Paris is striped: the thin tall chimneys that rise above the flat chimneys, all the little chimneys shaped like flower pots, the old gas candelabras that are completely silent, the horizontal stripes of the blinds . . . the little chairs that you see out in the open and the little café tables whose legs are lines, the public gardens whose railings have gilded points.
– Franz Kafka, Diaries
Paris is the city of mirrors. The asphalt of its roadways smooth as glass, and at the entrance to all bistros glass partitions. A profusion of windowpanes and mirrors in cafés, so as to make the inside brighter and to give all the tiny nooks and crannies, into which Parisian taverns separate, a pleasing amplitude. Women here look at themselves more than elsewhere, and from this comes the distinctive beauty of the Parisienne.
– Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project
A striped city, a city of mirrors, a black-and-white city in any case: it is perhaps in this direction that we should seek the reasons for the particular connection between Paris and photography, so close that it could almost be said to be a family tie. Not simply because photography began in Paris, with Niepce’s La Table de Déjeuner as its prehistory by the Saône. But also because there are moments in the city’s history for which photography, almost single-handedly, can restore reality with the precision of poetry. Neither novels (despite Calet), nor cinema despite the news, nor songs despite Prévert and Kosma, give a real idea of the era that followed Liberation in 1945. The last bus lines denoted by letters, with their solid tyres, the dark winter of 1946, the queues in the snow, the bread tickets, the American soldiers, the poor children without shoes, the barges caught in the ice on the Canal Saint-Martin, the steam engines on the Petite Ceinture, the Renault Juvaquatre, the zazous [hep cats], the copper of the percolators, the return of travelling fairs – you have to go to Doisneau to find the trace of these things, far more exact than history books that focus on the sinister clowns of tripartism.
The first picture of a human being taken in Paris dates from 1838, the year that Balzac began Scenes from a Courtesan’s Life. To capture this image, Daguerre climbed to the top of his diorama, on Boulevard du Temple.1 Since this mythical view was taken from this particular building, and by a landscape painter and theatre designer, it can be seen as a condensation of the relationship between the new invention, painting, and literature, an anticipation of what Baudelaire would write in ‘The Salon of 1859’, at the end of the section on ‘Landscape’:
I would rather go back to the diorama, whose brutal and enormous magic has the power to impose a genuine illusion upon me! I would rather go to the theatre and feast my eyes on the scenery, in which I find my dearest dreams artistically expressed, and tragically concentrated! These things, because they are false, are infinitely closer to the truth; whereas the majority of our landscape-painters are liars, precisely because they have neglected to lie.
For the daguerréotypistes, taking a picture from the top of a building was one of the most common practices: portraits and interior views were difficult for reasons of lighting, and the cameras, heavy and fragile, were awkward to take out into the street. Hence the images of streets seen from above, which painting would take up thirty years later (Monet’s Boulevard des Capucines series, Pissarro’s Place du Theâtre-Français, Caillebotte’s perspectives towards Boulevard Malesherbes from his apartment on Rue de Miromesnil). On the Pont-Neuf, in the top floor of the house on the corner with the Quai de l’Horloge, the optician Lerebours, a specialist in the manufacture of lenses and plates, established a glass pavilion from which his customers could take views, including panoramic ones, in the direction of the Pont des Arts, the Louvre colonnade and the Institut de France.
It was doubtless inevitable that a procedure of such novelty should be misunderstood, considered as a means of automatically and exactly restoring the ‘real’ – an opinion upheld by Daguerre himself, for whom ‘the daguerreotype is not an instrument to be used for drawing nature, but a chemical and physical procedure which gives nature the ability to reproduce itself’.2 But viewed in this way, photography had the result of hastening the demise of an aesthetic – already rather outworn – based on imitation as the essence of art. The existence of a machine able to satisfy mechanically the demands of the reproduction of reality forced other purposes to be found for artistic activity. This idea found its way into the public domain with amazing speed. You could read in Le Charivari for 10 September 1839:
When you have the Tuileries pavilions, the Montmartre hills or the Montfaucon plain before you with an infinitesimal fidelity, not drawn but automatically traced, do you really believe that this will be art? Do you believe that this is how genuine artists proceed? There will be those who take such pictures on commission, but not artists. The artist selects, arranges, idealizes. The daguerreotype brutally copies nature – or rather, plagiarizes it.3
As soon as it arrived, photography thus found itself pushed outside the borders of art and forbidden to encroach on its territory. On the door of Atget’s studio, at the end of the century, a plaque informed the visitor that his trade was to supply ‘documents for artists’. This was not simply a sign of modesty (as certainly was, around the same time, Douanier Rousseau’s sign, in Rue Perrel at Plaisance: ‘Drawing, painting, music. Lessons at home, moderate prices’). Atget probably wanted to show that he had not lost sight of Baudelaire’s injunction, in ‘The Salon of 1859’ and repeated in many other texts, that:
It is time, then, for [photography] to return to its true duty, which is to be the servant of the sciences and arts – but the very humble servant, like printing or shorthand, which neither created nor supplemented literature. . . let it be the secretary and clerk of whoever needs an absolute exactitude in his profession – up to that point nothing could be better . . . But if it be allowed to encroach upon the domain of the impalpable and the imaginary, upon anything whose value depends solely upon the addition of something of a man’s soul, then it will be so much the worse for us!
In the unending controversies as to the respective territory and role of painting and the new medium, Parisian photography occupies a special place, privileged by virtue of having no competition. In the era of the invention’s first flight, from 1840 to 1870, there was not really any painting of Paris as such. This was certainly a major period for engraving: Granville, Daumier, Meryon, Nanteuil, Potémont and Bracquemond continue a lineage of illustrators and engravers of Paris that goes back to the sixteenth century. Nor was there a shortage of good artists, such as Eugène Lami or Constantin Guys, who ‘captured’ – with techniques such as watercolour, tinted drawing or gouache, generally held to be minor – lively and colourful street scenes. But in the reports of the Salons of this period when Paris photographers were creating so many masterpieces, there was not to my knowledge a single canvas whose subject was a Parisian townscape. This absence was nothing new. In the work of the great painters who had worked in Paris since the seventeenth century, from Le Sueur to Géricault, from Philippe de Champaigne and Simon Vouet to Ingres and Delacroix, you can count the paintings with Paris as their subject on the fingers of one hand.4 When Watteau painted The Sign for his dealer and friend Gersaint, who had his premises on the Pont-Neuf, all he showed of the city were four sets of paving-stones parallel to the threshold of the shop, which a woman dressed in pink is crossing with great elegance. Chardin, who spent almost his whole life on Rue de Seine, and only left it to cross the river and settle in the Louvre quarter, never made the slightest sketch of these places so familiar to him. And it was only in exceptional circumstances that David, expecting the guillotine after Thermidor, painted from his cell a view of the Luxembourg gardens as fine as The Gardens of the Villa Medici by Velasquez – who had advised his pupils to go out into the landscape and draw on the motif.
So Paris was until then a city without images – as distinct from Amsterdam and Delft, Venice or Rome. There were certainly Parisian vedute, often quite charming, but these were designed for the tourists and were not considered works of art.5 The ‘view of Paris’ did not fit into any of the styles that the Salon recognized: neither history, not landscape, nor ‘genre’ – the outdoor scenes of the latter being located in conventional frameworks. The only city whose representation was accepted in the category of landscape was precisely Rome, since it was considered the cradle of painting, and French artists, most commonly scholars at the Villa Medici, showed only picturesque ruins, timeless gardens, and an idealized countryside.
Yet though photography had no competition in Paris, it started in a documentary mode. The very nature of daguerreotype certainly contributed to this: its extreme definition and its lack of depth were somewhat like engraving. It was perhaps this fineness – in the dual sense of the term, precision of detail and sensation of a thin layer – that explains Balzac’s superstitious fear, as reported by Nadar: convinced that ‘each body in nature is made up of a series of spectres, in endlessly superimposed layers’, he thought that ‘every operation of the daguerreotype would surprise, detach and retain one of the layers of the depicted individual’.6 The most frequent subjects also belonged to the documentary genre – the Louvre, the Tuileries, the Madeleine, the Hôtel de Ville, the Invalides, Notre-Dame in all its aspects, the Panthéon: the daguerreotypists worked around monuments whose unencumbered situation made for good lighting, rather than in the alleyways. Perhaps, too, these pioneers, who were for the most part former painters trained in the major studios, experienced a more or less conscious desire to recompose the hierarchy of genres, the monument being a more noble subject than the muddy backstreets of ‘gloomy Paris’.
In the years 1845–50, the photographic image underwent a complete change of nature, with the negative-positive system. A photograph was now ‘taken’ on a paper negative, followed by ‘printing’, likewise on paper, which delivered the positive image. Not only could the picture be printed in several copies (whereas the copper plate of the daguerreotype was necessarily unique), but the result was very different.7 The resolution was less fine, the image often even a little vague; the grain of the paper was visible, and above all, by playing with contrast in the course of printing, the photographer could accentuate the opposition between dark masses and lighter zones, characteristic of the narrow streets in which the light falls in geometrically regular patches. Parallel with this, the exposure time was shorter and the moving human figure now made an appearance. In 1851, Charles Nègre – who had come from Delaroche’s studio, like his friend Le Gray, and Le Secq who introduced him to Meryon8 – lived on the Île Saint-Louis. From his courtyard at 21 Quai de Bourbon, which he used as an outdoor studio, he took a photograph titled Chimney Sweepers Under Way, a frieze of three individuals walking east towards the rising sun. The only clear element in this photo is the dark grey stone of the island’s parapet. In the distance, the Quai des Célestins on the other side of the river offers an irregular line of roofs and a tight rhythm of dark windows in the bright aureole of the houses. In the foreground, the almost white pavement is a little burned by the printing. Of the three individuals, the one who walks ahead is scarcely taller than the top of the parapet; this is a child, needed in the team to climb up the chimneys. He wears a cap and looks towards the river, so that his features cannot be seen. Behind him, the two other figures are men, each carrying a bag on his shoulder, their faces blackened by soot and darkened even more by the visors of their caps. From a technical point of view, the characters are too dark, not very clear, and the printing is too contrasted. But it is precisely this vagueness and the violent opposition of values that give this image a mysterious novelty. Nothing like it had ever been seen before, neither in engraving nor in painting, whose subtlest sfumato was never as disturbing as the vibration of photography in this brief and marvellous period of innocence.
The writers and artists of the time were fascinated, despite a certain reticence on principle. The great Nadar – the only person to have photographed, over a span of thirty years, the four members of that relay team of genius: Delacroix, Baudelaire, Manet and Mallarmé – recalls that people toured photographers’ studios as they nowadays do galleries of contemporary art. These were grouped on the boulevards between Rue de la Paix and the Madeleine: Nadar at 35 Boulevard des Capucines (a façade of glass and metal that was heavy with history, and destroyed by Crédit Foncier in the early 1990s to install a shoe shop), the Bisson brothers and Le Gray a little further up towards the Madeleine:
The Bissons’ shop raised great excitement. It was not simply the extraordinary luxury and good taste of the establishment, nor the novelty and perfection of its products, that halted the passerby; there was a no less lively interest in contemplating through the plate-glass windows the illustrious visitors who followed one another on the velvet covers of the great circular divan, passing the proofs of the day from hand to hand. It was really like a meeting place of the Paris intellectual elite: Gautier, Cormenin Louis, Saint-Victor, Janin, Gozlan, Méry, Préault, Delacroix, Chassériau, Nanteuil, Baudelaire, Penguilly, the Leleux brothers – everyone! I twice saw there another amateur who was equally essential in his way, M. Rothschild – Baron James, as people called him – who was very affable but by this time could no longer manage to appear young. And these leading figures of Paris society, when they left the Bissons’, finished their tour by going on to the portraitist Le Gray.9
Although place was slowly made for the new invention among other artistic practices – from 1859, photography was exhibited in the same building as the Salon – the major work of Paris photographers in the nineteenth century was the result of a technical and documentary commission. In 1865, the municipal administration decided to have photographed the old roads that were going to be demolished, and entrusted this work to Charles Marville. With a reputation as an illustrator (he had been involved with Huet and Meissonier in a famous romantic edition of Paul et Virginie), his beginnings in photography dated from the 1850s, in particular with studies of clouds at sunset in the sky above Paris – and it was certainly by choice that this cultivated man sought to rival the colours of Constable and Delacroix on this subject, with his nuances of grey. The task presented to him was unprecedented: to describe what was going to be destroyed, with the aim of demonstrating that what was about to disappear was not worth the trouble of being preserved. But Marville showed the silent charm of what others liked to see as disturbing and unhealthy. Without any quest for the picturesque, without the least resort to an aesthetic of poverty, he simply used the resources of photography in a way that much later would be described as ‘objective’ (Marville was to the streets of Old Paris what Sander would be to the people of Cologne in the 1930s). He placed his camera very low, almost at street level, so that the paving stones occupy a large surface, with a perspective effect that evokes the theoretical drawings of Renaissance Italy.10 Often glistening with rain, the street reflects the light of early morning or evening, when beautiful shadows accentuate the reliefs and contrasts. And although there are no human beings in his pictures, he uses the writing that was omnipresent in Paris at this time – signs and advertisements painted on walls – to give an impression of the comic or melancholy. In Rue de la Monnaie, where the only sign of human presence is a cart with a cover like a Magritte head, there is a ‘Librería española’ with a sign of the siege of Sebastopol; on Rue de la Tonnellerie, above the old pillars of Les Halles, an advertisement advises the treatment of ‘glazings on the breasts (and elsewhere)’ with ‘Cosmétique Liébert’ (remember Birotteau!), while the other wall of the same corner building has a ‘keeper of horse- and hand-carts’. There are the ‘Russian baths’ on the Place Saint-André-des-Arts, the ‘Dunkirk oysters warehouse’ on Rue Mondétour, the ‘Demolition material for sale’ on the Passage des Deux-Soeurs, and ‘Henriat, tiler and stove-setter’ on the Cour du Dragon – all activities that Marville catalogued on the eve of their disappearance without any detectable sentimentality, the effect being all the more striking.
The 425 photographs that Marville took between 1865 and 1868 are the only major visual souvenir that remains of a Paris that has completely disappeared. They are there in every detail, these streets of the Île de la Cité that existed already in the days of François Rabelais or even François Villon. They are the streets that Victor Hugo paced while writing Notre-Dame de Paris, those of Charles Nodier, Aloysius Bertrand, Gérard de Nerval: Rues de Perpignan, des Trois-Canettes, Cocatrix, des Deux-Ermites, des Marmousets, Saint-Landry, Haut-Moulin, Saint-Christophe – where, on the shop facing the foundlings hospital of Les Enfants-Trouvés, a noticeboard indicates that ‘on the coming 15 October the edge-tool workshop will be transferred to 20 Rue Zacarie’. The demolition was under way: the old corner posts, the little shops, the paving whose irregularity was fashioned over centuries, the bars, the cant walls with bay windows, the lampposts, the signboards, the courtyards – this whole world would disappear to make way for the Prefecture of Police and the Hôtel-Dieu, the most sinister of Paris hospitals, which is saying a great deal.
Marville’s images are sometimes used to illustrate Baudelaire’s Paris. This is acceptable, on condition that the possessive case simply denotes the era and nothing more. Baudelaire never expanded on the charm of old stones, and if you want Baudelairean images of Paris – a legitimate search with someone who wrote of ‘glorifying the cult of images (my great, my sole, my original passion)’ – it is not in Marville’s photos that you should look, but rather in Manet. In France, however, the official history of nineteenth-century art is so compartmentalized that the relationship between Baudelaire and Manet is most often described in a very curious fashion.11 You can often read that Baudelaire ‘did not understand’ Manet, that he preferred Constantin Guys. I suspect in this haste to trip Baudelaire up the reflex of museum curators against someone whom they well sense would not have been on their side. They forget, or pretend to forget, that when Baudelaire wrote Manet the letter that is so often cited, replying to the painter who complained of not being understood: ‘What you demand is really crazy. People tease you; their jokes annoy you; no one knows your real worth. Do you think you’re the only man in that position? Do you have more genius than Chateaubriand and Wagner? But they were jeered at, weren’t they? It didn’t kill them. And to avoid turning your head, I’ll add that those men were models, each in his own way, and in a very rich world, whereas you, you’re only the first in the decline of our art’12 – that when he sent these murderous lines he had not seen Olympia. He had seen Lola de Valence, and wrote on the corner of a tablecloth the famous quatrain on the ‘pink and black jewel’. He had seen Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe in the same year as he wrote The Painter of Modern Life, as well as Music in the Tuileries, that first image of Paris showing the city as a theatre for flâneurs.13 But he was unable to see Olympia, as for a year then he had taken himself off to Brussels, and his question in the same letter – ‘is it really a cat?’ – is a hiccup of astonishment that such a Baudelairean motif had made its appearance in the painting. Baudelaire was unable to ‘understand’ Manet because he did not have time to, because he was unable to see any of the masterpieces of Manet’s maturity. When he was brought back to Paris, his mind was destroyed. Manet came to see him every day at Dr Duval’s clinic, and the only moments that the sick man showed any signs of contentment were when Mme Manet played him extracts from Tannhäuser on the piano.
Olympia is a ‘Paris painting’. The only person to have said this at the time was a certain Ravenel, in L’Époque, a newspaper of the republican opposition: ‘A painting of the Baudelaire school, executed by someone who is largely a follower of Goya; the strangeness of the girl from the suburbs, one of Paul Niquet’s daughters of night, of The Mysteries of Paris and the nightmares of Edgar Allan Poe. Her look has the bitterness of a premature creature, her face has the disturbing perfume of a fleur du mal.’ It was perhaps this that explains the most violent ‘rain of insults’ that had ever been provoked by a painting – a body that recalls the horror of the morgue, a skeleton dressed in a layer of plaster, a courtesan with dirty hands and rough feet, a picture drawn with charcoal on the edges and pomade in the middle, and that toad-like hand placed over her sex. These metaphors of dirt and disease, the repeated references to plaster, sweat and charcoal, reveal a fear and hatred of the poor, especially those poor who do not know their place. We need to remind ourselves what the ‘normal’ nude was at that time. Two plates in a book by T. J. Clark show side by side the canvases bought by the state after the Salon of 1865 – Schutzenberger’s Europe enlevée par Jupiter, Le Sommeil de Vénus by Girard, a pupil of Gleyre, L’Enlèvement d’Anymoné by Giacomotti, Prix de Rome for 1854, and La Perle et la vague by Baudry: soft white thighs, ecstatic pose, drapery flying in the sea breeze.14 In the midst of these sad obscenities that mark the final decadence of a genre, just imagine the effect produced by Victorine Meurent, her velvet ribbon, her Black servant and her cat, and you will understand the fury of those whom Thoré was addressing in his ‘Salon de 1865’: ‘Who encourages a mythological and mystic art, the Oedipuses and Venuses, or the madonnas and saints in ecstasy? Those whose interest it is that art should mean nothing, and have no bearing on modern aspirations. Who encourages the nymphs and erotic scenes à la Pompadour? The Jockey-Club and Boulevard des Italiens. And who buys these pictures? The traders and rich winners of the Bourse.’15
Théophile Gautier, despite being the dedicatee of Les Fleurs du mal, was among the most virulent critics: ‘Olympia cannot be explained from any point of view, even by taking her for what she is, a sickly model stretched out on a sheet. The tone of the chairs is dirty, the representation appalling. Shadows are indicated by stripes of polish of varying width. And what can we say of the Negress holding a bouquet wrapped in paper, or the black cat that has left the imprint of its dirty paws on the bed?’ Gautier was close to the Goncourts, who were beginning their Manette Salomon – a novel of the devastating influence of a Jewish model on the painter Coriolis – at the very time of the scandal over Olympia. Coriolis’s The Turkish Bath inspired by Boucher, the Black servant, the ‘nudity that had suddenly cast into the studio the radiance of a masterpiece’: all this is undoubtedly an indirect criticism of Manet’s Olympia, which the Goncourts held as a provocation that, like Baudelaire, heralded disaster for the arts.16
After the events of 1870–71 – the siege of Paris, when he served with Degas in the artillery of the National Guard, then the Commune – Manet felt he could no longer paint as he had before. The massacres of Bloody Week shocked him so much that he even thought of stopping painting altogether. This is not a matter of Manet’s political opinions, which are generally commented on with vague allusions to ‘republican sympathies’, referring for example to The Rue Mosnier Decked with Flags. It would be clearly absurd to see Manet as any kind of revolutionary. But three points are worth noting: Firstly, that it was not politically neutral to paint The Execution of Maximilien in 1868, when this event was less than a year old and the shameful end of the Mexican expedition had shaken the Empire. The engraving that Manet made for the reproduction of this picture was banned by the censors.
Secondly, during the 1860s Manet had his studio on Rue Guyot (now Médéric), on the edge of the wretched quarter of Petite-Pologne which Haussmann had already started demolishing to drive through Boulevard Malesherbes.17 It was in these parts that Manet hobnobbed with the gypsy Jean Lagrène, who lived in a temporary encampment harassed by the police, earning his living by playing the barrel-organ, and whom Manet took as his model for The Old Musician. Behind him, seated on the bank, is the ragpicker Collarder – a Baudelairean character par excellence – whom he also used as a model for The Absinthe Drinker, rejected by the Salon of 1859: ‘Manet has chosen only themes congenial to him – not simply because they were at hand or because they furnished a particular colouring or light, but rather because they were his world in an overt or symbolic sense and related intimately to his personal outlook.’18
Manet’s interest in those on the margins of society, the bohème of the street, is related by Antonin Proust (for whom, ‘in Manet, the eye played so great a role that Paris had never known a flâneur the like of him, or one who put his flânerie to better use’) in hisSouvenirs: ‘One day we walked together up to what has since become Boulevard Malesherbes, amid demolition interspersed with the gaping openings of land already cleared . . . A woman came out of a sordid bar, holding up her dress and with a guitar in her hand. He went straight up to her and asked her to come and pose for him. She burst out laughing. “I will paint her,” he said, “and if she doesn’t come, I’ve got Victorine.”’19
Thirdly, during the Commune, Manet left Paris to give his family the protection of the provinces. But his name still figured on the list of the Commission des Artistes, officially drawn up in his absence, which shows that he was considered as favourable to the movement. He was on the best of terms with Courbet, who chaired the Commission and whose name recurs on several occasions in connection with the insults that surrounded Olympia. Manet made two lithographs of Bloody Week, both dated 1871: The Barricade, in which, at the centre of a Paris crossroads that is hastily sketched, a squad of Versaillais soldiers – the same grouping and even the same attitudes as in The Execution of Maximilien – shoot at point-blank range an insurgent whose horrified face alone stands out in the smoke above the pavement; and The Civil War, in dark flat tints and thick lines, with the corpses of two insurgents at the foot of a dismantled barricade, a civilian and a National Guard of whom you see only the leg of his striped trousers.
When he went back to work, Manet’s painting completely changed, and his new style was heralded by a manifesto-painting. For the first time, an image of Paris was exhibited at the Salon: known either as The Railway or La Gare Saint-Lazare, which is of little importance, since neither one or the other is visible.20 This work triggered a new outcry. A drawing by Cham, for the cover of the special issue of Le Charivari devoted to the Salon of 1874, was titled The Seal Lady, and beneath it: ‘These unhappy creatures tried to escape being painted, but with great foresight he put up a fence that cut off any retreat.’ And another: ‘Two madwomen, afflicted by incurable Monomanétie, watch carriages pass outside the bars of their cell.’ Burty and Duret, generally supporters of Manet, were both disconcerted. Zola could only find praise for ‘the charming palette’, repeating with scant conviction that Manet was ‘one of the rare original artists that our school can boast’.21
Nothing at all like this picture had previously been seen. It is set in the Europe quarter, where Manet had just moved (his new studio was at 4 Rue de Saint-Pétersbourg).22 But it was not just the novelty of the setting and subject – the train, as symbolic of modern life as the Place de l’Europe was of modern Paris – that made this painting a scandal. Its very technique creates a feeling of strangeness, transgressing the rules, and this is because the influence of photography makes itself felt. Not that Manet worked on or after a photograph – as his neighbour, the engineer Caillebotte, indeed did: the images on which he based the impeccable perspectives of Rainy Weather in Paris, at the Crossroads of the Rue de Turin and the Rue de Moscou, and Le Pont de l’Europe.23 The foreground ofLa Gare Saint-Lazare is both very close and very clear: Victorine Meurent, shown full face, wears around her neck the velvet ribbon that was Olympia’s only clothing, while little Suzanne is seen almost from behind, looking away towards the tracks. But beyond the railing, the background is not clear, as in a photograph with a weak depth of field. This is not just an effect of the smoke that is rising above the unseen railway: Manet has deliberately chosen to place a very shallow foreground against a vague background, a procedure contrary to all the rules that had governed open-air perspective since at least the time of Leonardo, but one that was quite current in photography. In other views of Paris made a short time earlier by painters close to Manet – Monet’s paintings from the second floor of the Louvre in 1867, Saint-Germainl’Auxerrois, The Jardin de l’Infante, The Quai du Louvre; or again Caillebotte’s Bare-Headed Man Seen from Behind at a Window, painted from his apartment on Rue de Miromesnil, or Renoir’s The Pont-Neuf – despite the ‘impressionist’ feeling of the brushwork, the distances are as clear as in Van Eyck. On top of this, La Gare Saint-Lazare is painted in almost a single colour: blue with white highlights for Victorine’s dress; white with a large blue bow and blue embroidery for little Suzanne’s; the blue-black railing; and bluish white for the cloud of smoke that is not just a sign of absence, but almost a third character in the painting. And as for Victorine herself, raising her eyes from the book in which she was absorbed – her fingers placed between its pages like bookmarks, suggesting that she is comparing passages or consulting notes – her character expressing nothing more than a vague surprise is archetypically photographic in the way it renders the sudden and accidental. It is a snapshot, there is no story attached (Duret was quite vexed: ‘In fact, there is no subject at all’), no psychology either in the sense of the portraits of Rembrandt or even Goya. If Manet chose Victorine Meurent so many times as his model, from The Street Singer through to La Gare Saint-Lazare, it was because she had this unfathomable look, which, without expressing anything legible, creates an expectation, a disturbance. This look – dark, frontal and mysterious – which Victorine already had turning her head towards the viewer with an adorable shyness in Mlle V in the . . . Costume of an Espada, is what Manet gave to the many unforgettable women of his Paris, to Berthe Morisot in The Balcony, to Henriette Hauser in Nana, right through to the last, the blonde Suzon in A Bar at the Folies-Bergère. And when the gaze of his models was clear and oblique – the elegant bourgeoise of In the Conservatory or the poor girl alone in La Prune – only then does something like a trace of melancholy slip in.
Manet did indeed manage to wrong-foot his critics. By being handsome and warmhearted, rejecting the customary pictorial signs of emotion, not ‘composing’ his pictures in the usual sense of the term – while in Monet’s Gare Saint-Lazare series, no matter how innovatory he was, each canvas is as structured as a landscape by Poussin – he was taken for an unfinished artist, a painter without ideas or culture, with the critics particularly maintaining that he had so well internalized the inheritance of Hals, Goya and Velasquez that he could no longer be distinguished. Even Zola reached the point of failing to understand anything. But for Mallarmé, who stopped off at his studio every evening on his way back from the Lycée Fontane (now Condorcet, on Rue du Havre in front of the Gare Saint-Lazare), Manet was ‘the painter to whom no other can be compared’,24 and he describes him ‘in his studio, a fury raging on the empty canvas, as if he had never painted before’.25 Mallarmé was, it is true, better placed than Zola to understand Manet in his later years, the Manet who has his place in the lineage of enigmatic painters, ‘difficult’ as they are called, whose paintings can certainly be dated, described, X-rayed, followed from one collection to another, but whose intentions remain veiled, and with whom obscurity is in some sense a part of his meaning. Who can be sure of having really understood Urbino’s Flagellation, even after Carlo Ginzburg has identified the three characters placed in the foreground by Piero della Francesca, in a confabulation that will remain forever mysterious?
In official historiography, the 1870s are presented as the time when modern parliamentary democracy was established in France, when secular education was developed, and a country shaken by defeat and civil war was rebuilt both materially and morally. The pretence is made of forgetting that this was a period of reaction such as always follows the defeat of revolution. The very nature of the regime was not settled until 1875, when the majority in parliament voted for a republic almost by a stroke of luck. It was in these years that Monet painted Flags on the Rue Montorgueil on the 14th July, and Manet The Rue Mosnier Decked With Flags, the tricolour flag reappearing after it had been almost absent from painting since Delacroix’s Liberty, and at a time when it had a very particular meaning, opposed to the white flag of the Comte de Chambord whom his supporters sought to enthrone as Henri V. Tens of thousands of Communards were still exiled, imprisoned, deported or transported.26
These years saw both the appearance of the expression ‘moral order’, and a phenomenon that can be taken as the revelation of its hidden face. It was the start of a brief period – thirty or forty years at the most – when Paris became what it had never been before, the principal subject of modern painting. Not by its famous sites, its old stones, the play of sunshine on its monuments, the elegant ladies of the Bois de Boulogne; what Degas and Manet chose instead – for initially it was more or less them alone – was rather the world of pleasure, of nighttime entertainment in which all strata of the city mingled, a world whose life continued without even the most vigilant police force managing to check it. A kind of dialogue, if certainly a silent one, now developed between these two painters: they observed one another with a greater interest than had Monet and Renoir at La Grenouillère, if without a common purpose and without working together.
They did however have a great deal in common. Both of them – and this is the essential thing – were true Parisians, the only ones among the major painters of the day. Degas, who was born on Rue Saint-Georges and died on Boulevard de Clichy, never moved far from Pigalle, just as Manet always remained between the Batignolles, the Quartier de l’Europe and the Place Clichy. But when Manet exhibited A Bar at the Folies-Bergère at the Salon of 1882, Degas wrote to Henri Rouart: ‘Manet, stupid and refined, a playing card without strength, Spanish trompe l’oeil – a painter . . . in the end, you’ll see.’ The connections between them were Berthe Morisot, a follower of both Degas and Manet, and Mallarmé, one of the few writers who impressed Degas, himself an amateur poet. The two painters each expressed a different aspect of Mallarmé’s character: in Manet’s portrait – his hand holding a cigar, its smoke against the white paper, his look again unfathomable, focused, lost in the distance – it is his genius; in Degas’s photograph – where Mallarmé is standing in profile, smiling lightly as he turns towards a seated Renoir – his particular goodness.
Women on café terraces, customers and waitresses, musicians in the pit at the new Garnier opera, whom Degas catches against the light in an unprecedented framing, Manet’s Masked Ball at the Opera – which could be an illustration for the start of Balzac’sScenes from a Courtesan’s Life – music-hall singers, brothel scenes, the Cirque Fernando where Degas painted Mademoiselle Lala on her flying trapeze, and barefacedly claimed to be rivalling Tiepolo’s ceilings: in more than ten years there are hundreds of sketches, pastels, canvases. But there is no joy in this world of pleasure. Degas’s studies of the effects of electric light – which had now replaced gas for the illumination of stage performances – however subtle they are as an urban nocturnal counterpart to Monet’s effects of sunlight on Rouen cathedral, accentuate the ‘ugliness’ of the café-concert singers. The dumpy waitresses of Manet’s brasseries, the tired bar-girls, the customers in their suits or work clothes, all look elsewhere, ordinary and distant. Nothing like the orgies at Les Flamands or the lighthearted melancholy of fêtes galantes. Certainly neither Manet nor the reactionary, misogynist, and anti-Semitic Degas deliberately used the theme of pleasure in Paris to reveal the seamy side of society, but they were so striking in an elliptical sense, so strong in showing without describing, that the attitudes, looks, and groupings bring out the truth of the time. Without coal porters or famished beggars, they can tell the reign of money (Degas’s masterpiece La Bourse). They show the loneliness of the city, a loneliness à deux in Degas’s Absinthe, an unqualified loneliness in Manet’s La Prune. They show the exploitation of women, the thin gamines of the Opéra’s corps de ballet, the aging prostitutes waiting for custom on the boulevard terraces – and those poor little Olympias, those unripe Nanas whose confusion is scarcely indicated with a few pencil lines, in the shadow of the top hats.
It is by the theme of nocturnal entertainment, following A Bar at the Folies-Bergère and Manet’s death soon after, that the connection is made with the following generation: the generation of Seurat, whose most disturbing drawings in Conté crayon were devoted to the café-concerts, and whoseChahut is a dissonant painting of a scandalous dance; of Lautrec, who spent his nights drawing in a brothel or music-hall; and of Bonnard, whose France-Champagne, the first lithograph poster, covered the Paris walls. All three painters were connected with La Revue blanche, and it was in the offices of the magazine, on Rue Lafitte, that Fénéon would put on the first Seurat retrospective a few months after the painter’s death. Bonnard’s Place Clichy series, and Vuillard’s Public Gardens, were the last great moments of Paris painting, which came to an end at the same time as La Revue blanche, in the years 1900–05.
The transformation that took place then came out of symbolism, which had no place for either the aesthetics or the political poetics of the big city. At the turn of the century Paris ceased almost suddenly to be what it had been from the time of La Comédie humaine, Les Misérables and Les Fleurs du mal, from the beginnings of photography, from Olympia and Women on a Café Terrace, Evening – the great modern subject. The new paradigm that emerged and took its place was built around inventions that relegated the steam engine to archaeology, and which had in common the thing that would be the distinguishing mark of the new century, constantly redefined: speed. No other capital came to take the place of Paris, as it was the very imaginary of the city that changed. In Apollinaire’s ‘Zone’, placed strategically at the start of Alcools, the city he describes (‘You’ve had enough of living in Greek and Roman antiquity/Here even the cars appear to be old’) is close to the projects drawn by Sant’Elia, El Lissitzky, Le Corbusier – imaginary cities, aerodromes hanging from the top of immense towers, power stations like cathedrals, great deserted avenues like those of De Chirico’s Turin. At the same time a follower of Verlaine and a futurist, Apollinaire – the ‘flâneur des deux rives’ – was well placed to theorize, from his own great gap between two worlds, and it was his friend Sonia Delaunay who marked what was perhaps the end point of Paris painting with Le Bal Bullier, where she herself so often went dancing and which she shows as a shower of multicoloured balls in the night, a magnificent painting between Degas’s Ambassadors and the first Kandinsky.27
Nothing better shows this change of paradigm than À la recherche du temps perdu, which despite its great ancestry in Balzac, basically has very little to say about Paris. The countless passages in which the Narrator talks about painting deal mainly with landscapes, sometimes portraits, but never Paris. Very often, by the play of comparisons (which for some reason, I don’t know why, critics call metaphors), Proust slips into other cities more colourful and propitious to the unfurling of his images: ‘It is of the poorer quarters [of Venice] that certain poor quarters of Paris remind one, in the morning, with their tall, splayed chimneys to which the sun imparts the most vivid pinks, the brightest reds – like a garden flowering above the houses, and flowering in such a variety of tints as to suggest the garden of a tulip-fancier of Delft or Haarlem.’28 Proust’s temperament was not that of a flâneur. Perhaps his asthma was partly responsible for this, but in reality the very motive of the Recherche makes the streets of the big city unsuited to nourishing his story.29It was through his bedroom window that Proust heard the noises of Paris (the start of The Captive in which the awakening Narrator makes out what time it is from the first sounds, ‘according to whether they came to my ears deadened and distorted by the moisture of the atmosphere or quivering like arrows in the resonant, empty expanses of a spacious, frosty, pure morning’ (p. 1), and observed its spectacle: ‘if, on rising from my bed, I went to the window and drew the curtain aside for a moment, it was . . . also to catch a glimpse of some laundress carrying her linen-basket, a baker-woman in a blue apron, a dairymaid with a tucker and white linen sleeves, carrying the yoke from which her milk-churns are suspended, some haughty fair-haired girl escorted by her governess . . .’ (p. 20). Only rarely does Proust cite the name of a Paris street, or precisely localize an encounter or an event. Even the Guermantes hôtel, the Narrator’s domicile and the central location of the work, is not clearly situated: it often appears to be in the 7th arrondissement, whereas it is actually close to the Parc Monceau, so that the description of the duchess’s salon as ‘the first in the Faubourg Saint-Germain’ really is metaphorical on this occasion. The temporal gaps in the Recherche – in comparison with which the gap Proust admired in A Sentimental Education would be a ‘very shallow stream’30 – make for an alternation between passages that are chronologically indeterminate and moments that are perfectly dated and characterized: the Recherche is unequalled on the Dreyfus affair as seen by the aristocracy and haute bourgeoisie, and on the atmosphere in Paris during the First World War nothing comes close to the passage in Time Regained that begins, in supreme irony, with a description of women’s fashions: ‘As if by the germination of a tiny quantity of yeast, apparently of spontaneous generation, young women now went about all day with tall cylindrical turbans on their heads, as a contemporary of Mme Tallien’s might have done, and from a sense of patriotic duty wore Egyptian tunics, straight and dark and very “war”, over very short skirts . . .’ (p. 743). Proust’s subtle manipulation of time might well have been impeded by too precise a localization of the characters and events in the city, and the topographical looseness backs up the chronological haze in which it is so delightful to wander.
Like Marville for Baudelaire, Atget is often called on to illustrate Proust’s Paris. An odd idea, given that Atget’s and Proust’s locations do not match each other at all. Proust spent all his life in the new quarters of the Right Bank – Rue de Courcelles, Boulevard Malesherbes, Rue Hamelin. This is where he locates the Guermantes hôtel, as we have seen, and when his characters have an exact address, it is most often in the elegant quarters between the Opéra and the Étoile.31 Atget almost never photographed these districts, as he devoted his work to pre-Haussmann Paris, and the little tradespeople he shows in front of the church of Saint-Médard certainly have little in common with those of Boulevard Malesherbes, whose cries the Narrator hears from his bed in The Captive.32
A long career, an enormous and disparate work – over ten thousand photographs whose numbering and classification are a labyrinth within a labyrinth – a solitary life which has left only a few discordant traces, everything conspires to make Atget one of the ‘artists of Paris’ who is hardest to understand properly.33 If there is a work of literature with which he should be associated, it would clearly be La Comédie humaine: Pons on Rue de la Perle, Rastignac and de Marsay on Rue Montorgueil at Le Rocher de Cancale, Birotteau at the corner of Rues Pirouette and Mondétour, Esther on Rue Sainte-Foy by Rue d’Alexandrie – one could almost find a photo for each episode, so true it is that the Paris of Atget, despite Haussmann, was closer to Balzac than to our own day. But even if neither Charlus, nor his cousin Oriane, nor M. de Norpois, would have been pillars of Atget’s bars – whose names and addresses already bear the magic of Parisian toponomy: À l’Homme Armé on Rue des Blancs-Manteaux; À la Biche on Rue Geoffroy-Saint-Hilaire; Au Réveil-Matin on Rue Amelot; Au Soleil d’Or on Rue Saint-Sauveur – let alone familiar with the ragpickers’ camps on Boulevard Masséna, there is a deep affinity between Atget and Proust in that both are advanced promontories – in every sense of the term – of the nineteenth century within the twentieth. It matters little that Proust appears today as the dazzling end to a literature born more than two centuries earlier with the favourite authors of the Narrator’s grandmother, Saint-Simon and Mme de Sévigné, whereas Atget on the other hand is viewed as a link between pictorial photography and Surrealism – a role that he did not actually play, and the invention of which derives from the need to manufacture a linear history, even one with discontinuities and unevenness. Atget’s work and that of Proust are the last two great efforts in France to reach a totality, not in the sense of the ‘total work of art’, but that of the total exploration of a world.
Atget worked a good deal on commission, which may seem to contradict this ambition. But one of the features that you can be sure of with him is his independence of mind, his stubborn character: he interpreted the commissions in his own fashion, so that even what is apparently his most repetitive work – the series of door-knockers taken for maniacal decorators in search of ‘grand siècle’ motifs, or the details of the buttresses and roofs of Saint-Séverin – do not form catalogues but genuine series, as one says of Monet’sPoplars on the Bank of the Epte or Picasso’s Corridas. It would be vain to seek a difference in quality between his personal work and his commissions.34 His Nudes, photographed in the brothels of the La Chapelle quarter, on floral bedspreads against floral wallpaper, smooth and with no relief, taken in all positions without the faces ever being seen – these monumental and mysterious bodies that make the more celebrated nudes of Weston or Irving Penn seem superficial, were the result of a commission from Dignimont, a theatre painter and designer who was quite famous in the interwar years.
Atget’s own classifications and the studies devoted to him present his work either in terms of its themes (for example the Albums),35 or else by topography. The risk here is to fail to recognize the development of this work over time, to view it as homogeneous whereas it was spread over more than thirty years. During this whole period, it is true, Atget remained faithful to the material of his beginnings: the bellows camera, the heavy frames with 18 X 24 cm glass plates, the wooden tripod, the bag of lenses, this whole heavy bric-a-brac that he carried every morning from Rue Campagne-Première. And yet there is a whole world between his Petits Métiers photographed between 1898 and 1900 – baker’s boy, woman bread-carrier, porcelain restorer, organ grinder, asphalters, teaselers, strong men from Les Halles, taken close up, frontally, and very posed – and theZoniers of 1912–13, where he takes en masse, in the disorder of their trolleys, their wooden huts and their encampments, the ragpickers, their wives, their flocks of children, their gatherings, their dogs, their carts. In fifteen years, Atget had moved from the ‘picturesque types’ that are seen in nineteenth-century engravings to the representation of poverty at the gates of the big city.36
On the Place de la Bastille, close to the Arsenal basin, along a cast-iron railing that no longer exists, some thirty or so individuals grouped around a lamppost are observing the sky, all in the same direction, through small rectangles that they hold in their hands. This photograph of Atget’s appeared on the cover of no. 7 of La Révolution surréaliste. The image is titled ‘Last-Minute Conversions’. The photographer’s name is not mentioned, either because Atget did not appreciate this use of his picture (his own title was ‘The Eclipse, April 1912’), or rather because he refused to personalize what he always held to be documents. Leafing through the collection of the same magazine, three other photos are to be found, likewise uncredited but certainly by him: in the same no. 7, the window of a corset shop illustrating a dream of Marcel Noll’s, and a prostitute awaiting a customer for René Crevel’s ‘Le Pont de la mort’. In no. 8, a Louis XV stair-rail in wrought iron, undoubtedly reframed, was reproduced in Éluard’s Les Dessous d’une vie ou la pyramide humaine (‘At first there came to me a great desire for solemnity and pomp . . .’). Atget’s contacts with the Surrealists certainly did not go beyond this. They were due, as we know, to a neighbourly connection37 with Man Ray, who circulated Atget’s work in the Montparnasse studios, and with Ray’s companion of the time, Berenice Abbott, who occasionally bought one of his photographs. In 1927, the year of Atget’s death, she made a striking portrait of him (a single portrait, even though it has two views, one full-face and the other in profile like an identity photo), showing his bright eyes, undoubtedly blue, the tiredness of age, and the cumulative effect of everything he had watched with such affectionate concentration for thirty years.
Atget never had any direct contact with the Surrealist group: groups were not his forte, and he never took part in such things. Among the photos that Breton chose to illustrate some of his books, none was by Atget, and his name is nowhere mentioned in the group’s publications. It is evident enough that ‘these Paris photos herald Surrealist photography, that advance detachment of the only important column that Surrealism succeeded in shaking’.38 You can see what would have struck the Surrealists about these empty streets, like a dwelling without a tenant, in which the few human indications are the silhouettes of café waiters behind the windows, or the vague trace, during the exposure, of a passing individual or phantom. De Chirico also lived at 17 Rue Campagne-Première. With the shop windows that Atget photographed in his last years – the hairdresser on Boulevard de Strasbourg, the taxidermist on Rue de l’École-de-Médecine, the hatter on Avenue des Gobelins, the wigmaker at the Palais-Royal – with his extraordinary ‘accumulations’ of boots, vegetables, caps, Atget anticipated Aragon’s Paris Peasant.39 He crossed the early years of the century in his occult, stubborn and ungraspable fashion, a ‘city artist’ in the sense that Hamish Fulton or Richard Long would later be ‘land artists’, creating along the way, with amazing images, the inventory-installation – Interior of M.C., Apartment Decorator, Rue du Montparnasse or Small Room of a Working Woman, Rue de Belleville.
The period between the wars was a new golden age for Paris photography – indeed for French photography in general. It escaped the tendency that invaded painting, sculpture, literature, music and architecture around 1925: the return, after all those excesses of foreign origin, to well-polished craft, noble material, calm forms and fine language, the values of the French soil and culture. It was not only the followers of Charles Maurras who championed this neo-neoclassicism: the line Derain–Chardonne–Cocteau–Maillol–new-style De Chirico–Valéry (Trocadéro 1937 version) triumphed in Paris against a background of xenophobia and anti-Semitism. It was in no way surprising that a good number of virtuosos in bronze and the imperfect subjunctive found themselves in the Pétainist camp a few years later, if they were not open Nazis like Vlaminck or Brasillach.
If photography emerged unscathed from this pass, it was thanks to two interventions. There was first of all the violent antagonism of Dada, followed by Surrealism – co-substantial with photography – towards everything represented by Cocteau’s ‘return to order’ (Breton called Cocteau ‘the most hateful creature of his time’),40 as well as towards the generalized academicism into which various avant-gardes would collapse (e.g. ‘Le Boeuf sur le Toit’), newly converted to the values and charms of the bourgeoisie (‘the Valérys, Derains, Marinettis, tumbling into the ditch one by one’).41 The other protective element was the influx of foreign photographers to Paris. Man Ray brought from New York the Dada spirit he had contracted from Marcel Duchamp. His charm gathered round him a group of photographers and artists of great talent and beauty – Berenice Abbott, Lee Miller, Meret Oppenheim, Dora Maar, ‘these women who expose their hair day and night to the terrible light of Man Ray’s studio’.42 He was only the most popular in a long British and American line of Paris photographers: after Fox Talbot there was Alfred Stieglitz, Edward Steichen, Alvin Langdon Coburn and Lewis Hine, and the series continued after 1945 with William Klein, Bill Brandt, Irving Penn and above all Robert Frank. (This natural openness of Anglo-American photographers contrasts with the little interest in Paris shown by English writers. Apart from Henry Miller’s Quiet Days in Clichy, Hemingway’s disturbing Paris est un fête, or Orwell’s sympathetic but hardly convincing Down and Out in Paris and London, Henry James’s The Ambassadors, a subtle work by a subtle author, fails in its object of depicting what is supposedly the motive of the book, the charm of Paris in summer. Even the addresses of his characters strike a false note, even their very names – so important a point that Balzac, as we saw, spent whole days roaming the city to hunt them out, whilst Proust, in his work on the Recherche, abandoned the symbolism of Jean Santeuil for surnames that are so extraordinarily pertinent – Swann, Charlus, Verdurin.)
Apart from Man Ray, almost all the photographers who settled in Paris between the two wars came from the East, that great East that has constantly fertilized Parisian life ever since the eighteenth century. Either Jews or political refugees (or both at once, like Robert Capa or Gisèle Freund), they had left Germany (Ilse Bing, Joseph Breitenbach, Raoul Hausmann, Germaine Krull, Wols), Poland (David Seymour, known as Chim, one of the founders of the Magnum agency), Lithuania (Izis, Moï Ver) or Hungary (Brassaï, André Kertész, François Kollar, Rogi André, Éli Lotar). They brought with them the German and Soviet photographic techniques of the years 1917–22. They also brought the faculty of astonishment, a new gaze on the metropolis. Tzara wrote in 1922 (and this passage that Walter Benjamin cites in his ‘Short History of Photography’ applies to them very well): ‘When everything that goes under the name of art has become paralysed, photography lights up its thousand-watt bulb, and sensitive paper absorbs the darkness of some everyday objects. It had discovered the importance of a tender and virgin flash of light, more important than all the constellations offered for the pleasure of our eyes.’
‘The invention of photography dealt a mortal blow to the old modes of expression, both in painting and in poetry, in which the automatic writing that appeared in the late nineteenth century was a genuine photography of thought.’ This is how Breton began his text for the catalogue of Max Ernst’s 1921 exhibition at the Sans-Pareil – one of the great Dada demonstrations in Paris. It was also the start of the ambiguous relationship between photography and what would become Surrealism; even (or especially) with the most automatic camera, photography did not readily produce images dictated by an automatism, as defined by the First Surrealist Manifesto. The Surrealists invented all sorts of procedures to draw photography out of its ‘realism’: rayogram, solarization, multiple exposure (or ‘over-impression’), sometimes photomontage (more of a Dadaist or German technique), or again brûlage, a technique which Raoul Ubac, its inventor, explained was ‘an automatism of destruction, a complete dissolution of the image in the direction of the absolutely unformed’.43 In Surrealist photography, there is a cleavage between the manipulated image and that ‘naturally’ obtained, a cleavage as deep as that separating the automatism of Miró or Masson from the magic illusionism of Magritte or Ernst. Aside from some few exceptions (Tabard’s solarized Place Vendôme, or Dora Maar’s distorted 22 Rue d’Astorg), the Surrealist images of Paris are not manipulated photographs. Man Ray, a great inventor of various tricks, took very few photographs of Paris, and when Breton asked him to take some pictures to illustrate Nadja, he passed the job on to his assistant Jacques Boiffard, apart from the portraits of Éluard, Péret and Desnos.
In Nadja Breton obeyed his own injunction (‘And when all valuable books are no longer illustrated with drawings, appearing only with photographs’44) with a very precise idea of what he wanted. In September 1927 he wrote to Lise Deharme:
I am going to publish the story that you know, accompanied with some fifty photographs relating to all the elements that it brings in: the Hôtel des Grands Hommes, the statue of Étienne Dolet and the one of Becque, a sign saying ‘Bois-Charbons’, a portrait of Paul Éluard, one of Desnos asleep, the Porte Saint-Denis, a scene from Les Détraques, the portrait of Blanche Derval, of Mme Sacco, a corner of the flea market, the white object in a casket, the L’Humanité bookshop, the wineshop on the Place Dauphine, the window of the Conciergerie, the Mazda advertisement, the portrait of Professor Claude, the woman at the Musée Grévin. I will also have to go and photograph the ‘Maison Rouge’ sign at Pourville, the Ango manor-house.45
In a short Avant-dire of 1962, he wrote that ‘the purpose of the abundance of photographic illustration is to eliminate all description’. This was certainly not his only reason. The reinforcement of text by image produces the same gap as the double exposure of a photo, as La Marquise Casati’s two pairs of eyes in Man Ray’s picture, and this disturbing effect is deliberately underlined by the repetition of the corresponding phrase in the text as the caption for the photo, a procedure used in the popular novels that the Surrealists so appreciated.
The only success here – the illustrations to Breton’s Mad Love or Communicating Vessels are too heteroclite to have the same effect – was Boiffard’s images for Nadja, often described as banal and equated with postcards,46 but which are among the only Surrealist photographs in which the influence of Atget can be felt. Boiffard was indeed directly acquainted with Atget; as Man Ray’s assistant, he worked at Rue Campagne-Première and lived there for a while. The locations are almost all empty of people, and the framing, as in Atget’s late years, does not try to grasp an ensemble but rather to point out significant detail, such as the big arrow (‘Sign up here’) on the L’Humanité bookshop, the signboard of the Sphinx Hôtel, the cart and ladder under the enormous lightbulb of the ‘illuminated Mazda advertisement on the Grands Boulevards’). Like Breton and Aragon, Naville and Fraenkel, Boiffard came to photography from medicine, and when Breton maintained that the tone he adopted for the narrative of Nadja was precisely copied from that of medical observation, Boiffard knew what he was talking about.47 If anything is banal in this series of photos, it is the clinical style: in clinical examination, everything is banal except the result.
From the Cyrano on the Place Blanche to the Promenade de Vénus on Rue de Viarmes, the collective life of the Surrealist group was spent in a number of cafés. The Surrealists were the first to bring photography inside these places, which had so often been captured from outside by Atget. (This was a time of great advances in photographic film and materials: the Leica, the first 24 X 35 camera, was contemporary with Nadja.) With the greatest photographers – and for photos of cafés, this means Brassaï and Kertész, despite the possible objection that they were not formal members of the Surrealist group – there is the enormous and perceptible difference between an anecdotal image and a literary one. A young woman with lowered eyes is reading a newspaper in a café. Behind her through the window is the uniform grey of the empty street. In front of her, occupying the whole of the right half of the photo, is a cylindrical stove in punched metal, and on a small round table with a zinc border an empty cup of coffee. The young woman, wearing a black coat with a fur collar and a cloche hat with her hair escaping below it, is in the narrow space between the enormous stove and the windows on to the terrace – a position in which she seems threatened or at least fragile. This picture by André Kertész, which is like the start of a novel, is dated 1928 and carries the dreamy caption A Winter Morning at the Café du Dôme. In the corner of another café, this time on the Place d’Italie, a man and a woman look into each other’s eyes, close enough to touch. Above the benches, the two walls that meet in a corner have large mirrors that almost come into contact at the centre of the picture, so that the woman’s face is reflected in profile in the right-hand mirror and the man’s in the left-hand one. The two mirrors are also reflected in each other. You see the abyss between these two individuals: the woman, mouth open, on the edge of ecstasy, and the man, who has his back to the photographer, but whose calculating look is detectable in the mirror. This is a photo of Brassaï’s dated 1932, and titled with a certain cruelty A Pair of Lovers in a Small Paris Café.
The Surrealist photographers did indeed photograph love – whether tender as in Kertész’s Self-portrait with Élisabeth in a Montparnasse Café, an exceptional image of amorous joy, or venal as in Brassaï’s brothel scenes, in the tradition of Degas and Lautrec. They were the first to photograph the night (not at night, but night as a subject, as one photographs the sea), the particular Paris night, the milieu of Surrealist culture, from Max Ernst’s Rvolution by Night to ‘La Nuit du tournesol’ in Breton’s Mad Love, or the grating double of Nadja that is Philippe Soupault’s Last Nights in Paris. Along with the painters and sculptors, they laid down the markers of a different tropism of movement, that of the object, and singularly of the found object, giving eternal life to such fetish objects as the metal mask (‘a very developed descendant of the helm’) that Breton and Giacometti discovered at the flea market and that was photographed by Man Ray for Mad Love, or Nadja’s bronze glove. And they extended the idea of the found object to fragments of Paris streets: Brassaï’s graffiti, the details of gutters, railings around trees, paving stones and the torn posters photographed by Wols – twenty years before Hains and Villeglé tore these off walls to make them into ‘paintings’.
In the 1960s, the old connection between Paris and photography began to unravel. Among the explanations for this would be the global asphyxiation of black-and-white photography, the end of a generation of photographers formed at the time of the Popular Front, the Spanish war and the great films of Jean Renoir. And above all the unsteadiness of Paris under the brutal blows dealt it in the era of de Gaulle and Pompidou – what use would there be in showing its gaping wounds, its ulcers, its formless bumps? At the close of this era, May 1968 gave rise to the last famous photos of Paris, those of Gilles Caron, Dityvon, and a newcomer, Raymond Depardon, who would go on to invent a new genre of documentary on the city, the last example of which, with the simple title Paris, can be seen as a homage to the Gare Saint-Lazare.
Like any rupture, this dénouement can lead to nostalgia. If it is true, as Michelet put it, that each epoch dreams the following one, it is even more clear that each epoch lives in nostalgia for its predecessor, above all in a period when this sentiment, promoted like a washing-powder, fits marvellously into an ideological scaffolding, the strategy of ‘ends’ – of history, of the book, of art, of utopias. Turbulent Paris is on this list of programmatic ‘ends’, which does not prevent the necessary measures being taken to conjure away those spectres that some people fear, not without reason, will return to haunt their streets.
‘Each era does not just dream of its successor, but in dreaming it seeks to awaken’, wrote Walter Benjamin in his ‘Theses on the Concept of History’. And at the present time, after thirty years of torpor, thirty years in which its centre has been renovated-museumified and its periphery ravaged in silence, Paris is seeking to awaken. The tacit understanding with past generations is beginning to be renewed, and another ‘new Paris’ is taking shape and growing before our eyes, which are not always fully open. It is leaving the west of the city to advertising executives and oil tycoons, and pressing as always towards the north and east. Supported by the ramblas, the Boulevards of La Chapelle, La Villette, Belleville and Ménilmontant, it is spilling over the line of hills from Montmartre to Charonne, crossing the terrible barrier of Boulevard Périphérique – in the expectation that this will disappear like its predecessors, be demolished and buried, transformed into a tree-lined promenade – and stretching towards what is already de facto the twenty-first arrondissement, towards Pantin, Le Pré-Saint-Gervais, Bagnolet, Montreuil and what remains of its peach-lined walls. As is the general rule, going back to Philippe Auguste, this expansion, with the disastrous exception of the ‘new towns’, is not being effected by administrative measures or government decisions. What is precipitating it is the organism of a big city in perpetual growth, a youthfulness that once again feels itself confined in a Paris that might have seemed immutable and definitive, that of the twenty arrondissements within the concrete wall of Boulevard Périphérique.
One of the Paris walks that is most weighty with meaning and memory is the climb up the Montagne Saint-Geneviève from the Jardin de Plantes and the statue of Lamarck – can we imagine the genius needed to conceive the idea of evolution in the late eighteenth century? – or, if you like, from Cuvier’s house, Jussieu’s cedar tree, Verniquet’s belvedere or Buffon’s plane tree. The streets on this slope bear the names of naturalists and botanists, as they were called in this blessed age when science was still innocent. Linnaeus, the great Swede, Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire, the dedicatee of Old Goriot, as well as Cuvier, Jussier, Quatrefages, Thouin, Daubenton, Lacépède and Tournefort: certainly a magnificent bunch, whose names, celebrated or sometimes now rather obscure like those of the Latin authors cited by Montaigne, are flashes of light that shine here in the city – just as their counterparts shine in Montaigne’s Essays. At the top, on a little square – once again shaped like a ‘Y’, where Rue de la Montagne-Saint-Geneviève forks to let Rue Descartes go off towards Rue Mouffetard, towards Italy – is the main entrance to the old École Polytechnique. Above its side gates are two great scrolls symbolizing the careers of the school’s first students, trained to defend the Republic against threatening tyrants: the symbols of artillery on the left and of the navy on the right. The central gateway is surmounted by five medallions in the antique style, representing the founders of the school. Their features have been eroded by time, and the inscription identifying them is hardly visible. In the middle, the place of honour is given to Monge, the school’s first organizer as well as the founder of descriptive geometry and the theory of surfaces. Beside him are Lagrange, professor at the Turin school of artillery at the age of nineteen, and the first to apply trigonometry to celestial mechanics; Berthollet, disciple and friend of Lavoisier; Fourcroy, whose chemistry lessons at the Jardin des Plantes recall what was noblest about antiquity: in Cuvier’s words, ‘it was as if we rediscovered those assemblies in which a whole people hung on the words of a speaker’, and the great amphitheatre of the Jardin des Plantes had to be enlarged twice over to make room for the crowd who came to hear this peerless professor. The fifth figure is Laplace, who has his street just opposite. His main claim to fame is his hypothesis on the formation of planets, which he explained to Napoleon. But he was also a physicist, and we owe to him the law defining the relationship between the tension of the walls of a sphere, the pressure within it, and the radius. By extrapolation, Laplace’s law applies also to the cylinder, and by further extrapolation, it could be applied to Paris itself. It indicates that, at constant pressure, the tension increases with the radius. Those who think that the game is over in Paris, those who maintain they have never seen an explosion in a museum, those working each day to tidy up the façade of the old republican barracks, should reflect on the variations in the bursting force of Paris, which so regularly surprised all their predecessors over the course of centuries.
1 The barracks which now houses the Garde Républicaine was built on this site at the same time as the Place de République was cleared. Some authors maintain that Daguerre took this picture from the top floor of his house, which was just behind the diorama on Rue des Marais-du-Temple (now Yves-Toudic). The American Samuel Morse, in a letter to his brother dated 7 March 1839, described the picture as follows: ‘The boulevard, generally filled with a chaos of walkers and vehicles, was perfectly empty, except from one man having his boots shined. His feet, of course, could not move, one being on the polisher’s box and the other on the ground. This is why his boots and his legs are so clear, while he lacks a head and a body, which moved’ (Cited in Françoise Raynaud, ed. Paris et le Daguerréotype, exhibition catalogue [Paris-Musées, 1989]).
2 Advertisement for the invention, in 1838 (my emphasis). Fox Talbot, whom some people see as the true inventor of photography (and it was his friend the astronomer John Herschel who coined the word in 1844), titled his first album presenting the marvels of the process, The Pencil of Nature.
3 Some eighty years later, André Breton wrote in his preface to the catalogue for a Max Ernst exhibition: ‘Now that a blind instrument allowed them to reach with utter certainty the goal that they had hitherto set themselves, artists rashly claimed to be breaking with the imitation of appearances’ (‘Max Ernst’, in The Lost Steps [Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1996], p. 60).
4 In ‘grand’ painting, the only exceptions I know are the fine canvases of Hubert Robert such as The Demolition of Houses on the Pont-Neuf (1786) or The Removal of the Pont de Neuilly (1772), and a superb Quai des Orfèvres by Corot that dates from 1833.
5 In the sixteenth and early seventeenth century, vedute of this kind were painted by Flemish artists (Abraham de Verwer, Pieter Bout, Theodor Matham and Hendrik Mommers, well represented in the Carnavelet museum). The French only appeared later in this field. In the second half of the seventeenth century, they included excellent artists such as Raguenet and Pierre-Antoine Demachy, who might have been members of the Académie and exhibited at the Salon, but not their views of Paris.
6 Félix Nadar, Quand j’étais photographe. Nadar had photographically copied an extraordinary daguerreotype of Balzac, which he had bought from Gavarni. He remarked that, given Balzac’s corpulance, a couple of layers less would have done him no harm.
7 Fox Talbot, inventor of this system, which he called ‘calotype’ (from kalos: beautiful), considered that this was the true invention of photography. Disputes over paternity are very prominent in the history of these early years. Despite being fed up with the French, Fox Talbot nevertheless visited Paris in the 1840s and took some wonderful photographs.
8 Charles Nègre had exhibited an Embarkation for Cythera in the Salon of 1845.
9 Nadar, Quand j’étais photographe. Baron James de Rothschild was Balzac’s major model for Nucingen in La Comédie humaine.
10 Atget, on the contrary, tried to prevent the lower part of his images from being occupied by the pavement; with this object, he did not always pull the shutter fully open.
11 American art historians – the great Meyer Shapiro, T. J. Clark, Robert Herbert, Harry Rand, Michael Fried – have succeeded in thinking outside the frame of exhibition catalogues, crossing disciplines and bringing art out of its ghetto. Nineteenth-century French painting has thus become an American subject, whether we like it or not.
12 11 May 1865, Selected Letters of Charles Baudelaire, p. 175. Manet had written to him: ‘I would indeed like to have you here, my dear Baudelaire, insults are raining down on me like hail . . . I would have liked to have your healthy judgement on my pictures, for all these shouts are disturbing me, and it is clear that someone is mistaken.’
13 As we know, Baudelaire himself figures among the characters represented, several of whom are recognizable: Manet and his brother Eugène, Aurélien Scholl, Offenbach, Théophile Gautier . . .
14 T. J. Clark, The Painting of Modern Life. Paris in the Art of Manet and His Followers (Princeton University Press, 1984).
15 Thoré, a republican exiled under the Second Empire, was famous under the name of Thoré-Bürger for having ‘rediscovered’ Vermeer during the years he spent in the Netherlands.
16 Gautier was a regular at the dinners organized by the Goncourts at Magny, along with Flaubert, Turgenev, Renan, Taine and Sainte-Beuve.
17 See above, p. 146.
18 Meyer Shapiro, ‘Review of Joseph C. Sloane’s French Painting Between the Past and the Present: Artists, Critics and Tradition from 1848 to 1870’, Art Bulletin, 36 (June 1954). Cited in Harry Rand, Manet’s Contemplation at the Gare Saint-Lazare (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987), p. 8. Shapiro continues by noting ‘the intense contemporaneity of so many of Manet’s themes and his positive interest in the refractory, the independent, the marginal, and the artistic in life itself’.
19 In La Revue blanche, vol. 44, 1 and 15 February 1897. The Street Singer was the first of the several canvases in which Victorine Meurent posed for Manet.
20 When this picture was exhibited at the Salon of 1874, its title was Le Chemin de Fer. It had already been purchased by the great baritone Jean-Baptiste Faure, a regular buyer of Manet, who later portrayed him as Hamlet in Ambroise Thomas’s opera. When Durand-Ruel took the picture to the United States, he changed its title to give it a ‘French touch’.
21 Le Sémaphore de Marseille, 3–4 May 1874.
22 Juliet Wilson-Bareau has established after deep investigation, in Manet, Monet, la gare Saint-Lazare (exhibition catalogue, Réunions des Musées nationaux and Yale University Press), that the picture was painted, or at least largely sketched out, at the studio of a painter friend of Manet’s, Albert Hirsch, whose daughter Suzanne posed for it. This studio was entered from 58 Rue de Rome, but on the other side of the building there existed – and still does – a small garden wedged between the building and the fences that border the railway cutting. This is the space of the picture’s foreground, flat by the choice of the painter, but also in reality. Wilson-Bareau has also shown that the door of the building, which can be seen in the background above Victorine’s hat, is that of Manet’s own studio. Before the construction of the Messageries (now the Garage de l’Europe), the buildings of Rue de Rome could be seen from the bottom of Rue de Saint-Pétersbourg.
23 To keep a record of pictures he had sold, Manet generally made small watercolour or gouache copies on a photograph print.
24 Thadée Natanson, Peints à leur tour (Paris: Albin Michel, 1948).
25 Stéphane Mallarmé, Quelques médaillons ou portraits en pied. Manet and Mallarmé had become acquainted a year before La Gare. Mallarmé lived at that time on Rue de Moscou, a couple of steps away from Manet. He moved to 87 Rue de Rome in 1875. In 1885 he wrote to Verlaine: ‘For ten years I saw Manet every day, and I find his absence today inconceivable.’
26 Those ‘deported’ were imprisoned in the territories to which they were sent: Guyana and New Caledonia, whereas those ‘transported’ – including Louise Michel, and Rochefort whose Escape Manet painted in 1880 – were free in their movements.
27 There was certainly later on Robert Delaunay’s Eiffel Tower and Matisse’s Notre-Dame, but these are rather formal investigations of the famous silhouettes. There would also be Utrillo, Chagall, Dufy, de Staël, etc., but this is no longer the same kind of painting.
28 Proust, The Guermantes Way, Remembrance of Things Past, vol. 2, p. 394.
29 With the exception of the Champs-Élysées gardens and the Bois de Boulogne, descriptions of which are among the most famous passages in the Recherche. These are cutoff parts of the city that rather represent the ‘Lartigue’s way’ side of Proust, perhaps not his best side.
30 ‘A “blank”, an enormous “blank”, and without the shadow of a transition, suddenly the measure of time is no longer in quarters of an hour but in years and even decades . . .’ (Marcel Proust, ‘À propos du “style” de Flaubert’, Nouvelle Revue française, 1 January 1920).
31 Swann was an exception, living on the Quai d’Orléans.
32 ‘In the middle of the symphony an old-fashioned tune rang out; replacing the sweet-seller, who generally accompanied her song with a rattle, the toy-seller, to whose kazoo was attached a jumping-jack which he sent bobbing in all directions, paraded other puppets for sale, and, indifferent to the ritual declamation of Gregory the Great, the reformed declamation of Palestrina or the lyrical declamation of the moderns, warbled at the top of his voice, a belated adherent of pure melody: “Come along all you mammies and dads,/Here’s toys for your lasses and lads!/I make them myself,/and I pocket the pelf./Tralala, tralala, tralalee./Come along youngsters . . .”’ (Proust, The Captive,Remembrance of Things Past, vol. 3, p. 133).
33 Thanks to Berenice Abbott, who bought nearly 2,000 negatives of Atget’s that were left in his studio on his death and bequeathed them to the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the major works on Atget are American; among others, John Szarkowski and Maria Morris Hambourg, The Work of Atget, 4 vols (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 1981–85); Molly Nesbit, Atget’s Seven Albums (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992). Several major American photographers, Walker Evans and Lee Friedlander among them, were very familiar with Atget’s work.
34 As John Szarkowski tries to do in The Work of Atget, vol. 1.
35 These Albums are: L’Art dans le vieux Paris; Intérieurs parisiens; La Voiture à Paris; Métiers, boutiques et étalages de Paris; Enseignes et vielles boutiques de Paris; Zoniers; and Fortifications de Paris.
36 On Atget’s political opinions, the best indication is provided by his gift to the Bibliothèque historique de la Ville de Paris of issues of La Guerre sociale, Gustave Hervé’s anarcho-syndicalist newspaper, and La Bataille syndicaliste, organ of the CGT that was then a fighting union (Molly Nesbit, ‘La second nature d’Atget’, in Actes du colloque Atget, special issue of Photographies, March 1986).
37 At 17 Rue Campagne-Première, which was not a building but rather an avenue between Rue Campagne-Première and Rue Boissonade, bordered by little houses.
38 Benjamin, ‘A Short History of Photography’.
39 Waldemar George, Arts et Métiers graphiques, special issue on photography, 1930. This is clearly an allusion to the description of the shop windows in the Passage de l’Opéra, and particularly the purveyor of canes.
40 André Breton, letter to Tzara, cited in Oeuvres complètes, vol. 1, p. 1294, note.
41 Breton, The Lost Steps, pp. 81–2.
42 André Breton, ‘Le surréalisme et la peinture’, La Révolution surréaliste, no. 9–10, 1 October 1927.
43 Brûlage involved submerging the negative in hot water, which caused the emulsion to partially melt. Ubac’s text is quoted in Explosante Fixe, photographie et surréalisme, exhibition catalogue (Paris: Centre George-Pomidou/Hazan, 1985), p. 42, note.
44 Breton, ‘Le Surréalisme et la peinture’, apropos Man Ray.
45 Cited by Marguerite Bonnet in the notes to Nadja in Oeuvres complètes, vol. 1.
46 See for example Dawn Ades in Explosante Fixe, and R. Krauss, ‘Photographie et surréalisme’, in Le Photographique, pour une théorie des écarts (Paris: Macula, 1990). One need only compare Boiffard’s photos with the views of Paris in Nadja that are not by him (the statue of Étienne Dole in the Place Maubert, for example), to see what really is a banal photograph.
47 Boiffard in fact returned to medicine around 1935, and practised as a radiologist at the Hôpital Saint-Louis until the late 1950s.