The Pavement Artists of Paris, France.
Written By P. E. Schneider
Transcribed and edited by Philip Battle
The past two or three years have brought a veritable bloom of pavement art to Paris. It all began, so it is said, when a certain citizen, who had had one too many sank into the gutter and began to draw on the sidewalk with a piece of chalk. To his great surprise, art-loving Parisians started throwing him francs. Being astute, he soon turned his discovery into a business and told his friends about it. Today, there are some two score gutter Giotto’s busy painting the town red and green and yellow, wherever the weather permits.
They are a curious lot, these pavement artists. Practically all are young—primarily perhaps because it takes good joints to squat for six or seven hours at a crossroads. Cosmopolitanism runs high in their brotherhood, which embraces Frenchmen, Germans, Spaniards and even a Yugoslavian. Some of the foreigners want to prolong their Paris holiday. Others, foreign and domestic, are students seeking to supplement their means (not necessarily students of the arts though; often in fact, they are like one portraitist on Boulevard Montmartre who captioned his picture, “copy of a seventeenth-century painting treated in the impressionist manner”—by which judging from the result he could only have meant his own untutored impression).
The sidewalk Chalkers do share one characteristic with most stand-up artists: a dislike for routine work, “When I have 100 new francs in my pocket, I go into retirement,” says a former soft-drink salesman and chess expert who camps in the Bois de Boulogne. “When the money is gone, I simply come to the Place de l’Etoile and paint a Renoir.”
Frequently, the asphalt artists live in the crowded student hotels of the Quartier Latin and feast away each day’s earnings in the little bistros of the Rue de la Huchette and the Ile Saint Louis. Only one of them appears to be married. He lives respectably in the home of his parents, who frown on their son’s activities. But he takes their reproaches in his stride: “Artists have always had to face parental misunderstanding and opposition.”
Original newspaper photo: New York Times 1961
What drives these men to take the big step down? Usually, it is necessity and the example of a friend. “The first few days I helped a buddy make Provence churches under blue skies,” says one. “It was so easy that pretty soon I was turning out those churches all by myself.”
A pavement artist of recognized standing—or, rather, crouching—may surround himself, like Rubens, with two or three assistants. From him, they pick up many invaluable tips: Never forget to listen to the weather report before setting out to work; in case of rain, switch to guitar playing; time your picture to be ready for the rush at noon and at 6pm; pick your spot carefully—near Metro entrances, churches, big stores or bus stops; don’t go in for elaborate chiaroscuro effects: your fingers will become raw from rubbing chalk into the ground.
Pavement painters like to work in twos. One pair grinds out a giant adaptation of Salvador Dali’s “Crucifixion” all over the city.
“Sometimes I do the face.” Says the senior partner; “sometimes José does.” Looking at their work, a colleague who keeps repeating the Cathedral of Chartres gasps: “I could never do that!”
Indeed, the street artists are perfect illustrations of that great modern trend: specialization. One can only manufacture Murillo’s “Melon Eaters.” Another, the master portraitist of film stars, is the sole active practitioner to represent Charlton Heston as Moses and Yul Brynner in Pharaonic gear. “My greatest success,” he recalls proudly, “was Gérard Philipe as the Prince of Homburg. I did it the day after he died. People wept looking at it.”
GERARD PHILIPE: Original newspaper photo, New York Times 1961
The most popular themes are, by far, the religious ones. “Chalk down Jesus of the Virgin, and you are sure to eat that night,” comments one artist.
Next to the pious school, copyists of masterpieces dominate. Piero della Francesca, Rembrandt, Cranach, Michelangelo, even Braque unfold beneath the Parisians’ feet. But not the Mona Lisa: “It won’t earn you a penny, people are simply too blasé,” says a Holbein man.
Creative Chalkers are rarer, but they do exist. It takes much savoir-faire to make an original landscape pay. “Never paint a cloudy sky,” one creative type advises. “It makes people stingy. Use plenty of blue; Blue loosens the purse-strings.”
SURREALIST fancy has some advocates. One man invents apocalyptic visions of doomsday. Another shows an emaciated arm emerging from a Martian lake. Between the surrealist and the allegorical schools, the line is hard to draw, even in chalk, but one may safely attribute to the latter a couple of huge gorillas entitled by their author “The origins of Man” and a composition showing a blockhouse, barbed wire, a corpse, a gun, with the caption: “WHY?”
Only one theme is taboo: nudes. “Just start one,” explains an artist “and five minutes later you land in the police station.”
In truth, pavement painting proves that the aesthetic sense of Parisians at grass-roots—or asphalt—level is thoroughly conservative. The man in the street is an incorrigible realist. “I like it,” says a young salesman who has just dropped a new franc into the artist’s beret beside a Madonna. “At least you see what it is; it’s not like Picasso!”
Unpublished photo from the same feature: dated 1960 by Robert Douisneau
Aside from this limitation, the Parisian public is the best in the world. A few grumblers stop and stand amidst the pictures, shouting that the sidewalks belong to everybody; some are outraged by what they see and scrape their feet over the chalk; others call the artists ne’er-do-wells. But the great majority welcome these unexpected bright flowers which man’s skill has made sprout from the arid desert of the city’s floor.
“Careful! Don’t walk on my drawing, I am off to dinner,” one artist writes next to his work. And the people are careful. They will deposit coins on the picture even while the artist is gone. And should a beggar try to pick them up, they will prevent him from doing so.
WHAT distresses the pavement primitives most is police interference. In the eye of the law, sidewalk art is but disguised beggary, and its creator is apt to be carried off to the commissariat two or three times a week.
This is a terrible wound to the artists’ pride. They stoop to conquer, not only a living, but respect. “After all,” says one, “it is we who bring art down to the man in the street!”
Published in the New York Times: September 10th 1961