Hector Guimard’s Métro entrances and the legacy of Art Nouveau

Paris feels strange, even frightening at the moment – the city on high alert, military everywhere. Perhaps this was why recently I was struck by the eerie beauty of the Métro entrances. They make you feel more like you are descending into some dark and dreamy Hades rather than a well-lit system of modern transport.

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Guimard’s iconic design at Ménilmontant Métro station (Wikimedia Commons, User: JLPC, Jun. 2013)

Over a hundred years have passed since Hector Guimard’s designs first graced the cityscape, to some acclaim, and a great deal of controversy. Conservative figures of the time heaped scorn upon the avant-garde artistic and architectural style we class as art nouveau. Its sinuous shapes evoked organic plant forms and the curves of the female body. Some thought it was just bizarre – the press dubbed it as the style “nouille” (the “noodle” style). The use of iron, coloured enamel and glass made it expensive to construct and gave the movement a very short life – in 1914, it seemed more in tune with the flamboyant excesses of early modernity than the present world at war.

Guimard’s use of corrugated iron in long, spiralling, stem-like forms blends the vegetal with the technological, the old with the new. The entrances were called édicules (aedicules), a term which referred both to the little houses above Christian tombs and the less than appealing public toilets dotted around the city. The red lanterns that loom above the entrances seem at once monstrous and machine-like, lighting the way into a spooky underworld, labelled by the equally gothic METROPOLITAIN, in striking capital letters on a yellow enamel plaque.

According to Walter Benjamin, Art Nouveau was a ‘fantastic montage’, where ‘nerve and electric wire not infrequently meet’. It formed part of a dream-city, a space of phantasmagoria perpetuated by the forces of early capitalism, where organic and inorganic mixed in an unsettling marriage. For him, the style gave the delusion of progress. It was a threshold space that perpetuated the waking dream that was enchanting everybody, luring people into this new, exciting underground space, in order to ferry them around the capitalist world of production and consumption more easily and efficiently.

‘Jugendstil represents an advance, insofar as the bourgeoisie gains access to the technological bases of its control over nature; a regression, insofar as it loses the power of looking the everyday in the face.’

Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project (1927-40)

Voices on either side of the political divide lambasted the style, either for its silly irreverence, or for its false promises of an ever-receding utopia. N0wadays, the style is resurging among modern artists and architects, as well as in the world of mass-produced merchandise, even including the new craze for colouring books. Are we still living in Benjamin’s dream world, bewitched by magical shapes and structures into our enduring role of passive consumer? …

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Anaïs Nin, The Four-Chambered Heart

“But love, the great narcotic, was the hothouse in which all the selves burst into their fullest bloom…
love the great narcotic was the revealer in the alchemist’s bottle rendering visible the most untraceable substances
love the great narcotic was the agent provocateur exposing all the secret selves to daylight
love the great narcotic lined fingertips with clairvoyance
pumped iridescence into the lungs for transcendental x-rays
printed new geographies in the lining of the eyes
adorned words with sails, ears with velvet mutes
and soon the balcony tipped their shadows into the river, too, so that the kiss might be baptised in the holy waters of continuity.”

Anaïs Nin’s The Four-Chambered Heart (1950) is a heart-wrenching tale of the anguish that accompanies a destructive and jealous love. An old barge in the Seine is the scene for Djuna and Rango’s steamy embraces, which the couple throw themselves into with unadulterated passion. But it is a precarious idyll that will all too soon be interrupted by the needs of the outside world – Rango’s invalid wife, Zora, for instance – but also the vicissitudes of human character.

“All the dangers… dangers to the love, they believed as all lovers believe, came from the outside, from the world, never suspecting the seed of death of love might lie within themselves.”

Part of Nin’s series Cities of the Interior, the author renounces the hardships of post-war France to delve into the human psyche as it meets another. The lovers go from perfect understanding and harmony to unrest and confusion. Related by an emotionally entangled narrator, the reader gains access to Djuna’s sorrowful protests as their love threatens to sour.

“They had reached a perfect moment of human love. They had created a moment of perfect understanding and accord. This highest moment would now remain as point of comparison to torment them later on when all natural imperfections would disintegrate it.

The dislocations were at first subtle and held no warning of future destruction. At first the vision was clear, like a perfect crystal. Each act, each word would be imprinted on it to shed light and warmth on the growing roots of love, or to distort it slowly and corrode its expansion.”

Nin, famed for her beautifully composed erotica, here dedicates her prose to a sophisticated psychology of a man and woman in love. The rather essentialist view of male and female ‘nature’ might sit uncomfortably with modern feminists, but Nin harks back to another generation of women’s empowerment. She was dedicated to writing women into text, giving a voice to the silenced, allowing a full and often painfully real portrait of those characters who had for centuries been tools or conquests for the male protagonist. Rango is a violent, unstable heir to the Byronic hero whose masterly portrait deprives Djuna of none of her own complexities.

The novel is said to be autobiographical, based on Nin’s own tumultuous relationship with Peruvian radical Gonzalo Moré. As she said in an unpublished diary: “it is the monument that he will not be able to destroy as he destroyed our life”. It straddles novella and testimonial, romance and spiritual Bildungsroman. The whole work is heartbreakingly honest.

“”Djuna, you’re taking me to the bottom of the sea to live, like a real mermaid.”

“I must be a mermaid, Rango. I have no fear of depths and a great fear of shallow living. But you, poor Rango, you’re from the mountain, water is not your element. You won’t be happy.”

“Men from the mountains always dream of the sea, and above all things I love to travel. Where are we sailing now?””

Anaïs Nin, The Four-Chambered Heart (Virago Press 1992)

Käthe Kollwitz, artist and pacifist

‘I am in the world to change the world.’

 

One of Berlin’s best galleries is the small museum dedicated to Käthe Kollwitz, one of the city’s most eminent artists of the twentieth century. Tucked away in East Charlottenberg, it makes a nice getaway from the enormous collections concentrated on Museum Island. Four floors exhibit paintings, drawings, prints and sculptures along with a wealth of information about Kollwitz’s life and works. It certainly isn’t a bundle of laughs. But the heartfelt, mesmerising quality of her art leaves you feeling moved, even uplifted, despite the sorrow it so intensely expresses.

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Käthe Kollwitz, New York Public Library (1919)

A staunch pacifist, Kollwitz blurred the boundaries between art and activism. Works like the woodcut series Krieg (War, 1922-23) and the anti-hunger lithography Brot! (Bread!, 1924) rail against hardships of life in early twentieth-century Germany. For her, art should reflect society as it was for the many, and in doing so, perhaps one day change it. Etchings of starving children holding out soup bowls stand beside prints of emaciated beggars and war-torn communities. ‘More than a life’ is the slogan of the museum – yet the autobiographical significance of her work is crucial. After the death of her son Peter in Flanders in 1914, the harsh contours and dark lines of her etchings are shocking. In a way that resembles Goya, each series aims to depict the suffering of every individual, giving humanity back to those who have been dehumanised by pain and poverty.

Motherhood is one of the key themes of her oeuvre, and this is where love and intense emotion shine through in a poignant exposition of the human condition. The fourth floor of the museum is dedicated to Kollwitz’s sculpture, the work that was most important to the artist. Heavily influenced by Rodin, their three-dimensional aspect allow her figures to embrace, melding into one another while still retaining their difference. A mother protects two children – she is the eternal shelter that binds life together, her sacrifice immortalised in bronze.

The Käthe Kollwitz Museum is open daily 11am – 6pm, Fasanenstr. 24 10719 Berlin.