Saturday, July 19, 2014

Out & About: Exhibits: Paris 1900

At the turn of the last century, Paris held a party:  the Exposition Universelle. It was largely a celebration of France’s colonies around the globe, second only to England’s at that time.
     But above and beyond all the xenophobic look-at-me-aren’t-I-grand-ness of the message, the media made extensive use of a new art form:  Art Nouveau.  It was a new approach to architecture and art, and it found an echo in almost every other facette of society.  Clothing changed, and with it habits.  It was a new century, and it required new ways.
     The Petit Palais - the Beaux-Arts Museum of Paris - has composed a collage of those different facettes of life in 1900.  And it’s been a hit ever since it opened in April.

Anatole Guillot
The first room, dedicated to the Exposition Universelle, was a bit of a disappointment.  Two huge areas filled with photos and posters and such about the Expo.  My stomach suddenly sank as I started to fear that the whole show was about just that and nothing more.  There were various three-dimension friezes that displayed amazing craftsmanship, and a large poster of all the national pavilions was interesting, but the topic seemed a bit more historical than artistic for my tastes.  “This isn’t going to take long,” I thought.  But that didn’t jibe with all the praise I’d heard about the show from friends.  So I soldiered on.
Manufacture de Sèvres
     It soon became obvious that the first area was just an introduction because around the corner lay a room entitled Art Nouveau.  This is more like it, I thought.  Here were examples of how Art Nouveau translated into all forms of artworks.  There were lots of glassworks by the masters of the craft: Gallé, Tiffany, Daum...  Along with objects by Mucha, dresses by Worth, furniture by all the great names of the period, ceramics from the Manufacture de Sèvres and even a book on bull-fighting whose binding was the work of Goya himself.  Several display cases spotlighted women’s jewelry, and especially hair combs that held in place those elaborate turn-of-the-century hairdos.
Mother and child - Paul Troubetzkoy
     The following room was named Paris, Capital of the Arts. And it set about stating its case with myriad paintings, statues, photos and posters.  An unfinished head by Rodin showed how the famous sculptor worked up his masterpieces, layer by layer sometimes - a fascinating peek under the artistic skirts of a genius. And there were other masterful works here by names not familiar to me:  sculptor Paul Troubetzkoy and painters such as Albert Edelfelt, Tony Robert-Fleury or Eugène-Samuel Grasset.  It was the most museum-like of all the rooms and filled to the brim with wondrous examples of various versions of Art Nouveau.
     Then came a room called The Myth of the Parisian Woman.  As its name implies, the focus here was squarely on fashion.  Many cases displayed clothing of the era, from simple to elaborate.  But the reputation for Paris being the be-all-and-end-all of fashion was also backed up by photos as well as portraits of women who epitomized the Paris Look of the era.
     And once you’re all dressed up, where do you go?  Out!  Paris By Night, the next room, covered all the choices ladies - and their accompanying gentlemen, of course - had at their fingertips.  Vestiges of the panoply of theaters, music halls and other divertissements of France’s capital. My beloved Montmartre figured well here, with the Chat Noir cabaret and much Toulouse-Lautrec. But on the more seamy side, a small central room (womb?) crystallized the ladies of the night for whom Paris was notorious, with period nudie postcards and even a strange chair from one of the rich men’s brothels.  Quite an education, this room.
     The last room was Paris en scène, focusing on the silver screen through posters and photos.  In a side room looped the 1902 Méliès short film Le Voyage dans la lune (A Trip to the Moon), which amazed movie-goers of the period.  Not content with just telling a story - here one by Jules Verne - Méliès was the master of the very first special effects.
     Each of these rooms was separated from the next by a dark and narrow passage with mirrors on one side and film running on the other.  A kind of introduction into the upcoming matter.  A nice touch.
     The pieces in this remarkable exhibit come not only from the Petit Palais’ own fine collection of Beaux-Arts but also from other Paris museums that focus on this period of art history:  the Marmottan and its collection of Monets, the Orsay, which covers the Impressionism period from start to finish, and the Carnavelet, which specializes in the history of Paris.  It also includes artworks graciously on loan from private collections and from museums abroad.
     My friends were right in their praise.  This is a show that should figure high up on any list of exhibits to be seen.

A suggestion:  afterwards, to stay in the Art Nouveau mood, head for a meal at the Gare de Lyon’s Train Bleu or Mollard across from the Gare St. Lazare. Both have a décor that will bring what you’ve seen to life in a delicious way.

Paris 1900

April 2 - August 17, 2014

Petit Palais
Avenue Winston Churchill
75008 Paris
01 53 43 40 00
M° Champs-Elysées Clemenceau

Tuesday-Sunday 10-6, Thursdays to 10 pm
Closed Mondays and holidays

11 €, reduced 8 & 5.50 €

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Out & About: Exhibits: Joséphine

Some lives just flow along peacefully, like a calm brook running through green meadows.  And others are like raging rivers, a-boil with rapids and waterfalls crashing onto the rocks below.
     Once upon a time there was a little girl who lived on a tropical island.  She was called Marie-Josèphe Rose Tascher de la Pagerie, which was much too big a name for a little girl so everyone just called her Rose, and sometimes even Yéyétte.  She lived happily on her family’s sugar plantation until hurricanes destroyed it. So her aunt did what people did in those days when they needed money; she married Rose off to a wealthy aristocrat in France. And at age 16, little Rose sailed across the Atlantic, leaving behind her family and her beloved island of Martinique to become Mme. Alexandre de Beauharnais.
   Rose’s aunt hadn’t done her a favor.  Her marriage to Alexandre was unhappy but fruitful. Two children were born:  Eugène after two years and then two years later Hortense.  When they were only 13 and 11, they were thrown in prison along with their mother, who was accused of being married to a noble, and what’s more a general who hadn’t defended the newborn Republic well enough in battle.  It was the Reign of Terror and Robespierre was feeding the guillotine daily.  One of the meals was Alexandre.
     Every day the guards would come to the huge, filthy, dark and promiscuous rooms where dozens and dozens of people were thrown together.  The guards had a list and would read off the names of those taken away to die.  No one ever knew if that morning would be their last. Marie-Josèphe and her children were held for over three months.  For 98 days, they waited every morning for their names to be called out by the guards.  Then on the 99th day, their names were called... and they were released.  But only because Robespierre had been fed to the guillotine himself.
     During those months, Marie-Josèphe would see, and perhaps do, things that people do when they think they are about to die.  It changed her to her very core.  Some say she became frivolous and of easy virtue.  But if you look at the way she lived her later years, you’ll know that it only made her wary of life, society and mankind in general.

Then someone introduced her to a young general from Corsica who fell madly in love with her, a short man with a huge desire to succeed.  He had a funny Italian-sounding name - Napoleone Buonaparte - and yet he found her name unacceptable and so he transformed Marie-Josèphe into Joséphine, married her and whisked her away on his mad dash to immortality, ultimately making her Empress.  And with it fulfilling a prophesy made to her back in her native Martinique: “You will be queen... no, more than queen.”
     Joséphine filled the role well.  She was cultivated where Napoleon was not and that lent him a distinction he wouldn’t have had otherwise.  She loved jewelry and was the setter of fashion, preferring a more natural look of flowing lines and what became known as Empire waistlines, soon adopted by all of France and much of Europe as well.  She sought a refuge from the imperial court - and perhaps from all the horrors remembered from those 99 days - preferring to live in the country.  And as Napoleon was often away fighting one battle or another, she bought a manor with land along the Seine River well downstream from Paris:  Malmaison.
     When Joséphine proved unable to provide Napoleon with children to carry on his legacy, the Emperor divorced her to marry someone who could. Malmaison was part of her bargain.  And it became her world.
     The house is still there, although the property surrounding it is only about a tenth of what it once was.  Buying up any land she could, Josephine put a buffer between her and the rest of society.  She did have illustrious guests though, such as Tsar Alexander I.  It was while showing him her gardens that she caught pneumonia.  Joséphine died four days later at age 51.

Two hundred years after her death, France is honoring her with two shows. One is at the Luxembourg Museum in Paris; the other is at her home outside the capital in Rueil-Malmaison.
     The show at the Musée du Luxembourg is small and consists mainly of items of Joséphine’s wardrobe, some pieces of furniture in the Empire style and artwork of her or owned by her.  A diamond-and-ruby brooch was particularly striking, as were the sapphire earrings next to it.  There are large placards retracing her life, as well as her actual birth certificate and divorce papers.  The exhibit is grandiose and spacious in its setting, which is rarely the case at the small Musée du Luxembourg but these items are rarely seen, so worth the time if you’re at all interested in the little island girl who became “more than a queen”. 
      The second show at Malmaison is also small and tightly focused on the love Rose Yéyétte always showed for flowers (and not just roses) as well as for animals, especially birds.  It is well documented by drawings of plants by Redouté, others of which are on display at the Musée du Luxembourg.  A highlight is the magnificent, sparkling robe embroidered not with silver thread, but with platinum!  At the end of the show it will be put away again and not seen by us common mortals for a few more decades, so that alone may be worth the entrance fee.  In addition to the artifacts, this exhibit has an artistic touch, with lace mobiles casting flowery shadows on the ceilings and walls, and it comes complete with a soundtrack of the birds that Joséphine loved so much.  The show takes up the top floor of the residence. 
     But the other two floors are well worth a detour.  On the ground floor are the public rooms:  the library and council chamber, the dining room and billards room, the sitting room and music room, which is delightfully sunny.  Upstairs are the private living quarters:  the Emperor’s apartment at one end, Josephine’s apartment at the other, and various rooms in between which must have seen a lot of traffic, given Napoleon’s love for his “Creole wife”.  These rooms are fully furnished and give an excellent idea of how Joséphine chose to spend her years both during and after life with Bonaparte.
     After that you can stroll through what remains of her property, enjoy the gardens and perhaps even visit the hothouse she had built.  Pick a nice sunny day to make the most of Joséphine’s little corner of paradise.


Musée du Luxembourg
19 rue de Vaugirard
75006 - Paris
Métro: Luxembourg or Rennes

until June 29, 2014
Daily 10 am to 7:30 pm
Mondays 10 am to 10 pm
11€ & 7.50€


Joséphine: La Passion des Fleurs et des Oiseaux
Musée national de Malmaison
1 avenue du Château
RER A to "Grande Arche", then bus 258 

until June 30, 2014
Daily 10 to 5:45
Tues, Sat & Sun 10 to 6:15
Residence and show closed 12:30-1:30
varied rates 6-8.50€ & 4.50-7€

I should have posted this before.  Now both shows are over.  BUT Malmaison is open year-round, so you can always see the residence and the gardens and the hothouse Joséphine created.  It's just outside Paris proper.

Saturday, July 5, 2014

Recipe of the Month: Salade niçoise

When the salade niçoise arrives at the table, many people will complain “That’s not what I ordered.”
     Why is that?
     Because everyone seems to have their own idea about what goes in it.  Many times I’ve been asked, “You live in France.  Someone said I can’t put ham/cucumber/chicken in my salade niçoise.  The French do, don’t they?”  Well, in Paris you can get a niçoise with a lot of things in it that you wouldn’t find if you ordered it in Provence.  Even rice and carrots.  Does that make it right?  Do we really care?
      Any salade niçoise will include tomatoes, ripe (black) olives, and some sort of greens.  Most will include potatoes, green beans, hard-boiled eggs, tuna and anchovies.  Some, to be very Mediterranean, will include artichoke hearts and some garlic.  Several times I’ve seen it served with an American touch of fresh corn.
      What you don’t want to do, under any circumstances, is put ranch dressing on a salade niçoise.  That is the bottom line.  In France you’ll only find vinaigrette dressing:  vinegar, a dab of hot mustard, salt and pepper and then the oil.  (Vinegar first so the oil will mix well.)
     This being said, and without further introduction, here is what would pass for the “real” recipe for Salade Niçoise.  The proportions will serve 6, but you can dress the plates individually rather than serve it in one large bowl, if you want.  That way everyone gets all the ingredients.
     And yes, Drew Barrymore, it comes with the “little fishies”.  (Should you not understand that, go watch the opening scene of E.T. again.)

Market day in Provence

  • salad greens to line the bowl (usually Boston lettuce or red leaf lettuce)
  • 1 lb fresh thin green beans, cold
  • 2 or 3 medium-sized potatoes, cold, cooked and diced
  • 3-6 medium-sized tomatoes, ripe but still very firm
  • 3 hard-boiled eggs
  • 1 c chunk tuna (about 6 oz), flaked
  • 12 anchovy fillets
  • 1 T capers
  • 1 garlic clove, cut in half
  • pitted ripe olives
  • 1 c vinaigrette dressing
  • chopped fresh herbs such as chervil and tarragon (1 T each)
  • salt & freshly ground pepper
  • optional:  6 scallions, minced

- Cut the tips off the green beans and peel the potatoes.  Blanch the beans and cook the potatoes separately in salted boiling water until they are barely tender.  Then pour off the water, cool under running water for a few minutes or in a bowl with ice water so that they don’t continue to cook.  Drain well.
- Wash the lettuce, throwing away any wilted leaves, and spin or gently pat dry.
- Dice the potatoes and cut the green beans into pieces about 2" long.
- Wash the tomatoes and cut them into four or six pieces, depending on their size
- Rub the bowl with the garlic and line the bowl with the lettuce.
- Mix the potatoes and green beans together with the capers.  Salt and pepper to taste.  Then season with a little of the vinaigrette dressing, and arrange in the bowl.
- Decorate with the tuna, anchovy fillets, olives, and the egg and tomato wedges.
- Sprinkle the minced herbs (and optional scallions) over the top and serve immediately, with the remaining vinaigrette on the side.

Two tips:
- Remember:  both capers and anchovies are salty, so you might want to go easy on the salt.
- Small, French-style black olives are best, but canned olives can be substituted if necessary.  Large Greek-style olives are not recommended.  A word to the wise:  the French rarely pit their olives, so be forewarned! Otherwise your dentist may be a very happy puppy.