Everyday life is marked by objects. Objects signify everyday life. They express the individuality of their owner and filter his or her lifestyle and habits. They are also bearers of codes that are mediated in social norms, customs, behaviours and fashion. If their use, ineluctably distorting their surface, overcomes the need to possess them as an aesthetic accessory, they become intimate objects. And then the boundary between privacy and social presence is eroded.
Chopin’s furnishing of his Paris apartments was almost a ritual. The instructions that he issued contained detailed specifications, ranging from colour schemes and the arrangement of furniture to particular scents. Chopin’s deliberate choices attest his refined taste and great visual sensitivity. He preferred interiors in neutral colours that were comfortably furnished. Chopin – an artistic visionary investing his music with individuality and extreme emotions – eschewed al. extravagance. In the accounts of subsequent generations, the objects that surrounded him were depicted as representing an emanation of his strong personality, and the image was created of a refined artist upon whom the most precious gifts were bestowed. In reality, however, Chopin was far from living in the lap of Parisian luxury. The pragmatically furnished interiors, in an eclectic Louis Philippe style, were rather more expressive of the social outlook of the juste milieu.
Chopin’s following of fashion corresponded to the social expectation of being able to move freely among the binding codes of dress and lifestyle. At the same time, just as strongly marked was his uncompromising rejection of everything that he described as ‘the tedia of convention’. His trendy side prompted him to take note of civilisational innovations, to pose for the newly invented camera obscura in a Parisian photographic studio, to rave about the speed of the electromagnetic telegraph between Baltimore and Washington and to send interesting reports on remarkable inventions to his family in Warsaw. Innovative technical inventions not yet in everyday use did not violate the boundary consistently maintained by Chopin of intimacy and the sphere of undisclosed privacy.
Chopin’s furniture and personal effects were auctioned after his death. His family kept them with great reverence over successive generations. A carriage clock, a bell from his bedside table, a paperweight and part of a cabinet – all from his last flat in Paris – were held until recently in the collection of Mrs Krystyna Gołębiewska, one of the two living descendants of Chopin’s sister, Ludwika Jędrzejewicz. The narrative of her account evokes their tragic history. ‘[…] they were small souvenirs, absolutely tiny, […] little of it remained, but for me they’re very valuable, those that I still have today. […] why are they so valuable, […] mainly because they’re from Chopin, but also because during the [Warsaw] Uprising, when the house of my aunt [Ludwika Ciechomska] was turned to rubble, […] and it was a big six-storey house, completely turned to rubble… these are souvenirs pulled out from the ruins.’*
The past is present today in these fragments. We assimilate a small part of that which has physically survived and we construct an image of a private domain that is no longer accessible. The carriage clock embodies the image of a fashionable pendulette de voyage made at the renowned Bourdin clockmaker’s atelier in Paris, which won the silver medal in the ‘Machines’ category during the French Industrial Exhibition in 1844. The oriental-style bell, in the form of a Chinese figure, evokes the sound made when Chopin called his loved ones with it.
Extracting these souvenirs from the framework of literality opens the possibility of seeing/not seeing, allowing us to perceive them anew. Both the material presence and the visual dimension fixed in the photographs become a tool for unconstrained mental recomposition, for discovering sense and imparting individual meanings. Être merges with paraître. The intimacy of Chopin’s person effects is overlaid with the intimacy of our getting to know them.
* Interview with Krystyna Ciechomska-Gołębiewska, Radio Gdańsk
Translation: John Comber
The exhibition is open from 16th/17th May 2015 till 31st January 2016.