

Yesterday a friend and I visited the exhibition Eugene Atget: Old Paris at the Art Gallery of New South Wales. As the small catalogue that comes with your ticket says, Atget relentlessly tracked down the vestiges of ‘Old Paris’ with his tripod-mounted camera. Between 1898 and 1927 he photographed everyday views of shopfronts, signs and street posters, courtyards, interiors, gardens, statues, docks and bridges. Many of these were destined for demolition but some still exist today.

Naturally I was just as interested in the surfaces of the streets as I was in the buildings that lined them, especially when Atget had captured them glistening with rain. Most of those in the photographs were cobbled, the narrow streets and laneways either sloping to drains in the centre, or cambered to kerb and guttering on either side. Not all of those with kerbs had sidewalks wide enough to walk along. In those times the whole width of the street was available to everyone – horse-drawn vehicles and handcarts, peddlers, bicyclists, strollers and shoppers. It was only with the advent of the motor car that pedestrians were irrevocably pushed to the side of the street.

For most of Atget’s career as a photographer, people appeared almost incidentally in his streetscapes. But in the early years he had often made people the subject of his pictures, recording disappearing trades and occupations. One of those early photographs shows  asphalt layers, or ‘bitumiers’, working on their hands and knees with hot asphalt and playing a part in the grand scheme to modernize the streets of Paris. You can read more about this photograph at Atget: The art of documentary photography on the website of the National Gallery of Art, Washington.

The exhibition at the Art Gallery of New South Wales runs until 4 November 2012. The framed photographs in the exhibition are not enlarged but are prints that Atget made directly from his glass negatives, around 22 x 17 cm in size. My friend and I spent four hours scrutinizing and chatting about all of the images. We have compiled a suggested list of equipment that anyone contemplating a visit should take along.

Reading glasses (for close examination of the photographs)

A magnifying glass (ditto)

A map of Paris

A French dictionary (mainly to work out what kind of businesses all those signs were advertising and what the street vendors were selling)

A folding chair or, better still, a wheelchair that you and your companion can take turns in using

A stepladder (for looking at those photographs that are hung a little too high)

Sous les pavés

It must be one of the most quoted graffiti slogans from the mai 68 student protests in France: Sous les pavés la plage (Beneath the cobblestones the beach). Naturally, when I visited Paris I thought I should find some road works to photograph so that I could make a witty comment about what really lies beneath the cobblestones. But the CPCU (La Compagnie Parisienne de Chauffage Urbain) beat me to it. Notices at worksites and even on their website read: Sous les pavés la plage le chauffage!

CPCU is a public utility that distributes heat (le chauffage) through an underground network for space heating and hot water in Paris. The notices in the street explain that it is currently upgrading the system to make it more environmentally friendly, with apologies for the inconvenience caused by having to take up the road surface.

(And I apologise for the smudges on my photographs caused by a temporarily malfunctioning lens cover)

Rue de la Verrerie, Paris

Carpet runner

There are many artworks to see in the streets of Paris, both classical and contemporary, permanent and temporary. Whether you have set out with guidebook in hand to visit a particular attraction, or whether you are simply wandering, you are bound to encounter artistic surprises even if you don’t ever visit a museum.

It was while I was on a wander that I came upon the beautiful garden of the Palais-Royal. At the southern end of the garden is the palace itself, built in 1629 (now government offices), while the other three sides are bounded by colonnaded buildings added 150 years later. These colonnades –one side open to the garden and the other side originally lined with boutiques, cafes, restaurants, hair salons and museums – are the forerunners of the 19th century passages or arcades that I wrote about in a previous blog.

I walked down Galerie de Valois on the eastern side, glancing in the windows of its expensive fashion salons and art dealers. Along the length of the tiled floor I noticed what seemed like a carpet-runner with a striped pattern in black and white. It took me a while to realise that I was walking on a temporary art installation. Notices attached to the arcade’s iron railing informed me that the work was Text(e)-Fil(e)s by digital artist Pascal Dombis. On the 252 metre long ribbon Dombis has reproduced thousands of lines of text taken from the works of both notable and obscure authors who have written about the Palais Royal, “for two centuries the most fashionable and visited place in France and even Europe”.

Sometimes I wonder whether people who write on the ground really intend for passers-by to read their messages. Similarly, I wonder whether the inspiration and effort that goes into horizontal artworks might not be wasted. As I loitered in Galerie de Valois I did not see one person look down at the ‘carpet runner’; and even as I moved about taking photographs from this angle or that, no-one looked to see what it was that had caught my attention. But then perhaps Parisians are inured to tourists with digital cameras and are too sophisticated to want to be seen taking any notice of what a tourist is photographing.

Cemetery

On the outskirts of the city proper, the Cimetière du Père-Lachaise is apparently the most visited cemetery in Paris. Amongst its crowded terraces of new and old graves lie the remains of many notable people. At the office visitors can help themselves to a free map of ‘sépultures parmi les plus demandées’ (some of the most asked-for graves).

Even though there are many examples of pavement graffiti in the gritty streets of the surrounding 20th arrondisement I did not find any in the cemetery itself. Nevertheless there is still much to interest the pavement and/or graffiti aficionado here, not least of which was a heavy duty manhole cover whose cast-iron pattern resembled the cobblestone pathway in which it was set.

Père-Lachaise Cemetery

Jim Morrison’s grave was not hard to find, with its gathering of sightseers paying homage behind a metal crowd barrier and a guard keeping a watchful eye on their behaviour. A nearby tree was covered in graffiti, some of it scraped into the trunk and roots, some of it written on the bark in felt-tipped pen.

Jim Morrison’s grave: the barrier, the guard, the tourists, the tree (the grave itself is out of sight in this picture)

On the other hand, the grave of artist Modigliani was more difficult to find, set back several rows from the intersection of two avenues in a Jewish part of the cemetery. Amedeo Modigliani’s art is characterised by beautiful figures with elongated faces and bodies. He was the archetypal bohemian, his dissolute way of life leading to an early death in 1920 at the age of 35.

At this site there was graffiti written on the gravestone itself, but just small inscriptions, most of them blurred by the weather and indecipherable – a tiny Modigliani-style face scratched into the stone, remnants of red writing, something in blue felt-tipped pen, another in white-out. I find it interesting that Modigliani still apparently engages young people – is it his art or his lifestyle?

The grave of Amedeo Modigliani and his lover Jeanne Hébuterne

Arcades

The arcades of Paris (les passages couverts) were a shopping sensation in the 19th century and they are still famous, not least because Walter Benjamin’s great unfinished work The Arcades Project (Das Passagen-Werk) used a study of the arcades as a way of revealing insights into the realities of urban living.

There were some 150 of these arcades built between 1800 and 1850. In their day they offered a treasure-trove to shoppers in Paris away from the weather and the dirty, unpaved streets. Now there are fewer than 20 left, most of them in run-down condition but still offering a variety of shopping and eating experiences. The pavements – or floors – of the arcades carry the story of their decline (or sometimes their revival, as in the case of the almost-glamorous Galerie Vivienne).

In a stretch of the Passage des Panoramas that I photographed parts of the original paving had been replaced by asphalt, but there were some sections of flagstone and a few shops had remnants of the original coloured tiling – a different pattern for each shop, sometimes with the name of the original business spelt out in tiles. Others had rectangles of synthetic carpet outside their premises.

Manhole covers (3)

Manhole cover in Avenue Bosquet

I have a certain fondness for manhole covers. They are reminders that the pavement is not only a floor but a roof – the roof of a busy world of tunnels, tubes, chambers and canals; of light, electricity, water and workers. Manhole covers are shutters on the skylights in this roof.

Readers of this blog will know that earlier this year I was lucky enough to do a tour of the underground Tank Stream in Sydney, and to photograph several manhole covers from below. But now I have gone one better – I have toured the sewers of Paris, or at least a small section of them. Parisians are justifiably proud of their sewer network, their ‘city beneath the city’, designed and built in the mid-1800s. So proud that they have a museum – Le Musée des Égouts –  where, descending beneath the street of Quai d’Orsay, you can walk through tunnels with drinkable and non-drinkable water flowing through pipes beside you, and a river of sewage running along canals beneath you. In the photograph below on the left you can see the tunnel lights reflected in this river.

Bruneseau Gallery of the Paris Sewer Museum

I tried to find a manhole cover that I could photograph from below but the best I could do was the iron stairway leading up to one. I could not stretch my arm far enough beyond the museum barrier to photograph the cover itself.

Afterwards, when I returned to the fresh air of the street, I walked along Avenue Bosquet and, assuming that I paced the distance out correctly, found the manhole cover I had nearly photographed in the chamber below.

Steps beneath manhole in Avenue Bosquet

Foetus

Rue Ste Croix de la Bretonnerie

Sometimes it’s a case of ‘you had to be there’. In several streets where I have walked, mainly in the 1st to 4th arrondissements, there are these large paintings on the pavement of a foetus, sometimes in the womb. They are not stencils but the uniformity of the different renditions and their size suggests that the act of painting them involved a performance calibrated to the artist’s body measurements. I could speculate about what event, cause or band they were advertising, but really I don’t know. I suppose the meaning of this graffiti was understandable at the time when it was done.

The foetus in Rue des Halles is an example of ‘layering’, where one piece of pavement graffiti is laid over another – in this case the ‘official graffiti’ of a pedestrian crossing. The photograph also shows a pair of police on roller blades.

Rue des Halles

Act Up

Rue de la Verrerie

In Paris the pavement is used as a noticeboard, just as it is in other cities. I have seen a number of stencils announcing – or advertising – one thing or another. But SIDA ÇA PLOMBE L’AMBIANCE , usually coupled with a pink ACT UP PARIS stencil, seems to be the most prevalent, although most examples are looking a little the worse for wear.

Roughly translated as AIDS: it weighs down the atmosphere (but I stand to be corrected on this), it is the slogan that Act Up-Paris used at the LGBT Pride March on 26 June this year in an effort to mobilize the LGBT community’s acknowledgment of HIV-AIDS and of people living with the disease.

Rue Vieille du Temple

Tags in Paris

Rue des Deux Ponts

I did not know whether there would be much pavement graffiti in Paris, but I should not have worried. Despite the incessant street cleaning, there are tags to be found in many places, mostly done in white-out. Like the French language itself, they tend to be rather long-winded.

Esplanade des Invalides

Pont de la Tournelle