Sunday, June 25, 2017

Salt: proposal for a new essay

Paul Géniaux, Marais Salant, Billiers.  Early 20th century, Rennes.

Silver Salts: Realism and Materiality in a French photograph, c. 1900

Working close to home, Paul Géniaux (1873-1929), photographed a female paludier, or salt-pan worker, in Billiers, on the south coast of Brittany in about 1905. Grayscale contrast has material consequences: we cannot avoid the dirt on her apron or her tough, bare feet on the salted earth. Registered in the image’s silver salts is the difference between the light cotton kerchief on her head and the dark skin of her face, exposed to the same blazing summer sun and wind that crystalizes the salt she skims.

Saliculture is a materially intensive agricultural labor, working with sea, sun and wind, yet it shares qualities with fishing and quarrying to harvest salt, the only rock that we eat. In the marais salants of the French Atlantic coast, trapped ocean water increases in salinity as it is guided through grids of carefully maintained, clay-lined channels to ultimately crystalize into prized fleur de sel. Like the crystals skimmed from the briny pan, Géniaux’s photographic practice was a gathering up of the world around him on silver gelatin dry plates. Although allied with a realist approach to photography rather than nascent French pictorialism, Géniaux photographed a highly selective archive of his native Brittany that inventoried the specificity of locally particular gestures, types and trades. Salt workers and their insular, clannish culture had been mythologized by Honoré Balzac, and had been a staple of travel illustration in the 19th century. Géniaux’s photographs generally echoed established visual tropes of rural labor and locale from travel writing to Salon painting; they were widely reproduced as collographs --a photomechanical fusion of camera and printing press-- in journals and as postcards that were reprinted for several decades.

This essay is a reflection on material equivalence in fin de siècle realist photography. It puts into dialogue Susan Sontag’s descriptions of photography’s “relatively undiscriminating, promiscuous, or self-effacing” literal qualities with Timothy Morton’s “weird essentialism” in which “things are partial, yet ‘organic.’ There are things, but they don’t come with a handy little dotted line that says Cut Here to separate the essence from the appearance.” Tim Ingold’s notion of landscapes as hybrid and dynamic “meshworks” is useful in getting away from “the sterile opposition between the naturalistic view of the landscape as a neutral, external backdrop to human activities, and the culturalistic view that every landscape is a particular cognitive or symbolic ordering of space.” Ingold has further called attention to the absence of materiality in studies of objects that have been “already crystallized out from the fluxes of materials and their transformations.” In addition to these theoretical approaches, I have found it fruitful to think about Géniaux’s photograph through the language of land art and collaborative artistic processes of working with the world’s materiality, especially Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty (1970), and his interests in salt’s crystalline properties.

Monday, August 15, 2016

Disappointing stones

 Last week, we were on a two- week trip to Brittany.  One afternoon, while installed in Douarnenez, we set out to find the Neolithic covered alley at Lesconil (c. 3500-2000 BCE), just outside of Tréboul.

After parking next to one other car on the edge of a field, we followed a footpath into the woods.  Three other people were there before us, taking photos and bantering.  After they left, we had it to ourselves for a few moments before more people arrived (it was August).

With a few minutes to reflect, the great granite stones, arranged like a dragon's bones, commanded attention. The historical monuments plaque, nearby, described how this sort of dolmen, a passage tomb, had been covered by earth.  The diagonal stones pointing outward, once held the edge of the mound.  And yet, you could see it at once as the framework of an underground burial space and as a structure or a sculpture: a set of stones on the land.

Like the people before us, we went into it, onto it, photographed it.  The wind blew through the trees above and the light kept changing.  Molly climbed onto it.  In a field just beyond this patch of woods, two brown mares and their foals grazed, their tails swishing at flies.

Brittany’s Neolithic standing stones are gray granite, the ubiquitous local stone that is the material of its geological sense of place. Granite is also the stuff of its weather-beaten craggy coastline and its lichen-covered, somber towns, sculptures and churches. Nineteenth-century writers often conflated the material qualities of this stone with the Breton landscape, the character of its people and many layers of their cultural histories. Balzac describes the residents of the area of Guérande as “old as the granite of Brittany… neither Frenchmen nor Gauls,—they are Bretons; or, to be more exact, they are Celts. Formerly, they must have been Druids, gathering mistletoe in the sacred forests and sacrificing men upon their dolmens.” Jules Janin writes that “there is nothing as sad as this land of granite that is constantly beaten by wind, with neither a tree nor shelter” in his description of the islands off the coast of Finistère.

A few days later, leaving Brittany, we drove through the Paimpont forest near Rennes and looked for the place known as "le Tombeau de Merlin" (Merlin's tomb) in one of the places that has been identified as the Arthurian woods of Brocéliande. The tourist information center in Paimpont provided a map. From the mob in the gift shop, the animé pixies and gnomes on its walls, and the cutesy names of the surrounding streets, it was pretty clear that the area was being marketed to families as a kind of themed landscape of magic. We drove off through the very beautiful forest to find it all the same, following signs that led to a congested parking lot and well-worn walking paths.

A sign at the entry explained that "le tombeau de Merlin" had been a Neolithic site (another covered passage tomb) that had been "discovered" in 1820 by the amateur antiquarian Jean Côme Damien Poignand who was responsible for locating much of the Arthurian legends, in the Paimpont forest. As Michel Calvez writes, this landscape is today a crystallization of the meanings imposed upon it in the 19th century. In short, Poignand made it up. He located many of the events of the Knights of the Round Table in the immediate landscape so that one may visit  Merlin's tomb, Viviane's tomb, The Valley of No Return, The tomb of the Giant, The fountain of Jouvence, and the pavilion of Morgane in one convenient park.

Jean Côme Damien POIGNAND,  Antiquités historiques et monumentales de Montfort à Corseul par Dinan et au retour par Jugon, Rennes, Duchesne, 1820,   140-141 —

Poignand wasn't acting alone. In 1824, François Blanchard de la Musse confirmed the identity of the Neolithic monument as Merlin's tomb. Many antiquarians and historians of the early 19th century attributed Brittany’s Neolithic stone monuments (c. 5200-2200 BC) to the Celts and Druids who settled in Brittany at least one thousand years later. Writers, artists and illustrators followed this romantic, nationalist interpretation of Neolithic monuments as Celtic ruins: like the Ossian hoax, they were considered a testimony to a native tradition of Northern France that was resistant to the Roman Empire and had no ties to Mediterranean classicism.

The first published image of "Merlin's Tomb,"  Magasin Pittoresque, 1846

Although there were no published works on Brittany’s prehistoric stones before 1760, by the mid 19th century, menhirs, dolmens, and the Carnac alignments were one of the most common themes of landscape description. Republican historian Jules Michelet comments in 1851 that it is unlikely to walk a half hour in some parts of Brittany, “without encountering one of the formless monuments that are call druidic."  Claiming Merlin for Brittany, Jacques Cambry (1795) and Miorcec de Kerdanet (1818) proposed that he had been born on the Isle de Sein.  Locating his tomb in Paimpont helped to further resolve his history, as historian Marcel Calvez argues.
Julia Margaret Cameron, Vivian and Merlin, c. 1876

Gustave Doré,Vivian and Merlin, c. 1867
Mad about the Arthurian legends, over the course of the 19th century, many French folklorists and antiquarians joined in the search for the sites of Brocéliande, adding layers of myth and speculation to the sites of Paimpont forest.

Archaeologist Felix Bellamy(1896) drew up an inventory of these, rejecting some theories and establishing a map of legends and definitive histories (Calvez).   Tourist maps and itineraries of the forest (like those drawn up for Fontainebleau) arrived as early as 1860.
Source: bnf exhibition on King Arthur,

Topography of the Forest of Brocéliande by Abbot Gillard (1953). As published in Marcel Calvez (2010).

In 1889, the archaeologist Felix Bellamy described the Neolithic monument as “a covered walkway of which only six stones remained.” A similar covered alley, that he proposed as Arthur's tomb,  is illustrated in his book, La forêt de Bréchéliant, la fontaine de Bérenton  (1896, volume 1). In 1892, treasure-hunters, persuaded that treasure lay buried beneath the great stones, blew up the Neolithic tomb. Two disappointing, fragmentary stones are all that remain.

  Bellamy's source, known as Ty-Lia or Ty-ar-C'Horrandened, in Pleumeur-Bodou (Côtes-d'Armor)

To return to our visit last week: Molly circled the stones, barefoot, hoping to find something of her beloved Merlin there.  The sad, bedraggled stones didn't give anything back.  The dirt of the crowded clearing around them was thick with ugly wood chips and the stones were hard to see as they were so draped with stuff that many visitors had left-- bits of fern, stones, and sticks.

Sources/ Further reading:

 Félix Bellamy, “La forêt de Bréchéliant : la fontaine de Bérenton, quelques lieux d'alentour, les principaux personnages qui s'y rapportent : tome premier / Félix Bellamy,” Collections numérisées - Université de Rennes 2, consulté le 11 août 2016,  Voir en ligne. pages 210

 Marcel Calvez "Brocéliande et ses paysages légendaires" Ethnologie française, T. 19, No. 3, Crise du paysage? (Juillet-Septembre 1989), pp. 215-226

Marcel Calvez. Druides, fées et chevaliers dans la forêt de Broc eliande : De l'invention de la topographie légendaire de la forêt de Paimpont a ses recompositions contemporaines.. Festival
international de géographie. Programme scientique, Oct 2010, Saint-Die-des-Vosges, France.

Théodore Hersart de la Villemarqué, « Visite au tombeau de Merlin » dans Revue de Paris, deuxième série, 1837, XLI, p. 45-62.

Jean Côme Damien Poignand, Antiquités Historiques Et Monumentales À Visiter De Montfort À Corseul, Par Dinan, Et Au Retour, Par Jugon, Avec Addition Des Antiquités De Saint-Malo Et De Dol, Étymologies Et Anecdotes Relatives À Chaque Objet. Rennes: Duchesne, 1820.

CHARTON, Edouard, « Le tombeau de Merlin », Le Magasin Pittoresque, Vol. 14, 1846, p. 87-88, Voir en ligne. pages 87-88.

Sunday, May 1, 2016

Terre Neuve / Terre Neuvas

(May, 2016) Please note:  I'm republishing this two years after I wrote the following post because a new version of this show is currently on view at the Musée de la Marine in Paris. 

The history of fishing is a long-haul story about using up the ocean. Even though the French Atlantic had been fished hard for centuries, it was only in the mid-nineteenth century that fishing became a year round, defining labor, rather than seasonal activity.  With depletion of coastal fish stocks, cod fishermen (especially from the north coast of Brittany) left for longer and more distant fishing seasons—to Iceland and Newfoundland. Terre Neuve / Terre Neuvas is a temporary exhibition that was jointly displayed by museums in Rennes and St. Brieuc, traveling in the summer of 2014 to Saint-Malo and Granville. The two museums display visual and material culture to tell the centuries-long story story of the French fishing fleet that traveled across the Atlantic to fish for cod. I visited in April, just before it closed at these locations.

"One Fish, Two Exhibitions" reads the promotional video:

Both shows introduced the subject of the French fishing fleet in the North Atlantic through maps, prints, documents, models and objects.  The portion that was in Rennes in the vast, postmodern cultural center, the Champs Libres had a very strong focus on the objects and material culture of fishing (as you can see in the following images shot there). 

Salt cod.

Taxidermied codfish.

The portion at the much smaller St. Brieuc Art and History museum had a broad range of visual and material popular culture including Salon paintings, silent film, letters, diaries, maps, portraits, clothing, fishing gear, ex-voto paintings and votive boats. As in Rennes, historical film footage ran on many walls, surrounded by material witnesses.

Museum assistant director Aurélie Maguet gave an  hour-long tour, explaining the history of French fishing in the North Atlantic and the establishment of fishing bases in Newfoundland, especially on the islands of St. Pierre and Miquelon, which today are France's last bit of territory in North America.

Duhamel du Monceau, Traité général des pesches 1769-1782

The striking imagery from the two-volume treatise on fishing, by Enlightenment scientist and author Henri-Louis Duhamel du Monceau (1700-1782) Traité général des pesches, (published 1769-82) was used throughout the upper section of the exhibition, along with images, objects and video pertaining to cod fishing. Before the dramatic and dangerous life of the fisherman came to the fore in fin de siècle painting and popular culture, the fishing boat and the "colonial" site on the shore were understood as sites of  rational, routine labor.  

 Like other forms of trade over water, fishing moved people and resources. Duhamel's text shows how, as a materially intensive form of food hunting, fishing demanded a network of material and ecological actors: for instance, lines were made of horse hair, flax or hemp— floats were cork, bladders kept the nets floating,  and lead was used for sinkers. Images from this text were animated for the exhibition, as this hand-held clip demonstrates.


The more official version of the film is here (updated June 2016)

La pêche sédentaire du 16ème au 19ème siècle à Terre-Neuve from Les Champs Libres on Vimeo.

Objects like this lure referred back to the practices depicted in the animation.

In the lower portion of the exhibition, Salon paintings such as Henri Dabadie's massive Departure of the Iceland Fishermen (a crowd-pleasing concoction of Impressionism, academic painting and japonisme) were framed by objects such as the sturdy leather and wood boots worn by Breton fishermen on these long journeys, sea chests, and wool long underwear that had been repeatedly mended, one would have to guess, during the many boring hours spent in transit. In her talk, Maguet made the point that melodramatic images such as this were not untruthful-- boats did depart and women did look melancholically to sea-- but that these images were already burned into the popular imagination by novels such as Pierre Loti's wildly successful Iceland Fishermen of 1886.

Henri Dabadie,  The Departure of the Iceland Fishermen in the Bay of Paimpol, 1900 (Nantes MBA)
A pair of many-times mended wool long underwear in the case beneath Dabadie's painting.
A similar pair was on display in Rennes, their affective power quite apparent!

Emma Herland's painting, Gaud Mevel, depicts the fictional character of Gaud, from Loti's Iceland Fishermen, who, goes daily to the village cemetery and the nearby chapel, expecting bad news of her husband's death at sea, obsessively reading the family names on plaques commemorating the lost at sea that repeat for several generations. In her daily, repetitive visits to this site of memory and mourning, the premonition seizes her that a new plaque will soon be added for her missing husband.

Emma Herland,  Gaud Mevel, 1887.  Musée de Laval.

Plaques for the disappeared at sea, Ploubazlanec, 2008.

  Editions of Loti's Iceland Fishermen and maquettes for sculptures based on his book.

To counter this mythic representation, Maguet explained, the curators installed a section containing letters, diaries, and other images and objects that served to give a voice to the fishermen and their families who are so often represented but silent.This included personal religious and devotional objects.

Two early ex-voto paintings expanded the visual culture of fisherfolk's religious practices.  The Exvoto of the miraculous salvation of the Pearl, from the Chapel of Notre Dame de la Cour in Lantic (North Coast, Brittany), a Gothic chapel that was the site of pilgrimage for sailors and fishermen of the region.

Ex voto of the Shipwreck of the Pearl, Notre dame de la Cour, Lantic, 1836

A votive boat that had been  carried in barefoot pilgrimages of thanks made by returned fishermen hung overhead, across from a painting by Rouen painter Albert Démarest, imaginatively constructing such a pilgrimage.

Albert Demarest, The Vow, 1894
The cod fishing boats departed from Paimpol in March, to make the month-long voyage across the ocean to fish the long summer season in the North Atlantic. These two journal covers, from March 1894 and March 1927, demonstrate the enduring interest in this dramatic moment in French popular culture.

Departure of the Iceland Fishermen, 1894

Departure of the Newfoundland Fishermen, 1927

Poster for the play "Terre-Neuve sur la Seine" by Eugène Le Mouël.  Pierreport, Paris. c. 1900  Musée du Vieux Granville.

The final part of the exhibition was a screenign room where a short version of  Jacques de Baroncelli's 1924 silent film adaptation of Loti's Iceland Fishermen played on a continuous loop.  The images in some of these stills clearly reflect the conventions established in painting and popular culture, such as the moment of departure:

Gaud waiting on the cliffs above the bay, looking to sea:


 There are several surreal interludes of ghosts on the surface of the ocean during a storm at sea:

And finally Gaud waits, at the "Widow's Cross" in Ploubazlanec.

  The success of these joint exhibitions is in the way that they represent what historian Jeffrey Bolster (in The Mortal Sea) terms “human maritime communities” as they interact with “marine biological communities."  They cast a critical eye on conventional representation, asking who can speak for this lost relationship with the sea, what voices can be recovered, or material experiences reimagined. 


Sunday, July 26, 2015

Entangled Bank: seaweed part 2

Returning (again) to seaweed, never having left it.
Millet's stooping figure becomes a seaweed gleaner at the ecomuseum.
A talk I gave several years ago about thrift and recuperation in coastal culture has grown into a fascination with coastal ecology and the origins of marine biology in France. In July (2015), before heading to Liverpool to a conference on "Transatlantic Dialogues", I was on a short trip to France, and made a point of visiting the Ecomuseum of Kelp Harvesters and of Seaweed (Musée des goémoniers et de l'algue) in Plouguerneau (on the north coast of Finistère, not far from Brest).  The community-run ecomuseum is positioned in the heart of an area that has the greatest concentration of seaweeds and the strongest living tradition of harvesting.

The museum presents the historical importance of seaweed in the local culture and economy.
dried seaweeds

I had contacted the museum to ask a few questions and was encouraged to visit, but I no idea what to expect.  First, I watched a short documentary that interviewed many older people who spoke in Breton and in French about their memories of gathering seaweed before school, about being on harvesting trips that encircled and denuded the underwater kelp forests surrounding islands (like Ouessant), about drying and burning seaweed for the "soda" in its ash (high in iodine) and the later industrialization of the process (more machinery, fewer harvesters, lower prices,etc.).
L'usine d'iode
Iodine factory at Lampaul, opened in 1895
Harvesters  traditionally dried and burnt the kelp they collected on the beach and then sold the ash which was then processed by iodine factories (many were built on the coast in the late 19th century)
Piles of dried kelp, Lampaul
and by 1977, seaweed was purchased green from the large-scale harvesters.


The museum tells a local story about the culture of this harvest which is bound up in stories, song and the Breton language. In its historical trajectory, it is also global story about the part of the industrialization of fishing, and exploitation of ocean resources, of the push to mechanize the harvest, squeeze out the small producer (with more material investment in boats and trucks), and the coincidence of falling prices and the drive to more efficiently use up local resources.

Before its industrial collection and processing, seaweed collecting, like gleaning a harvested field, was a right protected and policed by each commune. There were collection days set aside for the needy—(e.g. women with husbands in the military and widows were allowed special collection rights and  could employ a man from outside the commune to help them). Whereas  dead seaweed washed up in abundance on the coast for the gathering, foragers and harvesters sometimes went to the limits of the earth: the intertidal zone exposed by the duirnal tides that recede the most at new and full moon and are exceptionally low at the equinoxes. 
Pierre Toulgouat, The oldest seaweed harvesters: husband and wife (64 and 58 years old) who spend entire days in the water up to their stomachs.  Ouessant, 1938, MuCEM.
Any nearby lighthouse was arbiter of day and night: collecting could not begin in the morning until the light was extinguished.  There was a general ban on night gathering except driftweed. Live, attached seaweed was considered royal property in the 17th century and up until the 19th century its cutting was strictly regulated. 
Local rules controlled where on the beach collected material could be dried or loaded into carts.  Harvested seaweed left on the beach after dark became unmarked (no one’s property) free to become driftweed again.

From the 1860s until well after the first world war, painters and photographers repeatedly represented Bretons gathering and burning seaweed. Many of the realist tropes developed for the description of agriculture (such as Millet's Gleaners) were put into use in describing workers of the shore.  Fishing practices, much harder to observe from shore, never received as much visual attention. Charles Cottet, in a painting that is in the collection of the Morlaix Museum, paints lumpy, brown piles of drying kelp spread out across the island landscape of Ouessant.  As part of his series, In the Country of the Sea, he shows us the dependence of the people of the island on the sea-- and the ecological entwining of sea and land harvests.

Charles Cottet, Piles of Drying Kelp, Ouessant.  c. 1903, Morlaix

For the islanders, seaweed was burned and sold to the outside world, but it also had many uses.  In a very wet place with no trees is substituted for wood as fuel. Thrift and ingenuity prevailed on the islands.  Seaweed combined with cow manure was shaped into large pancakes (called “glaouad”) and dried out for later burning.  (Clumps of turf or "gleds" were also cut for burning on the islands).

"Gleds" or turf cut on Ouessant, 1938

Maturin Meheut, Île de Batz, Bringing in the kelp for winter heating, 1912.  On view at the Meheut Museum, Lamballe, July 2015.

The offshore islands such as Batz and Ouessant were places of material scarcity: the only cash commerce with the mainland was in fish, wool from their sheep and ash from the burning of seaweed. Cash gained from the sale of kelp ash was often used to purchase firewood. Seaweed was a substitute for firewood on the islands, and in glass manufacturing (until 1789), the soda ash (sodium bicarbonate ) from kelp was in demand because of the deforestation of Europe.   I find these ecological relationships fascinating.

Iodine's use as a disinfectant was discovered in 1812 and the thickening agent, alginate was found in seaweed in in 1880: both were reasons for the continued harvesting of seaweed as a raw material.

So many images and travel tales from the Breton islands focus upon the material aspects of everyday life on the Breton coast, and dwell upon the hard-scrabble life of the peasant population in their toils to recuperate value from base materials like seaweed. Over several years of looking at these images of seaweed harvesting from art museums, historical image banks and in the ecomuseum, I wondered how much artists like Cottet, Meheut or Elodie La Villette (mentioned in a previous post) knew about marine natural history. 

The British enthusiasm for the seaside and for amateur botanical and tide pool collecting has received much attention, but it was harder to figure out if there were many popular French parallels.  

French naturalists Jean-Victoire Audouin and Henri Milne Edwards were first French natural history scientists to look closely at the littoral. They had first investigated and published their findings on the proliferation of life—both human and nonhuman at the tideline, especially in their careful field work conducted on the archipelago of the Chausey islands, off the coast of Granville (Normandy) in the 1820s where they observed both Norman and Breton seasonal workers (many of whom set up temporary camps under upturned boats) harvesting and burning seaweed, fishing and quarrying granite from the island.  In 1832 they published their first volume of Recherches pour servir à l’histoire naturelle du littoral de la France  in which they describe the vibrant, horizontal bands of plant and animal life on tidelines. Their early observations of marine invertebrates and on the zonation of the intertidal zone was important foundation of ecological literature.  

Concarneau Biological Station (Marinarum)
In 1859, the first marine biological station  was established in Concarneau.  In the Third Republic, many newly opened biological stations all along French coastlines fostered fish breeding, international biological Research, and comparative anatomy of marine invertebrates. 

  Le Monde De La Mer. Paris, 1865.
In later 19th-century France, many popular general texts on ocean life were published, such as Le Monde de la Mer by Alfred Frédol (pseud. for Christian Horace Benedict Alfred Moquin-Tandon) (1866).  French science popularizer Louis Figuier shortly thereafter released (in English) The Ocean World: being a descriptive history of the sea and its living inhabitants, which seems to have been mostly plagiarized from Frédol. 
Gosse, title page of The Aquarium... 1854
The English craze for the seaside and coastal natural history did have some direct effect on the French. English naturalist Philip Henry Gosse's wildly popular text The Aquarium:an unveiling of the wonders of the deep sea (1854) encouraged French interest in home aquaria in a momentary fad in the 1860s (Camille Lorenzi is working on this). 

An aquarium featured in a mid-19th century fashion plate.
Many illustrations from UK journals were reused in French contexts, such as the image of an aquarium featured in the short story “The Aquarium” in Magasin Pittoresque (1859)  
Freeman, illustration in Magasin Pittoresque (1859).  

As I write, there are several ongoing exhibitions that highlight the work of amateur collectors of marine algae. The Crouan brothers 1798-1871 & 1802-1871) were pharmacists and amateur seaweed botanical collectors who amassed a huge collection of specimens (over 400) in the bay of Brest. Although one of their best known collections or "alguier" from 1835 was destroyed when Brest was bombed in the Second World War, their collection

  Algues marines du Finistère (1852) was printed in a limited edition of 50 (with real pressed specimens for each entry). One exemplary copy of this was on view in Concarneau Feb- April 2015, and is currently in Saint-Charles.  They learned their techniqes of pressing the seaweed they had collected from the writings of an earlier collector from Quimper, Theophile Bonnemaison (1774-1829) (also a pharmacist and amateur algologist).   (To be continued...) 

a video of the Crouan Brothers' Alguier: