Reading a medal

   
 
 
Foire internationale de Marseille 1924 by Jean Vézien
 
I find Vézien's Foire internationale de Marseille 1924 an intriguing medal. The exemplar I own is a round disc of silver, 69 mm in diameter and varying from 3 to 8 mm in thickness around the rim. The rim itself is engraved with the tiny cornucopia of the Monnaie de Paris followed by 1ARGENT. The obverse carries a curving inscription around the left and upper sides, from approximately 8 o'clock to approximately 2 o'clock: FOIRE INTERNATIONALE DE MARSEILLE.1924.

The central area on the obverse of the medal is filled with an extraordinary image. On the middle and left appears the upper portion of a ship's smoke-stack, turned three-quarters to the left and billowing smoke or steam behind it; while, on the right, to the side and apparently well behind this smokestack, appears the waterfront of Marseille's Old Port, above which rises the hill-the Garde-atop which is perched the Basilica of Notre-Dame-de-la-Garde (in 1924, as now, a Marseille landmark). The sheer audacity of this image is astonishing. The ship in the foreground-a liner? a tugboat? a fisher? a pleasure craft?-is represented solely by its smokestack. As the ship appears to move away from the Garde, the city-again as a partial albeit singular representation-appears to diminish at its back. No human figure is visible on this side of the medal. What is seen-apart from the water and the hill-are all products of human labor. The basilica (controversial when it was built in the nineteenth century, but for the wrong reason-its architect was a protestant!), the waterfront with its multi-story buildings, the boats near the waterfront, and the ship's smokestack in the foreground are all made things. Yet the people who made them and inhabit them are absent. This side of the medal, at least, appears directly to celebrate the things created by humans, but only indirectly the objects' manufacturers: at least to Vézien in 1924, the Machine Age had arrived.

The reverse illustrates a moment from Marseille's foundation legend. As is written on the medal, around 600 B.C. Gyptis, the daughter of the local kinglet, during a banquet hosted by her father for the purpose, chose Protis, a mariner and the leader of a Greek trading expedition invited to the feast, as her husband according to the local custom: she offered him a cup of wine. In accepting the cup and drinking from it, Protis accepted her proposal of marriage. The city of Marseille grew from the land in the area of the Old Port given to the pair and their descendents by Gyptis' father. The sculptor chose to show the moment the marriage proposal was made, when Gyptis offre la coupe à Protis, in the words Vézien carefully inserted on the extreme left of the medal's face. The moment itself is simplified and reduced to its essentials: only the head of Gyptis, her hands holding the cup, and the head and upper torso of Protis are shown. Gyptis' head, in profile, is turned up toward the cup and the face of Protis; Protis is placed behind and above her, his head turns slightly in her direction, while his chin is partially hidden behind the cup she raises. Visually, the line of the cup connects their faces-an apt image mirroring the importance of the cup in their story.

The most striking aspect of the scene, however, is that the eyes of Gyptis and Protis are shown without pupils or corneas. These staring, sightless eyes, together with the details of hair and costume, lend an archaic character to a scene that seems frozen in time at the moment of proposal. The offered cup itself is delicately incised with a motif that seems both Celtic and marine and that suggests a highly stylized octopus, alluding perhaps to the Mediterranean both as a rich source of food, as Homer's "wine-dark sea," and suggesting aspects of the life-living in a port, sailing on trading missions, and working in a trading entrepôt-Gyptis' offer entails. Indeed, as portrayed here, Gyptis and Protis possess the haunting and hieratic qualities of early classical statues found in modern museums. By choosing to memorialize the origin of Marseille in this manner-Gyptis and Protis represented as statuary-Vézien remains consistent with his representation of modern Marseille on the obverse. With even the founders' actions shown in terms of an object of human manufacture-as sculpture-the artist altogether avoids portraying in the medal any "real" human beings. More on this medal
 
 
Joseph Styles, Los Angeles, California
 
 
Back to index