Wednesday, October 30, 2019

St Nicaise - Art Deco in Reims

L'Ange - René Lalique
There is one church in Reims that seems to have been sadly overlooked by the Ministry of Culture and Communication, the city council and the tourist office alike. Certainly, if you go out of your way to find the relevent information, you will find it, yet it would be fair to say that this incredible edifice does not appear to receive the broad recognition and appreciation that it merits. There have, of course, been newspaper articles and features, along with items on internet, but the church seems to be remarkably little known and even less visited by les rémois and does not appear to feature on any tourist ‘must-see’ list.

St Nicaise du Chemin-Vert
As such acknowledgement is generally accompanied and expressed by substantial financial support, l’Eglise St-Nicaise has been short-changed on every level. Just try and find its exact location in Reims without Google maps – there are no road signs! Since the heating costs are too high, as are security risks to church property, St Nicaise can no longer remain fully open to the general public between mid-October till mid-April, although visits can be arranged with Les Amis de Saint-Nicaise. 

The ongoing maintenance of any edifice is always onerous, especially that of structural detail and roofing which are generally fully exposed to the elements, often combined with high winds. Over the years, this church has suffered more than its fair share from the consequences of water damage and battering gusts, often due to the wear-and-tear of its architecture. It would indeed have lost its priceless Lalique glass windows were it not for the utter love and devotion of a certain Françoise, the old lady who kindly gave me a full tour during my spontaneous visit on the very last day of the season.

My discovery of St Nicaise came about by a chance viewing of a photo of the Art Deco artifacts of its interior, when I wondered why the presence of such unique artwork was not more widely publicised. This church is surely of interest to many, on several levels; religious, social, cultural and historic and aesthetic.

René Lalique
St Nicaise is almost one hundred years, erected in the early 1920s, when Reims, ville martyr of the Great War, was being rebuilt, piece by piece, following the destruction of the city during the three years of hostilities. The cathedral of Reims was the very symbol of France’s suffering in this ‘war to end all wars’, having been deliberately bombed and burnt from the very outset of the war, in September 1914.

La Sainte Famille - Roger de Villiers.
Set in one of the post-war social-housing quartiers of Reims La Cite-jardin du Chemin Vert – St Nicaise honours the patron saint of Reims and gave back to the city a church in the saint’s name. The original Eglise Abbatiale de Saint-Nicaise de Reims, contemporary of the cathedral itself, was built in the 13th century but sold off during the French Revolution and finally destroyed in 1793.

The Apse - Gustave Jaulmes.
St Nicaise is also linked to the Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Reims, and its site chosen specifically so that the great Gothic edifice is visible from its square. So important was this fact that a clause prevented any subsequent constructions from obscuring this view…

Yet, St Nicaise is a symbol of more than religious belief and civic pride. Seen in its full social and historic context, the church is emblematic of the faith in humanity, and the will to reflect and celebrate this through the beauty of architecture. What a shame this aspect is not emphasized more and that as a result, St Nicaise is not given the respect it deserves.

Although the church marked the completion of the ambitious housing scheme of Chemin-Vert, commenced less than a year after the Armistice, the whole social scheme was planned some years prior to the outbreak of war. For the great man who drove this vast project and others in the city of Reims, St Nicaise represented "le couronnement spirituel d'une grande réalisation sociale." (Paul Voisin).

Georges Charbonneaux (1865-1933) was an industrialist whose family had made its fortune in the production of vinegar and through the success of the Verrerie Charbonneaux, which supplied the champagne trade with its growing demand for glass bottles in the early 1870s. However, he is probably more notable for his philantrophy, although I have the feeling that the man, just as the church he created, has been somewhat consigned to oblivion.

Charbonneaux was dismayed, as many others in the wake of the Industrial Revolution, to witness the ravages of the dehumanizing forces of widespread industrialisation. Led by his firm belief in Catholic Socialism, he sought to counter the over-crowding of the city, and the poverty, poor mental and physical health, minimal education and prospects, and moral paucity that such living conditions generally implied.

Life expectancy was falling, with the youngest and oldest members of the population being the most vulnerable. Nationally, concerns over ‘la dénalité’ - France's slow population growth – had started in the 1870s with the Franco-Prussian War. It was felt that France was a country in decline, whereas others, notably Germany and Britain, were thriving and had birthrates that reflected this state of affairs. At one point, towards the end of the 19th century, the number of deaths overtook those of births. This led to the formation of a national alliance to encourage an increase in birth rates, with prizes awarded to largest families. Author Émile Zola went on to focus his attention on the very issue in the 1899 novel, Fécondité.

The city of Reims had been linked to the wool trade since the Middle Ages, and the industrialization of the treatment of wool in the 19th century meant an ever- growing need for workers. The continual influx of labourers ready for employment at whatever human cost, led to the increasingly unsalubrious, cramped living conditions that had already been deplored by one of the directors of the highly-succesful wool-combing business in Reims, the English expatriot, Jonathan Holden.

By the early 20th century, it was by no means unusual to find huge families housed in merely one or two rooms. Eager to find a solution, the mayor of Reims, Jean-Baptiste Langlet, along with Charbonneaux and other industrialists from Reims decided to visit the social housing schemes in place in England, in 1911. Indeed the garden city of Letchworth in Hertfordshire, created in 1901, was a source of inspiration and a point of reference for the men of Reims. In 1898, the English social refomer, Ebenezer Howard, published his ideas for urban planning and community management in the book, To-morrow: A Peaceful Path to Real Reform, which was later republished as Garden Cities of To-morrow.

Howard's construction of a new model of town was based on the premise of the social benefits to be drawn from combining the advantages of city and countryside while minimising disadvantages. He applied the notion of zoning – land-use planning – that ensured that industrial and residential areas were kept separate and stipulated that trees, greenery and open spaces were obligatory in this vision. Although many of these ideas were met with derision in the press, many members of the public, notably from the Arts and Crafts movement supported them as did many of the Quakers.

It should be remembered that the historic Bourneville village - site of the original 'Factory in a Garden' was conceived in 1879, when Quakers Richard and George Cadbury decided to move their expanding chocolate-making business to the outskirts of Birmingham city to 'alleviate the evils of modern, more cramped living conditions' their workforce had been exposed to. Bournville was also visited by the French men, who were actively seeking social reform for their city of Reims. In 1912, the company of Habitation Bonne Marché - Le Foyer Rémois was founded by Georges Charbonneaux and a group of industrialists and financiers, for the acquisition, construction and improvement of housing for working families. At the end of the First War War, the company was boosted by the urgent need for new homes for workers who would enable the French economy to recover.

The Apse above the altar - Gustave Jaumes
A law enacted in 1919 obliged the larger towns of France to draw up a urban planning scheme and by using compensation for war damage alongside state subventions, Georges Charbonneaux was able to direct the project for the Cité-jardin du Chemin-Vert. The plan designed by George B Ford, the American urbanist in charge of the Red Cross reconstruction of European war was initially set to be used, but a modified version that was closer to the English garden city was finally applied.

Baptistry ceiling
Over 600  houses were built, all benefitting from social and cultural facilities that were unheard of at that time, and certainly with regard to families of such modest means. Centres for the community and devoted to childcare and health, alongside shops and schools all encouraged a healthier, happier, more productive existence for workers and their large families (minimum 4 children).

Baptistry - Paul Denis
The architect responsible for the design of the houses, Jean-Marcel Auburtin, used 14 different models, loosely based on the architecture of Alsace, in order to create adequate originalIty that nevertheless respected a common theme and adhered to the key triology – air, luminosity and sunlight. Each house had running water, sufficient sanitation, even if there were no bathrooms or indoor toilets as such in the early years. Heating was provided by coal, whilst electric lighting was installed in the following years. Girls and boys were given separate bedrooms and everyone was able to profit from wide, airy tree-lined streets with open spaces, and the greenery afforded by lawns and gardens. Although parked vehicles and parking facilities now occupy much of this open space, the same qualities are apparent today, and before I understood the English link, I always wondered why these districts in the city reminded me so much of home.

The Baptistry - Maurice Denis
As a deeply religious man, Georges Charbonneaux wished to give Chemin-Vert a parish church, to provide for spiritual needs, just as the material ones had been met by Le Foyer Rémois. As a non-confessional body, the company would not fund the construction of a church and in accordance with the separation of the Church and State in 1905, the cité-jardin was required to have a certain neutrality.

Although an appeal was made to the nobility of Reims for financial backing, Charbonneaux had to provide most of the funds necessary for the church to be completed in the heart of the community. It was Auburtin, architect of the whole project of Chemin-Vert who designed St Nicaise, enabling Charbonneaux to witness the creation and decoration of his church according to his vision. He dreamt of a simple church, of romano-byzantine style, set around a Greek cross. 

Nevertheless, St Nicaise would be very much a church of the 1920s - influenced by the latest Art Deco themes and aesthetics, employing revolutionary techniques in construction at a period when new materials such as reinforced concrete and moulded glass were being explored and exploited to great effect. The church was constructed in 1923, inaugurated the following year and finally listed as a Historical Monument in 2002, whilst Chemin-Vert itself is recognised at part of the Patrimoine Mondial of UNESCO. 

St Nicaise consists of a transept crossing, crowned by an octagonal lantern and bell-tower (complete with French cockerel weathervane!), two lateral chapels and a baptistry. The rich interior decoration of the church was largely carried out by regional artists and reflects Charbonneaux’s profound interest in the arts and his wish to show and encourage devotion to the Catholic faith. The resulting interior is characteristic of the work of the revival of Sacred Art, and bears the influence of the new stylistic movements in the post-war years. Especially apparent is the Art Deco style, which such left a significant mark on the rémois architecture during the extensive reconstruction of the city in the 1920s. 

The paintings reflect the influence of Symbolism. Charbonneaux’s artistic leanings had been developed by his active involvement in the cultural life of the city, and friendship with artists such as Paul Jamot and former students of les Beaux-Arts de Reims. Maurice Denis, the co-founder of the Ateliers d’Art Sacreé,inspired by Symbolist art and involved in the Nabi movement, undertook the decoration of the two chapels with marouflage paintings of The Annunciation and the Holy Family in the mid 1920s. The Sainte Famille bears references to the families of both the donator, Charbonneaux, and the artist, Denis, with portraits of offspring and spouses. Denis also carried out the painting of the baptistry shortly after the death of Charbonneaux, in1933. It was the artist Gustave Jaulmes who painted the Christ above the main altar, along with the majority of the wall paintings.

The Annunciation - Maurice Denis
The vast moulded glass-panel windows representing angels are by another artist of the Champagne region, René Lalique (1860-1945), who also designed the numerous lamps and the beautiful Eucharistic dove suspended by the altar. Many of the largest window panels were almost lost during a storm and have since been restored and replaced. The lantern-tower windows were the work of Jacques Simon, one of the master glass artists from a long line of maîtres-verrier in Reims, who also helped safeguard, restore and replace the centuries-old stained-glass windows in the cathedral in the First World War.
The Holy Family - Maurice Denis
Inside the church, the rich, vibrant colours and glow of gold, were all brought out to the full by the play of light and these in turn emphasised the surfaces and volumes of the building. The effect was magical. I will now have to wait until next year to be able to look over each detail. I just hope more people will become aware of this incredible edifice that was the result of one man’s need to find expression to what he held closest to his heart.

Eucharist Dove - Lalique

Tuesday, October 29, 2019

Decorative Street Art in Dulwich...

During a flying visit to Dulwich, I came across some street art... Unfortunately I wasn't able to take many photos, but here are a few. The kingfisher above is actually quite large and takes up quite a sizeable part of an otherwise nondescript wall. All in all, Dulwich seems to be very pleasant area of London, leafy streets with attractive houses and grand parks. I was thrilled to come into very close contact with not one, but two city foxes, ambling along the pavement!

Some street art in the suburb was quite reflective, but other pieces were more humourous. Here's the Queen on a hoverboard, walking the corgis!

Wednesday, October 16, 2019

Chapelle Foujita - All Things Great and Small...

I finally managed to visit La Chapelle Foujita, Reims, before its closure for the year. What a beautiful, bright day it was, both inside and outside this remarkable little edifice, whose decoration was the last project of the Japanese-born artist Tsuguharu Foujita (1886-1968) who spent a large part of his life in the country of his adoption, France.

The chapel, known as Notre Dame de la Paix, was a symbol of his conversion to the Catholic faith and a reference to the message of Peace on Earth issued by Pope John XXIII in 1963, with its emphasis on human dignity and equality.

The Romanesque architectural style of the chapel reflects the desire of the artist to recreate an evocative atmosphere of purity and tranquility, whilst allowing Foujita to express the Christianity that was central to his life in later years. Indeed, following a final trip to Japan in the late 1950s, he experienced a mystical enlightenment in the Basilique Saint-Remi in Reims and was baptised at the Cathédrale Notre-Dame there in 1959, some 60 years ago.

He had already obtained dual nationality in 1955 and his art came to symbolise the meeting of Orient and Occident. Spiritual themes are explored throughout the little chapel, with vast mural paintings and stained glass windows depicting scenes from the life of Christ.

"I built this chapel to atone for 80 years of sin" declared Foujita – who took on the name Leonard at his conversion, in honour of Da Vinci and a Japanese Jesuit martyr, Léonard Kimura.

Yet beyond the expression of faith and penance, I would say that this sacred place indeed seems to be above all a testiment to his own love of Life and all its living forms, from the spiritual to the most profane.

The last years of Foujita’s life were spent in the rural setting of Villiers-le-Bâcle, where a ruined country house was carefully transformed to become home and workshop. Designed to his own specific plans, the house allowed Foujita to devote all his time to his final work – the vast preparation of the chapel.

Far from cloistering himself away in cold, austere surroundings, however, in this deeply spiritual period of his life, Foujita seemed to have taken as much pleasure and inspiration from aesthetics as he ever did. His home, now the Maison-Atelier Foujita (awarded the title Maison des Illustres in 2011), is decorated with a wide collection of artifacts and art that were lovingly picked up during his travels, or designed and fashioned by himself.

 These were not selected for any specific monetary value, but were dear to him, satisfying and stimulating the artist’s eye and hand. Thus, furniture, furnishing, crockery, curtains were all confected by this keen craftsman, and found their place next to the eclectic objects and oddities that had caught his eye, such as the door to a Spanish monastery or a Peruvian jar…

As a unrepentant magpie, I find this quality admirable and endearing especially in today’s climate wherein pleasingly aesthetic treasures tend to be dismissed as pointless clutter, so that many homes today resemble bland showrooms for Ikea. Worse still, magpies are made to feel guilty or inferior for their desire to covet and collect…

Already admired for the multi-facetted nature of his talent since the early Parisian years of Les Années Folles, Foujita continued to apply his far-reaching magical artistic and aesthetic touch up to the very end of his life. Referred to as ‘the Lewis Carroll’ of painting by Jean Cocteau, Foujita had been an important figure in the avant-garde art movement, the Ecole de Paris, in 1920s Montparnasse, yet had not limited himself to merely drawing and painting.

Indeed, throughout his life, Foujita continually turned his attention to an array of different activities; engraving, book illustration, sculpture, ceramics, photography, fashion design and the cinema. His very appearance was an art form in itself and his unique style of clothing and grooming made him a highly distinctive, influential figure. The round glasses, earrings, moustache, basin haircut and eye-catching sense of dress left its mark on the café society that artists and writers frequented in the between-war years.

Women were instinctively drawn by his feline grâce, Asian reserve and a certain dandified sophisitication. The name Foujita is often associated with the artists’ model and muse, Kiki de Montparnasse and naturally with the many studies of nude female forms for which he become famous due to the opalescent luminosity of his depiction of feminine flesh.

Nevertheless, his work on cats is also highly valued for its expressiveness and fluidity of the draughtsmanship that convey the softness of feline fur and form. His innate ability to use the rigour and discipline of traditional Japanese linework in drawing and painting was combined with the fluidity and freedom of the Western artists from whom he drew inspiration.

Such influences spanned the centuries – from the great Classicist masters such as his name-sake Leonardo da Vinci to contemporaries like Matisse, Picasso or Modigliani or those much further-afield such as the Mexican muralist, Diego Rivera.

In fact, the chameleon quality of the franco-japanese artist is observed in the extensive body of his work, all of which bears the imprint of the multitude of influences left from his travels, studies and encounters. One constant however, remains Foujita’s love of cats.

Feline forms appear in his work and life, either as detail or main subject, in paintings, drawings, photos and even as a tattoo on his fore-arm. I don’t know if this feline fascination is a particular Japanese trait, as the present-day author Haruki Murakami shares a similar love. Admiration of cats is certainly nothing new in French art and literature – the lives and works of Art Nouveau painter and printer Théophile Steinlen (1859 – 1923) and poet Charles Baudelaire (1821-1867) famously reflect this…

Miké, the stray tabby cat with a protuding canine that Foujita is said to have found around the Parc Montsouris, appeared in numerous self-portrait paintings and photos. For Foujita, this cat as all felines, artfully combined the qualities (often contradictory) that Foujita admired and ultimately embodied himself; fussy and fastidious in grooming yet resistant in hardship, fierce but gentle, both wild and tame, haughty yet warm, approachable yet unattainable at the same time.

Self-portrait in oil paint - Musée des Beaux-Arts Lyon.

He also observed many of these same traits in the females that occupied his life and art and noted that they displayed the same fascinating tendency for duplicity. "I believe that felines were given to Man so that he could learn through them how to behave with women". One of his most famous works is the Bataille de Chats from 1940, that is an allegory of war itself, painted just before Foujita was obliged to return to Japan.

Foujita: Dora Kallmus

Here in the Chapelle Foujta, the frescos, stained glass and ironwork all focus primarily on scenes from the Bible. References are also made to Kimiyo Foujita, his wife, who is now buried next to Foujita in their final resting place; the chapel itself.

The mermaid plaque at the entrance of the building honours her, and she also figures in a portrait in a fresco scene.

Foujita himself is also presented, as was the commissioner of the work, René Lalou, President of the champagne house Mumm.

The cathedral of Reims, basilica of St Remi and the surrounding vineyards of the Champagne region are also featured.

Throughout the chapel, each decoration – be it mural or window – bears some reference to nature in small but significant detail. Beyond floral decoration, insects, butterflies, fish, warm-blooded animals of all types emerge from the vast surfaces and the smallest too...

Foujita may have devoted his last years to his reverence of Mary, his spiritual beliefs did not exclude the other keystones to his existence, and they actually appear to have embraced these too. Even the small mouse encountered during the painting process and subsequently fed by the artist, appears on a fresco!

The decoration of the chapel was finished remarkably quickly – within two months after the completion of the building itself – with Foujita himself climbing the scaffolding in order to paint his frescos on an area of almost 200 m2. This was no mean feat since he was already advanced in years (80 years old) and would die less than two years later in 1968.

Once started, a mural study would have to be finished that same day which meant that execution of the work allowed for little error or hesitation and demanded deft, light work. The chapel radiates love, light, warmth – even more so when the sun illuminates the natural brightness and colours of the murals and its rays shine through the stained glass, casting beautiful jewel-like colours on the wall and floors.

 The people studied are alive with emotion and movement – with expressions and hand gestures that seem inspired by the elongated forms of Mannerism, for example. The eastern-looking eyes however, are unique to Foujita as is the will to include the collection of creatures that look out at us…

This again, is one of the aspects that I probably appreciate the most about Foujita – the fact that any admiration of the animal kingdom does not need to be explained or somehow apologized for. The love of cats, or any other beast, does not make us any less human ; it makes us more humane. Love for life on Earth does not detract from spirituality – in Foujita’s work it is part of its expression.