Thursday, April 30, 2015

Paris, patterns, textures, textiles: A photo-essay

I head home from Paris tomorrow.  I've done a lot of work here: finished drafting an article and wrote my talk for Kalamazoo.  But I've also taken a lot of photographs of the city and done a lot of knitting, producing two now of these yarn-bombs for lamp posts (I'll install the second tomorrow morning before heading to the airport.  It was intended to replace the first, but since it's actually still there, the second will have to go on a different lamp post).  This blog post is meant to tie those last two pursuits together, very visually.  It's also, then, a meditation on one of the things I love about this city; the textures, the patterns, and the details in the architecture, the street furniture, and the street itself.

Yarn-bomb in the Place Louis Aragon on the Ile St. Louis.

Crosswalk on the Rue St. Antoine.

Yarn-bomb detail.

Detail of wrought-iron work on a tomb in Pere Lachaise.
Yarn-bomb detail.

 Architecture sculpture from the Musee Canavalet.

 Shadow-selfie in St. Germain de Pres.

Shadow-trees in the Place Louis Aragon.

Vuillard-selfie at the Petit Palis.

Monday, April 13, 2015

Changes at Chartres

I'm back in Paris working on a number of projects: an article on transi tombs (see my previous posts on the transis of Jeanne de Bourbon-Vendome and Henry Chichele), a presentation/provocation for the upcoming Kalamazoo congress on Medieval Studies, and the next chapter of my book.  A few days ago, though, I took a day off from all of that and went on a day trip out to Chartres.  My main reason for going was to see the restoration work that has been done to the interior surfaces of the cathedral.  This work has been somewhat controversial: in the US at least, it began with a piece by Martin Filler in the New York Review of Books, continued with responses by Madeline Caviness and by Caviness and Jeffrey Hamburger, and then with Filler's response to their responses.  In going to Chartres, I was following Caviness and Hamburger's suggestion that we should go, see, and judge for ourselves.

Having done so, what do I now think?  Well, it sure is different! You can see that in this photo, in the contrast between the old/unrestored surface on the left- the mottled grey - and the new/restored surface on right - the tan/buff/beige with the white faux-mortar lines between the stones (faux because they don't actually correspond to the breaks between the stones).  And I'm not quite sure what's going on with the marbled-pinkish section to the far right.  In general it's a lighter, brighter, softer, warmer Chartres: much less "Dark Ages," which could be a good thing!  After all, the notion of a "dark" "middle" age was invented by Renaissance writers to highlight what they saw as the brilliance of their own time period.  Most medievalists that I know hate that term.

 Even as I write that, however, I'm aware of how much it is shaped by the expectations I had going out to Chartres this time and by the photographs I chose to take while I was there.  I went to see what was different, and so I saw it, and I chose to take photographs that would highlight exactly that difference.  Expectation and photography also played an important role in Filler's scandalized reaction to the restorations: he begins his original piece by remembering his first trip to Chartres, some 30 years ago, and remembering also his prior knowledge of it from photographs.   He apparently expected the building as it stands today to conform to his memory of that prior trip, much as his experience of it then conformed to his prior knowledge of it from, presumably, black-and-white photographs.  Certainly my first knowledge of this building in particular, and of medieval architecture and architectural sculpture in general, came from the black-and-white photos in my college textbooks from 25 years ago.  One of shocks of my early research trips in graduate school was realizing that, even without their original polychromy, medieval stone buildings and stone sculptures are rarely the grey that they appear to be in those photographs, because the stone itself isn't grey but tan or beige or buff or pinkish or a whole range of colors depending on what stone was used, depending on what stone was available in that locality.  And so one of the best things I can say about the tan color used on the interior surfaces is that it is very similar to the color of the exterior stone work, including the stone sculptures, now that they have been cleaned: the photo below comes from the north porch.  Although the cleaning of the exterior raises some of the same issues about photography and expectations: Anne Harris writes wonderingly in her own blog post on the restoration work at Chartres of how a playfully manipulated black-and-white photo of the north transept sculptures better corresponds to her expectations of the building than what is visible there now.

Another of the shocks of those early trips was realizing that these buildings are not exclusively, or even primarily, historical monuments, but are instead still living places of worship and so of human activity.  While I was Chartres on that Friday, people were walking in the labyrinth at the west end of the nave, praying in the Notre Dame de Pilar chapel, sweeping up the altar area in preparation for a mass, working in the gift shop, begging at the western gates, climbing up and down the exterior scaffolding to continue work on the building, and towards the end of the day gathering in "medieval" costumes for some sort of a concert I think (I had to go catch my train before I could see what was happening).  This not a building trapped in the past, not in Filler's memories of 30 years ago, and not in the Middle Ages either.  The restoration work as described by Caviness likewise moves the building through time: the restored faux masonry and painted vault bosses are baased on a fifteenth-century restoration of the thirteenth-century work and the choir has been brought back to a Baroque state.  

And finally even the idea of restoration itself warps time: the "new" restored surfaces, as restorations, are not intended to be "new" at all, but to be in fact older than the "old" unrestored areas!  Time doesn't stand still here, but neither does it move in a simple, straightforward, linear flow.  We bend and twist time at Chartres, through our memories and our expectations - Filler looking to see again what we remembers seeing 30 years ago - as well as through active interventions in the building itself