1 Sep 2011

Nostalgia and the Lies of the Past

Like cars or buildings or computers, the images that shape the ways we see the world inevitably deteriorate and lose value. Spiritual entropy erodes them. To quote Neil Young quoting an ad of long ago, rust never sleeps.(...) From time to time it must be reviewed, a process that may require dubious cultural strategies.

This has been written by a senior and prominent Canadian journalist whom I respect very much, Robert Fulford. I have taken this quote from an essay of his published by an absolutely great Canadian publication - Queens Quarterly Review in the Spring issue, 2010.
Being a visual professional I am compelled to pay attention to the instruments of visual representation, as much as to everything else...
So my body heats up when reading the author's observations, commenting on the visual clichés, inevitable baggage of travel photography:

    "One day in 1953 (...) seeing Paris for the first time, I climbed 380 steps to the balustrade of Notre Dame Cathedral . There I took a photograph that managed to be both appallingly hackneyed and historically misguided. It has since been lost, fortunately, but I remember that it showed a gargoyle gazing over the rooftops of Paris.
Within the next day or two it became obvious to me that the image I had chosen was a ubiquitous  cliché in a city long notorious for visual clichés.
(...)
Years later it also became clear that my picture was taken under a false impression, the assumption (still shard by most visitors, apparently) that those gargoyles, being attached to a thirteenth-century Gothic cathedral, are therefore thirteenth-century gargoyles
(...) They are, in short, modern.
Installed in millions of imaginations by generations of photographers, they distribute a pervasive falsehood, the perfect stone embodiment of Voltaire's remark that history consists of lies on which we agree. They represent the often questionable role of nostalgia in or encounter with half-understood ancient buildings.
(...)
(...)
    In the middle of the nineteenth century Notre Dame was crumbling, approaching the status of a ruin. It was most famous for Victor Hugo's 1831 novel about Quasimodo, the hunchback. (...)
France spent a sizable fortune on the four-decade project of bringing Notre Dame back to life. Eugene Viollet-le-Duc, the principal architect (...) made Notre Dame into what he thought it should be not what it had been. Reverence for the past surrendered to the ego of the architect and the pride of a nation that would soon be seeing itself as the centre of the modern world.


I loved it!
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