The chouetitude of Desuetitude: Lost in time in the Plains of the Pré Saint-Gervais

gervaisclairesantotTaken with a Holga box camera and shared at the recent Portes Ouvertes of the Pré Saint-Gervais on the frontiere of Paris, Claire Santrot’s photograph, above, recalls the portraits of Roman Vishniac and Andre Kertesz. Courtesy and copyright Claire Santrot.

LE PRE SAINT-GERVAIS (Seine-St.-Denis), France — When I was 12 or 13, my parents split up and my two younger brothers and I started spending half the week in my dad’s architecture studio in San Francisco’s Mission District, a converted candy store – soda fountain – pharmacy. Autrement dit, un loft avant son temps. We were always finding turn of the 19th-20th century victual bottles in the overgrown garden. The place, on Guerrero Street — next door to the childhood home of Timothy Pflueger, a pioneering architect who designed many of the city’s art deco movie palaces and downtown landmarks — had a corrugated tin ceiling that my father painted pea green. He divided the house with a wall on the other side of which my brothers and I initially shared a tiny loft, before that part of the house was divided into three bedrooms. It was about this time that I started getting nostalgic — for the jazz and cinema of the 1930s and ’40s, with my step-mother turning me on to KMPX, a former hippy radio station that had converted to big band music. Later, when I was living in the back part of the building as an adult with my dad using the front for a studio, my neighbor, a New Yorker named Sy who drove a taxi for a living but had also DJ’d and whose one-eyed albino cat Bowie used to scramble with my part-husky feline Mesha, showed me the stash of a dozen old radio consoles the electronics guy on the street had bequeathed to him before walking off into the Sunset (district, perpetually shrouded in fog). The jewel of the collection was a compact system which had both a built in tape-deck and a turntable that could play 78s, which Sy leant me so I could record my godmother Annette’s old Andrews Sisters, Mickey Katz, Jascha Heifitz, and even one mammoth Caruso disk from 1906 (“La Juife”). Up until last Sunday, Sy’s collection comprised the most antique radios I’d ever seen in one place.


Jean-Marc Franchini’s acrylic and silk paper portrait of Woodie Guthrie. A legal suit was recently brought in the United States to wrest Guthrie’s unofficial National Anthem, “This Land is Your Land,” from the corporation which currently owns the rights and release it to the public domain.  Copyright and courtesy Jean-Marc Franchini.

Thus it was that entering Jean-Marc Franchini’s studio-atelier-flat-museum-discotheque on June 19, to kick off my second day making the tour of the Portes Ouvertes (open studios) of the Paris frontier town Le Pré Saint-Gervais, I found myself stepping into a double time warp, back in Sy’s Guerrero Street apartment in the 1990s and in the home/studio of an avid music fanatic of the early 1960s. Even Franchini’s lanky size and close-cropped ‘do with an Alfalfa wave on top is consistent with the decor: He could be the gas station attendant behind the guitar player somewhere on Route 66 behind whom hides a green Elvis (“Because he’s dead,” explains Franchini) in one of his paintings. Then there’s the half-circle independent bar-counter island, the sofa and matching (or close enough) lounge chairs with independent cushions, and the groovy shellack coffee table. About the only thing that’s (relatively) modern is the stereo complex above six or seven shelves of densely packed records, the more vintage radios and record-players-in-a-valise that line the elevated salon being a mix of the functional and the simply decorous. “I just haven’t yet figured out how to connect the two record players to the receiver,” Franchini explained. If he can’t get any of the record players to work, the many blues and big band figures peopling his tableaux — some created with China Ink, some simply oils, the most remarkable and tactile being those made of a combination of silk paper and acrylic — might just  step out of the frames and start jamming. As is often the case in France, Franchini’s heard of ’50s era American musicians obscure to me (Skip James), but even his portrayals of more familiar figures — Billie Holiday, surrounded by her band in an intimate club setting, or Woody Guthrie with a guitar on which he’s written “This guitar kills fascists” — manage for the most part to avoid the clichés.


The bluesman Lonnie Johnson, and friend, captured by Jean-Marc Franchini in acrylic and silk paper.  Copyright and courtesy Jean-Marc Franchini.


Jean-Marc Franchini’s China ink portrait of Billie Holiday and friends.  Copyright and courtesy Jean-Marc Franchini.

It’s not just the interior design of Franchini’s apartment-studio that is one of the most period-consistent settings I’ve ever seen. (And having spent three years living in Fort Worth, Texas, I know something about desuetitude.) Saint-Gervais itself could have been transported in a time capsule directly from the late 1950s or early 1960s. Thus it is that even stepping out of Franchini’s apartment building, onto a somewhat dilapidated street with low-story dwellings and an abandoned lot overgrown with weeds across the way, rather than being jerked back to the present, you simply continue your stroll expecting to find more of the same….as did I, Sunday, in the “Atelier Monsieur Madame.” (Madame has so far resisted my requests to provide the full names of herself and the brother with whom she started the business several years ago, after taking a formation as a cabinet-maker, a not so dramatic shift from her ophthalmologist career as you might think, given the eye for detail of “Veronique,” the most I could extract from her. To the familial enterprise “Monsieur” brought many years of scouring the antique markets and “vide greniers” (like neighborhood-wide garage sales; vide = empty, greniers = attics) for beat up relics of the 1940s through ’70s. (The same terrain where Franchini finds his furnishings; if they ever need touching up, help is right around the corner.) From restorations, the pair has moved on to actually recreating period furniture from scrap. Among the technical challenges they face is finding… formica. French formica is apparently not as sturdy as its American counter-part, and, “Madame” told me, the best way to fix up the tarnished surface of an armoire door, for example, is often by cannibalizing the material from somewhere else in the same armoire.


Old made new again: Outside the Atelier Monsieur Madame. The furniture, like the garden/yard, is authentic, refurbished from the 1940s through ’70s  or (front left) created from scratch in the same style. Image copyright and courtesy Atelier Monsieur Madame.

Right now, it seems like the next step for Madame et Monsieur may be making the backyard presence of their workshop more apparent from the front entrance of the apartment building in which its located. And to further demonstrate how ideally suited Le Pré Saint-Gervais is to retro environments and retro-retouching, when I entered the yard onto which their atelier opens up and pointed to a couple of lawn-chair and table relics, and even a rocking-horse grazing and asked, “Your work?” Madame smiled faintly at my attempted cleverness and answered. “Nope. The neighbor’s furniture.”

At this point, I decided it was time to move from the obsolete (the closest English translation to ‘desuet,’ though I’ve also seen “quaint”) to the obscure and hied over to the atelier of Monique Mathey, who had constructed a camera obscura d’occasion using only a cardboard box, a hole puncher, and a piece of aluminum. After marvelling over the work of Claire Santrot in the same atelier, particularly a series on hands covering one wall and a number of photos taken with the Holga box camera made popular by the lomography movement, I wandered over to the territory of the obscura.

paul camerasm

A critique with a 360-degree pinhole view of reality: Your not so humble servant, captured by Antonia Machayekhi. (As headware, Monsieur sports the latest in homemade cameras obscuras.) Photo copyright and courtesy Antonia Machayekhi. (Click here to see Machayekhi’s portraits of Cabu and others; and here for her reportage on the harpsichord maker Claude Mercier.

After about my fifth time asking Mathey to explain how her homemade camera obscura worked, she suggested, “Try it out for yourself,” and plopped the box over my head, leaving me barely enough time to remove my urban cowboy’s Stetson. Et voila le tenue qu’il faut pour un critique qui voir que l’obscure. — Paul Ben-Itzak

For more on the Portes Ouvertes of the Pré Saint-Gervais, see our Arts Voyager portfolio of Valeria Aussibal.


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