On the Cover

Friday, April 6, 2012

The nineteenth-century novelist Stendhal praised Pont-en-Royans, a pretty cliffside town along the Bourne in southeast France. Towers, hanging houses, and alpine light adorn this French travel poster from 1923, which was created to advertise the many scenic spots served by the Paris-Lyon-Méditerranée railroad. The main line of the southeast rail system connected Paris to the Côte d’Azur, and this poster invited travelers to hop off at Grenoble and make their way to the medieval river town via a newer mode of transportation, the auto.

The artist who painted this peacetime portrait of Pont-en-Royans was Charles Jean Hallo, a French artist who signed his artworks “ALO.” Hallo served in the First World War, first as an infantryman and then as a practitioner of a daring specialty, aerial photography. He finished the war as a lieutenant and soon after settled in Senlis, north of Paris. He painted both tourism and political posters between the two world wars: cathedrals like Notre-Dame de Senlis in the town where he lived, aqueducts, castles, and boats, as well as handbills harshly critical of Soviet communism and its works. In the 1920s his political output was nothing like the vista of lovely Pont-en-Royans. It included images both grisly and compelling, such as a poster that charges, “Le parti communiste est un parti d’assassins.”

But when the painter of placid Pont-en-Royans eventually encountered totalitarian terror in the flesh, it was not communist but German. During World War II Hallo became involved with the French Resistance, many of whose fighters hid themselves in the highland fastness of the Vercors while waiting to reclaim their country. The Vercors, a natural fortress, was the scene of fierce fighting in early to mid-1944, as German and collaborationist forces tried to root out the Resistance group known as the Maquis du Vercors. Fighting intensified after the June landings at Normandy. The Allies air-dropped weapons and materiel to the irregulars. General Charles de Gaulle signaled the Resistance to rise up. But the Germans countered by sending SS paratroopers to the area, suppressing the Maquis in a bloody attack, centered on the village of Vassieux, twelve miles from Pont-en-Royans, in the summer of 1944.

Hallo had begun his second war as a teacher of aerial photography. After France’s surrender he joined a Resistance group called Jade-Amicol, which gathered intelligence for the Allies. At the end of 1943, age sixty-two, he was arrested by the Gestapo. He spent four months in prison before being released for lack of evidence. In 1945 he joined up with his son, Jean, an officer in the Foreign Legion, and together they celebrated the defeat of Nazi Germany. Hallo died in 1969 in Paris, eighty-seven years old.

Today the visitor to Pont-en-Royans can walk stone streets that evoke antiquity, not the violence of the Second World War or even the religious conflicts between Protestants and Catholics that divided the town centuries earlier. A few miles away, in Vassieux-en-Vercors, are a cemetery and a memorial dedicated to the French Resistance, the cause that almost cost artist Charles Hallo his life. But in Pont-en-Royans, one of the more prominent attractions is an unusual museum devoted not to war but to something even more constant: water. The town’s Musée de l’Eau highlights conservation, biology, biography, storms, and floods, while focusing on the power of water to be “a source of life and a destructive force.”