Synonymous with the art of travel since 1854, Louis Vuitton continues to add titles to its “Fashion Eye” collection. Each book evokes a city, a region or a country, seen through the eyes of a photographer. With Normandie, Louis Vuitton unearths the archives of photographer Jean Moral, who crossed the Atlantic twice on the deck of the French ship.
On February 9, 1942, the liner Normandie burned and capsized in the New York Harbor. Repair work had begun following the requisitioning of the ship on 11 April 1941 by the US Congress. Applying the law of angary, the luxury liner was transformed into a warship with the objective of accommodating nearly 16,000 soldiers. The ship lost its flag and its name was changed to USS Lafayette. The circumstances of the fire remain unknown today, if not obscure. The fire started in the main salon and was thought to be accidental, caused by the dismantling of columns and the clumsiness of one or two workers with a blowtorch. But the American mobster Lucky Luciano boasts of having ordered it to put pressure on the authorities of the port of New York to ensure its protection.
“I figured it wouldn’t interfere with our war effort since the ship wasn’t ready and there would be no American soldiers or sailors on board. So I had Albert reply that he had the green light. A few days later, I heard on the radio that the Normandie was in flames and that they didn’t think they could save her. That bastard Anastasia had really done a great job. ”
Lucky Luciano, Lucky Luciano: The Testament, Paris, La Manufacture des livres, 2014, 2nd ed. 500 pp.
The fire spreads to the decks, cabins, and lounges and causes a chaotic evacuation. The fire was extinguished under nearly 10,000 tons of water, and the weight of the water combined with the tides sank the ship in the New York harbor. In wartime, commercial and political projects to revive the ship were not successful and both France and the United States tried to get rid of the wreck after the war. It was the end of a myth, of an industrial jewel as well as of French refinement.
The Normandie was inaugurated on 27 May 1935. She crossed the Atlantic during only four years, from her first days to her last voyage on August 23, 1939. The ship did not meet with the expected commercial success and was not very profitable, if we judge that the first works necessary for the construction in the shipyards of Penhoët in Saint-Nazaire started in 1929. However, for several years, it represented a figure of French refinement, as well as a proof of the vivacity of its industry.
At the time of its launch, it was the largest ship of its time and claimed all the superlatives. She was 313.75 meters long and 35.90 meters wide, when today’s supertankers, sometimes hoarse and immobile in the great international canals, are 400 meters long. The pre-war excessiveness is, in fact, the same today. Three chimneys stood on its deck and it operated with the help of 29 turbine boilers, developing 160,000 horsepower. She could reach speeds of up to 30 knots, so much so that she broke the Blue Ribbon record – the fastest Atlantic crossing between Bishop Rock (Europe) and New York (USA), 3000 miles – three times between 1935 and 1937. More than its imposing dimensions, its records and its gigantic machinery, it pushed the refinement in all the domains specific to travel.
The Normandie could carry 3327 people – 1972 passengers and 1355 crew members. Passengers were divided into several classes, from the expensive “Cabin” class to the “Tourist” class and the 3rd class. They enjoyed a refined décor, eating their meals in a dining room 86 meters long and 8 meters high under the ceiling, where the light radiated without revealing the horizon. The Compagnie Générale Transatlantique called upon many artists to decorate the common rooms and bedrooms, such as Jean Dunand who designed the smoking room, decorating it with allegories recalling earthly pleasures. The materials used for the decoration evoked the splendor of craftsmanship, from marble to Aubusson tapestries.
The main pleasure of the passengers was in the wide range of entertainments offered. Restaurants and bars at meal times, but also an indoor swimming pool on the promenade deck, a tennis court sheltered from the wind, pigeon shooting, shooting range or mini-golf. Passengers could imagine a romance in the winter garden, laugh in the entertainment room, worship in a chapel or a synagogue, or simply sunbathe. To these pleasures the crew had to offer quality service, embodied by the chef Gaston Magrin and his brigade (136 people in the kitchen, 194 in the reception rooms).
To promote this excellence of travel, the Compagnie générale transatlantique made extensive use of advertising and of the press of the time, mainly French, excited about the flagship of its industry, as well as American. This media campaign and the increased place given to photography are perfectly summarized by Sylvain Besson, director of the collections of the Musée Nicéphore Niépce, in the book. Trained by Pierre Boucher and Louis Caillaud, the photographer and draftsman Jean Moral published Parisian strolls in Vu, Art et Médecine or Paris-Magazine before being entrusted in 1935 with a report on the construction of the Normandie by Harper’s Bazaar, directed by Carmel Snow. Jean Moral was also part of the inaugural voyage, accompanied by a few models dressed by the American magazine. Then four years later, he returned on board at the invitation of the Compagnie Générale Transatlantique for a report published in the new magazine Match.
In this opus in the form of an archive, Normandie
des Éditions Vuitton has chosen to follow these three campaigns by giving priority to the contact sheets. It is quite rare to see so many contact sheets in a book. They are often used as a counterpoint, as details. The book uses their greatest potential, showing the choices made by the photographer or the editorial staff of the newspapers, revealing also entire series, atmospheres and moments (a dinner, a dance, a shooting with models), as well as rejected photographs. One thinks of the late Arte series, Contacts
. This omnipresence of the contact sheets covers (successfully) the page, hundreds of shots following one another and giving a delicious dizziness. Sometimes they are the whole page, sometimes a line or a column, sometimes two images bordered by the immutable black bands.
The composition shows the approaches of Jean Moral. On the shipyard, he focuses on the drawings of the shipowner, on the gigantism of the ship, on the little hands at work, the workers carving and screwing, rubbing and pulling, on the mists of the harbor and the colorless mass of the bows as an immutable threat. This series nourished a sticky, dark and iron imagination that was later exploited in Jean Grémillon’s film Remorques (1941) with Jean Gabin and Madeleine Renaud and especially in Jean Genet’s novel Querelle de Brest (1947).
If the shots chosen by Harper’s Bazaar for the inauguration mainly evoke fashion and show the models in a kind of state of grace, of playful joy, Moral’s contact sheets show the first crossing from every angle: from journalists perched on a dinghy to small ships in the wake of the giant, in New York Harbor. The photographer, however, seems to be more on deck than indoors, giving the idea of a crossing punctuated by entertainment.
The advertorial commissioned by the Compagnie générale transatlantique and published by Match is more exhaustive. “It is about praising the Normandie, praising the quality of the services offered to passengers, praising the commercial success, praising the on-board staff”, rightly points out Sylvain Besson. The photographer tries to cover all the trades and systematically points his Rolleiflex at the ship’s teeming activity, giving the series a sociological approach.
These voyages, gathered in a single work, give an idea of the madness of the inter-war period, of the pomp and carefree entertainment despite the diplomatic tensions, the rise of Nazism and the tearing apart of nations leading to the Second World War. These photographs are topical of an industrial as well as artistic race between Western nations. But beyond the geopolitical framework, they also evoke all the refinement brought to the effort of a journey. They evoke a spirit, a form of gentle joy, eminently nostalgic, even if this era is known only by an aging fringe. It is in a simple sentence, a wonderful journey.
Normandy – Jean Moral
A book by Éditions Louis Vuitton
Collection “Fashion Eye”, 2021.
128 pages, 50 €.