Eugene Atget: Old Paris
PARIS was already an important city in Roman times, when it was known as Lutetia, although it eventually took the name of the tribe that inhabited it, the Parisii. The settlement originally was built on and clustered around the Ile de la Cite, situated in the middle of the Seine; the Romans developed a new quarter on the left bank, where the Musee de Cluny today occupies the remains of an ancient bath complex. Later, under the threat of Germanic invasions, the city shrank back to its defensive position on the island.
One of the earliest literary descriptions of Paris is by Julian II, who was acclaimed emperor there in AD360 and is known as the Philosopher to his admirers and the Apostate to his detractors because of his attempts to turn back the tide of Christianity that was engulfing the Roman Empire in these years. Julian writes appreciatively about what was then the clean and drinkable water of the river and the mild climate that allowed grapes and other fruits to grow and to survive the winter cold.
Paris suffered, like all other urban centres, from the collapse of the Roman Empire, and later again from the raids and pillaging of the Vikings. By the high Middle Ages, though, it was again an important capital and became one of the greatest centres of medieval university education. This was when the Latin Quarter acquired its name, after the Latinspeaking students from across Europe who congregated in the area around the Sorbonne, coincidentally built in the area of the former Roman city.
Through the ensuing centuries, the modern Paris took shape, partly through an organic process of growth and partly as a result of the vision and will of a succession of monarchs, starting with Henri IV, who built the Place Royale (now the Place des Vosges) in the Marais, as well the triangular Place Dauphine, at the point where the Pont Neuf intersects the Ile de la Cite.
Later in the 17th century there was the circular Place des Victoires, and a little later again the even more magnificent Place Vendome. The enormous Place de la Concorde was laid out in the middle of the 18th century; under the Reign of Terror (1793-94) it became the place where mobs could witness the public executions of the guillotine. It was here that Louis XVI was decapitated in 1793. After the fall of Robespierre, the square was given its present name in a spirit of reconciliation.
Napoleon, of course, made his mark, among other things by completing the northern wings of the Louvre palace and opening the Rue de Rivoli as an east-west artery on the right bank.
But for all these — and other — planning initiatives, much of the city remained an intricate network of little streets and squares dating from the 14th to the 18th centuries. Moving around Paris was notoriously difficult, and the experience of political agitation during
Art Gallery of NSW, Sydney, until November 4 the revolution and subsequently in 1830 and 1848 showed how difficult it was to police and control such a dense urban fabric; criminals, as Balzac wrote, could disappear in the very heart of the capital, while streets everywhere could easily be blocked by the revolutionary barricades.
Baron Haussmann’s rebuilding of Paris under Napoleon III was designed to deal with both these problems: the vast boulevards that he drove through Paris, from the Boulevard Saint-Michel and the Boulevard Saint-Germain on the left bank to the system of great streets on the right bank, centred on the new Opera, vastly improved the circulation of traffic and made it easier to move troops around the city and isolate particular quarters in the event of insurrection.
Much was sacrificed of the old Paris, but what made the new city so impressive was the application of the same principle that had been observed in the 17th-century squares, ensuring that all the facades of the buildings were matching, or at least adhered to very strict guidelines, so that the effect was of a coherent social fabric rather than a chaotic assemblage of individual edifices. Behind the great modern streets with their bourgeois residences, however, there remained pockets of a much older and more unplanned city, many of which survive to this day; a unique urban environment that became for some generations the centre of modern culture and, in Walter Benjamin’s words, the capital of the 19th century.
This is the city documented by Eugene Atget in a vast number of photographs from the last decade of the 19th and the first decades of the 20th centuries. A selection of these was chosen for a fascinating exhibition mounted by the Musee Carnavalet in Paris — the museum dedicated to the history of the city — which opened in Madrid and, after showing in Rotterdam and Paris, has now come to the Art Gallery of NSW in Sydney.
Atget (1857-1927) trained as an actor but, meeting with little success and suffering from an infection of the vocal cords, he began to take photographs instead. Unlike some of his contemporaries who were concerned to raise photography to the level of high art, Atget took a modest view of his work and his medium. He began by taking pictures that were meant to serve as reference material for painters, but eventually began to work for institutions such as the Musee Carnavalet, which recognised the value of his work in documenting the rapidly changing city.
It was no doubt the intention of finding picturesque motifs for the use of painters, as much as personal preference, that first led Atget to the subjects and settings that made his work valuable to such museums, as well as interesting and suggestive to subsequent generations of viewers. For in the midst of the new Haussmannian Paris, Atget concentrates almost exclusively on the vestiges of the older city. It was not the noise and bustling activity of the boulevards that he sought but the quieter, more discreet and intimate life of the back streets.
As an artist, Atget has an eye rather than a vision: he seems to be as happy photographing doorknockers and other pieces of urban design as rather banal pieces of contemporary academic park sculpture, and as willing to document palaces as shanties. Presumably, too, he was partly motivated in his constant campaigns of photography by the fact he could sell the resulting albums of prints to museums.
Nonetheless, Atget brings to whatever he chooses to photograph an acute and at the same time impersonal sensibility that allows him to concentrate on the special character of his subject. And no doubt he became increasingly absorbed in the project of recording a city that was changing around him day by day, as buildings and picturesque little squares or courtyards were demolished, to be replaced by large and prosperous new buildings.
Shops and bars are among his subjects, some with carved emblems, from gryphons to suns and in one case, incongruously, the dove of the holy spirit: no doubt the establishment was once a purveyor of ecclesiastical vestments before being converted to less high-minded uses. Most of the shops he photographs have more or less elaborate signage proclaiming the nature of their business, and the streets are full of posters advertising this and that: today advertisements rely on bright colours and pictures; a century ago, it was words. Brothels were an exception, mute and unsigned except for the number of their licence as a maison close.
A few of the shops are seen in directly frontal view, but most are on a diagonal, allowing the eye to slide off into the implied continuity of space beyond. Many of Atget’s urban pictures, in fact, represent not so much buildings as the streets between them, veering away from us or plunging directly into the distance, implying the continuous and restless circulation around the urban labyrinth.
Rue Hautefeuille, Paris, about 1898
Seafood seller in front of the cabaret Au Port Salut, Paris (fifth arrondissement), 1903