Friday, 12 October 2012

Obsolete, But Not In Vane

Minor genres have always held a special place in my eye. So when I read in the Arles morning paper that le Musee Camarguais was opening a new exhibition on weather vanes (“girouettes,” to the French—hence the hip Anglophoney title GirouEXPO), I headed my rented Fiat 5 south.

It was to be a double treat, since the Camargue region has an aura of its own that I had never paused long enough—in my many comings and going between Marseilles and Barcelona—to savour. But first, the Camargue Museum (in the Parc naturel regional de Camargue at Mas du Pont de Rousty—boy, those French sure love long titles).

New (1979, when it won a coveted European museum prize), it’s so off the beaten track that it attracts only 60,000 visitors a year. A pity, since, in typical Gallic fashion, it gives you a delicious and comprehensible intro to that strange, even mysterious delta of the Rhone River, from geology to the anthropology of life in the “mas”—a regional word for substantial farmhouse. (Many bed and breakfasts sport that moniker, so don’t pass them by if you’re in search of a congenial overnight.)

I’ve loved weathervanes enough to collect a few. My first was a thin, stylized cock-a-doodle-doo I picked up in Wales. And my favorite is a Deco-ish redheaded rooster with blue vanes to make it do its windseeking work that I found in Boone, N.C.

And for several years my backyard has been graced with a girouette from Quebec in which the wind helps a sawyer cut his logs. (I find it all the more beguiling since his sawing mate has long since split—through laziness, or too big a wind, perhaps.)

Like most French visual essays, this lode of 40 photographs of Camargue region weathervanes is anthropological and historical in focus. It begins with the Arabic sage Hafiz’s aphorism 14 centuries before Christ: “Do not try to catch the wind because it blows where it will whatever your wish.”

When you get right down to it, was there anything more magical to pre-scientific eras than the wind, which indeed bloweth where it listeth? It’s positively spiritual in its lack of materiality, a phenomenon of nature that Romantic poets were to make a big thing of many centuries later—duly noted in the wall captions.

The Camargue is as flat as a pancake and bereft of vegetation, so the wind really does have it its own way with mankind in those parts, from the breezes that bring rain to the mysterious mistral, the Santa Ana of the Mediterranean.

“And since Provence is the Kingdom of the Winds, it is good to know which way the wind is blowing.” If certain parts of France need brises-soleils, the Camargue has an architectural subspecialty of the brises-vents, to make it possible for grains and vines and vegetables to take and keep root in the midst of all that turbulent air.

Their weathervanes were most often of iron, sometimes of the more perishable or less durable wood, and they indicate the direction from which the wind is coming. The fanciest ones have arrows (even the cardinal points of the compass) to make the direction unmistakable.

There was no specialized weathervane maker in the beginning but rather someone skilled with forging from some other specialty, such as horseshoeing. And needless to say, the artisans of this folk art did their fine work anonymously. Naturally, they’re attached to a high, exposed place, usually a roof or steeple, so they can swing back and forth in response to the wind’s changes. Among its other distinctions, the weathervane was an early form of publicity, trumpeting what was sold underneath its swinging reign.

Up until the Tenth Century, however, the weathervane was a symbolic ornament strictly reserved for ecclesiastic and aristocratic buildings. The right to possess a girouette was the subject of very strict regulation. By the 17th Century, the form was democratized and spread across the countryside. Its shape and materials changed accordingly.

By the 18th Century, they were so widespread that they became the object of disdain, and even the word girouette became pejorative. They were too numerous, “trop populaires.” Despite their low standing, in the 19th Century they became the rage, getting fancier and fancier as gentlemen farmers strutted their stuff by commissioning really elaborate and highly decorated models.

Eventually, this bourgeoisification of the lowly genre turned girouettes into status symbols. La plus ca change, in this case, the more they really did change.

From Welcomat, Hazard-at-Large, March 10, 1993

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