“Printing Paris” is the blog of ArtSlant’s Georgia Fee Artist-in-Residence, Shoshana Kessler. Kessler is undertaking a contemporary resetting and retracing of Hope Mirrlees’ experimental poem, Paris: a Poem (1919), employing a combination of traditional and modern printing techniques. The blog will feature small essays following her research on the poem and Mirrlees as she resets this forgotten masterwork.
In her essay “Street Haunting,” Virginia Woolf notes the joy of the aesthetic stroll; an outwards facing wander throughout a city, concerned with “[t]he content of surfaces only.” This is the eye that capitalism preys upon—the Sohos and Saint Germains of the world. And yet, here, capitalism also acts as proviso: an acceptable excuse for the gendered activity of street walking. Woolf’s example: leaving the house to buy a pencil.
Nearly a century on, do women still need excuses (generally purchased-based) to walk? George Sand dressed as a man to walk the streets comfortably. I walk to supermarkets. Lauren Elkin’s Flâneuse has recently undertaken a thorough investigation into the genealogy of the female walker. But, as Elkin’s personal histories demonstrate, whether women feel comfortable walking when and as they please is a question that can only be answered subjectively (as well as contextually).
A large part of my research in Paris involves walking alone: re-tracing the route of Mirrlees’ poem. This is not a unique endeavor. In 2016, Mirrlees scholar and writer Sandeep Parmar re-walked most of it for a BBC Radio 3 production. And unwitting tourists follow the route, day in, day out. Mirrlees calls at the Louvre, the Eiffel Tower, Père Lachaise, the Seine. These are hardly the underground haunts of Parisian subculture. Between the tourists, the scholars and myself, her route has been—someway or the other—stepped.
By my estimations I have walked around 70,000 steps and recorded about 10 hours of said wandering. The route, in all honesty, doesn’t make much sense. It was never really built for climbing: destinations are re-visited, fused, and disappear altogether. I have adapted it for my own means.
A good walker maps her points of reference. Beneath is a list of the main sites called upon within the poem:
- NORD-SUD (line number in Paris: 2)
- CONCORDE (l.17)
- The Tuileries (l.20)
- Arc de Triomphe (l.55)
- Rue St. Honoré (l.67)
- Bon Marche (l.95)
- The Louvre (l.116)
- Père Lachaise (l.175)
- Grand(s) Boulevards (l.198)
- The Seine (l.269,
- Eiffel Tower (l.273)
- Rue de Beaune (l.321)
- Place des Vosges (l.335)
- L’impasse des deux anges (l.347)
- Le Petit-Palais (l.394)
- Moulin Rouge (l.422)
- The Abbaye of Port Royal
Nord-Sud was an early line operator in the Paris métro (established 1904). It ran three separate routes: A, B, and C. A—the line the poem is concerned with—connected Montparnasse to Montmartre for the first time, linking two important cultural hubs together. In 1930, CMP (Compagnie du chemin de fer métropolitain de Paris) absorbed Nord-Sud. Line A became Line 12, which it remains today. Chambre des Députés, mentioned in the poem, is now Assemblée National.
Mirrlees first visited Paris in 1913 with her friend Karin Costelloe, right in the midst of line A’s construction. By the time she returned with Jane Harrison in 1918, the line had been running in its full capacity (it was extended to include Jules Joffrin to Port de la Chapelle) for two years. Stops included Rue du Bac, Solférino, Chambre des Députés, lines 7–9 in the poem:
(Dubonnet, a wine-based aperitif, had a recognizable art deco aesthetic, and advertisements were scattered about the underground. Kafka, for instance, ruminating on his métro experience, noted that the placing of such Dubonnet adverts were “very well-suited to being read, expected and observed by sad and unoccupied passengers.”)
Hector Guimard (1867–1942), a famed architect and Art Nouveau practitioner, designed the early Paris métro signage and type. There are two main types of Guimard entrances: les édicules: large glass covered canopies, found at the Abbesses stop (line 12), Porte Dauphine (line 2), and Châtelet. Elaborate, ornate and generally bug-like in exterior, they were nicknamed Libellules’ (dragonflies). The second is simpler: cast iron kiosks and balustrades, framed with two cast iron pillars shaped to resemble brins de muguet, or stalks of the lily of the valley.
Within the Art Nouveau collection at the Musée D’Orsay you can find a history of Guimard’s original designs of the métro edifices, alongside examples of his interior design (armchairs, mirrors, chairs). The collection displays large early drawings of structural supports, motifs and fonts, as well as a large “METROPOLITAN” sign.
The overt embellishment of the design, drawing on the “natural” fluidity of plants and insects, was an attempt to get Parisians eager to travel subterranean via making the journey a spectacle. It worked, insofar as it became instantly emblematic. Guimard’s name became synonymous with Art Nouveau in France, to the extent that it was commonly called “le style metro” or “Guimard style.” Susan Sontag regarded the Guimard entrances as the most developed form of the “Camp” aesthetic. About two thirds of the way through the poem, the streets of Paris dissolve into spectacle and performance, including an oncoming “Ballet of green Butterflies.” Almost certainly referring to the flurry and rush at the end of the working day, Paris is interspersed with these little nods to the underground.
Nowadays, the typography inside the station often uses a modified version of Adrian Frutiger’s “Univers” typeface. The variant was created and installed between the 1970s and 1990s. This mixture of Guimard and Univers—the first inherently “Parisian,” the other a sans-serif found throughout the modern world—makes for a strange hybrid. As traveling underground settled, we can view this patchwork of type as somehow commemorative: the shift from spectacle to normality.
The Guimard kiosk, an example of the Libellules and Guimard font, at Place de la Bastille Paris metro was destroyed in 1962.
Nord-Sud was also a small avant-garde magazine, run by Pierre Reverdy, Guillaume Apollonaire, and Max Jacob between 1914 and 1918. It was devoted to new writing and art.
Similar in scope to the more famous Littérature magazine (1919), it published, among others, Louis Aragon, Tristan Tzara, Georges Braques, Paul Dermée, André Breton, Vicente Huidobro, Phillipe Soupault, Jean Paulhan. It’s a male dominated list. In fact, it’s a male-only list. Looking through the previous editions, there doesn’t seem to be a single female contributor in any of the fourteen issues.
One of the only influences of Paris directly acknowledged by Mirrlees is Jean Cocteau’s Le Cap de Bonne Espérance (The Cape of Good Hope), also published in 1919. Cocteau’s poem is a celebration of the pilot Roland Garros, who was Cocteau’s lover. Immediately similar to Paris in terms of linear experimentation, Le Cap’s fragmented nature serves to illustrate the power of a plane in flight, paying respect to these conquering technologies (and especially prevalent in relation to the end of the world war). Cocteau read the poem at Monnier’s La Maison des Amis des Livres in February. Breton was there. Soupault was there, and according to a draft of a letter from Cocteau, trotted behind Breton like a “nice little myopic goat.” André Gide was there too, with his lover. It seems very likely that Mirrlees was there. Women are harder to trace.
Shoshana Kessler is a printer and publisher at Hurst Street Press.
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