The Pantheon mausoleum in Paris’ 5th arrondissement, on the Montagne Sainte-Geneviève. To the left is C215 aka Christian Guémy’s portrait of Victor Hugo on a feeder pillar, as part of the Illustres! C215 Autour du Panthéon trail.
Text by Ruby Comet
Throughout Paris’ 5th arrondissement, faces big and small dot the streets and look over the passersby as they wander the area surrounding the pantheon. It is here that graffiti-street artist, C215, displays his series of 28 portraits of great French figures, choosing walls, doors, post-boxes and feeder pillars as his canvas. Each of the figures displayed has been honoured in the Pantheon, an impressive looking church that was repurposed during the Revolution as a mausoleum to house France’s most celebrated citizens, which it continues to do today. Employing the same style that brought him to fame in Ivry-sur-Seine, a town in the southern suburbs of Paris, C215 uses both stencils and freehand spray paint to paint personalities from the Pantheon, bringing their stories back to life.
Detail of portrait of Honoré Gabriel Riqueti, Count of Mirabeau (commonly known as Mirabeau) stencil at 17 Rue Malebranche for the Illustres! C215 autour du Panthéon series.
Take for instance, Mirabeau. C215 places him next to a staircase on Rue Malebranche, his stencilled profile looks down haughtily over the street, surrounded by freehand strokes of jagged and curved blues, reds and browns. These chaotic lines hint at Mirabeau’s tumultuous career, which was to follow him beyond the grave. An influential politician during the revolution, his skills as an orator allowed him to win over the love of the people. Nothing, however, surpassed his love for himself and his own political gain. A Machiavellian trickster, he courted the public whilst secretly collaborating with the monarchy. Despite being the first great figure to be laid to rest in the Pantheon following his death, this was not to last long. Once his dealings with the King were discovered posthumously, he was thrown out and his corpse has yet to be found.
Portrait of Denis Diderot behind the Pantheon at 3 Rue Clothide aka Christian Guémy.
The history of the Pantheon is rife with such stories of misplaced or mistreated bodily remains. Denis Diderot, enlightenment philosopher and co-author of the famous L’Encyclopédie, perhaps had it the worst. Over the course of the 300 years since his death there have been many calls for him to be panthéonisé (admitted into the Pantheon), the most recent request coming from François Hollande. However, Diderot still rests about a mile away from the Pantheon. His bones were mixed up with those of others by overzealous revolutionaries during the Paris commune, and the arduous work of sorting through the ossuary to retrieve his remains has still not been undertaken. Anyway, at least he now has a charming portrait from C215 that can be found on a feeder pillar on Rue Clotilde, just opposite his supposed final place of burial.
Top, and bottom: portrait of Denis Diderot.
Portrait of Marie Curie opposite the Curie Institute at 23 Rue d’Ulm.
While Diderot faces his tomb-to-be, C215’s portrait of Marie Curie looks over her legacy, the Curie Institut, a cancer hospital and research centre. An incredible scientist and two-time Nobel Laureate, in the late 19th Century Curie unwittingly took the enormous risk of exposing herself daily to dangerous levels of radiation, during her search to discover new elements. I took the comparatively petty risk of climbing the scaffolding opposite to take a photograph of her portrait. Painted in black and white, the work is both the largest and most minimalistic portrait of the series; Curie’s gaze looks melancholic, perhaps reflecting her difficult life. The first woman to be awarded a place in the Pantheon (for her own merits), she unsurprisingly died from a condition contracted due to radiation exposure. Ironically, she used the same radiation that killed her to help diagnose injuries on the frontline in WWI, with the help of X-ray units that she had developed herself.
Detail of Marie Curie’s portrait.
Detail of portrait of Berty Albrecht at 174 Rue Saint-Jacques.
Another famous woman celebrated both in the Pantheon, is the resistance fighter Berty Albrecht, who played a crucial role resisting the German occupiers during WWII. She is known for her humanitarian efforts, both as a feminist campaigner in Paris and London, and through her work helping German and Spanish refugees flee fascism in the 1930s. However, what is most astonishing about Albrecht, is her persistent and unconventional escape attempts from her Nazi captors. First imprisoned in 1942, she took part in a hunger strike and won the right to a trial. After again being imprisoned, she feigned madness in order to be sent to a psychiatric hospital, from which she escaped. Her life came to a tragic end in 1943 when she was again imprisoned and tortured. Escaping the supervision of the guards she hangs herself to avoid revealing important information. Sadly, Albrecht’s only form of recognition in the Pantheon is the appearance of her name on an inscription listing around 200 writers who died during WWII.
Top and bottom: C215’s portrait of Berty Albrecht.
Although Albrecht may have not received enough veneration from the state, her appearance in the Illustres series constitutes a valuable gesture of recognition. By bringing her and the other figures to life and placing them in the streets, C215 has highlighted their personal dimension and made accessible their achievements and contributions to French society. The Pantheon may be yet another imposing and impressive government building where tourists love to take selfies, but the portraits remind us of the value of looking to personalities in the past with respect.
Interview with C215 aka Christian Guémy
What is the original idea behind the urban tour and the exhibition Illustrious People?
The idea was to give a face to these great figures whose faces are often much less known than their names. We all know the faces of Victor Hugo, Voltaire or Marie Curie but we are less familiar with those of Painlevé, Toussaint Louverture and Berthelot, despite the fact that many avenues, streets and schools are named after them. Therefore, by painting these faces out on the street, they were taken out of the Pantheon and brought to life. In this way, the past and the present, the inside and the outside, life and death are merged. The names of these famous people are translated in a more meaningful way.
Portrait of Toussaint L’Ouverture or Toussaint Bréda on the rear of Henri IV school at the junction of Rue Clovis and Rue Descartes aka Christian Guémy for the Illustres ! C215 autour du Panthéon series.
Close-up of C215’s portrait of Toussaint L’Ouverture. At the end of the 18th Century L’Ouverture led the Haitian independence movement, emancipating slaves on the island and proclaiming the independence of the first black-led nation outside of Africa.
Detail of C215’s portrait of Toussaint L’Ouverture.
C215’s portrait of Toussaint L’Ouverture next to Rue Clovis
We also aimed to introduce the history and culture of the Pantheon to those interested in street art. At the same time, tourists who visit the Pantheon for its history can in turn discover the world of stencil graffiti while walking through the area. Paris’ 5th district is thriving with history; there is the École Normale Supérieure, the Collège de France, the Lycée Henri IV, the Sorbonne and so much more. The Illustrious People tour is a great way truly explore the Montagne Sainte-Geneviève, to get to know its geography, its charm and its treasures.
Top and bottom: C215’s portrait of Paul Painlevé at Square Paul-Painlevé. Painlevé made himself known as a successful mathematician, and later turned to politics, serving twice as Prime minister of France in the early 20th century.
What is your own relationship to these great figures?
I come from a very modest background, learning about the arts and classical culture was never really encouraged at home. However, I owe a lot to my teachers, from primary school to university, who taught me so much and helped to shape my identity and beliefs. I discovered through them all these great authors and historical figures. They inspired me and left a very strong imprint on me, helping me to evolve as much as I could. Later in life, I discovered this wonderful phrase: “Climbing on the shoulders of great figures we can see much further”.
Detail of C215’s portrait of Victor Hugo at Rue Soufflot as part of the Illustres! C215 autour du Panthéon series.
Today, now that my stencils have brought me a certain amount of fame, I try to use the platform I have to pass on the teachings I learnt. Culture is not written in stone, it is a living testimony of the past and of the knowledge it conveys. It is something that has to be constantly renewed and reasserted. That’s why I dedicated this exhibition to my daughter, Nina. Because the most beautiful thing I can give her is my passion for history, art and culture as well as my curiosity for France, its historical figures and its values.
Top and bottom: portrait of Victor Hugo at Rue Soufflot. One of France’s most famous authors and poets, Hugo was also known for his political activism, particularly his campaign against the use of the death penalty.
Why is this project so important to you?
This project was not about money, a portrait of Braille or Langevin is not something to be bought or sold. To me this project was so important because I saw the value of bringing to life these great people. In our society we talk so much about meritocracy but we forget to properly celebrate the achievements of those who shaped our history. The people buried in the Pantheon got to where they did through their own merit. It is their genius, their talent and their courage, irrespective of their origin or gender, that makes them great. They worked to serve others, many even sacrificed their lives for us. Whether they are writers, philosophers, scientists or legislators, they are all great examples of bravery. Studying these great figures has been incredibly fulfilling for me. They have helped push me forward. Without Saint-Exupéry, Péguy, Rousseau, Hugo, Apollinaire, Jaurès, where would I be now? Each of them has allowed me to improve myself just a little bit and I am happy to pay them such a tribute.
Detail of C215’s portrait of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, at Impasse Chartière. Saint-Exupéry was a French aviator who died mysteriously during a reconnaissance mission during World War II, his plane never to be found. He depicted his adventures as a pilot in his novels, most famously in the fable Le Petit Prince.
Top and bottom: portrait of Louis Braille on a post box on Rue J. de Beauvois. Blinded in an accident at the age of 5, Braille set to work developing a writing system for blind people that is now named after him. Although buried in the Panthéon, the Mayor of Braille’s hometown insisted that his hands remain buried in the local village cemetery.
How did you choose who to paint out of so many inspiring and influential figures?
It wasn’t just me who chose, I had help from three other people, including the Director of the Pantheon and the Director of National Monuments. We wanted to make a selection that represented the Pantheon as a whole, showing its history from the first to be buried to the most recent.
Portrait of Jean Jaurès on a wall of L’École Nationale Supérieur. Jaurès helped found a unified socialist party in France and worked as a diplomat to try and prevent conflict before the start of WWI. He was assassinated not long before the outbreak of war.
Some of the portraits of Pantheon figures in the 5th (for instance Abbé Grégoire and Denis Diderot) do not appear in the official list for the series? Can you explain this? Were you already painting people from the Pantheon before being commissioned for the series?
I just wanted to keep adding to the portraits and I’m going to keep doing so. I have been painting these people for years. Abbé Grégoire, for example, was commissioned in 2014 by the Musée des Arts et Métiers, an institution that was founded by Grégoire.
Top, middle and bottom: portrait of Abbé Grégoire next to Lycée Henri-IV. Grégoire was an influential figure during the French Revolution, and was also a famous abolitionist, campaigning for the rights of Jews and blacks in France.
If you could choose one obscure personality from the series that you would most like people to discover, who would it be and why?
He’s not actually in the series, but one of my favourites is Jean-Paul Marat. He was one of the most radical figures of the revolution. For this reason, he became unpopular when the revolution came to an end, and was kicked out of the Pantheon.
Who would you like to see put in the Pantheon who is not already there?
I would like see Abbé Pierre in the Pantheon. He was a member of the Resistance during World War II and founded the Emmaus movement, which aimed to help poor and homeless people and refugees.
What was your process for choosing the location of the portraits? Was there a reason behind putting certain ones on post-boxes, for instance?
We selected them to create a real “stroll”, that takes you all over the district so you can get to know the Montagne Sainte-Geneviève. The objects are ones I have been using since 2006: postal boxes, feeder pillars, doors.
Top, middle and bottom: portrait of René Descartes in a glass box next to the La Méthode restaurant on 2 Rue Descartes. The restaurant makes reference to Descartes’ famous work Discourse on Method (1637). Known as the father of modern philosophy, Descartes is famous for the phrase he devised to prove his existence: “I think, therefore I am”.
How do you add personality and emotion when painting subjects who have died many years ago? Does research form a part of your process?
I have no idea. To me, bringing life into a portrait is the most important thing.
Discover more of the Illustres! series below:
Portrait of Paul Langevin at Square Paul Langevin off Rue des Écoles. A prominent physicist he is known for having developed Langevin dynamics and the Langevin equation. He was also a public opponent of fascism in the 1930s, and this led to him being held under house arrest by the Vichy government for much of the Second World War. Langevin was also a student of Pierre Curie, and later became Marie Curie’s lover.
Top and bottom: portrait of Jean-Jacques Rousseau outside the Pantheon in the 5th arrondissement. Rousseau was a Swiss-born prominent philosopher during the Age of Enlightenment. He believed that people are born naturally good and it is society that corrupts them. His treatises and novels were a great inspiration to the leaders of the French Revolution.
Top and bottom: portrait of Guillaume Apollinaire at Rue Champollion. Apollinaire was a famous French poet in the early 20th century. A close friend of Picasso, he is credited with coining the term “cubism” and was one of the first to write about the emerging artistic movement. He was wounded fighting in the First World War and died in 1918 of the Spanish Flu.
“Quatre jours mon amour” by Apollinaire which appears next to his portrait. The poem is addressed to Louise de Coligny-Châtillon, one of the first french aviators. Apollinaire fell in love with her after meeting her in 1914, and the poem recounts his desperation having not heard from her in four days.
Quatre Jours by Guillaume Apollinaire (1915)
Quatre jours ! mon amour pas de lettre de toi
Le jour n’existe plus, le soleil s’est noyé
La caserne est changée en maison de l’effroi
Et je suis triste ainsi qu’un cheval convoyé
Que t’est-il arrivé ? souffres-tu ma chérie ?
Pleures-tu ? Tu m’avais bien promis de m’écrire
Lance ta lettre, obus de ton artillerie
Qui doit me redonner la vie et le sourire
Huit fois déjà le vaguemestre a répondu
« Pas de lettres pour vous » Et j’ai presque pleuré
Et je cherche au quartier ce joli chien perdu
Que nous vîmes ensemble, ô mon cœur adoré
En souvenir de toi longtemps je le caresse
Je crois qu’il se souvient du jour où nous le vîmes
Car il me lèche et me regarde avec tendresse
Et c’est le seul ami que je connaisse à Nîmes
Sans nouvelles de toi je suis désespéré
Que fais-tu ? Je voudrais une lettre demain
Le jour s’est assombri qu’il devienne doré.
Et tristement, ma Lou, je te baise la main
English translation by Rupert Comer
Four days! my love without a letter from you
The day no longer exists, the sun has drowned
The barracks have turned into a house of fear
And I am as sad as the horse that was sent here
What happened to you? Are you hurt my dear?
Are you crying? You promised me you would write
Cast out your letter, the shell of your gun
Which will return to me my life and my smile
Eight times now the postman has told me
“No letters for you” And I almost cried
And I look around for that lost pretty dog
That we saw together, oh my beloved
In memory of you I stroke him a while
I think he remembers the day that we saw him
As he licks me and watches me with tenderness
He is the only friend I know in Nîmes
Without news from you I am in despair
Where are you? I wish for a letter tomorrow
The sky has darkened and become golden
And with sadness, my Lou, I kiss your hand
Top middle and bottom: portrait of Voltaire next to the Panthéon. An enlightenment philosopher and writer, one of Voltaire’s most famous stories is Candide, which tells the story of the naïve and optimistic Candide, who travels the world and gradually discovers its horrors.
Top, middle and bottom: portrait of Jean Zay at Rue le Goff. Zay Minister of National Education and Fine Arts in Léon Blum’s Popular Front government in the late 1930s. Zay completely modernised and democratised the French schooling system, installing compulsory schooling until the age of 14. He is also the founder of both the Cannes film festival and the Musée d’Art Moderne.
Top, middle and bottom: portrait of Germaine Tillion on a postbox at Rue Victor Cousin. Tillion was an ethnologist who worked for the French government. During the Second World War she was a member of the resistance and helped Jewish families. Betrayed by a priest who had joined her resistance network, she was sent to a concentration camp near Berlin from where she escaped. Following the war she worked on documenting its history, particularly the war crimes of the Nazis.
Top, middle and bottom: portrait of Henri Bergson on a postbox at Rue Saint-Jacques. Bergson was a philosopher who took much inspiration from emerging ideas about psychology at the beginning of the 20th century. He believed that intuition is the best method we have for understanding ourselves and life.
Top, middle and bottom: portrait of Louis-Antoine de Bougainville on the intersection between Rue Gay-Lussac and Rue Saint-Jacques. Bougainville was a French navigator who explored the South Pacific as head of the French naval force, which sailed around the world from 1766 and 1769. His account of this experience Voyage autour du monde (A Voyage Round the World), helped to popularise the belief in the moral worth of man in his natural state.
Portrait of Émile Zola on Rue Gay-Lussac. Zola was a French author most known as a practitioner of the literary school of naturalism. He won the first and second Nobel Prize in Literature in 1901 and 1902. Zola was also a prominent political figure, in 1894 he wrote a famous open letter entitled J’accuse…! (I accuse…!), which asked for the exoneration of army officer Alfred Dreyfus who was wrongly convicted due to the Anti-semitism of the French Army.
Top, middle and bottom: portrait of Jean Moulin on Rue de l’Estrapade. Moulin was another big figure of the French Resistance during the Second World War. He is celebrated for having unified the resistance under the leadership of Charles de Gaulle. He died committing suicide after having been arrested by the Gestapo.
Top, middle and bottom: portrait of André Malraux on a feeder pillar at Rue d’Ulm. Malraux was a novelist and strong supporter of de Gaulle, becoming minister of cultural affairs in de Gaulle’s 1958 government. He travelled extensively through Asia and was fervently opposed to colonialism, many of his novels were set there and dealt with revolutionary struggle. Malraux was also strongly opposed to fascism; he helped to liberate communists imprisoned by Hitler in the 1930s and joined the resistance during the Second World War.
Top and bottom: portrait of Victor Schoelcher. Schoelcher was a journalist and politician and France’s greatest advocate of ending slavery in the empire. From 1829 to 1848 his journalism recounted the barbarism and horrors of slavery. As undersecretary to the navy in 1848, it was Schoelcher who prepared the famous decree which abolished the use of slavery in the French colonies.
Top and bottom: portrait of Gaspard Monge on a postbox on the intersection between Rue Monge and Rue du Cardinal. Monge was a French mathematician who invented descriptive geometry, the study of representing three-dimensional objects on a two-dimensional plane. He was also a big figure of the French Revolution, helping to develop the metric system as well as the École Polytechnique.
Top and bottom: portrait of René Cassin at Impasse Chartière. Cassin was an important humanitarian figure, who was awarded the Nobel peace prize in 1968 for his involvement in the drafting of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. He helped to found the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) and served as president of the European Court of Human Rights.
Portrait of Aimé Césaire on Rue des Écoles. Césaire was born in Martinique and was cofounder of the Negritude movement, which aimed restore the cultural identity of black Africans. He supported the decolonisation of the French colonies of Africa and serving as an MP for Martinique in the National Assembly he voiced his rebellion.
Top, middle and bottom: portrait of Alexandre Dumas on Rue d’Arras.
Detail of the portrait of Alexandre Dumas by C215. Dumas was one of the most prolific and popular authors during the Romantic period, most famous for The Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte Cristo.
For more information on the project, visit the website of the townhall of the 5th arrondissement, here.
The Facebook, Instagram and web site of C215 here, here et here.