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article imageReview: Marville's Paris On View At The Met Special

By Cate Kustanczy     Feb 1, 2014 in Entertainment
New York - A new exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art showcasing the work of French photographer Charles Marville strips away the romance of Paris, but offers a challenging commentary on the nature of transformation.
Charles Marville, born Charles François Bossu (1813–1879), was a photographer who documented the changing face of Paris in the 19th century. He moved between portraiture, landscapes, and architecture, and, in 1862, became the official photographer of Paris. HIs work captured the alterations by urban planner Baron Georges-Eugène Haussmann, on commission from Emperor Napoleon III, in the mid-to-late 1800s. Whether or not the changes were good or bad is a matter of some debate; there's little doubt Hausmann's designs eased congestion and went on to create what we now recognize as the Paris “style” – ornate and grand at once –but at the same time, almost none of medieval Paris remains, its history wiped clean in the name of progress. What's more, many of the city's poorer inhabitants were forced out, created a have/have-not dialectic that has come to characterize many contemporary world capital living experiences. Charles Marville: Photographer Of Paris (on now through May 4th) captures these contrasts and contradictions with a subtle grace and quiet dignity, showing the past in all its mixed mythology while opening the door to the future and all its related, future-shock-like anxieties.
Marville was opportunistic in his ability to adopt, and he moved easily from paper to glass negatives, working across different media and styles to capture the rapidly changing landscape of his native city. One has to wonder, walking through the exhibition space and observing the thoughts and reactions of visitors, what Jane Jacobs or indeed Richard Florida would make of it; Marville's work inspires a range of emotions, including awe, sadness, disgust, amusement, revery, and enlightenment. As curator Susan Kennel (Associate Curator of Photographs at the National Gallery of Art) commented, Marville's longevity in the photographic world was “the result of his ability to change,” reflecting both technology's rapid advances as well as those in the city of light.
Charles Marville: Photographer Of Paris effectively captures this fluidity, its sections leading visitors through various stages in Marville's creative development. Portraits, sky studies, lamp posts, and city spaces show a photographer maturing in his visual sensibilities. Among the one-hundred works featured here (forty-one of them on loan from the Musée Carnavalet, Paris) there are stand-outs that reveal Marville to be, as Kennel observed, “the first great photographer of Paris.” These photographs show a city at crossroads, caught between the ultra-new-and-shiny promise of 19th century wealth and industry, and its great cultural past. Many works are deceptively simple, and seem to feature few people; closer inspection reveals a great humanity and depth of expression, with Marville treating Paris as a person herself, one at odds with her past, stunned by her present, and terrified of her future.
 Sky Study  Paris  1856—1857   albumen silver print from glass negative. The Metropolitan Museum o...
"Sky Study, Paris, 1856—1857", albumen silver print from glass negative. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Horace W. Goldsmith Foundation Fund, through Joyce and Robert Menschel, 1987 (1987.1094) cat. no. 25.
Charles Marville / The Metropolitan Museum of Art
This exhibition, organized by the National Gallery of Art, Washington in association with The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, artfully dismantles any romantic notions while simultaneously reveling in the masterful blending of art and science. Thoughtfully arranged and curated, the exhibition offers both historic documentation and subtle commentary. Marville's portraits, whether stark or dreamy, straight-edged or dappled, of people or places, are both unsentimental and yet thoroughly nostalgic, stunningly modern and yet charmingly old-fashioned, created with the nuanced eye of an artist and the deft hand of a technologist.
It's hardly a surprise, then, that Marville spent seventeen years as an illustrator before moving on to photography; his early work especially shows a creative, painterly eye, with moody lighting and contrasting textures. Some works look like charcoal drawings; “Suresnes Bridge, Bois de Boulogne, 1858–60”, with its careful dance of shadows and light, nicely reflects Marville's creative capacity and artistic eye, though it has a more sombre note as well. Suresnes was, the wall placard reminds us, “a rapidly industrializing working-class town located just outside the city limits.” The solitary figure in the work (probably an assistant to Marville) offers a further sour note, his isolation rendered the more poignant within the context of the work's wider vision of destruction, creation, and a community's place in navigating the two. The early “sky” works are a marvel as well, revealing a keen ability to integrate scientific know-how with artistic prowess.
Indeed, Paris itself stands in contrast to the technology used to capture it here: crumbling, falling apart, dirty, deeply unequal. Marville's lens, by contrast, offers us a shiny, sharp-edged portrait, equalizing the city and its inhabitants, integrating architecture and humanity in a kind of meta-creative portrait of simultaneous progress and ruin. The latest technology (of the time) was used to capture the very oldest things, including the medieval market of Les Halles. There's a delicious, kind of meta-ironic thread to the proceedings that is as clever as it is perplexing, though there is a notable humanistic quality to Marville's work as well; thus do the photographs become subtle commentaries on the nature of progress and the place of people (particularly working-class people) within the urban landscape.
 Rue de Constantine (Fourth Arrondissement)  1866   albumen silver print from glass negative. The Me...
"Rue de Constantine (Fourth Arrondissement), 1866", albumen silver print from glass negative. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Horace W. Goldsmith Foundation Gift, through Joyce and Robert Menschel, 1986 (1986.1141) cat. no. 56.
Charles Marville / The Metropolitan Museum of Art
So, while it's easy to regard Marville's works as reflecting the views of politicians who were knocking down these historic (sometimes picturesque, sometimes ugly) buildings, his work is perhaps strongest when it features carefully-placed figures (many small, many blurry) standing amidst the changing cityscapes. This is strongly reflected in “Top of the rue Champlain, View to the Right (Twentieth Arrondissement), 1877–78", a devastating portrait of contrasts, combining a marvelous grayscale of moody shadows and sharply defined edges. Similarly, “Calf Market (Fifth Arrondissement), ca. 1865" offers a competing, and yet wholly integrated vision of destruction and development, through, as the wall placard tells us, the figures of the “romantic wanderer” and the oh-so-French “flâneur.” One regards the ruins of a rapidly vanishing city while simultaneously observing and absorbing the pace of change in a disengaged, if modernist way.
Similarly, three shots of the Bièvre river, from 1862, portray a working class on the verge of extinction, with one photograph portraying soon-to-be-unemployed tanners standing along a soon-to-be-paved-over river, regarding the cameraman with curiosity. In “Rue de Constantine (Fourth Arrondissement), 1866", done shortly before the Rue was destroyed, we see figures placed an almost even distance apart; the closest is looking at the cameraman with curiosity. The black street gleams with laid bricks, while the White Palace of Justice sits silently, majestically (or menacingly) at the street's end.
The exhibit strips away the romance of nostalgia, revealing, for instance, the “shimmering streams” in many a Paris street to be nothing more than raw sewage. “Rue de la Bûcherie from the cul-de-sac Saint-Ambroise (Fifth Arrondissement), 1866–68” is a beautiful work, but as the wall placard reminds us, its beauty, like so much of the old Paris, is deceptive. As Kennel said at the show opening, Marville captured “the birth pangs of modernity” and the “moral and psychological tenor” of that experience, imbuing Paris's empty streets “with the anxiety and ambiguity of modernity.” This modernity –and indeed, its itinerant anxiety – has contemporary echoes in New York City itself.
 Banks of the Bièvre River at the Bottom of the rue des Gobelins (Fifth Arrondissement)  ca. 1862 ...
"Banks of the Bièvre River at the Bottom of the rue des Gobelins (Fifth Arrondissement), ca. 1862", albumen silver print from glass negative. Musée Carnavalet, Paris. cat. no. 54
Charles Marville / Musée Carnavalet, Paris
The photographs depicting the construction of the Palais Garnier (the famous Paris opera house), for instance, highlight this contrast in stunning detail. The Paris Opera is, itself, wrapped in a kind of romance (aided in no small part by Andrew Lloyd Webber, and Gaston Leroux before him) but this exhibit shows the Opera's origins in all its cringing ugliness. One can't help but be reminded of the destruction of the old Metropolitan Opera House (the so-called “Golden Horseshoe”), the subsequent construction of Lincoln Center, and the the displacement of the neighborhood's original inhabitants, in viewing Marville's works.
 Rue de la Bûcherie from the cul de sac Saint-Ambroise (Fifth Arrondissement)  1866— 1868   albu...
"Rue de la Bûcherie from the cul de sac Saint-Ambroise (Fifth Arrondissement), 1866— 1868", albumen silver print from glass negative. National Gallery of Art, Washington, Horace W. Goldsmith Foundation through Robert and Joyce Menschel, cat. no. 58.
Charles Marville / National Gallery of Art, Washington
The exhibition asks its viewers to examine their feelings about the past and attachments to it: are we attached to a soft-focus idea of what the past is, versus the sharp-edged, ugly reality? Marville's work also challenges viewers to consider what progress means and the whys and wherefores of our attachments to the past. The humanity we see in Marville's working-class figures offers a small, if strong, commentary on the nature of progress, in both epic and intimate ways, as it forces us to confront our associations with romantic ideas of “should” and “is.” Re-ordering the present to make space for a hopeful, if uncertain, future, means getting rid of the sentimental baggage of the past – but at what price? Charles Marville: Photographer Of Paris challenges and haunts the viewer with this question, one made all the more poignant by the proximity of Paris as Muse: Photography in the adjacent gallery, to say nothing of the many tokens of lost civilizations the Metropolitan Museum is filled with. Coming away from the exhibit, you feel a keen sense of loss, mixed with a tiny, if guilty sense of hope. Which way to the future? Only heaven knows, picking our way through the detritus of the past and the messiness of the present. Keeping walking; it's there, somewhere, amidst the rubble.
More about Charles Marville, Marville, The Met, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Photography
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