Skip to navigation – Site map

The Political Mission of Contemporary Urban Statuary. Image, History and Territorial Identity in Montpellier (France)

Laurent Viala


This paper deals with the political dimension of the urban public space. It examines the political meaning of a contemporary statuary. The research carried out in Montpellier (France) deals with three public spaces which gather most of the contemporary statues. We explore the emblematic images (or images of images) of universal, real or mythical characters as several arguments in order to overhaul a new political order in and by the urban public space. This order is read in the perspective of an historical assertion of the territorial identity of the city of Montpellier. We use some aspects of the semiotic triad (icon, index, symbol) of Charles Peirce's theory of signs. First, we consider the new mesh size of the urban public space, which is understood as the expression of a territorial personal foresight, thought by Georges Frêche, former mayor of Montpellier. Then, the obsolete civic imagery is reformulated by valuing a social imagery which takes part in an historical urban rhetoric. A triple dimensioning of the historical path of Montpellier is identified: it appears as Mediterranean, revolutionary and global. Finally, in line with the critical urban geography developed, it results in three political effects of the statuary: the first formulates new principles for public-spiritedness and civility through the citadinity; secondly, in a form of paradox, these statues tell a story about the future of the city; last, it shows how a political leader makes space a political one.

Top of page

Full text


1The function of the symbolic dimension in the production of the space of the city is a known phenomenon (Choay 1972, Claval 1974, Chorra-Gobin 2001, Monnet 2007). Maurice Agulhon’s works (Agulhon 1975) illustrate this topic on the subject of forms, nature and social effects of French Republican proprieties, especially through the 19th century public statuary. Implicitly, its problematic introduces the political dimension of space; however, it is somewhat reversed compared to ours. He explains that "[...] an allegorical political statue was not only, by its explicit sense, the element of a propaganda, but also, by itself, a piece of urban scenery." (Agulhon 1975: 33-56) Contrary to Agulhon, we would like to gain insight into the political signification of contemporary statuary. If statuary today is an important element of the urban setting, designed to win people over, what about its political dimension? At present, democratic order is overwhelmed under by the "culture industry" that emerged in the 20th century as a powerful path to the "myth of the future" (Michaud 2001). More than ever images play a determining role in this process by saturating space with sense (Berdet 2013). For political leaders, the relevance is mainly economic, and the only aim is urban attractiveness (Chadoin 2014). Architecture and urban design are the main lever of this quest. Indeed, designing high quality urban public spaces seems to be one of the best ways to achieve this. Contemporary statuary and its potential political dimension are investigated in this context, which is not so favourable to such a re-emergence of the political sense of public spaces.

2In our hypothesis, the public space of the city is, for the inhabitants, a semantic universe whose content is openly political. The study of the meaning of contemporary statuary implies giving up of a strict aesthetic scope and requires adopting a position at the crossroads of social and political issues. Indeed, when a city council decides to initiate an action for the urban art by spreading several statues (copies, replicas, originals) with historical sense (great names of history, and / or with reference to the period of creation of the original), what are its motivations? An effect is certainly expected: at any rate, this effect is commonly aesthetic; however, can the didactic intention cohabit with the implementation of a political rhetoric (Robelin 2007)? Is it about renewing civic imagery? Does the statuary aim to reproduce ancient motivations - to celebrate an authority, the local history and its actors - or to imagine new ones? We seek to understand these new motivations through a phenomenological approach inspired by Charles S. Peirce.

3The research carried out in Montpellier (France) addresses three public spaces that gather most of the contemporary statues in that region. The term "contemporary" (see above) does not qualify the work of art, but the recent installation (1980-2012) of statues in new neighbourhoods created in the east part of the town’s territory. Those statues, which are often copies, may have various geographical and historical origins. Our first study of public spaces corresponds to the Antigone district, the second is the Place de la Révolution in the Richter district, and the third is La Place du 20e siècle in Odysseum, an entertainment and shopping centre (Figure 1). On the methodological level, a documentary work (understanding the context) has been conducted on the basis of field surveys (describe): a first series relating to the public spaces invested (localization, urban planning, sizing, street furniture, vegetation, materiality, landscape, uses and practices, frequentation, general condition) and a second for statues in their spaces (original or copy, context of public commission, artist or manufacturer, materials, description, history of the original statue, history of the character, associated text, date of installation, motivation, appropriation / reception / diversion / rejection / alteration, position in the public space, size, type of financial participation). Then, we qualify the relationship to the place and identify (analyse) the associated values ​​(aesthetic, historical, political, ethical) to prepare the interpretation of the effects of meaning.

Fig. 1. Montpellier. Location maps. Above: Districts and public spaces. Below: Antigone neighbourhood and the statues

Fig. 1. Montpellier. Location maps. Above: Districts and public spaces. Below: Antigone neighbourhood and the statues

Source: Laurent Viala, 2017

4Finally, this paper addresses the emblematic images (or images of images) of universal, real or mythical, characters as several arguments to overhaul the political order in and by urban public space. This re-foundation is read in the perspective of an historical assertion of territorial identity. The first part synthesizes the epistemological and theoretical framework of this research. A second introduces the studied case (Montpellier) by delivering three historical modalities of how a political power shows itself in space. The third insists on the sensible universe experienced in contact with the analysed statuary. Before concluding, the last part exposes a fluctuating urban rhetoric that underscores the images that reveal the political order.

The political meanings of urban public space to the test of indisciplinarity

5The images in the urban public space are of diverse nature and origin. However, all these images mark places and practices attached to such space. The treatment of these problematics is entrusted to geography. We practice an urban geography that adheres to the purposes and principles of a critical social geography and can interact with cultural geography (Séchet, Veschambre 2006: 22). We choose social geography because it considers society in its relationship to space and is therefore in opposition to geography as spatial science, making space an autonomous reality; we choose a critical one because the political and ideological positions it develops contest positivist theories, attached more to explain a single part (globally behaviourist) of the relationship of man to space than to formulate principles that help to release him from situations of domination and to change his life. In 2010, the Géographie et cultures journal addressed the meeting between image and public space. Concerning the evocation of a concrete public space, the authors discuss a "physical environment", that is, a fitted-out one. At the same time, the image is considered to be both a "product object" and a "cognitive representation". Thinking together one and the other are based on a "shared spatiality". Image and public space would thus be hand-in-glove with the expression of social reality, and together would speak of constraint, freedom, order and control, that is, of polity. Probing the depth of "the life of the images in the public space" is the form taken by the invitation to which our text answers. Here, geography is mobilized to investigate images; however, the epistemological, theoretical and methodological framework of our research must be completed. Thus, three aspects are clarified.

6The first aspect is the status of the image. What can the link be between the social sciences (and geography in particular) and visual studies? In this paper, it will not be direct and, and it will undoubtedly be clearer ex-post facto. Visual studies have gained a form of autonomy, and their corpus of reference took shape precisely through disciplinarity (Catellin and Loty 2013). Presenting an overview of visual studies, with regard to the iconic turn, Keith Moxey (2008) insists on the diversity of approaches (visual studies, image science, anthropology of the image, visual culture) and their respective contributions. The interference of the social sciences in the field of visual studies challenges the contribution of the first approaches to the transdisciplinary or de-disciplinary dimension of the second approaches as proposed W.J.T. Mitchell. It is a scientific challenge for the researcher in social sciences if he must integrate image into his problematics. Going beyond the field of representations to touch upon the image's capacity for action, promoting the idea according to which the images would have power (Freedberg 1989), such is the first level of meeting around the notions of agency (Latour 2006) and performativity (Arquembourg 2010) or more generally of the iconic performance that associates agency and performativity with two other notions: efficiency (the image fulfils a function) and the power of the image, that is to say what it can bring or provoke (Dierkens et al., 2009). Of course, representation and action are intended to converge; however, there is, on the one hand, the meaning diffused by these images, and on the other hand, the idea of their presence (Gumbrecht 2004), less examined by the geographer: the images would view us as much as we can contemplate them. Although engaging an asymmetrical relationship, the image would exist by this order of reciprocity. The second level of encounter is directly deduced from the first one: the purely declarative postures must be avoided to make this idea of presentation an effective one. This risk is not easy to manage. However, first of all, it is possible to refer to social practices, which are capable, if they are questioned, of revealing the possible effects of images on city dwellers. Certain images in public space have an obvious practical function (signage), and evoking their power creates no difficulty. For all the other cases, where the symbolic mission dominates, the discussion evidence is more delicate. In this case, the phenomenological experience of spaces by the researcher himself is conceivable. Finally, we have chosen this solution; however, it is completed by an empirical work that our introduction briefly recalls. Peircean semiotics have a form of relevance in the comprehension of the images of our analysis, particularly in the final perspective of a global interpretation of the situation in Montpellier. Charles S. Peirce's theory of signs articulates three trichotomies (Peirce 1978) taking successively for its basis the sign (representamen), the object and the interpretant. Our approach focuses on the object (in its connexion with the sign). It remains subject to the three modes of being that account for human experience. This is the basis of his conception of phenomenology. Indeed, Pierce first evokes the immediate quality (firstness) describing being for what it basically is. Then, he speaks about experience (secondness) and thus refers to the practice. Finally, he evokes thought (thirdness) to signify the capacity of each being to make his world intelligible. The three components of the semiotic process (sign, object, interpretant) are decomposed according to these three categories (firstness, secondness, thirdness). With respect to its object, the sign will therefore be successively icon, index, symbol. The reference to this theory is made incompletely but knowingly; indeed, if the object is dissociated from the representamen and the interpretant, the Peircean device becomes less operative. Thus, it is only the means of analysis suggested by Peirce that we adopt. Therefore, there is an icon as soon as the sign refers to its object on the mode of resemblance. The index is manifested as soon as the sign is affected by the object and, as soon as a context is established, it can become a symbol.

7The second clarification concerns the essential help of historians’ works about France. Indeed, a double story has been summoned: that of public art, including its most recent manifestations in urban spaces, and that, more specifically, of public statuary, also having a contemporary expression. The mission of this art (the revealing of a community’s unity) would have been somewhat lost after having known its finest hour in the 19th century, in particular in its last third; which led Maurice Agulhon to speak about "statuomania" (Agulhon 1978). "The republican era invents desacralized public places, among which is the market place with its fountain, at the same time as the public political space (one and indivisible). As a secular place, it confers on public art the mission of presenting, through art, the being and harmony of public life." (Ruby 1998: 50) In the 20th century, "the renewal of public art and its thinking requires an analysis of the functions of the street, public places as a whole, the public, as well as an analysis of the prospects of political unity/diversity, and the life of the political body." (Ruby 1998: 51) Moreover, Sylvie Lagnier (2001) explains that "[...] the public sculpture participates less in the aesthetics of the city [...] than the introduction of a problematic aimed at questioning the public about its knowledge, practices and uses of the place, and at offering it a different approach and reading of its urban environment." (Lagnier 2001: 236-237) The book she has published from his doctoral thesis also sheds light on types of intervention: "The first deals with an identified urban function, in which case the artwork is defined as an urban development because it is involved in the structural development of the place. The second type of intervention has a common aspect to all the works, that is to say it testifies to the contemporary artistic creation [...] The third remakes the place by appropriating the surrounding elements or by creating dissonances, counterpoints. [...]. Finally, the fourth type of intervention, like the previous one, brings together works that are also designed for a specific place, but which are constructed from social elements. These rediscover or partially redefine the initial missions of the monument: starting from a particular event or from everyday life, they contribute to the identity of the local social fabric." (Lagnier 2001: 107-108) The statuary assemblies studied which illustrate three of these types of intervention: the fourth refers to Antigone, the third to Place de la Révolution to Richter urban district and the first to the Place du 20e siècle in Odysseum.

8Our survey of the literature on this problematic allowed a third level of precision in the positioning. Our observation reveals the dispersion of objects and, at the same time, the convergence of issues towards the question of policy. Although in France it is not an over-invested field, several references were useful to the demarcation of the problematic. Thus, we can successively evoke the following: the staging of power through the image of the Great Man and his cult (Agulhon 2003, Bonhomme and Jaoul 2010), "gender specificity" of the figure of the celebrity "even though the traditional feminine representations in public art were limited to a saint, a queen, the decorative object and the allegory" (Sniter 2008), the bourgeois construction of the ideal feminine worker in Paris (Monjaret 2012), the reception and the political sense of the statues of Joan of Arc, still in Paris at the turn of the 19th century (Sniter 2001), the Parisian equestrian statuary (Pelosse 1995), the speech on the black-Africans to Brussels, without being reduced to statuary (Vincke 1993), or finally, but without claiming to be exhaustive, the three-dimensional production in Lisbon before and after the 1974 Carnation Revolution (Delgado Tomás 2013). This diversity of objects and approaches does not hide the political purpose; it interferes in a transversal way, sometimes by placing itself in the foreground, sometimes in the background.

Three historical forms to make power visible

9Different historical forms of the visibility (and visuality) of power introduce the studied case. Indeed, in Montpellier, as in many other cities, the political dimension has been, in some situations, closely associated with an element of statuary or the public space that takes it in. Three modalities are described for an optimal consideration of the elements of contemporary statuary.

10The first refers to a major form of figuration of a political order in the town's space. The statue of Louis XIV on horseback was accepted in the city in 1718. It sits in the centre of the royal square of Peyrou. Mireille Lacave explains that "never before have the councillors of Montpellier testified to recognition, admiration or respect to any of their sovereigns, scholars or lords." (Lacave 1990: 6) However, it has the particularity of being located beyond the fortifications, thus it is outside the city. The hazards of the political history of France have led to its deposit: the withdrawal from the square the statue of the King, disputed, is a strong act. This statue reappears in 1838. The practices in public art were thus aimed at strengthening the unity of the country including the erection of the statue of the man embodying the people. Thus, in the collective memory, the place of Peyrou has long symbolized a highly political urban public space towards which converged Montpellier society. In this case, the didacticism of the statuary is unambiguous. This is the local translation of a masterful urban and political expression, shared nationwide, namely, the royal square and its element of statuary in central position remembering the political body of the King and the people. This statue reinforces the qualification of the public space that welcomes it.

11The installation of a statue that pays tribute to Jean Jaurès exemplifies the second modality. In 1999, following Georges Frêche's (mayor of the city, 1977-2004) decision, the replica of a bronze statue (the original statue is located in Castres) was placed in the eponymous square which, from 1922, had received a first bust of Jaurès. The vicissitudes of history made it disappear under the Vichy regime’s injunctions in 1941. Thus, the return of the image of this great man in this place in 1999 is presented as a strong political act. Jean Jaurès' memory already had another monument erected in 1964 on the Esplanade to reconnect with the pre-war profaned testimony. What happened in 1999 is important. Beyond the image of the unanimous politician, this is the decision to affirm an overtly ideological sense to the 1977 municipal elections, which is actualized through the implementation of the programme of the socialist left party coming to power. "[...] in Montpellier, during the demonstration [...] of protest against the CPE project (a draft law on the contract of first employment), the statue of Jaurès was damaged. […] the operation was not violent [...] The town council, directed since 2004 by Hélène Mandroux, had immediately stand up again the statue […] erected in 1999 on the initiative of Georges Frêche. The operation may have been orchestrated by some students of far left to protest against the renouncement of the jauresian spirit by its official successors." ("Glanes", Cahiers Jaurès 2006/1, n ° 179, 86) In this case, the power is enhanced by the attempt to legitimize the current public action by the evocation of the image of a leading political figure.

12Lastly, the Three Graces statue is another well-known element of Montpellier's statuary, associated with the major square of the city (Place de la Comédie). The image of the goddesses of antiquity has been somewhat forgotten (goddesses of charm, beauty and creativity). Discussing public monuments, Pierre Sansot considers that this statue "[...] belongs to the flatter academicism." However, he calls upon us not to neglect the role that some people (politicians) and others (the inhabitants) are likely to attribute occasionally, or even continually, to these objects. "Consequently, their real or supposed beauty does not matter if they have been adopted by the inhabitants following a discreet or permanent plebiscite. In the last instance, the power returns to ordinary men". (Sansot 1993: 55) This statue has never stopped, in communion with the Place de la Comédie, symbolizing the Languedoc regional district capital, which is therefore a part of its identity. The Three Graces are an object of a meaningless consensus but are yet always ready to publicly release the words of political leaders (the inauguration of the tramway in Montpellier, for example, by wearing its local colours), and sometimes the claims of citizens with regard to various causes (the situation of Algerian women, for example). The Three Graces raises the question of the meaning and position of any ordinary object in the town's space. The capacity of such an element of statuary to establish the urban public space, and thus to assume a political form, can find expression in the appropriation of the statue and its misrepresentation for a just cause. The third historical form to make power visible and visual reverses the logic hitherto observed, since the element of statuary is overlaid with a political dimension.

Places of deployment of a new civic imagery

13These three modalities of visibility of power introduce the case study by guiding the analysis of the elements of contemporary statuary. The three new public spaces that we decipher were first briefly addressed and then carefully observed and studied before being compared with the political history of urban planning in this city (Volle, Viala, Négrier, Bernie-Boissard 2010). Can we conceive a social imagery taking from any perspectives for the city in remote references (in both spatial and temporal terms), mythology included? Traditional civic imagery, mobilizing history, the French Republic, those who died for those ideas, does not really work anymore. As an inheritance, this imagery only becomes an element of the urban scenery because it no longer requests the memory of a population less inclined to root its existence to such symbols. The reference to the nation collapses. Grand narratives give way to the small stories of daily life for which the cultural industry is avid. However, with this new offer, political leaders must bring up-to-date this imagery and give it a social utility.

14Georges Frêche (1938-2010), historian, professor, powerful politician, authoritarian mayor, gives mission to this statuary to enlighten citizens’ everyday life (civilities) and to give meaning to the city by resituating it in history (public-spiritedness). Georges Frêche's leadership (Négrier 2001), the central aspect in the intelligibility of our analysis, mobilizes explanatory levels that refer to the "desire to lead" and his relationship to a "territorial imaginary". In this framework, references to time and space dominate in the form of "two thoughts". "The expression of a "desire for history"(Damamme 1994) proceeds by a particular selection of the moments that make sense for the leader, which put Montpellier in a long-term coherence. [...] Far from being a concession to the times, the identification with an historical imaginary is at the beginning of certain orientations in the urban action." (Négrier 2001: 73) Further: "To project politics on space is, beyond the classic references of modern political domination (Allies 1980), one of the leaders' lever." (Négrier 2001: 74) With this deciphering, which provides an explanatory framework attached to a political personality and his view, the confrontation of the sets of statues in their public spaces allows for the collection, with a form of immediacy, of indices of the desired political sense. This convincing argument is reinforced by Anne Zisman’s analysis: "Everything ties up and aims to make hybrid some symmetrical couples (history and historian, past and future, mayor and the historical destiny, concerted policy and individual initiative) bending to fuse together Georges Frêche in his own historical discourse, overshadowing the future of Montpellier in favour of his enthronement in the history of the city" (Zisman 2000: 488).

15First, let us try to understand what he intends to formulate in a new way by establishing a form of ancient anthology in Antigone (Figure 2)?

Fig. 2. Montpellier. Antigone neighbourhood. Discobolus, Victory of Samothrace in front of the Hôtel de Région, Demosthenes, Apollo, Dionysus, Diane of Versailles

Fig. 2. Montpellier. Antigone neighbourhood. Discobolus, Victory of Samothrace in front of the Hôtel de Région, Demosthenes, Apollo, Dionysus, Diane of Versailles

Source: Laurent Viala

16From Place Paul Bec, connecting the old city to the new one through the modern urban project called Polygone (1975) to the Esplanade de l'Europe, images abound. The statues (copies of ancient classics for the most part), installed in different places of the neighbourhood designed by Ricardo Bofill, the Catalan architect, in the 1980s, form a coherent whole.

17The liberating action of Demosthenes and Moses, as an expression of a kind of self-transcendence, explains away their presence near of the media library, a place where everybody can improve their knowledge for a better use of it. Both characters carry essential qualities for any political project. Knowledge and freedom seem to be put in the same category of logic. The celebration of the naval victory of Demetrius I, the city-taker (copy of the marble of the Victory of Samothrace placed in front of the Hôtel de Région district), refers to the possible links revived with the Mediterranean through the Port Marianne district (Zisman 1998). It is equally an opportunity of casting a long glance onto the contemporary city, to recall the 1977 political change, the take-over of the city by Georges Frêche and the unveiling of a major urban project.

18Not far from these first statues, a reproduction of the Discobolus and a copy of an Apollo offer a meaningful introduction to public space. The crossing of the neighbourhood, down to the river (Lez), makes the visitor aware of several qualities: beauty, perfection, the harmony of forms, movement inspired by the architecture of the place, its lighting. The walker partakes of a piece of art that questions him. Public space spurs a confusing and indeterminable knowledge emphasized a bit more by the specifics of the historicizing architecture. Between the swimming pool and the library, the Dionysian interlude transgresses the moderation introduced by the Apollonian announcement. However, Antigone combines political thought with the expression of a transient euphoria celebrating the living, the joy in living and being there with others. For a moment, the walker’s mind is released from the little chance happenings of life to give back to the body all its fullness. It is well worth noting that this place has been the stage for Tohu-Bohu, a famous electronic music festival.

19The right position of Venus and Diane evokes the place given to nature in the city: artificial nature, socialized nature, the nature of gardens or wild nature. In this place, Zeus is omnipresent: the eponymous place works as a haven for these goddesses. The political metaphor is not missing. The Victory of Samothrace announced this performance just to make us believe in the political struggle. The evocation of the supreme god pursues this assignment: it highlights the ultimate place of urban power (headquarters of the Metropolitan municipality) and echoes the Hôtel de Région, located nearby and having been the symbol of the political opposition to Georges Frêche's party. The presentation of places of power has returned. The emptiness is no longer empty; however, it dwells in ideas and bodies.

20In Antigone, the public space expresses the whole city. It tells a story to the inhabitant or the stranger, and it suggests that one live what is announced by the public space and the statues. Perhaps it is simply the asking of passers-by to believe in this possibility that is required for it to happen? This situation is an invitation to re-read Jean Baudrillard about the American city. Antigone "[...] is neither a dream nor a reality, it is hyper-reality because it is a utopia which from the beginning has been lived as a reality." (Baudrillard 1986: 57) Antigone offers something primitive, which begins. The territorial imaginary produces its first effects.

21In the second public space studied - Place de la Révolution in the Richter district - the witnesses of 1789 arrive in the form of bronze busts (Figure 3).

Fig. 3. Montpellier. Richter neighbourhood. Place de la Révolution. The busts

Fig. 3. Montpellier. Richter neighbourhood. Place de la Révolution. The busts

Source: Laurent Viala

22Additionally, images of images of French historical figures including Marat, Danton, and even Robespierre, were drawn up more recently (2009) and financed by the Metropolitan municipality; Georges Frêche was no longer the mayor of Montpellier, then the budget of the inter-municipal group was taken over from the city. On the left bank of the river, the presence of the University marks public space. Two arcs of a circle have an impact on the place; the fifteen busts take their place there, arranged on steel bases of two different heights. They are all oriented in the same direction, like a jury on the way to the Lez, in the axis of the Passerelle des Barons de Caravètes that spans the river. The buildings of the district take advantage of this opening. The busts are built around a fountain on the ground, on a part of its perimeter. In this place, and after having offered to himself an ancient pantheon, Georges Frêche once again declaims what the political order represents and what it dispenses in and by the city, at the risk of a form of general abstruseness. In Antigone, the remarkable act of neighbourhood planning, that the architectural party did not manage to popularize, requested some images. These images give rhythm to the urban public space in various strategic points and take place on the path of the inhabitant, the user, the passer-by. Here, the figure of the place is mobilized. The gathered images are set in only one spot. Although it is not a particularly significant place, the Place de la Révolution has an attractive architectural structure: square shape, the drawing on the ground, the fountain, its opening on one side towards the axis of the footbridge.

23Odysseum is the third and last place of the deployment of new civic imagery in Montpellier (Figure 4). This vast public space develops the leisure activities part on the model of the street and its shopping part is conceived as an open-air gallery. At the joint of the part combining amenities (planetarium, aquarium, ice rink, cinema) and restaurants, and the part bringing together dozens of shops, medium (Darty) and large stores (Casino, Ikea, Decatlhon), a circular space of sixty metres in diameter has been planned, called the Place du 20e siècle.

Fig. 4. Montpellier. Odysseum. Place du 20e siècle. Hélios Amphitheatre. The statues and the postcards of Ch. De Gaulle and Lenin. Sources

Fig. 4. Montpellier. Odysseum. Place du 20e siècle. Hélios Amphitheatre. The statues and the postcards of Ch. De Gaulle and Lenin. Sources

Photographs: Laurent Viala. Postcards: Montpellier Méditerranée Métropole

24In 2010 and 2012, ten monumental statues three metres high, erected by order of Georges Frêche with the help of the artist François Cacheux (1923-2011), were arranged in a circle on the last step of the amphitheatre Helios. The great Bronze Men (De Gaulle, Golda Meir, Nasser, Gandhi, Lenin and Mao, or Mandela, Churchill, Roosevelt and Jaures) rest on a base that adds to the visual impact due to the height of each statue. A small premise, building near this square is occupied by an interpretation centre. The set is named "Memoria Mundi: History through the great men." The visitor can consult several interactive screens that provide a considerable amount of information on each of these characters. Postcards are available to visitors; however, they do not represent the statues made for this public space. For the postcards, one of the first priorities is to stress the characters and their public life; one might infer that the artistic value of the statues is only of minor interest. This medium is exclusively dedicated to the diffusion of historical knowledge in the public reception area. The visitor may take portraits (photographs) of historical figures, supplied by a biography sentence: "Mao Zedong (1893-1976). Founder and President of the People's Republic of China and the Chinese Communist Party", and "Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov, aka Lenin (1870-1924), Russian politician, founder of the U.S.S.R." Considering the profile of several of the characters chosen by Georges Frêche, the decision to raise these statues in the public space was not unanimously approved. His explanations to regional press are instructive: "We are in a world that knows nothing! Lenin has never murdered anyone: he has nothing to do with Stalin. So yes, he has blood on his hands like De Gaulle has that of 30,000 Tunisians, 40,000 Malagasy. I want to create La Place du 20e siècle in Odysseum. I will put De Gaulle, Churchill, Roosevelt, Lenin, Mao Tse-Tung. These are the men who made the twentieth century: whether one’s like it or not!" (Midi Libre, 12.2.08)

The political signification of statuary in the production of the territorial imaginary

25Why do these images together have the ability to locally institute a political, social and urban order? How does this order contribute to the territorial imaginary promoted by political power? All these images (the statuary) must be interpreted from the perspective of the political history of Montpellier’s urban planning. In fact, on the one hand, the investigation of the urban public space by the studied statuary is only one aspect of a thought of the city embodied in a global intervention strategy. On the other hand, this topic concerns a decisive period of this history that corresponds to the successive mandates of Georges Frêche as mayor of the city and president of the inter-communal institution from 1977 to 2010 (District then Communauté d'agglomération, which became Métropole in 2015).

26The conditions and modalities of action of these images on the production of places that by virtue of being public shape the historical, political and social depth of the city, are examined at crossing of urban planning, of a rhetoric of metropolitan ideology and the reinvention of a civic imagery. A three-dimensional intelligibility of the historical trajectory of Montpellier emerges from the analysis. This trajectory appears as Mediterranean, revolutionary and global. These are the lessons learned from each of the three statuary groups studied.

27The first group of statues again takes the founding logic of the district of Antigone: the reassertion of the city needs the re-foundation of its Mediterranean identity. However, it refutes the historical facts because it appeals to a time before the birth of the city in 985. The ancient register, unfamiliar with the history of Montpellier, is essential. After interpretation and generalization, the statues are the index of the crucible of Mediterranean civilizations and have a high degree of iconicity, they are even "images" (reproductions) of images removed from their original context. The texts systematically provided on the base of each statue summarize the useful information: the character's name, dates relating to the character and / or the realization of the statue, its author and the museum where the original is located. These texts help reveal their iconic, indicial, and symbolic missions. These statues still represent real or mythical characters referring to the ancient Greek world in particular and, through the knowledge of their respective life-courses, bear the political principles attached to democracy, likely to nourish the project of a new political foundation. From all of this it follows that the symbolic meaning prevails over the iconic one and confirms that city and polity are two historically consubstantial ideas.

28From the time of the Consulate (13th century), the city of Montpellier has a reputation in Mediterranean region that today could be enough to establish its territorial inscription. The evocation of the antiquity dream, major episode of the universal history, comes to enhance an historical trajectory insufficiently dimensioned, also less explicit, contrary to what can be observed in neighbouring cities (Nimes, Marseille for example). Thus, it is in reverse, by the invention of an adherence to the ideals of the Mediterranean civilization, that an imaginary takes over ideologically, enhances the historical reality of the city and consolidates its territorial identity. So is the political signification we attribute to the symbolic dimension of this first group of statues.

29In the Richter neighbourhood, the images are grouped together in one place. First it must be stated that the bronze busts (all are reproductions, whose originals have, for more than a half, only one author, the sculptor Pierre-Jean David d'Angers (1788-1856)) participate in the spatial structuring of place. Their spatial arrangement in one spot and their very precise disposition form an iconic system that brings together leaders of the Revolution (Barnave, Sieyes, Bailly, La Fayette, Mrs. Roland, Chénier, Jussieu, Marat, Danton, Desmoulins, Robespierre, Couthon, Saint-Just, La Révellière-Lépeaux, Lakanal). The social and political qualities of the city resurface by the values ​​attached to this historic event: freedom, equality, fraternity. Busts explain that each one's presence in the city should be committed, in other words the qualities of citizen shall be won by citadinity. The Richter neighbourhood is a university one, suited to the reception of these images and their associated values. In Montpellier, on a slightly forced symbolic mode (the revolutionary vigour), the statuary set refers to a disposition of political mind that created Montpellier at the end of the 20th century. Georges Frêche personifies the idea of radical change, of upheaval without a spirit of conciliation, of profound transformations in a very short time. What we are mainly concerned with here is the sudden break in with a political situation, supported by a popular adherence more dreamed than sought after. Thus, by the revolutionary metaphor, the form of political action retained is, through the statuary, connoted as being not only risky but also extraordinary. The busts then appear as the index of the urgent transformation of one world into another. The first is near its limits; it cannot reproduce itself or change its ways. The second world opens new future prospects.

30Finally, the images of the third set of statues at Odysseum indicate the universal nature of the political process initiated by Georges Frêche in 1977. Indeed, what happens in this place, dedicated to mass consumption, reminds every inhabitant that anyone is caught up in a logic that connects local and global scales in a dialectical process. In this place, the visitor knows he's in Montpellier; however, his body and his mind are in a world where truly no sign anchors it to this city. He could be elsewhere. Therefore, in this place, the images of the great historical figures who have influenced in a decisive way the march of our world in the 20th century water-down this effect. In other words, the loss of landmarks in such places is not compensated but coupled with an invitation to open to the world in a way no longer undergone (at the neighbourhood scale in Odysseum) but chosen (at the scale of this place). The window on the political history of the world (the statues of great men) is an iconic staging of this type of place, but with a rather unusual goal. Indeed, this objective is not only to raise awareness and to educate for civic renewal but also, on another level, to consolidate the historical and political scope of the territory. The capacity of public authorities to articulate its local anchorage to the destiny of the world is, in this case, clearly highlighted.

31When he died in 2010, Georges Frêche took with him an entire side of the city's history. His bronze statue (Figure 5), a height of 3.2 meters, the posture in which it represents him (standing, professorial tone, although slightly smiling), its location (Odysseum), its directing (his forefinger pointing the town's future development towards the sea), attests of a gap that nothing could fill.

Fig. 5. Montpellier. Odysseum. Place d’Odysseum. Statue of G. Frêche

Fig. 5. Montpellier. Odysseum. Place d’Odysseum. Statue of G. Frêche

Source: Laurent Viala.

32The icon is nearly religious. The pilgrimage of followers, gathered in a not-for-profit club (​), delays in vain at the end of this history. What comes next has been implicitly initiated during his lifetime (he left the mayor's seat in 2004). However, it will not ensure the continuation of his work. Although installed in a roundabout (place Odysseum), in actual fact a nonplace (Augé 1992), this impressive statue would like to mark territory. Beyond the tribute to the political leader, this statue shouts once more by challenging the destiny of the city, already under this type of images' authority. Nevertheless, the statue takes the form of a will without succession. It becomes a specific local place of memory that, if it can gather Georges Frêche's followers, will also crystallize the speech of the discontented ones. The spread image is the incarnation of some idea of ​​the city, of the production of space, of its development, of the political nature of the city, and finally, metropolitan ideology at work. The statue of Georges Frêche has already been the receptacle of a citizen criticism about the policy conducted for more than thirty years. In 2010, during his lifetime, a demonstration had anticipated this announcement in the parody mode. The project of several militants of a political party already proposed, with some sense of irony, to raise a statue to this major political man (Figure 6). The real statue of Georges Frêche puts an end to the construction of this orchestrated historical path.

Fig. 6. The statue of G. Frêche: place of citizen discontent

Fig. 6. The statue of G. Frêche: place of citizen discontent

Sources: and Harmonie, 277, 2010


33In Montpellier, the images (the statues) will no longer haunt the urban public space. The statue of Georges Frêche symbolically comes to end an intense phase of 30 years of urban planning and politics in this city. This statue is similar to an ironic gesture that Georges Frêche himself could have done. The statues erected after this most recent one seem to be details.

34The historical images were introduced in an urban context, to which they do not belong, through a forced assembling, and transposed into a contemporaneousness to which a political leader wanted to make sense. In 2010, Vincent Berdoulay explained that "the force of the image comes from the narrative it allows, in and through the public space". The idea of ​​the invention of an historical path in Montpellier is apprehended in light of this narrative constructed by images. Old grand narratives (nation, homeland, republic) have evolved in favour of an urban culture locally expressed, which transcends the national scale to interfere with the global one, thus pretending not to undergo it. In this city, the new mesh size of the urban public space is the expression of the territorial personal foresight, made by a political leader, based on an historical knowledge, speaking on behalf of all and who reinvents an obsolete civic imagery by production of a social imagery supported by politics. This imagery takes part in an historical urban rhetoric.

35Our hypothesis has given up trying to understand contemporary statuary as an element of urban scenery, affirmed the possibility of its political signification and, even more, the active capacity of this. Our analysis did not explore the meaning that the author gives to his work, but it has aimed at the one underlying the political decision when it decided to put up a statue in a public space. The study of the supposed political signification of images associated with it led to a three-dimensional approach. First, a geographical basis marked the attention paid to the spatial dimension of social and therefore political matters. Second, an historical knowledge was added to this basis. It has guaranteed the right apprehension of multifarious temporal shifts. Indeed, in our corpus, reproductions of ancient statues (images of images) meet original works representing great characters of the 20th century. The basis has finally been expanded on by the very visual semiology of Charles S. Peirce. This made it possible to adapt the interpretation plan to the interest shown in the meaning of the image as part of a significant conception of space.

36In a rather simple way, urban rhetoric unfolds at first spatially by an articulation of the three public spaces studied. Then, this rhetoric considers, still in an inter-woven way, the three statuary sets associated with their spaces, and the signification they respectively take. At this stage, the socio-spatial basis of the territorial imaginary (the Mediterranean aim), the way of political change (radical), chosen to make this imaginary happen, and the historical perspective (the great history of the world), which is crucial for this imaginary's success, are successively revealed. Finally, concerning the objectives pursued and the motivations for the making of such an urban public space, three parallel meanings form the guidelines of this rhetoric.

37The first has its stakes in iconic meaning to revive and renew the links between citadinity, public-spiritedness and perhaps civility. Second meaning mobilizes the symbolic signification to express the path of the city through the realization of the political project of a type of socialist left incarnated by Georges Frêche. The third element precisely stretches the symbolic signification. Actually, it leads one to think that, by his political leadership, Georges Frêche has left some traces of his intellectual and political autobiography in urban public space. In this way, he brought his experience closer to great moments of the world universal history. Then, this urban rhetoric meets an astonishing echo in Georges Frêche's statue. Then, when citizens' discontent is re-aroused, it finds a place to express itself. Nevertheless, it must be acknowledged that, in these postmodern times, if the political king’s body (of the mayor’s body) is again in the centre (in the heart of Port Marianne district), the statue remains nonetheless erected nearby a roundabout, front door to Odysseum.

38Ultimately, questioning images in urban public space and precisely their potential effectiveness, proved to be useful. However, the case remains complex. Jérôme Baschet discusses the assessment of the "connection of conformity between the effect produced by an image and the intention which led to its realization" (in Dierkens et al., 2010: 24) and more globally that of their power, even their performativity, notably the political intention to appropriate an image. The visual mission assigned to the spatial dimension of this phenomenon appears. The visuality must be understood as "the dominant technical, spatial, visual order." (Bartholeyns 2016: 20) Its dominant character has a political basis. "These are not the aesthetic arrangements for accepting a state of the world or winning popular support; it is not the propaganda, the iconisation of great men or the overhanging palaces. This is not the "aestheticisation of politics" denounced by W. Benjamin [...]. Here, visuality is domination, and this domination is that of colonial, imperial, then military-industrial complexes. The visual history of polity as an history of law and the lack of right of scrutiny, as the production of invisibilities by one another, is therefore not neutral. Logical consequence: one cannot be for the visuality, but only for another kind of visuality able to rethink the common space.” (Bartholeyns 2016: 21-23) From all this. it follows that, faced with a deliberate act of domination in urban public space — in our case in the urban order taken up by the metropolitan affirmation of the city (dogmatic, normative, idolatrous, authoritarian) — images out of place of this order, conveying a counter visuality, would only be able to make known an urban public space that is collectively accepted because it is socially constructed. Thus, at the end of our paper, we will conclude that the contemporary statuary in Montpellier is matter for thinking "politics" for lack of being able to prove the political and ideological influence of the statuary on the public space and its users.

Top of page


Agulhon M. 1975. Imagerie civique et décor urbain dans la France du XIXe siècle. Ethnologie française (5): 33-56.

Agulhon M. 1978. La "statuomanie" et l'histoire. Ethnologie française 8(2/3): 145-172.

Agulhon M. 2003. La statue et le grand homme. Critique politique et critique esthétique. Mil neuf cent. Revue d’histoire intellectuelle 1(21): 9-19.

Arquembourg J. 2010. Des images en action. Performativité et espace public. Réseaux (5): 163-187.

Augé M. 1992. Non-lieux. Introduction à une anthropologie de la surmodernité. Paris, Seuil.

Bartholeyns G. 2016. Politiques visuelles. Dijon, Les Presses du Réel.

Baudrillard J. 1986. Amériques. Paris, Grasset

Berdet M. 2013. Fantasmagories du capital : l'invention de la ville-marchandise. Paris, Zone La Découverte.

Berdoulay V, Da Costa Gomes P. C. 2010. Image et espace public. Géographie et cultures 73 (Retrieved July 08, 2017).

Bonhomme J, Jaoul N. 2010. Grands Hommes vus d’en bas. Gradhiva 11 (Retrieved October 01, 2016).

Bredekamp H. 2015. Théorie de l'acte d'image : conférences Adorno. Francfort 2007. Paris, La découverte.

Brunet F. 2005. Théorie et politique des images : W.J.T. Mitchell et les études de visual culture. Études anglaises 1(58): 82-93.

Catellin S, Loty L. 2013. Sérendipité et indisciplinarité. Hermès (67): 32-40

Chabal E. 2014. Le president? : Georges Frêche and the making of a local notable in late twentieth-century France, in Whalen P., Young P. (ed.) Place and locality in modern France. London, New York: Bloomsbury Academic: 204-218.

Chadoin O. 2014. "Les formes informent" : le retour du symbolique dans la fabrique de la ville néolibérale. Questions de communication [En ligne], 25 | 2014, mis en ligne le 01 juillet 2016, consulté le 19 septembre 2014. URL :

Choay F. 1972. Sémiologie et urbanisme, in Choay F., Baird G., Banham R. (eds.) Le sens de la ville. Paris, Seuil: 11-30, 

Claval P. 1974. Géographie et sémiologie. Espace géographique 3(2): 113-119.

Delgado Tomás a. R. 2013. La sculpture publique à Lisbonne (1974-2012) : réalités et controverses. Zainak Cuadernos de antropología-etnografía (36): 411-425.

Dierkens A, Bartholeyns G, Golsenne T. 2009. La performance des images : actes des journées d'étude "Connaissance et reconnaissance des ressources et des recherches sur les images occidentales". Bruxelles, Éd. de l'université de Bruxelles.

Dubuisson D, Raux S. 2015. À perte de vue : les nouveaux paradigmes du visuel. Dijon, Les Presses du Réel.

Freedberg D. 1989, Le pouvoir des images, trad. Paris, G. Monfort. 1998

Ghorra-Gobin C. 2001. Réinvestir la dimension symbolique des espaces publics, in Ghorra-Gobin C. (ed.) Réinventer le sens de la ville : les espaces publics à l’heure globale. Paris, L’Harmattan: 5-13

Gumbrecht H. U. 2004. Éloge de la présence : ce qui échappe à la signification. Paris, Libella-Maren Sell. 2010.

Habermas J. 1962. L’espace public. Archéologie de la publicité comme dimension constitutive de la société bourgeoise. Paris, Payot.

Lacave M. 1990. Montpellier, la sculpture dans la ville. Marguerittes, Equinoxe

Lagnier S. 2001. Sculpture et espace urbain en France. Histoire de l’instauration d’un dialogue 1951-1992. Paris, L’Harmattan.

Latour B. 2006. Changer de société, refaire de la sociologie. Paris, La Découverte

Leja M. 2000. Peirce, Visuality, and Art. Representations (72): 97–122.

Marin L. 1993. Des pouvoirs de l'image : gloses. Paris, Seuil.

Michaud E. 2001. La construction de l'image comme matrice de l'histoire. Vingtième Siècle, revue d'histoire. (72): 41-52.

Mitchell W.J.T. 1986. Iconologie. Image, texte, idéologie. Paris, Les Prairies ordinaires. 2009.

Mitchell W.J.T. 2005. Que veulent les images ? Une critique de la culture visuelle. Dijon, Les Presses du Réel. 2014.

Monjaret A. 2012. À l’ombre des jeunes filles en pierre. Des ouvrières dans les jardins parisiens. Ethnologie française 3(42): 503-515.

Monnet J. 2007. La symbolique des lieux : pour une géographie des relations entre espace, pouvoir et identité. Cybergeo, Politique, Culture, Représentations, article 56, mis en ligne le 07 avril 1998, modifié le 03 mai 2007. URL : Consulté le 22 mars 2009.

Moxey K. 2008. Les études visuelles et le tournant iconique. Intermédialités (11): 149-168.

Négrier E. 2001. Territoire, Leadership et Société. Georges Frêche et Montpellier. Sciences de la Société 53: 63 - 87.

Pelosse V. 1995. La statuaire équestre parisienne. Interprétation des représentations d’un bestiaire (XVIIe-XXe siècles). Anthropozoologica (21): 277-282.

Peirce C. S. 1978. Écrits sur le signe. Paris, Seuil.

Prévost B. 2003. Pouvoir ou efficacité symbolique des images. L’Homme (165):275-282

Queyrel F. 2012. Sculptures grecques et lieux de mémoire : nouvelles orientations de la recherche. Perspective (1): 71-94.

Queyrel F. 2013. Les statues honorifiques entre texte et image. Pallas (93): 99-106.

Robelin Jean. 2007. La rhétorique politique des œuvres d’art. Noesis 11: 145-164.

Ruby C. 1998. Art en public ou art public ? Le débat 1(98): 49-59.

Ruby C. 2007. La réécriture du monde politique par l’art public contemporain. Conférence. Académie de Lille.

Sanson P. La redécouverte du sens des espaces de la ville. Les Annales de la recherche urbaine 85: 196-206

Sansot P. 1993. Jardins publics. Paris, Payot

Séchet R., Veschambre V. (eds.) 2006. Penser et faire la géographie sociale : contributions à une épistémologie de la géographie sociale. Rennes, Presses universitaires de Rennes.

Simay P. 2011. La sculpture controversée. Réflexions sur l'avenir d'un art public. Rue Descartes. 1(71): 66-75.

Sniter C. 2001. La guerre des statues. La statuaire publique, un enjeu de violence symbolique : l'exemple des statues de Jeanne d'Arc à Paris entre 1870 et 1914. Sociétés & représentations 1(11): 263-286.

Sniter C. 2008. La gloire des femmes célèbres. Métamorphoses et disparités de la statuaire publique parisienne de 1870 à nos jours. Sociétés et représentations 2(26): 153-170.

Verges E., 2004. L’image dans la ville ou la recherche d’un espace public dans la société de l’information. La Pensée de Midi 3(13): 142-145.

Vincke E. 1993. Discours sur le noir : images dans les espaces urbains de Bruxelles. Textyles (1): 89-90.

Volle J.-P., Viala L., Négrier E. Bernie-Boissard C. (ed.) 2010. Montpellier : la ville inventée. Marseille, Parenthèses

Zisman A. 1998. Entre histoire et histoires : naissance de la symbolique de Port Marianne, avancée méditerranéenne de Montpellier. Thèse. Doctorat. Ethnologie. G. Althabe (dir.) Paris. EHESS.

Zisman A. 2000. Le présent aboli de la construction de Port-Marianne à Montpellier. Ethnologie Française. 30(3): 487-495.

Top of page

List of illustrations

Title Fig. 1. Montpellier. Location maps. Above: Districts and public spaces. Below: Antigone neighbourhood and the statues
Credits Source: Laurent Viala, 2017
File image/jpeg, 616k
Title Fig. 2. Montpellier. Antigone neighbourhood. Discobolus, Victory of Samothrace in front of the Hôtel de Région, Demosthenes, Apollo, Dionysus, Diane of Versailles
Credits Source: Laurent Viala
File image/jpeg, 488k
Title Fig. 3. Montpellier. Richter neighbourhood. Place de la Révolution. The busts
Credits Source: Laurent Viala
File image/jpeg, 384k
Title Fig. 4. Montpellier. Odysseum. Place du 20e siècle. Hélios Amphitheatre. The statues and the postcards of Ch. De Gaulle and Lenin. Sources
Credits Photographs: Laurent Viala. Postcards: Montpellier Méditerranée Métropole
File image/jpeg, 416k
Title Fig. 5. Montpellier. Odysseum. Place d’Odysseum. Statue of G. Frêche
Credits Source: Laurent Viala.
File image/jpeg, 568k
Title Fig. 6. The statue of G. Frêche: place of citizen discontent
Credits Sources: and Harmonie, 277, 2010
File image/jpeg, 307k
Top of page


Electronic reference

Laurent Viala, « The Political Mission of Contemporary Urban Statuary. Image, History and Territorial Identity in Montpellier (France) », Articulo - Journal of Urban Research [Online], 19 | 2019, Online since 06 March 2019, connection on 14 December 2019. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/articulo.4058

Top of page

About the author

Laurent Viala

Laurent Viala is a Doctor in Geography and Planning. He teaches at Ecole Nationale Supérieure d’Architecture in Montpellier (ENSAM) and researches in the Laboratoire Innovation, Formes, Architectures, Milieux (LIFAM), where he is developing two fields. The first looks at the relationship with modernity via architectural and urban imaginaries deployed in works of fiction. The second considers the ambiguous relationship sustained by metropolitan logics and territorial enhancement in the development of large French towns. Recently published: Viala L. 2018. La "ville-tour": fiction et visée prospective. Regards croisés sur deux romans d’anticipation : I.G.H. de J. G. Ballard et Les monades urbaines de R. Silverberg. Géographie et cultures. (102): 101-120; Dousson L., Viala L. (ed.) 2016. Art, architecture, recherche. Regards croisés sur les processus de création, Montpellier, Éditions de l’Espérou. Contact:

Top of page


Creative Commons 3.0 – by-nc-nd, except for those images whose rights are reserved.

Top of page
  • Logo DOAJ - Directory of Open Access Journals
  • OpenEdition Journals