Monday, September 30, 2013

Charles Marville: Photographer of Paris

Where: National Gallery of Art, West Building, Ground Floor

When: through January 5, 2014

Charles Marville (1813-1879) took up photography in 1850, following a lack of success in his first chosen profession, book and magazine illustration.  Photography was a relatively new medium at that time, having been invented only eleven years earlier.  When you look at the photographs in this exhibit, you are looking at the beginnings of an art form.

Marville photographed locations throughout France, Germany and Italy, but it was his photographs of his native city of Paris that earned him his acclaim and that served as his greatest inspiration.  The first room of the show focuses (no pun intended) on his early career.  Many of the shots are self-portraits.  He would set up the shot, then pose and have an assistant take the actual picture.  The wall notes suggest that his interest in posing in pictures, often as someone other than himself, in the guise of a dandy, for example, are evidence of his desire to re-make himself.  Born of humble parentage, he sought to rise above his lowly station.  That may well be true, or it might be he just found himself able to work well with his own figure as a part of the picture.  Whatever the reason, we are treated to several shots of European landscapes and ruins with the artist included.

By 1855, Marville developed a network of wealthy and important patrons.  In 1862, he became the official photographer of the city of Paris, and was tasked with documenting the city's re-birth under the Second Empire.  Napoleon III wanted to modernize Paris, to eliminate the narrow city streets and make everything more open.  The idea was to move air, water, people and goods more freely about the city.  In order to do this, a certain amount of destruction was necessary, and there were those who viewed the modernization as the end of the world they knew.  It was certainly the end of Old Paris.

One of the first targets of the modernization was the Bois de Boulogne.  It was transformed from a royal hunting ground to a public park, and Marville took pictures of the transformed space.  Ponds and streams were created, straight lanes were made into meandering walks, all so that city dwellers could have a taste of country life.  I couldn't help but be reminded of Marie Antoinette and her masquerading as a shepardess, as this was a fantasy of the countryside, rather than the reality.  Perhaps the fullest embodiment of this idea was the restoration of the Longchamps windmill.  Although no longer functional, it was picturesque, which was apparently all that mattered.

Marville, when not photographing destruction and new construction, did a number of sky and cloud studies.  Photographers of the time had great problems taking pictures of the sky, especially clouds.  I remember this from the Faking It show I saw earlier this year.  Marville did any number of experiments with photography, trying to get the sky and clouds right, and his are some of the first successful studies.

But mostly what Marville busied himself with was documenting the changing nature of the city of Paris.  In some cases, the photographs he took are the only existing record of streets that had run through the city for centuries.  Along with greater circulation, the wider streets would be harder to blockade, so there may have been more than one reason to change the look of the city.  On one wall is a reproduction of a map from 1871, showing the streets that were transformed - very little of the city was left untouched.  One photograph appealed to me very much, a photo of the Saint-Andre-des-Arts, a clump of buildings covered in advertisements.  This horrified those who were looking for a more homogenized aesthetic, and it, along with many other similar groupings of buildings, was torn down.

Along with the loss of character, was a loss of raw sewage running in the streets, the hazard of the unwary pedestrian.  On the one hand, one sees the romance of the old city, with its winding little streets and haphazard architecture, but on the other hand, there's nothing romantic about raw sewage.  After the modernization of the Second Empire came the Franco-Prussian War and the French Commune, so there was yet more re-building, and more to photograph.  Marville was also chosen to document the installation of "street furniture": lamps, fountains, benches, even public urinals.  His photographs of the street lamps are lovely.

Sadly, by the time Marville died in 1879, he, like the old city, had been replaced and forgotten.  The man who had been such an important part of documenting the city's transformation received not one single obituary.

Verdict: See this if you like photography or French history; it's an interesting examination of both.

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