(Author’s apologies for missing accents due to formatting issues)
When we think of France, what do we think of? A sense of graciousness, delicacy, wittiness, and light. There is a reason why the French have long dominated the visual arts and that which is related to the image. Beginning with the aptly named Lumiere brothers, the French were pioneers in filmmaking and recorded visual images. Perhaps one has to back up and credit first the early photographers such as Niépce and Florence (who was French-Brazilian) and Daguerre, who made significant contributions to the embryonic art. The Lumiere brothers certainly were not the only inventors to be credited with the development of the motion picture, but their name is synonymous with film and certainly a great source of pride for the French. Georges Melies, another early filmmaking pioneer, is the subject of Martin Scorsese’s visually beautiful film Hugo, which re-creates the magic of Melies’s filmmaking process. The French “New Wave” filmmakers, such as Jean-Luc Godard, were known for their striking black and white images and jump cuts, creating new methods of telling a story other than the traditional narrative. And the brilliant Oscar-winning film “The Artist” pays tribute to Hollywood in a completely non-verbal, entirely visual mode, where the silent film is reinvented so successfully by Michel Hazanavicius.
One need only spend time in France to appreciate the importance of light in their culture. There is a beautiful summer light in the Paris area that creates a feeling of “douceur” or gentleness that permeates their art. The Impressionists harnessed this light, revolutionizing the tradition of realism; playing with the viewer’s cognitive and optical perceptions through their constructions of images based on light, color, shadows, and their unique spatial perspectives. One does not see what is. Rather, one sees an impression of what is, filtered through the artist’s sensibility, and the results are simply stunning. Naturally, one must also pay heed to the pointillists like Seurat, who perhaps were the inventors of the concept of pixels, creating a whole by focusing on the miniscule parts. If one goes back earlier, to the work of painters like Jacques-Louis David, one cannot help but be impressed by his use of beams of light on his subjects, tableaux that were the only visual representation of reality before the advent of the camera.
France’s aesthetic sensibility, one could argue, is iconic. That is, the importance of particular pictures or images drives the perception of art. From the national symbol of the “Marianne” to the classic Chanel or Dior silhouettes, the Tricolor flag, the Eiffel Tower, the love of comics and cartoons, the style of screen symbols like Bardot or Deneuve, the cars like the inimitable Citroen DS, the classic Louis Vuitton luggage and bags, the sleek design of the Concorde—-the list is endless. The French still seem to have an admiration of American icons, such as Marilyn Monroe, Manhattan, the Grand Canyon. The visual element also extends into the French culture’s love of wordplay. One can see on the page (as well as hear), for example, the driving forces of the opera Carmen by Georges Bizet—-“l’amour” (love) and “la mort” (death)—-that the doomed heroine sings in contrasting moments of the opera when she knows her position with regard to Don Jose. The linguistic-visual wit can also be seen in the Belgian painter Magritte’s classic painting “Ceci n’est pas une pipe” (This is not a pipe), in which the viewer knows and yet knows not that the painting of a pipe is not truly the real object.
It is a culture of the symbol, the image, the visual. What one sees is of great importance: consider the variety of words and phrases to express the action of looking. Other cultures might be more auditory and kinesthetic (like the Italians), more philosophical/inner-reflective, more intuitive, more contextual, or orally transmitted. And each culture’s sensibilities contribute something beautiful to our artistic consciousness. France’s gift is what it gives us to see.