It Takes Two to Tango: Text and Image in Grand Bal Du Printemps (1951) by Jacques Prevert and Izis Bidermanas
Hilton-Watson, Matthew, Papers on Language & Literature
Much of Jacques Prevert's artistic and literary production is widely known by academicians as well as by his favorite subject--the everyday person. There remains some work by Prevert, however, that has disappeared from the cultural radar. Why a given work becomes invisible to the literary and artistic consumer is difficult to ascertain and is specific to the unnoticed work itself. Grand bal du printemps, a poetic collection written by Jacques Prevert in the 1950s, presents one example of a comparatively unknown work by a relatively famous author. Whereas there are numerous books, special journal volumes, book chapters, journal articles, biographies, papers at conferences, and conference panels dedicated to the study of Jacques Prevert's life and work, Grand bal du printemps is rarely mentioned.
To broach the study of Grand bal du printemps, we must remind ourselves of its author's career, specifically, and of the contemporary artistic milieu, in general. Having made his debut in the poetry world with his well-received Paroles in 1946, Jacques Prevert quickly established himself as the poet laureate of the streets of Paris. Using the everyday language he found around him, he celebrated the daily life and the streets of Paris in the poems that make up Paroles. In this collection, he raised common, everyday objects from the streets to a poetic level, all the while depoeticizing his poetry in order to accomplish his task. His style is comprised of spoken discourse and simple and direct images. As a result, his poetry has appealed to and been read by people from all lifestyles.
A few years after the publication of Paroles, Prevert then published two other city poetry collections, Grand bal du printemps in 1951 and Charmes de Londres in 1952. These two rather overlooked collections celebrate Paris and London respectively. Written in much the same vein as his Paroles, both Grand bal du printemps and Charmes de Londres present the city and everyday life in a very direct and down-to-earth way. He published these collections with the collaboration of Izis Bidermanas, a Lithuanian photographer residing in Paris. The two works consist of a flux of photography and poetry that explores the relationship between image and word in the portrayal of Paris and London. On the one hand, Jacques Prevert's brand of poetry goes against the canonical grain in its simplicity of access. On the other hand, photography in the 1950s was still searching for an artistic niche that would validate its status as art and no longer merely as documentary illustration.
Prevert's poetic images in Grand bal du printemps are clear, relatively unmediated by sophisticated or overly complicated poetic rhetoric, and written in the language found on the same streets they are describing. The subject matter chosen for the poems in this collection much resembles that found in Paroles as well. In addition to poems about the different buildings and monuments that make up a city, Prevert also writes about different city types. His favorite subjects are animals--dogs, cats, and birds, for example--children, and finally the working classes. In his poetry, he often focuses on what one might consider the ugly side of the city, or the side of the city that would not normally jump out at a poet as being the perfect subject matter for urban poetry. In perusing Grand bal du printemps, the readers have the impression of reading the notes of an ambulant chronicler of everyday urban life. Rather than feeling that they are reading a highly cerebral pondering of the ruins and decay of the big city, the readers of this collection feel as though the poet is gently leading them through the Paris that many either do not encounter or overlook. The images they encounter, whether they feature small children or the Arc de Triomphe, are all presented directly, without pretense. Sometimes the readers do feel shocked and startled by the abrupt and terse nature of some of these poems, but the effect is rewarding. …