Thursday, October 7, 2010

If These Walls Could Talk--A Glimpse Into a World Long Gone

This morning as I was scrolling through my always-interesting Twitter feed I noticed a piece posted by Valerie (aka @swannoir27) about a Paris apartment that had been shuttered for some 70 years.  The link pointed to a piece in the UK Telegraph newspaper about a valuable piece of art that was found within the flat and had recently sold for 3 million or so dollars at auction. The painting itself is interesting, if not more than a little over the top, but I found myself far more interested in everything the article did NOT mention and despite my best intentions to accomplish other things, I’ve spent much of today daydreaming over this long-abandoned Paris flat. There's a link to the Telegraph piece HERE and a link HERE with more photos to the lovely The Paris Apartment blog; plus THIS link with a few more images of the flat.)

The newspaper article mentions that the apartment had been closed up since before World War II--when the owner fled to the south of France--and it remained unoccupied until the owner died sometime in 2010. That means that this space was, for all intents and purposes, a kind of time capsule--a “through the looking glass” place that existed in its own time--free from the march to modernity that we've all been part of. Untouched, from what I can figure out, through the D-Day invasions at Normandy, the liberation of Paris, and V-E Day. It’s a kind of silent witness…if those walls could talk.

Then imagine being the first person to open that door after 70 years--in my romantic mind it would have been a little like when Howard Carter first peered into the wonder that was Tutankhamun’s tomb. The photographs give us a tiny glimpse at what appears to be a place that was left abruptly. Had the occupant fled Paris, or merely left it for a safer existence in the south? Why did she never return? The rent, taxes, and other fees were continually paid, but apparently the owner, the granddaughter of Marthe de Florian, never went back after vacating the flat. Can you imagine having a comfy flat in the middle of Paris and not using it...for 70 years? This is a mystery as delicious as your favorite French pastry! 

Some of the furnishings and items that we can see in the photos are rather remarkable, others typical of early 20th century life. Attractive chairs and artwork in various states of framing are prominent in the pictures, as is the fantastic mirror that dominates the left side of the image. Even though there’s visible water damage, some of the wall coverings look to be a once-lovely damask and there appears to be some impressive plasterwork or carved wood moulding as well. The tall windows and heavy draperies belie a once elegant space with marble fireplace mantles and beautiful old carpets. Even the harsh angle of the walls as they meet in the corner evokes the quirky appeal of the quintessential Paris flat. There's an adorable stuffed Mickey Mouse toy (and is that a Porky Pig doll I spy behind him!?) sitting at the feet of an extraordinary stuffed ostrich--more than likely purchased from the famed Parisian taxidermy shop Deyrolle.

What I’d really love to see photographs of, though, are the contents of the kitchen, bedroom, or bathroom. What kinds of potions and tonics (in my imagination they are in charming, flowery bottles with glass stoppers) lined the glass shelves of the bathroom? Were there beautiful tiles on the walls so typical of many early 20th century baths? In the kitchen were there ancient tins of spices and bottles of liquor and spirits? Did a bottle of Veuve Clicquot happen to be stashed away in a cupboard for a special occasion? Perhaps there were piles of fashion magazines from the period, filled with the latest couture and haberdashery. One article does mention a number of calling cards from prominent individuals of the time--another treasure of a bygone era--as well as piles of love letters held together by ribbons of various colors.

There are so many things I want to know about this apartment, about the woman who occupied it--or didn’t, actually--for all those decades. I’m sure the contents were carefully inventoried and cataloged by a wonderfully bureaucratic French official, but I hope that someone else was there to document it all as well. I’d love to have a French writer’s take on the place and how it was allowed to exist out of time for so long. This apartment is a time capsule of the most wonderful sort and a veritable feast for any historian, archivist, curator or writer. The real story of this space is likely better than any fiction writer could conjure, but I wonder if we’ll ever know?

Not so long after stumbling upon this piece I read Roger Ebert’s poignant (and wonderful) review of the forthcoming Secretariat film. At one point during the review he mentions that his beloved friend and long-time co-host Gene Siskel used to say that, “his favorite movies were about what people actually do all day.” I immediately thought it was precisely that feeling which resonated so strongly and moved me so about this abandoned apartment. It was a scene from a day in the life of a pre-war Parisienne, a glimpse into a world long gone. 


Mark Devereux said...

Amazing stuff - so interesting! That HAS to be Porky in the corner...and what a gorgeous painting (you can tell the artist is in love with her)!

The Paper Tyger said...

I was literally captivated by the thought of that apartment all afternoon. Porky is almost cuter than Mickey I think! That painting is, as you say, clearly one created out of love...with a little lust tossed in :p

sid fernando said...

Amazing and delicious. I get the same feeling when old war airplanes or subs are found intact, and thoughts immediately follow on what must have been, happened, etc., and how such time capsules are amazing finds.

jennifer said...

This is just too, too cool for words. How exciting it must have been to walk in there for the first time. What a beautiful place.

I hope that someone is looking at this from a historical perspective and writing a book about it. Such a rare thing to find something untouched for so long!