Category Archives: Paris

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.

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.

Le Voyage à Robinson

Le Voyage à Robinson‘ by Lucien Collin, lyrics by Gaston Villemer and Lucien Delormel. Published by C. Joubert Editeur, Paris (s.d.) and illustrated by Adrien Barrère.

For Le voyage à Robinson the illustrator of the sheet music imagined a girl with puckered lips waiting to be kissed by an artistic young man. The gifted caricaturist Adrien Barrère must have been inspired by the flirtatious liaison described by the lyricists Villemer and Delormel.  Their song —first performed in 1884— became a belle-époque classic. It tells the story of an innocent girl taken advantage of during an outing to a village resort called Robinson. Oh no, and the trip started so well though!

Te rappelles-tu le jour de ma fête
Où tu m’emmenas rire à Robinson ?
Nous avions alors de l’amour en tête
Car nos cœurs chantaient la même chanson.

[ Do you remember when on my birthday
you gaily took me for a ride to Robinson?
Both our heads were then filled with love
As our hearts were humming the same song. ]

A few rhymes later the story unbridles a little:

Dans l’arbre fameux je grimpais bien vite
Le vent souleva ma jupe un peu trop
Et toi, curieux, montant à ma suite
En voyant cela, tu crias “Plus haut !”

[ Into the famous tree I quickly climbed
The wind lifted my skirt a bit
And curious you, following behind,
Seeing that cried “Higher up!” ]

Let us hear Annie Girardot sing about the Voyage à Robinson, and how it ends in woeful memories.

In the 19th and early 20th century guinguettes were a popular destination for Parisian day trippers. A guinguette was an establishment for ample drinking, simple eating and lively dancing. Traditionally it was located next to a river or to a lake in the Parisian suburbs.

The Robinson guinguettes were situated not along the water but in a forest near Paris. For over a century they attracted a crowd of Parisians who came to relax in the forest on Sunday. It all started with an innkeeper who in 1848 built a suite of interconnected tree houses in a majestic chestnut tree. He named his guinguette Au Grand Robinson. He had confused Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe who lived in a cave and ‘The Swiss Family Robinson’ who lived in a tree house as described by Johann Wyss in his book from 1813.

Entrance of the ‘Vrai arbre Robinson’ with a statue of Robinson Crusoe.

The romantic tree houses high up in the gnarled branches of giant chestnuts were decorated as dining rooms with wooden furniture.  They were surrounded by a rustic railing and covered with a thatched roof. Some of them could accommodate up to ten patrons. The waiter hoisted the dishes and drinks up in large baskets using a rope and pulley system.

Le voyage à Robinson‘ by Lucien Collin, Gaston Villemer and Lucien Delormel, published by Bathlot-Joubert (Paris, [1885]) and illustrated by Gustave Donjean.
The tree houses were in high demand. Young couples in search of privacy needed a lot of money and luck to reserve one of these intimate spots. Love is in the air. To protect one’s self even more from prying eyes, one could draw the curtains that surrounded the hut…  Why do I keep thinking about the Mile High Club?

Parisians relax en masse. Left the Vrai Arbre and right the Grand Arbre.

Soon copycats seeing the success of Au Grand Robinson were on the lookout for big trees in the surrounding area. As soon as they found one they started to build tree houses in it. At the beginning of the 20th century there were up to 30 establishments that had thus created their small hamlet of restaurants and taverns. Each claimed to have the most beautiful or the biggest tree. Hence, for authenticity’s sake Au Grand Robinson was renamed Le Vrai Arbre Robinson (The Real Robinson Tree).

Apart from its tree houses the Robinson guinguettes were known for donkey rides…

ezeltjes robinson
Left: ‘Taking turns’. Upper right: ‘A real tumble’. Lower right: ‘The fall of the horse rider’.

…swings,

Swings at Robinson, 1921 (source: Bibliothèque Nationale de France)

… frolicsome bigophone parades,

Bigophone band at Le Vrai Arbre Robinson, 1921 (source: Bibliothèque Nationale de France)

…and wedding parties.

La Mariée de Robinson’ by Emile Spencer & Léo Lelièvre published by A Repos (Paris, s.d.).

By the 1950s people had gotten tired of the Robinson guinguettes which started to close down one after the other. In 1966 the French rock singer Johnny Halliday together with a friend bought the original guinguette Le Vrai Arbre Robinson. Johnny (no need for his last name in France!) and his copain transformed the guinguette into a ranch and baptized it Robinson Village. The spirit of Robinson Crusoe was abandoned in favour of that of the American Wild West.

Johnny Hallyday performing at Robinson Village in 1966.

The small theme park boasted a mitraillette saloon, an Indian village, a Western Show, a disco and a Jerkium (where one could dance the Jerk).

Unfortunately the hope of the entrepreneurs to revive the spirit of the guinguette was smothered: Robinson Village had to close soon after it had opened.

Travelling back in time to 1966, Johnny sings his version of Black is blackGo Johnny go!


Further reading: “Mémoire de guingettes” by Francis Bauby, Sophie Orivel and Martin Pénet (Omnibus, 2003)