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© Photo RMN-Grand Palais - C. Jean
Publication date: March 2016
Alexandre Steinlen, born in Lausanne in 1859, was durably impressed by the Parisian events of 1871. In 1911, when this painting was painted, they represented 13.6% of an estimated working population of 4.7 millions of people.
A red brick wall and lighted scaffolding occupy the center of a painting evenly composed of warm hues. This central motif sets the scene - a building site - and makes it possible to unambiguously identify the characters before any other clue. This wall and the shadow which extends it draw a sawtooth diagonal which divides the painting into two unequal triangles, one of which, in the background, is in full sun while the other, in the foreground, significantly larger, is in the shade. In each of them, a belt clip, red, reminiscent of the color of the wall. This wall forms a rectangle in the shadow of which are the three workers forming the leading group. This construction is reminiscent of certain Japanese prints.
The moment represented is that of the break, perhaps even lunch time (in the background, the light is strong, and a worker seems to be eating something). The workers are at rest, their arms crossed in various ways, so that their hands, this expression of work among all, are invisible. The three workers who speak in the foreground are each from a different generation. Their outfit designates them as commoners: open collars, hats having no real shape, faded jacket thrown over the shoulders of one of them. Their wide trousers and the excavator's belt, already mentioned, clearly indicate their profession. In the background, the four similarly dressed figures are no more than silhouettes, however more relaxed, with a more relaxed outfit (sleeves rolled up). This world of the site is strictly masculine, without virile connotation, however.
Steinlen was at the same time poster artist, painter and engraver. If these posters constitute a specific part of his work, his paintings and engravings, on the other hand, have strong ties. The individuals he paints here become types in the prints he then makes for the satirical journal The Butter Plate or for other titles from the workers' press. The preeminence of the revolutionary syndicalist current in the building federation and certain major strikes in this sector have earned the building worker the right to establish himself as the worker figure par excellence.
The close relationship between the paintings and the engravings then allows for a hypothesis. In the engravings, the sun is an image of the future, and therefore a becoming. As such, the simultaneity of sun and shadow, here realistic, is susceptible to overinterpretation. Are these silhouettes with more slender looks immersed in the light also the image of a future?
- labor movement
Steinlen Exhibition, Museum of Living History, Montreuil, 1987. Gérard NOIRIEL, Workers in French society Paris, Seuil, coll. "Points Histoire", 1986.
To cite this article
Danielle TARTAKOWSKY, “Construction workers”