The Canal du Rhône au Rhin: Mulhouse, the Art of the City

A La Poste box enhanced by the Parisian artist C215.

Mulhouse is full of art. Like most medium-sized cities in France, Mulhouse has numerous private galleries and a decent musée des beaux-arts or fine arts museum. But city’s artworks are not only contained merely within the walls of its museums and galleries. Mulhouse’s expected indoor art has less anticipated outdoor cousins. Throughout the city there are numerous well-crafted pieces of public and street art, a distinction that can blur, which appears when least expected. It’s a lure that encourages exploration of the city.

Some of Mulhouse’s best street art works were created by the Parisian artist C215. We had noticed some of C215’s work on post office boxes in passing. But we really only started to pay close attention when we spotted a promotion in the Mulhouse tourist office’s “Top ten: the must see” list. The tourist office informed us that 21 La Poste boxes in Mulhouse have been decorated by C215. It was enough to kept us on the lookout for the C215 boxes as we moved through the city.

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Some consider C215 to be the French answer to Banksy. But given that the mailbox canvases C215 has decorated in Mulhouse weren’t immediately stolen it might not be that close of a comparison. Nonetheless, whether C215 qualifies as the French Banksy or not, the decorated mailboxes are worth seeking out.

Indeed, the city’s residents celebrate Mulhouse’s C215 mailboxes, as we discovered while taking a picture of one. As I was kneeling down framing a photograph of the art on the side of one mailbox a middle-aged man approached to tell us that the art on the side of the box was created by C215. At least we are pretty sure that what we was saying: Our French isn’t that good. Nevertheless you know you’ve made it as a street artist when a middle-aged man makes a point of telling the tourists that the street art they are looking at is important.  

Another search for outside art had us walking Mulhouse’s streets hunting down street signs modified by another French artist, Clet Abraham, whose works are also mentioned by the Tourist Office. Abraham alters road signs with oft amusing stickers. These may drive some city councils mad but they do always bring a smile to my face, no matter what city we’ve seen them in.

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The density of Abraham’s traffic sign sticker art seems particularly high in Mulhouse’s center. I’d like to think the city’s over abundance of “Do Not Enter” signs, a favored canvas for Abraham, might have been an inspiration. In reality it is more likely their presence is a consequence of the artist recently having been in town for an art exhibition.

Another genre of street art we saw in Mulhouse is yarn bombing. In truth I’m typically not a big fan of yarn bombing. Sometimes it seems just an excuse to knit an afghan around a lamppost; it’s great for the person who likes to crochet but not necessarily for the viewer. But the work we saw in Mulhouse is very creative. It might well have changed my mind.

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We did of course visit Mulhouse’s Musée des Beaux-Arts. The museum was hard for us to miss, as it was only 450 meters from Wanderlust in the port de plaisance. We literally walked past the museums front door nearly every day as we headed into the city’s center.

Mulhouse’s museum reminded me that the art in this area of Europe was at significant risk of being stolen not too long ago. The risk came from one man, a man some consider the world’s greatest art thief, Stéphane Breitwieser.

Underemployed Breitwieser lived just 25 miles from Mulhouse in Colmar. He worked mostly as a waiter, but his passion was something entirely different, stealing art. Over a period of years Breitwieser stole artworks from nearly 200 museums. In the process he amassed an assembly of treasures valued at more than $1.4 billion. That’s “billion” with a “B”, if you weren’t reading closely.

“La dispute” by Étienne Dinet

Another work inside Mulhouse’s Musée des Beaux-Arts

Breitwieser’s preferred targets were smaller, less secure museums, much like Mulhouse’s fine arts museum. Thus it is quite possible Breitwieser’s shoes once touched the creaky floors of the city’s beaux-arts museum and that he too gazed at “La dispute”, a painting created by Étienne Dinet in 1904. In our case we admired the painting for its power and emotion. In Breitwieser’s case he might have paused in front of it to consider whether or not to steal it. In the end I gather “La dispute” did not reach Breitwieser’s snatch-worthy standard. It’s a good thing as it meant Dinet’s painting was there to be seen when we visited.

Breitwieser did not steal art for financial gain, at least at first. He was a collector, of sorts, who kept his stash in his bedroom at his mother’s house in Mulhouse. His mother did not realize that her son’s extensive art collection, which she thought was a bunch of junk, was stolen. Waiters make decent money in France, but still there’s clearly some serious willful denial by Breitwieser’s mom about her largely unemployed son’s billion-dollar art collection.

Things changed when Breitwieser’s mother learned that her son had been arrested for art theft in Switzerland a second time. (His first offense there landed him an eight month suspended sentence.) At the time of his arrest Breitwieser’s accomplice girlfriend escaped apprehension and fled back to Mulhouse. Reaching Mulhouse she explained the situation to his mother. Together they moved into action and set about destroying her son’s extensive art collection. Some of the pieces were burnt, others were put down the garbage disposal, and still others were disposed of in the Rhône-Rhine Canal, undoubtedly in a place that Wanderlust had cruised past.  

Breitwieser was convicted of his crimes, spending 26 months in prison on a sentence shortened from three years. He wrote an autobiography describing his exploits, Confessions d’un Voleur d’art (“Confessions of an Art Thief”), which was published in 2006.

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Normally you’d think a public confession by the way of an autobiographical book would signal a change in paths, but that did not prove to true for Breitweiser. Indeed, in April of 2011 the police discovered 30 more stolen works during a house search. This landed Breitwieser another three-year prison sentence in 2013. When he was released from jail in 2016 he was sensibly kept under surveillance. The watching led to Breitwieser’s subsequent arrest in February 2019, not long before we visited Mulhouse. The man could simply can not kept himself from stealing art.

It might have been easier for Breitwieser if he had focused instead on collecting street art. It’s more accessible. Not that I’m encouraging him, or anyone else for that matter. It would be a shame if it disappeared soon after it is created. Besides, Mulhouse undoubtedly would be annoyed if it lost a bunch of its mailboxes because someone admired the C215 artwork on the sides.

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