Félix Thiollier (1842-1914), photographs

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Territories of intimacy

Félix Thiollier Landscape, La Sauvetat© Musée d'Orsay (dist. RMN)
Alongside the search for effects that so often excited this landscape photographer, Thiollier’s solitary wanderings too were a source of more physical, more earthy themes that reveal a personal shift in the sensitive approach towards the territory.
Although the traditional picturesque approach, which he had adopted until the 1880s, had been fuelled by Romanticism, it was also partly because it implied a way of considering the environment as a spectacle and thus relied heavily on the subjectivity of the first viewer that chose to depict it.

Félix ThiollierPool at Mornand, Forez (Loire)© Musée d'Orsay / Patrice Schmidt
It was this look at the landscape that Thiollier now seems to stage, finding that this, far more than the self-portrait, offered him a way to incorporate himself into the landscape that he claimed as his own, and in doing so, into his work. Admittedly, the natural world he shows us is always uninhabited, but this makes it now all the better to fill with the presence of the photographer: the bleaker his selected locations, in relation to the accepted picturesque aesthetic, the more personal these choices turn out to be.

Swept along by the rapid improvements in photographic techniques, the snap- shot practitioner was freed from the pictorial tradition that restricted him to this side of Alberti's “window”: his images are those of someone taking a stroll into the heart of the countryside, or more precisely, pausing at some point, seized by the desire to capture forever the emotion that had prompted him to set up his equipment right in the middle of the pathway, or, as often happened, in a quiet corner of his garden.

The picturesque as developer: the photogeneity of the black city

Félix Thiollier The Verpilleux Coking Plant, near Saint-Etienne© Musée d'Orsay / Patrice Schmidt
Forty years after having made the first important choices of his life, learning photography at the same time when he renounced a career as a mine engineer, the former ribbon manufacturer discovered a photographic passion for Saint-Étienne, "a lively and animated city (...) to which the local industries brought a special picturesque character". It was not easy to break away from a code of aesthetic appreciation, which, at a deeper level, was also a way of recognising the world.

The mines and factories in the cradle of the first French industrial revolution were, moreover, particularly appropriate subjects for what came to absorb him more than ever: atmospheric phenomena studies, the architectural and mineral landscape created by the hard work of men, and how the human figure related to this.
It was as if the anonymous figures of workers or coal pickers had come just at the right moment, not only to enhance that "impression (...) of a sort of hidden drama" that best reveals the continuing influence of Ravier in his work, but also to fuel his inexhaustible desire for the picturesque. Besides, how could the poor people of this black town have concealed the exotic charm of their poverty from the lens of this bourgeois citizen who, in spite of himself, was still Thiollier?

Félix Thiollier Mining Landscape, Saint-Etienne© Musée d'Orsay (dist. RMN)
Although Thiollier’s interest in photography gradually developed until eventually it became much more than the project to promote the natural and archaeo-logical treasures of the area, it was perhaps because this industrialist turned gentleman farmer had realised intuitively that "machine art" (Delacroix) could be the way to resolve, in images, this tension between two worlds that lived side by side – the rural and traditional on one side and the industrial and contemporary on the other – and he belonged to both.
The union of the picturesque and photography was sealed and could not be broken until his project as the editor of Le Forez pittoresque et monumental was completed, and this meant the aesthetic appropriation of the mental and identitarian territory of Forez as he saw it, reconciled with itself in the context of the "industrial image".The choice of medium, precisely because Thiollier officially refused to give it any artistic legitimacy, would not however be made without consequences.

Félix ThiollierA Corner of the Garden, Verrières© Musée d'Orsay / Patrice Schmidt
By admitting the creative superiority of the eye over the hand, the mechanised tool for reproducing images would gradually enable him to establish an independent vision, with a boldness that would burst into colour: ten years before the photogenic nature of industrial sites would be elevated into a credo of photographic modernism, his last images were extolling these new "worthless" locations that included scrapheaps, wasteland and abando-ned pitheads, such were the ruins of modern Forez, that met his melancholy and clear-sighted gaze.

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