Wednesday, January 20, 2016

The Carrier Pigeon (1871)

Pierre Puvis de Chavannes: The Carrier Pigeon

Pierre Puvis de Chavannes’ The Carrier Pigeon, the second of what he called his two “real allegories,” also commemorated the siege of Paris through a skillful fusion of journalism and symbolism. It too features a confrontation between Paris and Prussia, Paris in the form of a woman standing on a snow-covered rooftop with the city spread out behind her, clutching a carrier pigeon to her breast, and Prussia in the familiar guise of the threatening black eagle she deflects. The woman lacks the conventional aspects of the city of Paris, and she wears a garment that, if not truly contemporary, is at least reminiscent of the somber mourning clothes worn by real women widowed by the war and siege. Yet the caption Puvis inscribed on the picture’s frame confirms the figure as a personification of the city during that difficult time: “Having escaped from the enemy claw the awaited message exalts the heart of the proud city.” The woman’s defensive interaction with the avian predator is both metaphorical and historically specific, representing a clash between civic and national symbols, and simultaneously documenting the Prussian tactic of using hawks to intercept and kill the messenger pigeons Parisians relied on for communication during the siege. Even the picture’s limited and muted palette serves both a literal and symbolic purpose; the lack of mimetic color distances the image from reality and makes it more emblematic, but it also recalls the tonality of photography and thus evokes the assumed veracity of that medium. [Lisa Small, “L’Année Terrible and Political Imagery,” in Eric Zafran, Robert Rosenblum, Lisa Small, Fantasy and Faith: The Art of Gustave Doré, The Dahesh Museum of Art, pp. 52-53]

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