Category Archives: History

Pilou-Pilou

‘Le Pilou-Pilou’ by Justin Clérice published by Auguste Bosc (Paris, 1907) and illustrated by Clérice Frères.

The cover for ‘Le Pilou-Pilou‘ shows an elegant Parisienne in smart safari clothes complete with a pith helmet. She joyously dances face to face with a Kanak man in tribal attire. In the background they are cheered on by wildly moving warriors. The serpentine curve of their bodies emphasizes the movement of the dance. It also accentuates her round contours: shake your booty baby!
This 1907 cover is yet another cartoonish illustration by Clérice Frères, probably from the hand of Victor, one of the sons of Charles Clérice.

Maybe Clérice studied the publicity postcard of Pilou-Pilou dancers offered by Café Jouve from the Compagnie Française des Cafés Calédoniens. His drawing of the Kanak warrior’s costume is quite accurate including feathers and a casse-tête, a kind of war hammer. Judiciously or puritanically he omitted the penis gourd.

Postcard of the Exposition Coloniale near Paris in 1907, showing Kanak people from the Loyalty Islands (New Caledonia) in front of their hut.

On the other hand it is probable that in 1907, the same year the sheet music was published, Clérice joined the two million visitors of the Exposition Coloniale near Paris. There, in the Jardin Tropical of the Bois de Vincennes, exotic men and women from the former colonies were exhibited to the crowd. Many overseas natives were lured into joining the show, and among them also Kanak people from New Caledonia. Kanaks are the indigenous inhabitants of this Melanesian territory that was colonised by the French in 1853.

In the midst of the New Imperialism period these human zoo’s had become common. What an embarrassing and tragic chapter that was in Western history. Eighteen years earlier than the 1907 Exposition Coloniale, in 1889, the Parisian Exposition Universelle also had presented a Village Nègre (Negro Village) at the foot of the then brand-new Eiffel tower. The exhibition was visited by 28 million people.

Exposition Universelle, Paris 1889 – Kanak village.

As the major attraction it displayed 400 indigenous people from the French colonies. Ten Kanaks were ‘invited’ and put on display. In the Parisian show these men and women were directed to live ‘spontaneously’ all day long in a poor makeover of their huts. They  had to carry out their daily tasks under public scrutiny and perform ‘tribal rituals’.

‘Le Monde Illustré’, July 27, 1889. Kanak Village Esplanade des Invalides – illustrated by Louis Tinayre.

‘Civilised’ visitors, could get a glimpse of what was believed to be the true culture of these ‘savages’. One was even allowed to touch the Kanaks on display. Humiliatingly, these first Kanak people in France were considered as primitives, even cannibals — surely they were not French citizens.

As part of the show the Kanak men routinely performed the Pilou-Pilou, a traditional tribal dance. See the engraving on the cover of the exhibition’s weekly: the three man dance beneath banners and medallion of the French Republic. Colonial soldiers are standing guard to protect the sophisticated spectators against the barbarians who ferociously wave their war hammers. It is no surprise that popular imagery was soon invaded by the prejudice of cruel black warriors, gesticulating to the diabolic rhythm, whistles and strident cries of the Pilou-Pilou dance.

Have a look at this document, filmed by an amateur in 1943. 

The pilou-pilou dance has a deep-rooted ancestral tradition with a powerful symbolic significance. Each pilou-pilou tells a particular story, whether of a birth, marriage, great battle or even of the arrival of the French missionaries who are said to have given the dance its repetitive name. It traditionally involves many people moving together, sometimes for hours at a time so that the dancers occasionally reach a trance-like state. The French authorities and Catholic priests considered the dance as  indecent and at some point seemed fit to prohibit it.
Re-reading this, we somewhat fear that our attempt at sketching the original pilou dance and the complex history of the Kanak people is a simplified amalgam of what we’ve read, and probably also suffers from stereotype vision, but well, that is the price we pay when writing a blog instead of an ethnological essay.

In 1907, the Parisian Bal Tabarin created a white version of the Pilou-Pilou. At that time the Bal Tabarin was still owned by Auguste Bosc, yes the publisher of the sheet music above. He asked Justin Clérice, uncle of illustrator Victor, to write its music and a certain Eugenio to choreograph simple but cheery dance movements. Clérice’s music has nothing to do with the rhythm of the pilou percussion. It is a slow oom-pah march with a lot of brass. The dance also is but a feeble reflection from the original choreography. It has a risqué movement when the woman slaps the man slightly on the cheek (fig. 8) and a climax when all the dancers cry four times ‘Pilou Pilou‘ very fast and in unison (fig. 10). Great moment of merriment, indeed! However, Justin Clérice’s Pilou-Pilou is as far removed from the original as the Chicken Dance is disconnected from the Swan Lake.

Nowadays in New Caledonia, the pilou-pilou is danced to mark ceremonial occasions: births, weddings and funerals and mostly performed for tourists sake.

The Rugby Club from Toulon has its very own battle cry chanted by packed stadiums and also called Pilou-Pilou. The lyrics suggests that the song has its origin in the Kanak version: ‘The great white coconut trees’ hardly evokes a city in France, does it?

Ah! We the terrible warriors of Pilou-Pilou
Pilou-Pilou!
Who descend from the Mountain to the Sea
Pilou-Pilou!
With our dishevelled women nursing our children
In the shade of the great white coconut trees
Pilou-Pilou!
We terrible warriors push our terrible war cry
AAAARRRGGGGHHHHH!
I said “OUR TERRIBLE CRY OF WAR”!
AAAARRRGGGGHHHHH!
Because TOULON
RED!
Because TOULON
BLACK!
Because TOULON
RED AND BLACK ! 

Undoubtedly, you are now ready to hear the ceremonious singing battle between Haka and Pilou-Pilou.

A devil’s game: Diabolo

‘Ah! Le joli jeu!’ by Christiné, published by P. H. Christiné (Paris, 1907) and illustrated by Clérice Frères.

‘Ah! Le joli jeu!’ illustrated by Clérice is one of several sheet music about the diabolo. Curiously, apart from one, all are dated 1907. We learned that in that year Gustave Phillipart started the diabolo craze. He was a Belgian civil engineer who lived in Paris. During seven years he had researched how to perfect the old toy. After building about 150 prototypes he finally patented the toy in 1906 giving the diabolo its present-day look. Through an astute marketing campaign the game came into vogue in Paris, shortly to appear all over France the next year.

Partition Musicale, illustration de Pousthomis
Left: ‘La Diabolette’ by Charles Borel-Clerc published by E. Joullot (Paris, 1907) and illustrated by Pousthomis. Right: ‘Diabolo-Danse’ by Antonin Louis published by Henry Wykes (Paris, 1907) and illustrated by Georges Dola.

To draw attention to the diabolo Philippart and a few friends played diabolo in the Bois de Boulogne every morning. They attracted a cloud of elegant walkers. These onlookers, fascinated with the flying spindle, rushed to a shop to buy one. Word got round and soon the diabolo mania was born. Journalists wrote long articles about the new graceful game. Maybe the new divertissement became quickly popular because it attracted both men and women, young and old alike.

In a French professional magazine, Publicité Moderne, Philippart explains that he also used the many theatres in the capital to promote his diabolo. One such theatre even presented a diabolo ballet. Composers and song writers, always on the lookout for a novelty, followed suit in contributing to its success.

Left: ‘Le Vrai Diabolo’ adapted by Paans and Léo Lelièvre & Briollet published by Aux Succès du XXe siècle (Paris, 1906). Right: ‘Le Vrai Diabolo’ adapted by Paans, published by Hachette (Paris, 1907).

The first diabolo song already appeared in 1906 and probably had to be published fast to keep pace with the booming fad. A little British music-hall ditty, By the Side of the Zuyder Zee, was hastily adapted in France as Le Vrai Diabolo. The trifling French text of the song promotes the game with the obligatory harmless sauciness.

Il est un petit jeu ravissant,
Qui partout fait fureur à présent…
C’est un p’tit jeu bien rigolo
L’Diabolo! L’Diabolo!
Si la jeun’ fill’ le jett’ sur l’dos
Des badauds.
C’est qu’elle rêve en lançant bien haut
L’Diabolo, L’Diabolo!
Qu’elle pourra plus tard avec son p’tit mari
Jouer le diable au lit!

The gist of the verses above is that diabolo is an enjoyable little game that is all the rage, and that if a girl misses her throw of the spinning top, it is because she’s already dreaming of diabolical bed games with her husband-to-be.

‘Le Diabolo’ Gustave Dreyfus & Georges Millandy. Published by Ricordi (Paris, 1907) and illustrated by Georges Dola.
Gustave Dreyfus, the conductor of the Parisian dance hall Bal Bullier, composed ‘Le Diabolo’ a new dance with accessories: two sticks connected by a ribbon, thus providing an elegant instrument to diabolically! entangle one’s dance partner as seen on this postcard.

Diabolo tournaments and parties were organised everywhere in France. Parks and beaches offered the best venue.

During the carnival of 1908 the diabolo could not be missed in the parades

Unfortunately Philippart also got bad publicity. A baby in a pram was killed on the Champs Elysées when a top fell on its head. Philippart argued that the spindle had no shock absorber and thus clearly was a counterfeit. Anyway, as a result of the dreadful accident playing of the game was from then on regulated by police ordinance.

To launch his product in England Philippart had contacted the publisher and sportsman C. B. Fry. This famous cricketer created a new sport around the diabolo skills. It could be played like tennis but without a net: it was replaced by a rectangular court. The diabolo is slung from the service court and the player receiving the diabolo allows it to bounce once, then catches it on the cord and returns it… if possible. This playful tennis version did not catch on though.

‘The devil on two sticks’ published by The Illustrated London News, June 23 June 1906, illustrated by Russell Flint.

In 1910, miss Renée Furie introduced a new circus act in Paris: the human diabolo. It was a variation on the human cannonball. The daredevil crept into the giant diabolo which was then catapulted into a net. Quel frisson! After which the charming lady elegantly climbed out of the contraption. Ouf!

The diabolo craze never lasted that long and only revived moderately during the fifties. Nowadays its popularity has sadly dwindled to that of a traffic light entertainment.

A short from 1907, Diabolo Nightmare, attributed to Walter R. Booth, pictures the bizarre story of a maniac office worker addicted to the game. Crazy…

Keep smiling: Marie Laurencin, Apollinaire and the Mona Lisa

‘Pour endormir l’Enfant’ by Marguerite Canal & Marceline Desbordes-Valmore, published by Laboratoires de La Passiflorine (Paris, sd) and illustrated by Marie Laurencin.

This gentle cover of two dreamy young girls in typical pastel colouring and soft shading is the only one in our collection illustrated by Marie Laurencin (1883-1956). She was a painter and got acquainted with the artists who took up residence in the Bateau-Lavoir, amongst them Max Jacob, Picasso and Bracque.

Marie Laurencin, ca 1912. Source: Wikipedia

In 1907 Picasso introduced Marie Laurencin to his friend the poet Guillaume Apollinaire and they became romantically involved. Their passionate affair was burdened by Apollinaire’s alcohol abuse, his jealousy and violence. It lasted until 1912 and had already started to crumble the year before when Apollinaire was wrongly suspected of having had a hand in the theft of the Mona Lisa.

Groupe d’artistes’ oil painting by Marie Laurencin (1908) – From left: Pablo Picasso, Marie Laurencin herself, Apollinaire and Fernande Olivier (Picasso’s lover). Source: Trivium Art History.

Just like Marie Laurencin, Apollinaire had been raised by a single mother. His father disappeared very early on and his mother travelled with her children from hotel to hotel, frequenting the European casinos. The cosmopolitan Apollinaire spoke five languages and was exceptionally cultivated. The poet scraped a living as a clerk in different places. While working for an investor’s chronicle Guide du Rentier he befriended Honoré-Joseph Géry Pieret a scoundrel born in Belgium who was sacked from the chronicle for attempted blackmail and would at some time work as Apollinaire’s personal secretary. In 1907 Géry Pieret stole two prehistoric Iberian sculptures from the Louvre and sold them to Picasso.

Ancient Iberian bust, stolen from the Louvre (3rd century BC). Now in the French Musée d’Archéologie nationale. Photo (C) RMN-Grand Palais (musée d’Archéologie nationale).

Making light of it Géry Pieret allegedly once said to Marie Laurencin: “I am going to the Louvre, Madam, do you need anything?” Picasso, who may have commissioned the theft himself, used the sculptures for his famous masterpiece Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907).

In May 1911, after some adventures abroad about which he entertained Apollinaire through letters, Géry Pieret returned to Paris. The poet lodged him in his kitchen in exchange for some menial and secretarial jobs. In June, Géry Pieret told Apollinaire that he had stolen a third statuette from the Louvre and kept it in his host’s lodgings. In August came the shocking news: the Mona Lisa had been stolen from the Louvre.

Sheet music cover of a song about the theft of the Mona Lisa. (for copyright reasons,click on this link to see a picture of a street vendor selling this sheet music)

Géry Pieret smelling profit, or hoping for his 15 minutes of fame, presented himself as Baron Ignace d’Ormesan at the headquarters of the newspaper Paris-Journal. He bragged about how easy it was to steal from museums and as a proof of his audacity he handed over the recently stolen statuette.

While reading the article published by the newspaper, Apollinaire suddenly remembered the two other stolen statuettes bought by Picasso who kept them hidden in his sock drawer. In panic Picasso and Apollinaire ran out to throw the statuettes in the Seine but soon changed plans and decided Apollinaire would bring them to the offices of Paris-Journal. He tried to do this anonymously, but was arrested and put in jail. He was accused of involvement not only in the theft of the statuettes but also in that of the Mona Lisa.

‘Le Jocond’ by Pierre Arezzo, Ch. Thuillier & Will, published by Marcel Labbé (Paris, sd) and illustrated by Pousthomis.

Apollinaire informed the police that the thief of the three statuettes was Géry Pieret and that Picasso had bought two of them. By then Géry Pieret had left France, but Picasso was questioned by the police. Picasso was so scared he even denied knowing his friend Apollinaire. He was not jailed by lack of evidence. After six days in custody and after pressure from the Parisian art world Apollinaire was released and neither the painter nor the poet were charged with receiving stolen goods.

Apollinaire was devastated by the whole affair and the way he had been treated. Moreover, after leaving prison he was expelled from his apartment. Marie Laurencin and her mother had to shelter him in their house. A year later their turbulent liaison was over.

The real thief of the Mona Lisa, Vincenzo Peruggia, was caught in December 1913 when he tried to sell the painting in Firenze.

Frontpage of the ‘Journal Illustré Quotidien Excelsior’, December, 14th 1913.

A newspaper illustration after his arrest illustrates that stealing from the Louvre was indeed not difficult at all. There were no alarms and the artworks were not firmly secured. The thief only had to unhook the painting, take it out of the frame, hide the canvas under his blouse and use a small staircase to leave the museum. Et voilà, as simple as that.

In 1931 the theft of the Mona Lisa was romanticised in a German film Der Raub der Mona Lisa. The same year Henri Sullivan composed his foxtrot Mona Lisa which has nothing to do with the film but the French sheet music has a wonderful cover illustrated by Kramer.

‘Der Raub der Mona Lisa’ by Robert Stolz & Walter Reisch published by Alrobi (Berlin, 1931) and illustrated by Herzig. Right: ‘Mona Lisa’ by Henry Sullivan & Desmond Carter, published by Chappell (Paris, 1931) and illustrated by Kramer.

Our finale is also unconnected to the story of the great robbery. But Nat King Cole’s soft baritone voice will probably steal your heart if not your ear.