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Tuesday, December 29, 2020
Au Bonheur des Dames and the Advent of the Shopgirl...
I visited the exhibition of James Tissot : L'ambigu moderne at the Musée d’Orsay in Paris this summer. At that time, as chance would have it, I had just finished reading, Au Bonheur des Dames, by Emile Zola and although the two experiences were unconnected, I ended up noticing the parallels running between the work of the painter and the novel in question and reaching a similar conclusion regarding both.
In fact, the Zola/Tissot link was already well established - unbeknowst to me at the time of my visit - and their names often cited together. Both Zola (1840 – 1902) and Tissot (1836 – 1902) created frescoes of their changing contemporary society in the second half of 19th century France - and England too, in the case of Tissot. In 1869, the critic Elie Roy remarked that « a painting by Mr Tissot will be enough for archaeologists of the future to reconstruct our era. » Zola’s vast literary cycle of twenty novels - Les Rougon-Macquart - was collectively referred to as the Histoire naturelle et sociale d'une famille sous le Second Empire. The novel Au Bonheur des Dames was the eleventh in this cycle.
This dramatically evolving universe was largely reflected and refracted through the role and image of women, as a point of departure at least. Indeed, Zola’s social, anthropological and genetic study used a certain Adélaïde Fouque as a starting point to encompass all the currents and classes of French society through the descendants of this ‘Tante Dide’. Tissot, meanwhile, was famous for his society portraits of London and Parisian women. Although his work may have been dismissed by John Ruskin in 1864 as « simple colour photographs of vulgar society », his decade spent in England led him to great success on par with that of the famous English portraitist, Lawrence Alma-Tadema. His best-known works today are probably The Ball On Shipboard (1874) and On the Thames (1876) which offer an image of social mores, with a certain irony – albeit one largely lost on us today.
It was one of the fifteen works from Tissot’s series La Femme à Paris (1883-1885), painted on his return to his native France, that has encouraged Zola/Tissot associations and comparisons ever since its creation. The Naturalist scenes of Tissot’s series largely mirrored aspects of Zola’s cycle wherein studies of the life on the boulevards, avenues and entertainment venues of Paris replaced the social conversation pieces of the most influential and affuent layers of society. La Demoiselle de Magasin (1882-1885) presents the same protagonist as Zola’s Bonheur 1883 ; this new feminine figure emerging on the commercial and social landscape of the capital - the shop girl.
Engraved versions of Tissot’s La Femme à Paris series were initially intended to be accompanied by literary text, and various authors were to be invited to write around Tissot’s mise en scène. Unfortunately this linking of illustration/text did not come about but his life work has acted as an aesthetic inspiration for film directors, costume and set designers for many years – with the likes of Jane Campion, James Ivory and Martin Scorsese. The Biblical illustrations that were the focus of Tissot’s last years - La Vie du Christ - even found reference in Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark !
Both Zola and Tissot witnessed the changes to the fabric of French society brought about by the industrial revolution and later through the ambitions of Napoleon III during the Second Empire as France sought to reassert its influence in Europe and around the world. The French economy was modernized through mass industrialisation, the banking system overhauled, the railway system developed, the merchant marine grown to become the second largest in the world, modern agriculture established and social reforms brought in to give rights to workers and a few opportunities for women too. This whole process was crystalized by Haussmann’s transformation of Paris and other major cities, dragging the capital out of the shadows of the Ancien Régime to become a vast, modern metropole and le grand magasin was the shining example of French success par excellence. However, in order to emerge radiant, the city of light was built on the ashes and rubble of old Paris. Huge swathes of the built-up land had been swept away to make room for the axes of the grand boulevards. Seemingly inspired by the 1843 call « Éclairez-vous, enrichissez-vous…. » (statesmen François Guizot) , dingy Medieval hovels that had housed the populations were demolished for the imposing immeubles haussmanniens that would be the showrooms for the newly-affluent bourgeoisie.
The sea change in commerce offered a new class of clientele - with unprecedented purchasing power - the opulent goods on which to spend their wealth and, above all, the place in which to do so. Dark, dank shops based on the antiquated Ancien Régime model – like the one in Zola’s 1867 novel Thérèse Racquin - were sunk into the ground, whilst the new cathedrals of modern commerce took root – les grands magasins. Haggling over the limited supplies in cramped conditions offered by specialised shops – quite literally, the butcher, the baker and candlestick maker – became a thing of the past as the enormous dry-goods stores drew in a mesmerized public, enticing them with the stunning arrays in the vast shop window displays. It is the advent of the grand magasin and the demise of the traditional shop that is the focus of Au Bonheur des Dames, as the hero/anti-hero Octave Mouret « consigned the corpse of old-fashioned trading to the grave, swept into the common hole all those putrifying pestilential remains which were becoming a disgrace to the bright, sun-lit streets of new Paris » (Au Bonheur des Dames).
Zola drew inspiration from concrete facts of recent urban reality – referring back to the elevation and subsequent evolution of a rather ambitious haberdashery shop on the corner of Rue de Sèvres and Rue du Bac, Rive Gauche, by the Videau brothers in 1838. The arrival of the modest, yet determined entrepreneur, Aristide Boucicaut, who transformed the original establishment, was what inspired Zola’s Au Bonheur, with its shady protagonist Octave Mouret. Boucicaut’s vision and business acumen, partnered with that of his wife Marguerite, saw the initial workforce of 12 employees explode to around 2000 as the premises grew in volume over the years through the acquisition of land on which to expand. Within decades, the huge department store Au Bon Marché dominated the retail world with a business model unparalleled anywhere else. Others would naturally follow in its wake, shortly after - namely the big names : Magasin du Louvre, La Belle Jardinière, Printemps, BHV, La Samaritaine and then Galeries Lafayette…
To house his vast store, Boucicaut had an imposing building constructed in 1869. Its Haussmann-style Classicist façade offered the public distinctive bay windows and easily recognisable grand entrances on the outside. The fictionalized accounts of the store’s conception are provided by Zola who used Boucicaut’s notes to aid him in his research and to guide him in his descriptions of this empire and its founder ; Boucicaut/Mouret. The architects Boileau father and son, followed the advice of Gustave Eiffel in their use of the latest ironwork technology to create a vast open central area within to great dramatic effect, illuminated from above and leading onto galleries, with sweeping stairways, balconies and viewing points. Furthermore, to ensure that provincial visitors to the store could stay in comfort during their trip, the grand Hotel Lutetia was erected in 1910 at the behest of Mme Boucicaut on the other side of the Square Boucicaut.
«All this iron work formed an excessively delicate architecture, an intricate lace-work through which the daylight penetrated, the modern realization of a dreamland palace, of a Babel with storeys piled one above the other, and spacious halls affording glimpses of other floors and other halls _ad infinitum ». (Au Bonheur de Dames)
Industrialization and commoditification led to seemingly endless possibilities as supply and demand were transformed through mechanised manufacturing and a new retail concept. Au Bon Marché was indeed at the head of this movement and instigated the emergence of the modern-day consumer. Everything was amply catered towards the client’s needs at the store ; the introduction of fixed prices as opposed to ones variable according to the profile of the individual (à la bobine) ; pile-‘em-high, sell-‘em-cheap principle ; self-service ; off-the-peg garments replacing made-to-measure clothing; seasonal goods ; sale by correspondance via catalogue ; home delivery ; satisfied or reimbursed policy ; seasonal advertising and marketing ploys.
Within a short space of time, a trip to Au Bon Marché took on a quasi-devotional aspect as daily visitors would flock to this unique universe as if to some strange place of worship. The cult of shopping was born. Like the most exotic museum exhibits, the dazzling displays of wares on offer hypotized the ever-growing hordes, driving them into a frenzy of limitless consumerism, and the relentless desire to purchase ever more goods, to obtain the latest novelty. Not only did the visitor come to admire the merchandise of this illustrious setting, they also came to observe and be observed by Le Tout-Paris, much as they would indulge in a trip to the theatre, dressed in their finery. Boucicaut did his utmost to ensure that any visitor entering his empire, would soon be captive in thought and deed, caught in the cogs of consumption. With Mouret we see the fine-tuning of this materialist machine destined to consume its clientèle in the most ruthless, relentless manner.
« …..the customers, despoiled and violated, were going away in disarray, their desires satisfied, and with the secret shame of having yielded to temptation….» (Au Bonheur des Dames)
The shopaholic thus came into existence as did the shoplifter, regardless of social class or financial means. Neither were able to free themselves from this addictive experience and were, moreover, largely unwilling to be freed from their intoxication. Indeed, those who found the greatest freedom in this retail universe were the female visitors, previously unable to leave the confines of the home unless accompanied by a chaperone. The female client, a hitherto unexploited vein of purchasing possibility was the most ardent disciple in this temple to the hedonist material world.
« ….spent her leisure time in his establishment, those shivering anxious hours which she had formerly passed in churches: a necessary consumption of nervous passion an ever renewed worship of the body with the promise of future divine beauty. » (Au Bonheur des Dames)
To serve this feminine clientèle, the shop assistant was conceived - la demoiselle de magasin – and was to find as much, or even more emancipation and constraint in this universe as the female patrons she served. For the first time, young women could become financially independant and benefit from the new rights and conditions available to workers, albeit meagre. If she played her cards right by learning enough of the airs and graces from the women she served, she might advance in the social game of snakes-and-ladders and catch an elligible male willing to ‘keep’ her. The story of one such demoiselle is the basis of Zola’s novel, with the rather mouse-like Denise Baudu torn between her loyalty for her uncle and his down-trodden traditional shop and her irrepressible fascination for the fortune-seeking bounder Mouret with his mercantile marvel, Au Bonheur des Dames. Ironically, this love interest – with the will-they, won’t-they dynamics between these two characters proved to be the least intriguing aspect of the novel, in my opinion at least.
Of far greater interest was the role and functioning of the main protagonist – the marvellous yet monstrous department store itself. As it grows in size and significance throughout the story, we see it greedily covet and consume tracts of land, competitors, customers and employees such as la demoiselle de magasin herself…. except Denise. Many of the actual work conditions in the novel and the terms used to describe them may appear somewhat antiquated to us now. Nevertheless the constant pressure in the workplace, the total erosion of work-life balance, poor relations and back-stabbing in the work teams, job insecurity and the constant threat of finding yourself on the street at the drop of a hat – literally - are alarmingly relevant today. This was the real strength of Au Bonheur des Dames – a relevation of the social grind behind this shiny, powerful machine. You can only wonder what Zola would think of the glories of the gig economy and today’s heroes/antiheroes ; Bezos, Gates and Musk. Octave Mouret is perhaps an ancestor to these modern-day magicians who have transformed whole economies and lifestyles but is only a caricatural representation of mercantile power as he flits around his store like a machiavellian Willy Wonka. Unlike the calculating Mouret, Boucicaut had other aspirations for his retail empire and a different vision of his position therein. Despite their drive for commercial succès, the Boucicauts – husband and wife - were intent on improving work conditions for his employees with the provision of accommodation, paid holidays and medical check-ups, amongst other things. A vast amount of the Boucicaut fortune was bequeathed to the employees on the death of Madame and the statue in the park Le Square Boucicaut is in memory of her social contributions and charitable work.
Unfortunately, Zola used the rather flat and implaussible Mouret/Denise love story as a vehicle to approach the grit of the novel, with the result that some parts of the work left me a little indifferent. Not only that, but Zola seemed to fall into the same trap as the feminine clientele he so aptly describes – he too is uttlerly mesmerized by the fabrics, frills, feathers and frou-frous that form the basis of each mois du blanc, or sales promotion. Just like his frantic female customers, Zola cannot break free from his obsession - lengthy passages endlessly detail apparel and its materials in a linguistic Black Friday frenzy which seems to sideline the plot. As much as I love descriptive passages, with the beauty of the words and images these convey, parts of this novel were lacking sufficient framework to hold the weight of this avalache of adjectives and adverbs. The storyline simply did not weigh up to the quality of the language itself...
« The bright satins and soft-tinted silks--the Reine and Renaissance satins with the pearly tones of spring water; the light silks, Nile-green, Indian-azure, May-pink, and Danube-blue all of crystalline transparency--flowed forth above. Then came the stronger fabrics: warm-tinted Merveilleux satins, and Duchess silks, rolling in waves of increasing volume; whilst at the bottom, as in a fountain-basin, the heavy materials, the figured armures, the damasks, and brocades, the beaded silks and the silk embroidered with gold and silver, reposed amidst a deep bed of velvet of every sort--black, white, and coloured--with patterns stamped on silk and satin grounds, and spreading out with their medley of colours like a still lake in which reflections of sky and scenery were seemingly dancing. The women, pale with desire, bent over as if to look at themselves in a mirror. And before this gushing cataract they all remained hesitating between a secret fear of being carried away by such a flood of luxury, and an irresistible desire to jump in and be lost in it. » (Au Bonheur des Dames)
Strangely, I felt the same feeling of admiration yet disappointment at the Tissot exhibition. I was familiar with the works that are probably the best known in England, namely those actually painted during his English sejourn in the 1870S, including The Captain and the Mate; The Captain's Daughter; Ball on Shipboard ; The Gallery of H.M.S. 'Calcutta'. The bold style of painting, with bright colours and curious interplay of characters, with their enigmatic expressions had always caught my attention and I thought the rest of his work would be equally intriguing. However, whilst all his paintings offer similar degrees of excellence in their execution, with incredible detail and realism worthy of certain Pre-Raphaelite works, and a boldness that recalls certain Impressionist works, the whole seemed a little flat.
The enigmatic quality of his most successful works is somehow lacking in others so that breathtaking painting techniques cannot hide the impression that the content, composition or overall mood is somehow anaemic and does not pull together as in, for example, The Circle of Rue Royale 1866. Although his ability to render texture and substance is truly amazing, like Zola in Au Bonheur, the plot is sometimes too weak to bear the accumulated detail. His love of fabric and fashion of all types is manifest throughout his career – not for nothing was he the son of a cloth merchant and a milliner ! Like Zola, his artistic output was prestigious – producing numerous large-scale paintings throughout his career – many of which featuring his muse -model-lover, Kathleen Newton. On her premature death from tuberculosis, he left England for France where he went on to produce La Femme à Paris series. His final years were spent accomplishing the illustration of the Bible following his renewed interest in the Catholic faith and spiritualism during his mourning.
On the day of my visit to Musée d’Orsay, I decided to visit Au Bon Marché – now known as Le Bon Marché and as I approached the store, I went through the gardens of the Square Boucicaut, with its statue of Madame. This was probably just as well since I found little other trace of the life and spirit of the original department store or its founders. It was interesting to see this emblematic block of buildings standing much as it must have done in Zola’s time but it seemed far less imposing than I had anticipated and appeared humbled by the sprawl of jumbled architectural styles that surround it Likewise, the volume of the galeries within the store seemed rather modest and offered none of the stunning grandeur I expected to see and yet can still be found in the flagship store of Galeries Lafayette on Boulevard Haussmann. Acquired by the LVMH Group in 1984 under Bernard Arnault, Au Bon Marché was rebranded and refurbished in 1987 and a grand central escalator was installed. Its criss-cross form divides the central area to dramatic effect – « straddling tradition and modernity », according to the store literature. It surely looked futuristic at the time of its installation, but it just struck me as reminiscent of slightly dated airport architecture that is culturally anonymous.
There was none of the French chic and perhaps I was looking in the wrong parts of the store, but I could find few of the original features of the grand magasin of Zola’s time. Whilst Zola and Tissot’s respective works buckle under the heaped ornamentation for the lack of an iron-girdered structure, the modern-day version of Au Bon Marché appears to have been stripped of much of its 19th century decorative finery so that only the bolts and beams remain. There was no information available on the history – actual or fictional – of the store and none of the staff I questioned knew anything on the subject nor could they indicate any of the vestiges of its glorious past. Maybe I was just unlucky that day – but I am not inspired to return. I did find a few decorative tiles on the store façade as I was leaving, but they were in a state of neglect and made me feel sad. That, plus the sight of an array of gaudy, vulgar sneakers, with clumpy plastic soles and an eye-watering price tag, all brazzenly on display in the luxury footwear department. Au Bonheur des Dames, indeed !