Initially, without the Coronavirus pandemic, the temporary exhibition introducing the Géniaux brothers in the Rennes Museum of Brittany should have ended in the last days of April 2020. It has fortunately been extended until the 30th of August 2020. I was lucky to appreciate it at the beginning of this year in the company of Ms. Jacqueline Le Nail who heads the Library’s regional collections. However, one can have access to hundreds of their pictures online on the Champs Libres website (Collections Musée de Bretagne) and another separate collection on the Berliner Kunstmuseum website.
This is a bicephalic work, both in terms of photography and literature. The two Géniaux brothers, Charles (born in 1873) and Paul (1875), have shot with their camera or penned hundreds of scenes in France and Northern African colonies where they grew up. But it was Brittany where they were born which attracted them most.
Naturally, we focus on their rich vision of the Breton traditional costume as well as womenswear from North Africa, without forgetting Parisian fashion. There is a vivid contrast between everyday workwear and festive garments worn by the Breton or North African women pictured in a rather poor set up and the rich Parisian chic showing off on the mundane show scene or racecourses.
The first ones are not less beautiful than the latter. However, la Belle Époque, before the First World War (1914-1818) is not as “beautiful” as the word indicates for the poorest.
But this vision is well underlined by what Géniaux’s friend and writer Charles Le Goffic stated about the Armorican peninsula: “The soul and charm of Brittany are made up of a mixture of that poignant reality and dream.”
Inventing a living Brittany
They spent their youth in Northern Africa where their father was based as a military physician but in 1886, Charles Géniaux Sr. was transferred back from Algeria to France due to a psychiatric breakdown and was interned in an asylum. Consequently, the family had to settle back in Brittany.
By the 1890s, after they had taken their first pictures in the Maghreb, Charles and Paul founded the Photographic Society in Rennes, capital of Brittany. They even invented a new system of picture reproduction known as “Collo-engraving”. They also applied for patents for “plano-engraving” and “photocollography”. This year, in the Rennes exhibition, it was fascinating to observe their photographic glass plates lost for a long time and now recovered to provide impressing photo enlargements.
And there is more to it. The Géniaux brothers founded as well the news magazine Bretagne Revue with a strong focus on on photography. We might as well state that this journal was one of the first photo-reporting magazines in France.
In the book published for the exhibition (published by Locus Solus), Laurence Prod’homme, director of Heritage and head of the Research cell in the museum of Brittany stresses: “Bretagne Revue’s specificity was to offer a great role to photographic pictures. Original sceneries illustrate the articles through off-prints inserted within the magazine: numerous pictures are shot by Charles Géniaux and forecast the next topics to be dealt with, across text and image, throughout his life. Brittany plays a central part, countryside landscapes as well as scenes in which often appear farmers or children.”
Naturally, photography was not the only means to introduce a country that the two brothers discovered through their artistic Tro breizh, as one calls, in the Breton language, a tour of Celtic spirituality around Brittany, visiting sites acknowledged as hotspots for holy saints coming from insular Britain and Ireland to settle during the Dark Ages.
Charles Géniaux began writing news reporting but also fiction novels. Was he an “inventor of Brittany” as the historian Bertrand Frélaut (1946-2016) said of him? In a sense it is correct but should apply to both brothers. Charles was the pen, Paul the eye.
Through his articles and novels Charles reached a wide audience. His books had the following titles : L’Homme de peine, La Bretagne vivante, L’Océan, La Passion d’Armelle Louanais, Mes voisins de campagne.
The coiffe with the swallow’s tail
Their dual vision allows us to focus on a close-up of a sartorial tradition, the heritage and development of Breton fashion in La Belle Époque, that is to say before the First World War (1914-1918). In many ways they capture the widest sights possible of a Brittany which they anticipate, would vanish. The old country did somehow disappear in the trenches where were buried young men who spoke both Breton and Gallo (the two languages covering together the whole of the Breton peninsula).
But first of all, they are witnesses to a wonder. For instance in 1912, when Charles Géniaux published his book La Bretagne Vivante (Living Brittany) dealing with the city of Paimpol he mentioned “a dozen of Breton women dressed in black sheep hooded cape which look likes Astrakhan and wearing a gracious coiffe with a swallow’s tail”
He further notes: “Nowhere else as in Brittany can be seen such fireworks of costumes, with the astonishing variety of colours and shapes.”
“In the region of Quimper, young lassies are dressed up with sky blue woolen dresses covered with white laces; the rigid elongated waist makes you think of Infants painted by Velázquez while a skirt with farthingale is puffing around the hips.
A velvet bonnet of the same blue worn on their fair-hair heads is embellished with silver sequins and feathers. Dressed that way, in their ceremonial dresses, the girls look like dolls from King Louis XIII’s era”.
The pictures are shot in the Rennes countryside and above all in the Morbihan district where they were raised, around Muzillac or Rochefort-en-Terre. Thus, a series of pictures entitled “Customs, habits and costumes” was mainly made in Muzillac.
However, their panorama was not limited to these areas. The Plougastel peninsula (in Finistère) is an example I know best since it was there as a child I met with my first traditional costumes. It is worthwhile seeing how the Géniaux captured images then before the First World War and compare them with the 21st century ones.
It allows us to check the historical continuity in costumes. For instance, Charles writes: “In Pont-l’Abbé, just as in Plougastel-Daoulas, bonnets from quarters are made of red, emerald and blue velvet decorated with gold and silver embroidered ribbons and dazzling flowers. A shawl in loud floral indienne covers their shoulders and is folded across under their colourful aprons. In Plougastel, the little boys wear white canvas trousers and royal blue jacket with silver buttons.”
What Charles describes, we can see it through Paul’s camera, the children in front of the famous Plougastel Calvary (already mentioned in our article The Celt, the Kilt and its Cult). In terms of continuity, one can compare with children and adults’ costumes seen below on the occasion of the Strawberry Festival in June 2019.
Charles writes again: “One notices on the subject of costumes, embroideries and coiffes that the village tailors and embroiderers have been inspired by local lords to interpret and adapt those garments for more modest customers.”
Yet this he does not really believe because even poor people had sufficient acumen and courage to make garments (or have them made) outside of their working days, with a radiant beauty emphasizing personal, family, village or parish pride.
A series of pictures published by the Géniaux in the country of Armor (the seaside country) was even published to fight against “Breton poverty”. One might argue that in some regions of Brittany, for instance in the Bigouden district, not every peasant can possess a rich costume with silver beads.
Embroidery is a much-valued trade. We can see it in this press article written by Claire Géniaux (Charles’ future wife), published in the Femina magazine in 1902 together with Paul’s photogrpahies, including embroiderers from the Pichavant workshop working on ceremonial garments.
Each time, it is worthwhile merging Charles’ books and Paul’s pictures.
The more so since the first text written in La Bretagne vivante, on the origins of the graphic art tailored to the clothes speaks volumes: “We are going to study embroideries of bodices, sleeves and waistcoats and we shall find indisputable symbols of primitive religions. […] In Pont-l’Abbé, hundreds of workers of both sexes embroider in workshop or at home those designs as old as the world. We were able to compare carvings of the Merchants’ Table (in Locmariaquer) of the Gavrinis dolmen. Although the signs are not set up in the same order, they surprisingly look alike. Modern embroiderers reproduce, without changing a stroke, those antique patterns. And this is not the least surprising.”
Costumes for festivals and mourning
Daily life is well seen in the panoramic representation of the Géniaux as exemplified by the above picture of the drying up of coiffes in Plumelec in 1902. Or else during the harvest, this picture showing a farmer kissing a peasant girl who, with two other young women, wear dresses and aprons of various colours and patterns.
Like most Celts, the Bretons excel in celebrating the dead. At funerals, at the time of mourning or for anniversary celebrations and even when there is no corpse recovered with the proella ceremony for sailors vanished at sea.
The widows’ costume plays an important part in it as the Géniaux shows us with bereavement clothes in Trégor (Côtes-d’Armor district) including capes and special coiffes known as toukenn.
Charles underlines the tragic fate of sailors’ widows in his novel Les patriciennes de la mer: “When you marry a sailor, you put on your mourning attire on your wedding day.”
If you observe those pictures it is easy to understand why critics compared Charles’ novels to French writer Emile Zola’s naturalism. Frélaut the historian recalls: “In his Breton inspired novels, Géniaux offers his best pages whether he deals with the tragic fate of the cruel sea, or he narrates the sad miseries of the Gallo country [where Breton is not spoken] or faces the unlucky love story of his romantic and sick heroes.”
“The theme is almost always tragic and the end of the story is rarely happy. Misery, death, drunkenness, fatalism are the key characteristics of Charles Géniaux’s novels.”
Arabic and Kabyle stories, Parisian models
The World War accentuated the parting of the ways between the two brothers. Charles settled down in the South of France while Paul was drafted and fell ill in 1916.
Charles and his wife Claire (later his biographer) traveled to North Africa whence they brought back pictures and novels. In Tunisia, his books Comment on devient colon, Le Choc des races et Les Musulmanes (1909) provoked the anger of the French colonial party.
In 1915, Charles Géniaux had been sent for a wartime mission to Algeria and brought back another book which, as it often happens with Bretons, underlines their interest for the Kabyle and other Berber minorities: Sous les figuiers de Kabylie (Scènes de la vie berbère) (1917).
Already in 1909 with Les musulmanes (Muslim Women), his beautiful work does not attract only congratulations since his books reflected a spirit of anticolonialism and hostility to the way women are treated (by Islamism a word already used then).
As Jacqueline Le Nail rightly states: “The publication of this last novel angered some Tunisian friends who did not like the way he spoke voluptuously of their wives.”
This is true, and as a fashion designer I cannot ignore in some excerpts the sensuality stemming from the dazzling description of clothes:
“Dressed with crêpe de Chine wide trousers embroidered with pink bouquets and the waist tightened in a velvet bolero with a sapphire colour enhanced with gold, Nijma stepped down first. Néfissa’s straw coloured silk outfit made her face more metallic than usual. Dressed this way she looked like a living jewel.
Before reaching the door, the young girls laid on their heads the white silken haicks (veils) which covered them like shrouds” (pp 36/37).
Or else: “Stronger, heavier, slower than her sister, this lady with a stressed semitic profile, has deep-set eyes under the arch of their eyebrows.
Harem pants in cotton, printed with red checks, the kind of material which Dutch homes curtains are made of, cover her legs. On the contrary, she wears a bodice tailored by a Sicilian dressmaker. In navy blue broadcloth, it is well-lined with frogs; silver buttons fasten it.” (p.39)
Many other scenes follow taking place in harems, in hammams which sweat orientalism and favour the crossbreeding of civilizations.
It is well illustrated when one of the women of the novel receives a magazine coming from Paris, handed to her by her maid:
“- The postman just brought it, Lella Saïda!
‘La Mode française’ read Bienheureuse.
- I took the model of my suit in this magazine. How does it look like?
- Gorgeous! I shall subscribe to this journal as soon as I have finished paying my new pearl necklace, said little Chérifa.” (p.48)
It was probably a private joke because Charles’ brother had already published pictures about Parisian fashion in such magazines at the time.
Then died La Belle Époque with the war. In the 1920s, Paul had become full-fledged fashion news reporter in Paris while Charles was writing new novels. Paul did not confine himself to fashion because, as he did in Brittany, he also recorded with his camera the daily life of artisans in the City of Light. Moreover, he did shootings of Parisian fashion the same way he did for the Breton costumes.
Therefore, his byline appears until his death in 1928 in all major magazines : L’Art et la Mode, L’Illustration des modes (Jardin des Modes from 1922 onwards), Les Modes de la Femme de France and Vogue. As Linda Garcia d’Ornano states (“Paul Géniaux, Photo-reporter de mode à Paris dans les années 1920”) in the exhibition book : “Then, Paul Géniaux’s approach to fashion news reporting has clearly benefited from his experience in Brittany. A series on the Bigouden fashion, back in 1900, appears as a premonition of subsequent subjects on racecourses.”