France

The Zouave Watching Paris

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In Paris, along the Pont de l’Alma, a sculpture of a Zouave soldier stands proudly at the base of one of the bridge’s supports. The Zouave was originally sculpted in the 1850s by Georges Diebolt as one of a set of four types of soldiers—a Zouave, but also a grenadier, a chasseur, and an artilleur. The bridge itself was first constructed in the 1850s, and then quickly named after the Battle of the Alma, which was a less than decisive French and British victory in the Crimean War. Now, only the Zouave has persevered, with the other three soldier statues repurposed as public art in other parts of France.

When the water level remains low, the Zouave marks the interstice between road level of the bridge and the flowing water of the Seine.  His blousy pants, coupled with the cape around his shoulders, distinguish his identity from more traditionally western soldiers seen on other war memorials and Napoleonic historical sites—he has not only survived a century and a half of exposure to the elements, but also our increasing understanding of the mechanisms of appropriation and control that resulted in the creation of colonial regiments like the Zouaves.  Formed near the beginning of France’s African conquests, the Zouaves were originally made up entirely of native Algerians, and then, over time, they recruited primarily native Frenchmen who still wore variations of the original uniform. They fought bravely in Crimea, during the Franco-Prussian War, and in World War I before being subsumed into the rest of the French army.  American Zouaves, adapting the French uniforms and reputation of fierceness, fought in the Civil War.

The Zouave on the Pont de l’Alma, vigilant and strong, also alerts Parisians to the rising water levels of the Seine.  A couple years ago, when the city experienced a moderate flood, the water rose to the Zouave’s waist—when I saw articles about parts of the Louvre being on stand-by and then temporarily closing, my first thought was to check to see where the water sat on the Zouave.  In early 1910, when an extreme winter flood crippled the city and caused 400 million francs in damage, the expanding waters of the Seine came up to his shoulders, the highest, to my knowledge, that it has ever reached.

June 2016. Image from Wikimedia Creative Commons.

June 2016. Image from Wikimedia Creative Commons.

I was thinking of the Zouave today, of all days, because I’ve been following closely as France has been shaken by the gilets jaunes protests that have occurred in the past few weeks and threatened major cultural institutions and monuments in the center of Paris that have come to mean so much to me in my years studying France and its art.  From the U.S., it has been hard to follow a series of events that American media is barely covering—we have our own perplexing, dangerous series of events at hand. I never picked up a fluency with French media beyond the nineteenth century, never enough to know which commentators or publications to trust.  Some of the most well-established publications have even more draconian paywalls than their American counterparts. It’s hard to know who, like the Zouave, stands as an reliable indicator of the impact of a political flood on French society. 

If these last months of shootings, bombings, and fiery protests in Paris have taught us, it’s that European cultural heritage isn’t as sacrosanct as we think.  The Zouave may not stand forever; it may even be poetic symmetry rather than outrage to see him disintegrate over time into the water and swept out to sea.  Today, in his address to the French people where he promised a higher minimum wage in the hopes of quelling the protests, Emmanuel Macron said, “When violence is unleashed, freedom ends.”  The nineteenth century showed over and over again that the exact opposite of Macron’s words can be true, especially in France. And so we wait to see what will happen, and we watch, like the Zouave guarding the Seine, hoping that the water will not overflow its banks again..

Before and After: Francophone World Cup

I write this as I watch a World Cup match between Poland vs. Senegal.  I’m rooting for Senegal, a Francophone African country whose literature and art I have been fortunate to study. When I majored in French in college, it seemed like a logical continuation of the French classes I took in high school, and I believed, perhaps, that it would be all Paris all the time. Luckily, I had a number of French professors, even ones who taught the “all Paris all the time” classes, who actively refuted that idea.

At my undergraduate university, most of the French professors regularly taught and even published on literature from French-speaking countries far beyond France.  In one class alone, I remember reading novels published by authors from France, Canada, Senegal, Egypt, and Guadaloupe.  In another class, focused on “women in developing countries,” we more broadly explored Francophone and non-Francophone parts of Africa and the Middle East through literature and nonfiction writing.  For these professors, it was never a matter of France or the French language being sacred for its Frenchness; they understood how the language connected all of these countries and their disparate cultures together.  They taught us that it was worth examining the consequences of French colonialism and how French influence fused with local practices, for better or worse.

When I went to graduate school, I took a course in West African Art. We were assigned a research project, and it was an easy choice for me to look deeper into Senegal for a topic. I quickly found a book about art that depicts Ahmadu Bamba (1853-1927), a mystic and prophet who founded a particular Senegalese sect of Sufi Islam. I looked further and found a painter named Alpha Wallid Diallo (1927-2000) who had trained in the École des Arts in Dakar but chose history painting over the popular modernism of the day. I became fascinated by a series of paintings he did to depict Bamba’s life—they seemed to use the idiom of history painting, which was so familiar to me from studying Jacques-Louis David and other French painters of a century and a half earlier, to craft a meaningful political statement for Senegalese Islam. Senegalese culture in the 1970s and 1980s proved to be a mesmerizing cocktail of post-colonialism, nationalism, and an emphasis on the arts as a means of expression.

I don’t follow soccer regularly, but there’s something about the World Cup that makes me love it even more and differently than an international competition like the Olympics. Dropping in to watch matches incessantly for a month every four years means that I don’t have the context for this sport the way I would for baseball or football in the United States. I don’t always know who led the league in scoring or recently signed a huge contract—except for a few superstar cases, I barely know which league many of these athletes play in during their regular club seasons. The leveling effect of everyone playing for their national team helps me to enjoy the sport.  Certainly, there are countries that field national teams full of stars in other leagues, but there are also teams, like Senegal and Egypt, where the stars, who play internationally, return home to do their part in attempting to lift their home country with a World Cup victory and maybe more.

I finish up this post long after Senegal’s win over Poland, writing as Egypt concludes their loss to Russia and almost certain elimination from the tournament. The grief of the Egyptian fans is remarkable, as strong and fierce as the unmitigated joy that Mexican fans felt after their team improbably defeated Germany a few days ago. I first became fascinated by the World Cup when I spent the summer of 2014 in France; I vividly remember being on a tram in Montpellier that passed a bar where people of Algerian descent were watching the Algerian team win and advance out of the group stage. That summer, I was also staying with a Chilean woman who was deeply, deeply engaged by how well the Chilean team was playing.  I began watching matches on my own, trying to understand the rules and dynamics of the sport, as well as the different styles and characters of each national team. 

What I learned in those Francophone literature classes about cultures very different from my own expanded, at the time, how I thought about cultural identity and the relationship between culture and daily life. As I have traveled more and studied more, my enjoyment of the World Cup has become an almost anthropological act—I find joy in these soccer matches where the fans arrive in their jerseys, carrying national symbols, and singing their particular songs. I love watching the fans as much as the matches, and I especially enjoy when they cut to a watch party in the biggest square or park in the capital city of the home country, where everyone loudly cheers as if they're in the stadium themselves. Americans have very little stake in this tournament, even when we qualify and probably even when we co-host in 2026, so the World Cup is a chance to pick a team that plays enthusiastically for a country whose population hangs their hopes on that team’s success.  I’ll be watching, keeping my fingers crossed for Senegal.

The Forgeries of Étienne Terrus & the Importance of Local Artists in France

A little over a month ago, news broke that a museum in Elne, a small town in the south of France near the Spanish border, had discovered that nearly 60% of its paintings were forgeries.  Many of these works had been attributed to a local nineteenth-century artist, Étienne Terrus (1857-1922).  Though the extremity of this revelation and its art market consequences cannot be ignored, this story caught my eye because I have been to a number of these local museums that proudly emphasize their local artist. The impulse to interpret this news as a tragedy of fraudulent goods and misspent funds misses the point entirely – the intangible consequences of losing Terrus as a local icon are more critical.

Terrus, like many nineteenth-century painters, went to Paris to study painting at the age of 17 and soon returned home to Elne where he remained, painting profusely, for the rest of his life.  Some short biographies on the painter suggest that his work had a strong influence André Derain and Henri Matisse, who visited the artist in Elne, as they began to paint in the Fauvist idiom. The Fauvist claim seems suspect to me—if they were attracted to Terrus’s style, it was likely partially a backhanded compliment of sorts. Fauvism, grounded in wild colors (fauve = “wild beast” in French) and a de-skilling of figural painting, would most likely have grown out of his LACK of skill or inspired experiments, rather than any unique contribution of the artist.

So the importance of Terrus comes down not to his “skill” or his actual paintings, but the fact of his locality. In The Pride of Place: Local Memories and Political Culture in Nineteenth-Century France, Stéphane Gerson has outlined how local cults of personality and celebrations of local history grew enormously during the nineteenth century.  In part, he writes, this was a particular turn of public relations by the current elites of any one town—by positing a certain group of ancestors as elites, they would claim for themselves a measure of glory by association, by being the group of people who had stepped into the places once held by those hallowed forefathers.  Though there could always be a tension between local pride and unified nationalism, enthusiasm for one’s home town or residence could be a way of expressing independence under an increasingly modern government.  Assuming an artist as part of a local tradition could mean positing creativity and discernment as a crucial component of local character.

The focus on sites of local art production, then and now, also rejects the notion that the provinces could only beget mediocrity relative to Parisian finesse.  In many cases, celebrating local artists, whether or not they had success in Paris, occurred because a local académie, or at least a few skilled teachers, existed to cultivate a local art scene—its teachers and students might then be more likely to be retained to produce local monuments, decorations, and other functional pieces of art.  These local teachers provided foundational instruction for pupils who might then choose to go on to Paris, get elite training for themselves, and then decide whether to toil after Salon success in the capital or return home as one of the most skilled artists available for commission.

To go one step further, local artists are often dismissed on the basis of quality, with scholars declaring their paintings to be less accomplished than artists working in Paris.  I’ve argued repeatedly in other contexts that assessing the quality of painting is not as useful as putting it into its immediate social and historical context, especially when it comes to regional artists.  In looking at Terrus’s paintings online, they seem to be quite pleasant landscapes that are clearly influenced by Impressionism—he understands how to use his brushstrokes to build up trees and buildings and pavement.  Instead of the building styles of northern France that characterize landscapes by the primary Impressionists, Terrus’s landscapes evidence the majestic stucco towers that populate cities and towns in that southwestern corner of France.  The landscapes include local character while still utilizing the Impressionist color palette and not turning to symbolist colors, like Van Gogh, or even the brighter Southern palette of a Cézanne or Bazille.  Other Terrus paintings show more experimentation with colors and lines, demonstrating how a wild beast, a fauve, might be found among these tame landscapes.  (Assuming, of course, that the paintings I found online were not the forgeries.)

His importance to Elne is now the contemporary consequence of those long-standing efforts across small towns in France to claim their local producers and elevate them to the status of legend.  Because Terrus fixated on his own lesser-known area of residence, his paintings preserve the changes of that town over time and demonstrate how an artist divorced from the Parisian establishment (defined contemporaneously or in retrospect) could adapt the trends of his era and re-present them for his friends and neighbors.  This would certainly be a point of pride for a smaller city without a storied artistic tradition of its own.  The timeline of the town’s efforts to build up its local museum, and in so doing unintentionally acquire a large number of forgeries, coincide with the increasing decentralization of art historical investigations.  In other words, where it was once expected that a scholar would study artists working in Paris, its become increasingly accepted that scholars might study a local artist with a local following in a small city a bit separate from the usual tourist endeavors.  It makes sense that building up a Terrus collection in a local museum would seem like a way to draw tourism because the infrastructure for local artists to be deemed interesting has considerably increased – yet so has the potential for bad actors, like the “experts” named in reports of this fraud, to take advantage of a small town’s desire to stand out.

Too Little in Koons Tulips

The American artist Jeff Koons has offered a monumental sculpture to the city of Paris in honor of the victims of the 2015 terror attack at the Bataclan concert hall.  This made the news not because of his largesse, but because a number of artists and other cultural observers have made it known that they believe the sculpture should not be installed, that a more appropriate process of memorialization should be followed.  It’s easy to attack Koons for being too commercialized, both re: the imagery of his art and his capitalist capitalization on the gallery system, but I want to talk about a different question—is Bouquet of Tulips a good memorial?

Jeff Koons. Monumental sculpture offered by donation to the City of Paris in memory of the attacks of 2015 - 2016.   Paris, Place de Tokyo - installation in 2018.  Image via  Noirmontartproduction .

Jeff Koons. Monumental sculpture offered by donation to the City of Paris in memory of the attacks of 2015 - 2016.   Paris, Place de Tokyo - installation in 2018.  Image via Noirmontartproduction.

Early critics pointed out that the proposed location is near some of Paris’s busy modern art sites, but that it isn’t near the Bataclan.  I noticed immediately that Bouquet of Tulips would be near the Flame of Liberty, a similarly figurative, industrial public art object. Though originally installed in 1989 as a pendant to the State of Liberty’s flame and the spirit of global friendship, in 1997, it became a memorial to Princess Diana after her sudden death when her car crashed in a nearby tunnel.  There is a visual similarity to the two works, but the Flame of Liberty indicates how location (and, perhaps, a dose of candle-based imagery from an Elton John song) can often be the most important factor in sanctifying a memorial.

Flame of Liberty  - my photo, 2011.

Flame of Liberty - my photo, 2011.

The larger consideration in evaluating a proposal for a memorial is whether or not that sculpture, or other installation, can evoke the emotional impact of the tragedy it represents.  Can that memorial call its viewers immediately to understand that the event in question is significant and substantive in the popular memory of the nation?  Do the people who most need the memorial—those impacted whether directly or indirectly—see their feelings and experiences reflected in the imagery and message that the memorial presents?  As Kirk Savage notes in his book about the installation of memorials after the Civil War, Standing Soldiers, Kneeling Slaves: Race, War, and Monument in Nineteenth-Century America (1997), the relationship between an audience and a memorial is not a one-way street. Though viewers, and mourners, project their experiences on to the memorial, the physical presence of the sculpture serves powerfully to shape both the rituals involved in memorializing the tragedy in question but also to establish how the tragedy is remembered in the future.  If Parisians see Bouquet of Tulips as a superficial gesture from an outsider, it cannot serve its purpose because it fails to provide the oneness and catharsis they need.

A number of articles that I read did fixate on this idea of Koons being an outsider, an American—the artists, politicians, and other cultural figures who signed an open letter denouncing Bouquet of Tulips suggested that a competition be put in place for a memorial so that French artists may also suggest ways of remembering their countrymen. Yet competitions may equally exclude the views of “the people,” and debates have circulated for many, many years about whether or not art can display the inherent traits of the nation that produces it.  (See: art historian Michael Fried’s discussion of “Frenchness” in Manet, or the entire history of American art history.)  It's not only the artist's American-ness that poses a problem.  Koons and his representatives responded by pointing to the visual similarities between Lady Liberty’s torch and the flop of tulips and also twinning the intention of Bouquet of Tulips with the Statue of Liberty’s representation of the so-called spirit of friendship between France and the United States.  The canned nature of that rationale, proposing friendship as a balm, strikes me as both too obvious and too indicative of exactly how right the letter’s signatories are.

Of course, all through the nineteenth century, as France cycled through bloody war after bloody rebellion, the government and other organizing bodies solved the problem of allowing people to feel represented in their memorials and monuments by selling subscriptions.  By this I mean that, if I were a well-enough-to-do French person of that era, I might be able to buy a share in a monument project so that my very dollars assisted in its completion and publicly displayed my allegiance to the message.  Kirk Savage notes: “What gave monuments their peculiar appeal in an era of rising nationalism was their claim to speak for ‘the people.’” Though the “era of rising nationalism” is a concept of the long nineteenth century, we live in an era of confusing national allegiances and an era where people must remain attentive to the attempts of certain groups of people to speak for others.  The Bouquet of Tulips, even if Koons is sincere in his admiration of Paris and its people, is the vision of one man, and the suspicion that Bouquet of Tulips would be reproduced for gallery displays and sold causes a distillation of respect for his intent.  The open letter calls this “product placement” that would diminish the prominence of modern and contemporary French artists celebrated in the nearby museums.  They are right, but that may still not be the greatest sin of this project.

So... is Bouquet of Tulips a good memorial?  The answer is no.  It could be an excellent sculpture, one that seems lovelier than many works by Koons, but its factory-produced exterior feels hard and cold in even the mock-ups.  Arguments against its construction and installation could begin and end there without ever bringing in the practical questions about public financing or the danger of placing a 35-ton sculpture over exhibit galleries, two points that the open letter does raise.  Without a substantial emotional connection to the place where the Bataclan attack occurred or the people who were most deeply affected by it, a statue is simply a statue.  It may be appropriate for a modern art museum to have a statue by an artist like Jeff Koons in front of it, but that sculpture cannot be a proper memorial in a city that needs more than “optimism, rebirth, and the vitality of nature” to process the effects of a tragic event.

Review: A Little Chaos

The movie A Little Chaos initially sets out to do the impossible: sex up a story about André Le Nôtre, the seventeenth-century garden designer responsible for the meticulously curated landscape of the Palace of Versailles.  It does this by imagining a scenario in which it was not Le Nôtre who designed a small, cleverly cascading Salle de bal at Versailles in the early 1680s, but a female landscape architect named Sabine de Barra, played intelligently by Kate Winslet.  The movie itself embraces the visual precision of the best British period dramas, with each detail of manner, setting, and costume carefully calibrated on a level to match the expansive historical setting.  The tone, however, is peculiar—it’s much more fanciful (the lush emotional whimsy of A Midsummer Night’s Dream kept coming to mind) than its designation as a period drama would suggest.

The plot of A Little Chaos attempts the kind of historical fiction that I find most intriguing—it inserts a plausible fictional character into a universe of famous historical figures whose philosophies and behaviors may be illuminated by presence of this new actor.  The creation of Sabine de Barra further serves another master by seeming to expose previously hidden narratives that embrace modern sensibilities.  A woman of middling social class, who, when pressed, answers honestly that she has “no blood” to speak of, skillfully executing projects in a male profession during an era where only the wealthiest women truly possessed a measure of freedom in their social dealings—what could go wrong?  How could she not attract the appreciation and, eventually, romantic love of the stoic master Le Nôtre?  The one true factual accuracy in the movie is that romance was in the air when Louis XIV held court at Versailles.

A confrontation between Sabine de Barra and Le Nôtre early in the film both exposes the trends in design philosophy that governed the creation of the gardens and presents a subtle realization of gender politics that I wish it didn’t.  When Le Nôtre inspects the plans that Sabine de Barra submitted as a job application, he asks her, “Are you a believer in order?”  She evades the question by answering, “Well, I admire it.”  Pressed further, she continues: “Order seems to demand we look back to Rome or to the Renaissance.  What I’m saying… surely there is something uniquely French as yet not celebrated by us which needs the rules of order to attain it.”  Le Nôtre interprets her statements as an insult to his life’s work and gruffly dismisses her from their meeting.  On the face of it, she does challenge Le Nôtre’s claim to fame, his celebrated ability to impose rigorous order on living landscapes prone to disorder.  Mme de Barra’s designs, in contrast, consistently incorporate a modicum of chaos—one planter out of place in a complex concentric layout, creative structures that allow living plants room to alter the landscape as they grow.  As Le Nôtre and Mme de Barra grow closer together, he ably tames her emotional troubles, which I shall not spoil here, in the same way he tames the wild foliage in his gardens.  She serves his slightly wild inspiration, and he is her stabilizing benefactor. 

The kernel of truth in the plot developments outlined above is that order was, indeed, Le Nôtre’s guiding principle.  I cannot speak for the history of gardening, except to note that English gardens, even those designed by men, prized the disorder preferred by Mme de Barra.  However, in the long history of landscape painting, assigning gender roles followed crisper lines.  The landscape painter—characterized as virile, focused, inherently male—tames the landscape—unruly, unprincipled, feminine—through fixing its image on canvas.  Doctrines suggesting that landscape painters adhere to celibacy and travel alone in the name of expanding their abilities to exert power over the wilderness held sway until far into the nineteenth century.   Le Nôtre lets the “little chaos” that Mme de Barra represents into his life as a man would agree to marriage—a philosophical union that will forward his greater goals.  Recognizing these fault lines of masculine/feminine and order/chaos in their discussions of gardens probably remains reserved for art historians familiar with landscape theory, but the film exposes these divisions further when Mme de Barra arrives at court in Fontainebleau and is spirited away by the wives and mistresses to a room where the women sit alone and talk.  As the other women question Mme de Barra about her past, they begin to commiserate about the losses they’ve experienced—and which the king forbids them from discussing at court.  Grief and sadness are clearly viewed as unruly emotions that should be confined to women’s spaces, while order reigns in court.  It’s more upsetting that A Little Chaos cloaks this dichotomous position in a narrative that seems, on the surface, to celebrate a woman’s skill and intelligence.

It’s not like A Little Chaos is a movie that revels in facts.  For example, re-envisioning Le Nôtre as a strapping, long-haired, dreamy-eyed man in his prime ignores the fact that he would have been sixty-nine years old in the year the narrative begins.  Though it’s not entirely impossible that enough stars could have aligned for a woman, through unorthodox means, to attain a position in Le Nôtre’s orbit, this movie seems to deliberately evade suggestions of prejudice regarding gender or social class that someone like Mme de Barra probably would have faced.  The courtiers treat her as a curiosity they can collect for her merits, and even that potential condescension is soft-edged here.  The only malicious intent comes in the form of Le Nôtre’s wife, who functions as almost a cartoon villain—confronting and sabotaging, but never surpassing the level of “women’s” squabbles.  The fact remains that, though Mme de Barra is pure fiction, there are movies like Martin Scorsese’s Hugo that operate similarly between fact and fiction and maintain the historical truths of the setting in furthering the story through newly created characters.  A Little Chaos needed to choose between adhering to facts or proposing a truly fantastical history anchored in a familiar universe, instead of presenting a harmfully gendered, yet ultimately toothless drama that disappoints in its lost potential.