Eu­gene At­get: Old Paris

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Visual Arts - Christo­pher Allen

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

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Australia

© PressReader. All rights reserved.