Sur les quais

Sur les quais. Ports, docks et dockers (On the waterfront. Ports, docks and dockers.). Le Havre, Musée Malraux, from 18 October 2008 to 25 January 2009, Bordeaux, Musée des Beaux-Arts, from 28 February to 14 June 2009

1. Rémi Lefloch
Granville, the Works in the Port.
Raised Platform and Mast of Bellecq
, 1924
Argentic paper
Granville, Musée du Vieux Granville
Photo : Press

On the waterfront : an evocative title which resounds like a familiar ballad. And by searching even just a bit, one soon finds its source : the memories of the realist tunes on the radio or the offerings in bookshop windows, perhaps also Elia Kazan’s classic film of 1954 starring Marlon Brando. In these varied references which run from the soothing yearnings of voyage by Gilbert Bécaud to the violence of Querelle by Jean Genet, no exhibition title stands out however. The show currently taking place in Le Havre, before going on to the Musée des Beaux-Arts de Bordeaux, is innovative in its choice of title, but, above all, reveals its originality in skillfully presenting a subject which invites anyone who is interested to dive in and makes the most of the rooms on the ground floor of the museum.

After admiring the works of Joseph Vernet’s followers, “marine painters to the king” whose determination at topographical precision in no way hinders their charm or poetry, the photographs here illustrate the transformation of the ports. During the 18th century, and even more so at the beginning of the 20th, the adaptation of man and his activity to the site came to an end ; art works multiplied giving, in some cases, veritable photographic accounts without neglecting the aesthetics. Thanks to the exhibition catalogue, the reader can already discover Alphonse Terreau’s photographs which evoke the renovations in the port of Bordeaux on loan from the Ecole nationale des ponts et chausses in Marne-la-Vallée designed as veritable plastic demonstrations with successive planes, mirrored effects and off-center focus worthy of his fellow painters or engravers. The most striking reproduction is that of Rémi-Eugène Lefloch, Granville, the Works in the Port. Raised Platform and Mast of Bellecq (ill. 1), on loan from the Musée du Vieux Granville, is a stunning and mysterious assembly which might have been imagined by a moviemaker for yet another pirate assault.

The following rooms come back to painting and a chronological order ; first with a native son, Eugène Boudin who was among the first to become interested in these “modern” places and tried to represent them as they changed, bathed in a soft silvery light. But at times the elder looked toward the younger generation ; and here it is impossible not to think of the legendary Impression, Rising Sun by Monet in front of the Bassin de l’Eure in Le Havre, on loan from the Musée d’Evreux, twelve years later but nonetheless much more subdued. Unfortunately, the painting from the Marmottan Museum did not make the trip to Le Havre, and this central piece for apprehending the plastic dimension of the port is sorely missing, even if the Musée d’Art modern et d’Art contemporain in Liège accepted to let go for several months of Bassin du Commerce, Le Havre, from 1874, a series of variations of blue and mist which vibrate skillfully due to a sideways ray of sunlight.

2. Johan Barthold Jongkind (1819-1891)
Le Quai d’Orsay and the Hoisting Machin, Paris, 1852
Oil on canvas
Bagnères-de-Bigorre, Musée Salies
Photo : Press

Jongkind is also present in this section with three paintings. The first two, in a peaceful atmosphere, depict the banks of the Seine and still reflect a calm activity before the major urban transformations and the economic boom. Le Quai d’Orsay and the Hoisting Machine, Paris (ill. 2) dates from 1852 whereas the second, The Estacade Bridge, Paris (Angers, Musée des Beaux-Arts) was presented at the Salon of 1853. Both reveal an artist still concerned with tradition, no longer the case with Quai in Honfleur (Le Havre, Musée Malraux) from 1866 where Boudin’s influence is seen in many spots. An example of an intermediary work is perhaps missing here, for instance a view of Rouen or Honfleur from the early 1860’s, to show the transformation of a style and a method which might have echoed a bit later, such as in the photograph by Heinrich Kühn, the Port of Hamburg (1911, Paris, Musée d’Orsay). Although one or two of Jongkinds works are absent, those which we might expect for Pissarro are all here, illustrating his most successful production in the years between 1896-1903, at times with rarely displayed canvases such as the View of the Outer Harbour in Dieppe, 1902, lent by Dieppe, with its iridescent light.

There are no Whistler paintings in the exhibition, but the Bibliothèque nationale de France has lent a collection of a remarkable edition of plates for Thames Suite, elaborate compositions which still favor tranquil narration. This is not the case for another series of impressions, those of London : a pilgrimage by Gustave Doré who, in his zeal to fill the space in each sheet with a proliferation of detail, offers a biting vision of the underside of the London port apparently unknown to artists on the continent.

3. (Franz ?) Schmidt and Otto Kofahl
Hamburg. Shipyards and Dry Dock, 1908
Rotogravure - 16.8 x 22.7 cm
Le Havre, collection de l’Association French lines
Photo : Press

Halfway through, painting gives way to three-dimensional works : imposing and powerful bronzes by Belgian artists Constantin Meunier and Georges Minne and the Frenchman Henri Bouchard, seem to bear the weight of the world on their shoulders, a suffering which is part of the imaginary world of the ports and which soon becomes omnipresent. A photographic section illustrates it with workers who no longer take the time to rest during their labor and are seen toiling away, dominated by new techniques and new projects, as in the image by Schlidt and Kofahl, Hamburg. Shipyards and Dry Dock (ill. 3) where the workers are cleaning the hull of an immense vessel which invades and darkens the space. Before arriving at this other vision of the port, the visitor can linger in front of a selected group of works by Marquet, a luminous ensemble of watercolours by Signac, as well as the Braque, Dufy, Camoin and Lhote works, either Fauve or Cubist. They project a new vision of the port subject, a support for a renewed approach to colours and composition, comparable to the spidery images of such photographers as Germaine Kruhl (Ferrying Bridge, around 1930, Marseille, Musée Cantini) and Laszlo Moholy-Nagy (Marseille, The Ferrying Bridge, 1929, Marseille, Musée Cantini).

4. Jules Lefranc (1887-1972)
Penhoët, 1930
Oil on canvas - 72 x 60 cm
Les Sables d’Olonne,
Musée de l’abbaye Sainte-Croix
Photo : Jacques Boulissière

“Port Mythologies” is the title for the last two rooms of the exhibition, offering more discoveries, such as the somber visions of the Belgian artist Eugeen Van Mieghem—a kind of Rouault of the late 1890’s in exile on the Antwerp quays—whose figures are prisoners to the universe of the port even if they try to turn their back on it (Woman Mending Bags, Antwerp, Cultuurdierst van de Provincie Antwerpen). With no human figures this time, Jules Lefranc, a late Symbolist—who overshadows Léon Spillaert on display nearby—in his Penhoët (ill. 4) which makes up the catalogue cover, instills the same muted restlessness with its improbable vessel next to an impossible pier by a sea and a sky fixed forever in time.

In legendary association with the romanticized image of the port, the bars, brothels and the woman “in each port” are also present, discreetly however, with only two watercolours by André Dignimont and a painting by François Desnoyers, all on loan from the Musée national d’Art modern. After the abundant writings of the first half of the twentieth century on the subject, then picked up by the cinema, it might have been useful, without going so far as to become voyeur, to provide more examples, especially very early ones, to better respond to the very beautiful text by Aude Mahé which closes a fascinating catalogue rich in its many approaches, “Quais et ports dans la literature et le cinema”.

At no moment does the visitor’s attention flag throughout tis show where a skillful hang enables discoveries and comparisons, while behind the window blinds freight ships can be glimpsed gliding by. Our one regret might be that the subject was frequently treated only in relation to a certain type of modernity and that the activity which plays out on the quays was not seen often enough [1]. An academic counterpoint could have rounded out this panorama in a more complete way, and why not The Fisherwoman by Théophile Louis Deyrolle (1898, Rochefort, Musée d’Art et d’Histoire), an amost unknown image of the dockworker.

Version française

Dominique Lobstein, vendredi 19 décembre 2008


[1] This inconvenience will be partly corrected in Bordeaux where visitors will see The Plaster Unloading, 1923 by Joseph Inguimberty which will be lent by the Musée historique de Marseille.

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