Tuesday, July 5, 2011

"Everything begins in mysticism and ends in politics."

Here's a little ditty that brings together a few recurring LoS themes and fancies:  snakes, wimmins, a triangle, political vandalism, violence, sculpture....

It all begins with a quotation from a fellow by the name of Charles André Joseph Marie de Gaulle, known as "Chucky D" to his pals, not to be confused with Public Enemy front-man "Chuck D".   Actually, I just made that up.  One of his nicknames was, however, "the great asparagus."  Which just goes to prove that truth is stranger than fiction.

Flag of Free France; Wikicommons
Nous dirons à la France, simplement, comme Péguy : « Mère, voici vos fils qui se sont tant battus ». General de Gaulle, June 18, 1942
The line comes from Charles Peguy's poem Ève (1913).  Péguy was an ardent socialist and nationalist (two words which never sound well together) and later in his short life became a devout and mystical Catholic.  He wrote a play Le Mystère de la charité de Jeanne d'Arc that first appeared in 1910.  Joan of Arc, as we have already seen, remains a potent nationalist symbol in France.  He also had a special fondness for the Virgin Mary; indeed, he spent the night before his death decorating with flowers a small statue in the village where he was stationed.  Despite his devotion to Eve, Jeanne d'Arc and the Virgin, he was killed by a shot in the forehead on the eve of the battle of the Marne on September 5th, 1914.

Charles De Gaulle was evoking Péguy in 1942 to honor the volunteers who fought for Free France. In 1948 a monument was created for these volunteers, the centerpiece of which is a massive bronze sculpture by Antoine Bourdelle, student of Rodin and native of Montauban (prefecture of the department in which I live). Péguy's words "Mère, voici vos fils qui se sont tant battus", undoubtedly because of de Gaulle's speech, are etched on the front.

Appropriate line from a poem (Ève) which also includes the lines:  "Happy are those who die for the carnal earth/ but only if it be for a just war."  I've also come across another interesting piece of information about Peguy's poems here (no author listed):

"The arms of Jesus are the Cross of Lorraine / Both the blood in the artery and the blood in the vein, / Both the source of grace and the clear fountain" (from La Tapisserie de Sainte Geneviève, 1912). Noteworthy, during World War II the Cross of Lorraine was used as the symbol of the forces of Free France. Both the Resistance and the Vichy government cited Péguy's patriotic writings.

The same article also has the following quote:

"Faith is a great tree, an oak tree rooted deep in the heart of France", Péguy wrote in Le mystère des Saints Innocents (1912). 

This is very prophetic, if only a prophecy by coincidence.  The name "de Gaulle" is said to come from either "gaule" a long pole which was used in the Middle Ages to beat olives from the trees, or "galle" which in the language of Asterix means "oak", the sacred tree of the Druids.  One could argue that de Gaulle was France's mighty oak in the storm, rooted deeply and keeping the faith of a Free France alive.  Interestingly, the lance, or long pole (gaule) of the sculpture honoring the fighters of Free France is adorned with olives.  Another prophetic coincidence.  The statue dates from 1922.

Bourdelle's "La France," fourth copy, Paris.  LoS photo.
Peguy's lines translate into ""Mother, behold your sons who have fought so hard."  This line undoubtedly refers to the crucifixion of Jesus as described in John 19 (KJV): 

26 When Jesus therefore saw his mother, and the disciple standing by, whom he loved, he saith unto his mother, Woman, behold thy son! 27 Then saith he to the disciple, Behold thy mother! And from that hour that disciple took her unto his own home. 

Indeed the statue features a stylized representation of the crucified Jesus, on an inverted triangle.  I'm not sure why or if there are other examples of this symbolism.  Its inclusion here is certainly to link Peguy's lines to the Crucifixion, thus effectively linking the dead of the Free French Forces ("FFL" in French) to Jesus' martyrdom.  Thinking back to Ève, which begins "Happy are those who die for a carnal earth", one is reminded of the Beatitudes, which begin with either "Blessed are the...." which some translate as "Happy are the...." 
La France, detail.  LoS photo.
We have discussed the serpent quite a bit.  Here it could refer back to the story of Moses in the desert, quoted by Jesus:  14 And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up: 15 That whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have eternal life. (John 3, KJV) or the conflation of Biblical types indicating that ultimately, the crucifixion was a victory over Satan. 

But the snake isn't looking very vanquished here.  Indeed; it seems to be quite friendly with the woman.  As wee have seen, Péguy seems fascinated by sacred women and in the "trinity" mentioned above, Eve and the Virgin are linked by the serpent, a link explicitly referred to in French Marial iconography.  As Eve is ostensibly responsible for mortality and the need for sexual intercourse to reproduce, Mary, with a sex-free conception, gave birth to the perfect man who could return us to immortality. "If you believe in that sort of thing," to quote my childhood hero Indiana Jones.  (See my essay here for more on this). 

But perhaps this is pushing it a bit far, as I've read else where that the woman is Athena.  Thus the serpent might represent Erichthonius, of whom Athena is the adoptive mother.  According to the tale, Hephaestus once tried to rape Athena and some semen shot onto her thigh.  She flicked the offending glob onto the ground.  It was from this that Erichthonius was born.  There are variations upon this tale.  Erichthonius may be the snake that accompnaied Athena, a mythical ruler who may have been half-serpent or, in a variation, was once seen with a snake coiled about him.  Thus in this context the serpent may represent wisdom or Athena's unviolated purity.  This would be in keeping with a nationalist rhetoric, or to commemorate the Resistance to foreign invaders.
La France, detail.  LoS photo.
I would also comment on the gesture in this statue.  It is said to be Athena scanning the horizon, but it also forms a kind of salute.  There is something of her gesture of the Venus of Lloret, although I may be pushing this a bit to far.  In that post I discussed that both Venus and Athena, according to some legends, were born as fully-grown, independent women.  This would also fit into a nationalist identity; the statue is called "La France" after all, and it is no one's child.

I found quite a bit more about this statue on a website containing extracts of an article originally appearing in Memoire Vive (2010), the journal of the Centre de Documentation Historique de l'Algérie.  I have translated and summarized the important bits as follows.
In 1922 or thereabouts, the French government decided to erect a monument commemorating the arrival of American troops at the end of WW1, in 1917.  It was to be built near Bordeaux and two architects (Ventre and Damour) thought about placing "La France" in front of a lighthouse, scouring the horizon for the arrival of allied troops.

Bourdelle was eventually chosen to execute the work and after some equivocation he took up the task.

The statue was to be 9 meters high, 3.4 meters wide and 1.4 meters deep.  Bourdelle chose to represent France with Pallas Athena in her aspect as warrior goddess, enveloped in snakes, allegedly representing wisdom, but which may have Biblical implications or involve metaphors of purity.  She indeed seems to be holding her arm up as if to look into the distance.  She has a shield and lance, this latter adorned with olive branches of peace (recall that "de Gaulle" may come a word for a pole used to beat olives from trees).

His niece served as the model for the figure, although it was apparently his secretary who posed for the arms.  It is said that when the latter asked why she was enveloped in snakes, Bourdelle smiled and said:  "As they say in France, be careful of the Americans."  (DSK would concur.  Come to think of it, both his tales of woe and Athena's involve an incriminating glob of semen....)

Apparently, four bronze examples of "la France" were made from the original models.

One was used by Bourdelle for his First World War memorial in Montauban.  I'm not sure when it was made, but the memorial was dedicated on November 13, 1932.  It is currently located on the esplanade of the Cours Foucault (pictured here).

Another decorated the entrance to the Grand Palais during the exposition of decorative arts in 1925.  It was stored away waiting for a planned museum of modern decorative arts and it lay there, abandoned.  It was later discovered by the mayor of Birançon, who contacted the artist's widow in order to acquire it for his town.  This one measured 4.55 m in height and was placed on the porch of the local Chateau, gazing over the peaks of the Alps. (pictured here).

In 1938, another example was placed at the exit of the train station of the Bois de Boulogne to salute the arrival a visit by English royals.  The exact location remains unknown and it would appear that this was in fact a gilded plaster copy destined for the Palais de Tokyo, later to become the Museum of Modern Art.

The copy which started this whole post, number four, was erected on June 18, 1948 to commemorate the "appel du 18 juin," the speech by de Gaulle in which Péguy was quoted.  It was erected at the instigation of General de Larminat, president of  the Association des Français Libres.  This rests upon a socle with a plaque honoring the memory of those who fought for Free France, adorned with the Cross of Lorraine.  It replaced the gilded plaster copy while awaiting work yet to be completed, an Apollo by Charles Despiau. 

That same year, de Larminat honored the FFL and colonel Colonna d'Ornano, killed in action in 1941, by placing a similar plaque on the socle of the Algiers version. It reads:

" Mère voici vos fils qui se sont tant battus
Aux volontaires des Forces Françaises Libres morts
pour l'honneur et la Liberté de la France
18 juin 1940, 9 mai 1945 "

This third version (1935) measured 9 meters (high, I assume) and had originally been placed at the entrance of the "foire d'Alger." After the foire, it was put on the terrace of the Musée de Beaux-Arts, where she scrutinized the Mediterranean.  This one has the most storied history. 

As a symbol of de Gaulle, the statue was blown up on the evening of November 26, 1961 by the OAS (Organisation armée secrète), a far-right group who despised de Gaulle for what they perceived as his treason towards Algeria, then a French Department, after his actions led to Algerian independence in 1962.  The socle was pulverized and the statue damaged. 

After this symbolic attack, the pieces were collected and stored until the statue could be repaired.  The French ambassador obtained permission to recover the statue but the French administration refused to pay for the transport cost, instead foisting the responsibility upon Paris' Bourdelle museum.  It was eventually taken to be repaired but the part of the support which depicted the snakes, as well as that part of the lance which held the olive branches, were too damaged to be repaired.  This lance was later sawed down in order for it to fit inside the museum of the Saint-Cyr Coëtquidan military academy.  A fitting tribute...this was where de Gaulle earned the nickname "the great asparagus."  Full circle.
La France, version three: 
So, it took some digging but some interesting facts have been brought to light.  The version I saw seems largely forgotten, not quite as honored as her sisters elsewhere.  As I studied this curiosity, kids skateboarded below and a couple of French hipsters cadged cigarettes while a few yards away, hordes of people stood in line for the Basquiat expo.  Which somehow seems a fitting example of another Péguy quote:

"It will never be known what acts of cowardice have been committed for fear of not looking sufficiently progressive."

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