Chantal Akerman, “Dis Moi.” Courtesy Marian Goodman Gallery.
By Paul Ben-Itzak
Text copyright 2018, 2019 Paul Ben-Itzak, (Except translated citation, copyright Editions de l’éclat)
First published on our sister publication the Maison de Traduction in 2018 and revised today. Chantal Akerman killed herself on October 5, 2015. Unfortunately, the intellectual level of the discourse at the middle-brow Radio France chain France Culture has only deteriorated since this piece was first published. The daily book program has now been changed to an ‘oeuvre’ emission, focusing its opening week on Stanley Kubrick. Most of the authors producer Guillaume Erner interviewed and promoted during the drive-time program’s first weeks were fellow France Culture animators. By far the chain’s most erudite program, Questions d’Islam, is broadcast at 7 a.m. Sunday morning — when some of the people who most need to hear it are likely to be sleeping it off. And a new Sunday show, Sign of the Times, devoted more time to discussing the “Caca Club” a recent guest belonged to 30 years ago than the actual book which was the show’s putative subject; when the program’s other guest, a (female) literary critic, finally managed to get a word in edgewise to talk about the ‘oeuvre’ in question, the (like the author, male) host cut her off after 30 seconds with: “We don’t want to do a conference here.” Signs of the times indeed. (What does this rant have to do with Chantal Akerman, besides as indicated below? Unlike these programs, like the true intellectual and artist she was, Akerman never spoon-fed her public answers and meaning in pre-masticated mental baby food. Why are we running this piece again — albeit with revisions? Because it’s important to continue to hear the voices of the heretics.)
“Leave your stepping stones behind you, something calls to you.
Forget the dead you’ve left they will not follow you….
Strike another match, let’s start anew.
And it’s all over now, Baby Blue.”
– Bob Dylan, as interpreted by Joan Baez
Droll, colorful, imaginative, incisive, complex without being complicated, erudite without being aloof, humble before the oeuvre and authoritative in the aesthetic background she applies to analyzing it, curious — in effect, the art professor of your dreams, and who confirms, in the best tradition of Clement Greenberg, Edwin Denby, Michel Ragon, and Phillip Larkin that criticism can be its own art form – Corinne Rondeau not only knows her material but knows how to sell her arguments. On Radio France’s nightly critical round-table La Dispute, the rhetorical perambulations, pirouettes, and sautées I look forward to following the most are Rondeau’s. So when I heard that Editions de l’éclat had published a 125-page essay by my critical chou-chou on on one of my cinematic super-cheries, the late Chantal Akerman, I couldn’t wait to turn off my radio and sink my mandibles into something that instead of feeding my anxieties — these days Radio France might as well be called Radio MIT (all Muslims, Immigrants, and Terrorism, all the time) — promised to stimulate my intellect and my appetite for art.
As brain food, “Chantal Akerman passer la nuit” exceeds my expectations. Whether the author succeeds in fulfilling her announced intention, heralded in a cover citation from the filmmaker*, to analyze Akerman’s achievement not through the prism of biography but on its own merits, is another question.
Chantal Akerman. Courrtesy Cinematheque Française.
Since her October 5, 2015 suicide in a lonely Paris hotel room at the age of 65, which capped a 47-year career of creating films and installations that traverse fiction and documentary and transgress many other frontiers of form, sexuality, sentiment, genre, religion, race, nationality, economics, and cartography, Chantal Akerman seems to have become a cipher, with many of those who survived her (acolytes, colleagues, critics) seeing in her work and/or life (and chosen manner of dying) the manifestation of our own predicament or station (relative to mainstream society and its mores) or proof of our own theorems. In my own case, I decided that Akerman’s suicide was a response to an indifferent mainstream media, welding her desperate act to that particular chip on my own shoulder, and/or the pained reaction of the child of a Holocaust survivor to seeing Jewish schools in her Belleville neighborhood (once predominantly Jewish) in 2015 — 70 years after the Deportation of 74,000 French and foreign Jews including 11,000 children, a scant 3,000 of whom returned from the camps — guarded by armed soldiers. An emerging female filmmaker who wrote to me after my first piece on Akerman’s work and death appeared on the Arts Voyager (reprised here), seemed to identify with what she perceived as Akerman’s outsider alienation. A short movie the young woman made inspired by the Belgian-born director even aped Akerman’s sensibility and included a reference to the exploding oven of Akerman’s first film. For a while, images of the filmmaker took over the top of my correspondent’s Facebook page. Another young female cineaste I met at the after-party for a performance at the Theatre de la Ville – Sarah Bernhardt in Paris shortly after the November 13 massacres of 130 civilians wondered whether Akerman’s suicide was prompted by a premonition of the attacks; she didn’t want to be around to witness them. More broadly, some journalists mused that it was not uncommon for either children of Holocaust survivors or a child whose parent had just died, both facts true for Akerman, to choose to end their lives. (When they speculated on Akerman’s suicide at all; ingrained French respect for the privacy of this choice — not atypical in a country without a right-to-die law — often trumped instinctive journalistic rapacity in the limited coverage of her death.) And of course the theme had popped up in her films, from the endearingly cloying debut short “Saute ma Ville,” produced in 1968, not long after she caught a screening at Jonas Mekas’s Anthology Film Archives of Godard’s “Pierrot le fou” (which ends with Jean-Paul Belmondo lighting the fuse of a head-dress of dynamite, a conclusion echoed in Akerman’s film, starring her), to “Letters Home,” the staged recitation of an exchange of letters between Sylvia Plath and her mother (enacted by Delphine Seyrig and her daughter).
Chantal Akerman in her 1968 directorial debut, “Saute ma Ville.” All rights reserved and courtesy Cinematheque Française, where the film screens February 17 at 5 p.m., on a program with “Le Déménagement” and “La Chambre” as part of a month-long retrospective.
Without questioning her sincere, considered, and critically informed admiration for the oeuvre itself, after having attempted to masticate “Chantal Akerman passer la nuit,” I can’t help but reflect that in at least one minor and one major way, Rondeau seems to have followed the same tendency as the rest of us. Her vision of the work often seems to be directed by her own theories and aesthetic pre-occupations, and not vice-versa — at least as far as I can see from the paucity (or opacity) of some of the celluloid evidence cited to support her arguments. As opposed to her radio perambulations, in which Rondeau tries to decipher what an artist is trying to say and then explains in lucid, brilliant, and down-to-earth terms how well an exhibition does or doesn’t reveal the artist’s modus vivendi, here she sometimes seems to be trying to accommodate Akerman’s films to a theme of her own predilection: Night. (Or at least doesn’t always clearly explain the basis for her conclusion that it’s a central preoccupation for Akerman.) And whereas in her aural expositories I feel like I’m standing next to Rondeau in a museum or gallery, riveted to an oeuvre I’m seeing through her eyes, here she sometimes leaves me idling at the entrance without the door code.
Chantal Akerman, “La Chambre.” Copyright Chantal Akerman.
First, let’s get to the Jewish thing.
After announcing — with that citation* from the artist on the front cover — that it would be a mistake to look for clues to understanding Akerman in her biography and that one should “look elsewhere,” Rondeau appears to ignore her own advice by exploring the most obvious aspect of Akerman’s personal story: That she’s Jewish and the child of a Holocaust survivor. Thus she sprinkles a very brief book with more tantalizing citations of Jewish philosophers than I’ve come across in France in two decades: Vladimir Jankélévitch, Walter Benjamin, Maurice Blanchot – even Gershom Scholem, who proved to be my downfall in Martha Himmelfarb’s Judaism in the Greco-Roman World class my first freshman year at Princeton …. Not that I’m kvetching about discovering or re-discovering them! In a French societal context in which Jews are often perceived through negative prisms (targets of anti-Semitism, vicitms of the Shoah/Holocaust/Deportation, presumed loyalty to Israel no matter how grave its war crimes and crimes against humanity, controlling all the banks, Christ killers) or positive stereotypes that are just as racialist as the negative ones (if I hear Radio France refer once more to the particular vision of “Jewish American” writers, I’m going to choke on my Gefilte Fish) — in this general ambiance which circumscribes “Jewish identity” to these limited dimensions, it’s restorative to be reminded of a legacy which, immersed in Chaim Potok’s “The Chosen” and “The Promise” on a cross-country family trip in high school, once inspired me to ask my grandpa to arrange a belated bris (the non-medical, Jewish name-bestowing part) and Cliff’s Notes bar-mitzvah once we reached Miami: The value Jews have always placed on scholarship and books, with an intellectual firmament delineated not by blind doctrinal adherence to the Word but by innate curiosity and the spirit of Talmudic debate, not reserved to discussions of Halacha but stretching into lay terrain. (Not a value exclusive to Jews; in Emile Ajar/Romain Gary’s 1975 novel “All of life before you,” an elderly French-Arab Belleville resident befriended by the pre-adolescent narrator clings to the Koran with one hand, “Monsieur Hugo” with the other, as the last ramparts against encroaching senility.) So I thank Rondeau for reminding me that this is also part of my inheritance; if I can’t defend Israel, I can still take pride in Scholem’s comment (I’m older now and more perceptive, if not more wiser), cited by Rondeau, about the importance of “transmitting the things which are without name.” (A precept which certainly drove Akerman.) If Benjamin and Jankélévitch have been cited in other discourses here in France, even on middle-brow France Culture radio (notably by the philosopher Michel Onfray), it has rarely been in a Jewish context. (And with Jewish delis, bookstores, and bakeries being supplanted by national clothing chains on the rue des Rosiers in the heart of the Marais — Goldberg’s is gone, so forget about finding kischka in Paris — there’s no longer even a local equivalent of Williamsburg to remind me of these positive aspects of my roots.)
So I don’t begrudge Rondeau the references. It just seems to me that she wants to have it both ways: on the one hand, to be able to claim that unlike the rest of us, she’ll be the one to finally analyze Akerman on the basis of her work and not her identity and on the other to be able to liberally cull from Jewish philosophers whose thinking illuminates Akerman’s work.
Delphine Seyrig in “Jeanne Dielman, 23, rue de Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, ” 1975. Chantal Akerman. Copyright Janus Films and courtesy Cinematheque Française, where the film screens February 18 at 2:30 p.m., with Sami Frey’s ‘Making of” documentary screening February 25 at 5:45 p.m.
More problematic than this contradiction is that elsewhere in the book, the film excerpts that Rondeau cites to support her thesis are often fleeting, ephemeral, gossamer images devoid of any narrative framework or references. It’s as if she’s writing for a narrow coterie of colleagues – the Chantal clique — who have already seen all the films in question, so that she feels she can dispense with even an elementary plot description. (The book is dedicated to Akerman’s longtime collaborator Claire Atherton.) And yet even the most expert of critics usually doesn’t assume the reader has already seen the work s/he’s writing about. When I discovered Denby – half a century after the epoch he was writing about — it didn’t matter that I hadn’t seen the performances nor even most of the ballets he was responding to; I was enraptured — he and other critics I read at the time (notably Marcia B. Siegel) helped me fall in love with dance and determined me to write about it. Rondeau’s radio commentaries have a similar effect on me. It doesn’t matter if I haven’t seen the exhibitions she’s discussing; her regard is so precisely brilliant that it’s almost better seeing them through her eyes. If a written commentary can certainly be more sophisticated and philosophically dense (without being opaque), than radio chatter, it shouldn’t be at the expense of clarity, which is often the case here. I sometimes feel like I’m lost in the middle of a rhetorical swamp (and not one as colorfully perilous as Renoir’s in his Louisiana swamp film) without a map. (Even Godard, who doesn’t always deign to include even a summary plot description in his Cahiers du Cinema critiques because his concerns are more profound and technical, still leaves me with a clear sense of where both he and the film are going, even if I haven’t seen the work; in fact he makes me want to.**) And I’m no piker when it comes to Akermania. What Rondeau may not realize is that outside of Paris and New York (and maybe Chicago, where she shows up in a course on Time at the School of the Art Institute), the films of Chantal Akerman are so rarely projected that more narrative context would have been in order. (Most of the friends I’ve told about her, including culturally literate intellectuals, even in France, have never heard of Chantal Akerman. When “Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles” was broadcast on TCM, it was from midnight to four in the morning. I found Akerman’s chef d’oeuvre in a library in East Fort Worth, Texas graced with a particularly curious librarian. But if I knew to look for her, it was because I’d been able to catch the 2004 Akerman retrospective at the Centre Pompidou in Paris.***)
“Almayer’s Folly,” 2011. Chantal Akerman, all rights reserved. Courtesy Cinematheque Française, screening the film February 12 at 9 p.m. and 22 at 9:30.
I’ve considered whether it might be my perception – my own lack of theoretical background — and not Rondeau’s logic which is too dense; whether her thinking might just be too complex for me to follow. Because translating an author usually forces me to fathom her meaning in French so that I can do justice to it in English, I decided to try this for the section of “Chantal Akerman passer la nuit” in which Rondeau zooms in on her uber-theme — “the night Akermanian” — as she believes it to be manifest in “Almayer’s Folly,” a 2011 adaptation of the Joseph Conrad novel. (I’ve respected the original’s structure in not breaking one long paragraph.)
“But confronted with ‘Almayer’s Folly,'” Rondeau begins on page 96, “it’s the spectator who must let go of everything he knows about [Akerman]. She forces him to not recognize her. It’s the climactic moment of her own treason, which is the absolute love for a body of work that we think we know by heart, of which we’ve already made the tour of the grounds, guided by its residents. But Akerman goes further. With the night of ‘Almayer’s Folly,’ she doesn’t stop saying, without saying: take it to the limit like one lives, nothing less — let yourself be carried away. Then we enter into the night as in a film in which we don’t understand anything, which mixes up time, putting the befores after the afters, not by disorder intended to destroy any and all continuity, but to thwart the slightest hope of putting any order in the grand upheaval of the night, of a life which offers moments of crazy beauty. A beauty we don’t recognize, because beauty is recognizable by that which we don’t recognize in ourselves, the great stranger who sweeps up everything, to whom we grant for no reason, without reticence, all our care to abandon. There’s no beauty without hearing the call: abandon yourself. Yes it’s folly, but ‘folly’ is also love’s other name. Abandon all causalities, chronological order, and assure the disorder — in other words, [engage in] hospitality: Make space for that which doesn’t have space, for that which we don’t recognize. Make space even when one doesn’t have space oneself; learn to displace oneself in the interior of one’s home, in the interior of one’s solitude as well, because the solitude is not solitude, it’s the power of the many. Open oneself to a film in which it’s useless to try to resolve the leaps in time, the chiasms. Ever since ‘Saute ma ville,’ we know that the story happens also in the ellipses, but we never know what remains in the ellipsis. It depends at times on the silence of an explanation, not to hide it, but because that’s how it is and that’s all. To love in order to welcome the disorder of life as it is; why put it all in order at the end, why do we all give ourselves the illusion of order at the end? Yet we don’t know the end until the end of the story, at the moment when we’ve already departed. This is why we have passeurs [those who transmit us from one bank to the other, like the ferryman], rather than connoisseurs, not to restore order in the space of those who have departed, but rather to accept that which we don’t understand about their departure [Akerman’s decision to kill herself comes to mind], to make a place for that which remains without response — the reason that it’s useful to make, to create space rather than a space. What we find is right there before our eyes, and what we sense is that it’s futile to exceed what’s given: beauty and strangeness, such is ‘Almayer’s Folly.’ It’s no longer a visage nor a landscape with which we’re confronted. We find ourselves in front of a night equal to those rivers which flow down to the sea: the intensities of the night, tempest, storm, wind, the reflection of the moon — what remains of the day when the Sun is behind us, when the soil displays our shadow, disrupting the course of the water, the course of time which a violent flurry can reverse. Night creates its place out of that which we discard, if only we let ourselves be swept away by its currents. Grand nocturne of relentless sonic sensations: the buzz of flies, the chirping of crickets, the diluvium rain which batters the water’s surface, the tremor of the rivulets in the wake of an embarcation, Dean Martin’s ‘Sway,’ Mozart’s ‘Ave Verum,’ the prelude to ‘Tristan and Iseault’ in constant replay. Relentless visual sensations as well: the blue and pink aurora of the morning and the black eyes of a disturbing, immobile, statuesque woman of a melancholy beauty, the trace of the moon’s reflection which in the storm scrambles sight, the colored reflections from the lights of a ship which sails past without stopping, the reeds which bend in passing bodies in the jungle, stirred up by the wind which carries away all reason, screams, and the branch which shoots up from the water like the arm of a drowning man that one catches sight of twice, and that continues to float for how much time afterwards.
“Grand nocturne which only displaces that which we leave behind, which we must also refuse in order not to be enchained, ‘Almayer’s Folly’ is an immense film about the unbridled nature of night.”
And a bit later:
“Because memory can’t exist unless it follows forgetting. ‘Almayer’s Folly’ creates a space for forgetting so that memory can emerge from that which forgetting takes from disappearance. There’s the memory impossible to forget; now comes the forgetting impossible not to leave, because without forgetting, there’s no memory. And if we forget the Night Akermanian, all memory is sacrificed, as well as its call: Let go. One also needs time, a relatively long time, to let go.”
After translating this elegiac rhapsody, and then reading the translation several times, it’s not only clear to me that Rondeau loves Akerman, but that the critic maintains a visceral attachment to the filmmaker that few of us – even we critics censé d’etre sur-doué avec des pouvoirs de perception super-human — can aspire to, with any of our creator subjects. And that – justement – goes beyond a simple grasp of the stories Akerman is recounting (and re-recounting), and even any uber story, to lassoe, however tenuously (like a cowboy trying to get ahold of and pin down a heifer who’s hide has been greased) the metaphysical meaning and potential resonances of Akerman’s oeuvre. And which has helped her to find in “Almayer’s Folly” a key to understanding the place cinema occupies as preservational amber. “Grand nocturne which only displaces that which we leave behind, which we must also refuse in order not to be enchained” – a decree Rondeau brilliantly supports by evoking the film’s sequence of the uprooted tree branch which weaves in and out of Almayer’s view as it recedes down the river — might apply to the art form more broadly and its relation to memory and how it (mis)informs our regard towards the past. (And even beyond the realm of cinema: “Leave your stepping stones behind you, something calls to you. / Forget the dead you’ve left they will not follow you…./ Strike another match, let’s start anew. /And it’s all over now, Baby Blue.” – Bob Dylan, as interpreted by Joan Baez.) I even find a cautionary alert about my own nostalgic tendancies, often goaded by cinematic evocations of epochs I never lived (in particular the late 1940s and the 1950s, a passion albeit tempered lately by the acquisition in a Left Bank bookstore of I.F. Stone’s “The Haunted Fifties”; Ike may have been liked but he let McCarthy get away with murder).
“De l’autre côté,” Chantal Akerman, copyright 2001. Courtesy Cinematheque française, where the documentary screens March 1 at 7:30 p.m., on a mixed program with “Les années ‘80” and “Histoires d’Amérique.”
As if to confirm my impression that elsewhere Rondeau sometimes loses something, clarity-wise, when she passes from spoken word to the printed page, the clearest section of the book is the one based on a previous discourse, perhaps initially delivered out loud in English, as it was Rondeau’s contribution to Westminster University’s November 2016 colloquium “After Chantal” (note the exclusive employment of the first name — another indication of cipherdom). Here her theme relies on another film I’ve not seen (see above regarding the rarity of Akerman projections outside of Paris and New York), the 2000 “De l’autre côté,” but unlike with “Almayer’s Folly,” this time Rondeau’s theme — riffing on the film’s subject of frontiers and border crossings, here between Mexico and the United States — doesn’t elude me. It’s as though the prospect of delivering her thesis directly to an audience (and an Anglophone audience at that) forced the author to be more lucid, as in her radio commentaries. Even in the part of her analyses focusing on a more ephemeral installation which complemented the film, “Une voix dans le dessert,” and which involved “putting a screen on the frontier between the United States and Mexico.” (Here’s an alternative idea for Donald Trump. Or perhaps a mirror would be more appropriate in this case.) This time Rondeau does a better job of connecting the scenarios of the oeuvres in question with her theme of night, the night which can cloak the passage of the clandestine, the night in which a woman can get lost without leaving a trace (except her bones, as has discovered another artist who’s made it his mission to track migrants’ skeletons in the Sonora desert of Arizona so he can put up memorials to the thousands who have perished there), the night which frightens with its opacity, the night whose monochromatic canvas can also be evoked by the vast white sands of the dunes, the frontier between night and day evoked by the border and its barriers, the night which confounds nationalities, the night in which different nationals can exist simultaneously in multiple dimensions and articulated in different fashions (Rondeau refers to narrations delivered in different languages by Akerman) and through different mediums. And thus has better narrative footing for discussing Akerman, who constantly crossed and transgressed frontiers and borders in a multitude of manners.
When it comes to Akerman films I actually have seen that she discusses, Rondeau bats about .333. (In baseball terms, nothing to be ashamed of; Ted Williams territory, if you’ll forgive the side tribute to Jonathan Schwartz, the NYC institution who is Williams’s most consistent fan and another of my radio heroes.) She backs up her observation about the 1999 “Sud”‘s concern with traces (of the past and future) by describing Akerman shooting, from the back of a pick-up truck, the asphalt trajectory of and markings left by James Byrd, Jr. as he was dragged to death from the back of another truck. (What I remember most about catching the film at the 2004 Akerman retrospective at the Centre Georges Pompidou is my American date’s observation, on seeing one of the young white trash subjects: “I know that guy,” meaning she recognized the type.)
Juliette Binoche in “Un divan a New York,” 1995. Chantal Akerman, all rights reserved. Courtesy Cinematheque Française, where the film screens February 16 at 7|:30 p.m. and February 19 at 5 p.m..
At the Centre Pompidou’s 2004 Akerman retrospective, I had the opportunity to exchange with the filmmaker following a screening of the French-language version of the romantic comedy “Un divan a New York,” in which Park Avenue psychiatrist William Hurt exchanges apartments with Belleville dancer Juliette Binoche, with both hilarity and havoc ensuing, as Hurt’s patients find Binoche a much more effective shrink while his Paris adventure is sabotaged by ongoing construction on Binoche’s digs. (I could relate; living in Belleville in 2015, from my window I saw, and heard, the spectacle of a team of city workers taking down a whole apartment building and two cherry trees so they could replace it with another.) Having also seen the English language version of the film at Jonas Mekas’s Anthology Film Archives (where Akerman had her big bang upon seeing Godard’s “Pierrot le fou”), I just couldn’t wait to have her thank me when I stood up during the Q&A to declare how much I loved her movie. “I hated it,” she essentially responded; as I recall, mainly because it was a (rare) commercial commission and because of the demands of one of the stars.
So when Rondeau chides fellow Akerman acolytes who dismiss “Un divan a New York” for not being consistent with the rest of Akerman’s oeuvre, she’s ignoring that the filmmaker herself considered it the black sheep of her family of films.
As Akerman herself is no longer around to dialogue with, it would have been nice if for its retrospective on her running through March 2, the Cinematheque Française would have invited someone who relates to her work on a deeper level than any other critic: Corinne Rondeau. Astoundingly, Rondeau was not among the speakers invited to introduce or debate Akerman’s oeuvre during the retrospective. When asked why, a Cinematheque spokesperson told me, incredibly, “her very fine book came out last October.” In other words, never mind the level of scholarship, authority, expertise, passionate devotion, emotional implication and investment, and erudition — in the limited scope of those running the Cinematheque these days, if it came out earlier than tomorrow it’s suddenly irrelevant. This from a *cinematheque*, where archival interests should prime.
Oh look! It’s Wednesday evening — when La Dispute focuses on the plastic arts, Corinne Rondeau’s fiefdom. At least I can look forward to my radio day terminating with more original stimulation than that with which it began (when a France Culture morning program theme announced as “a look at changing jurisprudence” fatally degenerated into yet another discussion of terrorism and jihadists). For this intellectual stimulation — justement for giving me matter to chew on that I don’t always understand — I thank the gods of cinema for Chantal Akerman, and even France Culture for exposing me to the exalting perspective and way of thinking of Corinne Rondeau.
*”No, no, certainly not…. I don’t believe one should look to autobiography [for clues], it puts you in a box,” a manner to say [Rondeau adds in the cover citation]: perhaps look elsewhere.
** “Jean-Luc Godard par Jean-Luc Godard,” Collection Cahiers du Cinema, Editions Pierre Belfond, 1968.
***If you don’t want to wait until the next time TCM broadcasts “Jeanne Dielman” at an hour you won’t be able to stay up to see it, Criterion has bundled its DVD package of the film with both Godard veteran Sami Frey’s “Making of” documentary and Akerman’s debut short “Saute ma ville.”
Françoise Carré and creations. Christian Dao photo copyright Christian Dao and courtesy Françoise Carré.
by Paul Ben-Itzak
Text copyright 2019 Paul Ben-Itzak
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“The passerby who knows how to see always picks up an idea, like the bird who takes flight with a piece of straw for his nest.”
— Anatole France, in “Saint-Germain des Prés, my village,” Leo Larguier, Libraire Flon, Paris, 1938.
“The opposite of death isn’t life, it’s creation.”
— Jonathen Larsen, “RENT”
PARIS — Finding the Luxembourg Gardens closed for the third in four Saturdays several weeks ago — presumably out of concern it would be invaded by hoards of “yellow vests,” the Gardens also housing the French Senate — as well as the Explorers’ Garden which it abuts although in that case the Parisians who constitute the bulk of the ping-pongers, footballers, and fanciers of the Fountain of the Four Corners of the World which is the garden’s biggest draw just scaled the locked gates (only an older couple was thwarted, turning sadly back) — I decided to profit from the large slice of free time the universe had just handed me and stroll over to the Jardin des Plantes, banking on the fact that I’d get lost.
I don’t know if it’s that Haussmann, a.k.a. the Butcher of Olde Paris who re-designed Paris for Napolean III to make crowd control easier, never got around to these ruelles — he was stopped at Saint-Germain-des-Prés by angry residents — but none of these streets seem to go in the same direction; there are no straight lines from point A to point B. So after a perambulation during which I actually had room and space to breathe — for a student quarter on an early Spring Saturday afternoon in Paris, the neighborhoods were surprisingly deserted — and finding myself on a block taken up entirely by the red brick chemical college (it’s around here that Marie Curie did her research, and above here that she’s buried) before spotting at my right the rue Claude Bernard, which I knew well enough to know it would take me right out of the 5th arrondissement or Latin Quarter and into the 13th thus away from my putative destination, I instead turned down a two-block angular street, the rue Vauquelin. After walking by a corner “Korean Tea and Coffee-House” whose glass jade walls reminded me of the transparent SoHo bathroom of a former San Francisco bus driver who’d covered the rest of his walls with blood-smeared paintings evoking “Medea” — here’s where all the students were, I realized, sipping green liquid out of large glass cups, pale shadows of Jules Romains’s collegians debating Spinoza and Kant while teetering over Paris on the ledge of the Sorbonne in his multi-volume opus “Men of Good Will” — I came upon a window display full of “Petit Peuple” towered over by gossamer “Saltimbanques.” Resembling Lilliputian Yodas in their earthen hooded robes (with ‘adult,’ ‘teenager,’ and ‘child’ variations and a matching price scale), an entire village of them crammed into the vitrine, they were explained by the following text from their creator, Françoise Carré, a one-time style director who later worked with Emmaus — the non-denominational French version of the Salvation Army — and also studied clothing arts at the Sorbonne: (This is another thing I love about Paris; you can study anything. On a later flanerie high up into the 13th arrondissement on the rue Corvisart below Blanqui I discovered a professional high school devoted to the graphic, i.e. comic book, and literary arts; this is where I want to send my kid if his mom ever shows up.)
Pas si petit que ca: The “Petit Peuple” and “Saltimbanques” of Françoise Carré. Timothée Brunet Lefevre photo copyright Timothée Brunet Lefevre and courtesy Françoise Carré.
“Françoise Carré creates sculptures from second-hand clothing, her matter, mixing it with soil. ‘Used garments, ready to toss and yet rich with traces and the imprints of those who’ve worn them; my desire is to reveal their presence, the signs of their passage, transmitting their humanity. Dead clothes captured in flight, I want to recall the incessant movement which has accompanied them: Respiration, rhythm, fluidity, élan, the invisible lightning bolt of the living. Present them, crumple them, fold them, to give form to absence.'” Another phantom fancier, I thought, this Françoise Carré. “‘Root them in the Earth and secure the memory of this life which once animated them. Archaic memory of the first links, invisible and profound, between Man and his skin, this garment of the body, of Man to his Other, and to others, to all the others. As many worlds as there are men, autant de vêtements pour en dire la présence.”
Re-reading these words several weeks after first seeing them and discovering the Petit Peuple and their gossamer sovereign, what strikes me is the marriage of concept and execution, of reflection to realization in the context of a contemporary Parisian art scene in which the concept often drowns out the art object (or dissimulates its meagerness) and in which the ‘artist’ often seems more interested in impressing the viewer with his erudition than engaging his curiosity. In this case, Carré seems to have done it the other way around, starting with the artistic impulse and then proposing some possible interpretations. While the text certainly enhanced my appreciation of the oeuvres (and the artist’s intentions, not negligible), I didn’t need to read it for the art to speak to me and felt free to reach an entirely different conclusion.
Considering this humility (because it had no pretensions and made no high-falutin’ claims) and the equally unpretentious but still prodigious artistic visions of the other two artists (both of whom happen to be female) I’m focusing on here and will get to in a minute, I couldn’t help contrasting their oeuvres — and their manners of presenting them — with Vincent Dulom’s recent exhibition at the gallery / non-profit association Ahah in its two spaces off the rue Oberkampf below Menilmontant on the Right Bank. Entirely conceptual — all I see on the walls are monochromatic, slightly shadowed soft blue, green, pinkish, and yellow blurs (sometimes set off for no apparent reason against metal supports exponentially larger than the art) that don’t even have the texture of a Rothko nor the nuance of a Soulages because they’re one-dimensional pigment print-outs — unlike all three of these (female) artists Dulom has the backing of an organization founded by two experienced (female) gallerists whose stated goal is not just to temporarily exhibit artists but to provide them with an entire support structure. Et elles ont l’air de s’en fout ou presque de l’engagement réel avec le publique. They don’t seem to take real *practical* steps to engage the public, even though accessibility is part of their manifesto; you have to already know about the exhibitions to seek them out, one of the two spaces being in the rafters of a warehouse with no window display and the other being open at limited hours. In other words Ahah presents as being for outsiders — with programs meant to attract a larger public like ciné-clubs and concerts — but you have to be an insider to know about them.
Dulom talks a good — conceptual — game, his words being more intriguing than the art they’re explaining (he even pooh-poohs social engagement as futile), which, juxtaposed with the case of the three female artists we’re looking at here (all art and little hype, where Dulom is the opposite), reminds me of another male-female artistic paradox first explained to me by the choreographer Sarah Hook at a New York City forum on women choreographers and the challenges they face. Male dancers can simply announce “Voila, I’m a choreographer!” and everyone believes them (or at least takes them seriously), Hook pointed out. Women, on the other hand, actually work to develop their ability to say something — their compositional and technical tools and language, their craftsmanship — before presenting their work in public, and when they do, because they don’t shout as loud as the men they have trouble getting anyone to pay attention. (In the Pantheon not far above Carré’s studio where France’s “Great Men” are buried, Curie was until recently the only woman. Et George Sand alors? Et Sarah Bernhardt?)
Despite being founded by female gallerists and presenting itself as different, Ahah seems to be following the formula of larger institutions like the Pompidou, whose current promotional poster boasting that “Paris wouldn’t be Paris without the Pompidou” suggests, by the artists adduced to support this claim — all men — that the Pompidou would still be the Pompidou (i.e. “the biggest modern art museum in the world”) without any women artists.
I don’t hear Francoise Carré hawking her work and she doesn’t appear to have a support structure, even though she has exhibited for years and through May 12 takes part in a collective expo in Pont-de-Roide Vermondan in the county of the Doubs, where Gustave Courbet once reigned as “master painter” (another male who excelled at self-promotion; see Michel Ragon’s “Gustave Courbet, peintre de la liberté.”). Instead her work was just there waiting to be discovered on this obscure, little frequented two-block street in the labyrinthine canyons of the Latin Quarter, and yet what I encountered is an oeuvre far more original, far more multi-dimensional, and even far more affordable than Dulom’s. (C’est ca Paris, original art can ambush you where you least expect it.) As little as 200 Euros gets you your own petit individual, and unlike Dulom’s they’re not printed out copies.
Marrying concept to execution: The “Petit Peuple” and “Saltimbanques” of Françoise Carré. Timothée Brunet Lefevre photo copyright Timothée Brunet Lefevre and courtesy Françoise Carré.
Carré is a mid-career plasticienne who simply creates in her quiet corner of the 5eme arrondissement. Like the other two women we’re concerned with today (it just worked out that way), she’s more interested in craft than impenetrable statements about craft. Yet artists like these who don’t offer any apparent a la mode marketing caché (let’s say it: they’re not young and hip, nor old enough to be ‘iconic’) seem to be invisible to the cultural gate-keepers of Paris, more impressed with bluster than beauty and programming younger artists who often have no idea where they came from, framing their work as if they were the first to think of making a fire by rubbing two sticks together. (Running an art gallery in the Languedoc several years ago, I was shocked to encounter a Finish-British woman, not young, who had bought a whole chateau just to display her paintings and who had never heard of either Berthe Morisot or Leonor Fini, despite that her work in its themes resembled the latter’s.)
It’s a personal vision, Carré’s, one that resonates in both historical and contemporary senses, the petit peuple having confronted regimes for hundreds of years, right up to the Yellow Vests whose presumed threat (apparently necessitating the closure of the Luxembourg on several successive springtime Saturdays, on two of which there were no yellow vests, little or otherwise, in sight) chased me to her vitrine. (I’m not suggesting Carré postulates this link, just making a cute juxtaposition — the ‘petite peuple,’ as they’ve sometimes described themselves, choosing as a symbol for their opposition a banal garment, their traffic jackets, with Carré’s exploitation of discarded glad-rags.)
From the Arts Voyager Archives and the Museum of Modern Art’s 2012 exhibition: Eugène Atget. “Luxembourg,” 1923-25. Matte albumen silver print, 7 x 8 13/16″ (17.8 x 22.4 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Abbott-Levy Collection. Partial gift of Shirley C. Burden.
The good news is that the Luxembourg was finally open when I returned the following week-end; the bad news is that I’d barely had time to toast Delacroix at his fountain over my first sip of thermos green tea before I felt how noxious the air I was inhaling was because of the pollution. (A French friend who also had trouble breathing that week-end suggested it might have been related to the time change, which made for one helluva long day.) As I’ve been yearning to return to Paris for good because of all the positive ways Lutèce stimulates my oculaire, intellectual, artistic, convivial, historic, urban, and gustatory senses, and as it was this very threat to my health — the pollution — along with the interminable construction noise which drove me out 12 years ago, the bad air literally giving me palpitations and not the kind Paris should, I realized I had to deal with this issue, to find out if there was any neighborhood where I could actually live and not risk having a heart attack. And that it wasn’t enough just to verify whether the spots I’d previously identified as breathable still were; for the comparison (to the air around the Luxembourg which was stifling me at that moment) to be accurate I had to do this right away.
After getting lost again near the Observatoire (I’m still not sure what exactly it’s supposed to be observing) above the Jardin des Explorateurs on the other side of Montparnasse/Port-Royal (not far from where Balzac, another failed newspaper publisher, launched the Revue de Paris at 2, rue Cassini) and recognizing the street by the high walls and guard towers of La Sante prison (from whose barred windows the inmates can sometimes be heard late at night congressing with free world friends and asking them to toss up cigarettes) which looms over it I headed up to the tree-lined Boulevard Arago. This is the street where I visualize living, having my morning latté from a Banania Chocolate bowl while leaning on the ornate black iron rail of my 5th floor balcony and looking down through the leaves of the chestnut trees dappled by the early morning sunlight on the parents accompanying their excited children to school, skipping along as their backpacks wobble. (They’re always holding onto their parents’ hands.) Arago is in the 13th arrondissement but a long block from the Boulevard Port-Royal (which becomes Montparnasse after it hits the RER regional subway station Port-Royal on the Meridian, which preceded Greenwich meantime as the world’s clock before the British edged it out — do we get the world clock back with the Brexit? — and extends up from Notre-Dame through the Luxembourg, the Jardin des Explorateurs, the Bullier student cafeteria which when it was the Bullier ballroom saw the Can-Can dancer Jane Avril’s debuts and Sonia Delaunay debut her robe designs, chez Balzac, and the divine and hilly Parc Montsouris with its tranquil lake where I recently sat on a bench under a weeping willow browsing an 1880 edition of the complete theatrical works of Victor Hugo scored for 1 Euro at a vide-grenier near the Cité Universitaire with an interstice in which Hugo harangued a translator who had the audacity to think he could render Homer in French (“Even I failed miserably at translating the Greeks!”; I’m paraphrasing), and where strange things like saving 2000 years of Greek, Hindu, and Chinese philosophy from a public toilet keep happening to me, the latest puzzling evidence being the discovery that the building where my ex-roommate Sabine lives, a block from the toilet, is also where Bernhardt used to model for Alphonse Mucha, the subject of a recent exhibition at the Luxembourg Museum; my 36 years of Bernhardt connections and coincidences includes being the custodian of her personal mirror) in the 5th arrondissement, which means you get easy access to the Latin Quartier but the relative tranquility of a residential neighborhood. This was my first neighborhood in Paris — up the street from where Arago criss-crosses Glaciere — where I felt like I was experiencing the real Left Bank Paris, not the Disney-fied version, where no one (aside from those teaching it at the nearby University of Paris campuses on and off Jusseau and their students) spoke English and where in the boulangeries I had to do a lot of pointing. (On my first morning in Paris, jet-lagged, I zombie-ran to the Luxembourg as if the Meridian homing bug had always been attached to me and had now fetched me back; speaking no French, at the ‘sandwicherie’ across from the Guignol puppet theater when I saw the sing-songy server slather an exotic looking brown meat on the order before mine I just asked for “La meme,” the same, then ate lunch in front of the main fountain surrounded by a gaggling group of French girls who made the tuna fish taste like caviar.)
From the recent exhibition in the Luxembourg museum in the Luxembourg gardens: Alphonse Mucha, “Médée, 1898. Color lithograph, 206 x 76 cm. Prague, Fondation Mucha. Copyright Mucha Trust 2018.
Once again on Arago, then, for this pollution test, after walking past a pre-historic rusted Robby the Robot-like object covering a sewer grating outside the prison (perhaps meant to ray-gun down or trap inmates trying to tunnel out?), I was relieved to find that the most breathable spot, a little park named after Henri-Cadiou, a modern (male) painter, between the rues de la Santé and Glaciere on Arago next to the Maisons Fleuries, was not only still there, it was even more breathable, a state explained by a sign on the grating which noted that it was now smoke-free, part of an experiment by City Hall to make Paris more breathable. It even offered two ping-pong tables in the constrained space, although intimidated by the suspicious glares of two mommas as I stopped to fill my water bottle, I decided not to horn in, even though I had my two circa 1973 paddles in tow. The only revoltin’ development (as Riley might put it) was that the sunken fountain at the base of the Cesar Domela sculpture in front of the benches and new chess tables — he created it in 1933 while living in the Maisons Fleuries — wasn’t working, not unusual these days in Paris, where the marquee fountains in the tourist areas seem to get all the attention while neighborhood fountains are hung out to dry.
To find out how far the circumference of this relatively low pollution zone extended I decided to walk up to the Butte-aux-Cailles via Glaciere en passant by my old neighborhood, not far from which I discovered, in the vitrine of an independent bookstore, Rare Birds, at 1 rue Vulpain, where it intersects with Corvisart, this, a graphic novel ‘avant l’heure,’ the history of an “Idea,” without any words. (And more ‘puzzling evidence’: What stopped me was the pull quote — from ‘my’ author Lola Lafon, my translation of whose “Mercy, Mary, Patty,” a novel whose catalyst is Patricia Hearst, I’ve been trying to find an American publisher for.) This is another thing I’ve always loved about this neighborhood — the one encompassing adjoining parts of the 5th and 13th arrondissements: That you can turn a corner and discover not just a storefront-sized atelier full of petit peuple and saltimbanques but a singular bookstore; on my virgin Paris visit in 2000, the first time I got lost on the rue Claude Bernard trying to find the Jardin des Plantes on one corner I stumbled onto an entire bookstore devoted to Jean Cocteau.
My idea being to wind my way under the 6 Metro elevated tracks — which had first brought me to Paris that brilliant morning of October 16, 2000 — and up the stairs above Corvisart, passing through a middle-class housing project looking out over all Paris to the Butte-aux-Cailles (a one-time outpost of the 1871 Paris Commune, in which Parigots rebelling against Versailles’s capitulation to the Prussians tried to construct their own utopian society, more recently fallen with little resistance to the BoBos ((Bourgeoisie Bohemians)) — an all the same substantial delay considering that the first hot air balloon ((i.e. BoBo incursion)), fueled by burning straw, landed on the Butte in 1783 — with developers dividing apartments into high-priced condos and thus where the ‘popular’ or working class population that gave the Butte its character can no longer afford to live) via the rue Samson, I made another discovery: These stairs are a street and it has a name, and not just any name, but that of the 20th-century’s first grand French photographer, Eugène Atget, a new adjunct to the Butte’s more recent and apparently indelible artistic stamp: It was the launching pad for “MissTic,” whose buxom silhouette and rebel spirit bon mots marked the walls of the quartier’s street corners and restaurants before fanning out to the rest of the Left Bank.
From the Arts Voyager Archives: Eugène Atget, “Rue des Haudriettes 2 (Paris),” 1901. Albumen print. Detroit Institute of Arts. Courtesy Detroit Institute of Arts.
Arrived finally at the top of the rue Butte-aux-Cailles and on the verge of having a heart attack — not from the hike but the pollution — I was reassured to discover this sign from the mayor of Paris: “Paris respire!,” “Paris is breathing!,” the justification of which ludicrous claim being that once per week from April to October (I was there on March 31) the Butte is closed to cars. For ten hours.
I’d barely exclaimed “Mon Oeil!” when mon eye spied a group of citizens filling up their plastic water bottles at a multiple-fauceted fountain on a square across the street on the Place Paul Verlaine, also where the hot air balloon had landed. (Across the street also from a park on another corner of this round point where the long benches have been replaced by a row of single-unit benches obviously to keep the homeless from sleeping there — out of sight, out of mind — a plan the pigeons had rapidly commented on by shitting all over them. When I’d sat basking on one of those long benches on a breezy sunny spring-like morning on that first visit in 2000, closed my eyes, and thought: “I want to live here,” I hadn’t figured on this.) Investigatin’, I discovered that this well — located not far from Paris’s first public baths — is an artisanal one above which a sign promises that “because the source is 6 meters under, you will have the rare privilege of drinking water protected from pollution,” presumably the reason the Parisians were filling up, to put off the day when the pollution above-ground would send them six meters under. (The balloon may be long gone, but the hot air lingers.)
The transformation of the Butte from outpost of the 1871 Commune to branché (trendy) seat of Left Bank BoBo-dum also played a role in the near heart attack; the main drag is now lined with bars, which means terraces, which means smokers, these last having occupied the terraces of Paris after an anti-smoking law kicked them out of the dining-rooms in 2008. (I’m not imagining the contribution the cigarette smokers are making to the air pollution; as a friend informed me, these days they’re buying and toking ‘n’importe quoi,’ including cigarettes full of alarming proportions of tar.) Another neighborhood whose memory I’d gilded and clung onto out of nostalgia had bitten the dust; one evening in October 2000, trying to find a restaurant that was still serving at 10 p.m. on a Saturday night in Paris and attracted by its name resembling that of Jean-Baptiste Clamence, the hero of Camus’s “The Fall” (I hadn’t yet learned that “Jean-Baptiste Clemente” was the composer of the Commune’s anthem, “The Time of Cherries”) and that I recognized at least one item in each category of the prix-fixe 100 franc / $14 menu posted on the window (Poireux tarte, canard, and compote de pommes), I’d barely escaped with my life. When the very pink duck meat arrived I was ready to gallantly bite into it figuring if they ate their quackers raw in France I wasn’t going to embarrass myself by making a faux pas, when the waiter rushed over and slapped the fork away from my lips explaining, “We bring the grill first, Monsieur, okay? Then you eat.”
I was practically toast on the Sunday in 2019 we’re still theoretically concerned with when I saw the lamp-post flyer advertising an opening the next week at the Galerie de la Butte, under a promising (breathing-wise) picture of a row-boat set against a very pink Mediterranean.
Sophie Laguerre, “Salin 4,” from the exhibition Esprit de Sel, currently on view at Galerie de La Butte. Chez A4etplus, 26 rue du Moulin des Prés in Paris. Image copyright and courtesy Sophie Laguerre.
“It’s from the shrimp,” the photographer in question, Sophie Laguerre, explained when I returned the following week to the gallery, which looked more like a print shop than a gallery — more art in unexpected places. (“A 4 et plus” actually is both, the shop specializing in a system of ‘inkrage’ which replaces non-biodegradable — and thus polluting — ink-jet cartridges with external vials whose ink is piped into the cartridges through tubes, which makes the cartridges re-usable. When the ink is ‘pigment’ — like the type Dulom used to produce his paintings, only with photos it actually works, adding and not subtracting texture — the prints even last longer, protected from the color-muting which eventually bleaches standard ink-jet prints. So basically you have a system which is physically more durable, ecologically more conscious, artistically more dense (pixel-wise), and economically more viable. And before you think the shop’s owner, Richard Bocquet, is just another commercant jumping on the green bandwagon for profits, he’ll actually sell you the regalia you need to do it yourself, including a relatively affordable and good-to-go Canon printer. More info here.)
Sophie Laguerre, “Salin 6,” from the exhibition Esprit de Sel, currently on view at Galerie de La Butte. Chez A4etplus, 26 rue du Moulin des Prés in Paris. Image copyright and courtesy Sophie Laguerre.
“And those mountains of snow?” I next asked Laguerre, pointing at another elegant pigment print (the gallery has them on sale for as little as double-figures).
“It’s not snow, it’s salt,” she explained, the photos having been taken in salines — salt harvesting waters of the Mediterranean — not too far from Narbonne, a mid-sized city in the Languedoc region full of canals and which itself was 100 years or so ago the cradle of the Red Smocks rebellion of struggling wine-makers.
Sophie Laguerre, “Salin 9,” from the exhibition Esprit de Sel, currently on view at Galerie de La Butte. Chez A4etplus, 26 rue du Moulin des Prés in Paris. Image copyright and courtesy Sophie Laguerre.
“And the pagoda?”
“It’s not a pagoda, it’s a floodgate.”
All of which makes for a combination Dead Sea and Red Sea which you don’t even need to travel to the bloody Holy Lands to dip your toe and float up in. (And unlike Dulom’s ostentatious metal supports, Bocquet’s framing choices were subtle and completely at the service of the art encadred.)
“That’s why the flamingos are pink,” piped in Bocquet. (I’d seen those flamingos wading in not necessarily pink waters off Sete in 2001.) “From eating the shrimp.”
“It’s a whole eco-system,” added Laguerre. As is Bocquet’s shop and gallery, proving that you don’t need to have the trappings — or the hoity-toity airs — of a gallery to provide a sublime and welcoming venue for provocative art. And Laguerre’s is that. In an age in which too many photographers (and curators) mistake content for craft — as if photographing cloying subjects or scenes sans Cartier-Bresson’s precise and serendipitous knack for being in the right place at the right time makes you an artist — what I loved about Laguerre’s photos is the way she messes with the viewer’s frames of reference. (The environment Bocquet and his staff have set up also contributed to the conducive picture-viewing ambiance; as opposed to galleries where I often feel excluded if I’m not part of the club, here I felt — even before I’d identified myself as a journalist, and even with my work-in-progress teeth, having all of two lowers at that moment — not just welcomed but that everyone wanted to know what I thought, as if I were there as the friend of a friend. This doesn’t happen that often in Saint-Germain-des-Prés, where I’d once entered a gallery for a vernissage to find the ((rare these days for the quartier’s openings)) food table guarded by one foreboding matronne of the arts with a look that said “You must be in the wrong gallery, Monsieur.” No passerons!)
Our reporter isn’t the first to find his fancies in the window displays of the 5th, 6th, and 13th arrondissements of Paris. From the Arts Voyager archives and the Museum of Modern Art’s 2012 exhibition: Left, Eugène Atget (French, 1857-1927), “Avenue des Gobelins,” 1925. Gelatin silver printing-out-paper print, 8 9/16 x 6 3/4″ (21.8 x 17.1 cm). Abbott-Levy Collection. Partial gift of Shirley C. Burden. 1.1969.1379. Right, Eugène Atget (French, 1857-1927) “Naturaliste, rue de l’ecole de Medecine,” 1926-27. Albumen silver print, printed 1984 by Chicago Albumen Works. 10 3/16 x 7 15/16″ (25.8 x 20.2 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Abbott-Levy Collection. Partial gift of Shirley C. Burden. SC1984.67.
Speaking of eco-systems, when I returned to the Place d’Italie Metro station atop the 13th and the Butte-aux-Cailles two nights later — after pausing in the bowels of the Nation Metro for an impromptu concert by Youssou N’Dour and Baba Ma’al’s love child (I was one of only four passengers to take the time to enjoy this unexpected auditory thrill), a young man singing and playing guitar as if his life depended on it in one driving 10-minute ballad or anthem, not even pausing to pass the hat — at the end of which a woman rushed up and enfolded his head in her scarf and elbows — I was greeted by a large banner unfurled in front of the steps of the 13th arrondissement’s city hall decorated with something that resembled red poppies, in front of which a dozen folks around my age were holding a gentile (I don’t mean they were non-Jews, I’m using the French term for nice) demonstration protesting the way pesticides are decimating the flower that made some of Monet’s Provencal landscapes. One of the protesters had barely managed to ask me if I wanted to learn more about the peril to poppies when another interrupted, “Monsieur probably doesn’t have the time.” “Actually I do!” I retorted, having been in SLOW DOWN PAUL mode since almost having a heart attack running up the stairs of the Belleville station, an entirely Sisyphusian (I don’t mean the Camus book from whose first edition Gaston Gallimard excised Kafka because he was a Jew, but the Greek hero) gesture given that it was rush hour when the trains run every 3 minutes. “Where I live, in the Dordogne, I’ve noticed that every year there are fewer and fewer poppies.” “We’re here the first Friday of every month!” a lady with short silver hair informed me. “Why here? Why in front of the 13th arrondissement’s city hall?” “Because we live here.”
The 13th is also where my longtime American literature scholar friend we’ll call Michelle — we met in 2002, when she was my language exchange partner — and her geologist husband we’ll call Marcel live, high above bien sur the boulevard Arago, in other words within the perimeter of my most breathable Paris zone and within spittin’ distance of the Meridian. So I should not have been surprised that it was in this house that Michel and Marcel and their friends would learn me (as we say in Texas) that there are also still spaces where one can *intellectually* breathe in Paris.
This intellectual breathing — this spirit of mental inquiry and debate that used to distinguish Paris, from centuries before Voltaire’s dictionary through the violent disputes between Sartre and Camus (and “La Castor,” as the latter referred to de Beauvoir) and up until Pierre Bourdieu– is happening less and less in the spaces where it should be happening in France and which nonetheless vaunt themselves as being champions of intellectual query and curiosity but which seem rather to harbor predominantly pseudo-intellectuals who spoon-feed their auditors easy to digest answers than genuine coin of the realm philosophers. (Which has got to be the most over-used term on French public radio, its hosts conferring the title on what would be called pundits anywhere else.) The most glaring example of this decline in public intellectualism is France Culture, theoretically Radio France’s high-brow chain but where, with a handful of exceptions (the Culture Monde program, the Pieds a Terre documentary series, Questions d’Islam broadcast of course at 7 a.m. on Sunday morning when a large part of its intended audience is sleeping it off, and Arnaud Laporte’s nightly critical round-table La Dispute among them), the “debate” is governed more by conventional wisdom than open-ended seeking, the most aggravated case being the Saturday morning program Repliques, whose host seems to have more empathy for abbatoir animals than Muslim women. (For more on this reductive ‘philosopher,’ incomprehensibly elected recently to the Academie Francaise, the very pantheon of French intellectualism, in French, go here) In other words, France Culture today resembles less the NRF Review than a Reader’s Digest reductive version of high-brow topics, a Cliff’s Notes of Culture and Social Science offering pop simplifications of questions that were yesterday’s Zeitgeist but are no longer pertinent to anyone but a cloistered mediocracy echo chamber. Its animators and programmers seem to congress mostly with themselves and a circumscribed, inbred circle of like-minded politicians, pundits, and authors and spend little time outside on the street or outside of Paris. (The Socialist party just named one of the chain’s chou-chous, another failed newspaper publisher and ersatz “philosopher,” to head its list for the E.U. Parliament elections. If that’s not proof of moribund political obsolescence, I don’t know what is.) (By the way: I don’t claim to be an intellectual myself — I’m more middle- than high-brow and more Deadhead then Egghead — just someone who needs to be surrounded by true intellectual discourse to breathe.)
At the beginning of this Paris stay I’d found myself confronted by two of the radio pundit in question’s acolytes. (This isn’t a digression because it sets up by way of contrast the intellectual breathing fostered at Michelle and Marcel’s dinner party.) I’d invited the couple to dinner in part because the woman runs a small press in Bagnolet, outside of Paris. I was hoping she’d be able to give me some ideas for founding my own publishing house for translations of under-heralded French literature; at the least I looked forward to a stimulating evening with what I presumed to be French intellectuals. What I got instead was ignorance and borderline prejudice. On their own initiative — I’ve learned better than to introduce the subject — the couple started in on a tirade against the religious practices of a minority of French Muslim women (maybe it was spotting the storefront mosque down the street, recognizable only by the Vigi-Pirate triangle on its door, which rattled them) with arguments founded on hypocrisy and on ignorance of their own country’s principals and laws regarding lay society, if not downright Islamophobia. I had to ask them to leave. (Not because they disagreed with me but because you can’t debate with people whose views are based more on inbred prejudices than facts, logic, and fairness.) Still, I wondered if in doing so I wasn’t practicing my own form of intellectual intolerance. Michelle and Marcel relieved me on this point.
After almost picking a fight with a very nice and outgoing friend of theirs we’ll call Christophe over the pollution question — “I don’t find Paris is polluted at all, maybe you’re just over-sensitive,” “It’s because you grew up inhaling diesel and I didn’t,” (“Shana, you ignorant slut!”) etcetera — I later found myself in an engrossing discussion with the same man and another open, curious-seeming woman we’ll call Jeanne which suddenly turned to the subject of dress codes among some Muslim women. Only this time as it was not my house, asking them to leave if I found the conversation offensive (at this point it was not; I was just girding for that eventuality) would not be an option, and as Michelle had made a touching gesture in responding to me at all on this Paris trip — our rupture 15 years ago had been my fault — leaving in a huff myself was even less appealing.
My take on the opinion of some white French people on this question, particularly when they’re women — the garb of Muslim women seems to be a prickly topic with many non-Muslim, non-Maghrebian origin women who otherwise situate themselves on the Left, with Elisabeth Badinter serving as their high priestess — is that it’s a brand of paternalistic colonialist feminism that assumes that if a Muslim or Arab-origin woman is wearing any religious garment on the spectrum, even just a scarf, it must be because her man is making her do so. (As I pointed out in our discussion — Christophe liked this — no one seems to get upset about the moche / tacky wigs with which Hasidic women cover their heads.) This assumption may also be informed by the fact that the place of women in general in French society has still not been resolved, particularly as concerns the male regard.
This time, though, forced to listen, I discovered that Christophe actually had information that was new to me: A) If some French were troubled by religious signifiers it is because of the violent role religion has played in the country’s history and B) Some Muslim colleagues of his had explained that a big reason they went to work in Muslim garb was, justement, to send a message to their countries of origin that in France one has the right to manifest one’s religion without excluding oneself from public life.
Jeanne’s views were more what I was used to hearing but as opposed to the hate, intolerance, ignorance, and paternalistic colonialistic feminism that had fueled my last interloper’s arguments, Jeanne was expressing her earnest upset. And she seemed open to listening to both of us. Unlike the couple I’d evicted — who from their fields, publishing, one would assume to be intellectuals with the spirit of open inquiry and curiosity that implies if not confers — both Jeanne and Christophe were not just trotting out their positions insistently and refusing to hear my counter arguments, they were really, and intellectually, listening and engaging.
I was eager to continue exchanging — as I sensed my new friends were — but unfortunately at this point we ran up against a practical impediment to serious late-night discourse in Paris: The dreaded Last Metro. It may have inspired an evocative film title for Truffaut (as it’s been a while since we’ve mentioned him: I recently stiffed Antoine Doinel himself — Jean-Pierre Leaud, the actor who portrayed Doinel in Truffaut’s five-film cycle — when he appeared live at a Cinematheque Française screening of “La Nuit Americaine”; more nostalgia evacuated in favor of engaging with the present) and the entry to a magical Montmartre wonderland for Montand (in Marcel Carné’s 1947 fantasia “Les portes de la nuit”) but for me and other Parisian noctambules that the Metro stops running between 12h30 and 2 a.m. often serves to quash interesting discussions just when they get going. (I’d just artfully tried to shift our conversation by declaring “I’m more disturbed by all the Metro passengers who’ve capitulated to the religion of Capitalism by surrendering to their little screens than Muslim women with scarves” when I noticed it was past midnight and thus time for me to rejoin them.) That this chariot-into-pumpkin deadline still exists in a major metropole like Paris is embarrassing — and may explain why New York, the city that never sleeps, still seems (or did when I lived there) more dynamic. It was only midnight but I had a long haul back to my digs in the pré-St.-Gervais suburb just outside Paris.
…. which is where I found myself at 1 a.m., en face of a bar whose clients are almost entirely men, I have to admit (throwing an olive branch to the paternalistic colonialistic feminists, one of whose complaints as that banlieu bars aren’t friendly to women, although I don’t think that’s the case here; the only reason I’m even bringing the bar up is it provides a nifty segué to the next and final item, in the following line:), no doubt neighbors from the nearby Rabelais housing project.
From Artcurial’s recent Impressionism and Modern auction in Paris: Gen Paul, “Le bureau de tabac, rue Norvins et le Sacré-Coeur,” circa 1928-1929 . Oil on canvas. Image copyright Artcurial.
… Speaking of Rabelais, it was largely gourmet gluttony which determined my final stop that Sunday. (I’ve skipped to Sunday for the pantagruélique segué but Saturday provided another appearance of intellectual breathing-stifling philistines in a quartier where one used to find genuine philosophers, poets like Max Jacob partying with Picasso and Rousseau and the whole Bateau Lavoir gang, one-legged painters like Gen Paul carousing with disgraced writers like Celine, intello Can-Can dancers like Avril elevating not only their long limbs but the level of the discourse, and anarchist-surrealist-satirical song writer newspaper hawker idiosyncratic private dick inventors like Léo Malet: Montmartre, where Clemenceau got his start as the quartier’s mayor, the Commune was born, and Boris Vian used to debate the finer points of Pataphysics with Jacques Prevert on the terrace they shared off the Boulevard Clichy next-door to the Moulin Rouge. But when I stopped in at one of my favorite bookstores, l’Attrape-Coeur — named after the mind-boggling French title of “Catcher in the Rye” — opposite the park presided over by the Steinlen fountain ((also dry; he’s the guy that painted all those cats while feeding them, as well as more socially biting designs)), the owner looked at the independently published book by a young Perigordin author I’d brought as a gift as if it were a piece of rotten fruit, pursed her lips and huffed “We don’t accept self-published books, we rely on publishers, they fait très bien le trie,” — ‘trier,’ or ‘sorting’ being a word that anyone but a philistine would only apply to weeding out rotten fruit and not to literature — before going back to planning her soirée with the author of an umpteenth crime series set at 36, quai des Orfevres, which even the real police have abandoned. Trie mon oeil; if he were just debuting and an unknown, Salinger wouldn’t stand a snow-flake’s chance in Hades of placing Holden Caulfield at “L’Attrape-Coeur.”)
So on Sunday, my Rabelaisian goal was to get to the outdoor market on the rue Convention which leads up to the parc George Brassens (with its week-end old books market whose tastes are much more catholic — in the American sense of the word, which means diverse — than those of l’Attrape-Coeur) in the 15th arrondissement in time for the end of market five for ten Euros cheese platter at the last stand…. (I’ve been going there so long exclusively for this they know me. “He wants the platter,” one fromageriste said to another before I could even open my mouth after I more or less cut a long line upon arriving there huffing and puffing from weaving uphill through the rest of the market and the traffic on its periphery on another recent Sunday.)
By the time I arrived at the market on the Sunday we’re discussing my valises were already heavy, including a deteriorating cloth sack hanging onto my shoulder by a thread and barely containing the thermos tea, bread, canned Americano tuna salad, pre-packed chocolate-covered Belgian waffle, blood-orange and water bottle, as well as two bulky (because vintage, circa 1980s judging from the tan Apple-E era color) computer speakers I’d just scored for 2 Euros at a covered vide-grenier in a desuet, first generation mall in the outer reaches of the 13th, below and beyond the Metro 6 station Nationale. (This is one of the things I love about the 6, besides that it was my first chariot into Paris in 2000, in the 13th and passing over the Seine to the 12th arrondissement the ride is largely overland.) I’d been shopping for the speakers so that when I return to the Dordogne where I normally live (in a 500-year-old stone house, my father’s) I’ll be able to drown out the cackle and banal dinner conversations my American neighbor holds almost every night on her terrace, like my skylight overlooking les Milandes, where Josephine Baker raised her Rainbow Tribe and no doubt held far more interesting dinner conversations than either of us. (I include this complaint so you know I’m not singling out French pseudo-intellectuals per se but pseudo-intellectualism in general.)
From Artcurial’s recent Estampes et Livres auction in Paris: Kees van Dongen and Anatole France, “La révolte des anges.” Image copyright Artcurial.
It was also at this vide-grenier in the entrails of the 13th that the Dreyfusard avant l’heure face of Anatole France revealed itself to me, in a volume of his intriguing compendium “La Vie Litteraire.” I didn’t buy it because the book surpassed my maximum price for vide-greniers — 1 Euro — and because I got the impression by the way the seller sized me up after I asked “how much?” that I was getting the “prix Americain,” but I scanned the book long enough to find a France review of a then new book on the Jewish question. From the fact that the compendium also included an obituary of Champfleury, who I know from Michel Ragon, in “Courbet, painter of Freedom” — the realist writer was the painter’s first great champion — died in 1889, I’d place this review as pre-Dreyfus, which would put France out in front because his attitude toward the very premise of the book reviewed is ironic, with observations on how its author sees Jews everywhere, even amongst the Catholic clergy. One of them (France or the book’s author) even hasards an estimate, citing a Jewish population in Paris of 40,000 and saying that according to Bertillon — the man without whom CSI would not exist — the population had doubled in recent years, judging by the number of those buried in the Jewish sections of the cemeteries. (The father of forensic science apparently not only knew how they got there, he knew where all the bodies were buried.)
I also resisted buying a double-volume set of the complete works of Béranger, the 19th-century satirical troubadour after whom my street is named and that dated from when he was still alive, despite the reasonable 10-Euro price and the prescience of a song which, in describing how easily politicians changed suits — presumably in 1832 — might also have been talking about all the Labor activists who have donned yellow vests in recent months.
The Béranger (by both its mental weight and physical heft) might have come in handy in defending myself against the volunteers passing out campaign literature for next month’s European Parliament elections at the Convention market for, I assumed from the flyer’s blue and white colors, Emmanuel Macron’s En Marche party. (I’d have made that comment regardless of the party.) Seeing my bags running over, a silver-haired activist took pity on me and held out a white sack whose blue letters spelled out, in three rows:
“How much?” I asked, repeating a question Americans have been asking Frenchmen and women since the hero of Henry James’s “The American” opened that novel by popping it to a young woman copying at the Louvre: “Combien?”
“It’s free,” the man answered, laughing.
Noting that “Renaissance” also headlined the flyer, at the bottom of the back of which were listed En Marche and three smaller, voir obscure, parties including one that hasn’t been popular since Jean Jaures was still alive, I deduced that “Re Nais Sance” must be the umbrella name the eggheads at En Marche came up with to play down the party’s own name, an alarming lack of confidence for a party which controls both the Elysée and the legislature. The idea behind the word choice presumably being that we don’t need to throw Europe out or make a “Frexit,” just re-make it so it can be re-born (re-née). I turned the sack inside out (not because of the particular party affiliation but to avoid being exploited for any political advertising), but later realized that this may have been unnecessary. When several days later I showed the sack to a longtime friend who follows French politics almost as much as I do and asked him, “Know what this stands for?” he answered “No idea.” “It’s Macron’s formation for the Europeans.” “Not a good sign,” he added, noting that Marine Le Pen’s far-right Front National party had been way out in front in re-baptizing itself “Rassemblement National,” meant to ease potential voters’ consciences: “Now you can vote for us without being accused of being a Holocaust-denying racist.” (Another friend and long-time political observer also drew a blank when I showed him my new bag. A third pointed out that the phrase wasn’t as original as all that, evoking the African Renaissance.)
In other words, France’s president may just be too intellectual for his constituents, assuming they would automatically get what “Re / Nais /Sance” meant in this context. A breath of fresh air for me perhaps but potentially portending dark clouds for France and for Europe if Le Pen, whose party was running neck and neck with Macron’s even before it morphed into “Re Nais Sance,” wins. (When I returned to the market on a recent Sunday, the Macronites had added “Vote for” to the top of the bag.)
My own intellectual appetite nonetheless stimulated, the sack also left me with one hand free to help satisfy my stomach’s (appetite) by carrying the healthy-sized carton of generously meat-filled supposedly ‘non-garnished’ sauerkraut I scored at a butcher’s stand: The most deliciously vinegary sauerkraut I’ve ever had in France and full of not just the usual bacon bits but large chunks of pork cheeks, at less than 2 Euros for nearly a pound. I mention this here not just to make Rabelais smack his lips but because of what, like the five cheese for 10 Euro cheese platter (the price hasn’t gone up in the 15 years I’ve been buying it), it says about the 15th arrondissement: This is not (yet) a BoBo — Bourgeoisie Bohemian — but a simple bourgeoisie quartier. The difference is that whereas the BoBos land in an artistic, ethnic, and previously affordable enclave (I’ve already witnessed this phenomenon in San Francisco’s Mission District and Brooklyn’s Greenpoint; here it struck Belleville before spreading. It didn’t quite work in Fort Worth’s historic Fairmont district because except for Gracey Tune’s Arts Fifth Avenue, the artistic element was already paper thin and because unlike those in Paris, New York, and San Francisco, the Texas BoBos were more interested in cheap historic housing than real artistic activity) and drive the housing and food prices up and the genuine Bohemians (artists and ethnics) who drew them there in the first place out, a genuine Bourgeoisie quarter wants to retain all strata of that class, and thus usually offers some affordable food and housing prices (though the latter are becoming more rare in the 15th). As a sign of this in the 15th, on the Sunday we’re discussing the man behind me in the charcouterie stand line was there for the same thing, a bargain but still gourmet lunch, debating between the sauerkraut and the lentils. (His eager banter with the other customers and the servers indicated that for this older man, perhaps retired and living alone, the Sunday market is also a vital social outlet). This is just one of the things I love about the 15th arrondissement, where I’d had my third Paris apartment in the ancient worker housing of the Cité Falguière next door to the Pasteur Institute where the AIDS virus was identified, and where Soutine made the crazy figures later hoarded by Dr. Barnes of Philadelphia — the 15th getting the overflow of the ateliers that used to dot the neighboring 14th before the expanding Montparnasse train station dependances devoured them — and from whose window the Eiffel tower looked like I could touch it (the Eiffel is always popping up like Waldo from unexpected street corners in the 15th): You don’t have to be rich to dine like an Alsatian king on champagne-infused meaty sauerkraut.
And food isn’t the only affordable luxury offered by the 15th: You also have access to the many-tiered riches of the parc George Brassens (my ultimate destination that day), including: The week-end old book market (where hefty coffee table lavishly illustrated monographs of Miro, Manet, and others can be had for as little as 5 Euros), the large fountain-pond watched over by a toilet chateau on the wall of the arch of which a plaque commemorates the butchers — this was once an abattoir district — who gave their lives for France during World War I, three ping-pong tables perched on their own plateau above one of the two facing hangars of the book market, Shetland pony rides, a Guignol theater for the kids and a formal theater, the Montfort, for the adults. My only complaint — and it’s not anodyne because I’ve found the same neglect in other quartiers outside of the tourist limelight (see above) — is that the Japanese-style cascades bordering the grassy hill below the theater where I like to picnic hasn’t had water for at least ten years. There’s also a Max Poilaine bakery offering warm apple tarts and dark rye bread you can buy by the quarter just across the street.
The park is named after France’s answer to Bob Dylan (like Dylan’s, they study Brassens’s lyrics in school in poetry class). On one of my first visits, in October 2001, I witnessed a singing contest marking the 20th anniversary of Brassens’s death (the French are big on death anniversaries) which demonstrated how the folk-singer’s appeal is multi-generational, the most moving performances being delivered in a quavering voice by a shy 16-year-old blonde girl with glasses and a 40-something man who’s rendition of “Bury me on a beach in Sete” was so invested he broke out in sweat halfway through the song.
On this more recent visit, the music that wafted out of the park’s entrance, guarded by two life-sized bronze bulls each above its own portal (I strutted in under one, binding with my fellow Taurus) and across the street from the Petite Gorilla brasserie (in “Le Gorille” Brassens celebrates a simian who butt-rapes a judge) was not Brassens but a jazz manouche band, “Swing Bazaar,” whose dulcet chanteuse was proclaiming “My Heart Belongs to Daddy” — more rampant Americanization.
The rest of the self-contained Place Jacques Marette at the entrance was occupied by booths displaying mostly Sunday painter variety art, part of a three week-end “Printemps d’art” celebration organized with the 15th’s mayor. There was also free wine and orange juice (“Please don’t put your cup on the table, we don’t want the table-cloth getting stained,” a matron upbraided me — ca aussi c’est le 15eme) but the best news was on the rules notice posted by the gates of the park proper: “This garden is a non-smoking space.”
Finding a bench looking out on the wide shallow pond and being serenaded with “Sweet Georgia Brown” in a lilting French accent while feasting on succulent sauerkraut plentifully dosed with hearty chunks of pork cheek in between taking deep breaths of clean air, topped off with hot thermos tea while clutching my vintage speakers in my new Renaissance bag I was in musical, artistic, intellectual, gourmet, and breathing heaven. So what if the “graph-zine” fair in the old book market which was the actual reason for my being here this particular Sunday was nowhere in sight — “They couldn’t agree on anything,” a man selling the secret papers of Celine for 30 Euros explained to me — there were still the books, one of which (speaking of anti-Semitism) revealed that 30 years after proving himself a Dreyfusard avant l’heure, Anatole France may have drifted over to the other side. Among a leather-bound set of France volumes, this one published in 1925, I found “The Opinions of M. Jerome Coignard,” the pronouncing of which opinions apparently came to an abrupt end on page 2 when, France informs us, Coignard was poignarded to death to by a “Cabalistic Jew.” (N’empeche que as far as anti-pollution crusaders avant l’heure go, Anatole France is still my man, complaining to Leo Larguier in the 1920s, as recounted in Larguier’s 1936 “Saint-Germain-des-Prés, my Village” about the encroaching automobile traffic on the quays of the Seine off the rue des Grands Augustins, where Picasso would later respond to a German officer who asked him, pointing at “Guernica,” “Did you make that?,” “No, you did.”)
That about did it for me so I decided to head for the Metro Pasteur, but I’d only gone two blocks when I was forced to head back towards the park and more important the toilet chateau by the sauerkraut (or maybe it was the gentile pork cheeks) fomenting a cabal in the pit of my stomach.
I was almost there when I saw the “Open Studio this weekend” sign on the window of a store-front atelier. I’d missed the Saturday edition of this particular open atelier, which had been accompanied by a bio wine-tasting (peu importe; I’m not drinking at this moment) and even the artist, so it was left to the artist’s friend to answer my questions in front of five violet bottles which remained resolutely corked. (“He probably couldn’t drink bio wine anyway, most of his bottom teeth are missing.” Having worked a natural wine vendange in the Lot one season, I’m probably just as learned about bio wine as I am about art.) I liked the tropical images — of Cuban beaches and palm trees — but if I say ‘images’ the hic is that they were all ‘pigmented’ print-outs without much piment, because if this format works for photographs like Laguerre’s, it’s a rip-off (at the prices being demanded here) for water-colors, pastels, or oils, because there’s no dimensionality.
But the visit yielded the useful information that the open ateliers were part of the “Printemps d’art” activities (indeed, the lady informed me, every arrondissement in the city offers these, with the support of the city), and a map with the locations of nearby ateliers, one of which was right around the corner and from the epiphany you’ve been waiting 10,000 words to discover.
Isa Guiod, “Primitif n°30,” Pastels à la cire et pastels à l’huile (wax and oil pastels), 20 x 20 cm. Copyright and courtesy Isa Guiod.
To fully appreciate the welcome I and the other visitors to Isa Guiod’s atelier received, first you need to know that when you walk into a typical art gallery in Paris, the typically early 20-something mignonette behind the desk refuses to look up from whatever she’s doing on her computer, no doubt more important than you. (I’m still waiting for the art the mignonette at another gallery off the Grands Boulevards promised to send me over a week ago.) If you ask her (it’s usually a her) a question, she gives you a begrudging one-word answer. And if you try to engage her in a conversation about the art, she just grunts.
Guiod, by contrast (and this is not atypical at open studios) was eager to exchange with her visitors. She even offered coffee to the couple which was already there when I entered; “Or maybe a petite verre?” and then to me. (Why does this matter? As an indication of hospitality; this is what you do when someone visits your home.)
I also felt — and this is less typical — like Guiod was truly interested in hearing the responses of her guests to her art and even in learning from them; this was a real exchange. (I didn’t identify myself as a journalist until shortly before leaving, so it wasn’t that.) When I commented that her medium of choice, wax and oil pastels, reminded me (it was a stretch but I was trying to flaunt my arts smarts) of how Jean-Michel Atlan (Ragon’s favorite), stirred controversy amongst some of his contemporaries (see “Trompe-l-Oeil,” Ragon’s 1956 black comedy of the contemporary art world and market,” a translated sample of which pertaining to Atlan is in the link above) by mixing oils and pastels, she immediately went to look Atlan up on the Internet, and when I compared one of her larger oeuvres — there were at least 50 on the walls, most of them on the smaller scale, and more scattered around the atelier-home on counter-tops — to Cézanne’s “Mount St.-Victoire” series for the subject and the way she like Cezanne seemed to break her tableaux down into into spheres and told her about Vera Molnar’s minimalist homage to the Cézannes, she asked for the name of the Saint-Germain-des-Prés gallery where I’d discovered these. (I know I’m using this term a lot, but isn’t discovery also what life — and breathing in all its expanses — is about?)
From the Arts Voyager Archives: “Bathers,” Paul Cézanne, French, c. 1880, oil on canvas. Detroit Institute of Arts (70.162).
What was inspiring is not that this interest in my opinions and the knowledge I might have to impart stroked my ego but the genuine curiosity it indicated. Many contemporary artists I meet not only ignore their accomplished predecessors but manifest no interest in learning about their own form’s history, as if they invented the wheel and no one of interest could have possibly come before them. (This isn’t quite the same as Courbet saying, in Ragon’s biography, that he’s more interested in reflecting his times than referring to the artists of the past.) Guiod, by contrast, displayed the openness of the lifelong-learner, not surprising as she’s ‘only’ been at this for 10 years, starting with six years of ateliers offered by the municipality of Paris — at affordable prices, important because it reflects an official investment in the artistic soul which made Paris and in its continued diffusion throughout the city, and a conviction that creating art shouldn’t be the sequestered provence of a few — followed by four years under the individual tutelage of three professors.
The work itself reflected this spirit of ouverture, theoretically abstract but open to the viewer’s identifying forms. “People see different things in it,” Guiod pointed out as if she welcomed this.
Isa Guiod, “Primitif n°40,” Pastels à la cire et pastels à l’huile (wax and oil pastels), 20 x 20 cm. Copyright and courtesy Isa Guiod.
As for her method, “I usually just spurt it all out. Sometimes I pause and find myself wondering what the theme is, but then I just stop thinking and asking questions and continue.” Recalling the print-outs I’d seen earlier and comparing that lacheté — asking exorbitant prices for something that took two minutes to print out — with Guiod’s offering strictly original work, I asked her how much time it had taken her to create the 50+ tableaux filling most of four walls (the other thing I liked about her atelier is that the remaining space was filled by books, and not just art books, stretching to the ceiling opposite a loft bedroom): “Two months” for the whole and on average two to three days per canvas.
Isa Guiod, “Entre-Deux n°9,” Pastels à la cire et pastels à l’huile (wax and oil pastels), 50 x 65 cm. Copyright and courtesy Isa Guiod.
Gazing out Guiod’s tall windows whose sills were adorned with pots of poppy flowers onto a cobble-stone courtyard with table and chairs, insulated if not closed to the outside world by stone walls — “I get a lot of light during the day,” she assured me — and engaged in this discussion with an artist who was not at all blasé about her practice but full of the enthusiasm of the person who finds her real calling in mid-life (Guiod appears to subscribe to George Eliot’s dictum, “It’s never too late to be who you might have been”: “If I live to ___,” she later told me, “I’ll still be able to do this for 42 more years.” ) and thinking about how by enabling this self-realization in providing low-cost art courses accessible to everyone the City of Paris was making a statement that in a city defined by art the art must be pervasive and not just the privilege of a sanctified few, and above all from our exchanges, I realized that this is why Parisians stay here in a city where it’s sometimes physically hard to breathe.
This is how they — this is how we Parisians — respire, this is where we find our breath: Individually in the potential to make art and realize our dreams, even new dreams hatched in mid-life, and collectively in our proximity to each other and the breath we breathe into each other like the energy which made that first balloon fly in 1783 (when the Continental Congress was meeting in Princeton, which would give me wings 200 years later), and the limitless potential for the serendipitous encounter anywhere, even in a quartier more Bourgeoisie than Bohemian and even for a critic lately more interested in feeding his stomach than his Art Jones and come to Paris primarily to fix his teeth, who on a quest for a potty stumbles into and gets deterred by the atelier of an artist and seeker who reminds him of the infinite possibitilities this city breeds, restoring his appetite for art, not as a commodity nor a vehicle to be coopted for his own writing but as creation, the first creation, the only creation that matters because it transcends everything else.
This is why they remain here, and this is why I keep coming back to Paris despite the inevitable “Gorge Parisian” it subjects my body to in certain seasons: the potential this city now offers like no other in the world (New York and San Francisco having become too expensive) to breathe in every pore of your spirit and mind.
Urban pastorale: A scene from Robert Siodmak’s and Edgar G. Ulmer’s 1930 silent film “People on Sunday,” recently restored and playing this afternoon at the Cinematheque Française as part of its retrospective of the films of Billy Wilder, who wrote the screenplay.
By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2019 Paul Ben-Itzak
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PARIS — So there I was at the hour of the crepuscule Wednesday, standing on a bridge linking the Ile de Cité to the Left Bank and contemplating the nascent twilight reflected on the rippling waves of the Seine, when I realized that the ping-pong table in the sculpture garden above the Tino Rossi tango plaza where two kids were battling each other and the bracing gusts of freezing wind was much more compelling than the date with Agnes Varda and Sandrine Bonnaire that awaited me at the Cinematheque Française further down the river. And that I’d have much more chance of finding ‘l’ame-soeur’ sitting on a bench with my rackets (the same with which I’d placed second city-wide for my age group in 1973; a puny nine-year-old from San Francisco’s Chinatown beat me for the championship with spin-balls I couldn’t touch — seeing “Forrest Gump” recently had inspired me to bring the paddles with me to Paris, only I brought two, because unlike Tom Hanks I’m still searching for my playmate) than sitting in a darkened movie theater, which I’ve been doing for as long as I’ve been playing ping-pong but scoring much less often. But it wasn’t just this micro-epiphany that decided me to head up towards the Bastille (after a tour of the bouquiniste stands on both sides of the Seine highlighted by an animated debate with an elegant silver-haired and bearded bookseller in an ankle-length fur coat whose proudest offering was a shrine to Celine amply furnished with his oeuvre and articles arguing that he was not so anti-Semitic as that) rather than turning right towards Bercy.
This abrupt change of plans — just that afternoon I’d joked to my dentist, “If you can keep the blood to a minimum this time, that would be great, as I’ve a date with Agnes Varda and Sandrine Bonnaire” — was also provoked by a malaise over the institutional art scene and its promotion that’s been festering in me for a long time. From New York to Paris, I’ve been frustrated the past several years by an art programmation in which, at least on the level of the major museums, cinematheques, and theaters, the last curatorial consideration has been what should be the first, namely mining the archives and nooks and crannies for artistic treasures and exposing them to a broader public.
Take the Agnes Varda retrospective which was the reason for my invitation to the Cinematheque soirée. I should have been delighted that the Cinematheque was feting a pioneer who deserves to be celebrated. But cinema history excavation-wise, the choice was unintrepid. Who doesn’t already know about Agnes Varda? Why not *also* program a retrospective of the directorial work of Maya Deren? Or the work in front of and behind the camera of Ida Lupino, without whom there might not have been an Agnes Varda? (And one of whose early films, “A Rainy Afternoon,” set in Paris, belies what I said about the impossibility of meeting someone in a darkened theater. If I thought there was a chance that Ida Lupino was waiting for me, I’d make every screening.) So I was ecstatic when I discovered that a Lupino film starring one of her chou-chous, Sally Forrest — with a dance theme yet! — had been restored for presentation at the Museum of Modern Art. I know this because I’ve been following, and covering, MoMA for nearly 25 years. Before the veteran Margaret Doyle left its press office, MoMA not only appreciated, but courted our coverage. After she left, I’m so devoted to this New York City — and Modern Art — institution that I even got over the fact that MoMA’s advertising director couldn’t be bothered to respond when we offered her a special deal on promoting the museum’s current Judson retrospective on the Dance Insider & Arts Voyager. The press manager I’d been dealing with was happy with the extended Judson coverage we nonetheless pursued, in which we coupled art from the exhibition with articles by the late Jill Johnston, Judson’s Boswell.
Unfortunately, my efforts to promote MoMA’s Lupino restoration were sabotaged by an inexperienced publicist, who responded to my request for a screener of the film — *forwarded to her by her manager I’ve been working with and who, judging by the assiduous manner in which she hounds me for coverage, is familiar with our magazine’s reputation and reach* — by asking “what outlet” I was writing for. I don’t necessarily expect a green flack to be already versed in the diverse media landscape she’s getting paid to promote her artists on. But if you don’t know, before you risk insulting and alienating the very colleagues you’re supposed to be cultivating, *you ask.* When Richard Philp suddenly promoted me to news editor of Dance magazine in 1995 after my predecessor Joseph H. Mazo died before he could learn me the landscape, I was pretty dance-ignorant, so if I didn’t know who an artist was, I walked across the hall and *asked* Richard, the late great Gary Parks, the ibid Marion Horosko, or Harris please write home all is forgiven Green *before I talked to the artist.* Why embarrass what was then a trusted institution with my dance-stupidity? This MoMA publicist, by contrast, has managed with one ill-considered, ill-reflected letter — and her subsequent refusal to apologize — to destroy 25 years of goodwill her predecessors (and the quality of what they were promoting), notably Margaret Doyle and Paul Jackson, had built up with a veteran editor. (I considered deleting this mini-rant because I know it sounds petty, and why give them the free publicity they have contempt for anyway? But besides the convenient segué this item provides to the next screed, art is too important for its propagation among the audience it really belongs to be sabotaged by one publicist. Recognize your error, and all will be forgiven.)
I love you Jack (Lemmon, in Billy Wilder’s “The Apartment,” now playing at the Cinematheque Francaise), but after five New Year’s Eves, I’m tired of looking at your puss and ready for something new, even if it’s 30 years older. (Photo courtesy Cinematheque Francaise.)
At the Cinematheque Française, by contrast, my issue is not with the Comm team — impeccably professional, even when dealing with mercurial, disabused critics — but with a programmation which ever since the departure of director Peter Scarlett 15 years ago seems to be determined more by box office considerations than curatorial imperatives, which latter should be modeled (to cop the marching orders former Village Voice editor Elizabeth Zimmer used to issue to her acolytes) on the quest of the truffle hunter, determined to unearth priceless, buried treasures with a nose for genuine cinematic news. There has been a real jewell playing at the Cinematheque this month, but it’s been buried in yet another festival dedicated to an American director everyone’s already heard about. I have nothing against Billy Wilder — “The Apartment” has been my go-to-film on many a solitary New Year’s Eve — but do we really need to see “Some Like it Hot” — which opened the retrospective — an umpteenth time? The truffle here, Robert Siodmak and Edgar G. Ulmer’s 1930 restored silent film “People on Sunday,” which got in because Wilder wrote the screenplay, is buried in one Friday afternoon screening (today at 3:30) which only old fogey cinema junkies who already know about it will think to and be able to see. And yet it’s the far more transformative, provocative film. If I watch “The Apartment” every year, it’s for the same reasons — after the first time anyway — that Jack Lemmon’s hero spends his evenings, as he puts it, with Mae West and John Wayne. It’s good company. It comforts me in what I already know or aspire to: The dynamic, droll doll eventually drops the married cad for the loveable, earnest, devoted, clumsy, awkward, lonely and somewhat homely bachelor.
“People on Sunday,” by contrast, is a troubling film — particularly in the current social context in France and around the world. If the premise — four young Berliners out for a Sunday pastoral; or Dejeuner sur l’Herbe, and the complicated but ultimately classic romantic alliances, ruptures, and petites jealousies that ensue as they frolic from beach to forest — must have seemed primordially bucolic at the time, the questions the film poses post-Holocaust are disturbing, and even interrogate this very moment we’re living in France. In one prolonged segment, Siodmak introduces a panoply of smiling Germans out fully profiting from their Sunday, in soccer matches, on park benches reading newspapers under monuments, etcetera… Falling in love with this innocence I found myself asking: How could these loving and outgoing people have voted in that fascist government just three years later and committed that atrocity in the decade that followed? (And whether the young brunette actress I fell in love with ended up being among those who paid the price.) Yet that fascist government and that atrocity were born in exploitation of a social unrest not unlike that now troubling France (it had the same sources: financial instability and insecurity, with the same, if up to now minority, tendency to blame the stranger). As a foreigner, as a Jew, and as an intellectual who treasures the liberal values that France at its best embodies, I’m scared shitless. Those who counter that “It can’t happen here” need to watch this film, if only to be reminded that if it could happen so quickly — to a people so evidently joyful, carefree, admirable, lovely, extraverted, outgoing, and loving as the people shown in this movie, yes, it can happen here.
Redemption song: Another scene from Robert Siodmak’s and Edgar G. Ulmer’s 1930 silent film “People on Sunday,” recently restored and playing this afternoon at the Cinematheque Francaise as part of its retrospective of the films of Billy Wilder, who wrote the screenplay.
(Rather than burying “People on Sunday” in a Wilder festival, were I running the Cinematheque’s programmation I’d have scheduled an entire retrospective around the films of Robert Siodmak, which have in common that they all terminate with some form of redemption: The disturbed killer Gene Kelly giving up his life to free his wife Deanna Durbin so that she can fully live hers in “Christmas Holiday”; Charles Laughton deciding — memorably, on the runway of a ship!, thus revealing that 20 years later, Siodmak hadn’t lost his knack for scene-setting — to take the consequences for killing his shrewd of a wife rather than join his new love, so that an innocent doesn’t pay for his crime; Burt Lancaster’s “Swede”‘s noble acceptance of his fate in Siodmak’s adaptation of Hemingway’s “The Killers.” And then there’s his sense of nuance: In “People on Sunday,” the full sensuality of the outdoor love scene — perhaps a first-love scene — that’s just transpired is suggested by the pensive, slightly perturbed manner in which the blonde heroine, abandoned, adjusts the strap of her dress, post-coitus.)
And it’s happened elsewhere more recently than 1933: Religious intolerance and outright barbarity produced Alep, the destruction of lives and the decimation of a millennium-old cultural legacy, and the potential loss of cultural memory and native pride this engenders. This is why I was initially delighted to learn of the Metropolitan Museum’s major exhibition of Joseph-Philibert Girault de Prangey’s mid-19th century daguerreotypes taken during his voyages to Syria, Egypt, and elsewhere in the Middle East, produced in collaboration with the Bibliotheque Nationale Française, opening January 30 and running through May 12. These breathtaking images — reflecting, Met photography curator Stephen C. Pinson points out in a lavishly illustrated catalog in which the oeuvres are re-produced in their original sizes, the concomitant births of the sciences of photography and archeology — are a voyage into a lost North Africa, rien a voir with Girault’s Orientalist contemporaries, even if he influenced their aesthetic and helped infuse it with some semblance of authenticity. If I already know this much, it’s because at the Met I was fortunate enough to encounter a publicist who went beyond the call of duty and, unrequested, sent me the PDF of the entire catalogue.
“Alep,” from Monuments arabes d’Egypte, de Syrie et d’Asie-Mineure, 1846. Lithograph by Eugène Cicéri (1813–1890) after Girault, sheet 22 3/8 × 15 5/8 in. (56.9 × 39.7 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Purchase, Joyce F. Menschel Photography Library Fund, 2017 (2017.66.7) Public domain image.
Unfortunately, the same catalog reminded me of the extent to which the Met has collaborated in refurbishing the image of those members of the Wexler family whose patronage of the Met is enabled by their investment in Perdu Pharma, largely responsible for the opiate addiction scourge which has taken tens of thousands of lives in the United States in recent years. Given the Met’s similar role in erecting the philanthropic image of the climate science-denying anti-Labor Koch Brothers, I guess I shouldn’t be shocked, but this reminder — Met director Max Hollein praises the Sacklers in his introduction to the catalog — makes it difficult for me to collaborate with the Met in promoting this exhibition. Instead, and again taking advantage of a proactive publicist who hopefully won’t regret that proactivity, I’ll take advantage — for Alep — of her sending me an image after one of Girault’s works on Alep. And since she told me I didn’t need to connect our use of this public domain image to the Met event — even requested I did not — I’ll instead use it to promote the Syria week-end March 9 and 10 at the Philharmonie here in Paris, promoted by another member of my Publicists Hall of Fame, Hamid si-Amer. Not just because he’s the coolest publicist in Paris — Hamid starts his e-mails with “Salut” and never terminates them with “Bien a vous” — but because of his impeccable professionalism.
Coming up at the Philharmonie in Paris: Whirling for Syria and Alep. Photo of Derviches tourneurs de Damas copyright Cyril Zannettacci and courtesy the Philharmonie.
Speaking of whirling dervishes , the other epiphany I had while standing on that perch near Notre Dame watching those kids playing ping-pong is that like them I’d rather be outside, observing life and getting my material directly, than sitting in a dark theater and pondering someone else’s views of life to write about it later, particularly if this third-hand observing — my view of another’s view of life — requires running the gauntlet of sometimes indifferent publicists. I don’t know if my writing is up to my vision — I’ve been flying without an editor for 20 years — but this is at least what I’ll be attempting to do in the coming weeks, energy allowing. And given the life-affirming sensation that I get every time I walk out my door here in Paris and its surrounding suburbs, it will at least deliver light to me.
Several of these frescoes jumped up before my eyes as I headed home Wednesday evening (after the requisite watching of the Eiffel sparkling up), taking the Bastille before turning left onto the Boulevard Richard-Lenoir — Maigret territory — then right up Temple which turns into Belleville and down past the Buttes Chaumont and crossing the Paris/Pantin border. But given that I’ve already taken up enough of your time — too much of it in settling professional vendettas (in a non-too professional manner) — for now I’ll rest with one.
Midway to the rues de Temple/Belleville, where the same breed of nihilists who devastated Alep mowed down Noemie Gonzalez and too many others on the cafe terraces on November 13, 2015 (the memorials have disappeared from the terrace of “The Good Beer”; tant pis), and not far from where they murdered 80 insouciant, mostly young people at the Bataclan for loving music too much, a young woman was straddling a gymnastic bar over a patch of the strip of park that covers the canal all the way to Temple. Her legs trundling in the emptiness, propelling her forward nonetheless metaphysically speaking, her walkmanned head rolled side to side in joy as she sung the body electric.
Joseph, “Yes gorgeous,” 2018. Acrylic, collage, and resin on wood. 110 x 80 cm. Courtesy Galerie Roy Sfeir, 6 rue de Seine, Paris.
By Paul Ben-Itzak
Text copyright 2019 Paul Ben-Itzak
(Like what you’re reading? Please let us know by making a donation today. Just designate your payment through PayPal to firstname.lastname@example.org, or write us at that address to learn how to donate by check. No amount is too small. Don’t miss out on our upcoming coverage from Paris and Lyon of art, theater, film, puppets, and dance from around the world! Drop a line to email@example.com with the words “Flash Me, Dance Insider & Arts Voyager” and we’ll add you to our list. Any and all references to my teeth and any blood from therein are hyperbolic poetic license; if I’ve made the journey from the Southwest of France to Paris, it’s not for the art but because my dentist here is the best — and kindest — in the world and the only one in whom I’ve ever had confidence. And who would no doubt be distressed to learn that I did not head straight home after our last appointment.)
PARIS — Only a nut for culture and for a Paris retrouvé to which he’d re-taken (“First we’ll take Manhattan, then we’ll take Paris” — Leonard Cohen via Jennifer Warnes, tweaked) like the proverbial canard to water would think of strolling from the Grands Boulevards to the Seine in sub-freezing climes, traversing the most luminous river in the world — they say the light comes from all the souls that have found their final solace in her fathomless depths and all the hearts that have fused on her bridges, boats, and benches (“I started that” — Cary Grant to Audrey Hepburn in Stanley Donen’s “Charade,” pointing to the lovers necking on the quays from the deck of a bateau mouche) — and then hop-scotching from several openings in the gallery grotto of Saint-Germain-des-Près to the heights of the Latin Quarter to mouffe tard (work late) on the rue Mouffetard with a puppet hoarder of Holocaust detritus while surrounded by 50 hushed school-children, right after having three teeth extracted. And did I mention that I forgot the Ibuprofen, which I told myself would make me all the more able to empathize with the Shoah victims (later to have their fillings extracted after being gassed), but which only left me to grit the hemoglobin-soaked bandage over my gums and become the living embodiment of the blood-sucking critic?
Joseph, “What does a kiss mean,” 2018. Acrylic, collage and résin on wood. 110 x 80 cm. Courtesy Galerie Roy Sfeir, 6 rue de Seine, Paris.
The most provocative piece of art I saw all evening was the illicit poster someone had painted on an entire building wall, near the arched gateway to the rue Montorgueil, of Tintin — celebrating his 90th birthday this year, and acting pretty frisky for his age — illicitly planting a tender wet kiss on the mouth of Captain Haddock, enough to make the mullahs of Moulinsart bent on upscaling the image of Hergé as a high-class painter piss their pants, but not enough to distract me from the Starbucks shingle which continues to tackify the entrance to one of the most typical passages of Paris, once memorialized by Claude Monet. Lingering 20 minutes later on the Pont des Arts to wait for the Eiffel to sparkle up (after shaking my head over the construction blight of the former Samaritain — when last seen, Kylie Minogue was diving off the roof of the late multi-block department store, one inspiration for Zola’s “The Happiness of Ladies,” in Leo Carax’s “Holy Motors” — being made over into a luxury hotel so that rich foreigners have a place to sleep until they can buy a place through one of the numerous real estate agencies which have replaced my favorite cheese boutiques and used record shops, and to pay hommage at the school on the Street of the Dry Tree where they once vainly tried to teach me about the imperfect past), I was relieved to see that the faux graffiti wall with which the city had replaced the chain fencing in an attempt to stymie the love-locks which had threatened to make the bridge fall into the river had been supplanted by a sleek glass barrier. After reconnoitering a dark corner on the Left Bank near the water that seemed propitious for a minimal-risk piss (I’ve been nervous ever since the police caught me relieving myself by a tree on the Ile St. Louis in 2005, when I hadn’t dared cite Malcolm McLaren in my defense: “Everybody pees on Paris, watch me now.”), I reflected that confined to clusters in the middle and at the top of the bridge lamp-posts that made them resemble bouquets for robots, the love-locks now actually had something to do with love. (One unclear on the concept wag had written on his, “Love doesn’t need locks,” before bolting it.) Prodded by the memory of a long-ago futile search for a public urinal on the rues Bonaparte and Visconti, I finally plunged down a stairway and mingled my waters with the crepuscular dew, spitting out the blood-drenched gum bandage in a poubelle at the base of the Nesle Tower — where an ancient royal Rapunzel once tempted various cavaliers who lost their heads for their gallantry — before heading to the galleries so that I could shut my trap and not reveal that I was one fangless critic.
Joseph, “No time to lose (Superman),” 2018. Acrylic, collage, and resin on wood. 110 x 70 cm. Courtesy Gallery Roy Sfeir, 6 rue de Seine, Paris.
If there had been any police patrolling in the area, Superman was waiting to rescue me, emitting scarlet beams of x-ray vision from both eyes over a collage of ’50s Life magazine ads lacquered into art by the eponymous Joseph and on display (through the end of the month) at the Galerie Roy Sfeir, the first on the rue de Seine if you’re coming from the river. (And one of the only galleries I spotted — not counting those hosting openings — where the gallerist wasn’t huddling behind a computer screen.) Behind twin bull-dog sculptures guarding the 12 or so oeuvres — most topped off by comic-book like soap-operatic bubbles a la Roy Lichtenstein — the gallery’s owner was discussing the “Yellow Vests” phenomenon with a client. When they asked my opinion (I’m not sharing theirs because I didn’t identify myself as a journalist) and then said they had no idea what I’d just said, for once I had a retort that headed off any comment on my accent:
“Itf becaufe I’fe juft come from fe dentisf.”
Among the 44 works whose recent installation has renewed the Contemporary Collection on view at the Art Institute of Chicago is, above, Roy Lichtenstein. Artist’s Studio “Foot Medication,” 1974. The Art Institute of Chicago, Gift of Edlis/Neeson Collection. © Estate of Roy Lichtenstein. The art by Joseph featured here evokes his American artistic ancestor.
Next I scrunched into the barely three-person-wide “Petite Gallery” — “Let the monsieur in, he’s actually here pour voir, pas pour boire” (to look, not to drink) — for a group exhibition that, in appreciation for the conviviality with which the ensemble welcomed a demi-sans-dent individual they had no idea was a blood-sucking critic, I’ll diplomatically refrain to comment on — before landing at my destination gallery, on whose exhibition, thanks to the flack who treated my modest request for three images *in the appropriate size* like she was doing me a favor even though she did know I was a journalist, I’ve not so diplomatically — okay, childishly — decided not to waste any more energy on here.
In contrast to the kind folks at the Petite Gallery, the Centre Pompidou is no doubt big enough to withstand a little biting criticism from a demi-sans-dent critic. So I was practically delighted to find matter for a rant in the mammoth “Without the Centre Pompidou, Paris wouldn’t be Paris” English-language poster that reared its head before me on the Boulevard Saint-Germain as I made my way towards Mouffetard for my Shoah puppet show. After mentally dispensing this pedagogy (this is what French commentators call it when they want to explain to you why you’re wrong and they’re right), I crossed St.-Mich and turned onto the rue des Ecoles so I could explore what the Latin quarter cinemas were offering before the show. In the lobby of the Grand Action, an apparently jet-lagged young woman with a Nordic accent (and so Nordically enveloped I can’t describe her better than that) was asking the ticket-seller, “Am I in Paris?”
If there had previously been any doubt in my mind, I definitely knew I was in Paris when I scaled the mount St. Genevieve, one of the oldest streets in Lutèce (the city’s name in Roman times), and definitely knew I was still inevitably an American in Paris when I paused to pay the obligatory homage to Hemingway at Papa’s former roost up top the rue Cardinal Lemoine, more or less catty-corner from Descartes’s former digs on the rule Rollin, and where I resisted the temptation to channel the Gorilla Girl inside me and amend the Paris is a Moving Feast citation “Lucky the man who has spent part of his youth in Paris” with “and the semi-toothless blood-sucking journalist who’s still here.” Speaking of youth and ecoliers, in the courtyard at the end of the alley leading to the Mouffetard theater of the Art of the Marionette I was immediately surrounded by 50 schoolchildren decidedly mouffing tard, no doubt for the educational value of a puppet show about the Holocaust or Shoah, as it’s referred to here.
Despite the presence of several superficially stereotypical Jewish puppet characters (a bent-over Hasid, an Einstein-lookalike with a magic cigar box hanging from his neck) designed after the now exhausted Czech National Puppet Theatre model what I liked about the endearing Alexandre Haslé’s production of Daniel Keene’s “The Rain” for the Lendemains de la veille company was that despite what I said above, as there’s nothing in the piece explicitly linking it to the Holocaust the message is not limited to that one deportation and period. As Haslé suggested in brief comments after curtain, the simple plot premise — an old woman surrounded by the possessions neighbors gave her before boarding trains of no return when she was a girl — could apply to many contemporary situations and displaced populations. He cited, somewhat vaguely, “Italy, Spain — even France.” Perhaps because I’ve just finished reading Joe Sacco’s graphic novel “Palestine,” with its depictions of Palestinian families given an hour to quit their ancestral homes before Israel blows them up in acts of collective punishment for the first Infitadah — I’d add Palestine/Israel to the tale’s potential resonances. Which is a way to say that what I appreciated in this tale and its presentation was the universality of its message’s application. For this reason, I was encouraged that their parents and teachers had let the school-children mouffe tard. One of the problems I have with the “Yellow-Vest” movement which has been the chou-chou of the French media for the past two months is its “Me First” mentality. In this context any measure that fosters empathy — I’ve never seen a crowd of children so quiet and enraptured — in the next generation is a welcome tonic.
I’d love to stay and cat, but I’ve got a busy day ahead: This time the dentist is taking out a nerve, after which I’ve blithely made a date with Agnes Varda and Sandrine Bonnaire (following another rendez-vous with Bernhardt), et dans laquelle il n’y aurait aucun risque que je morde.
Joseph, “Happiness,” 2018. Acrylic, collage, and resin on wood. Courtesy Galerie Roy Sfeir, 6 rue de Seine, Paris.
By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2019 Paul Ben-Itzak
(Like what you’re reading? Please let us know by making a donation today. Just designate your payment through PayPal to firstname.lastname@example.org, or write us at that address to learn how to donate by check. No amount is too small.)
PARIS — A DJ I used to know, commenting on one of my elliptical returns to San Francisco from inside the booth of the busy Kennel Club on Divisadero on World Beat night, once explained, “It’s the spirit of the Indian god of Tamalpais. It makes sure you always return to the source.” Tamalpais has nothing on Sigmund Freud, the street named after whom serves as a kind of Rubicon between the prè St.-Gervais ‘burb where I’ve found impeccable digs (thank you, CD and EA) and the Eastern quartiers of Paris, and which somehow found a way Tuesday to steer me away from the multi-ethnic Belleville neighborhood I was aiming for — it reminds me of SF’s Mission District, with Muslims and Jews, Africans and Asians, BoBos and genuine Bohemians, and succulent pork brioches from Wei Zu province and black dates from the Algerian Bled harmoniously (and deliciously) existing side by side — to Lubavitcher central. I was relieved once I’d crossed the street from a block lined with Kosher grocery stores offering sacks of dubious-looking alleged “bagels” (if they’re not made with New York water, forgetaboutit, and if they’re large, watch out; I subsequently had nightmares about being trampled by wagon-wheels construed of these round baguettes with holes) to a corner presided over by the Haman Medical Center. (Not to say that I wasn’t tempted to enter the Jewish grocery store and ask if they had “Shiksa,” fortunately remembering in time that what I meant was “Kishka,” the most scrumptious and least healthy delicacy Jewish cuisine has to offer, and rien a voir with “Shiksa,” which will sterilize you, Jewish progenitor-wise ((after my annual New Year’s Eve re-viewing of “The Apartment,” now playing at the Cinematheque Française as part of its Billy Wilder retrospective, everything is now -wise with me, and not just because it’s my Kiev-born grandmother’s Ellis Island-truncated maiden name. And if you’re thinking about calling me a Wisenheimer, forgetaboutit it.))) (And if you’re wondering why I’m determined to avoid Jewish neighborhoods like Albert Camus‘s Plague, let’s just say that in France the Jewish question is too loaded and in the Wild West ambiance of the Internet it’s too loaded for me to tell you why. Yes, I don’t just adulate the fat of chickens — see above under “Kischka” — I am one.)
When the rue Petite finally spat me out at the Laumiere Metro station a couple blocks from the La Villette Basin (to borrow a phrase from Léo Malet’s Nestor Burma, who provided the blue-print for private dicks in French literature), I realized that I was heading away from Belleville. Discovering grace of a handy-dandy Metro station You are Here map that walking in the other direction would take me to the man-made Buttes Chaumont park and waterfalls, from which I knew the way to Belleville if not San Jose, I headed up-hill. Realizing that the trajectory would enable me to discover if the other, second-floor lodging I’d been considering, facing the park on the rue de Crimee (Kiev again), was really as “calm at the exterior” as its proprietor had claimed, I was comforted in my choice of the pré St. Gervais. While the absentee owner can’t have been expected to have known this, two houses down from the building municipal workers were drilling up the carrefour (corner crossing), as part of a city-wide initiative to renovate the gas network. Again. Secret to Surviving Living in Paris No. 1: Don’t. (Live in Paris.) Pick a ‘burb on a Metro line, which foyer you’ll bless every friggin’ time you come home to your refuge from the noise, pollution, and speed of Paris. (Taking my life into my own hands at several street crossings, I was reminded of what a denizen of car-crazy Fort Worth, Texas had once told me as we waited for the green light at a vast intersection to give us 10 seconds to get to the other side. Pointing at the cross-walk, he declared, “Death.”)
What I love about my choice, the prè St.-Gervais, is its charming desuetitude, or obsolescence. Even the recoop chair I’m writing you from, with its Jetson-style curved back and early ’60s olive-green carpeted hide, qualifies as endearingly obsolete, the perfect bons mots launching pad for a throwback like me, who persists in perpetrating an obsolete trade.
Speaking of time capsules, heading down the rue la Villette from the Buttes Chaumont towards the rue Belleville and running into the rue Fessart, I decided to look for No. 22, the former hide-out of the notorious Bonnot Band of anarchists where the adventure of the young heroes of Michel Ragon’s “La Mémoire des vaincus” (The Book of the Vanquished), the novel for which I’ve been trying to find an American publisher, begins, so that I could say a little prayer to whatever Jewish, Muslim, Christian, Anarchist, and most of all New York publishing world gods would listen. Fortifying myself with the famous pork brioche at a dim sum place just above the Boulevard Belleville (after a detour down the rue Cascades, accessed via the rue Levert stairway where Pascal met his “Red Balloon” in the Albert Lamorisse film I must have seen 100 times as a kid, to salute to the ancient water cisterns that used to hold the water flowing down to Paris from the abbeys and then back towards the parvis of the parc Belleville for the best view of the Eiffel tower in town, trying to ignore the restaurant marquee on the rue Piat which exclaimed, in English, “Thank God for Broccoli,” yet another sign that Belleville isn’t just being BoBoized, it’s being Anglo-Bobo-ized) — the decor and the prices of the bakery where I used to get my customary pork bun had unfortunately been BoBo-ized — I entered the gauntlet of my favorite marché in France, the place where the multi-cultural Babel of voices makes me feel the most ‘chez moi.’ (Actually I only entered it to make my purchases. If Secret of Surviving Living in Paris No. 2 is get your fruits and veggies at the ‘Arab’ markets, annex to Secret etc is once you’ve located your favorite stands, skirt the alleys of the market by advancing on the sidewalk behind them, only peneterating them for search and purchase missions.)
The very fact that all these people from all these cultures are able to advance along the narrow alleys, meandering over several city blocks, compressed between the two rows of stands of bananas, multi-colored cornet peppers, sizzling hot-pepper filled Maghrebian savory pastries being fried up by smiling scarf-wearing women, pavements slippery from being hosed down by fish-mongers, knick-knack hawkers (4 toothbrushes for 1 Euro, like everything) and spicy merguez sausage sellers, squeezed tighter than a can of (Moroccan imported) Harisa-drenched sardines without a single fight breaking out belies the image some abroad may have of a France, and a Europe, torn by sectarian strife. WE LIVE TOGETHER, AND WE THRIVE ON THIS ACCESS TO CUISINES AND GOODS FROM ALL OUR GLOBAL CULTURES. If you’re not convinced, just listen to the Chinese restaurant owner, Nigerian babushka, or English tourist (typically speaking only English) haggling with the Arab sweet-potato vendor. (I use the ethnic identifiers so you can visualize the scene, but to me they’re all French, or at least Parisian.)
Emerging from this gauntlet at Menilmontant, and after looking up the hill to salute the wall-scale painting of “nous, les gars de Menilmontant,” I returned to another other mecca, the French Arab epicerie where the same hot pepper, garlic, and citrus-infused olives and peppers that go for 24 Euros a kilo in the Southwest of France can be had for 4.60. (When I mentioned this to the owners squabbling at the cash register, the female half, clad in a black full-length gown and elegant black and white hood — the only reason I keep highlighting the local duds is to point out that it’s not like these women are being sequestered by their husbands and fathers in darkened rooms, they are fully integrated into French public life; it’s just that their scarves are more visible than, say, the wigs worn by their Hassidic counterparts which turns some French feminists beet red with indignation — replied, “All the more reason to stock up!”) The 1.20 can of Palestinian humus and 2.30 bottle of Dutch peanut-butter bringing my sack and pushing my sciatic-harboring back to breaking point, I passed through the Art Nouveau red lamps to descend into the Menilmontant Metro, only to find that the ticket machine didn’t take paper money. “You have to walk to the next Metro stop,” the dread-locked dude behind the information window informed me, which of course was Pere Lachaise, immediately torpedoing my resolution to avoid cemeteries this time around (Sarah Bernhardt, Heloise and Abelard, Jim Morrison, Marie Taglioni, Isadora Duncan, and Camille Pissarro are among the many bodies buried there) and try to find my muses (and counsels) among the living.
I perked up when I realized that this detour, perilous as it was for my dormant herniated disc, would also allow me to score my generous slice of Diplomate (like bread pudding, only moister) gateau at another of my regular Arab-European (bakery goods-wise) boulangeries. As usual, the (scarf-coiffed) matron behind the counter ignored my request not to close the paper around the Diplomate (they may have the best deserts in the world, but the French still haven’t figured out how to make a paper wrapping that doesn’t rip the top off), but given that the 1 Euro price hadn’t risen in four years, I decided to be a diplomat and not insist.
Tempted as I was to devour the Diplomate on the rim of Bernhardt’s tomb, after remembering what happened the last time I did this (“In France, we don’t dine on graves,” an uppity ersatz tourist guide had scolded me, tempting me to retort, “And unlike what you just told your clients, Sarah Bernhardt was not a star of silent cinema and had converted from being Jewish”), and considering that the now imploding sack might lead the cemetery’s entry guards to mistake me for a crazy terrorist (a terrorist crazy enough to have hatched a plan to kill already-dead icons), I instead settled for a bench facing an art deco elementary school with a tower-scale chimney, praying to all the gods I know, Jewish, Christian, Muslim, and Cultural, as I chawed my pudding after peeling the almond slivers off the paper, that the ideals represented by the school’s marquee won’t go up in smoke as thick as that spouting from the chimney tower:
Ecole Primaire Voltaire.
Ils sont tous les enfants de le République.
PS: If you don’t have the means and/or the celebrity to make it into Pere Lachaise (with the appetizing possibility that an obsolete necrofrancophiliac journalist might one day be dining on your grave and asking you for advice) — not to mention the massive carbon imprint your final flight would leave if you’re not lucky enough to die in France (clin d’oeil — and test to see if she’s really hanging, so to speak, on my every word — to CD), here’s an alternative that would please even my journalistic god Jessica Mitford. (And one that’s apparently even greener than Pere Lachaise, not-so-incidentally the largest patch of green in Northeast Paris.)