* * *
I haven't been over to the Pavillon Populaire recently because it's been one dreary academic photo show after the other. While it's commendable that the city sees the acquisition and exhibition of a municipal collection of art photography, as well as an ongoing number of curated shows during the year as part of its cultural mission, the selections tend to be pretty uninteresting and the rationale behind them full of artspeak.
The current show, La Volonté de Bonheur (approximately, The Desire for Happiness), however, is something else. Subtitled "Photographic testimony of the Front Populaire, 1934-1938," it documents a tumultuous period in French history, during which some fairly amazing stuff happened. One thing was a huge workers' movement, as strikes turned into general strikes, and the right-wing government was brought down and a socialist one under Léon Blum was installed. As you might expect, the horrors of socialism were inflicted upon France immediately: in 1936 alone, women were given the right to vote, workers were given a 40-hour work-week, and for the first time, everyone got paid vacations. Quelle horreur, non?
It's amazing history, but not such great art, but once you walk through the show, you'll be okay with that. You'll see such familiar names as Robert Capa, Brassaï, André Kertész, and Henri Cartier-Bresson on the poster, but you'll barely notice their presence on the walls. You'll see a lot -- a lot -- of pictures of cute kids with their fists raised, sometimes along with proud mère and père, sometimes just marching along by themselves in demonstrations or parades. You'll see workers on strike at automotive and machine shops dancing and eating lunch while they're on strike. You'll see lots and lots of pictures of gigantic demonstrations filling the streets of Paris (as with much of French history, you'll never guess that some of it actually did happen outside that city), and I gotta say, the picture used for the poster, by Fred Stein, of the guy perched on the rooftop giving the clenched-fist while a huge crowd below is milling around waiting for a parade is pretty dramatic.
Stein, a German who relocated to Paris in 1933 and whose work is virtually unknown these days, is the discovery of the show, mainly because he got some good shots while embedded with the Front Populaire, as the huge coalition of all of the French Left was known in these years. There's a Capa that's identifiable as a Capa, but this is reportage, not art. The one exception is Cartier-Bresson's famed 1936 series of photos of French working-class families on their first vacations. There are a couple of vitrines in the show with magazines that are approximately "how-to" guides to vacationing, and a separate series by Pierre Jamet shows daily life at an "auberge de jeunesse," or teen summer camp, and you might want to check out the slideshows of his work here if you can figure out how to get in.
This is the kind of show you want to go to on a rainy day, because there's lots of reading to do, and, if you're not up on French history, some of it will require catching up with later via some online resources. As Hitler grew in power, the Front Populaire went from being "like a convivial village fair," as one of the captions describes the general vibe, to the usual squabbling of the Left, with the Stalinists (surprise!) not helping a lot. By the end of 1937, it was over.
La Volonté de bonheur: Témoinages photographiques du Front populaire 1934-1938, until June 9 at the Pavillon Populaire, Esplanade Charles de Gaulle, open Tue-Sun 10am-1pm, 2pm-6pm. Admission free. The show will also be at L'hotel Fontfreyde, Clermont-Ferrand, from Oct. 8-Jan 4.
* * *
|Je suis désolé, mais je le doute|
* * *
Now that it's getting warmer, street life is picking up, and there are more beggars than before. As I was doing the laundry the other day, though, there was a young couple in the laundromat who looked familiar, talking in a language I didn't understand, but which sounded familiar. Aha! It came to me: Russian. Their familiarity was explained when a third person joined them, with his dirty clothes in a knapsack, and a cardboard sign which fell out as he was getting them ready for the machine: J'AI FAIM! AIDEZ-MOI! I just knew that the three or four people I saw with these identical signs had to be connected, and I was right. That they were Russians didn't surprise me at all. They always have a small dog of some sort, too, because they know that that softens the hearts of the old ladies they depend on for their take. And just a few days ago, a new guy joined them. Of course, he had to have his own sign, and I guess they didn't have a spare dog at the moment, but they did manage to come up with a gimmick that was even better for attracting attention: his sign read J'AI FAIM! AIDEZ MOI! VIVE LA FANCE! It worked, but it was only temporary: I saw him the other day with a new sign and a dog.
* * *
Ever since I got here, there's been a "tropical" store on the rue de Faubourg du Courreau, which is what St. Guilhem turns into when it crosses the Boulevard de Jeu de Paume. I always wondered how they made money, since they were in a huge space and didn't have much stock, and then they expanded next door and started selling wigs. I just noticed today that they're gone, but people who need South American stuff, frozen African fish, and, on rare occasion, fresh corn tortillas (yes!) can still find them. A much smaller (and, for me, closer) store has opened.
La Pangée keeps long hours and seems to have most of the good stuff from the old place. They're kind of hidden, but maybe word of mouth will keep them open. There are lots of things like sweet potatoes and yam and plantains and okra, and mysterious Central and South American things I don't recognize. As I keep saying, I have nothing whatever against French food, but I also like to encourage diversity.
La Pangée, 12, rue de Balances, 34000 Montpellier. Open Mon-Sat 9:30am-8pm, Sun 10:30am-5pm.
* * *
Finally, some news from the suburbs. I keep passing a parked car with one of those things you don't see the first few times you notice it: a sticker for a local baseball team. Yes, baseball. (I still remember my shock at having to have it pointed out that there were a bunch of Bulgarians playing baseball when I was there: apparently it's a very popular sport in that country.)
But yes, they're the Clapiers Rabbits. I'm not sure what this is all about, but "clapier" is a word for a rabbit hutch, although the name of the town is derived from an Occitan word, according to the official Clapiers website. And, although I can't find the word I'm looking for, I was in Clapiers a couple of years ago with a couple of French women who noticed a sign on a local bakery and started giggling. It mentioned that among the specialties you could buy there (it was Sunday and it was closed, sorry to say), were XXXXX de Clapiers, the famous candy. The missing word, which provoked the giggles, I was told was a slang word for rabbit turds. Which, assuming they're made from chocolate, might be good. Meanwhile, best of luck to the Clapiers Rabbits for the upcoming season.
* * *
Gotta go. I swear, I had another item here, but Mme. Merde's been screaming into her cell phone out in the hall for the past half-hour and I've lost the ability to concentrate. More news as it happens!