Tuesday, March 5, 2013

History Lessons, Anyone?

As an English schoolgirl, history class for me consisted mostly of learning a whole lot of dates and knowing which King succeeded whom. Today, I am still not sure who came first, Edward the Confessor or King John of Magna Carta fame, and the only date I really remember is 1066! If only I'd had the chance to wander through an exhibit like the one Matthew and I saw last week, perhaps I would know more.

"L'histoire de France racontée par la publicité" is currently showing at the Bibliotèque Forney in the 4th arrondissement, just a few steps from the Quai de Celestins. Before we even went inside, we learned that this beautiful building is the former Hôtel de Sens, a city palace, built between 1475 and 1507. Originally the home of the Archbishops of Sens, it is one of three remaining medieval homes in Paris. With its classic spires and turrets, it seemed like something out of a fairy tale, holding on to its little corner of history, whilst 21st century traffic goes bustling by.

Since 1886, the building has served as the Bibliotèque Forney, devoted to the decorative arts, to the arts professions, and to the fine arts.
The holdings also include a remarkable collection of posters, postcards, photographs, as well as publicity and commercial images.  The curators of the current show have selected a wonderful group of advertising posters that, taken together, provide a most entertaining walk through French history.

Many of these posters appeared during and just after La Belle Epoque (1880 to 1914). After France's humiliating defeat in the Franco-Prussian War, advertisers sought to portray popular, known, historical faces in their publicity posters, reminding people of the glory of France.  The artist here, Charles Tichon, shows a figure in the same pose as the Statue of Liberty, except this is a man, almost a Jupiter-like god, with his muscular body and his torch held high, his clothing of ancient Gaul, all projecting a strong sense of power (as it promotes Gallia Petrole de Luxe!).

Then there's this arresting figure, looking like a character from an Asterix comic book, who is actually promoting rubber heels for your shoes! The company is still in business in Clermont-Ferrand, selling tires as well as heels and soles.

The iconic blue packaging of the French cigarettes "Gauloises", still available today, was well represented, but with a fearsome Gallic warrior standing behind the product.

There was even a poster selling cocoa, that reached back to those early images.  I never imagined fierce Gauls being mad for cocoa,  but I can see how their depiction here would appeal to any young child to "finish your cocoa, so you can grow big and strong like Andre"!

Still in the mythic realms, we came across this poster of Le Chevalier Bayard, promoting clothes, very elegant gentlemen's clothes, even though he is clad in shining armor. But it turns out there really was a Chevalier Bayard. He was not a myth, he was Pierre de Terrail, one of François 1st's best soldiers. He was noble, he was invincible, he was wise. He was the last true medieval knight. Any self-respecting man would want to wear clothes with his label, which probably explains why you can still buy them today.

And speaking of François the 1st, famous for his appetites and his "joie de vivre", here he seems about to embrace the lovely young woman, or the bottle of quinine she is offering him...

 ...while Louis XIV prefers a brand of cognac that dates back to just a few years after his birth.

In the 1920s, as a schoolchild, you could have an exercise book showing Louis XIV at court, presenting his son to the assembly, all thanks to Chicorée Mogta-Williot.

There were many many posters depicting Napoleon in all kinds of situations, selling brandy, buying a stove with the brand name Tzarine, promoting Peugeot bicycles, etc., but this one struck us as being the most poignant. Here he sits, amidst the snowy wastes during the bleak retreat from Moscow, eating liquorice confections from Florent as a way to soothe his sore throat!

One section of the exhibition showed public, political figures being used to promote commercial products. There was much more freedom in the advertising press at the turn of the 20th century! In this poster, the gentleman on the left, Raymond Poincaré has been elected President of France in 1913. He is giving his predecessor, Armand Fallières (hat and cane in hand, bag behind him) "one last tip: get your shoes on!" In other words, "move over, it's my turn, and, by the way, you can buy good shoes Chez Perdereau."

Here, an earlier President, Sadi Carnot, bestows a laurel wreath on Louis Cottereau, champion sprint cyclist. At this time, athletes were becoming demi-gods; in fact, perhaps this ad was the first commercial sponsorship!

As privacy laws took hold, advertisers had to fall back on more anonymous images, but still they told a tale. Here the life of a soldier, his uniform, his armaments, and his cigarette!

My personal favorite in this section was a little black and white ad for Waterman fountain pens from WWI when, apparently, they were the preferred writing instrument at the Front. My father, who worked for the Waterman Pen company for some 25 years or more, would have been most amused.

These are just a very few examples of what turned out to be a wonderful walk through the history of France, of course romanticised and glorified, but at the same time filled with a fair bit of real historical information, especially in the many displays of letters, books, etc. You came out wanting to know more.

The final poster we lingered over is from about 6 years ago. It takes a famous slogan from the 1968 student and worker uprising here in France - "il est interdit d'interdire" ("it is forbidden to forbid"), and turns it into a promotion for the E. Leclerc chain of supermarkets.  Sic transit gloria....  I sent the image to our friend Andrew, who was here in 1968 and in the thick of the protests. He sent back an interactive link that tells what really happened. So, if you want to learn about some fairly recent French history, click on this, or copy and paste in your browser:


Meanwhile, when I get back to Inverness, I'm going to dig out all those Asterix comic books and find out more about those crazy Gauls!

À bientôt!

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