I’ve found that when it comes to enjoying Paris, it is usually the spaces in between the tried and true treasures where I find places of interest. It was in such a niche, between the Palais de Tokyo and Le Musée d’art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, where I stumbled upon a grandiose colonnade and high relief friezes that rivaled those of the Parthenon (that are in the Louvre because I’ve never personally been to Greece). The columns have no definitive order: they are not Ionic, Doric, nor Corinthian but rather sixty foot tall pillars of poured concrete. They stand as a real testament to smooth modern concrete in contrast to the stacked rocks of the Ancients. Staircases weave back and forth from the top of the archway down to a pool of water where one assumes a fountain used to run. The steps continue downward and open out onto the artsy irrational right bank of the Seine and an undisclosed view of the Eiffel Tower.
A bronze statue of a women entangled in a serpent while grasping a spear watches over the entire plaza. Her left hand hovers above her head like the port de bras of a novice ballerina—awkward and weighted. Her gesture is that of a reluctant salute. Her robes are wrapped tightly around her figure and remain stagnant in symmetrical folds between her knees. The words “Mère voici vos fils qui se sont tant battus” are engraved at her feet. She reigns in stark contrast to the women of the friezes.
These women are women of abundance. Their bodies are constructed like Rubens’ water nymphs realized in concrete. The fabrics they hold billow in movement and they recline among carved waves and mythical sea creatures. Thalie, the muse of comedy and pastoral poetry, frolics alongside Erato, the goddess of lyric and erotic poetry. However, the frieze is much more violent on the right side. Enraged horses buck up on their hind legs and monsters are intertwined with the backsides of women. On this side, Eros, the god of lust cohorts with Melopomene the muse of tragedy. However, this contrast is not the most striking one within this complex. Instead, it is the juxtaposition of the old and new that intrigued me.
While the colonnade and plaza were constructed in a distinctly neoclassical style, the statues and friezes are covered in graffiti and the buildings house two of the most cutting edge contemporary art spaces in Paris. The pool of water is littered with tagged blocks of concrete and empty red coolers float vacantly in the half frozen liquid. This place that was once a memorial to fallen soldiers of the Free French Army between 1940 and 1945 has now turned into a skate park for teen hipster Parisians. While there is not much tribute being paid, to what extent does this renaissance of the place in fact pay homage to the fallen soldiers who were not much older than those skating all over the memorial’s walls? Or is this just another case of unruly teens defacing property?
I would argue the former in this case. While memorials are meant to pay tribute to those lost in war, often times we go and read lists of engraved names on a nondescript wall and lament about the past without being personally affected. Or, as is often the case with memorial plaques around Paris, we merely walk past them everyday on our route to and from the metro without reading what took place at this particular intersection of space and time. However, the graffitied additions to this memorial have given a new sense of relevance to the antiquated statues.
On one reclining nude, green and red paint streams down from the eye of the woman like a mélange of tears and blood. This addition provokes a sentiment of mourning more than the reclining nude alone. It produces a visceral response within me that the sanded marble fails to do.
Next to the dedication text “Volontaires des forces françaises libres morts pour l’honneur et la liberte de la France” a poster of a soldier in a modern green army uniform was posted on the wall. Since then, the poster itself has been torn and tattered. However, with the removal of the face and parts of the soldier’s body, I am again reminded of the artifacts of war. In fact, the violent act of tearing itself leaves severed edges that are truer to the subject matter than the smoothed over concrete that surrounds it.
This survey of contemporary art has thus far been a testament to the changing nature of art and memory. It has shown me how one artist’s revolution becomes the diving board from which the next artist must take the plunge. In the case of this memorial plaza, I think the unnamed taggers—intentionally or not—have contributed to the artistic landscape of this piece of architecture, and in their own way, paid homage how they see fit. It is the evolving meaning of the memorial as seen through its contributors that has made me reflect upon this dedication to lost soldiers.