16 June 2012

Play Theory & Parc Monceau

“The green Parc Monceau, with its soft lawns veiled in misty curtains of spray from the sprinkler, attracted me, like something good to eat.   There were fewer children there than in the Luxembourg.   It was better altogether.  But those lawns that are swept like floors!    Never mind, the trees enchanted me and the warm dampness I breathed in relaxed me….that sound of leaves, how sweet it was!” - Sidonie-Grabreille Colette, excerpt from Claudine In Paris, 1901.
 The naughty Claudine - and her creator - were preceded at the site by Joan of Arc who encamped at Monceau during the summer of 1429 in her audacious attack on Paris, thus assuring its continuing fame even if it had remained an empty field.  But in 1769 Louis Philippe II,  Duc de Chartres (1747-1793) purchased the plot on the Right Bank after marrying the richest woman in France.  Four years later he commissioned the engineer/architect Louis Carrogis (Carmontelle) to create a garden for his new home.

Exactly what prompted Carrogis to design one of the early great landscape gardens in France, the ability to draw on the duke's royal purse encouraged him to design a theatrical extravaganza that would, in Carrogis's words. "unite in one garden all places and all times."   The duke, a cousin of Louis XVI, and no stranger to Versailles had high standards in these matters. 
Carrogis would draw on all of world history to create the Jardin de Monceau.  Among many points of interest, the garden included an Egyptian pyramid, a Turkish minaret, and a Roman naumacchia, an artificial lake for the staging of mock naval battles, whose decaying columns still stand. A model farm that included a water wheel and a windmill demonstrated the duke's interest in scientific experiments.  This mixture of frivolity and earnest effort has a hallmark of the French Enlightenment.  If play is the essential human activity, as the Dutch historian Johan Huizinga claimed, then history itself played at the Parc Monceau.

"...it was not my object to define the place of play among all other manifestations of culture, but rather to ascertain how far culture itself bears the character of play."  - Johan Huizinga, from the forward to Homo Ludens, 1938.

Louis Philippe, by then Duke of Orleans, was executed during the French Revolution and his garden was confiscated by the state.   It went untended until Napoleon III hired Baron Haussmann to make modern city out of Paris.  Another engineer, Adolphe Alphand (1817-1891) was put in charge of promenades and he laid out a refurbished Parc Monceau that opened in 1861 . Some of the old follies were kept, and new features added, including a stream crossed by a bridge, a cascade and a grotto. Moving water was used to evoke cleanliness and modernity, two qualities that had been sorely lacking in the dark, dirty streets of old Paris.  The public was enchanted, including the many artist who flocked there to paint:  Raffaele Ragione, Claude Monet, Gustave Caillebotte,  Henri Lebasque and the American Childe Hassam.

Today people walk their dogs and children play among the decaying pre-Revolutionary relics just as they did in Colette's day.  Only their clothes have changed. The modern world may impinge on the edges of the park more than it used to but this fantastic little world is a monument to the primacy of play in human life.  The children playing with hoops and pails and shovels in Jean-Emile Laboureur's decorative screen could be the forerunners of wheels and steam shovels.
1. Jean-Emile Laboureur -  a screen with four panels, 1899, Musee d'Orsay, Paris.
2. Gustave Caillebotte, Le Parc Monceau, 1878,private collection, from the Atheneum.
3. Claude Monet - Le Parc Monceau, 1878, Metropolitan Museum of Art, NYC.
Charles Marville -  Crystal Globe and Iron Gates - Parc Monceau, c. 1865-1869, Louvre Museum, Paris.


Angela Bell said...

Very interesting post.Colette is a favourite of mine!

Jane said...

Thank you, Angela. It may be an odd combination but I associate Colette and Huizinga because I read them both when I was growing up.

Parisbreakfasts said...

Terrific information and great illustrations, especially the Jean-Emile Laboureur illo.
Mille merci. I must get myself over there. Its been a while...

Jane said...

Welcome Parisbreakfasts. Laboureur's ability to define not just space but feeling with lines makes his work special. The longer you look, the moer you see how every figure belongs here; something would be lost without any one of them.