Monday, October 24, 2016

Fifty Years of the Gamma Photo Agency

I really like photography.  Good photography.  And few agencies had better photos on a more regular basis than Gamma.
     But now it’s gone.

Abu Dhabi - Jack Burlot - 1973
Gamma was a French photo agency.  It was founded in 1966 by famous photographer Raymond Depardon, who’s perhaps even more famous for his later films.  Depardon had partners:  Hubert Henrotte (who later went on to start his own agency, Sygma.), Hugues Vassal (famous for his photos of Piaf and the Shah of Iran), and Léonard de Raemy (photographer to the stars).  They were joined shortly thereafter by Gilles Caron, illustrious for his coverage of the Six-Day War, the Biafran War, and France’s very own student/worker riots in May-June 1968.  (Caron disappeared in the Khmer-held territory of Cambodia in 1970; he was only 30 years old.)
Vietnam - Jean-Claude Labbé - 1976
     Others whose names you may or may not have heard are Françoise Demulder, Chas Gerretsen, William Karel, Catherine Leroy, François Lochon, Georges Merillon and Emanuele Scorcelletti. The agency soon grew its own crop of famous names:  Abbas, Jean Gaumy, Sebastião Salgado, David Burnett and Gianni Giansanti.  Eventually it represented more than 6,000 photographers in all.
     The agency’s initial aims were to improve the working conditions of photojournalists and implement equitable treatment of all its photographers.  Photo by photo, Gamma became the agency, whether for images of the glitterati or the warfront.

Kabul - Eric Bouvet - 2001

But as with all human undertakings, where egos are involved, conflict and jealousy soon erupted.  In May of 1973, a strike broke out and ultimately most of the photographers followed Henrotte to Sygma.  In 1980, Depardon made a film, “Reporters”, in which he followed several of Gamma’s photographers as they went about chasing images.  And then he left for the rival agency, Magnum.
     As the 20th century drew to a close, Gamma was losing money, perhaps because of its refusal to “go digital”.  In 1999, it was bought up by a division of Hachette Filipacchi Médias and kept functioning.  When rumors circulated that the agency was in financial trouble in March of 2007, the agency changed owners and names several times.  It finally filed for Chapter 11 protection in mid-2009, after a loss of three million euros.
     In April of 2010, it was sold for a mere 100,000 euros to the Eyedea Group, headed by... François Lochon, one of Gamma’s early photographers.  The Group included the Rapho Agency, a legend in the realm of images. Continuing as Gamma-Rapho, it also handled the works of photographers Édouard Boubat, Robert Doisneau, Willy Ronis, Jean-Louis Swiners, and Sabine Weiss, as well as inheriting the archives of  the Keystone, Explorer, Hoa Qui and Stills agencies.

Corrida, Nîmes - Erik Sampers - 1991

So Gamma, per se, is gone, but its stock of over 500,000 photos still exists. Hard to track down, and all too-brief (Oct. 6-23 only), this exhibit included fifty of them selected from the entire range of its spheres of interest: “beautiful people”, everyday life, wars, humanitarian crises... anything that was news and caught the eye.  (A list of the photographers is given below.)
     All fifty are perfectly framed works of art that tell a story. All fifty were sold on the final Sunday, with the proceeds to benefit Reporters Without Borders (

A 336-page book weighing in at a hearty 2.6 kg (5.7 pounds!) is also available at a mere 59€.  (I hear it’s available via Amazon, although I prefer spending my money in brick-and-mortar stores.)

The exhibit’s photographers:  Jean-Louis Atlan, Patrick Aventurier, Hélène Bamberger, Jean-Pierre Bonnotte, Giancarlo Botti, Eric Bouvet, Henri Bureau, Jack Burlot, David Burnett, Gilles Caron, Patrick Chapuis, Georges De Keerle, Françoise Demulder, Raymond Depardon, Marc Deville, Alexis Duclos, Michel Folco, Jean-Claude Francolon, Raphaël Gaillarde, Yves Gellie, Gianni Giansanti, Chip Hires, Barry Iverson, David Kennerly, Peter Knapp, Kaku Kurita, Jean-Claude Labbé, Jean-Pierre Laffont, Bertrand Laforêt, Jean-Jacques Lapeyronnie, Michel Laurent, François Lochon, Michel Maïofiss, Pascal Maitre, Yves Manciet, Olivier Martel, Georges Mérillon, Pierre Perrin, Jean-Pierre Rey, Sebastiao Salgado, Erik Sampers, Eric Sander, Christian Simonpietri, Laurent Sola, Gilbert Uzan, Laurent Van Der Stockt, Diana Walker, and the unknown photographer of “Trooping the Colour”.

Trooping the Colour - unknown - 1970

Friday, October 21, 2016

Out & About - Exhibits: Hergé

In Paris, there’s always an art exhibit to see, given that the French capital has about 130 museums.  This October, one of them spotlights Belgian cartoonist Hergé.  I went to see it today.  And I hope my children will continue to speak to me, seeing as they feel his drawings are racist.
     It’s true that Herge’s very first Tintin book - Tintin au Congo - depicts the natives of the then-Belgian Congo with thick red lips and speaking pidgin English. Well, pidgin French actually.  I could explain to them that it was 1931 and things were different then, but they wouldn’t buy it.  I could say Hergé hadn’t been to Africa and only got his information from the Royal Museum for Central Africa* in Tervuren, just outside Brussels in his native Belgium, and that he was young and inexperienced.  But that wouldn’t help either.
     Still, I went to the exhibit because Hergé and Tintin are a huge part of the pop culture of 20th century French-speaking Europe, and probably the chief source of the enormous success of today’s comic book business - or graphic novel, as the publishing business prefers to call it nowadays, so that people will take it seriously as a genre.

Hergé’s actual name is Georges Remi, the inverted initials of which (RG) are pronounced air-zhay, or Hergé.  He was born in 1907 in Etterbeek, Belgium, just outside of Brussels, into a middle-class family.  His whole life was spent at the drawing board, most of the time turning out comic strips and albums, but sometimes publicity.
     He was already drawing comic strips when Germany took over Belgium, along with most of Europe.  When the magazines his strip appeared in were shut down by the Nazis, he had to find others in order to make a living.  Unfortunately for him, all the newspapers and magazines authorized by the occupying forces were deemed suspicious after Belgium was freed.  And so, in 1944, Hergé was arrested several times and interrogated, then released, but only officially cleared of collusion with the enemy in May of 1946.
     By then, his most famous creation - Tintin - had been around for almost twenty years.  The first of the Tintin albums - Tintin au pays des Soviets (Tintin in the Land of the Soviets) - came out at the start of 1929.  Although the young reporter is always off on an adventure somewhere around the globe - Switzerland, England, America, the Congo, Peru, India, Egypt, Indonesia, Nepal, Tibet, China - we never see him actually write anything.  His adventures are the story.
     In addition to all these countries, Hergé also stranded his boy reporterin the Sahara (like the pilot in Le Petit Prince) and out on the Atlantic Ocean.  But inspired by the novel of Jules Verne (From the Earth to the Moon) and the silent movie of Georges Méliès (A Trip to the Moon), Hergé’s love of the future had him land Tintin on the Moon in 1950, long before Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin set foot there in 1969.
     Other characters who accompany Tintin in his adventures are his trusty white fox terrier Snowy (Milou) and the irascible Captain Haddock, whose cursing (Mille milliards de mille sabords! or Tonnerre de Brest!) every young French and Belgian child can quote without getting their mouth washed out with soap.  Haddock (Hergé’s personal favorite character) lives in a country home which Hergé closely borrowed from Cheverny, one of the famous châteaux of the Loire Valley.  (One room of the exhibit has a large model of the Captain’s home and behind it, for comparison, a photo of Cheverny that takes up an entire wall.)

     There’s also the wildly inventive but totally scatterbrained and mostly deaf Professor Calculus (Professeur Tournesol) and two bumbling policemen - Thomson and Thompson (Dupont and Dupond) - who echo what each other says with a “To be precise...“ (Je dirais même plus...) and differ only slightly in their respective mustaches.   From time to time, there’s also the opera diva Bianca Castafiore, who terrifies Captain Haddock and sings horribly.
The exhibit includes hundreds, maybe thousands, of drawings of all these characters, plus some models of props from the series - a space module, a racing car, a planetarium...  It’s a very intense resume of an entire career, and perhaps not for everyone.  But lovers of this indisputably talented artist will find a wealth of information.  And the informational panels are in French, English and Spanish.
     And there were people of all ages, from children to very old timers probably reminiscing about their lost youth.

Hergé died of leukemia in 1983, leaving Tintin an orphan and his readers bereft.  Luckily for the European comic book world, he left behind a whole family of spiritual sons and daughters to fill the void:  Goscinny and Uderzo with the Astérix series, Morris with his iconic cowboy Lucky Luke, Claire Brétecher with her many frustrated females (including Cellulite), Franquin with his bumbling-but-well-meaning Gaston Lagaffe, Greg and the irrepressible Achille Talon...  not to mention the more realistic graphic novels à la Steve Canyon such as Lieutenant Blueberry, Buck Danny or Lady S.
     Today the comic book genre is still alive and well, not only in Europe but around the world.  And some of that we owe to Hergé.


Grand Palais
3 avenue du Général Eisenhower; 8è
Métro:  Champs-Elysées-Clemenceau

Sept. 28, 2016 - Jan. 15, 2017
10-8 / Closed Tuesdays / Wednesdays open until 10

12-13 € & 9 € (free under 13 years of age)


* For my blog on this museum, see

Sunday, October 9, 2016

Out & About - Magical antique automatons

If we're lucky, when we grow up, we manage to not let go of the ability to be amazed.  And when we discover something fascinating, we just stand and marvel.
     Which is why when a Paris friend told me about an exhibit of automatons, those marvelous tiny machines that come to life, move their eyes and limbs, and sometimes even more, I had to go.

This is not an exhibit in the strictest sense of the word.  Galerie Kugel deals in antiques, and has for five generations.  (Before that they were clockmakers in Germany, which ties in neatly with these automaton clocks.)  In 2004, the Galerie relocated to the building on the Seine River at 25 quai Anatole France, a mansion constructed in 1840 for the Director of the Mint.  The exhibit space takes up three levels:  the ground floor and two more.  The automatons are on the first level.
     In talking with one of the many young people who patrol the exhibition rooms, I learn how far Kugel goes to sell its antiques.  For instance, when I guess that the building dates from the 18th century, based on the wood panels on the walls, the young man explains that the panels have been mounted on the walls underneath and are for sale. He then adds that one wall of that room has been pushed back somehow to accommodate the Persian rug on the parquet floor.  The chandelier overhead is also not “d’origine” in this room - the real original one has been removed for the time of the show - and it's for sale.  Everything in the room is for sale.  What you are seeing is not someone’s study or living room or boudoir. It is, in fact, a theater set, complete with all the props, all of which could be yours for the asking... at the asking price.  All smoke and mirrors.  Lots of mirrors.

But back to the automatons.  Over 30 of them - the largest collection ever assembled - are artistically scattered throughout the room. Exquisitely lighted, they all glitter.  And only some of them are under protective glass.
     None are wound up so you won’t see them move, and signs ask you not to touch them.  But some have little screens on their pedestal running a video of the object in movement.  There’s also a large screen at the far end of the room with a video of all of them doing what talented hands created them to do.  In addition to telling time.
     Almost all of the creatures have eyes that look to one side and then the other, counting off the seconds.  Monkey and lion tails swish back and forth.  Dogs and other animals open and close their jaws.  “Though animals dominate the automaton kingdom, a few humans inhabit it as well, and one may encounter a Turkish horseman swinging his sword, and lion and bear tamers pulling on leashes.”  The fat king - or perhaps Gargantua? - lifts his glass again and again.  The mahout raises his trident and then lowers it to strike the hours.  Men and animals swirl around a tower.  A woman holding a glass of... something floats across the table on invisible wheels.
    Although the mechanics are amazing, even more amazing is the craftsmanship that went into all the engraving.  How many eyes were ruined incising all the tiny features?  The frown lines.  The embroidery on clothing.  The tweed fabric of the pirate’s trousers.  The fur of the camel and curly locks of the sheep’s wool.  Or simply the gilded backgrounds.
     Not to mention that all have working clocks, with all the gears required hidden from view within these golden masterpieces.
     How many hours went into the making of just one of the simple automatons, not to mention the larger, more complex chef d’oeuvres?
     Most of them were made in the 17th century in Augsburg in southern Germany, one of the leading goldsmith centers of its time.  Some were gifts that rich nobles offered to each other... and to themselves.   Still others were diplomatic presents.  "From the middle of the 16th century onward, automaton clocks were regularly sent to the Sultan in Istanbul, as part of the yearly tribute paid by the Empire in order to preserve peace. In the 17th century, Jesuit priests presented automaton clocks - along with other works of art and scientific curiosities - to the Chinese Emperor, hoping these gifts would help spread Christian ideas throughout Asia.”

You can also tour the other rooms, filled to the brim with antiques, some the very finest you could find anywhere.  I’m not sure what kind of décor they would fit in, but if only for the mastery of the craftsmen, it’s well worth your time to take a look.
     But even if you go only for the automatons, you won’t regret it.  As the gallery says, “Nearly 400 years after their creation, the animals of this mechanical bestiary continue to fill us with awe and wonder.“

Galerie J. Kugel
25 quai Anatole France; Paris 7è
Métro:  Assemblée Nationale or Solférino

September 9 - November 5, 2016

Free exhibition, Monday to Saturday: from 10.30 am to 7 pm

P.S.  The Musée d’Orsay is just a block away, if you’re still hungry for more beauty.

P.P.S.  If you enjoy automatons, there’s a museum of nothing but that in Lyon, France - an hour’s train ride south of Paris.  I covered it here in Sandy's France in 2011.  Here’s the link:

Sunday, October 2, 2016

Recipe of the Month: Soupe de potiron auvergnate

Anjony, Auvergne - lauze roofs

Once again it’s the season of Hallowe’en and Thanksgiving.  And that means a recipe for something with pumpkin.
  In America, “pumpkin...” is almost always followed by “...pie”.  But in France it’s not so much a sweet as a savory, used mainly for soups, and more recently in purée form as a side dish for roasted meats (as are carrots, turnips and celeriac).  The ones you want to use for baking or cooking are smaller and sweeter than jack-o’lantern pumpkins, and are called pie pumpkins, or sugar pumpkins, or sugar pie pumpkins.
  This recipe comes from Auvergne, in the Massif Central where volcanoes - now extinct - once towered above the primal waters that covered most of the Earth.  It is a handsome land in the summer, covered with vegetation made lush by the ancient lava flows, a land where russet cows graze freely.  But in winter, with temperatures often the lowest in all of France, it becomes a hard place to scratch out a living, and yet remains strikingly beautiful with its robust houses of dark basalt walls and lauze stone roofs standing out against the snow.  It is traditionally a poor region, where people survived on lentils, cabbage, chestnuts and pumpkin.  Chef Roland Durand grew up on a farm in the Auvergne, one of seven children, and learned to cook with his mother.  Which may be why he loves these simple recipes, the recettes de terroir.
  So here’s his seasonal soup for that pumpkin you didn’t use for a jack-o’lantern.  It’s more a meal than a soup, thanks to its bread and melted cheese, the Auvergne version of the internationally-known French onion soup.  Perfect for chilly evenings, it’s guaranteed to be filling.  And served in its shell, it’s sure to be a conversation stopper.

  • 1 pie pumpkin, about the size of a basketball
  • 4-6 slices of Cantal cheese
  • 4-6 slices of Poilane bread 
  • 2/3 to 1 qt of milk, cream or half-and-half
  • freshly ground pepper

- Preheat the oven to 375°F.
- Cut off the top of the pumpkin, saving the cap to use as a lid.  Scrape out the seeds and coarse fibers.
- Place the pumpkin in a rimmed baking dish and fill the inside with alternating layers of cheese and  bread.  Pour the milk/cream over the bread and cheese, filling the pumpkin to the top.  Add freshly ground pepper to taste.  (Cantal cheese is naturally very salty.)  Replace the cap on the pumpkin.
- Bake for 60 minutes.
- Serve by cutting the “bread/cheese melt” into sections and pouring the liquid over it.
Feeds four.

This is an easy recipe to make in France.  In the United States, you can replace the Cantal cheese with a very mild Cheddar.  The Poilane bread can be replaced with any sturdy whole-wheat bread, provided it’s dry enough; or else you can leave the bread out overnight so it dries a bit.  And yes, this is a perfect recycling dish for bread that’s going stale (but not moldy!).

Monday, July 11, 2016

Out and About: Exhibits: Artists in Montmartre, from Steinlen to Satie

Sometimes, when you’ve lived in a place long enough, you think you know it.
     And then you find out you don’t.
     I’ve lived in Montmartre since 1970 - with a short interlude - and I know it well.  I’ve visited the Musée de Montmartre many, many times.  But it was a nice afternoon, with nothing else to do, so I decided to walk over (well, up and over and back down; it’s a steep hill) to see the current temporary exhibit: Artists in Montmartre: from Steinlen to Satie.  And to discover Suzanne Valadon’s artist studio.
Clos Montmartre
The museum used to be small.  It had a tiny shop on Rue Cortot where you bought your tickets.  Later they added a bookshop across the flagstone path leading to the house.  And that was all there was. Just a small three-story house that used to be the country home - when the Butte Montmartre was far outside Paris - of famous actor Rosimonde, successor to Molière.  It was a museum that I could navigate with my eyes blindfolded.
     (Anecdote:  Rosimonde died in the wings of the theater after starring in Le Malade Imaginaire, just as Molière had before him.  The name of that play means “the hypochondriac”, which is ironic to the utmost.  The year was 1686.  It’s an old house.)
     All that has changed.  You still buy your tickets at the same place, but it’s bigger and sells books and cards and magnets, as do all Paris museums.  And now you enter the museum from the garden level, around the back of the house.
     As the garden is open to the public, I decided to start there, exploring the many levels that spill down to where the Clos Montmartre starts - the last vineyard remaining within Paris proper. The garden is very much as it must have been in Rosimonde’s day, which is kind of exciting to a history geek like me, in and of itself.  But on the east side of the garden I discovered  a gate, and that gate leads to the St. Vincent Garden, or it would if you could open it.  More about that in another blog.  Suffice to say that for almost half a century this garden remained closed to the world since 1940.  Even now it’s locked tight except for two half-days a week... or for school science trips.  There are things living and growing in there that are found nowhere else in Paris any more.  (It’s presumed that the newts that appeared spontaneously in the new Jardin Renoir ornamental pond migrated from there.)

Inside the museum, the lower level of Rosimonde’s home is still for exhibits.  There are works by known artists and also a few new names.  One of the works by Alfred Renaudin shows Paris in 1899, as viewed from where the steps now lead up to the Sacré-Coeur.  (I have a copy of it in my home because for 27 years I lived right across from this hill and my windows opened out onto it.)  There’s also some artwork from the Shadow Theater of the famous Chat Noir cabaret, as well as old photos of Montmartre before the developers got their hands on it.
     On the middle level is more art, and an actual bar that escaped from the Nazi requisitions, now tended by a portrait of Suzanne Valadon. The front of the bar is veined wood, the top is the quintessential zinc, and it comes equipped with a water dispenser for your anisette or absinthe, the Green Fairy that was the downfall of many an artist or poet.  Other rooms house a collection of porcelain and sheet music, along with a plaster cast of Montmartre from 1955.

Jardin Renoir
So much for the old building, the Museum as it was for decades.  Now on to the “new” building.  To reach it, you exit where you used to enter Rosimonde’s house and cross a lawn with tables and chairs scattered around that ornamental pond with the migrated newts from an earlier era. You can sit and talk, or order coffee, tea, pastry, ice cream (in season) or light snacks from the Café Renoir.  (And yes, Renoir did have a studio here for a while.)
     This other building is the Hôtel Demarne (which doesn’t mean a hotel, but rather a private home).  The house went with the now-locked gardens and stood vacant for decades, once it - and the garden - were turned over to the City of Paris in payment of past-due property taxes.  For a while it was used occasionally for meetings and private dinners, but now it has become part and parcel of the Museum. Which is wonderful because here is where Suzanne Valadon lived with her young lover-husband and her illustrious but fatally flawed artist-son Maurice Utrillo.
     There is plenty of floor space for temporary exhibits; this one is Artists in Montmartre: 1870-1910.  But what fascinated me was the reconstituted apartments where Valadon lived, and especially her studio, filled with light (with a northern exposure, which was de rigeur).  The artifacts gathered here, whether hers or not, make it seem as if she just stepped out to the Rue St. Rustique one street over to buy some more colors or canvases.  (That shop is still there, the last art supplies shop on the Butte, but for how long?)

Montmartre would not be Montmartre without its artistic heritage. The fact that the City of Paris has handed this property over to the Musée de Montmartre, and that the museum has worked for years to preserve part of Montmartre’s heritage is a wonderful thing.
     As the nearby Place du Tertre becomes increasingly handed over to the cafés, squeezing out the artists who once took up the entire square, it’s important that the Butte’s history as a place where artists lived and created be preserved.  The Musée de Montmartre has truly done that.

Les Impressionistes à Montmartre,
de Steinlen à Satie (1870-1910)

Musée de Montmartre
12 rue Cortot; 18è
Métro:  Lamarck-Caulaincourt

Until Sept 25, 2016 (Valloton studio all year)
Daily 10-7 / Sat & Mon open until 9

9.50 & 5;50-7.50 € (free under 10 years of age)

Sunday, June 26, 2016

Out & About: Exhibits: Les Impressionistes en Normandie

Musée Jacquemart-André

In a very chic neighborhood just north of the Champs-Elysées and south of the Parc Monceau is a late-19th century home that once belonged to a very rich family.
     What is now the Musée Jacquemart-André was once a home built at the request of Edouard André, art collector and descendant of an old Protestant family (a minority in Roman Catholic France) who struck it rich - very rich - under the Second Empire.  André wanted a mansion with all the modern conveniences and decorated as if it were a theater set.  And that’s what he got.  (The Jacquemart part of the name comes from his wife Nélie, a budding artist.)
     After the death of both Edouard in 1894 and Nélie in 1912, the residence was handed over to the Institut de France (created by Cardinal Mazarin in 1661) for the purpose of becoming a museum so all the world could admire their art collection as they and their guests once did.
     In addition to a tour of the house, which is still furnished and decorated as it was when it was their home, there are now temporary art exhibits in a part of the upstairs.  The one showing now is “The Impressionists in Normandy”.

During the late 19th century, just as the Impressionists were rewriting the precepts of what art is, Normandy became a vacation spot.  Spurred by the British, who seemed to enjoy bathing in the cold waters of the English Channel, this coastal region northwest of Paris became very much in vogue.  Many artists chose it as a setting for their easels, starting with Boudin and including Courbet, Degas, Monet, Morisot, Pissarro and Gauguin for the French, Jongkind for the Dutch and Turner for the British.  Over fifty works by these artists - their impressions of Normandy - are on display on the upstairs level of the Jacquemart-André home.

The exhibit provides excellent explanations on panels in the various rooms.  Unfortunately they are only in French.  But you can get an audioguide in English - or other languages - as you enter.   The panels and audio commentary give a background of the Impressionist movement and walk you through the various works.
     The first room has a wonderful canvas by Claude Monet, one of my favorites, but I admit a weakness for Monet.  It’s called La Charrette (The Wagon), and shows a horse and cart disappearing down a snowy lane past two typically Norman-style houses.  The sky is that thick, sodden off-white that anyone from cold climes will recognize as promising more snow.  Its snowy landscape foreshadows one of my all-time favorites of the artist, painted four or five years later:  The Magpie, with the bird perched on a gate in another snowy, but more sunlit Norman landscape.  Both are usually at the Musée d’Orsay, another favorite of Impressionism lovers.
Caillebotte, Regatta at Trouville
     The second and third rooms focus on the Normandy beaches and all their social activities:  swimming and boating, but mostly people walking along the boardwalks of Deauville or Trouville, or women sitting in the sun under a parasol.  There’s also one of Degas’s first paintings of a horse race, and a Caillebotte from the Toledo Museum of Art:  Regatta at Trouville.  The fourth and fifth rooms contain views of several ports, and especially a Gauguin canvas of Dieppe on loan from Manchester, England, and a marvelously simple seascape with startling blue water by Berthe Morisot that usually lives in the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts.  There’s also a second Morisot, a view of the port of Cherbourg, on loan from Yale.
     In the last rooms are a duo of Monets, hung side by side, and they’re very different from what one usually expects from that artist.  They are both fishing boats and from the 1860s, but drawn in the Japanese style, with a flat stroke and bold black outlines.  They have never been seen together before, especially as one is from a private collection and the other from a museum in Bucharest, Romania.
     With all these different museums represented, plus pieces from Germany and a Turner from the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, England, this is truly a wonderfully international collection of masterpieces.  The Impressionists may have painted side by side along the Normandy Coast as the 19th century drew to a close, but you will never see these canvases together in one place again.  Well worth the time to drop by the Jacquemart-André Museum if you’re in Paris.

Les Impressionistes en Normandie

Monet, La Charrette

Musée Jacquemart-André
128 boulevard Haussmann; 8è
Métro: Miromesnil or St. Philippe du Roule

Until July 25, 2016
Daily 10-6 / Sat & Mon open until 9

12 & 10 €


Thursday, June 16, 2016

Baccalauréat, the classic French rite of passage

“Passe ton bac d’abord.”
     That’s what all French children hear.  “Get your diploma first.”
     The baccalauréat is the diploma at the end of high school.  It’s the same exam with the same questions for every student in a given subject throughout the country, as well as in the outlying islands and nations that are part of France:  Martinique, Guadeloupe, French Guyana, St. Barthélémy (aka St. Barts) and half the island of St. Martin in the Caribbean; farther north St. Pierre & Miquelon off the coast of Canada; La Réunion and Mayotte in the Indian Ocean; New Caledonia, Tahiti and Wallis & Futuna in Oceania.

Juniors in high school take only one bac exam, and that’s in French (grammar and literature).  You could view it, I guess, as a kind of practice exam, like the PSAT that college-bound American students take in their junior year.  Except that it isn’t practice.  It counts.  It counts a lot.  All four hours of it.  Yes, you heard me right.  Four hours!  All essays.  Which is why American college tests, with their multiple-guess and true-or-false questions, came as such a shock to my daughter when she started college in the States.
     The first part of this exam is a commentary of a text - last year a text by Lamartine, Racine, Ionesco or Victor Hugo - and it counts for one-fifth of the final exam grade.  A “commentary” is a highly stylized approach to a text, and you better have the formula down pat.
     The other part of the exam is a dissertation, which has its own methodology and counts for the other four-fifths of your grade... so it’s really make-it-or-break-it.  The topic of the dissertation in 2014 was “Do you expect a novel to transport you into the mind of a character?  Base your answer on the texts and works you have read and studied.”  Another year it was “Where does the emotion one feels when reading a poem spring from?”
     All very philosophical when you’re only 16 or 17.

All subjects besides French are tested in the senior year, which the French call “terminal”.  And I’m sure when you’re studying for it, you feel like it may prove terminal.  As I said, it’s a huge affair for a student, one that puts your mettle to the test.  Not to mention deciding which university will deign to enroll you, and thereby determining - for all intents and purposes - your entire future.  Nerves of steel come in handy here, but what teenager has those?
     The first senior-year test is always philosophy, and that happened yesterday, June 15.  Students have the choice of three questions, it being a free country.  Here are a few examples from the past:
     - Is moral action possible without an interest in politics?
     - Is work compatible with self-awareness?
     - Do works of art educate our perceptions?
     - Can one be indifferent to truth?
     - Is having a choice enough to make you free?
You have four hours.  Use them wisely.  Few students take less than the full four hours.  And God help you if “pencils down” is said before you’ve finished and tied it all together nicely.

Depending on what kind of college studies they’re planning, seniors will be in one filière, one educational lane, or another.  For the moment, those lanes are Literature, Economics, Science, Technology or the Arts, although they’ve evolved over the years.  The 0-20 grade you get on the philosophy exam will be multiplied by a “coefficient” that varies depending on which lane you’re in:  multiplied x7 if you’re in Literature, x4 for economics, x3 for science and art.  (Don’t know what it is for technology.)  So if you get a 10 on the exam and you’re studying in the Literature lane, you chalk up only 70 points toward the total that will say “Open Sesame” to the School of Your Choice.  If you get a 15, you’re up by 35 points to 105 and things are looking rosey.
     Are you still with me?
     Other subjects also have coefficients - mostly 2, 3 or 4.  But philosophy is The King of All Subjects.
     There are options you can take to buff up your final bac score.  This is where knowing yet another language not on your curriculum can come in handy, including sign language and “regional languages” such as Basque, Corsican or Breton.  Also playing an instrument or a sport with proficiency can rack up a few extra points.  But you can add on only two such “extras”, so the emphasis is still squarely on the traditional curriculum:  math, science, history/geography...

Exams are both written and oral.  And scored 0 to 20.  If your written score is high enough, you get to go on to the frontal attack of the oral exam, which is another tense moment in and of itself, but most people are happy to have reached that stage
     And grading is tough in France.  When I arrived at the Sorbonne, with an A- average from University of Michigan, I was shocked at the relative mediocrity of my grades:  10 or 12, which in America would be viewed as average at best.  The professor explained that 20 was for God and 19 for the teacher; the most I could ever hope for was 18.  All you need to pass the written part of the bac is 10 out of 20.  If you get 8, you’re offered a second chance, with different questions of course.  As of 12, you get honors.  14 gets you High Honors and 16 will get you whatever comes after High Honors in France.
     Passing both written and oral parts is necessary to win the prize.  The baccalauréat.

The age of students taking the bac varies, but 17 or 18 is the norm.  The questions are the same for all, regardless of age.  Last year the youngest candidate was 13; the oldest, 91, a senior citizen who sat down to the exam at the same time as his teen-age grandchild.
     Which personally I think merits some kind of celebration, especially if they both pass!

P.S.  Given what’s at stake, you can well imagine that knowing what questions are going to be asked would afford you an enormous advantage. And there has been skullduggery in the past. Which explains why the test folders are kept in a safe inside a safe inside a safe, all 60 million copies of them.  It also explains why any misprints are not just thrown away but shredded.  No dumpster-diving possible.
If you understand French, take a look at this video from TF1:

Added comments 2016:

With the high terrorism alert level this year, the subjects are not the only things being carefully guarded. Thinking that blowing up several hundred high school students might be an easy target for Daesh, this year the students have to be there early (7:20 am for a start at 8 am). They must have valid ID and their bags will be searched, as will those of anyone working in the establishment.
     As if those poor students weren’t already stressed out enough!

Subjects for 2016:

- Are our moral convictions based on experience?
- Is desire unlimited, by definition?
- Does working less mean living better?
- Do you have to be able to prove something in order to understand it?
- To be just (fair), must you obey the law?
- Can we always justify our beliefs?