Bearing little expectation of Bordeaux beyond the strong suspicion that it would offer wine, I was happy to discover on my first trip there recently that it’s a beautiful, atmospheric city on a pleasingly human scale. Its most expansive architectonic gesture is the Place de la Bourse, spreading its arms wide open to the cocoa-coloured, fast-flowing Garonne and the riverside water feature providing relief to adults and children alike on an infernally hot day.
Away from the river lie the labyrinthine laneways of the Saint-Pierre district. One, so slender that it admits no traffic, little sunlight but any number of tables spilling out on to the walkway from bars and restaurants, is Rue des Faussets. The Empire style building at number 7 was said to have once belonged to a reformed Jacobin, who at the height of The Terror apparently had a parody turn as the Pope at the dedication of a temple to Reason on the site of the Bastille. And in 1931 an apartment in this building would welcome another resident who carried out his own transgressive identity burlesque here: Pierre Molinier.
Here the nominally Surrealist artist constructed his own universe, composing endless variations on a slim repertoire of carnal motifs. While Molinier started out as a painter, his most emblematic works are the later photo collages featuring his own body, masks, dummies, props, claustrophobic arrangements all staged and crafted in the space where he lived much of his life (see here; NSFW). Here creator and environment were fused in mystical communion. The Molinier apartment stands in the same tradition of fanatically idiosyncratic settings as Quentin Crisp’s Chelsea bedsit, Carlo Mollino’s Turin hideaway, Colette’s Palais-Royal eyrie, Alfred Kubin’s Austrian schloss – all of them governed by a symbiosis that far exceeds a resident’s ordinary identification with the four walls around them. In Molinier’s case his consuming obsessions – and the habitat in which they had been set free to proliferate in lascivious incestuous abundance – finally consumed their creator. The notorious erotomane shut-in shot himself here in 1976, observing the act in a mirror.
When I visit in the afternoon, an older resident arriving home and a waiter at one of the restaurants are carrying on a vocal altercation which seems to concern the noise generated by the tightly packed businesses lining the street. Craning your head to take in the building, you’re met with the stern glare of stone eagles, as well as snakes devouring their own tails (I’m fairly certain there is a study of Molinier conducting an analogous manoeuvre). During the day the passer-by could well miss the plaque commemorating Molinier’s life and death here; it is placed up high, a top-shelf delicacy for the discerning deviant. But passing by at night I was gratified to see the sign lit in lurid purple.
While the world may now be a little more appreciative of Molinier’s singular oeuvre, the city of Bordeaux’s proposal to honour its wayward son was far from uncontested. But now, around ten minutes’ walk through the old town from Rue des Faussets you’ll find a sliver of public space between two streets now known as Place Pierre Molinier. It may be tucked out of the way, but it is something. While it’s still difficult to imagine, say, a Robert Mapplethorpe Square in Manhattan, two centuries after de Sade France continues to honours its illustrious perverts.