I am in a celebratory mood. There are many significant City of Immortals benchmarks this month. First and foremost is the 215th anniversary of the founding of Père-Lachaise Cemetery in Paris, which occurred on May 21, 1804. It all began with the eighteenth-century Parisian engineers who had overlooked one major question in their urban design scheme—what to do with the ever-increasing population of the dead? In 1799 a competition was announced under direction from Napolèon to create new cemeteries on the outskirts of Paris.
The winner of the largest commission, the cimetière de l’Est (located at Mont-Louis in the east), was architect, urban planner, and landscape designer Alexandre-Thèodore Brongniart—the first architect ever to receive such an unprecedented project.
In all the decades I have been visiting Père-Lachaise seeing this memorial in the public park, Square Samuel de Champlain during my visit in December was a first for me. Due to heavy rain and the fear by the administrators of falling tree branches, I was asked to quickly exit the Porte Gambetta entrance of the cemetery, so I decided to take a leisurely stroll down to Boulevard Ménilmontant.
Midway down a steep incline in the park, I was startled by a dramatic and moving sculpture by Paul Moreau-Vauthier (1871 – 1936) who is buried in Division 14. The sculpture depicts the final moments of one-hundred and forty-seven fédérés, combatants of the Paris Commune who were lined up against the Mur des Fédérés (the real wall is in Division 76 – designated with a large plaque) and summarily executed, and whose bodies were dumped into a mass grave directly in front of the wall. In this artwork, a robed female figure with arms outstretched is surrounded by the ghost-like figures of the fallen Communards.
The Association of the Friends of the Paris Commune has long explained that the much-photographed bas-relief sculpture is not the famous Communards’ Wall – nor is it accepted as a symbol of remembrance for the Commune members who fell.
In consulting a colleague and fellow taphophile Steve Soper, he thought that the idea was to include this sculpture in Division 76 but too many political issues were at stake so it was eventually placed outside and out of the way — where it could do little harm to any one group or organization.
Americans certainly aren’t the only ones with a bit of a thing for Paris. Benjamin Franklin was born there, and from their gift of the Statue of Liberty, to our gifts of the Lost Generation and Jerry Lewis, to their love of American pop art, and countless moments of literature, art, music and cinema — we seem to love it there as much as anyone (except maybe actual Parisians).
As historic as the Broadway musical title, Mapmaker, Mapmaker, Make Me a Map!, the printed map is perceived by many as an historic artifact of a bygone era. With the preponderance of digital navigational systems in our cars and GPS apps on our smartphones, the role of the classic mapmaker might seem outdated or unnecessary. I assure you, it is not!
In creating my own map of Père Lachaise Cemetery, I have come to admire the cartographers whose skills are still very much in demand from the National Geographic Society whose maps of scenic trails are invaluable to hikers to major tourist attractions who rely on skilled designers to create maps that oftentimes are deemed works of art. (more…)
I was in Paris during November, 2016 and had the pleasure of meeting artist Milène Guermont at a Thanksgiving dinner hosted by expat and mutual friend Michael Kurcfeld, a producer of an ongoing series of video profiles of top fine-art photographers. Milène spoke of her sculpture project, “CAUSSE” installed in Montparnasse Cemetery; and I shared with her my life-long passion for Père Lachaise. With the juxtaposition of our creative interests in burial monuments, I am happy that we have stayed in touch across 6,000 miles. May her work be an inspiration to those considering a memorial tomb. It gives me great pleasure to share details of her recent artwork in Paris here on the City of Immortals blog.
Vernissage at the Cemetery
“In the history of the art of the burial tomb, it is today quite rare, if not almost impossible, to be able to express oneself artistically for a contemporary funerary artwork because the norms have come to constrain this ancestral expression. While we enjoy walking in our cemeteries, these new places are becoming boring. Except for “monuments to the memory of …” or commemorations of a famous person or a dramatic event, artists have deserted this direct reflection on death and one of the traditional rites, the burial.