Sunday, January 17, 2010

The Passages of Paris - What's for sale?

Passage des Panoramas

In Paris's 2nd Arrondissement, the ancestors of our modern shopping malls remain today. Called "passages" or "arcades" - they are narrow walkways, lined with shops and covered with iron-framed glass roofs, that meander between two buildings and offer a short-cut through urban boulevards.

Great-Uncle George's Baedekar guide to Paris, published in 1900, showing the Passage des Panoramas, Passage Jouffroy, and Passage Verdeau.

Scholar and writer Walter Benjamin was fascinated with the way the covered shopping arcades of Paris contributed to the rise of consumer capitalism in the 19th century.
The arcades are the center of commerce in luxury items. In fitting them out, art enters the service of the merchant.

Housewares shop in the Galerie Vivienne

So I thought I'd give you a glimpse of what's on sale in Paris's covered passageways.

Bookseller, Passage des Panoramas

By providing a sheltered place where commodities could be displayed and admired, where even those who couldn't buy them could still see them and envy them, the very architecture of the arcades spurred a new era of consumerism.

Art Gallery, Passage Joffroy

Benjamin called the passages "temples of commodity," and noted the vast array of items for sale all in the same place. He likened the glass shop windows one gazed at to:
those great encyclopedic works World and Mankind, New Universe, The Earth, wouldn’t our gaze always fall first on the color illustration of a “Carboniferous Landscape” or on “Lakes and Glaciers of the First Ice Age?” Such an ideal panorama of a barely elapsed primeval age opens up when we look through the arcades that are found in all cities. Here resides the last dinosaur of Europe, the consumer. On the walls of these caverns their immemorial flora, the commodity, luxuriates and enters, like cancerous tissue, into the most irregular combinations. A world of secret affinities; palm tree and feather duster, hair dryer and Venus de Milo, prosthesis and letter-writing manual come here together as after a long separation. The odalisque lies in wait next to the inkwell, priestesses raise aloft ashtrays like patens. These items on display are a rebus; and how one ought to read here the birdseed kept in the fixative-pan from a darkroom, the flowerseeds beside the binoculars, the broken screws atop the musical score, and the revolver above the goldfish bowl – is right on the tip of one’s tongue. After all, nothing in the lot appears to be new. The goldfish come from perhaps a pond that has dried up long ago, the revolver will have been a corpus delecti, and these scores could hardly have preserved their previous owner from starvation when her last pupils stayed away.

Needlepoint shop in the Passage Verdeau

He wrote about the collectors shops - taxidermists and shell shops and a shop selling only buttons. Commemorative spoons, lingerie, hairpins. There were cafes, hairdressers, bookstalls, and wax museums - the Musee Grevin Wax Museum is still in the Passage Jouffroy today.

The line between art and commodity was blurred. The shopping arcades were a habitat much like one's own home, wrote Benjamin:
glossy enameled shop signs are a wall decoration as good as, if not better than, an oil painting in the drawing room of a bourgeois; walls with their “Post No Bills” are its writing desk, newspaper stands its libraries, mailboxes its bronze busts, benches its bedroom furniture, and the café terrace its balcony from which it looks down on its household.

Passage Jouffroy

Walter Benjamin was intrigued by the artificiality of the decor style, which aped other worlds and eras, and mixed it all up without discrimination.

Bicycle in the Passage Verdeau

He quoted his friend Franz Hessel, who called the 19th century the "dreamy epoch of bad taste."
Yes, this epoch was wholly adapted to the dream, was furnished in dreams. The alternation in styles - Gothic, Persian, Renaissance and so on - signified: that over the interior of the middle-class dining room spreads a banquet room of Cesare Borgia's, or that out of the boudoir of the mistress a Gothic chapel arieses, or that the master's study, in its iridescence, is transformed into the chamber of a Persian prince.
Antique store, Galerie Vero-Dodat
Antique and secondhand shops were common. So were specialty shops, like one that sells fancy canes.

Le Bonheur des Dames, Passage Verdeau

Benajmin was interested in the names of shops, like "La Fille d'Honneur," "Le Page Inconstant," "La Chamiere Allemande" (The German Cottage), "Au Coin de la Rue" (At the corner of the road), and "Au Mamelouk." Some of the names reflected the popularity of theatrical revues and operettas of the day.

Toy shop at the Palais Royal

Benjamin wrote about how fashion created the need to purchase each new item, that it "prescribed the ritual by which the fetish Commodity wished to be worshipped." Both buyer and sellers were constantly watching one another, selling themselves as surely as if they were prostituting themselves.

Boutique in the Palais Royal
Women here look at themselves more than elsewhere, and from this comes the distinct beauty of the Parisienne. Before any man catches sight of her she has already seen herself reflected ten times.
He quoted Karl Marx, who wrote how the "murderous, meaningless caprices of fashion" led to the formation of the factory system of exploitation in the Industrial Revolution. The constant need to have the latest thing kept the system going.

Passage des Panoramas

By the end of the 19th century, the passages were also where less seemly commerce took place, including prostitution. Prostitutes were, perhaps, the ultimate expression of the commodity fetishism, since they browsed in the passages for clothing and jewelry to enhance their ability to sell themselves to the men who frequented the passages.

Contemporary accounts, including the novels of Emile Zola, describe the world of the passages and the excess of commerce conducted there. In "Nana," a novel about a theatrical courtesan, he describes her stroll through the Passage des Panoramas:
She adored the Passage des Panoramas, still obsessed by the passion she had felt in her youth for fancy goods, fake jewelry, gilded zinc and cardboard made to look like leather. She could not tear herself away from shop windows any more than when she had been a street urchin in down-at-heel shoes, lost in wonder over a confectioner's wares, or listening to a musical box in a neighboring shop and above all going into ecstasies over cheap gaudy knickknacks, such as nutshell workboxes, ragpickers' baskets for holding toothpicks, and thermometers mounted on obelisks....
Confectioners in the Passage des Panoramas

Walter Benjamin worked on his study of the shopping arcades for over ten years, amassing a collection of notes, quotes, and interconnected essays. It was his obsession, and if he'd been able to publish it, it would have been his most important book.

Instead, in 1940, Walter Benjamin died while fleeing the Nazis. His death by supposed suicide in a mountain town on the border between Spain and France is still a mystery. So, too, is the fate of a lost manuscript he carried with him. Was it his finished "Passegenwerk," on the arcades of Paris?

A collection of his notes - perhaps his unfinished manuscript - was hidden by a friend in the Bibliotheque Nationale. It was this fragmentary, montage-like collection of writings that was finally published in 1980.

Rotunda, Galerie Colbert

Today the Galerie Colbert is part of the Institut Nationale d'Histoire de l'Art, a training and research center. Its beautiful rotunda now restored, it houses reading rooms, seminar rooms, and exhibit space. One of the seminar rooms is named after Walter Benjamin.

"Even the eyes of passersby are veiled mirrors", Walter Benjamin wrote.


ifthethunderdontgetya™³²®© said...

He quoted his friend Franz Hessel, who called the 19th century the "dreamy epoch of bad taste."

Does that make this the nightmare epoch of bad taste?

mo.stoneskin said...

Great stuff, lovely photos, and so kind of you to share with us a picture of your bicycle...

Tristan Robin Blakeman said...

that sign from the Musée Grévin is fabulous! I don't think I've ever noticed that. I will look for it next visit.

another wonderful post - your Paris posts always bring back such lovely memories!

kcinnova said...

I continue to be amazed by your fantastic photos (my favorite is of the rotunda in Galerie Colbert) and even more so by your incredible prose. I feel that I have just visited Paris. Thank you!

Are you okay there in L.A.? I just saw the weather reports for this week.

Carmi said...

I've got to get myself to Paris. I had no IDEA that these things even existed. You've told their story so richly...I can see myself wandering endlessly through these unique passages, drinking in the experience. Until then, I've got your incredible perspective for inspiration.

Monica said...

Fabulous post.

Oh those books and pastries. Must return there soon.

Sue (Someone's Mom) said...

Every time I thought I'd picked my favorite shop, there was another one that caught my eye. I would need to take lots of money here.