November 27, 2009

So how come this blog, named after the myth of French C19th women incendiaries, is illustrated above by two blokes, one on his knees, the other on his arse, working on a highly polished wood floor that reflects light coming through what appears to be a balconied opening?

Fair question, and the answer is – coincidence.

The picture is cropped from a painting, by Gustave Caillebotte, a French C19th painter associated with the Impressionists, entitled Les Raboteurs de Parquet; widely anglicised as The Floor Scrapers (despite a rabot being a French woodworking plane, more of which later).

Caillebotte, son of a wealthy bourgeois, switched from his famille-ordained destiny in business and law to train as a painter and, when he came into their money, spent a fair bit buying paintings from his talented-but-poor mates to help support them. Many so helped became more admired and better known painters than himself.

I first saw the renowned version of this painting, live as it were, in the Musee d’Orsay. This was on a political/learn-some-French trip to the red-belt Paris departement of Seine-St Denis for the local Parti Socialiste ‘Red Rose’ week celebrations in the early 1990s.My hosts and I were sneaked in free by a friend of theirs who we had to accompany before opening-time for the start of her Sunday morning shift at the Musee.

Since then the painting has been a great favourite and returned to more than once. From my fiftieth, when my prescient and resourceful wife gave me an uncannily true reprint on stretched canvas just slightly smaller than the original, Les Raboteurs has been continuously hung in a prominent position at home.

Both versions, the one I’ve used at the top of the blog and the more renowned, were exhibited at the 1876 Impressionists’ exhibition, just 5 years after the Paris Commune, but there is a connection I twigged only recently and a puzzle I haven’t fully bottomed out.

Kirk Varnadoe, a professor at NYU reckons:-

“This work brought instant notoriety when it was shown” and was “best remembered of all his works at his death”.

He tells us that:-

“We must put aside the experience of the C20th in politics as well as in the conventional distortions of photography to understand fully the impact the Raboteurs had in 1876. First, the “vulgarity” of the subject offended ; as with Degas’ washerwomen shown in the same exhibition, the celebration of the urban worker was taken as a debasement of art, and possibly, as a leftist political statement.”

Now Kirk should be in the know as, by the account of an NYU colleague, Robert Rosenblum, his 1987 monograph on Caillebotte was “of such superlative quality that it should set new art historical standards of both scholarly fullness and interpretive precision and insight.”

Now forgive my pickiness, but I missed the scholarly fullness part of being invited to put aside “the experience of the C20th in politics”, partly because I had assumed there might be more than just the one and partly because I wasn’t sure if I’d had it in the first place, to put aside.  No matter. His sources for the offensiveness of the painting, its notoriety and its ongoing renown are very likely impeccable.

Running somewhat counter to this take on Les Raboteurs is that of Albert Boime from over the water at Princeton NJ.

David A. Shafer in “The Paris Commune” of 2005 cites Boime for this:-

“Reconstituting the bourgeoisie as masters of Paris and re-establishing the pre-Commune social-class hierarchy lent a sense of predictability and order that rendered the city less ominous and chaotic. For example, in Floorscrapers (1875) Gustave Caillebotte positioned three workers, consumed by their labors, in refinishing the flooring in an upscale dwelling, beneath the gaze of those observing them; no longer in political control of the capital, the workers have once again been returned to a subordinate position, both in terms of their labors and their spatial relationship to those viewing them.”

So which is it to be; a possibly leftist political statement or reassuring pictorial confirmation of a return to ordered ante-Commune class relations? Are both possible? Again, more later.

Meantime, back to the rabot, the French woodworking plane, and from Kirk Varnadoe:-

“Tradition has it that the occasion for the painting was the reconditioning of floors in the family home. The activity depicted, however, is more familiar in connection with a new building where humidity trapped during construction has caused the floorboards to buckle upwards along their edges. The dark shining surface of the floor does not owe to old wax being removed but to the water with which the scrapers initially soaked the bare floor to prevent splintering of the wood. The ‘stripes‘ in the floor are dry wood exposed by the first step in the process, the passage of a heavy-duty two-handled plane, the rabot, over the buckled edges of the planks. The right hand worker here holds the rabot”.

The second stage was to finish the floor with a racloir, a metal scraper, being used by the left hand worker in the foreground. This is pulled towards the body rather than pushed away as with the rabot. (In my blog crop of the less renowned painting the foreground worker is using the rabot.)

No-one should dispute the standard of Varnadoe’s scholarly fullness here. However, though sourced from a personal interview with a Parisian floor scraper who, in 1972, had 50 years in the trade, this raises almost as many questions as it answers. For example:-

– Why is the floor significantly darker in one version of the painting than the other?
– Does wet bare wood shine?
– If wood is bare and unfinished with wax, how is humidity trapped by construction when it can be lost to the air through the top surface of the boards?
– Is reconditioning part of what happens in new-build?

However, taking Varnadoe’s views at face value, for a moment, raises further possibilities. The painting is plausibly a realist documentary.

In 1875, work would have been continuing on the restoration of the central urban cityscape of Paris – where Caillebotte had an apartment. The creation of that cityscape by Haussmann under the Second Empire had largely been completed by the time of the Commune and, following it’s brutal repression, building work would have centred significantly on its rebuilding and restoration after the destruction wrought both by Versaillais artillery and the fires set by Communard(e)s retreating in the face of their forces.

Restoring Paris would have meant the installation of very many new wood floors to replace those destroyed by fire in damaged buildings so by 1875 this work activity was common and well known to both bourgeois rentier and those of the working class who survived the repression and were able to remain in Paris during the 1870s.

Is it not possible, therefore, that M.Caillebotte in his notorious paintings of Les Raboteurs de Parquet was, in actuality, representing work then being undertaken to replace floors burn-out as a result of Communard incendiaries?

I’m still digging.


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