From the exhibition “Weaving Beyond the Bauhaus,” opening at the Art Institute of Chicago August 3 and continuing through February 16, 2020: Anni Albers, Originally produced by the Bauhaus Workshop, “Orange, Black and White,” 1926/27 (produced 1965). Restricted gift of Mrs. Julian Armstrong, Jr. Copyright The Josef and Anni Albers Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.
by Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2019 Paul Ben-Itzak
(Like this article? Cet article vous plait? Please make a donation today so we can continue covering the Paris arts world / Penser à faire un don aujourd’hui alors qu’on peut continuer d’ecrire sur le monde de l’art a Paris in Dollars or Euros by designating your payment through PayPal to email@example.com , or write us at that address to learn how to donate by check. Paul is also looking for an échange de bons procédés (logement contre travail, garde de chat, etc. — plus ici sur ses talents) sur Paris a partir du 25 mai, Le contacter à firstname.lastname@example.org.)
This one goes out to Christine, for the apricots of Bensonhurst.
PARIS — There are moments that are so perfectly poignant there’s no time-lapse between the experience and the instant it moves you to tears. I lived several of them this afternoon, immersed in the quiet, raincloud-tempered crowd weaving through the outdoor Belleville market thinking this is why I need Paris, this is what I thrive on in Paris and why I thrive in Paris, this is what I live for in Paris, this is how I live in Paris, this is how I breathe in Paris, this is how we live and breathe in Paris, in and from its old book and cheap food markets and the mental, physical, and social sustenance they nourish us with, the solidarity with my multi-colored, multi-aged, multi-background comrades looking for the same thing, craving the same thing — not just the books and the food but also the society — then climbing up the rue Menilmontant before descending into the grounds of an ancient train track, “The Petite Ceinture” (little belt) that used to wind around Paris and is now guarded by a plaque on a grating above the tracks, these last overgrown with weeds and flanked by brush and trees, the plaque above them commemorating three resistants aged from 23 to 50 who gave their lives to liberate Paris 75 years ago, now opened to the public (but Shhhh!; the BoBos don’t seem to know about this halcyon and verdant endroit yet; let’s leave them to their 4-Euro cookie shop further up Menilmontant), where I lunched under the alternately grey, drizzly, and clearing Paris sky (a bucolic ambiance only partly perturbed by the occasional drilling nearby) on my Chinese greens and meat pancake (1.20 at Chez Alex on the rue Belleville), wedge of blue cheese and hot fresh mint thermos tea on a made to look makeshift wooden chaise comprised of wooden planks with my food-filled backpack posed on another, between acacias being pollinated by a vibrant bee colony (unlike the countryside, no pesticides or Japanese hornets to kill them here) while looking across the tracks at a panoply of multi-leveled architecture, from the single grey dilapidated shack (on whose flower-pot adorned window ledge one large black tailed by one large white cat appeared after we’d all finished our lunches licking their chops) to a mid-sized building whose staccato, different-colored square windows made it look like a Mondrian painting, to the high-rise on whose wall a multi-line dark-brown zig-zag streaked down all the way to Menilmontant.
I wish that everyone here who sees the common scarf when worn by a Muslim or Arab French woman as the greatest threat to French civilization could see what I see when I squeeze through (and often cut ahead of) the Arab-French-Muslim babushkas and distinguished older gentlemen, in turn politely making their way amongst the Chinese, African, and even the occasional BoBo mamas and papas and single people looking for the best deal on cauliflowers (1 Euro today), potatoes (a 1.30/kilo price instantly reduced to 1 Euro for more than a kilo because “look, if you buy this bag someone forgot I’ll cut you a special price,” peppery crepes (1.50, but I passed as I’d already downed a vegetarian brioche from Alex’s and still had the pancake to go), bananas (.99/kilo today, half the price of any ordinary market), beef heart tomatoes (ibid), blood oranges (same), packaged Belgian chocolate-covered waffles (1 Euro for seven today), .30 cents a generous bushel of fresh mint, a Euro for six wedges of the blue cheese, and most of all the conviviality. If it’s true that, as mayor Anne Hidalgo said at the time, by killing 130 of us, Parisians and visitors alike, on November 13, 2015, “ISIS” was out to destroy our sense of “vivre ensemble,” the Belleville outdoor market and its polyglot food shoppers gently moving forward with one common goal — feeding themselves and their families well as affordably as possible — while insisting on being more polite than one would ever imagine possible in a crowd often packed as tightly as sardines and moving in opposing directions is proof that they failed miserably. Particularly our insistence on being polite to each other. “After you, Monsieur-Dame,” said I to a middle-aged French Arab man escorting his gown and scarf wearing wife. “No, after you Monsieur.”
And these two instances of unspoken trust that occurred within half an hour of each other: The young man who’s been my cheap cheese guy for four years simply smiling to communicate that I hadn’t yet handed him the two-Euro coin in my hand to pay for the cheese (I’d have one Euro change coming), and the (again, gown and scarf wearing) woman at the bakery where I usually buy my Diplomate bread pudding but today settled for a .70 cent round of semolina bread (to test the denture) after calculating that it would leave me with exactly 4.30, the price of a raw chicken at the butcher’s on Menilmontant, realizing before I even had time to verify that instead of two two Euro coins and three dimes she’d given me a two and a one coin and fixing it. (Maybe this is normal where you live too; what’s not normal is the sinister implications with which many here invest the way these woman choose to dress. This is why I persist in describing the normality of the day to day interactions I have with them. This is why I sometimes wonder if those who panic at the sight of a scarf on a Muslim / Arab woman buy their ((French)) bread in the same bakeries I do.)
My other little instances of this expectation of consideration — and the profound belief in the power of “vivre ensemble” — came from the elderly babushka on a crutch, she also clothed from head to toe (but not the face) who gently tapped my shoulder to inform me, “Your backpack is hurting me.” “Desolée, Madame.” And then there was the moment of complicity with the tall brown-skinned young man who, as I was about to turn away from the apricot seller who insisted that if the price was 1 Euro for a kilo, this meant you had to buy a kilo after I’d tried to buy half of that, touched my elbow and suggested, “Hey, I only want a half kilo too. How about if I buy a kilo and then you pay me .50 cents and we split it?” This he did, first diplomatically walking us away from the seller so he couldn’t see how two men of two ages from two different cultures had outfoxed him. “Here, why don’t I take the plastic sack and you pour some from the paper bag?” After he’d emptied a generous amount into it and paused, I patiently maintained the plastic bag to let him pour a handful more and then stopped him. “That’s fine,” adding, “The thing is I don’t like to buy more because they’re not always good.” “It’s the same for me!,” he said, smiling as we went our separate ways, the proof that we were both right in our skeptical apricot moderation coming minutes later when I took my portion out on my chaise at the Petite Centure to discover that they were already smushed. (Putting the cauliflower on top of them probably didn’t help.)
But my apricots, my part of the spoils, were still succulent, perfect for compote — like the succulent compote that is Belleville, all of us crushed together and sweeter for the crushing, Belleville mon amour, Belleville forever.
by Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2019 Paul Ben-Itzak
(Like this article? Cet article vous plait? Please make a donation today so we can continue covering the Paris arts world / Penser à faire un don aujourd’hui alors qu’on peut continuer d’ecrire sur le monde de l’art a Paris in Dollars or Euros by designating your payment through PayPal to email@example.com , or write us at that address to learn how to donate by check. Paul is also looking for a sous-location ou échange de bons procédés (logement contre travail, garde de chat, etc. — plus ici sur ses talents) en région Parisienne a partir du 25 mai, Le contacter à firstname.lastname@example.org.)
PARIS — The inspiring thing about living in France during a European Parliamentary election campaign is the plethora of political parties (34 at last count — each accorded equal space) that sprout up on the cadenzas of steel placards installed in front of schools and other public buildings. What’s left this observer most incredulous ahead of Sunday’s vote (France holds its elections on Sundays, so more people can actually vote) is not the “Partie Animaliste” nor the “Partie Esperanto” nor even that the parties on the Far Right seem to have an easier time finding brown faces for their posters than those on the Left but that the slogans for the major parties or figures are so banal. Thus with Benoit Hamon — the Socialist candidate for the last presidential election who polled all of 6 percent and took his party down with him — we can count on “Hope Returning” if his new party “Generation” wins. (Which generation? French political parties aren’t particularly strong on nomenclature. A party calling itself “New Center” has had that name for 12 years.) And it’s certainly not the hashtag which makes Europe Ecology (the Greens; it was Danny “Le Rouge” Cohn-Bendit, the leader of the May 1968 student rebellion now retired from politics, who came up with that rebaptization) the party I’d vote for if I could vote: “Vote for the climate!” Okay…. exactly which climate would that be? I mean, who’s going to vote *against* the climate? Actually, I should have said “would have voted for until Saturday,” which is when I discovered the “Mouvement Francaise des Plieurs (Folders) de Papier” while heading out from the Marché des Producteurs de Vin on the Boulevard Reuilly and no, this was not a wine-tasting inspired hallucination because I didn’t have a drop, apart from the turnip and colza seed tapenade and okay, a nip or two of prune juice and more foie gras than a kid from California should probably boast of nibbling. And if it had been a hallucination, it would have owed more to the number of times I’d been folded, wadded, spit out and bled (that last literally) in the days before I stumbled onto the boutique of the MFPP and confronted its origami-filled window (with no cranes in site) after falling down a set of stairs onto the rue Coriolis in the 12th arrondissement. (Not far from the Bercy Tunnel, which a sign informs passersby was “re-imagined” by several students, all named and all female. After which I ate my canned couscous and tuna salad — recuperated in the book exchange box off the rue Jourdain in Belleville earlier — on a bench under a canopy of trees above the Yitzhak Rabin Peace Garden facing a ruin wall and above yet another dry water basin, this one dear to me because years ago my step-mother and I had lunched there with a water rat. If I could found a single-issue party in France I know what it would be and so do you. Votez water!) The boutique was closed, apparently for the “Events of Me,” the poster for one of which I hope it won’t mind me cribbing from an associated website page:
First (being folded up and spat out-wise), there was the Belleville artist-activist on the rue Tourtille — 200 yards from where the Paris Commune made its last stand at the bottom of what’s now the parc Belleville– who’d promised to rent me, at 25 Euros a pop, a “petite chamber without door” which turned out to be a petite couch outside the bedroom without sleep, her non-artistic snoring keeping me up all night. When I brought her a bag of fresh croissants, pain aux raisons, and chocolatines (pains au chocolate to you, bub) on the first morning, all she could say was “You got crumbs on the floor” after I grabbed a couple for me as she was giving me the bum’s rush out the door. But the kicker was when several hours after I’d spent my whole morning writing and publishing a piece on an anti-BoBo demonstration the artist-activist and her five BaBa Cool (not to be confused with “BoBo,” “BaBa Cool” means “ageing hippy”) friends were holding Sunday, she waited until the last minute to tell me I had essentially no minutes — the timeline she gave me was physically impossible to meet — to get my back-breaking valise out of her atelier, and which meant that instead of being able to bring the suitcase to the cat-sitting up the street off the rue Belleville (the gig was starting that evening) after I’d retrieved my cat Mimi across town in the 13th arrondissement, I had to lug my Samsonite all the way across town and stow it at the friend’s where I was fetching Mimi, from which I’d then need to haul it back to Belleville when I had enough time to do so. When I tried to explain this to her, she held up her hands in twin peace signs. (Yes, this is the kind of person who starts an argument and then when you simply try to respond, holds up the peace signs to end the discussion, inverting where the violence is actually coming from.) Then there was the friend of 20 years, a specialist in American literature and film, who I discovered had more empathy for the American culture in the abstract than the suffering American in front of her, whom she put in a position where he faced a Hobson’s choice between breaking his hernia and sciatic-afflicted back again or something so dire I can’t even talk about it. (Or as I put it to her in a later e-mail: “I hope no one ever treats you like you treated me this afternoon.”)
The blood comes in, or spilled out, when I reached into the pouch of my back-pack (found in 2015 outside the anarchist bookstore up the street from where I was subletting on the rue Voltaire) inside the Metro on the Place d’Italie, after I’d deposed the suitcase and picked up Mimi, to look for my reading glasses so that I could actually understand the Metro map and figure out the shortest route across town to the cat-sit near the Place des Fetes, only to look down and see blood dripping onto the Metro floor, Mimi’s cage, my grey Marseille jeans, the (fortunately red) back-pack right under where two days earlier a pigeon I’d scooted away from my bench on the Ile St. Louis — where I was feeding a batch of ducklings and their mama after their heads had appeared one by one marching towards me from the ramp leading up from the Seine like a fleet of submarines slowly emerging on the distant horizon — had shat on it. The blood seemed to be spurting out from my hand; in my haste to fetch the glasses I’d forgotten that in my haste to evacuate the artist’s atelier I’d also stuffed two razors into the pouch. Tearing off a patch of toilet paper from the same pouch and hoisting Mimi over one shoulder and the large white bag barely containing her litter box, litter, and cat food over the other, I hurried towards the escalator to the line 7, on the way dropping a surplus bag which another passenger treated as if it contained a bomb. “YOU DROPPED YOUR BAG YOU DROPPED YOUR BAG!!” “IT’S EMPTY DON’T WORRY DON’T WORRY!” (This was actually the second bomb scare and the second evacuation and the umpteenth incident of being treated like an inconvenience and not a human being I’d experienced in two days. On Monday at the Gare de Lyon, the third train station to which I’d been shuffled just to change my ticket, as the French train company — or “Oui.SNCF” as its website has now been renamed; if the client is massively rejecting you, just change your name to “Yes” — continues to close up sales points with live people to chase its clients to the Internet so it can subject us with more advertising and hire less of them, after I’d waited for an hour with the incomprehensible take a number system the SNCF now has, the ticket-buying room was evacuated when no one claimed a small gray valise. I should add that later that evening, after my dentist appointment, at train station number four, the Gare de l’Est, I finally found a human being who agreed, after initially telling me “I can’t do anything, it’s the machine which decides,” like those Boeing computers which recently killed hundreds of passengers, that the ordeal his employer had put me through merited waiving the 12 Euro ticket change fee. Although the bandage in the middle of my front lower teeth — I’d just had a last tooth extraction — may also have had something to do with it.)
Speaking of blood — and getting back to the finger-cutting incident at the Place d’Italie — it was probably seeing the wad of toilet paper caked with blood that I was maladroitly holding around my forefinger that inspired the short-gray-haired lady across the aisle from me on the Place des Fetes-bound line 7, after glancing at me sympathetically a couple of times (making me wonder if I’d somehow managed to get some of the blood on my cheeks), to reach into her purse and fetch me a folded fresh paper handkerchief. “Merci Madame. Merci beaucoup.”
At this point I had to decide: Do I ask the cat-sitting client for a band-aid the moment I arrive, and thus make it more likely that she’ll figure out that the red swatches on my jeans and red drops on my back-pack are blood that I’m bringing into her house for 10 days — remember that at this point, with the denture back in the shop, I had one lower tooth — or say nothing and risk a finger infection? Fortunately the client provided a convenient segué when she showed me the plastic jug of lemon-wedge infused white wine vinegar with which she washes the dishes. “Speaking of vinegar, could I use some of that? I cut my finger.” “Certainly, but do you also want some argyle? The vinegar is fine as an anti-septic, but the argyle will close the wound.”
Which it and she did, physically and psychically.
by Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2019 Paul Ben-Itzak
(Like this article? Cet article vous plait? Please make a donation today so we can continue covering the Paris arts world / Penser à faire un don aujourd’hui alors qu’on peut continuer d’ecrire sur le monde de l’art a Paris in Dollars or Euros by designating your payment through PayPal to email@example.com , or write us at that address to learn how to donate by check. Paul is also looking for a sous-location ou échange de bons procédés (logement contre travail, garde de chat, etc. — plus ici sur ses talents) en région Parisienne a partir du 25 mai, Le contacter à firstname.lastname@example.org.)
PARIS — At a vernissage in a store-front gallery on the rue Cascades last night I received a graphic proposition with reproductive implications: 46 variations contained in (or slightly spilling over from) a single rabbit’s profile, sometimes reversed (from right-leaning to left-leaning) and revealing the infinite possibilities if not for skinning a rabbit than for being creative in and around its skin, at least when your name is Kristin Meller, who seems to thrive on setting rules (or limitations) when she’s making art, here in the sense that the universe for this ongoing series is circumscribed by the exoskeleton of Peter (or Pam) Cottontail. And Beatrix Potter has nothing on Kristin Meller.
I’m in a quandary because the minute I start attaching words to what Meller’s going for here — I almost said “has achieved” but her universe isn’t finite like that, and she explains that this is an ongoing series (divided into six sub-series: Cosmic, Bush, Blood, Space, Dreams, and Dust, as in Decay) — I’m imposing on her art a language that isn’t hers. In fact, in creating now 60 linotypes and resultant linographs (in French, linogravures) with the rabbit as a starting point, theoretically associated with themes related to dreams, death, and blood, Meller told me last night, she didn’t think, at least not with her brain. “It was a graphic proposition.” Or as I observed to her after she told me this, “I see so many artists these days who *start* with a cute concept that’s immediately obvious, and here you’ve done the inverse.” There’s nothing cloying about Meller or her work. (Neither can one describe it as ‘naive’; she’s too politically engaged and technically sophisticated for that.) If the rabbits do suggest stories, I have the feeling that these narratives, or personages, came afterwards, following the artistic impulse. Which is not to say they’re ho-hum, or limited: Where I saw a peacock in the layers of multi-colored plumage covering one rabbit’s body, Meller described a fish, referring to its shape. And it helped me find a more global idea — and that conforms with Meller’s political societal concerns — to hear her explain that in four linographs grouped together on the wall near the window facing a newly liberated green space across the narrow winding street high atop Belleville, one suggested a Japanese person zooming along on a scooter trailing exhaust; the other a Mexican vomiting (although Meller might have put it this way: “That one’s Mexico, and that one’s Japan” — the colors of the former did indeed mimic those of the Mexican flag) ; another a balloon at the heart of which floated, somewhat tenuously, a vaporous, fragile, surrounded planet, which balloon a spike threatened to pop (“When I see a balloon, I want to pop it” Meller told me gleefully); and another the earth bursting. In other words — Meller confirmed this to me — the climate crisis. The statement was much stronger than the hashtag for the French Green party in the upcoming May 26 European Parliament elections: “Votez climate.” How can one ‘vote’ for the climate? The problem isn’t the climate, but that — as the British might put it — it’s hotting up.
Speaking of getting fried, another series posted near the door opening to the stairway leading down to the courtyard outside the atelier Meller’s shared for more than 25 years with her partner Raul Velasco — who had cooked up a batch of his patented beans and avocado-infused pico de gallo for the vernissage — featured rabbits who, like transparent electric fish, all seemed to be electrified in their reddened veins within as if they’d received a sudden shock. “It’s blood,” Meller enlightened me.
Another pair resembled amoeba, two more opposed an interior vagina and a wheel whose spokes were comprised of multiplying male sex organs (maybe) and my favorite a pair of rabbits coupling but so elegantly that ‘fusing’ is a better term.
Here’s to more fusion and less frisson for all of us.
PS: If we’ve not illustrated this article — you can check the exhibition poster published earlier this week here if you like — it’s because Meller rightly says she doesn’t want people looking at her work online, she wants them to come to the gallery. Which you can do if you’re in Paris through May 28, perhaps making a Bellevilloise day of it during the week-end of May 24 – 26, when the neighborhood celebrates its artists with the Portes Ouvertes de Belleville.
Jean Fouquet, “The Right Hand of God Protecting the Faithful against the Demons,” circa 1452–1460. Courtesy Metropolitan Museum of Art. For more information on the tableau, click here.
by Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2019 Paul Ben-Itzak
(Like this article? Cet article vous plait? Please make a donation today so we can continue covering the Paris arts world / Penser à faire un don aujourd’hui alors qu’on peut continuer d’ecrire sur le monde de l’art a Paris in Dollars or Euros by designating your payment through PayPal to email@example.com , or write us at that address to learn how to donate by check. Paul is also looking for a sous-location ou échange de bons procédés (logement contre travail) en région Parisienne a partir du 11 mai et surtout un logement / location pour le 13 mai. Le contacter à firstname.lastname@example.org.)
“My desire will be happy to learn
what fate awaits me:
Expected arrow don’t hit me so hard.”
— Danté (Paradise, song 17, pages 25-27)
“Well, you know that I love to live with you
But you make me forget so very much
I forget to pray for the angels
And then the angels forget to pray for us.”
— Leonard Cohen, “So long Marianne,” being sung by a busker behind Notre-Dame on Easter Sunday, 2019
PARIS — Here are some of my memories associated with Notre-Dame: Being shocked to learn, from a sign posted on the church’s gates in 2005, that among those who would be choosing the successor to Pope John-Paul was the disgraced Boston cardinal Bernard Law.… Stiffing a French girl I was dating in 2002 to go to an improvisation match between the N-D organ and a tuba, which cued our final rupture…. Crossing the short bridge (its brown iron railings recently replaced with love-lock proof glass) over the Seine in the shadow of the church on which Charles Boyer held a clandestine RDV with Ingrid Thulin in occupied Paris in Vincente Minelli’s 1962 “The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse” (and above where Gene Kelly waltzed Leslie Caron in Minelli’s 1951 “An American in Paris”) in 2006 with a girl named Charlotte Lejeune who made my heart feel jeune again after seeing Katherine Dunham and Lena Horne in “Stormy Weather” at a cinema on the rue Christine near where Miles had wooed Greco at the Club Taboo and dining on buckwheat crepes and hard cider on the rue Mouffetard, and hearing her declare upon beholding Notre-Dame, “Elle est BELLE!” My initial reaction to the news was that it’s just a thing — no one died in the fire which tore the roof off the 900-year-old sucker last month — and whose significance, like most of the things in Paris, derives not just from the architecture (in N-D’s case, a pell-mell melange of epochs; the same architect whose spire everyone’s now lamenting has been maligned for centuries for turning the towers of Carcassonne into epoch-inconsistent coneheads), historical context, and personal memories but from the allure with which artists have invested them over time. (Following the catastrophe, Victor Hugo’s “Notre-Dame de Paris” soared back to the top of the best-seller lists.) After all, who would give a second thought to Winesburg, Ohio, if Sherwood Anderson hadn’t made it the setting for the first American psychological novel? What made a floating laundry basin — the Bateau Lavoir — the fulcrum of Cubism and the birthplace of Surrealism, if not the alchemy of Picasso, Braque, and Max Jacob that it spawned? Why did this fulcrum migrate from Montmartre to Montparnasse in the 1920s, if not for the ateliers the city set up around the train station and the artists and writers who installed themselves there? What made the Haute Provence so special if not Jean Giono’s lyrical rhapsodies? And the filthiest street in the world a hallowed terrain for urban adventurers if not the imagination and knack for capturing the local lingo of Damon Runyon?
To try to augment my empathy for the Parisians, French, and foreigners who have taken the fire and gutting of much of Notre-Dame’s roof more deeply to heart than I have — “With that woodwork, it was like you could touch history; now that’s gone forever,” one particularly anti-clerical friend confided in me — I’ve imagined what I might feel like if one of the towers of the Golden Gate Bridge suddenly fell off. I’ve also reminded myself that I’m not just the Joe Biden of columnists, so mesmerized by the sound of his own voice that he doesn’t seem to care about the readers who get lost in the parentheses within parentheses never to be heard from again, but a reporter, and that this is my beat. (Or as I reflected on a recent late afternoon while sipping the last of my hot thermos mint tea on a bridge over the Canal St.-Martin where the volunteers of “Une Chorba Pour Tous” — a pirate operation judging by the way they quickly packed up their van and took off afterwards — had just dispensed hot soup and baguettes to the black and brown masses who continue to huddle under the tracks at La Chapelle no matter how many times the authorities clear them out: “Paris. It was his city.”) So on Easter Sunday, after the usual round of skirt-chasing (actually they’re not wearing skirts this season, but high-wasted pants with the ever-present pre-fabricated holes — if Malcolm McLaren were to return to Paris today, he’d find the girls all dressing like his prodigy Sid Vicious and stroking tiny screens instead of live mice — and short shirts or sweaters) and book-hunting and quixotic Dulcinella ping-pong partner courting and having my thermos tea with Delacroix at his fountain in the Luxembourg Gardens (he’s another one: Most of the tourists who pause to take their pictures in front of the fountain have no idea who he was; if I didn’t, would I be quite as inspired every time I sit there looking up at the master of color’s Byronic bust and his Muse’s naked torso supplicating him below it?), I descended to the Seine to assess the damage.
From the recent exhibition at the Metropoloitan Museum of Art and the Louvre: Eugène Delacroix, “Self-Portrait in Green Vest.” Oil on canvas, circa 1937. Musée du Louvre, Paris. Copyright RMN – Grand Palais / Art Resource, New York. Photo: Michel Urtado.
But first, by way of prelude: If I’ve scrapped the political commentary in earlier versions of this piece as it ultimately didn’t seem appropriate to use this catastrophe as a soap-box (even for expounding on pertinent and larger related issues, e.g. as an indication of a generalized lack of official concern for the country’s patrimony which pre-dates this administration, with Nicolas Sarkozy as the exception, his Socialist successor scrapping Sarkozy’s plans for a museum of the history of France), I still think it’s legitimate to cite two issues which have arisen in the debate — and it is a debate — over the appropriate measures to take for the church’s reconstruction.
“It’s a building — We’re human beings. What about us?” This is how one Gilet Jaune or “Yellow Vest” interviewed on French public radio reacted to the news that two of France’s richest families had donated a combined 330 million Euros to repair the church within 24 hours of the fire. Because another fixture that has been eroding in France in recent years, according to many, is the social ‘welfare’ state erected by the National Council of Resistance after the War, the question is entirely pertinent. Or, as the Gilets Jaunes of the Paris suburb of Pantin, right next to mine, expressed their demands in a flyer distributed at a recent Saturday market outside the Church of Pantin, they seek:
** “A minimum wage of 12 Euros an hour.” (Less than the $15/hour minimum many American states have recently adopted.)
** “The means for our schools, smaller class size.” (To which was added the complaint that their children are being oriented less and less towards college and more and more towards brief professional formations.)
** “Health care for all; free care (notably dental care).” (Contrary to what you may have heard, health care isn’t free for everyone here, and most French have to subsidize their public plan with private insurance.)
** “Construction and maintenance of affordable housing.”
The second pertinent issue was raised by numerous preseveration specialists, including state functionaries, alarmed by a measure adopted by Parliament May 2 which includes a provision that would allow the government to over-ride existing ecological and preservation regulations during the reconstruction, in the interests of fast-tracking the repairs so that they can be finished in time for the 2024 Paris Olympics.
My own view is that the country’s real monument is its artistic and literary canon. (Although an argument could be made that as architecture and art repository Notre-Dame falls into this category.)
Johan Barthold Jongkind (Dutch, 1819–1891), “The Pont Neuf,” 1849–50. Oil on canvas, 21 1/2 x 32 1/8 in. (54.6 x 81.6 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Walter Mendelsohn, 1980. Both this tableau and that of Fouquet, above, have recently been showcased at the Met as a gesture of solidarity with those affected by the Notre-Dame fire.
It was my ongoing quest for both of these — as well as the perennial cherche pour l’ame-soeur (soul-mate) — that found me on Easter Sunday morning exiting the Denfert Rochereau Metro station across the street from the Catacombs (some of whose residents have been there as long as Notre-Dame), and heading down the avenue Denfert Rochereau (toujours fixé a le Meridian moi) for the sprawling headquarters of the benevolent association “Big Neighbors,” a sort of Jewish Community Center for recent immigrants, except that unlike the JCC most of its activities are free. The occasion was a crafts — crafts fabricated by the migrants — and vide-grenier sale. The last time I was here — the event is held every month if you want to check it out — I’d scored, for a combined 2 Euros, paperback editions of two books I’d actually been looking for — Céline’s “Voyage to the end of night” and Zola’s “L’oeuvre,” a thinly veiled biography of Cézanne or Monet or both — as well as Jean Genet’s “The Maids,” and tried to score with a woman who was selling hand-lithographed “Les Ping-Pongeurs” tee-shirts, which she explained celebrated the association’s ping-pong table, which had become a kind of community fireside for the migrants, a lieu for exchanging their own stories. Partly to prolong the contact but also for a future Lutèce Diary, I’d given the woman my card and asked her to e-mail me images of the tee-shirt’s design as soon as she had them. She’d given me hers too but as there was no e-mail address, I’d resorted to trying to “friend” her on Facebook, after also noting that we had similar musical tastes and being impressed with the number and type of other associations she volunteered for or “liked,” notably the Palestinian Film Festival.
This time around in the book department I scored once again and for the same bargain rate, the price dropping from 2 Euros to 1 between the time I asked the woman guarding two large bins of them how much they were (“2 Euros”) and the moment I started looking elsewhere (“actually, they’re all 1 Euro”). I found a limited edition copy of a lavishly illustrated history of Modern Art from the ’50s (the best era for color reproduction) I’d used to own but lost, a hefty hardcover “Dictionary of Synonymes” (useful for translating), and, the real coupe, a copy of Victor Serge’s “Les années sans pardon.” Serge being one of the real-life heroes of one of my translating projects, Michel Ragon’s novel “La mémoire des vaincus.” In what I assume to be a thinly fictionalized telling of his own story — Serge was a non-violent anarchist publisher who became a disillusioned ally of the Bolsheviks, unsuccessfully trying to get the French Communist Party to acknowledge Soviet crimes — the book, published in 1947, recounts the Communists’ tracking of one of its Paris leaders after he quits the party, even though he promises to beat a gentle retreat to Mexico (where Serge would die that same year).
(I forgot to mention, important because it comes up later, that at a real gauntlet of a vide-grenier near the la Villette basin on the other side of the Seine earlier that morning, whose sublime and free highlight was observing Paris come to life while having my thermos tea perched on the Crimée pedestrian bridge over the Ourcq Canal and watching the drawbridge go up and then back down for no apparent reason as there was no boat traffic, and that was really more of a brocante — junk — sale, I’d spent all of 1 Euro on a “Dictionary of Symbols,” a gift for a witch I know. (You know which witch you are.) And scored some bargain stomach sustenance: A canned roast chicken salad for a Euro, a pound of dry rice for 50 cents, and a can of duck mousse for the same, the idea being it will give me something local to eat my first night back in the Dordogne, a.k.a. duck country.) (Lest you think I just eat them as this is the second Lutèce Diary in a row in which I’ve mentioned my predilection for this Dordogne staple, I recently had the opportunity to give back, lunching with one famished female canard with a bald-spot on her head on the lip of the pond of the parc George Brassens, calmly gray and sparsely populated on a drizzly Sunday. We dined on left-over Texas-style cornbread and peas, my new friend making duck eyes at me every time she came up from fishing the crumbs out of the muddy shallows.)
Next (we’re back at the vide-grenier in one of the courtyards of les Big Neighbors) I landed a telling item for this column, when a particularly ugly American demanded, in English, of the woman selling next to the bookstand, “I don’t speak French, can you tell her” — her being an older woman with stringy gray hair within hearing distance who’d just set down a tattered box against a nearby column — “that she doesn’t have the right to that space, my friend paid for it and she didn’t pay,” which request he repeated insistently again and again until the seller reluctantly ceded. I guess the young man, unshaven and clad in dirty jeans — who, once the FRENCH woman who UNLIKE HIM HAD THE RIGHT TO BE SELLING AT A FRENCH VIDE-GRENIER sadly walked away, threw down what looked like over-sized tinker-toy wheels on the pavement — wasn’t aware that the reason his friend had had to pay for him was that he has no standing here. Talk about ugly Americans: This loser couldn’t even communicate “I don’t speak French” correctly.
Having surpassed my quota of ugly Americans for the day and my book budget as well, I continued searching for the Ping-Pongeuse who was the real object of my visit through the alleys and across the several courtyards of the Big Neighbors complex, weaving among handmade crafts and clothing and over-priced ash-trays and carafes — the association even offers a restaurant and a bench-lined roof terrace over the entrance where you can take your coffee looking out on the tree-lined avenue, surveilling this stretch of the Meridian. Finally spotting her behind dark sun-glasses (“Quick, that Facebook weirdo is coming over here, hand me those shades!”) wearing a large white sweatshirt which showed off her sliver-brunette bangs and deftly rolling an orange ping-pong ball between my nimble if shaking fingers — the paddles were stashed away in my “Re-Nais – Sance” bag — I stepped up to the Ping-Pongeurs table and, while she stared blankly back at me behind the sun-glasses not changing her expression, sputtered, “I’m the guy who asked you for art of your Ping-Pongeurs tee-shirt for my magazine last month.”
“I remember.” (I’m on to you, Buster, with your vintage 1973 paddles and orange ball, if orange balls tickled my fancy I’d stay at home watching re-runs of “The Prisoner.”)
“I’m still interested.”
“I know, I still have your card.” (Buried in my ‘non-recyclable’ pile.) “But we haven’t been able to take any pictures, what with the Sun coming out and all.” (She didn’t phrase it exactly that way, but I’m channeling Carson McCullers. She comes up later.)
My witch not being available to inform my Ping-Pongeuse that despite the missing teeth I really was a frog waiting to be turned into a prince I decided to take my witch gift “Dictionary of Symbols” further down the Meridian to the Fountain of the Four Parts of the World in the Explorers Garden which abuts the Luxembourg, where at least the four maidens carrying the whole world in their hands wouldn’t glare back at me for ogling their bare bronze chests. I’d read on Wikipedia that one of these ladies, designed by Carpeaux, was supposed to be an American Indian and, besides that she was the least demeure of the bronze babes, bending forward into the wind at the haunches instead of remaining loftily above it like her European sister, she was also recognizable by the (stereotypical) braid…. mirrored in the braided manes of the two horse-mermaids rearing their heads below her. Opening the dictionary while trying to protect it from the errant spray of the water fight going on between the bronze turtles on the first level and the fish below the horse-mermaids, I looked up ‘turtle’ first and was tempted to bang my head on the nearest ping-pong table because as I already should have known, having jogged in a colorful “Turtle Island Marathon” tee-shirt for years back in San Francisco, this is the most obvious, four-parts-of-the-world symbolism of the turtle — the American Indian maiden should have clued me in: They hold the whole world on their shells. And if we keep pissing off the noble turtle, or tortoise, he’s going to retreat into his shell and leave us to our own wiles. (According to the dictionary, whose sources are a bit obscure, the turtle is also apparently both phallic and vaginal, making a strong case for augmenting the already onerous acronym LGBQT to LGBQTET, for eunuch turtles.)
Before heading over to and down the Boul’Mich to Notre-Dame to do my nominal reporter’s job, I decided to look up “arrow,” hoping to find a literary significance for Viollet le Duc’s “fleche de Notre-Dame” going up in flames. Besides being about getting closer to Heaven and giving Cupid a helping hand, the book informed me, the arrow also represents destiny, or as Al Dante quipped about the time Notre-Dame was going up (Paradise, song 17, pages 25-27):
“My desire will be happy to learn
what fate awaits me:
Expected arrow don’t hit me so hard.”
I was hit harder by the disaster zone that greeted me from the Ile de Cité than I’d expected to be when I was finally able to forge my way through the somber Easter Sunday crowd congesting the widened sidewalk — the pedestrians spilling over to the bicycle lane — along the Quay Tournelle facing the church across the water, more hushed than usual; even the ten gendarme vans that sped by with blue lights flashing while I was slowly threading my way through the throng, all of our heads askance to look up and over the river at the church, had respectfully silenced their sirens.
Eugène Atget, “Au Tambourg 63 quai de Tournelle,” 1908.
I’d heard that the twin towers themselves had been spared, but their innards are toast, charred to carbon. Literally, this is all you see through the windows, carbon black. Between the twin towers the roof has effectively been torn off, its curved rim warped on the edge facing the Ile St. Louis, as is the scaffolding which once surrounded the arrow, the fire melting even part of the metal. Two alabaster bishops remain perched high atop the outer ledge of the roof, saluting the Paris skyline from their posts after having been powerless to protect their earthly fiefdom, but the windows below them are also blackened. (This could be from drawn curtains.) When you look at the structure from the Ile St. Louis, which I eventually reached after about half an hour, one of the bishops appears to be turned away from you, his crowned head inclined in mourning.
The real miracle — besides that anything at all is still standing (I’ve seen fires reduce medieval stone houses in my Dordogne village to a pile of rubble in 10 minutes) — is that the ring of gargoyles high up towards where the roof once was (and thus closer than you and me to Heaven) is intact. I know from gargoyles, my first story for the New York Times having been on the gargoyles of Princeton, about which a colleague, Laurel Cantor, had written a precise and elegant book. My favorite was a monkey with a camera peering down from an arch across the street from the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs who appeared to be taking pictures of those looking up at him as they passed under the arch. (As I write this I’m realizing that gothic buildings have another resonance with me, evoking the surroundings that welcomed me in September 1979 to grounds that otherwise looked like a hurricane had swept through them, because one had, me arriving in Princeton the morning after Hurricane Frederick. It’s really something to live in the garret of one of those buildings, as I did, wondering if you’re big enough to walk in their shoes, but Fitzgerald’s fit mine perfectly, as far as our Princeton expiration date went anyway. We both lasted longer than Eugene O’Neill, Class of ’10, although he and I ran into the same obstacle at PU: “It’s tradition-bound.” Those gargoyles were the beginning of my end at Princeton, the Times wanting more stories from me after that one, written in the Summer of 1983 while I was covering for the regular stringer as a member of the University Press Club, whose other members ordered me to stop writing for the Times when he came back in September. Both me and my editor convinced there was enough to go around, I refused, was kicked out of the club, the bottom fell out of my social life, I stopped going to class, when I sought help, explaining the various stressors, from the dean of the college she scolded me, “Other students are able to have personal problems without letting them get in the way of their studies,” miserable and telling myself I was already doing what I wanted to do anyway, writing for the Times, I left Princeton but it never left me.)
Who’s zooming who? Gargoyle from the campus of Princeton University. Photo courtesy Princeton University.
Beholding those gargoyles of Notre-Dame unscathed by the flames made me think of that monkey, and, later, seeing the way they seemed to be gawking back across the Seine at the tourist gawkers, of the apes on Monkey Island at the San Francisco Zoo, who used to throw their caca at visitors. (I know this from warning the kids I’d take on field trips there not to stand too close to the monkeys, which of course had the opposite effect.) As the Notre-Dame gargoyles stared back down at us staring up at them, I found myself hoping they’d come to life and start heaving fossilized merde at the tourists. (Why such hostility? I guess this is the other reason I’d put off coming down to Notre-Dame to check out the fire damage. I didn’t want to watch the tragedy turn into yet another photo opportunity for tourists, like the Place de la Republique became after the November 13, 2015 massacres: We are not your “I was here” photo moment, tourist-fuckers. We hurt. Now that I start tearing up at writing that it occurs to me that maybe this inability to feel anything about the fire has just been denial. All the things I love about Paris and France are disappearing. Valuable old books are sold for less than fish-wrap (Le Monde costs 1.25), and the social model that used to make France different and unique and the anti (dote) American is also eroding. In my village the post-man, or woman, used to stop and chat with the elders living alone, sometimes bringing them their paper or baguette or having a petite gout of eau de vie with the retired farmer. Now if you want the mailman/woman to spend more than 30 seconds with your 90-year-old grandmother you have to pay the post office for the service…. (Which post-office also eliminated, under Emmanuel Macron’s Socialist predecessor, the special book rate for sending the country’s literature abroad; so much for exporting French culture.) And Notre-Dame is not just a marketing opportunity to be superficially prettied up in time for the Olympics. It needs to be made whole again.
Ah yes, the books. I was also upset because at least for the first few blocks, the crowd moving along the quay to get a better look at the damaged church across the river was completely ignoring the bookstalls past which this brought them. And yet these bouquinistes, whose lives are not easy — a former friend of mine in the trade worked winters as a museum security guard to support his book-selling habit — are the real guardians of the most valuable monument France has given the world, its literature. This is why on his first morning in Paris, where he’d been sent to fetch the scion of a wealthy Boston family from the clutches of a scheming older Frenchwoman (the Henries seem to have something against this breed, the only thing not quiet in Miller’s “Quiet Days in Clichy” being a Frenchie his hero hooks up with), before he even saw about the boy Henry James’s Lambert Strether (in “The Ambassadors”) headed straight to the quays to search for and procure a complete set of the works of Victor Hugo. At a recent vide-grenier high up on the Meridian — near the Cité Universitaire — I scored a complete volume of the Great Man’s plays that might have been sitting right next to the set Strether bought, given that it was published in the 1880s, for 1 Euro. I’m happy for my library but dismayed about what this says about the value contemporary society attaches to the product of my endangered trade and species. (Further down the quays I joined two older French gentlemen scouring through bins where everything was for sale at 2 Euros, high for vide-greniers but low for bouquinistes. I passed on a volume of the essays, reviews, and other rarely collecting writings of Carson McCullers because it was in French and I was still scarred by an experience with a translation of “The Heart is a Lonely Hunter” which had the Black characters speaking a kind of plantation dialect that made Ebonics seem like Latin by comparison.)
Speaking of dead poets, while the church plaza was cordoned off, its back-side outside the fence and leading to the bridge to the Ile St. Louis — right across the street from the stairs descending to the Holocaust Memorial in what resembles a prison, except instead of Kilroy the graffiti is signed “Albert Camus” — was open. (From my favorite bench on the Ile St-Louis en face you can see the bars of the memorial’s triangular corner room.) The crowd here was more subdued, lulled in part by a long-grey-haired man reprising Leonard Cohen’s “So Long, Marianne,” whose theme — gracefully accepting change — was just right for the occasion:
“So long, Marianne, it’s time that we began
To laugh and cry and cry and laugh about it all again.”
When the singer shifted to a more obvious choice (I’m not being more specific because it would leave you singing the song all day, which would still be more dulcet than the middle-aged Danish woman who walked by at that moment doing so.) (Oops, now I realize I left out the sample of Danish pastry a comely boulangerista handed me as I was heading away from the Catacombs towards my rendez-vous with the Ping-Pongeuse, which reminded me of another comely boulangerista at the same bakery at the entrance to the rue Daguerre who I tried to court 18 years ago by handing her a sunflower — during the epoch this is what I was packing, the idea being that I would spontaneously give my tournesol to whatever woman sparked my fancy — only to overhear her afterwards flirting on a bench outside the Catacombs with one very living beau. If this digression annoys you, just be thankful I’m sparing you the two-page entry for “Tournesol” in “The Dictionary of Symbols,” although my witch, who’s also a gardener and almost as much of a sunflower fanatic as me, will appreciate it.)
Still hoping to make myself cry (unfortunately I’d forgotten how Spencer Tracy achieves this to win an argument with Katherine Hepburn — I can’t even remember the name of the film) or at least feel something besides the urge to will the gargoyles to life so that they could start hurling their caca at the tourists, I crossed to the Ile St.-Louis and descended to my favorite bench, once again miraculously free, and from which perspective in 16 years of pique-niquing I’ve been looking across the water at Notre-Dame. At least this is how I remembered it, but when I got to the bench, I realized that what I’ve actually been looking at is that barred prison cell in the caverns of the Holocaust Memorial, with Camus lurking somewhere on its walls waiting to tell us that prison is just a state of mind.
As for the Ile itself, as with Montmartre for me on this trip, during which I’ve been trying not to just resurrect my previous nostalgia for epics I never lived but pay attention to whether they evoke anything for me now, thanks to the assholes who think they can play their annoying music and subject everyone else to it — there used to be a common understanding among We the People of the Ile that this was a music-free-zone — that magic was stifled, at least on this visit.
Recently fixed up thanks to a public subscription campaign, the loriette atop the Jardin des Plantes is the oldest iron structure in Paris.
Fearing a similar letdown at the loriette above the nearby Jardin des Plantes — the oldest iron structure in Paris, recently restored thanks to a public inscription campaign — I crossed to the Left Bank and tiredly made my way through the outdoor sculpture garden, stopping only long enough to pee into a metal trough of stagnant amber liquid above which was the inevitable sign from the Mayor: “Paris is clean!” No wonder that when I got there another man was emerging from behind the urinal, where it was no doubt more clean. (Further along in the sculpture garden I found a sort of one-unit “Paris is pissing to fertilize” pissoir with plants in the basin whose complete exposure to the foot traffic makes me wonder what libertine of a deputy mayor dreamed this particular Eco-idea up, although the Serge book informs me that even the Grands Boulevards used to be littered with pissoirs “from which one can see only the cuffs and the shoes” of the piseurs, pissing away the excesses of Capitalism.)
After climbing up to the loriette, where the only free thin metal bench was directly facing the bright 6 p.m. Sun over the green tiles of the Mosque of Paris (the main journalistic justification for this effort was that I wanted to compare religious monuments. Speaking of mosques, maybe the Notre-Dame renovation fund could give, I dunno, 200,000 of that 330 million to the fellows down the street form me here in the prè-St. Gervais, who do their worshiping in a storefront the only religious indication of which is the “Vigi-Pirate” sign on the frosted glass door and the sandals on the ledge outside the mosque on Fridays), I decided I had to say coucou to the Kangaroos (I call them that, but I think they’re actually wallabies), another effort to tap into an early Paris sentimental sensation, when I first discovered them in 2000 and liked to sip my cider leaning up against a bullet-ridden concrete wall facing the pen the kangaroos shared with a pair of black swans. That makeshift terrace has now been walled in as part of a restaurant; paying customers only, please.) I was rewarded with a close-up view, through a fence, of a baby kangaroo milking at his mama’s breast before pitching itself into her pouch, and mama hopping away. A three-year-old boy to whom a papa had been pointing out all these marvels shrieked, “Look Papa, pigeons!” “I point out something really special and you talk to me about pigeons.”
After Mama bounded off, baby in pouch, Dad (I’m talking about the kangaroo) stepped forward to grab a very large slice of raw eggplant from where it had been strewn about with tomatoes and leeks — ratatouille! — neatly nibbling everything away but the black skin before tossing it. That did it. Feeling weak having imbibed nothing but mint tea for six hours I decided to open the can of chicken-vegetable salad — tant pis if it might had fallen off a truck of botchulated foodstuffs on their way back to the factory.
I was about to crawl down into the mouth of the Jusseau metro — I knew there was a toilet on the Place Jusseau; all that mint tea — when I looked across the street and realized it was the “Street of the Arenes.” Yes, I was a traffic light away from THE 2000 year-old arenas of Lutèce, the ancient name for Paris and the more recent name of this column. Another landmark — or rather Paul nostalgia point — that I could cross off my bucket list with just a quick detour.
Ignoring a man strumming his guitar on the first level of the park below the arenas (Oops, the musical reference reminds me that I left out the tango party on the Tino Rossi Square below the Sculpture Garden set against the Seine and beyond that Notre-Dame to which none of the tango dancers who packed the square listening to recorded Carlos Gardel numbers were paying any attention, and where seeing three guys pushing 70 dancing with three girls who won’t be pushing 30 for at least five years told me I should have kept up with those Fort Worth tango lessons and brought my new tango boots instead of my 47-year-old ping-pong paddles to Paris), I continued up the stairs to the concrete lodges flanking one side of the arena from which the Emperor once sat looking down on the gladiators and across at the people in the bleachers, Emperor and subjects drooling over the slaves being tossed out of the cages to the lions, and sat sipping my tea on the bench carved into the lodge before noticing that below that, on the roof of one of the cages, a niche had been carved into the stone big enough for a small emperor to squeeze into, which I did, only instead of a slave being chased by a lion a young woman in a short jeans skirt and white blouse came running towards me chasing a metal ball, which is all they’re chasing these days in the 2000-year-old Arenes de Lutèce.
Heading back where I came from after drinking more tea and emptying it in the appropriate place, then sitting down to enjoy the guitar player before leaving Lutèce, not far from the exit I noticed, in an alcove behind a fenced-in lawn on the other side of which was the arena, a naked alabaster maiden with no head reclining on a body-length stone shelf above an empty basin and cuddling an urn-like object in the crook of her arm. In front of the locked fence protecting the lawn between the fence and the maiden was a stationary sign announcing “Pesticide-free rye and poppies coming soon, thanks to the Friends of the Poppies.” Then I noticed the Don’t drink the water symbol (a faucet with a cross through it) above the alabaster lady and, sure enough, looking closer recognized the three rectangular water outlets below her.
In other words, I’d discovered yet another dry, poorly maintained fountain in Paris, whose administration hasn’t yet figured out that, respiration-wise, a flowing fountain would be a lot more reassuring then poppies and rye. (And I say this as someone of Jewish heritage, whose natural inclinations lean more towards poppies and rye than Gallo-Roman idols.) (I know what you’re thinking: If they’d just put up “Pissoir Ici” signs on all the dry fountains around Paris this would solve two problems. Don’t tempt me.)
This is when I had the revolutionary — for a guy who’s always come to Paris, like Malcolm McLaren, to live yesterday today — revelation: This is what is supposed to happen to decrepit monuments. Their heads fall off. This is what happened to Notre Dame: It’s head fell off. Now, if something happened to that Delacroix fountain, I might be singing a different story….
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.
From the exhibition Vera Molnar, Affinités particulières: Hommages à Dürer, Cezanne, Klee, on view at the Galerie Berthet-Aittouares in Paris through April 20: Vera Molnar, “Montparnasse, d’après Klee, en bleu, vert et rouge,” 2006. Numéro 3, 17×17 cm, 12 x 12cm. Image copyright Galerie Berthet-Aittouares.