A necropolis is a city in its own right — houses along tree-lined streets, sidewalks, lawns, neighbourhoods. Property is bought, sold, and inherited. Water is piped in for ritual house-cleaning and for the gardens and birds — mostly ravens harassing the other birds.
Sometimes the necropolis presents a tableau vivant of the deceased, a portrait that freezes a moment in time. Below, a couple’s tomb is fashioned as a bed in which likenesses of M. and Mme. Pigeon, still under the blanket, recline in the manner of ancient Etruscan spouse sarcophagi. It’s a quiet, tender moment of domestic life. Perhaps they’re chatting about their children or solving the Sunday crossword puzzle.
Or perhaps discussing the family business of manufacturing hand-held lamps.
In a way, cemeteries are as much about life as they are about death.
Sex in the Cemetery
It should come as no surprise.
Cupid awakens Psyche with a tenderly erotic kiss:
The original of Canova’s sculpture of nascent Romanticism is in the Louvre.
Below, Brâncuşi’s limestone The Kiss: lovers in a fused column of sexual embrace.
Brâncuşi’s lovers are not embracing at the tomb of Brâncusi — which yields its own tale, a sort of posthumous ménage-a-trois — but at the grave of Tatiana Rachewskaia, a young Russian woman who committed suicide in Paris at the age of 23.
The quartier‘s fashionable countess
A library for the necropolis
Cinema & photography
A dragon guarding the treasury of French films
Henri Langlois, archivist and preservationist of French films, founded Cinématèque Française and created the Musée du Cinéma. Jean Cocteau called him “the dragon who watches over our treasures.”
Garder le Calme!!! Devant la DISSONANCE!!!
Without the ironic exclamation points: “Keep calm in the face of dissonance.” A good maxim for a film director, or anyone for that matter.
A cinematic spotlight on crimes against humanity
Jorge Cedron was an Argentinian film director who fled to Paris after the military coup d’état of 1976. His films such as Operation Massacre engage issues of injustice surrounding political and military upheavals in Argentina. He died in Paris at 38, under mysterious circumstances.
Photographer of humanity
Philippe Joudiou was a French photographer who traveled widely, starting in the late 1940s, to countries in Europe, the Middle East, India and the Far East, and Africa. His black and white photographs mirrored to the world its own diversity of human culture and spiritual traditions.
The homey photo cube
Never forget . . .
Olivier Greif was a French composer whose parents were Polish Jews. His father survived Auschwitz, a fact that profoundly affected Grief’s music.
Greif’s Letters from Westerbork (1993), for example, is scored for soprano and two violins. Each of the three movements begins with a spoken text from the diary of Etty Hillesum, a Jewish Dutch woman who helped deportees at Westerbork, a transit camp in northeastern Netherlands. She herself was transported to Auschwitz at the age of 29, where she was murdered. Below is the text by Hillesum that opens the first movement:
We live here in indescribable misery. In the large barracks, we truly live like rats in a sewer. We see many children die for lack of care. Last week, a convoy of prisoners arrived in the middle of the night, their faces waxen and translucent. Never have I seen so much exhaustion and fatigue on human faces. In the morning, they were packed into freight cars.
Etty Hillesum, July 1943
Lhote was a French cubist painter and art theorist strongly influenced by Gauguin and Cézanne. Notable for his use of colour, he said that “to use color well is as difficult as for a fish to pass from water to air or earth.”
His drawing of a pensive angel is affixed to his grave.
Self-Portrait as Angel:
Maryse Bastié, pioneer aviatrice
Bastié smashed the glass ceiling for women aviators who came after her, setting multiple records for duration and distance during the 1930s.
The grave of sculptor Henri Laurens is decorated with one of his own works, La Douleur.
Grave of Mexican artist Julio Ruelas:
Flowers of remembrance
Hands of remembrance
Perhaps it was Rodin’s sculptures of hands that started the popular practice of having one’s hands modeled, or of adorning graves with intertwined ones.
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-beasts 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 ordered anchovy but ate 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 an odd 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 everywhere.”
from 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!