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THE GINGERBREAD FAIR AT VINCENNES

Page with ornament
The Database of Ornament

                                                      A COLOUR-STUDY

                                                                         I

THE tram rolls heavily through the sunshine, on the way to
Vincennes.  The sun beats on one’s head like the glow of
a furnace ; we are in the second week of May, and the hour
is between one and two in the afternoon.  From the Place
Voltaire, all along the dingy boulevard, there are signs of the
fair : first, little stalls, with the refuse of ironmonger and
pastry-cook, then little booths, then a few roundabouts, the wooden horses
standing motionless.  At the Place de la Nation we have reached the fair
itself.  Already the roundabouts swarm in gorgeous inactivity ; shooting-
galleries with lofty names—Tir Metropolitan, Tir de Lutèce—lead on to the
establishments of cochonnerie, the gingerbread pigs, which have given its name
to the Foire an pain d’pice.  From between the two pillars, each with its airy
statue, we can look right on, through lanes of stalls and alleys of dusty trees,
to the railway bridge which crosses the other end of the Cours de Vincennes,
just before it subsides into the desolate boulevard Soult and the impoverished
grass of the ramparts. ŠHardly anyone passes : the fair, which is up late, sleeps
till three. ŠI saunter slowly along, watching the drowsy attitudes of the women
behind their stalls, the men who lounge beside their booths.  Only the pho-
tographer is in activity, and as you pause a moment to note his collection of
grimacing and lachrymose likenesses (probably very like), a framed horror is
thrust into your hand, and a voice insinuates : “Six pour un sou, Monsieur !”

    To stroll through the fair just now is to have a sort of “Private View.”
The hour of disguises has not yet begun.  The heavy girl who, in an hour’s
time, will pose in rosy tights and cerulean tunic on those trestles yonder in front
of the theatre, sits on the ladder-staircase of her “jivin wardo,” her “living

80                                  THE SAVOY

waggon,” as the gipsies call it, diligently mending, with the help of scissors
and thread, a piece of canvas which is soon to be a castle or a lake.  A lion-
tamer, in his shirt-sleeves is chatting with the proprietress of a collection of
waxworks.  A fairy queen is washing last week’s tights in a great tub.  And
booths and theatres seem to lounge in the same désliabille.  With their vacant
platforms, their closed doors, their too visible masterpieces of coloured canvas,
they stand, ugly and dusty, every crack and patch exposed by the pitiless
downpour of the sunlight.  Here is the show of Pezon, the old lion-tamer,
who is now assisted by his son ; opposite, his rival and constant neighbour,
Bidel.  The Grand Theatre Cocherie announces its “grande féerie” in three
acts and twenty tableaux.  A “concert international” succeeds a very dismal-
looking “Temple de la Gaieté.”  Here is the Théâtre Macketti ; here the
“Grande Musée Vivant” ; here a “Galerie artistique” at one sou.  “Laurent,
inimitable dompteur (pour la première fois a Paris),” has for companion
“Juliano et ses fauves : Fosse aux Lions.”  There is a very large picture of a
Soudanese giant— “il est ici, le géant Soudanais : 2ᵐ 20 de hauteur”—outside
a very small tent ; the giant, very black in the face, and very red as to his
habiliments, holds a little black infant in the palm of his hand, and by his side,
carefully avoiding (by a delicacy of the painter) a too direct inspection, stands
a gendarme, who extends five fingers in a gesture of astonishment, somewhat
out of keeping with the perfect placidity of his face.  “ThéĊtres des Illusions”
flourish side by side with “Musées artistiques,” in which the latest explosive
Anarchist, or “le double crime du boulevard du Temple,” is the “great attrac-
tion” of the moment.  Highly coloured and freely designed pictures of nymphs
and naiads are accompanied by such seductive and ingenuous recommendations
as this, which I copy textually : I cannot reproduce the emphasis of the
lettering : “Etoiles Animées.  Filles de l’Air.  Nouvelle attraction par le pro-
fesseur Julius.  Pourquoi Mile. Isaure est-elle appelée Déesse des Eaux ?  C’est
par sa Grâce et son pouvoir mystérieux de paraitre au milieu des Eaux limpides,
devant tous les spectateurs qui deviendront ses Admirateurs.  En Plein ThéĊtre
la belle Isaure devient Syrène et Nayade ! charme par ses jeux sveltes et
souples, apparaît en Plein Mer, et presentee par le professeur Julius à chaque
représentation.  Plusieurs pĊles imitateurs essayent de copier la belle Isaure,
mais le vrai Public, amateur du Vrai et du Beau, dira que la Copie ne vaut
pas l’original.” And there is a “Jardin mystérieux” which represents an
improbable harem, with an undesirable accompaniment of performing reptiles.
Before this tent I pause, but not for the sake of its announcements.  In the
doorway sits a beautiful young girl of about sixteen, a Jewess, with a face that

      THE GINGERBREAD FAIR AT VINCENNES                  81

Leonardo might have painted.  A red frock reaches to her knees, her thin legs,
in white tights, are crossed nonchalantly ; in her black hair there is the sparkle
of false diamonds, ranged in a tiara above the gracious contour of her forehead ;
and she sits there, motionless, looking straight before her with eyes that see
nothing, absorbed in some vague reverie, the Monna Lisa of the Gingerbread
Fair.

                                                                         II

    It is half-past three, and the Cours de Vincennes is a carnival of colours,
sounds, and movements.  Looking from the Place de la Nation, one sees
a long thin line of customers along the stalls of bonbons and gingerbread, and
the boulevard has the air of a black-edged sheet of paper, until the eye reaches
the point where the shows begin.  Then the crowd is seen in black patches,
sometimes large, extending half across the road, sometimes small ; every now
and then, one of the black patches thins rapidly, as the people mount the plat-
form, or as there is a simultaneous movement from one point of attraction
to another.  At one’s back the roundabouts are squealing the “répertoire
Paulus,” in front there is a continuous, deafening rumble of drums, with an
inextricable jangle and jumble of brass bands, each playing a different tune,
all at once, and all close together.  Shrill or hoarse voices are heard for a
moment, to be drowned the next by the intolerable drums and cornets.  As
one moves slowly down the long avenue, distracted by the cries, the sounds,
coming from both sides at once, it is quite another aspect that is presented by
those dingy platforms, those gaping canvases, of but an hour ago.  Every plat-
form is alive with human frippery.  A clown in reds and yellows, with a floured
and rouged face, bangs a big drum, an orchestra (sometimes of one, sometimes
of fifteen) “blows through brass” with the full power of its lungs ; fulgently and
scantily attired ladies throng the foreground, a man in plain clothes squanders
the remains of a voice in howling the attractions of the interior, and in the back-
ground, at a little table, an opulent lady sits at the receipt of custom, with the
business-like solemnity of the dame du comptoir of a superior restaurant.
Occasionally there is a pas seul, more often an indifferent waltz, at times an
impromptu comedy.  Outside Bidel’s establishment a tired and gentle drome-
dary rubs its nose against the pole to which it is tied ; elsewhere a monkey-
swings on a trapeze ; a man with a snake about his shoulders addresses the
crowd, and my Monna Lisa, too, has twined a snake around her, and stands
holding the little malevolent head in her fingers, like an exquisite and harmless
Medusa.

82                                  THE SAVOY

Under the keen sunlight every tint stands out sharply, and to pass
between those two long lines of gesticulating figures is to plunge into an
orgy of clashing colours.  All the women wear the coarsest of worsted tights,
meant, for the most part, to be flesh-colour, but it varies, through all the
shades, from the palest of pink to the brightest of red.  Often the tights
are patched, sometimes they are not even patched.  The tunic may be mauve,
or orange, or purple, or blue ; it is generally open in front, showing a close-
fitting jersey of the same colour as the tights.  The arms are bare, the faces, as
a rule, made up with discretion and restraint.  There is one woman (she must
once have been very beautiful) who appears in ballet skirts ; there is a man in
blue-grey cloak and hood, warriors in plumes and cuirass ; but for the most
part it is the damsels in flesh-coloured tights and jerseys who parade on the
platforms outside the theatres.  When they break into a waltz it is always the
most dissonant of mauves and pinks and purples that choose one another as
partners.  As the girls move carelessly and clumsily round in the dance, they
continue the absorbing conversations in which they are mostly engaged.
Rarely does anyone show the slightest interest in the crowd whose eyes are all
fixed—so thirstingly !—upon them.  They stand or move as they are told,
mechanically, indifferently, and that is all.  Often, but not always, well-formed,
they have occasionally pretty faces as well.  There is a brilliant little creature,
one of the crowd of warriors outside the Théâtre Cocherie, who has quite
an individual type of charm and intelligence.  She has a boyish face, little
black curls on her forehead, a proud, sensitive mouth, and black eyes full of
wit and defiance.  As Miss Angelina, “artiste gymnasiarque, équilibriste et
danseuse,” goes through a very ordinary selection of steps (“rocks,” “scissors,”
and the like, as they are called in the profession), Julienne’s eyes devour every
movement : she is learning how to do it, and will practise it herself, without
telling anyone, until she can surprise them some day by taking Miss Angelina’s
place.

                                                                         III

    But it is at night, towards nine o’clock, that the fair is at its best.  The
painted faces, the crude colours, assume their right aspect, become harmonious,
under the artificial light.  The dancing pinks and reds whirl on the platforms,
flash into the gas-light, disappear for an instant into a solid shadow, against
the light, emerge vividly.  The moving black masses surge to and fro before
the booths ; from the side one sees lines of rigid figures, faces that the light
shows in eager profile.  Outside the ThéĊtre Cocherie there is a shifting light

      THE GINGERBREAD FAIR AT VINCENNES                  83

which turns a dazzling glitter, moment by moment, across the road ; it
plunges like a sword into one of the trees opposite, casts a glow as of white
fire over the transfigured green of leaves and branches, and then falls off,
baffled by the impenetrable leafage.  As the light drops suddenly on the crowd,
an instant before only dimly visible, it throws into fierce relief the intent eyes,
the gaping mouths, the unshaven cheeks, darting into the hollows of broken
teeth, pointing cruelly at every scar and wrinkle.  As it swings round in the
return, it dazzles the eyes of one tall girl at the end of the platform, among the
warriors : she turns away her head, or grimaces.  In the middle of the platform
there is a violent episode of horse-play : a man in plain clothes belabours two
clowns with a sounding lath, and is in turn belaboured ; then the three rush
together, pell-mell, roll over one another, bump down the steps to the ground,
return, recommence, with the vigour and gusto of schoolboys in a scrimmage.
Further on a white clown tumbles on a stage, girls in pink and black and
white move vaguely before a dark red curtain, brilliant red breeches sparkle, a
girl en garçon, standing at one side in a graceful pose which reveals her fine
outlines, shows a motionless silhouette, cut out sharply against the light ; the
bell rings, the drum beats, a large blonde-wigged woman, dressed in Louis
XIV., cries her wares and holds up placards, white linen with irregular black
lettering. çOutside a boxing booth a melancholy lean man blows inaudibly
into a horn ; his cheeks puff, his fingers move, but not a sound can be heard
above the thunder of the band of Laurent le Dompteur.  Before the ombres
chinoises a lamp hanging to a tree sheds its light on a dark red background,
on the gendarme who moves across the platform, on the pink and green hat
of Madame, and her plump hand supporting her chin, on Monsieur’s irre-
proachable silk hat and white whiskers.  Near by is a theatre where they are
giving the “Cloches de Corneville,” and the platform is thronged with lounging
girls in tights.  They turn their backs unconcernedly to the crowd, and the light
falls on pointed shoulder-blades, one distinguishes the higher vertebra; of the
spine.  A man dressed in a burlesque female costume kicks a print dress
extravagantly into the air, flutters a ridiculous fan, with mincing airs, with
turns and somersaults.  People begin to enter, and the platform clears ; a line
of figures marches along the narrow footway running the length of the building,
to a curtained entrance at the end.  The crowd in front melts away, straggles
across the road to another show, straggling back again as the drum begins to
beat and the line of figures marches back to the stage.

In front, at the outskirts of the crowd, two youngsters in blouses have
begun to dance, kicking their legs in the air, to the strains of a mazurka ; and

84                                  THE SAVOY

now two women circle.  A blind man, in the space between two booths, sits
holding a candle in his hand, a pitiful object ; the light falls on his straw hat,
the white placard on his breast, his face is in shadow.  As I pause before a
booth where a fat woman in tights flourishes a pair of boxing gloves, I find
myself by the side of my Monna Lisa of the enchanted garden.  Her show is
over, and she is watching the others.  She wears a simple black dress and a
dark blue apron ; her hair is neatly tied back with a ribbon.  She is quite
ready to be amused, and it is not only I, but the little professional lady, who
laughs at the farce which begins on a neighbouring stage, where a patch-work
clown comes out arm in arm with a nightmare of a pelican, the brown legs
very human, the white body and monstrous orange bill very fearsome and
fantastic.  A pale Pierrot languishes against a tree : I see him as I turn to go,
and, looking back, I can still distinguish the melancholy figure above the
waltz of the red and pink and purple under the lights, the ceaseless turning
of those human dolls, with their fixed smile, their painted colours.

                                                                         IV

    It is half-past eleven, and the fair is over for the night.  One by one the
lights are extinguished ; faint glimmers appear in the little square windows of
dressing-rooms and sleeping-rooms ; silhouettes cross and re-cross the drawn
blinds, with lifted arms and huddled draperies.  The gods of tableaux vivants,
negligently modern in attire, stroll off across the road to find a comrade,
rolling a cigarette between their fingers.  Monna Lisa passes rapidly, with her
brother, carrying a marketing basket.  And it is a steady movement town-
wards ; the very stragglers prepare to go, stopping, from time to time, to buy
a great gingerbread pig with Jean or Suzanne scrawled in great white letters
across it.  Outside one booth, not yet closed, I am arrested by the desolation
of a little frail creature, with a thin, suffering, painted face, his pink legs
crossed, who sits motionless by the side of the great drum, looking down
wearily at the cymbals that he still holds in his hands. In the open spaces
roundabouts turn, turn, a circle of moving lights, encircled by a thin line of
black shadows. The sky darkens, a little wind is rising ; the night, after this
day of heat, will be stormy. And still, to the waltz measure of the round-
abouts, turning, turning frantically, the last lingerers defy the midnight, a
dance of shadows.

                                                                                                ARTHUR SYMONS.


MLA citation:

Symons, Arthur. “The Gingerbread Fair at Vincennes.” The Savoy, vol. 4, August 1896, pp. 79-84. Savoy Digital Edition, edited by Christopher Keep and Lorraine Janzen Kooistra, 2018-2020. Yellow Nineties 2.0, Ryerson University Centre for Digital Humanities, 2019. https://1890s.ca/savoyv4-symons-gingerbread/