Monday, January 27, 2014

Marigolds in winter...

Marigolds in winter...
Trudging to work the other day I saw a bright orange-and-yellow cluster of marigolds in a park of winter colours; green, brown, black. I certainly did not expect to see such rich colours in the grey light of January and was yet again amazed at the resilience and beauty of nature. Today I ventured out in the wind and rain and crossed the (very) muddy grass to admire these determined flowers. They were set against a backcloth of high-rise flats, busy roads and a tram line. However, this is the same place where I came across delicate chalk blue butterflies and vivid orange copper butterflies in the autumn. 

Sometimes it's good not to see the wood for the trees! 

Marigolds - 1918 - (Fairies and Fuseliers) Robert Graves 1895-1985.
With a fork drive Nature out,
She will ever yet return;
Hedge the flowerbed all about,
Pull or stab or cut or burn,
She will ever yet return.

Look: the constant marigold
Springs again from hidden roots.
Baffled gardener, you behold
New beginnings and new shoots
Spring again from hidden roots.
Pull or stab or cut or burn,
They will ever yet return.

Gardener, cursing at the weed,
Ere you curse it further, say:
Who but you planted the seed
In my fertile heart, one day?
Ere you curse me further, say!
New beginnings and new shoots
Spring again from hidden roots.
Pull or stab or cut or burn,
Love must ever yet return.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

The Carnegie Library of Reims...

Detail of wrought iron window: Bibliothèque Carnegie.
Over Christmas I came across an exhibition, 'Sur les traces de Marcel Proust: La Champagne retrouvée' at one of the libraries in town. A few of the individuals mentioned were previously merely names that I had associated with streets around the city. 

These finally came alive as they were linked back to their eponym, through letters, manuscripts, photographs and drawings. All were traced back to Proust (1871-1922) himself, of course, and his visits to Reims and the Champagne region during the early Belle Epoque years. Some of the individuals he frequented here were to be the inspiration for characters within his work. It is even said that the catalyst to the Proustian memory process had initially been a biscuit, rather than the eventual madeleine  cake. If so, it may well have been a biscuit rose, speciality of Reims intended to be eaten when sipping champagne, of which there are several references in his work.
Side view of the library showing the cathedral transept and the Palais du Tau.

The beauty of the royal city with the majesty of its cathedral in the pre-war years also marked Proust. As part of his translation work of the writings of English art critic John Ruskin, he went on several 'Ruskinian pilgrimages' to study and admire architecture. Proust was sensitive to the imposing Gothic forms of Notre-Dame de Reims and the image of fine intricacy playing alongside structural density is apparent in his writing. He indeed later referred to A la Recherche du Temps Perdu as his 'cathedral'. 
Rear view of the library - view towards the cathedral facade.
Proust was particularly affected by the atmospheric painting of Paul-César Helleu - 'Intérieur de la cathédrale de Reims' with its image of light pouring through the stained-glass windows. This work, with its myriad of colours flowing onto the stone paving inside the cathedral is referred to by one of Proust's characters in A la Recherche
Intérieur de la cathédrale de Reims: Paul-César Helleu( Les Amis de P-C Helleu)
The art of Helleu in general, with its studies of mondain social butterflies seems to reflect the world Proust captured in his writing. Yet this was a world that was soon to come to an end with the onset of the First World War, and nowhere would this be felt more cruelly than Reims.
Exterior of reading room.
 From the beginning of the hostilities, the cathedral was a prime target. From symbolic image of the power of the French nation and its regal past, it soon came to epitomize the suffering of the French people. Repeated attacks by the enemy forces bombed, battered and burnt the cathedral from every angle from the very start of the war until its end in 1918. 

Even soldiers who sought refuge within the sacred edifice itself were not safe from cannon strikes as the scarred stone pillars attest today. Reims cathedral came to represent French resilience and martyrdom. Initial plans to keep the cathedral in its ruined state as testimony of the barbaric determination of its assailants were fortunately abandoned in favour of its reconstruction in the post-war years.
Double doors at entrance
 One hundred years later, it is certainly difficult to imagine the desolation of this beautiful site in Proust's life. The city itself had been almost totally destroyed. During the four years, 80% of the buildings were flattened under enemy strikes or burnt out, leaving a landscape of rubble, punctuated by the odd wall or edifice left standing in defiance. 
Mosaic work around the main door
The majority of civilians had left their homes in September 1914, and those that remained in the ravaged city inhabited the numerous cellars dug into the chalky terrain specific to the Champagne region. By 1917, the population was a mere handful of hardy individuals but little by little the influx grew and a huge reconstruction programme was under way in the 1920s. 
Side door at the library entrance.
Freed from certain aesthetic constraints, the new buildings were able to follow contemporary currents. This gave rise to significant diversity as individuals sought to leave their own mark and new architectural styles rose up alongside more classical themes and references. Art Déco was, however, the most significant of these. Looking up at the facades of buildings of Reims, we can still see the geometric forms and details that typify this style. One of the best examples of this in Reims is the library presently showing the Proust exhibition.
Hall of the library with central fountain.

Situated on the Place Carnegie, behind the east end of the cathedral and to the rear of the Palais du Tau, the Bibliothèque Carnegie was built during the wave of reconstruction in the 1920s. This would replace the first library that had been destroyed during the war years, and give it a new location, no longer within the Hôtel de Ville itself. 

The architect in charge of the mission, Max Sainsaulieu (1870-1953), had already been closely linked to the protection of the cathedral. Prior to the war, Sainsaulieu had come to Reims to take over the work of his architect father-in-law, Alphonse Gossuet, himself responsible for several buildings in the city - the most notable being the Grand Théâtre de Reims and buildings of the champagne house Pommery.

'Zenithal' glass lantern above the fountain - Jacques Simon.
In his function as architect appointed to safeguard the cathedral, the younger architect's powers were limited in view of the force and duration of the enemy onslaught.
One of many mural mosaics in the entrance hall.
Marble flooring

He was injured by a bomb during the evacuation of certain artefacts in 1917. This act of dedication earned him the title of knight of the Légion d'Honneur.

Reading room at the library.
 Already in a poor state of repair and under restoration before the outbreak of war, the stained-glass windows were not removed since it was believed that the hostilities would quickly end. 
Sadly, the war years were all but short and brutish; they were merciless and protracted. As part of his work, Sainsaulieu was thus obliged to report the damage to the cathedral and witness first-hand its heart-breaking, systematic destruction from 1915-1918. 

Following the desecration of the city, parts of its ambitious reconstruction project were largely made possible thanks to the philanthropy of certain American figures. The American Memorial Hospital, founded in 1925 by the Rockefeller Foundation (American Fund for French Wounded) was set up to deal with physical suffering. 

Reading room with the stained-glass windows of Jacques Simon.

The Bibliothèque Carnegie was founded in order to fight against the barbarism born of ignorance. Taking the Latin saying "Educunt folia fructum" as its motto, the library sought to give access to learning to the general public. "Flowers lead to fruit"; education could elevate the mind of each being and therefore lead a new civilisation to fruition, preventing further wars.

Detail of reading room window.

 The funds for this project came from the Dotation Carnegie pour la Paix Internationale, part of a vast trust fund set up by the philantrophist Andrew Carnegie (1835-1919). Of Scottish origins, Carnegie was labelled 'the richest man in the world' at the turn of the century, having made his fortune in the railroad and steel industry. Since the earliest age he understood the importance of learning, the value of books and the injustice of a library system that closed its doors to the wider, less-privileged public. 

Stained-glass skylight: Jacques Gruber.

 Carnegie therefore vowed to create free public reading rooms and libraries and aid other cultural institutions for the enlightenment of the people and the "improvement of Mankind". The Carnegie Music Hall of New York is probably the most famous of these, but in fact its name is rarely associated with the man behind its creation in 1891. Carnegie's cultural mission led to the building of 3,000 public libraries, the first of these opening in his hometown of Dunfermline, Scotland in 1883, whilst 1928 saw the inauguration of the Bibliothèque Carnegie de Reims. 

Having received a considerable sum of money from the Carnegie association, plans started to be drawn up for the new library of Reims from 1920. Initially, the architect Sainsaulieu had a rather classical vision for the new building, yet adopted an Art Déco style after a trip around certain European cities during which he observed contemporary architectural influences. 
Detail of skylight.
The resulting building is indeed a temple to learning, sober yet not intimidating. From the simple wrought iron gates and symmetrically laid-out garden, steps lead up to the main entrance. This impressive facade literally and symbolically leads the visitor towards knowledge and elevation. Not only this, the facade belies the actual form of the library itself, which is in fact semi-cylindrical in shape at the back of its structure. 
Small part of the index card room.
Two pilasters hold up the pediment of the facade which is undecorated except for its clear inscription 'Bibliothèque' which appears to grow up from the two engraved laurel bushes below which represent the growth of the mind. 
Index card for Proust's work.
The entrance is flanked by two flags in bas-relief which refer back to the American contribution and the display the heraldic shield of Reims. The city's motto calls for Divine protection, 'Dieu en soit garde'', whilst the American eagle is shown beneath the original American motto 'E pluribus unum' (signifying 'Out of many, one').

Oak and mahogany parquet in the exhibition room.
 Rich geometric mosaic work decorates the imposing doorway sheltered beneath the entrance, as rich patterns run up and along the walls and are echoed in the floor design too. This intricate harmony is further enhanced by the beautiful iron work on the windows and on and around the two parts of the door. The delicate metalwork creates a solid yet light impression as the light passes through, and reflects off the glass below. The great door, designed by the Schwartz-Haumont establishment won a gold medal at the Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs in Paris 1925. 

  Once beyond the great doors, the visitor enters the entrance hall. This area continues the effect of luminosity and lightness offset by a sober weightiness. 

 The walls are composed of panels of Algerian onyx which are framed by green marble bands, and bear twenty mosaic images (by Henri Sauvage) which represent the manual, physical and intellectual activities of Man.

Detail of handrail.
Geometric, linear forms continue throughout but are counterbalanced by a vivid wall decoration featuring bubble-like circles, that overlap each other and seem to rise towards the ceiling and lead the eyes upwards. Indeed, above the central fountain set in the marble flooring to symbolize "the source of all science and knowledge" (Sainsaulieu) is a magnificent Art Déco hanging glass lantern. 
E Pluribus unum: Library facade.
Created by Jacques Simon, this beautiful chandelier dominates the whole space. Opposite the entrance doors is the reception desk, today in oak, yet formerly made of marble. Housed behind this area is the library's collections, set out over five levels in a star formation to accommodate the semi-circular form of the building. 

Dieu en soit garde: motto of the city of Reims.
Since 2005, the Bibliothèque Carnegie is no longer the main library in the town centre; the Bibliothèque Falala situated just in front of the cathedral has taken on this role. Despite this, the old index card system is still in place, with countless wooden drawers containing thousands of classified references to archived documents. Likewise, the reading rooms in the old library still offer visitors an invaluable study area in an atmosphere that has changed little over the years in spite of renovation work. Indeed, this room, with its oak parquet flooring, mahogany wall panels and shelves that lead up to a second open gallery all serve to create a timeless impression. The ancient volumes that line the walls and surround the study desks are all bathed in light coming from the vast stained glass panel above and the three lateral bay windows at the far end of the room. 

Library facade.
 The stained glass overhead, designed by Jacques Gruber, depicts a book opened onto the heraldic arms of the city whilst the other windows are of a simple design in frosted glas, created by Jacques Simon. The exhibition room, with its complex mosaic parquet of oak and mahogany and subtle Art Déco features, enables the library to continue its objective of educating the public through regular displays that highlight the cultural heritage of the city. The creation of two other major libraries just over a decade ago has enabled the Carnegie to devote itself to the conservation of its collections and benefit from a significant restoration and renovation project of its entire building. 

Rear of the library.
Meanwhile, restoration of the cathedral itself continues today. Intricate stonework and sculpture re-emerge from the layers of grime, or are wholly restored to their former glory. That the cathedral has survived this far, 100 years after its desecration in the war years seems nothing short of miraculous. The devotion of the architect Henri Deneux (1874-1969) led to the extensive restoration work of the inter-war years. This was partly financed by national and international associations such as the Rheims Cathedral Restoration Fund . Meanwhile donations from the oil magnate John D Rockefeller provided the funds necessary to rebuild the cathedral roof in the 1930s with an innovative use of reinforced concrete. The year 2014 will mark the centenary of the beginning of the First World War and for me both the Bibliothèque Carnegie and Reims cathedral reflect the very best and worst in Mankind. Both show Man's ability to create and share his 'wealth' in every sense of the term - aesthetic, cultural, social and financial. Yet these edifices also underline a drive in Man for destruction that unleashes itself whenever wealth is simply associated with material, economic or political power. When this happens it seems that the human is stripped from humanity. The worth of philanthropic gestures is immeasurable as these not only enable invaluable work to be carried out, but more importantly restore vital faith in humanity. What a shame, disgrace even, that many of those today with great wealth should be so poor in their vision and spirit, and are unable or unwilling to see beyond the latest vacuous material gadget, or narcissistic gaze in the mirror or social network. 
Plaque at library entrance.
Here's a long quote by Andrew Carnegie which I would expand on, if I could, to include the natural world and all living organisms since these are too often overlooked as we focus on the needs and desires of Man.

“This, then, is held to be the duty of the man of wealth: To set an example of modest, unostentatious living, shunning display or extravagance; to provide moderately for the legitimate wants of those dependent on him; and, after doing so, to consider all surplus revenues which come to him simply as trust funds, which he is called upon to administer, and strictly bound as a matter of duty to administer in the manner which, in his judgement, is best calculated to produce the most beneficial results for the community-the man of wealth thus becoming the mere trustee and agent for his poorer brethren, bringing to their service his superior wisdom, experience, and ability to administer, doing for them better than they would or could do for themselves.”

Bust of Andrew Carnegie in front of the Bibliothèque Carnegie.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Bewitched woods for the New Year...

Despite the title of the post, the woods didn't actually look particularly bewitched, or dark for that matter but having heard The Rite of Spring by Stravinsky the other day I was looking for any excuse to include it on a post. And of course, I do love the very particular beech woods not far from the city.

 The trees there look very atmospheric at any time of year, with their strange, twisted branches and tortured forms. However, their unique silhouette appears even more bizarre in the winter months. The particular history of this specific tree I mentioned a few years ago, in a post called The Weird Faux de Verzy. 

 This time I chose black and white, but in fact there was iridescent green moss growing on trunks and boughs alike and bright red berries in the skeletal undergrowth or the swathes in the branches above.

 Not to mention the ever-green of the ivy creeping upwards or the fluffy seed down that still clings onto the plants, long after the autumn.

I was tempted to blow on the seeds to make a New Year wish...

And that was when the notion of witchery came into play. For in spite of my will for change, it seems that some changes just won't occur unaided; resolution isn't enough. So I would love to perform some kind of magical feat. And the atmosphere in these woods would surely capture the mood...

May your New Year bring you serenity and beauty around you!