From Pompeii to Paris: ghostly cityscapes and the ruins of modernity in Théophile Gautier and
by Alexandra Tranca
This essay by Alexandra Tranca explores representations of the urban environment in the second half of the nineteenth century through the writing of Théophile Gautier and the photography of Eugène Atget. More specifically, Tranca examines how both respond, in their own medium, to the reconstruction of Paris’s urban space and, in doing so, build an aesthetics of modernity.
The discussion unfolds in a flowing manner, moving back and forth between Gautier and Atget, relating their work to ideas from philosophy, such as Foucault’s heterotopia, and from literature, as in Baudelaire’s ‘Le Soleil’. Tranca believes Gautier and Atget’s conceptual approaches share an inverse relationship: Gautier imagined a revival of lost ancient Pompeii and Atget, a fossilized, modern Paris.
Atget is said to depict the urban landscape of Old Paris; labyrinthine, medieval streets, walls covered in advertisements and posters, unkempt facades from another time convey a sense of loss and change in the city. Atget records both the aesthetically valuable and humble in indiscriminatory fashion. Tranca argues, however, that Atget did not simply produce objective depictions of reality as he, himself, believed. The composition, how he framed the orthogonal planes to create an impression of far-reaching space, indicate the influence of his personal vision on his photographs. A large part of a subjective understanding of place is mood, to Tranca, which he is described to impart through his images successfully. He framed views that are shrouded in an atmosphere of nostalgia and, hence, made a myth of Old Paris.
In this, he also captured a struggle between emptiness and abundance: his images are void of human figures, but the built environment leans into the viewer’s space, its urban furnishings, in the form of signs and other material objects, present and loud. It is in this struggle, in the fleeting memories he captures that Tranca suggests Atget effectively constructs his image of modernity.
Alexandra Tranca is an academic at the University of Oxford and a writer on nineteenth-century French literature, urbanism, art, and architecture.
Tranca, Alexandra. ‘From Pompeii to Paris: ghostly cityscapes and the ruins of modernity in Théophile Gautier and Eugène Atget.’ Word & Image 32, no. 3 (September 2016): 251 - 263.