Cool Haunting: l’hôtel particulier de Serge Gainsbourg

The Seventh arrondissement is very popular with North American tourists. They crowd the cafés on the rue Cler, order what a friend of mine has dubbed “The Spesh” at the Greek crêpe stand (“The Spesh,” or La Spéciale, is an egg, emmenthal, feta and tomato crêpe – messy but delicious,) and generally keep that picturesque pedestrian lane humming year round. Pre-Rick Steves, whose books essentially put the cobblestoned street on the North American radar, rue Cler was your typical-for-the-Seventh busy yet still sleepy enclave. Think government ministries, embassies, and the Assemblée Nationale and you’ll start to get a sense of the energy of the place: sober, quiet, serious.

In the same arrondissement yet worlds away in terms of energy is Serge Gainsbourg’s graffiti-splattered hôtel particulier at 5 bis rue de Verneuil. As far as I’m concerned, no trek to the Seventh is complete without a pilgrimage to its façade. I’ve photographed new and decaying pieces, and have always enjoyed analyzing the dialogues and confrontations developing between the encrustations of paint, marker, tile and stencil art. The building’s been tagged, it’s been Space Invader-ed, it’s been destroyed and reborn and destroyed countless times. No matter how you feel about graffiti, it is impossible not to appreciate these ebullient and occasionally provocative artistic impulses as not only homages to Serge, but also free-form expressions of his spirit: contradictory, experimental, playful, melancholic and remarkable.

If, as Douglas Brooks has said, “Harmony is simply one experience of resonance,” then surely discord has resonance, beauty and value too.