Saturday, July 30, 2016

A bit of Serenity...

Church at Ville-Dommange, near Reims
Between sessions of (unsuccessfully) trying to get to grips with the theoretical aspects of driving, I've been watching the 2007 series The Tudors. Watching this dramatisation of the tyrannical ravings and ravaging of Henry VIII towards anything and anyone who thwarted his rather flexible personal agenda was both fascinating and horrific. Simply from an architectural/aesthetic point of view, his determination to disband the monasteries, convents, friaries and priories was fearful and the result one of wanton destruction.

I've also had the chance to visit a few towns and cities here recently, all with their own cathedrals and churches, and each with their own history. Again, the havoc wreaked by war and Revolution is shocking and you can't help wondering what the landscape would be like today if the past had not been so punctuated by political, social and cultural reactions and counter-reactions, each leaving its own mark.
Right, back to that highway code. Driving.... Hmm. It's driving me MAD and I end up ranting at the computer screen in frustration. Not one little bit of serenity or smoothness in this particular learning curve!!!

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Stencils in the Street - C215 in Reims

I enjoy looking at/out for some of the new 'tags' that appear on the city walls, spaces and street furniture from time to time. Some of them really are striking in their content and colour and truly liven up the dullest concrete landscape. The one above caught my eye a little while ago, and I then noticed similar tags, in the same vein, with a piercing regard and expressive line work.

Since April, an exhibition has been held in the old cellars of the Jaquart champagne house - Le Cellier - and only when I visited it last week did I realise that the work on show was by the same artist.

Contrary to what I had assumed, 'C215'(alias Christian Guémy) may well be French, but he is not a rémois street artist, nor is his art limited to the urban landscapes of Reims, or indeed France.

In fact, born in Bondy, a banlieue of Paris, in 1973, C215 produces his stencilled pieces all around world and will surely soon have the same kind of renown as Banksy...

What I like about this particular artist is that he brings to life, or rather gives another facette to, the lives of inanimate, unloved and unlovable street surfaces and objects that are part of our daily lives, yet we pay little attention to them.

Many of the objects that have been the object of his attention are, in fact, rather mysterious to the public, myself included. Above is Joan of Arc on a La Poste 'container', here in Rue Libergier, along which Joan indeed led Charles VII for coronation in the cathedral in 1429.

La Poste seems to offer the ideal support to the art, but this is more than just from a practical point of view.

The very notion of the postal service, with its associations of travel, exchange, change and communication, seems to suit this artistic vision.

C215 has certainly left his mark on La Poste objects in Reims, but these themselves fit into an image of art as part of the flux and fluidity of the street - transformative and interactive.

These marks are not indelible, or immutable; they will change, by the movement, conditions and life of the street, just as they have altered its initial face, or surface.

Each support chosen bears the traces of all aspects of its previous lives and uses and hints to the metamorphoses to come.

A 'blank-canvas' surface would be contrary to the living, transformational element of street art, born in the street and of the street. This is art in contextual space not a sterile, conceptual work.

As C215 points out, the city led its own existence before his art and his role is to add to this existence, completing it. This sensitivity to the past must stem in part from the study of Art History, and work as an historian for the Compagnons du Devoir, yet C215 has dabbled in many areas.

The stencil work he has developed over the past decade is an art of alteration that is in "perpetual evolution" which highlights the traces of human activity and change and is, in turn, marked by these too. 

Exhibition - not apparent here, but the box is HUGE!
I think les graffeurs have a certain code of honour, and would not work over pieces such as C215's, but should that happen, it would be in the natural order of street life. C215 claims that for him, the contemporary visual artist Ernest Pignon-Ernest was the first "street artist français".


Time will work away at the stencils; weather conditions will flake the paintwork, the supports will themselves age with the emergence of cracks, chips and caked-up rust.

And yet in this unique vision such alterations will simply add to their art, not necessarily take away from their vitality or beauty.

La Poste has unwittingly provided C215 with ample ground to spread and share his art, and mark inhuman urban wastelands with his humanity and stamp them with that unmistakable logo. 


However, as the Le Cellier exhibition demonstrates, any 'civilized' surface offers potential...

These go from the more obvious walls...

Around barb-wired prison areas...

Or in common cityscape spaces...

Doors and gates...


To wartime obuses....

Or worn cardboard suitcases, a weathered flying jacket, well-used scientific paraphernalia that reflect revolutionary discoveries such as radiation. The latter were part of a commission carried out for the Commissariat à l’Energie Atomique to order to attract a younger public to the world of science. 

Radiation gloves - Commissariat à l’Energie Atomique 
To more basic functions...

Wall maps, charts and tables...

And travel routes...

In this manner, his art re-appropriates urban zones that seem inhospitable, injecting them with a poetic beauty that allows us to feel part of these expanses of concrete and metal, enabling us to reconnect with them and find ourselves in that process.

The stencilled work of C215 largely started after the birth of his daughter. He set about creating a visual expression of his love around the unappealing streets of Vitry and further used it to build a bridge of communication when others were insufficient.

Work commissioned by Ubisoft to be incorporated into a video game...
But this art seems to come from a rough, tested support itself. Just as the stencils rely on the essence of the subject, be that man or beast, and use the base as an integral part of the creative process, the art of C215 seems to arise from a depth of emotion and a drive that goes beyond aesthetic endeavour.

For Ubisoft...
He may give life to art, but art has given him life, or a way to cope with life, maybe.

For Ubisoft.
The exhibition led to reflection on several different issues....Never before have we had such ease of communication, but the means to do so are changing the way that we exchange..

Just as the handwritten letter has been fallen out of favour, in the pursuit of speed and efficiency, the public phone box and the cord phone are fading away from sight in high street and home, respectively.

The letter boxes at the exhibition reminded me of just how much has changed in our private and public lives over the past two decades. This is most noticeable in our notion of spreading and sharing information and art...

Reims - along with one of the hideous 'Cone' tags that are everywhere here. Was it there before or after C215?
And then, of course, we are brought to the age-old subject of what can be considered artistic and aesthetic...

What I appreciated the most in these works, is that beauty is not vitally linked to the smooth, the flawless and eternally young, in an era when these are generally deemed essential.

The essential in stencilled work is precisely the etched lines and broad traits of the face that give character and expression in an unique manner.

The stark, linear quality of the stencilled work gives a strange, fluidity of expression and depth that are denied many photos or full paintings today. This is a type of art that adds the least in terms of detail, and yet seems to create the most in terms of rich effect.

Of course, the 'young and fresh' has its virtues, but the art of C215 shows that all that reflects the temporal and life itself, is part of life's vitality, not the reflection of its decline. This is not Botox art - quite the contrary.

There is also the argument about how far the production of street art can be seen to be a deviation from the norms of civil propriety. Is this the misappropriation and/or the wanton defacement of public property?

To a degree, opinions are divided on the subject of street art, but the workof C215 should be seen as a social expression and civilised/civilising gesture in society. It invites the spectator to reflect and respond, socially and aesthetically.

Above all else, this art clothes the grey, drab anonymity of our urban landscapes in a cloak of colour and stimuli.

A judge in Spain came to the wise decision concerning C215's alleged defacement of the streets of Barcelona; such art cannot damage or deface something that is visually displeasing by nature or has already been rendered unaesthetic. This art surely embellishes and enriches... 

In Reims, it would seem that certain minds are still famously indecisive on this issue. While the city commissioned work from C215 and held the Le Cellier exhibition, the hygiene services were uninformed and merrily proceeded to remove the offending graffiti!

Reims - Not C215
Needless to say, I just love the C215 cats!

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Bulls, Beasts and Bell Towers - Laon Cathedral...

A winged bull gargoyle spitting down on visitors...
A few months ago, I visited the cathedral of Laon, situated in the Aisne department, approximately 70 kms from Reims. Built on a hill, accessible by funicular, the cathedral looks down over the old town, and still dominates the skyline from all around.

The towers have a particular quality and strangely reminded me of old Indian palaces, with their spindly, intricate columns. Impressive today, you can only wonder how its imposing form affected parishoners and passing pilgrims in centuries past.

Although we may tend think that certain Gothic cathedrals are rather like the others in Northern France, each has its own chronological and architectural significance and setting in history. The main entrance here uses a form familiar to us today, yet when we look up, the unique features become more apparent...

View across the town of Laon from the cathedral façade.
In the city of Laon, the site of the cathedral itself had been of prime importance since before Roman times. This acropolis offered obvious strategic avantages, from its vantage point of some 100 metres. It was also recognized as a sacred terrain and a Carolingian monument constructed in the period of 800 AD was consecrated in the presence of Charlemagne himself – King of the Franks.

Built in the early or ‘primitive’ Gothic period - the mid 12th century - the cathedral of Laon emerged as many others would do in this unique moment in architectural history.

In the same manner as strange geological formations, the creation and ascent of the Gothic cathedral was largely due to a specific set of circumstances and conditions that led to the emergence of such wonders that would not have arisen without such particularities.

Just as certain factors need to be combined to result in strange rock outcrops, land formations and fossiles, for example, the Gothic cathedral grew from a very particular soil. Quite literally…

On the one hand, the climate was propitious for the growth of a new type of religious edifice. The catalyst for this transcendental upsurge was the decision of the Abbot Suger, to renovate the Basilica of St Denis (some 5 kms north of Paris) in the early years of the 12th century.

The abbot wished to create a spectacular site that would elevate and illuminate the glory of the former kings of France who were housed in this necropolis.

The soaring heights of the resulting edifice and the vast windows that were accommodated therein transformed the concept of religious architecture.

Visitors – humble and noble alike – must have been quite literally dazzled by a symbolic luminosity that Abbot Suger considered to be synonymous with deity. Until then, worship had been carried out in the rather solid, considerably heavier and far more sombre Romanesque edifices, whose votive candles were often the most reliable source of light.

Spiral stairs leading up one of the towers.
With the transformation of the Basilica of St Denis, the traditional and customary styles and practices were no longer systematically imposed. This gave rise to a revolution in technological terms and even, to a certain degree, in liturgical terms, over the next 150 years.

The breathtaking architecture of the Gothic edifice would draw the eye upwards in awe and admiration, towards the arches, cross-ribbed vaults, flying buttresses and symbolically to the Holy Spirit beyond.

Likewise, the Biblical stories, the lives of Saints and even the work of skilled craftsmen that were illustrated in the extensive stained-glass windows would edify even the most illiterate of worshipper, elevating him spiritually and inspiring him on a more worldly level too.

As symbolic landmarks, these vertiginous Gothic monuments would stand out from afar, illuminating the darkest of horizons, in the manner of a lighthouse, guiding the faithful and the travelling pilgrims alike.

Secondly, central to the evolution of this ground-breaking style was something more down-to-earth ; the access to ready supplies of limestone around the regions of  Ile de France and Picardie.

The quality of this stone, as with sandstone, facilitated the intricate work that resulted in ornate sculpted forms and the massive column statues in septentrional (northern) France.

Such was its demand that more stone was extracted in these regions during the 200-year period of Gothic influence than in 3000 years of construction in Egypt.

Naturally, many of the great structural advances made during the Gothic period were born of trial and error ; numerous edifices were victim to the collapse of substantial parts of the cathedral that simply could not withstand the lateral thrust of force from above.

Whilst the early cathedrals, such as that of Noyon, had few flying buttresses, later edifices would rely heavily on their extensive use. Less well known was the key role played by iron, in the form of bands and girders, to provide vital reinforcement to ever-soaring architectural structures.

The skilled architects and masons would often travel from one builiding site to another, which would in part explain how certain features might seem familiar to us, from one cathedral to another – not least the gargoyles and characters that peer down from their vantage points.

Unique to the cathedral of Laon, however, are the numerous life-size bulls that dominate the towers above the western facade entrance.

Intended to symbolize a miracle carried out by one such beast, these bulls remind us of its very real, earthly construction of and the hard work performed by the human beasts of burden who likewise toiled on sites such as this.

A third point to bear in mind in the development of the Gothic style was a spiritual and worldly desire and financial ability to build religious monuments to reflect Divine and earthly power in this period of great economic and urban expansion.

Laon cathedral was built after those of St Denis and Noyon, was almost contemporary to Notre Dame de Paris, and yet was constucted before the edifices of Reims and Chartres, and therefore we can trace the evolution of style and the influences running throughout.

Indeed, the cathedral here sees a marked departure from the Romanesque elements that are still visible in Noyon. In the Laon edifice, with its four-level elevation - arcades, tribune, triforium and high windows - the tone is distinctively different.

The writer Marcel Proust (1871-1922) remarked on the « marvelous flower » of the burgeoning Gothic forms, slowly emerging with the first facade in this style. This was further developed in the later cathedrals which drew inspiration from this transitional work that was completed in 1235.

In fact, the work on Laon cathedral never entirely reached completion as the initial plans for the towers that dominate the skyline of this montagne couronnée were not realised.

Had the seven towers been completed, as intended, rather than the five that we see today, Laon would have borne more towers than any other cathedral and there would have been more bulls than the sixteen visible now. That so much of the structural work has survived to the present day is perhaps nothing short of miraculous.

The bull statues that represent the Divine white beast that stepped in to help the humble creature that had collapsed while transporting the stones for the construction of the cathedral were themselves in danger of collapse. Exposed to all the elements, the symbolic beasts were falling victim to the worst that Man and Nature could offer.

An earthquake struck in 1692, shortly followed by a devastating storm in 1705. The political turmoil of the Revolution years at the end of the century led to the further damage and destruction of spires, towers and statues. Parallel to this, the western facade had compacted, leading to a slump of 80cms in height and a very real danger of collapse.

From the mid 1800, vital restoration work was carried out under Emile Boeswillwald, working for the Inspecteur général des Monuments historiques, Prosper Merimée (1803 – 1870). The latter is perhaps better known as the writer of Carmen, yet his work for the safeguard of historical monuments was invaluable… Unfortunately, a massive explosion in a local powder magazine in 1870 resulted in the shattering and loss of many of the stained-glass windows, but unlike at Soissons and Reims, the cathedral of Laon came out of the war years of 1914-1918 relatively unscathed.

In fact, it served as a hospital for injured German soldiers during the Great War, and the black-and-white photos of this period on display today are testimony to the tragic, timeless toll of war on every aspect of civilisation.

Another timeless, or rather ancient aspect caught my attention in a positive sense, this time in the form of the imposing 11th-century baptism font.

Set on a solid base, this massive block of blue black Tournai limestone – called ‘Tournai marble’ due to its potential shine – represents the four rivers of Paradise. The conflict between vice and virtue is shown by a snake-tailed bird...

These four - the Tigris, the Euphrates, the Gihon and the Pishon - branched out from the river of the Garden of Eden and formed its natural boundary. According to different accounts, the rivers were interdependant and the story of Adam and Eve depended on their existence, from the very fig leaf, apple and Original Sin. I am not actually religious in any way, but I love the fluid aspect of this vision of Mankind. And of course, the beautiful ‘naive’ carvings on the stone bas-relief.

I also like finding the quirky details that always lurk somewhere amongst all the great craftsmanship of such magnificent places. Look at the depiction of those gnarled feet on the tombstone below!!!
I’m hoping to visit the cathedral of Beauvais sometime this summer and do regret that I can’t go back to visit all the cathedrals that I have seen over the past few years - Chartres, Noyon, St Denis, Soissons, and Vézelay being just some of them -  and yet didn't really pay them enough attention.