Needless to say, steampunk is heavily influenced by Victorian aesthetics. Top or bowler hats, frock coats, London fog, and so on are unmistakable steampunk characteristics. While the steampunk community is talking wildly about places outside of Victorian England, trying to find in far lands a way to nurture the movement, we sometimes forget that steampunk is also born in the hands of people like Jules Verne, Albert Robida, and others who shared their vision of the future.
Somehow, we can say that steampunk was also born in France. But is there any French steampunk? My answer is yes, and a lot of its richness is available to people outside the Francophone world.
In France, inspiration for steampunks is not strictly limited to the Victorian era, but extends across a larger time span: from the Premier Empire (when Napoleon became emperor) to the end of the First World War (when the hopes around the almighty and all-helpful science are buried in the mud of the trenches), but mostly during the Belle Epoque (1879 – 1914).
Also, the love for steampunk in France started far earlier than when Jeter coined the name in Locus Magazine. In fact, steampunk is part of French DNA. Art has always played a great role, too. Everywhere in France, you can find bits of steam-ish pieces of art.
One of the most important French pieces of machinery-made-art is in the birthplace of Jules Verne, Nantes of western France: Les Machines de L’île. Les Machines de L’îles mixes “the invented worlds of Jules Verne, the mechanical universe of Leonardo da Vinci, and the industrial history of Nantes.” If Paris is where most steampunk fans live, Nantes is the French steampunk capital. For example, in the former shipyards lives a very curious animal, and its procession of curious creatures and visitors are welcomed by the trumpeting of a huge mechanical elephant.
The Great Elephant, made of wood and steel, towers at 12 meters high and takes visitors for an imaginary ride in the dockyards. But the place is also a haven for mechanical sea creatures gathered in a giant carousel.
I think it [French steampunk] does have proper characteristics in that I think it is operating out of an artistic tradition native to France. Not only does French steampunk descend from Jules Verne directly, but it seems also birthed by the late 19th century and early 20th century movements—Symbolism, Dada, and Surrealism.
Artists like Futuravapeur with his Dadaist approach, Sam Van Olffen and his graphic sampling, and Maurice Grunbaum who recycles bits and pieces to make flamboyant costumes, are examples of the finest in French steampunk art.
Futuravapeur is a prop maker for television but also the father of Les Historiettes de Maurice Sandalette, a series of funny daguerrotype-novels about an adventurer with very French manners. A couple of these fiction works are available in English. Production on the series has stopped (for the moment), as Futuravapeur now dedicates his time to making unique props for decoration or interactive exhibits.
Maurice Grunbaum walks a very unique path of creation and multiculturalism that blends steampunk, dieselpunk, and a post-apocalyptic universe. Every piece of junk that crosses his path is turned into a costume. Multiculturalism is not a vain word for him; he likes to build links between genres and cultures. This motto make his costumes unique, and nothing can be compared to them. His work has been featured in magazines and exhibitions, like the Futur Antérieur exhibition at Agnès B’s Galerie du jour.
Sam Van Olffen, a graphic sampler, mixes and matches heterogenous pictures from his travels and city roamings. The result is large collages of cities or steamy landscapes, characters donning gas-masks, violence and quiet. Van Olffen seems to channel his art and not just create it, and each of his collages seems like a living creature and not just a world. (See his interview from Gothic Beauty magazine for more.) His work gathers a lot of the retrofuturistic characteristics of steampunk. The wise can find pieces of their own cities in his canvas. Sam Van Olffen is the artist behind the official exhibition poster of the very first steampunk exhibition in Oxford, England.
But unfortunately these artists do not cross our borders a lot.
One of the major internationally-known French artists, however, is Jacques Tardi. His name is less famous than his work, the big budget movie Adele, which is an adaptation of his comic book series The Adventures of Adele Blanc-Sec. Adele is set in post-World War I Paris and portrays the investigations of the young independent female character Adele Blanc-Sec. The first issue was published in 1976 and is rather light-hearted. Little by little, Tardi started to introduce steampunk elements into his series (submarines, mad scientists, even an octopus) as the tone of the series became darker.
Though not strictly steampunk, Tardi is a direct inheritor of Jules Verne, particularly with The Arctic Marauder (le démon des glaces), which copies the style of Verne’s engravings and imitates his stories about scientists gone wrong. This comic has a strange 20,000 Leagues under the Sea feeling and is a must-read.
There are a lot of publications under the steampunk label in France, mostly graphic novels.
If you read any French, you must try to lay your hands on the awesome series of graphic novels Hauteville House or Le Réseau Bombyce. You have to read La Lune Seule le sait by Johan Héliot (Jules Verne goes to the moon to rescue a French activist from a lunar prison) or Boheme by Mathieu Gaborit (steampunk set in Eastern Europe where a sea of acid covers the land).
Luckily, if you can’t read French, a couple of books are now available in English: Xavier Mauméjean’s The League of Heroes (the adventures of the mighty Lord Kraven to protect the Empire of Albion) and Fabrice Colin’s The Chimerical Brigade (like The League of Extraordinary Gentleman except with our popular heroes, like Marie Curie). Both of them are a good introduction for the steampunk readers.
Les Vaporistes on the web:
A quick tour of France would not be complete without the communities and the aethernet.
French steamers—or Vaporistes as they call themselves—are a rather heterogeneous community with an ability to gather together for events like picnics under the Tour Eiffel. Although around 60% of the French steamers live in the Paris area, communities are sprouting everywhere else, like the Breizh Steampunk Society in Brittany or Rêves Temporels in the southeast of France. Once a year the Steam Tour, a series of events in every city with an honorable number of French fans of steampunk, takes place.
On the aethernet, there are two major sources of information for the steampunk community in France. The most important online community is definitely the steampunk.fr forum, which can be compared to the Brassgoggles forum. The platform is the major point of socialization for any “vaporiste.” Around 2000 steamers are connected, and even though the interest is mainly French-centered, steamers from all around the French-speaking world are in touch with that major and pre-dominant source of information.
The other eminent website of the French community is french-steampunk.fr. Centered on the cultural aspect of steampunk available in French, the website posts critical articles, and reviews of books, movies, art shows, and games.
There are obviously many other books, artists, and pieces of art from our vibrant community. The major thing you have to keep in mind when you come across steampunk art in France, thought, is that it is not obviously “steampunk art,” just “French art.” The French hate labels.
Arthur Morgan is a French steampunk enthousiast. Editor-in-chief for french-steampunk.fr, he has contributed to various publications in France and abroad (including the Steampunk Bible). He blogs in french (so far) at http://vapeurbrouillon.wordpress.com/.