Sunday, 27 February 2011

Louise Michel and the Levallois link

Louise Michel will be forever linked with Paris, la Commune and with revolutionary activities in general, but rarely is she connected to the suburban town of Levallois. However, it is here that she is buried and where her eponymous Metro station is situated. What are her connections with this town though and why did she choose to pass eternity here?

It seems strange to find the grave of the country’s most famous female revolutionary in one of Paris’s most bourgeois suburbs. Surrounding her is incessant construction, the headquarter buildings of multinationals, the home of the French secret services and the highest number of security cameras in France. These steel and glass constructions though hide a town with a working class past, and one where Louise Michel felt very much at home.

And she has not been forgotten in the town. She is represented here today by a triptyque of symbols; the Metro station (on the street of the same name) and her tombstone of course, but also in the Parc de la Planchette where a small statue of her stands. Situated in a quiet corner it would be easy to miss, but once found it cannot fail to surprise. It is of an old lady with a cat at her ankles and her arm around an admirative young girl. Beneath, a simple message – Louise Michel 1830 – 1905. Without this label, few would make the link between this maternal image and the ‘vierge rouge’.

For the author Bertrand Tillier, this image of Louise Michel
by the sculptor Emile Derré, is problematic. That there is a statue of the ‘red virgin’ in a town where she had many links is entirely normal, but why should it be this figure of an old lady with her revolutionary past behind her rather than something more challenging? However, for the Conseil Municipal who paid for the statue in 1910, it was for the assistance she gave to the poor of the town that she was remembered, rather than for her ideas which they 'didn't entirely share', and a consensual image was therefore chosen.

We are rarely able to control our image after death, but it is probable that she would have cared little for this triviality anyway against the much larger issue of the continuing class struggle. Nevertheless, the way she is represented in the town today provides an interesting footnote to her story, as well as to the story of 20th century France in general.

Louise Michel's links to the town of Levallois were not founded on any particular love for the place, but rather because it was the place where her mother was buried before her. Louise Michel was someone who moved often, in struggle, in exile and through force, but Levallois provided her with a base for the final years of her life.

When Louise Michel was born, her mother, Marianne Michel, was working as a serving-maid at the very austere Vroncourt Château in the east of France. The identity of her father is not clear, but most biographies point the finger at either the son of the châtelain, Laurent Demahis, or at the châtelain himself, Etienne Charles Demahis. Louise Michel was largely brought up by her grandparents, but the seeds of the class struggle had seemingly been sown into her from birth.

She trained as a school teacher and moved to Paris in 1856.
The period of Louise Michel's life which followed this has been very well documented (both by herself and others), but my interest is in how she came to live in Levallois, and what this says about her personality and beliefs. Despite being brought up by her grandparents, Louise Michel remained close to her mother, later living with or close to her in various places in Paris. Indeed, during the Commune, Louise Michel gave herself up to the forces of order as they had captured her mother and were threatening to kill her. It seems appropriate therefore that it should be her mother, in 1885, who brought Levallois into this story.

At this time, Louise Michel was locked up inside the notorious Saint Lazare prison. She knew that her mother had been in poor health for a long time, but it that was clear now that Marianne Michel had only a few more weeks to live. Louise Michel asked to be temporarily freed so that she could visit her mother one more time, a request that was accepted, but she was not there when her mother died. She made a second request, this time to attend her mother's funeral - which would take place at the Levallois cemetery, but this time she was refused, a decision that lead to near riots at the event.

When Louise Michel was freed a year later, she immediately set up base in Levallois where the local authorities, admirative of the person and her struggles, had found her a small apartment. A plaque can still be seen today on the wall of this building at 85 Rue Victor Hugo. It is interesting to find this connection between the two personalities, as they had been friends, and some stories even say that Louise Michel bore Victor Hugo a daughter called Victorine. This remains apocryphal, but the letters that Louise Michel wrote to Hugo, as well as the poem, Viro Major, that Hugo wrote about Louise Michel recount much of their tale. When Louise Michel lived in this building though, the name of the street was the Route d'Asnières, and it would only take on the name of the author at a later date.

A staircase at n° 85 Rue Victor Hugo

Louise Michel may have been comfortable at this address, very close to the cemetery, but her revolutionary activities did not end and within a few months she was back in prison. Over the next few years, Michel would be shot in the head, return to prison on several occasions and spend time in exile in London.

It is claimed that Louise Michel returned to Levallois to live on several occasions, but no address is given. What is certain though is that when she wrote her will, Levallois played an important role.

"Je soussignée, Louise Michel, déclare confier à Charlotte Vauvelle, ma compagne depuis 15 ans, et à mes camarades de lutte, pour les mettre à exécution mes dernières volontés, qui sont d'être enterrée sans aucune cérémonie religieuse (...) au cimetière de Levallois-Perret, dans le caveau de ma mère, où il y a une place pour moi" (I the undersigned Louise Michel, confide to Charlotte Vauvelle, my companion for 15 years, and my comrades in the struggle, the execution of my last wishes, which is to be buried without any religious ceremony, at the Levallois-Perret cemetery, in the vault of my mother where there is a place for me)

Louise Michel died in Marseille on January 9th 1905, and on the 21st, her body was transferred by train to Paris. It arrived at the Gare de Lyon at 10 in the morning, and was transported to the Levallois-Perret cemetery followed by a massive procession of mourners. The last wish of Louise Michel was respected, and she was placed alongside her mother.

The story though does not end there. Twenty years later, the municipal authorities in Levallois decided to change the name of one of the streets in the town to the Rue Louise Michel. This decision though was overturned by the regional authorities who stated that such tributes could only be made for "des personnalités décédées sur lesquelles l’Histoire a pu se prononcer" (dead figures for whom history has been able to make a judgement). In other words, the scars of the Commune had still not healed in Paris.

The street name was finally changed in 1946 (along with the Metro, from the previous Vallier), at a time when the authorities probably had more important subjects to think about. At the same moment, Louise Michel was also exhumed and moved to a more central, important position in the cemetery, the 'Rond-point des Victimes du devoir'. Her bust looks out proudly and defiantly from her new tomb, and there is always a red rose to keep her company. But is that all there is?

When I visit, I ask for the location of the tomb of her mother, the vault from which she was exhumed in 1946. I'm told that her mother is still with her today, but her name is not written anywhere on the stone. Louise Michel would have cared little for her personal idolisation, but never wanted to be separated from her mother. I hope that they are together somewhere in this town.

Thursday, 24 February 2011

Les Douches, une galerie...

Situated in the guts of a 1930s public baths, the gallery Les Douches is one of Paris's best-kept secrets. For anyone passionate about architecture, history or photography though it should be an essential place to visit.

Curious about what lays behind the wonderful curved entrance, I request a visit and am warmly welcomed by the gallery's art director, Françoise Morin. She's a dynamic bundle of energy with a passion for photography and photographers that she seems to be itching to pass on. My visit corresponds with the last few days of the Bruce Wrighton exhibition and his bold colours and striking portraits contrast sharply with the white wall tiles. Its a perfect fit for this location, and I can immediately see the magic this place seems to possess.

As we discuss the various projects Françoise Morin manages, she shows me round the venue. It has been transformed by the architects and graphic designers who have passed through its walls, but its previous existence as a public baths is still clearly evident. The baths were on the ground and first floors, with a wonderful staircase between the two. The gallery is upstairs, surrounded by the yellow water pipes and tiled shower units that are still in place (one of which is still in working order!) but which now house kitchen units and micro-office spaces.

"When we found the venue, we saw at once that it would be perfect for what we wanted to do" explains Françoise. She's curious to know how I discovered it though, as seemingly few people end up here by chance. It's situated close to the Canal Saint Martin in the 10th arrondissement, but in a side street that sees little foot traffic. People have to know where the gallery is situated and really want to visit an exhibition to come, but that should not be a problem for her next installation which begins on March 2nd - the portraits and abstracts of Arnold Newman.

Through her passion and curiousity, Françoise is able to attract original and fascinating collections to her gallery. However, her work doesn't end there. She also looks after an organisation known as Ville Ouverte which is a "lieu de création, de diffusion et de réflexion sur la ville et l'architecture" (a place for creation, distribution and reflections on the city and architecture). Françoise shows me some of the publications they have worked produced, with both young and more experienced photographers, which explore our environments, be they industrial, urban or occasionally more bucolic.

"We want to promote a knowledge of cities, how they are built and their history through the medium of photography" she explains. The organisation aims to bring together architects, journalists and photographers to work on artistic projects, but it is also building up a stock of thousands of photos relating to the architecture and history of cities which are available through the Artedia service.

Françoise enjoys bringing all of these elements together, organising lectures, debates and book signings at the gallery, and even proposing a series of conferences and training sessions for photographers. She's a busy person, but very happy in her environment. "I have a great job as I do what I love and have the freedom to organise the events that interest me personally" she tells me. Looking around the venue, its easy to believe her.

Les Douches La Galerie
5 Rue Legouvé, 75010
Open Wednesday to Friday, 1pm to 7pm, Sunday 2pm - 6pm, and by appointment (+33 (0)1 78 94 03 00)

For more information on the gallery and the exhibitions of the past, present and future, see

Tuesday, 22 February 2011

City Snapshots: The downpour

The droplets of water snaking down the window remind you of something you heard recently - Paris is a wetter city than London. English rain comes little and often, but in Paris, when it rains, it really rains.

Tonight the skies have opened up and you’re stuck in this bar. The staff are unfriendly, and the beer is warm and expensive, but you’re still better off here than outside with streaks of rain wiring down your neck.

Next to you, someone is saying something about the wife and the children he never sees. Slurred words, uninvited hands on shoulders and foul smelling breath. Misery loves company, but this guy can keep the self-pity he’s trying to wipe off on everyone.

You take a step back to the window and watch the puddles of water gush along the gutters. Through the vapour mist a figure appears, dressed in green with luminous cuffs and collars. With his plastic broom, he’s pushing the city waste deep down into the sewers.

Suddenly you open the door and leap outside. The beads of rain sting your eyes and make you gulp for air, but the road sweeper has shown you something important. City rain washes and cleanses, driving dust and dirt off of the streets. It should be something to embrace, not to take shelter from.

Paris rain never lasts for long. The pavements now sing and shine under the orange streelight glow, and the air smells almost fresh again. The wet drips have reached down to the small of your back, but you now know that everything is going to be fine.

Thursday, 17 February 2011

The cult of the balcony

On the Avenue Gambetta is a building with a very curious appearance. It is a structure defined solely by its three rows of balconies that completely hide the interiors of the building from street level. In return, those below are also invisible to those living in the apartments above, which have their focal points guided up towards the sky. The balcony is seemingly designed to offer residents an escape from the city.

The balcony in urban environments is not a new invention, but it is something that has slowly changed role. On Haussmanian structures, the purpose of the balcony was to protect the ‘étage noble’ on the second floor from noise coming up from the street, with a second balcony on the 5th floor merely to provide a harmonious balance.

The hygienest movement was the first to give the balcony an additional purpose. The constructions of the architect Henri Sauvage feature a balcony for every single apartment, each invisible from the other, with the goal being to improve the circulation of air, and to encourage people to spend time outside.

This largely practical and decorative feature though has slowly become a feature of fantasy and evasion. This notion of escape is important as it reflects the dreams of the majority of city-dwellers - simply to live somewhere else, ideally in a house with a garden or in an apartment overlooking the sea. The urban balcony now offers the double advantage of giving them a window on the world whilst at the same time hiding the fog of the city behind a mirage of space and greenery.

Balconies are now a key selling point, particularly of new apartments. When old buildings are knocked down, artists impressions of new builds appear in their place, showing families (people texture!) eating breakfast on sunny mornings surrounded by lush hanging gardens. The reality that appears later is somewhat different, although there is often a desire to recreate this artificial world. Look up at these city balconies and you'll see rotting and rusting garden furniture, but very rarely anybody using this equipment.

This dream vision takes us away from our daily lives and into the realm of a holiday existence, but is there any pleasure to be had in taking breakfast above a busy boulevard or in full view of our neighbours? The majority of balconies simply become extra storage space, a park for bicycles and children's toys - or worse still, an additional access point into the apartment for burglars.

The painter Gustave Caillebotte caught the original, more noble role of the balcony in the city. Caillebotte painted a series of enigmatic figures on the balconies of Haussmannian structures in Paris, none of whom were attempting to do anything more than observe the street below them. Ideally the balcony presents the city as a theatre, providing us with a narrow unobtrusive platform to watch the world go by (or have the world watch us!), possibly with a cigarette in hand. In Caillebotte's world the balcony is brought back to its rightful place - as a celebration of the city and not an escape from it.

Tuesday, 15 February 2011

Win a Spotted by Locals Paris iPhone app!

I have contributed to the Spotted by Locals cityguides for two years now, and have seen the network grow from a handful of cities to a whopping 33 European cities today. I was attracted by the principal of giving insider tips to travellers (and locals!) which would help them to immediately locate places that come warmly recommended from the people who use them everyday.

Like all other local bloggers ("Spotters") I was personally selected by husband and wife team Bart and Sanne Van Poll, the genial Dutch couple who started up and run the service. They are passionate about the concept of 'local travel' and are also founder members of the Local Travel Movement.

The Spotted by Locals website contains hundreds of recommendations, including restaurants, bars, museums, hotels or just places to relax, but it is a real bonus to have all of the sites for the city of your choice in an iPhone app. The beauty of this app - as well as the hand-picked recommendations (and I am proof that they really are personal choices!) is that there are no surprise bills. Indeed, it is one of the few iPhone travel apps that does not require internet access, as all tips and maps are included in the application.

Normally priced at €3.99 (£2.99, US$4.99), you can win a complimentary copy on the Paris Weekends blog. If you would like to win one of these applications, click here to find out more.

Sunday, 13 February 2011

The inglorious destiny of the Gambetta monument

You can learn a lot of things from old postcards. A few months ago I discovered the picture above on the Daily Postcard blog, which gives a panorama of the Louvre museum that I hadn't even imagined. In approximately the same position as Ieoh Ming Pei's controversial pyramid today stood this no less controversial monument to the politician and republican Leon Gambetta.

At 27 metres high and positioned in front of what seems to be a small garden it offers a curious contrast to the tourist-filled esplanade today. I had though forgotten about this photograph until I walked into the Square Edouard Vaillant in the 20th arrondissement and saw the remnants of something that looked vaguely familiar.

Written on a plaque in front of the statue is the following text; "Detail du monument elevé par Aubé en 1888 au Palais du Louvre Cour Napoléon remonté en cet emplacement à l'occasion du centenaire de la mort de Leon Gambetta Novembre 1982". Roughly translated, a part of the original Gambetta statue built in 1888 was placed in this spot (incidently just off the Avenue Gambetta) for the centenary of Gambetta's death in November 1982.

How did such a grandiose monument end up in a quiet and hidden corner of the city? In reality, it is perhaps fortunate that anything managed to survive at all.

Designed by the sculpter Jean-Paul Aubé and the architect Louis-Charles Boileau, the statue was never a popular one. Léon Gambetta had been a well-regarded politician, but the monument was too grand. This was a period in which the "statuomanie" was prevalent, a phenomenon which saw the widespread installation of statues in questionable taste celebrating minor personalities, and many did not last the test of time.

The Gambetta monument would eventually become one of these, but it did survive untouched until 1941. This year was a terrible one for statues in the city as the Vichy government stripped the metal from all monuments not celebrating saints and royalty for the purposes of agricultural and industrial production (weapons!). Without the bronze figure at the top of the plinth, the statue could not survive, and it was removed altogether in 1954.

Chopped into smaller pieces, it disappeared from public view until 1982. Most parts would have been destroyed altogether, but near thirty years after it was removed, the chunk featuring Léon Gambetta was brought back into the public eye in the quiet Square Edouard Vaillant opposite the Hopital Tenon.
Postcards commemorate a vision of the city at a particular time, not just its physical aspect but also the tastes and attitudes of that particular era. Staues may seem deep rooted and permanent, but they do not guarantee eternal life for those celebrated in stone and metal after death. Feted one year, these personalities can be completely forgotten the next.

Gambetta lives on in Paris in this small stone block, and as a Place and an Avenue - as well as in this postcard! However, for those curious to see exactly what the complete monument looked like, an original scale model still exists in the Musée d'Orsay. It perhaps lacks the extravagant dimensions of the true monument, but it is still two and a half metres high!

Friday, 11 February 2011

The most romantic place in Paris?

I asked a selection of Paris lovers – those who love the city, and those who have loved here - to reveal their most romantic spots in the city, and the answers they gave were wonderfully rich and varied - in prose, images and sound. Railway lines, forgotten doorways, rotting benches, sunlit streets and moonlit corners...

Explore these places on the Paris Weekends blog.

Sunday, 6 February 2011

Upstairs Downstairs

Nearly opposite the Saint Germain de Charonne church are two matching houses with a pair of rather curious winding staircases. The houses were in the heart of the old village of Charonne and clearly quite ancient, but what is the story behind the raised entrances?

The answer is a very simple one, but also one we might not initially imagine. According to the Michelin guide "Idées de promenades à Paris", the doors were positioned at ground level up until the middle of the 19th century when it was decided that the terrain should be made flatter for the agricultural workers who passed by each day and who found it a little bit too steep!

The ground was levelled off, but a solution had to be found for the residents of these properties who now found themselves six feet above ground level. Simple - an elegant winding staircase!

Tuesday, 1 February 2011

Vive le sacrilege?

The Saint Germain de Charonne church on the Rue de Bagnolet is closed until further notice because of severe problems with its foundations. With the building no longer in use, the walls have become the surface for somebody looking to communicate a message.

The rather juvenile messages are seemingly the work of someone who is young and female, but they ask larger questions. Does the concept of sacrilege have any sense today, and are there any sacred surfaces left in our cities today?

With the church being closed and cordoned off to visitors it could be argued that the structure is little more than a construction site today. However, it remains a building that dates in parts from the 12th century, and one that is almost unique in Paris because of its adjoining cemetery. Relatively few people today in Paris would describe themselves as being religious, and even fewer ever go inside a church, but there is generally a respect for the city's history.

This is of course far from being anything that could be classed as artistic but we can ask whether there are walls in the city that can be written on and others that are more deserving of protection. Obviously these walls were chosen to increase the shock value, and the messages would have been quickly overlooked had they been splashed anywhere else, but from a judicial sense no difference would be made if the perpetrator were caught. Is this the right situation?
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