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. 


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