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REVIEW: MARVILLE OF PARIS

 

 

By Alan Behr

NEW YORK, 2 MAY 2014 — Looking at Paris today, it is possible to believe that, like Athena born armed and fully formed from the head of Zeus, the city Arose whole overnight, the shops and the cafés beckoning. Paris so perfectly represents what urban life should be, with its architecture, river, cuisine and art—and with its population ready to share the joys, romance, intrigues and irritations of urban life with each other and with anyone passing through—you would think that, somewhere between serving as the muddy settlement defended against Julius Caesar by Vercingetorix (c. 82 BC – 46 BC) and as a world capital containing twenty arrondissements, 68 bridges and walkways, 478,000 trees and 30,000 places to park a bicycle, it all just snapped together somehow for your personal enjoyment.

Paris became what Manet, Seurat and others celebrated on canvas in the nineteenth century and what Cartier-Bresson, Kertesz and others celebrated in photographic prints in the twentieth due to serious renovations undertaken by Baron Haussmann during the reign of Napoleon III. There would likely have been no Belle Époque in the iteration of Paris that preceded the work of Haussmann. He ripped out narrow streets (a number with rivulets of human waste) that served as the nocturnal lairs of thugs and replaced them with now-familiar grand avenues and boulevards crowned by monuments.


Banks of the Bièvre River at the Bottom of the rue des Gobelins
(fifth arrondissement), c. 1862
albumen print from collodion negative
Musée Carnavalet, Paris
Image © Musée Carnavalet / Roger-Viollet

Charles Marville (1813-1879), whose work is the subject of a retrospective now at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York (through 4 May), was an artist in the right place in the histories of Paris and of technology.

Photography had been invented in France in the 1820s and refined there into a commercially viable form in the succeeding decade. By 1862, when Haussmann was nine years into his work and Marville was made the official photographer for the city of Paris, the medium had progressed to the point that Marville was able to produce images we have no trouble recognizing today as technically and esthetically refined.


Arts et Métiers (Ancien Modèle), 1864
Albumen silver print from glass negative
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Purchase
 Alfred Stieglitz Society Gifts, 2007 (2007.167
)

When you think of a photographer documenting the transformation of Paris into a modern city, the name that most often comes to mind is Eugène Atget (1857-1927). The first thing you notice about Marville’s work as displayed at The Met was how strongly it anticipated that of Atget, who was not yet born when Marville made his first images of the city. What you notice on a closer look is how, in many ways, the work of Marville could at times be more fluid and at others more sculptural than that of Atget, and that his appreciation for the unique ability of photographs, among all works on paper, to impart the illusion of three-dimensional space was arguably more advanced. (To this day, about the greatest insult you can hand to the maker of a photographic print is that it is "flat," even though, by the strict application of the laws of physics, it is literally just that.)


Top of the rue Champlain (View to the Right) (20th arrondissement), 1877–1878
albumen print from collodion negative
Musée Carnavalet, Paris
Image © Charles Marville / Musée Carnavalet / Roger-Viollet

Two photographs stand out from among the many at the Met as illustrations of the urban redirection that Marville and later Atget chronicled. The first is an exterior view of an entrance to Les Halles, the city’s former central wholesale food market.

In Fragment of the Pillars of Les Halls (First Arrondissement) (1865), Marville shows two of the thirteenth-century stone pillars that would shortly be taken down. A cart stands tail upward on its two wheels and a sign on a wall advertises a dealer in butter and eggs. Nine years later, in Interior of Les Halles Centrales (1874), Marville shows us the new cathedral-like, vaulting glass and iron market that, like the Eiffel Tower, embodied the nineteenth-century definition of progress as a feat of structural engineering. We know of course that, in 1971, the market, by then in disrepair, was pulled down and replaced by an underground shopping mall anchored by a tasteful hole in the ground.


Fragment of the Pillars of Les Halles (First Arrondissement), 1865
Albumen silver print from glass negative
Bibliothèque Historique de la Ville de Paris
cat. no. 57

That most recent alteration took place at the tail end of what, we can only hope, was the last time in the history of Western architecture and urban planning in which you could reflexively declare that ripping out the old in favor of the new is progress. So suspicious are we today of attempts to do so, were someone to propose as radical a transformation of a major city as that so successfully concluded by Haussmann, fear of architectural calamity (before even getting to the usual questions of cost and of disruption of citizens’ lives) would probably kill the project before the first wrecking ball got the better of ancestral masonry. We need not consider long the consequences should Albert Speer have succeeded in remodeling Berlin to Nazi specifications or should Robert Moses have been allowed to run a ten-lane expressway across Manhattan’s Little Italy and SoHo.

To look solely at his images, Marville appeared to harbor no misgivings about what he was documenting; there are few visual motifs to suggest a sentimental attachment to what was being torn away or a crusading concern over the disruption of lives and neighborhoods. And, remarkably, given the technical limitations of the time—which forced photographers to use shutter speeds so long that people had to remain frozen in position to register clearly—Marville did a fine job in showing us some of those most deeply involved in the process.

Workers about to tear up Rue de Constantine stand poised with their tools on an otherwise nearly desolate street. (An added touch: a stocky woman, seen from the rear, grabs hold of a laden cart.)  With horse and wagons formed into a fence below them, men stand upon the Butte de Moulins and atop vacated and torn-open buildings, ready to pull it all down to make room for the Avenue de l'Opéra. Workers at tanneries along the notoriously malodorous Bièvre River stand and stare at the camera—solid men, even a touch grim, but curiously at ease. These are all non-nonsense images of workers, made long before Sebastião Salgado could produce work of this kind using nimble, handheld Leicas loaded with fast film.


Rue de Constantine (Fourth Arrondissement), 1866
Albumen silver print from glass negative
The Metropolitan Museum of Art
The Horace W. Goldsmith Foundation Gift
through Joyce and Robert Menschel, 1986 (1986.1141)
cat. no. 56

Mobile Shelter for Vendors of Newspapers and Housewares (1876) shows crockery, newspapers, mugs and other homey items looking so ready for sale, you assume that the vendor has just stepped out for a moment.  Although Atget produced similar photographs, their unity and mystery were largely self-contained. What makes the Marville image compelling is the illusion that it will be repopulated the moment he takes his camera off its tripod.

I have said before that, as a working photographer, I consider Paris and New York to be the two most photogenic cities in the world. It is fitting, therefore, that Paris would be honored this way in New York—three times over and concurrently. Running in tandem with Marville at the Met is an exhibition at Howard Greenberg Gallery of works by Marville and by Berenice Abbott, who was one of the twentieth century’s premier photographers of New York City (and who, like Marville, worked in part at public expense).  Although separated by time and available technique, the two photographers pair well together, if only to remind us of how New York and Paris are so similar—and so different.  (To close the loop, it was Abbott who was most instrumental in bringing Atget’s work to prominence in the decades following his death.)  You also get to resolve the question so often on the minds of museum-goers these days: "What does one of these honeys cost, anyway?"  Answer: a vintage Marville print starts at US $30,000. Meanwhile, at the Met, the companion exhibition to the Marville show, Paris as Muse: Photography 1840s-1930s, gives a visual summary of images of Paris from (in technical terms) daguerreotype to 35mm film. There are additional works by Marville to compliment what we would expect to see by Atget, Cartier-Bresson and other photographers during the century-long period between the invention of photography and its near-universal accessibility. Visit the Marville show first, and then step into the adjoining galleries for this small, pendant exhibition to see what happened next. It is like turning the pages of a picture book that, as anyone who carries a camera through Paris knows, is still being composed.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art: Charles Marville: Photographer of Paris and Paris as Muse: Photography 1840s-1930s, both through 4 May 2004
www.metmuseum.org

Charles Marville: Photographer of Paris
By Sarah Kennel, Anne de Mondenard, Peter Barberie and Françoise Reynaud

Hardcover: 256 pages
University Of Chicago Press (October 2013)
ISBN-10: 022609278X
ISBN-13: 978-0226092782
$60.00

Alan Behr practices intellectual property law at the Phillips Nizer LLP and is a member of l’Association Internationale des Critiques d’Art and the American Society of Media Photographers

Headline image:
Charles Marville: Self-Portrait at a Window, 20 February 1851
Salted paper print from paper negative
Musée d’Orsay, Paris
Image © Réunion des Musées Nationaux / Art Resource, NY

 

BOOK TIPS:

Le peuple de Paris au XIXe siècle
Softcover: 396 pages
By Paris Musées, Bertrand Delanoë (Préface)

Paris Musées (October 2011)
Collection : SAS PARIS MUSEE
Language: French
ISBN-10: 2759601617

Published in French to  accompany the exhibition Les peuples de Paris au XIXe siècle at the musée Carnavalet in Paris, this handsome, although dense catalogue, provides the human back-story to many of the photographs on view in the Charles Marville exhibition currently on view in America. Through a series of compelling essays, and thankfully lesser-known images, maps and diagrams, a team of eminent French historians and university lecturers guide the reader into the deepest recesses of the 19th century Parisian proletariat. Who were they? Where and how did they live? What was their rate of literacy? And in many cases, how did they survive the tumultuous political, social,  economic and architectural developments of nineteenth century Paris. Until now, one had to read Balzac, Hugo, Zola and others in order to glimpse the DNA of the often harsh, unsanitary and precarious lives of working class Parisians. Perhaps now, with the broader exposure of the photographic art of Charles Marville and the more candid scholarship of the French academy, visitors to Paris can get beyond the tedious and often silly clichés of style editors and uninformed film makers who hype and limit their definition of contemporary Parisian identity to a fraction of well-heeled and socially-elite inhabitants of Baron Hausmann-era apartment buildings. As is made quite clear throughout this indispensable book, this distorted vision is especially ironic since most working class Parisians of the 19th and 20th centuries were the very backbone and business model of the manufacture and skilled artisan trades that led to Paris' enviable and unshakeable position as the luxury goods, gastronomic and culture capital of the world.

Joseph Romero

 



The Art of the Louvre’s Tuileries Garden
Through 11 May 2014
Toledo Museum of Art
2445 Monroe Street
Toledo, Ohio
USA
Tel: (1) 419 255 80 00
www.toledomuseum.org

Exhibition catalogue by Guillaume Fonkenell, Laura Corey, Paula Deitz and Bruce Guenther
Yale University Press (December 2013)
$50.00

 



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