Friday, September 28, 2007

J’adore Paris — The French Capital in Maps at the Art Institute's Ryerson Library

One of the first tantalizing exhibitions to anticipate the Festival of Maps is now on display in the Ryerson Art Library at the Art Institute of Chicago.

The central pieces in the exhibition, Paris: Capital of the 19th Century, are a series of government-commissioned maps of Paris dating from 1900. They are supplemented in turn with older maps and documents from the Art Institute’s remarkable Percier and Fontaine Collection, which archives the combined libraries of Pierre François Léonard Fontaine (1762-1853) —- the man appointed by Napoleon I as the official architecte du gouvernement —- and his nephew, State Architect Pierre François Louis Fontaine (1798-1863). The collection, acquired by the Art Institute from the Fontaine family in 1927, is undoubtedly one of the great “hidden” holdings of a museum that has always presented a superlative survey of French art. But as these maps (many of which are too big for display cases) are rarely displayed, it is a rare and welcome occasion to view them now.

The title of the exhibition is taken from an 1938 essay of the same name by philosopher-historian Walter Benjamin. In that essay, as in the exhibition, Paris’s central position in the radical developments of modern Europe is “mapped” along broad social, economic, and cultural lines. And in pouring over these fantastically precise and detailed maps, one starts to realize that as a “capital city,” Paris truly was the metropolis that served as the model for emerging European cities in the 20th century. By 1900, for example, the world’s first grand department stores—Bon Marché (1852), Printemps (1865) and the Galeries Lafayette (1896)—are already clearly labeled landmarks alongside the city’s iconic monuments and museums. Notably prominent, too, in these maps are the train tracks and stations, which by the end of the 19th century had already revolutionized the transportation and industrial sectors. The maps record the railway’s emerging dominance, as illustrated by the many partially-covered or converted canals one sees. And then, in a map of the 7th Arrondissement, we find the newly constructed Eiffel Tower standing alone in a vast field of white, uninscribed page, denoting the still undeveloped surrounding parks. “La Tour” of course, is the essential emblem of Paris for the rest of the world. But it appears here in a way that seems ironically representative of the Parisians’ initial distaste for the project at the time of its construction.

Considering, too, that one is looking at an “Atlas administratif,” the maps are symbolic of the rising standards for urban planning and management that developed across Europe in the post-Napoleonic era. By 1900, Paris was already fully realized in the 20 arrondissements that constitute its administrative and residential districts. In fact, any tourist who has ever consulted one of those pocketbook maps of Paris while wandering her steets, will realize with a kind of amazement that the city we know today was more or less completely formed a century ago.

The exhibition is a brief but elegant introduction to the Festival of Maps. It will surely delight anyone in Chicago looking for a brief promenade through the streets of Paris!

Written by Nikolas Lund, a local scholar on Parisian maps.


Kevin said...

When does this exhibit start/end?

Festival of Maps said...

This exhibit actually started on July 31st, refreshed the content on October 1, and will carry on until December 4th. Hope you can make it there.