Cities

Photographers

Albums

Complete texts

Between Monument and Intimacy

Monuments brought together the continuity and the survival strengths of a city, but this was also increasingly under the portent of a new mortality, the inescapable side effect of the reflection on urbanity itself. The art of building cities obviously also implied the inexperience and ignorance that cripples and destroys them. The monument in which the symbolic city was crystallized became objectified, cleaned up. What was not being torn down had to be brought back to scale. People restored monuments to an original state, stripped them of their appendages (which is to say of history!), turned them into public squares by arranging open spaces around them, like pedestals. The historic density of the monument - what it is all about - became uniform, thinned out, normalized. The monument won visibility and lost personality. It was no longer in dialogue with the urban network, but became a tautological caricature of itself. This cleaned-up, aestheticized monument continued to be an ideal object for photography, more visible than ever, but intrinsically diluted into a slogan. The period of just under a century of the urban photography covered in this study demonstrates these tensions and shifts between symbolic capital and its irretrievable destruction by functional rationalization.

The false exaltation and the factual destruction of a city's symbolic capital awakened the awareness of impermanence - of mortality - as a condition of the late 19th-century city. That the historic city could still live on as a corpse implied a different space, for completely different consideration and reflection. It was no longer the street but the interior, no longer the sober overview but the shrouded site, perfumed by light. The street was no longer a potential openness, as an historic scene, but an extension of an internalized intimacy. This intimacy is actually a mourning process, the requisite tonality of the city at the turn of the new century. Here, the mourning is not a statement about the city, but a self-supporting aesthetic and intellectual programme. It was an interpretive scheme by which the exalting discovery of local history listed and tilted in the awareness of its irrevocable unrealness. In his two novels about Bruges, Bruges la Morte and Le Carillonneur, Rodenbach, like Khnopff and Le Sidaner, was a crystal-clear guide through the mental climate of the fin-de-siècle city. The historic inner city specialized in a kind of 'being inside'. There was a conspicuous increase in a new visual form: the spy hole. There were fewer self-assured overviews, more tentative glances past a corner, a bridge, a tree. The anonymous Bruges - Promenades d'un Amateur-Photographe album illustrates that intimate view. This symbolist formation of images no longer lauded the symbolism of the monuments, but was instead a melancholy mourning for their decline.

Back to top