Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Past tasks in the round

A conference on Jean-François Millet in Normandy in the fall of 2000 took me to the 17th-century manor house at Cerisy-la-Salle, not too far from Millet's birthplace in Gruchy at the end of the Manche peninsula.  At the time, I was completing my dissertation on Millet which was mostly concerned with thematic approaches to the reception of his work in terms of provinciality, regionalism, rural dirt and religiosity. I had driven from Paris to the conference so that I could explore the area a bit more on my own, and, on the way back to Paris with a few colleagues in the car, I insisted on making a detour to the city of St. Lô. I wanted to photograph a bronze statue of a Norman milkmaid that had been first erected in 1888, 
but was melted down by the Germans during the Occupation, and then as a result of a public subscription campaign, it was re-cast from the original plaster and re-installed on its original base (in a new location in a public park) in the 1980s.

I was most interested, at the time, in the way that popular imagery inflected Millet's imagery (that his biographers always described as coming straight from his authentic peasant roots in Normandy) and the way that his imagery rapidly became absorbed into tropes of rural life in the later 19th and early 20th centuries.  The Norman Milkmaid piece from my dissertation eventually became a stand-alone article.  Even though my dissertation work on Millet had little appeal to publishers, the article garnered a certain amount of attention. I moved away from working on Millet specifically, even though many of the approaches that I had taken have stayed with me ever since.

I only started thinking about these popular sculptures again recently. I was reading about the collecting of flint "galets" on the beaches of Normandy and Picardie, and then saw the film Bord de Mer (Seaside),

a contemporary meditation on the dead-end monotony (and limited option) of year-round working class life in a provincial summer vacation town.  In the film, the female protagonist works in a factory that polishes these same rocks for decorative use in gardens and for export.

 I was working on a post for this blog about female rock pickers in paintings and other forms of visual culture, but every time I looked on line for images of "ramasseuses des galets," among the many post cards of women looking for large flint rocks at the tide line like this:

I also found views of a recent sculpture of a man and horse collecting rocks that had been installed on a round-about on the coast road between Etretat and Le Havre. Even though the stone that the figure holds is much larger than the ones about him and his sturdy work horse, the scale is still difficult to discern from the image. 


Looking for other examples of beach foraging (after having written on seaweed collecting in a previous post) I found another recent sculpture, again installed on a round-about, this time in Honfleur.  Right by the tourist office at the old port,  Les moulières d'Honfleur is a bronze sculpture of three women taking the poses of collecting mussels. When filled with water, the women seem to be standing in shallow water on flat rocks, picking mussels.

Jean-Marc de Pas, rond-point du vieux bassin, Honfleur

These are not allegories or literary characters. Nor are they local heroes or monuments to the dead. As monuments to departed ways of life, installed in a space that makes them difficult to approach and almost impossible to observe in passing, they occupy a prominent space-- a no-place of roadway has been remade as an intertidal zone. 

In January, 2015, while driving down the Normandy coast, I looked for these roundabout sculptures, hoping to photograph them, only to find that they had been decked out for  Christmas: the mussel gatherers were strung with lights and the gigantic rock picker sported a Santa Claus outfit.
Jean-Marc de Pas,
The Mussel-pickers of Honfleur

 Rond-point du Cotentin, between Saint-Vaast la Houge and Le Havre.

In these strange round-about sculptures from Normandy, giganticized or bronzed, the “modest gesture of stooping to glean” has been safely contained in the non-space of transit, standing for formerly marginal and now unsustainable metiers of exploiting an eroding coastline or  foraging and ekeing out an existence on the edge of the sea. And yet, as markers of the local, they have been embraced-- and ornamented-- by their communities.

Jean Fréour, Oyster Washers, fountain, Cancale, early 20th century.

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