See Paris as you’ve never seen it before, photographed by one of the earliest and most talented 19th century photographers, Charles Marville, at Washington’s National Gallery of Art.
This first U.S. exhibition of his work, “Charles Marville: Photographer of Paris”, is organized by the National Gallery (NGA) in association with New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, where it will be on view Jan. 27-May 4.
Marville (1813-1879) illuminates the City of Light in unique, gorgeous, then-innovative ways, especially using light and shade — only 11 years after photography was invented.
And the free exhibition illuminates the mysterious Marville through recent groundbreaking discoveries.
He has long been “an enigma,” said exhibit curator Sarah Kennel, associate curator of NGA’s photographs department. (Kennel also curated the NGA’s phenomenal “Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes, 1909–1929: When Art Danced with Music” — must-see before it closes Oct. 6).
The Marville mystery was due partly to a fire that destroyed Paris city hall in 1871, and many documents about his life were believed lost. The fire destroyed Marville’s 450-photograph “Old Paris (Vieux Paris) Album”. Fortunately, he had the negatives at home, and recreated the invaluable album. Many of these images are highlights of the exhibit.
Another reason for the enigma: Marville is a pseudonym for the man born 200 years ago as Charles-François Bossu, which means “hunchback”. Because of early bullying about his name, and the popularity of Victor Hugo’s “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” (1832), the five-foot-two-inch Bossu changed his name (ma ville? my city) around 1833 at the beginning of his career, Kennel told a press preview.
“He was suffused with ambition and drive…determined to record history and also leave his mark on it,” she added.
Originally an architectural illustrator, he made a daring switch to the new medium, and became one of the most successful photographers in Second Empire Paris. However, he died in “near-obscurity”.
Marville was appointed the first official photographer of Paris in 1862. He documented the metropolis before, during, and after its transformation from a medieval city to an exquisite modern one, as ordered by Napoleon III, and designed by “his chief urban planner” Baron Haussmann. Marville was called “Haussmann’s advance man.”
Some of the most intriguing among the 100 photographs are:
- A frilly spire of the Notre Dame Cathedral (its 850th anniversary is this year.)
- Stunning, almost abstract images of cloudy skies over Paris in the distance.
- Interior of the fire-ravaged Paris city hall, filled with ash-covered debris.
- Only Paris and Marville (avec apologies to Marcel Duchamp, a.k.a. R. Mutt, and his “Fountain”) could make a urinal beautiful, as in the “Jennings System” urinal photo. Today, only one urinal remains on the streets of Paris.
- Shantytowns — one with Marville overlooking a very polluted but mythologized Bièvre River, later covered over and redirected into the Paris sewers.
- Famed lampposts, some ornate and some stark, decorating the new, wide boulevards and gardens.
- A sunlight-dappled forest, with a dandified Marville posing beneath a chestnut tree.
But the most striking are not of Paris, but of his brooding, sensuous teenage assistant Charles-Hippolyte Delahaye. These experimental portraits reflect a moody adolescent “straight out of the ‘Twilight’ saga,” Kennel noted. One of these portraits, at the beginning of the exhibit, is covered with a velvet curtain. In another, the dramatic allure of Delahaye with his leonine hair is unmarred by “an awkward attempt to correct a flaw in the negative.”
The artist and editor Louis Auvray noted that if Marville was “generally superior to photographic colleagues, it is because (he) is, before all else, an artist.”
For more info: “Charles Marville: Photographer of Paris”, National Gallery of Art, www.nga.gov/, on the National Mall at Constitution Avenue and 6th Street, Washington, D.C., 202-737-4215. Free. Exhibit continues through Jan. 5.