Far from the beach, but still surrounded by treasure of all kinds just ready to be found, looked at, gloated over, gleaned and swiped or simply created! Here are my latest finds....
Tuesday, February 23, 2021
Naughty Naiads on La Fontaine Subé...
With a sharp turnaround in temperatures, the last few days have transformed the town-centre fountains into strangely bubbling, trickling ice chauldrons of freezing water and then back into free flowing water courses in the air and light of Springtime. This sudden change in weather has seen a flurry of thick, fleeced garments giving way to tee-shirts, mini skirts and shorts – at least for those ready to brave this premature Spring. It would seem that everyone wants to make the most of this burst, however short-lived it may prove to be, and no one cares about this pre-seasonal déshabillage.
When one of the most famous rémois fountains – la Fontaine Subé – was inaugurated in the 1906, the generous display of feminine curves in the form of the four symbolic naiads was considered to be somewhat inappropriate. So too, was the idea of installing a fountain in the first place, since such abudant water usage was considered wasteful in a city where supply was limited.
Erected thanks to a generous donation from the local wool merchant Auguste Subé (1807-1899) the fact that not one of the nymphs had a stitch of clothing on did not go down well with the honourable townsfolks of Reims, itself famous for its textile industry ! I myself have often wondered how, when étiquette and social mores banned the female form from respectable public sight, art and architecture laid out a full-on flesh smorgasbord, without the bat of an eyelid !
Even the extended notions of artistic licence and extensive references to Greek and Roman mythology cannot account for such freedom exercised at a time when the exposure of an ankle would be deemed outrageous… Nevertheless, these four hardy water nymphs have witnessed how the fountain has braved the weather of time and circumstances, from the rain of initial criticism, the showers of schrapel during the Great War to the cruel storm of enemy occupation in WW2. Whilst Reims was emptied of its civilian population during the war years 1914-1918 to become la ville martyre de France following the decimation of its cathedral and blanket destruction of the city, Fontaine Subé emerged relatively unscathed.
Set on the central axis at the heart of urban Reims it stood its ground, literally surrounded by the rubble of flattened buildings. Unfortunately, several of the monument’s symbolic statues did suffer war wounds, losing various limbs and extremities. The poor nymph representing the river Suippe had already suffered the indignity of having her name incorrectly sculpted from inception (an extra ‘s’added that still remains today), in the Great War she was decapitated. La Vesle, meanwhile was totally obliterated.
This sorry state of affairs drew less sorrow than derision from the inter-war critics, with one remarking on these sugary-sweet Belle Epoque expressions stuck on maimed bodies « du même sourire automatique propre aux vendeuses de bazar ». It is true that the figures on the fountain lack Art Nouveau edginess and do indeed appear somewhat stodgy and cloying on closer observation. Yet the fact that the Fontaine Subé somehow survived the 20th century makes it one of the key emblems of the la cité des sacres and a symbol of its modern history.
Place d’Erlon was the site selected for the erection of this monument to Reim’s honour, just after the turn of the last century. Formally known as Place de la Couture until the mid-1800s, this area was the social and economic centre of the city. It was renamed in commemoration of Jean-Baptiste Drouet, Comte d'Erlon, a marshal of France, whose statue once stood where Fontaine Subé was to be built. The poor old Drouet now looks down from his pedestal in another part of town, far away from ‘his’ place, still proud yet somewhat forlorn, as his bright-green features weep, and his bronze form is utterly ignored by the traffic speeding past. How strange that History should elevate certain figures for a time and then seem to fling them back into civilian obscurity…
Fontaine Subé is a striking shape on the long, wide expanse of Place d’Erlon; the golden statue perched majestically at the top of the column is truly stunning in the sunlight. And yet its fate was nearly sealed in the 1950s when town planners considered its total demolition. The monument is 17 metres in height and is surrounded by a low stone base, currently acting as a perch for people snacking, chatting or texting since all the cafés, restaurants and bars are closed. The column draped in vines, refers to the illustrious champagne production of the region, whilst the winged figure of Fame – La Rénommée - is supported by allegorical forms. A female form represents the city of Reims ; Mercury - trade ; a blacksmith – industry and a shepherd symbolises agriculture. Towards the base of the column are our four water nyaids, busy honouring the rivers around Reims - La Suippe, La Marne, La Vesle and l'Aisne.
The winged figure that balances lightly on top of the globe at the summit of the column is not in fact the original one and was only added at a relatively recent date (1989). When the city was occupied by the Germans in the Second World War, the statue was removed in a cruel snub to the citizens of Reims and was melted down for its bronze in 1942. The column remained in the same despoiled state until the late 1980s when the new golden form was set in position to light up Place d’Erlon again and to such effect that it is difficult to believe that it has not always been there.
More recently the water nymph La Vesle was reinstated after a hundred years’ absence, as was the head of La Suippe ! Indeed, in 2014, Fontaine Subé was selected for renovation. Today a closed-circuit system supplies the fountain with water, now flowing in a manner unseen in its century-long existence. Special night-time lighting illuminates the whole in a way that we find pleasing but would have totally amazed the rémois of 1906. Even the original critics would have been bowled away by the magic of the water cascading down, the glowing Rénommée hovering in the night sky above and the play of light on the naked forms of those naughty nymphs !