…in which your host takes a walk down memory lane through her old stomping grounds in Paris.
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I feel like I’m cheating. I love Madame Moustache, or Madame as I like to call her. I love her work. I’ve loved it for five years, on the streets of Paris, the city I called home for six.
I first saw Madame’s work while taking what would become a regular stroll from Montmartre to Stalingrad in the 19th, a route that skims the edge of the African neighborhood in the Goutte d’Or and the Indian quarter at La Chapelle. There’s a little side street along the way, rue Caillie — just over the bridge that spans the railroad tracks feeding into Gare de l’Est. It’s an ugly little street, usually filled with litter and urine, and almost always empty of any kind of traffic, pedestrian or otherwise. That’s where I saw the first one: a giant, whimsical wheatpaste piece, collaged together, almost floating on the wall it was pasted to. Large mis-matched letters cut from magazines proclaimed
Mais leurs, est-il bien plus aise de porter une masque d’ane plutot qu’un costume d’etalon.
On the wall, a man with a cigarette in the corner of his mouth, his shirt sleeves rolled up, looking like a power banker from the 1920s, was collaged onto the body of a horse. He was lifting the mask of an donkey away from his face, the entire piece featuring jaunty horsey bits glued here and there among the cut-out letters. It was jolly… almost insouciant. It was talking to me.
I was taking a long walk to heal my bruised heart — and ego. I had just been informed that I was simply what the French call a “sex friend”, when I thought I was… well, something more. Ouch! Nobody likes that demotion!
I read the words again: But for them, it’s more comfortable to wear the mask of an ass than the suit of a stallion.
I’m an avid walker — it’s one of the reasons I love street art and graffiti so much. It gives me something to read while I’m walking because I’m also an avid reader. And here was work that was clearly done by a woman — I checked the name, spray-painted into the corner: Madame, over a spray-painted handlebar moustache. Madame Moustache. Huh. This was something entirely new.
If you know anything about Paris street art, you’ll know that Madame is not the first female artist to make a name for herself. The very first is Miss Tic, who worked out HER broken heart through her stenciled men and women and provocative sayings that are now preserved as city treasures in Buttes aux Cailles in the 13th arrondissement.
After her came Konny, surpassing Miss Tic in fame with her larger stencils of popular icons and blunt pronouncements. Konny is, however, of German origin so the lack of subtlety isn’t so surprising. And in recen years, there has been Kashink and her colorful, goggly eyed creatures, Intra LaRue and her 3D breasts, Miss Van, Princess Hijab… to name a few, as each new generation produces another crop of talented women with something to say.
But Madame’s work is closest to the origins of Miss Tic, and is classic French in nature. Her subject matter is the same as Miss Tic’s: war between teh sexes, dating, love, sexism, life. But where Miss Tic is acidic and provocative, Madame is… funny and sympathetic. If you’re a woman, at least.
I read the cut out letters again. For some, it’s more comfortable to wear the mask of an ass than to wear the suit of a stallion.
So this was the first Madame I saw, in that magical way Paris has, giving me exactly what I needed for my coeur brisee. Like your best friend, the one you’ve known forever and who knows as well as you do that they can’t make the heartache go away, but they know exactly how to let in a little light so it doesn’t feel quite so bad. And I would continue to see her work on my ballades around town over the next five years, but most often at rue Caille, and most often when nursing a broken heart.
Paris is, after all, the most romantic city in the world. And what is romance without a few broken hearts?
Crois moi, gamine. Rien de tel qu’une bonne monture pour parcourir de longues distances.
Madame’s work is all collage. She constructs, rather than deconstructs — each work building towards a little joke that comes together equally through the visuals and the written text.
She creates an image — floating cat heads, a tangle of arms and legs between a man and a woman’s face, hunters, horses, the occasional floating fish. She splices off limbs from one species and sticks it on another, swaps bodies, traditional accessories, clothes. Cuts out individual letters to paste together a sentence in old-skool kidnapper style, but her phrases are never demands, only suggestions, observations, thoughts, and most often — in the French tradition of the double entendre — very clever puns.
This makes her sound phantasmagorical, bloody even. Like a Petite Doctor Moreau, but she’s not. The collages she creates would be at home in a baby’s nursery… at first glance. It’s only when you look a little closer to see the deeper meaning, helped along, of course, by the wonderful wordplay of Madame.
It is, in a word, charmant. Her pictorial illustrations are not literal translations of the phrases, which make them all the more delightful. And to make them even more charming, sometimes she writes in English with a French accent that somehow translates onto the walls:
No need to have big eggs to make farmer’s wife happy!, says a figure with the head of a 1950s housewife and the suited body of a 1950s’ ad man, standing among a row of yellow baby ducks. But you have to say it with a French accent: no need to have big eggs to make farmer’s wife happy!
Or “Born to be a sailor” as read by a young boy with a fish sticking out of his pants. I’ll let you decide in which direction. I mean, yes, why not?
Mais qui est decide pour moi que je devais etre une femme?
The guy I had been seeing just told me I should grow my hair to be more feminine. Paris is a city that worships women and the feminine. It feels good to be feminine when you first arrive in Paris, especially coming from the US, where being too womanly is considered archaic. But after a while, it feels like a trap: just who are you being feminine for?
A feminine looking man with a pencil moustache… or a strong looking woman with a hairy lip… wears a 1920s headband, rouge and lipstick, while some birds and dogs flutter about. This is probably the most pensive of Madame’s work I’ve seen, wondering out loud:
But who decided for me that I would have to be a woman?
Madame’s messages are delightfully subversive. Sneakily feminist, sly comments on ridiculous social mores and conventions, yearning for independence, which is the other French pastime, and sometimes cutting remarks on gender politics in the classic form of ridicule of the courts of the French kings — the kind that you only understand once you’re home from the dinner party and realize that charming phrase the host served during the dessert course was actually a deep insult that everyone got but you.
But Madame isn’t vicious. She doesn’t insult the viewer — she doesn’t insult anyone, really. But she does challenge: you laugh with delight until the meaning sinks in, and then you’re quiet for a while thinking: yeah, that’s true. Huh.
Il preferait se deguiser un chat pour ne pas avoir a se mouiller.
This one, if you speak French, is so clever I can’t even. But let’s just say that in French, le chat has more than one meaning. Google it. And considering the date I had just been stood up on… well, you said it, Madame. Again.
This time, the man’s head is grafted onto the body of a woman in a 50s style bikini. She wears a cat mask and weilds a fish in one hand, binoculars in the other. Some weapons are stuck here and there.
He prefers to disguise himself as a pussy … cat so he doesn’t get wet.
What’s really great about this one is that the holes and torn tabs from Madame’s spiral notebook were copied too and are very much a part of the piece. Working with a company taht makes copies of blueprints for architectural firms, she is able to print so large they can wrap around street corners, creating a physical delay between set up and punchline that is genius.
Madame Moustache, who — like all street artists after Banksy, of course — has never revealed her real name, is trained and was working as a stage designer for theatre, doing collage in her spare time, for her own amusement, built around whatever she’s thinking about at the moment — life, love, womanhood, friends. And then one day a friend of hers invited her to do some street art with him — spray painting, graffiti. She tried it, liked the thrill, but went back to her collage. Until the same friend stopped by one day and saw her collages, and urged her to past them up around town. Madame resisted, but her friend was insistent. He actually came back with one of her collages mimeographed large and a bucket of wheatpaste, and said “right, you’re coming with me” and dragged her into the streets for her first paste-up.
Back at rue Caillie one day, Madame had a new work up. I stopped to take a photo, and these neighborhood guys interrupted me, insisted I get in the picture. But this time my heart wasn’t broken. I had just fallen in love with Anish Kapoor and his installations at the Gardens of Versailles (expo paris episode 32). I had taken the train back to Gare du Nord and decided to walk the rest of the way home, was feeling hope and beauty and the fullness of art, when it’s good. But I was also starting to think of moving on.
Madame’s first paste-up led Madame all over the streets of Paris, to Italy, and now here to the giant walls of Berlin, and Open Walls Gallery in Mitte, where her exhibit opened on August 4th.
The pieces in the gallery surprised me. They are colorful, and they are considerably smaller. I was a little disappointed by this, actually, when I walked in, but thinking about it, it makes sense, technically, since the pieces must be photographed before being run off in large sections to be wheatpasted onto walls. But what really struck me was that they are three dimensional. Madame creates shadowboxes — little stages and tryptichs with two- and three-dimensional stories inside, the cut out, collaged character of Madame’s imagination in their natural habitats, dimensional, pieced together with strings to pull and wheels to turn and a zillion delicate moving parts.
You don’t see this, of course, on the street. You suspect the color — it’s obvious her work is cut out from old books, vintage magazines and whatever else she finds. But you don’t expect all this motion, these little puppet theaters full of movable parts and elements exploding all over the place. They look like what would have happened if Edward Gorey — the illustrator known for his Gothic Victorians who cheerily knock each other off or meet otherwise ghastly ends — had been a little less macabre, a little more DaDa.
The messages in this show are different. Madame has matured, is a little wiser, a little less exasperated. And she’s thinking about other things: life, the meaning of, what do to do with it, why we are the way we are, the tools we use and discard to get through it. It’s a little more philosophical, but it’s still whimsical, still charming, and still — often enough — about amour. She is French after all.
An elephant with a ballerina’s legs walks a tightrope underneath a banner that says “welcome to life’s circus.”
A man in a top hat and a feathered skirt hugs exotic birds to his breast, and says “a habiller la lumiere avec des ailes on faisait de la realite un leger present“.
A pigeon with the head of a.. lynx and adorned with a halo is perched next to an announcement that this is not a pigeon, this is a smart pigeon.
What surprised me most, though, was that Madame herself was there. She came out of the back room a bit shy, a bit unsure of me or the little entourage I had with me. When I learned it was her, I had to shake her hand, hugely and warmly, like an old-fashioned American abroad… or, American broad ha ha. I felt like a groupie – I have to tell you, it is really, really rare for me to get excited about meeting an artist — maybe because I know so many already — but Madame. She was pasting the story of my life on the streets of Paris for the past six years, keeping me grounded, giving me sympathy and words of wisdom, helping me look beyond and ahead. She was a confidante, a sister in arms, a close friend, even if she didn’t know it. It was actually hard not to say, “and remember when I was dating THAT guy?” How could I not be a gushing fan?
L’amour n’est pas un arme blanche
A bespectacled rabbit, like the kind Alice followed, dressed in a court suit presses an oversized .32 caliber pistol into his gut, one hand held out to the viewer as if to say…
Love is not a weapon.
See what I mean?
The middle of May this year was my last week in Paris, and everything had changed. The city was still on edge from it’s year of terror. Armed soldiers were everywhere. My friends from Croatia, who had already lived through war, were suffering still, and I thought about all the people who come to Paris from all the war-torn countries and how they must feel too.
Les souvenirs c’est comme le vielle moutarde, ci ca ne pique plus, c’est perime
And the stories that had been the same for six years were changing: the leaky, falling-apart apartments that were a part of so many friends’ stories were being upgraded, to penthouses, one bedrooms, co-ops, even houses in the countryside. Freelance English teachers were finding real jobs. Journalist friends were becoming producers. People were talking about babies and long term investments and stability and getting along with their French mothers in law. And me, I was packing up.
The heads of two smiling women, both with moustaches drawn onto their upper lips, face away from each other. The text dominates in this one, the characters, the floating images of cameras, fish, old photos, old flowers, fading into the background even as you read it: Memories are like old mustard: when it’s no longer sharp, it’s stale.
I went to meet a friend for a goodbye drink in Montmartre, and for old times’ sake, I walked all the way back home to the 19th. I passed the wall on rue Caillie to see what Madame had to say now, but the wall was completely bare. The lack of a sign seemed like a sign itself.
Then I moved to Berlin, and took a stroll down Auguststrasse one day. I passed by an open-air garden restaurant. Something on the wall caught my eye — something big and floaty and with old-skool cut out letters. I couldn’t believe it! It was Madame! I was so thrilled I barged in between the tables to take a photo (which I have since foolishly deleted so I can’t even tell you what it was. But it doesn’t matter, really — I was just so happy to see my old friend. She’s here in Berlin. Madame, from Paris.
Back on that sunny day in Paris, my heart full of art instead of heartache over silly romance. Two half-naked women wearing masks of cats and flowers and feather collars chase each other through the air on carousel ponies underneath a banner waving across the dirty wall.
C’est une fois mis a nu que nous apprenions a jouer serieusement.
Madame’s work is the embodiment of everything that makes Paris and its inhabitants so wonderful: it is whimsical, amusing, intelligent, uses clever wordplay. It’s subversive at the most surprising moments. It’s sophisticated and mysterious — it contains secrets that you suspect may be there, but are revealed only once you’ve reached true intimacy, in this case getting access to the original. It vascillates between existentialism and love. And like Paris, like old lovers and good friends and even stale mustard memories, you can find little pieces of it everywhere you go, long after you say goodbye.
Madame Moustache’s Urban Zoo is on view until September 10th at Open Walls Gallery, Schroederstrasse 11 in Berlin.
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That’s all for Artipoeus this week. I’m Susie Kahlich. See you around town!
Artipoeus (formerly ExpoParis) – making art accessible to people intimidated by art. For photos, transcripts and all archived episodes, visit www.artipoeus.com
Brought to you by Susie Kahlich