Everyday life in motion: the art of walking in late-nineteenth-century Paris.

Author:Forgione, Nancy
Position:Architecture - Critical Essay

Ambulare, postea laborare. --Edgar Degas to Bartholome, [1883] (1) Always a city for walking, Paris became much more conspicuously so during the second half of the nineteenth century, as Baron Georges-Eugene Haussmann's urban reconstruction program of the 1850s and 1860s opened up boulevards, bridges, squares, and other public spaces to traffic and to view. (2) With both its viability and its visibility improved by that spatial reordering, walking emerged as a significant pictorial theme in mid- to late-nineteenth-century Paris. In recording the altered look of the city, painters also aimed to depict the everyday practices through which human life renegotiated its relation to the city. Walking constituted one such practice. Its thematization in art focused not simply on the flaneur's specialized stroll but on pedestrian activity as a wide-ranging modality of lived experience. That heightened attentiveness to walking reflects its centrality as a mode of encountering the world, especially an urban world shifting shape before its inhabitants' eyes.

Walter Benjamin claimed that Haussmann's transformation of the familiar environment into something new and strange meant that "Parisians.... no longer felt at home in it." (3) Yet depictions of walking in mid- to late-nineteenth-century Paris rarely evoke the profound sense of estrangement that Benjamin, along with Georg Simmel, Siegfried Kracauer, and others, considered a fundamental condition of modern urban life. (4) By their account, Paris's accelerated modernization engendered a physical and psychic disruption whose pictorial equivalent one might expect to resemble the acute malaise of Ernst Ludwig Kirchner's Berlin street scenes of the early twentieth century. Instead, paintings of Parisian urban life indicate that walking positively flourished and that estrangement, while undeniably present, was not the only experience available to the pedestrian. Perhaps another set of feelings is at stake in these images. The intrinsic process of walking, with its phenomenologically coherent intertwining of body, mind, and vision, can stimulate what Edmund Husserl would describe as a sense of the continuity of the self amid the flux of the world, and can thereby help define their relation to each other. (5) With the loss of the old Paris, that relation was in need of revising. The frequency of its depiction implies walking's fundamental role in orchestrating the nineteenth-century Parisian's experience of the evolving city and in helping to mediate the shifting relation between them.

Images of street scenes with pedestrians quite commonly occur in Parisian visual culture of the second half of the nineteenth century, particularly in avant-garde art, though also in academic art, in popular illustration, and in photography. Few of these images, however, truly thematize walking--that is, attempt to incorporate the lived experience of walking into the pictorial structure in any of a variety of ways that serve to register the traces of discursive movement through the depicted urban space. As it turns out, the pictorial examples that most compellingly convey that experience come from those artists whom Edmond Duranty, in 1876, identified as "the new painters." (6) What is more, these examples appear with greatest frequency from the late 1860s through the 1870s, as if the process of actually witnessing the impact of Paris's reconstruction on the texture of daily existence prompted in some painters--whom we have come to call modernist--a deeply felt response that fed into the new artistic impulse to depict everyday life. Those Impressionist painters, sometimes cast as flaneurs, often walked the city in search of motifs. Their attention, like that of the flaneur, has come to be understood as governed primarily by ocular concerns, yet many of the works discussed here incorporate in some degree an awareness of the body. My account, then, proposes to complicate or revise our traditional sense of the Impressionists as forging an "optical" practice. What emerges in these pictures is a sophisticated alertness to precisely the coherent intertwining of body, mind, and vision insisted on in the history of writing about walking. Indeed, the thematics of walking--and the exploitation of its triad of faculties--besides appearing in the handling of the pedestrians depicted within the scene, can also manifest itself pictorially in the traces inscribed on the canvas of the painter's own position in relation to the subject and in the structure of the composition's appeal to the beholder, who is sometimes figured as a pedestrian.

A common activity of daily life, walking merited inclusion in the repertoire of everyday subjects favored by French painters of the era, yet perhaps because of the tendency to take ordinary walking for granted, its imagery has remained largely unexplored. As a pictorial theme it tends to receive notice only when it features a flaneur. The flaneur, who practiced leisurely strolling as a form of entertainment, has figured importantly in recent scholarship as the mobilized observer of the modern city's emerging status as "a site of permanent anxiety as well as a source of magnetic attraction," a result of the effects of urbanization and capitalism. (7) My aim here is not to argue the details of the extensive flaneur literature but, rather, to expand the scope of thinking about the pictorial significance of walking beyond its limited recognition as the modality of the flaneur. Paintings of the period show people of every variety and intent on the move. To restore to those figures--not just the flaneur but his fellow pedestrians as well--a fuller sense of the meaning of the activity, I draw on the context of the history of writing about walking, with particular emphasis on the coalescence of eye, mind, and body as integral to the process. This approach involves revising the prevailing notion of the flaneur, whose significance has been largely assimilated to the logic of the gaze and all its implications. That model is inadequate here, for it focuses primarily on the flaneur's emblematically modern mobility of gaze, with little attention paid to the physical act of walking or to the individual interiority that might inflect his reputedly detached manner of observation.

Walking in the modernized city would remain an important topic in Parisian art until the end of the century, among painters inclined to pursue subjects of everyday life. As the newness of the experience waned, the motif lost some of its urgency and tended to be less potently expressed in the 1880s and 1890s than in the 1870s. Nevertheless, artists coming to maturity in those later decades continued to probe deep-rooted concerns associated with urban walking, particularly with regard to the relation between self and world--or what Charles Baudelaire referred to as the relation between moi and non-moi (I and non-I). (8)

As Paris underwent its transition to modernity, the impact of Haussmann's changes had to be absorbed by the body as well as the eye and mind. Ingrained corporeal impulses to follow accustomed pathways had to give way to new habits and patterns of movement. To depict walking was to thematize motion. To step forth into the streets of the city was to submit oneself, willingly or unwillingly, to the urgent tempo of a distinctly urban version of lived experience. As a motif in painting, the walk offered one way of expressing the quality of that immersion. A walk is ephemeral, but for its duration it enhances awareness of the spatial and temporal character of the world flowing past the moving body and thereby makes perceptible "the pure successiveness that governs human life." (9) The literature on walking calls attention to its social, cultural, and political in addition to its phenomenological implications, in ways that help yield insight into the historically constituted thematics of walking within the depicted space of late-nineteenth-century painting. In the sampling of peripatetic images considered here, no single focus will emerge as dominant, just as no two walks can ever be exactly the same; rather, the diverse issues and aspects of walking will come into play in different pictures in different ways.

Everyday Walking as a Spatial Practice

Michel de Certeau defines pedestrians as "ordinary practitioners of the city" and understands walking as a spatial practice, in which the moving body articulates the shape of the walk. (10) Walkers make use of cities; pedestrian activity figures as one of the factors that animates a place and turns it into a lived space. Elizabeth Grosz contends that bodies and cities interact in a deeply reciprocal relation, in which "bodies reinscribe and project themselves onto their sociocultural environment," and that environment, in turn, both produces and reflects the interests of the body. (11) Such theories hold that walking is a basic modality of everyday life and that its "ordinary practitioners" exercise a certain positive and interactive force. The emergence of walking as a repeated motif in mid- to late-nineteenth-century Parisian art suggests that the city's remodeling brought about a heightened awareness of the mutual power of bodies and cities to affect one another. A number of views of Paris present it as a place articulated by the discursive movement of ordinary pedestrians, not just flaneurs. Walking as a theme also appeared in the literature of the period: French Realist novelists often walked their characters through the named and still extant streets and boulevards of Paris. A vivid example occurs in Emile Zola's 1877 novel L'assommoir, set in the 1850s and 1860s. So accurately did Zola first pace out, as part of his research, then chart out in his text the comings and goings of his characters--working-class figures who in no way qualify as flaneurs--that some editions include a present-day map of Paris along which the reader can retrace their...

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