Correspondences: A series of explorations within the roots of French Steampunk


selena chambersBy S. J. Chambers

Foreword: This guest post has been first published on
I’ve met SJ Chambers through the internet for the Steampunk Bible. I asked her if she would be interested in having some french steampunk guys on her books. She quickly accepted as she has always been a huge fan of french artists. Here is the first of three guest-posts she wrote for during her stay in Paris for the Steampunk Bible book tour.

“French Steampunk is different from the very bases on which it stands. In French steampunk, no HG Wells but Jules Verne. No Queen Victoria but Napoleon III. No Oscar Wilde but Charles Baudelaire. No Crystal Palace but the Great Exhibition.”
–Sam Van Olffen, in a the 2009 Raw Interview for The Steampunk Bible, conducted and translated by Arthur Morgan.

I have been a student of the nineteenth century since middle school, and have devoted a great deal of my intellectual life to studying its art and literature, most of which in some way revolved around Edgar Allan Poe. Poe’s work was forgotten by his countrymen at his death, but celebrated and kept alive by Charles Baudelaire. Therefore, my studies of Poe led me away from the Gilded Age and the Victorians, and towards the literature and art of France. As a result, I found myself unconcerned with Queen Victoria’s reign and the Wild West, and more fascinated with the revolt and renaissance of nineteenth and early twentieth century Paris.

When I began working with Jeff VanderMeer on The Steampunk Bible, I instantly realized that most of Steampunk stemmed from Victorian and Gilded Age modes and ideas, and I kept wondering what Steampunk would look like through a French lens.   Then I met Morgan Guery, who was kind enough to interview French Steampunk’s foremost authors and translate them for us. He introduced me to the work of Sam van Olfeen, Futuravapeur, and Anxiongene, whose work took me on an imaginary voyage through a different Steampunk, one which I yearned for but struggled to imagine.

Naturally present was the retro-futuristic celebration of vintage technology and invention found within countryman Jules Verne’s work. But I was surprised to find that French Steampunk goes beyond Vernian science fiction. It delves deeper into its heritage to incorporate Positivism, Symbolism, Dada, Surrealism, and if you look hard enough, you’ll even find Eddy Poe in the background, waving from a hot air balloon. In these guest posts, I’d like to share with you what I saw within French Steampunk, which I think will show why I’m so enthusiastic about it.  So, here is to the glory of French Steampunk, long may it live!
Exhibit One:  Symbolism

The Balloon, Puvis de Chavannes, 1870The Balloon, Puvis de Chavannes, 1870

The Symbolist movement was born to rescue the individual from Positivism, the widely popular philosophy that called for a world explained and improved solely by scientific reason and technology. As poet Gustave Khan saw it:  “It is all too clear that these people move only in search of resources, and the source of dreams is running dry.”  While Positivism (see also Realism or naturalism) tried to survey the social consciousness of society, Symbolism sought to participate in the social unconscious, via solipsism and explored the illusions, taboos, and spiritual morals that Positivism tried to dismiss as useless in an industrial world.

The Apparition, Gustave Moreau, 1876The Apparition, Gustave Moreau, 1876

This lead to the creation of unique worlds  filled with odd and idiomatic visual language in their work. Gustave Moreau’s mythological canvases teem with Sphinxes, unicorns, angels, demons, and femme fatales .  These fanciful creatures dance, gallop, haunt, and bless heroes under diaphanous skies and looming architecture.

Guardian of the Waters, Odilon Redon, 1878Guardian of the Waters, Odilon Redon, 1878

Odilon Redon conjured a similar atmospheric magic by exploiting positive and negative space to invoke atmospheres that rejected traditional narration, and juxtaposed unlikely images to make visual “suggestions” of its subject. Both artists strove in their work to create a parallel world in which the inner nature of man could be discussed, a conversation they, and their fellow Symbolists saw as being lost within the naturalist world created by an Industrial society.

It is a phenomenon that seems unique to the fin-de-siècle world, but the Symbolists began a conversation that was expounded upon by the Surrealists focus upon the rational of dreams, and is still spoken today through Steampunk.

Jesus War Machine, Sam Van Olffen, 2011Jesus War Machine, Sam Van Olffen, 2011

Perhaps one of the best examples of French Steampunk’s allegiance with Symbolism is the work of Sam Van Olffen.  Like the Symbolists, he has created a unique world that draws upon history and mythology, but marries the mystical aspects with Positivist iconography of technology juxtaposed with Second Empire aesthetics.

Babel, Sam Van Olffen, 2011Babel, Sam Van Olffen, 2011

While of course the Symbolists avoided including technology in their work, Van Olffen’s reworks them into ahistorical updates that retell French legends and mythologies in a setting that could be comfortable in 1870 or 2070.   The Saints are still there, but the beasts that feed upon man’s inner nature are replaced with ravenous mechanical monstrosities or catastrophes.

The Triumph of Alexander the Great, Gustave Moreau, c. 1885-1892The Triumph of Alexander the Great, Gustave Moreau, c. 1885-1892

His graphic samplings conjure Moreau’s imposing architecture and scenery filled with dynamic compositions, a disturbing stillness and strangeness found in Redon, especially when he opts for a black and white palette, and reinvents the halo and “spiritual light” emanating from Symbolist idols into a more secular illumination.

Jeanne d’Arc: L’Annonciation de Saint Michael, by Sam Van Olffen, 2011Jeanne d’Arc: L’Annonciation de Saint Michael, by Sam Van Olffen, 2011

His recent Jeanne d’Arc series is a prime example of Symbolist influence at work. Although the Saint of Rouen is surrounded by steel bridges and Industrial iconography,  and far removed from the pastoral setting seen in Osbert’s The Vision, her flock is close at hand and offers the only connotation of the faceless girl’s life at the moment of annunciation.

Vision, by Alphonse Osbert, 1892Vision, by Alphonse Osbert, 1892

The mythological blending of The Annunciation with Joan of Arc’s story also riffs off of Symbolism’s tendency to expound and build layers onto an already established mythology.  It’s hard to be certain, but this allegory could be read as Joan of Arc not only as martyr to the Paris she saved, but a martyr to the callous path of historical progress.

Jeanne d’Arc:  Le Procès, Sam Van Olffen, 2011
Jeanne d’Arc:  Le Procès, Sam Van Olffen, 2011

In the Proces de Jeanne d’Arc, light seeping into the court enshrines and ordains Jeanne, who is transformed under her persecution.  Not only could it be seen as God touching the Good Shepherdess, it can also be seen as Nature transcending the rationality of Science.
Even so, in the battle between Positivism and Symbolism, Positivism defeats the Dreamer, no matter how brightly she shines, with its weapons, towering city walls, and its own flock of human sheep.

La tour Eiffel, Louis Welden Hawkins, 1889La tour Eiffel, Louis Welden Hawkins, 1889

Well, that analysis got a bit bleak, didn’t it?  Let’s lighten things up by looking at the Symbolist closer.  While he wrote poetry and painted allegories penetrating the soul, in his social life he reaped the benefits “progress” planted.  Thanks to the civic genius of Haussmann, the Symbolist, who was known in society as a Dandy, enjoyed strolls down the straight and widened boulevards, marveled at the Eiffel Tower as it was being constructed, and gave himself over to the bacchanalian life of the new cafes and night clubs.

Le Comte Robert de Montesquiou, by Giovanni Boldini, 1897 Le Comte Robert de Montesquiou, by Giovanni Boldini, 1897

While the Dandy Symbolist may not have approved of the urban revitalization, he enjoyed every pleasure he could derive from the new urban lifestyle, and enjoyed it to the point of caricature.  The gentleman shown above is perhaps one of the most famous Dandies, symbolist poet Comte Robert de Montesquieu.  Said to be the model of Huysman’s Des Essientes and Proust’s Baron Charlus, his distinguished figure and foppish legend has lived through the years to inspire one of Steampunk’s great dandies, Maurice Sandalette.

Réclames pour Les Historettes, by Futuravapeur and AnXiogenè, 2010 Réclames pour Les Historettes, by Futuravapeur and AnXiogène, 2010

Les Historettes de M. Sandalette, by Futuravapeur and AnXiogène, follows the eponymous Dandy through supernatural and comical adventures throughout a fin-de-siècle Paris, alluding to not only Montesquieu’s iconic moustache and dandy nonchalance, but to science fiction classics like Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, and H. G. Wells’ War of the Worlds.

Eleonora Duse, photographer unknown, and Sarah Bernhardt as Théodora, by Félix Nadar, 1884
Eleonora Duse, photographer unknown, and Sarah Bernhardt as Théodora, by Félix Nadar, 1884

A roman-daguerreotype, this “precursor” to the graphic novel utilizes theatrical posing and facial expressions within each frame.  The exaggerated gestures remind me of the daguerreotype portraits of famous stage actresses Eleonora Duse and Sarah Bernhardt in costume, whose enigmatic presence is well replicated by Mr. Sandalette’s assistant, Dolly Prawn.

Les Historettes de Mr. Sandalette, Episode 1, Futuravapeur and AnXiogène, 2010
Les Historettes de Mr. Sandalette, Episode 1, Futuravapeur and AnXiogène, 2010

All of these various elements work together to make, like Van Olffen, a very distinct world with its own rules but doesn’t hesitate to find humor in those rules.  However, what was most interesting to me about Mr. Sandalette, is that this humor does not belong in the century it satirizes.  While Futuravapeur and AnXiogène give reverent nods to the fin-de-siècle, and to classical speculative masters like Verne, Wells, and Lovecraft, there is also a hint of irony, a sense of absurdity, and a wonderful appreciation of play that made me start to wonder:  is there room for Dada in Steampunk?

More about Futuravapeur
More about Sam Van Olffen


One response to “Correspondences: A series of explorations within the roots of French Steampunk

  1. Pingback: Vaporiste! Bringing French Steampunk to the English-speaking masses | S. J. Chambers·

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