A Museum of Memento Mori in Montparnasse Cemetery
Poets & philosophers
Twenty-five years after the death of Charles Baudelaire, the literati of Paris decided in 1892 to erect a cenotaph dedicated to the poète maudit.
Rodin was commissioned to sculpt the monument, but he only got as far as the head of Baudelaire before funding lagged. Rodin would later state:
What’s a statue, in fact? A body, arms and legs covered in ordinary clothes? What use are they to Baudelaire, who lived only through his mind? His head is all that matters.
Enter José de Charmoy, a relatively unknown French sculptor. Having already designed a sculpture dedicated to the poet, Charmoy offered it to the committee. His cenotaph now stands at the end of a path, against a wall.
More than just a head, Charmoy’s monument to the poète maudit consists of three figures. A shrouded corpse lies rigid and insensate:
An elongated, skeletal bat clings to the vertical monolith. So Baudelaire.
And at the pinnacle, a square-jawed thinker leans forward, chin on fists, sunken eyes gazing into nothingness with acute . . . ennui.
A lifesaver for Robert Desnos
Poet Robert Desnos, an active member of the French Resistance, was arrested by the Gestapo in 1944. After being sent to three different Nazi concentration camps, he ended up in Theresienstadt, a camp in occupied Czechoslovakia. He died of typhoid at age 44, a month after the camp was liberated.
At the end of one of his poems, Desnos writes:
You’ll put a life saver on my grave. Because one never knows.
His devotees have obliged.
A mailbox for Cioran
On the grave of Romanian philosopher Emil Cioran sits a mailbox. When I was there, several messages had been deposited.
To conceive the act of thought as a poison bath, the pastime of an elegiac viper.Cioran, Anathemas and Admirations
Parma violets for Tristan Tzara
Has Dada ever spoke to you about Parma violets
NEVER NEVER NEVER
Here we are dropping our anchor in fertile ground.
“Life is a gift that is lost . . .”
La vie est un don perdu pour celui qui ne l’a pas vécu comme il aurait voulu.
Life is a gift that is lost to those who haven’t lived the way they would have liked.
This adage by 19th-century Romanian poet Mihai Eminescu has a whiff of impossibility. Can a person really arrive at the end of life and have no regrets? It would require predicting what the future you would deem to have been a squandered gift of life.
But loosely interpreted as a memento mori — follow your passions before it’s too late — I can live with that.
Le Musée Montparnasse
The Enlightened Centaur
I first met Baldaccini’s iconic Centaur at a busy intersection in Paris. Baldaccini used scrap metal to create the bricolaged man-horse.
Yes, garden tools and a violin scroll protrude from the centaur’s anus. Even so, he radiates extraordinary dignity. His front leg and arm are poised as if he were about to impart reason.
Perhaps this centaur is more related to the Houyhnhnms, the tribe of intelligent horses in Gulliver’s Travels, than to the concupiscent man-beast of ancient Greek myth.
The same sculpture poses on the grave of Baldaccini:
The Pilgrim by Baltasar Lobo
Le Pèlerin is exhibited on the tomb of its creator, Spanish-French artist Baltasar Lobo.
On the grave of Polish-French artist Léopold Kretz stands his sculpture Le prophète:
Images of women
Philippe Hiquily was a sculptor whose wide-hipped female forms de-emphasizing limbs and heads recall prehistoric Venus sculptures, which magnify childbearing potential. Hiquily sometimes gives his metallic women spindly limbs and oddly shaped heads, lending an insectile humour to their provocative eroticism.
Here lies one such enigma, in her otherworldly glory, on Hiquily’s tomb:
Some hybrids & metamorphoses
Fish boobs? Huh?
The secret of the bronze Fish Siren? The breasts on one side.
Inscription on the other side of the female fish:
Il fait son choix d’anchois et dine d’une sardine.
Essentially, if less elegantly: He chose anchovy but got sardine.
On the grave of painter Gérard Barthélémy stands a bushy pelican that seems to be morphing into a plant.
The pelican emerges from a tree stump; its legs and toes resemble the roots:
The pelican’s feathers appear like leaves:
And the pelican’s body sprouts flora:
Perhaps an Ovidian metamorphosis is happening?
A bejeweled turtle for Huysmans
Novelist Karl-Joris Huysmans turned Zola’s naturalism on its head in À rebours, the novel championed by a generation of writers embracing Decadence as an aesthetic.
The connoisseur Des Esseintes, in his mania to fashion ever-refined sensory experiences, decides that he needs a living creature moving about an oriental carpet in order to set off its colours and texture. He purchases a turtle, whose shell he plates in gold and encrusts with precious stones.
However, the embedded jewels weigh down the animal until it expires. The doomed turtle is one of the most arresting images from Huysmans’ novel — a sort of Faustian demise by proxy.
A Porcelain Cat for Ricardo Menon
Sculptor Niki de Saint Phalle created a colourful cat for the grave of her close friend Ricardo Menon, who died of AIDS in 1989.
Aside: Another work in Paris by Niki de Saint Phalle is the Stravinsky Fountain at Centre Pompidou (with co-creator Jean Tinguely). Below is her fantastical Firebird from that fountain:
A delicate mantid
The shiny blue-and-red creature by Agathon suggests a praying mantis’ delicate structure and pose.
Agathon’s sculpture, with its bright colours and fantastical shape, recalls the sculptures of Niki de Saint Phalle.
Stained glass & mosaics
A medievalist in the Belle Époque
Bellery-Henri Desfontaines was a decorative artist of the late 19th century. As the mosaic on his tombstone suggests, he embraced the Belle Époque interest in Medieval art and tapestry.
Simple blue stars — unpretentiously notable . . .
The intriguing sculpture on this Jewish-Christian tomb is the opposite of simple:
Perhaps the numbers, counting down from 12 to 1 and starting over at 12, represent a clock or sundial?
A planet for Urbain le Verrier
French astronomer and mathematician Urbain le Verrier specialized in the motions of bodies in outer space. Using only mathematics, he played a key role in predicting the existence and position of Neptune.
An ammonite for Caillois
I assumed (incorrectly) that a scientist was buried at a tombstone embedded with an ammonite fossil:
The grave is unmarked, but a bit of research reveals that it belongs to Roger Caillois, a sociologist and literary critic who wrote classic works on the sociology of the sacred and of play. Good to know. But why the ammonite?
Caillois was fascinated by mineralogy, and in The Writing of Stones he speaks of precious stones and fossils with a curious mixture of poetry and science. He views the patterns created by fossils inside stones as if they were inscriptions in the book of evolution:
Meanwhile the tree of life goes on putting out branches. A multitude of new inscriptions is added to the writing in stones. Images of fishes swim among dendrites of manganese as though among clumps of moss. A sea lily sways on its stem in the heart of a piece of slate. A phantom shrimp can no longer feel the air with its broken antennae. The scrolls and laces of ferns are imprinted in coal. Ammonites of all sizes, from a lentil to a millwheel, flaunt their cosmic spirals everywherefrom L’écriture des pierres, tr. Barbara Bray
A curious episode in the history of 20th-century poetry involves a debate between Caillois and chief Surrealist André Breton about the inner workings of the Mexican jumping bean. Caillois, whose poetic prose reflects on the patterns and colours inside jasper and petrified wood, proposed cutting open the “bean” to understand it. Breton, however, adamantly preferred to keep the object intact and to delve into its mystery solely through the power of his imagination.
Such are the debates of poets. The upshot? Breton excommunicated Caillois from his (very) exclusive club of Surrealists. Caillois is in good company in Montparnasse Cemetery — other poets ejected from Breton’s club include Robert Desnos and Tristan Tzara.
Just a couple more tombstones before the guard walks through the cemetery ringing his bell to signal the closing of the gates . . .
Keep smiling . . .
De notre sourire gardez le souvenir. Souriez-vous pour nous!
Remember our smile, and smile for us!
Next: Romanizing the Parisii