Pub­lic works

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Visual Arts - Kitty Hauser

Pierre Pu­vis de Cha­vannes, St Genevieve Pro­vi­sion­ing Paris un­der Siege (1897-98). Na­tional Gallery of Vic­to­ria, Mel­bourne. Fel­ton Be­quest, 1925. There are three vast pan­els, cov­er­ing an en­tire wall of the 19th-cen­tury gallery at the Na­tional Gallery of Vic­to­ria in Mel­bourne. They are the full-scale prepara­tory draw­ings, or car­toons, for part of a mu­ral se­ries de­vised by French painter Pierre Pu­vis de Cha­vannes.

The se­ries is ded­i­cated to scenes from the life of Genevieve, pa­tron saint of Paris (and since 1962 pa­tron of the French se­cu­rity forces). The scale of ex­e­cu­tion is over­whelm­ing, as though it had been con­ceived by a gi­ant. In their epic di­men­sions — the fig­ures are more than life-size — the draw­ings seem al­most cin­e­matic. Few cin­ema direc­tors how­ever (An­drei Tarkovsky springs to mind as an ex­cep­tion) could con­jure such a com­po­si­tion, with its massed hi­er­atic fig­ures on the left, its strangely calm dra­matic tableaus spread across the fore­ground, and its use of sails and ver­ti­cal masts to di­vide up the scene. An­cient and mod­ern — as Vin­cent van Gogh ob­served ap­prov­ingly of Pu­vis’s work — seem to come to­gether in a “strange and prov­i­den­tial meet­ing”.

What’s be­ing re-en­acted for us here — pro­jected, as it were, on to this vast screen — is a leg­endary scene from the life of the saint dur­ing the siege of Paris by Childeric, king of the Franks, in 464. The city was sur­rounded and the peo­ple were starv­ing; we can see them here in the crowd on the left, some ob­vi­ously dis­tressed. Row­ing at the head of 11 boats, Genevieve sup­pos­edly made it past the siege lines and brought food back to the city from Troyes. She ap­pears in the mid­dle of the cen­tral im­age aboard her ves­sel. Oth­ers are bring­ing bags of grain ashore from the boats. As it turned out, Childeric was im­pressed by Genevieve’s hero­ism and the saint be­came an in­ter­me­di­ary be­tween the con­quer­ing king and the city.

It’s a story from a far dis­tant time. But Pu­vis’s mu­rals of the life of Genevieve were con­ceived in the wake of an­other much more re­cent siege. Pu­vis imag­ined th­ese scenes not long af­ter the 1870-71 siege of Paris dur­ing the Franco-Prus- sian war, a goal of which was to starve the city’s in­hab­i­tants into sub­mis­sion. Par­al­lels be­tween the two sieges would not have been invisible to con­tem­po­rary view­ers.

The mu­rals were com­mis­sioned for the walls of the Pan­theon, the sec­u­lar tem­ple to French wor­thies that had once been a church ded­i­cated to St Genevieve. Paid for by the pub­lic purse, the Pan­theon mu­rals were pri­mar­ily na­tion­al­is­tic rather than re­li­gious: they were meant to per­form (among other things) the use­ful pub­lic func­tion of na­tion­al­is­ing the cit­i­zens who were their au­di­ence. But they also spoke to older mem­o­ries: Genevieve was seen as a pro­tec­tor over the city, and for cen­turies had been prayed to at mo­ments of na­tional dis­as­ter.

The mu­rals are still there. When Amer­i­can au­thor Willa Cather saw them as a stu­dent, she de­cided she wanted to write like this, “some­thing in the style of leg­end, which is ab­so­lutely the re­verse of dra­matic treat­ment”. Cather was not the only mod­ern to have been in­flu­enced by Pu­vis. He may have been an odd sort of old mas­ter, his for­mal train­ing patchy and his in­ter­pre­ta­tion of clas­si­cal themes un­ortho­dox, but later artists in­clud­ing Gau­guin and van Gogh claimed him as a fore­run­ner of their own.

Dis­tem­per, pen­cil and chalk on can­vas

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