Sunday, November 24, 2013

Out and About: Exhibits: Georges Braque

Portrait by Henri Cartier-Bresson - 1944
I don’t recommend going to see two huge art shows on the same day.  But if you’re only in Paris for a day, or if you only have a day free, you can always get a two-fer at the Grand Palais:  Félix Vallotton and Georges Braque.  (Although you’ll have to pay two separate entrance fees.)
     And if you do see both, I’d advise seeing Vallotton first.  Braque is a bit more abstract visually, more demanding.  Vallotton will feel more comfortable.
     I already covered Vallotton (see Oct. 26, 2013), so now let me have a go at Braque.

Grande nature morte brune 1932
Georges Braque wasn’t really my cup of tea.  But then I didn’t know all of his repertoire.  There’s a lot I still don’t like, but I have a broader view of his life’s work after this exhibit.  His earlier pieces appeal to me more because they’re more... approachable.  I find it hard to relate to something that looks like a piece of Ikea furniture waiting to be assembled, and that’s what a lot of Braque’s cubist works are like.
Port de l'Estaque, 1906
     Born in 1882, Braque’s foundations already included Impressionism, which was old hat by the time he took up canvas and oils.  So he needed something else.  Something new.  Then before he was even 20, he discovered fauvism, with its emphasis on strong colors and refusal to be concerned with realistic representations.  In French, fauve means “wild animal”, and the wildness was what artists of this genre were after.
Viaduct de l'Estaque, 1908
     Braque’s early works were filled with color, whether it be landscapes like Port de l’Estaque or nudes such as Nu assis.  Braque was an admirer of Cézanne and that’s visible in Le Viaduct d’Estaque.  But when he turned away from this style, he destroyed most of his canvases.  Luckily, some had already been sold or gifted, and those are the ones that have come down to us.
     As he turned away from fauvism, cubism was creeping into his works.  By the time he painted Tête de femme in 1909, he was already more geometric, more like Picasso than Cézanne.  And from there, he moved on to what he called “analytical cubism”, a style used only by Picasso and himself in which parts of an object were meant to represent the whole object... and that’s where he starts to lose me.  I guess I’m not analytical enough.
Tête de femme, 1909
   After that came “synthetic cubism”, which tried to counter the flatness resulting from geometric simplifications by adding real objects to the canvas.  In other words, he combined oils and collages, gluing real objects onto his canvases.  During these periods, he turned away from bright colors and focused on browns and greys, which also aren’t really my colors.
Nature morte à la guitare, 1929
     One thing’s certain:  Braque loved guitars.  I have no idea whether it was the sound or just the shape - probably the latter - but they crop up in a huge number of his works.  Sometimes they’re being played; sometimes they’re just in a nature morte.  Sometimes they’re harder to recognize than others:  distorted, deformed, blown to pieces...

Hespéris, 1939-56
     What I do like about Braque is his sculpture.  Not so much the little horsies of all shapes, yet basically the same one.  But his bronze horsehead, which - unrealistic as it is - still reflects the motion of a horse in stride.  Just look at the mane streaming out behind.  And his Hespéris is a magnificent blend of Picasso and a Mayan statue.  I don’t understand the name, because hesperus is “a flowering plant of the mustard family” that looks a bit like a violet.  Maybe he just liked the sound of the word.
     Somewhere in all that, Braque was called up, sent to the front lines and seriously wounded in World War I.  After his trepanation, it took him an entire year to paint again.  Then a decade later he worked with Diaghilev and the Russian Ballet, creating both sets and costumes.  And in 1953 he painted Les Oiseaux - The Birds - for the ceiling of one of the rooms in the Louvre Museum.
Femme à la palette, 1936
     After accomplishing all this, and after returning to bright colors, George Braque died in 1963.  Although this visit to the Grand Palais didn’t make me enjoy all his works, it did teach me a lot.  And there were enough canvases I did like to make it worthwhile.
     Besides, he, like me, lived in Montmartre - and just around the corner! - so maybe that makes us kindred spirits under the skin.

Les oiseaux

Georges Braque

Grand Palais
3 avenue du Général-Eisenhower
75008 - Paris
Métro:  Champs-Elysées - Clemenceau

until January 6, 2014
Daily except Tuesdays and holidays,
10 am to 10 pm
12€ & 8€

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Playtime in Paris II

My recent trip to Paris lasted seven weeks.  Which gave me time to see four plays of various genres.  Here’s a short resumé.

Ionesco Suite

I already talked about this play earlier this year (Playtime in Paris, Feb 26) so why go see it again, you ask?  Well, because it’s performed by friends who came and did Rhinocéros at the University of Michigan.  One of that cast, Gérald, offers me a ticket and the Théâtre de la Ville - Abbesses is right down the street, so yes, I’d love to and thank you very kindly.
  As I said in February, this “play” is actually a mélange of five Ionesco works.  The troupe has been together for almost a decade, and they’ve studied all of Ionesco.  One day director Emmanuel Demarcy-Mota asked his actors to choose a text that spoke to them and work on it.  Then those texts were structured and woven together to turn the spotlight on explosive social situations such as weddings, family reunions, and birthdays.  All this with minimal sets, multiple costumes, heavy make-up and a stage as close to theater-in-the-round as possible.  The result is hilariously absurd... which is something Ionesco would approve of.
  After the play, I wait outside to thank Gérald.  We end up with more of the cast and crew at a nearby café.  (It is France, after all.)  I tell them I remember the play having seven actors and there were only six; they answer that one is on tour with another play so they reworked the script.  Then I admit I don’t remember the bit with the cake dropping on the floor, and was that an “oops”; they reveal that it’s a new bit they worked in lately.  I’m relieved I’m not losing my memory and tell them how wonderful I find it that they can keep it fresh.  “We’ve been together a long time,” comes the reply, with a smile.

Hier Est un Autre Jour

Out of the blue, friends call and say they’re passing through Paris.  And would I like to go to see a play with them?  So we meet for dinner near the theater and then on to the Bouffes Parisiennes for a romp that borders on the slapstick at moments but is well-acted and executed like clockwork... until the star gets so taken up with his role that he cracks up himself... and that rebounds on his co-star.  It takes them a good minute or two to pull themselves together, but as we’re all laughing too, it doesn’t matter.   The star role is played by Daniel Russo, who has done plenty of stage and screen but I don’t recognize him when he walks on-stage to the audience’s applause.  Then he opens his mouth and I recognize the voice that dubs Harvey Keitel, Danny DeVito, Bob Hoskins and John Travolta in France.
  The plot is simple.  A lawyer is about to close the deal of his career and get a promotion.  Caught up in the moment, he inadvertently runs a will through the shredder and from that point on strange things start to happen... and a strange little man appears at his office door.  Somewhat like Groundhog Day, people start saying the same thing, doing the same thing, again and again.  It gets crazier and crazier until it’s almost too slapstick for my tastes.  Still, it’s a well-oiled machine - except for the fou rire laughing episode - and a good time is had by one and all, both in the audience and on stage.

La Générale Pompidou

The same friend who turned me on to the Vallotton exhibit (see Oct. 26) has suggested we go see this play, whose subtitle is “... or the True Made-up History of the First Ladies of France”.  It opens with Anne-Aymone, wife of President Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, having to pack up her things and leave the Elysée Palace, the French White House, before her successor arrives.  Come to help her is the First Lady she once replaced, Claude Pompidou, accompanied by a friend who turns out to be Bernadette, the wife of Paris Mayor Jacques Chirac... who we will see later on when she in turn becomes First Lady.  In between the two, Danielle Mitterrand, with her leftist activism.  And the sparks fly.
  The cast includes two other characters.  There’s the long-suffering maid, Linotte/Soizic, who has to cater to the whims and differing temperaments of all these First Ladies, and has the most diverse role in the play.  There’s also a person I’ll call Mr. Interlocutor, who pops out from behind the curtains to sing songs as the sets are being changed backstage and to introduce the next scene with "Et pendant ce temps-là... au palais " (Meanwhile, back at the palace...).  He’s really very funny and has a talent for seguing from talk into song so subtly that you don’t notice it at first.   Plus he has an amazingly flexible face that molds into many different expressions.
This isn’t a play for people who aren’t familiar with the past French governments because that’s its whole point.  But if you are, this one’s for you, at the small Théâtre des Béliers near the City Hall of the 18th arrondissement.

Nos Femmes

Even though it manages to get its barbs in concerning modern French society, this last play is similar to the second in that it’s théâtre de boulevard, even if it’s not running on the boulevard.  All that the term means is “light fare”, as opposed to drama.  Its sole purpose is to entertain, and that it does.  In spades.
  Although the play has just opened, the Théâtre de Paris is packed.  That’s because it unites two bêtes de la scène, two lions of the stage:  Richard Berry and Daniel Auteuil, along with Didier Flamand.  Daniel Auteuil is best known in America for films based on Marcel Pagnol’s novels:   Jean de Florette, Manon des sources, La fille du puisatier and the trilogy Marius / Fanny / César - all with the sing-song accent of Mediterranean France (which Auteuil doesn’t have here).  Richard Berry is less well-known across the Atlantic, but for years was part of Molière’s bequeathal to the French, the Comédie Française.  You may have seen him in movies like The Violin Player or Day of Atonement.  (And I’ve seen him in the neighborhood because he lives here in Montmartre.)
  Both Berry and Auteuil were born in 1950.  Both started their acting career in the early 70s.  Both worked their way up to the top of the line-up as triple-hitters:  stage, screen and TV.  Both have worked not only in front of the camera but also behind it, as director and as screenwriter.  But they have rarely co-starred in films and never before on stage.  This comedy was written specifically for them to star in together.  And Berry is the director.  So it’s a real event.  And the theater’s full.
Left to right:  Berry, Flamand & Auteuil
The plot?  Three old friends with very different personalities get together every week to play poker and talk about the women in their lives.  And the conversation isn’t always flattering.  On this particular night, Paul and Max are waiting for Simon, who is never late.  When he appears, he’s been drinking and announces that... he’s strangled his wife!  Simon then passes out and the next hour and a half is pretty much a frenzied discussion between Paul and Max of whether to turn him in or lie for him.  The verdict goes back and forth with Berry and Auteuil playing it to the hilt (and losing it twice in the flurry, but picking it up again with a quip).  I think the highlight was Berry’s version of break-dancing, and his ensuing hobbled walk across stage, although Auteuil’s explosive character steals the scene at other moments.  It’s very physical comedy and by the time the play’s over both have sweat soaking through their respective shirts and the audience is in stitches.
A standing ovation for a job well done.  These are craftsmen with a sense of timing and nuance that knows no equal.

For a peek at the third of these plays:

Saturday, November 9, 2013

On the Road: Musée Royal de l'Afrique Centrale

An old joke has one tourist on a 7-country junket of Europe asking another where they are.  To which comes the answer, “If it’s Monday, it must be Brussels.”
     Well today is Monday, but it’s not Brussels.  Yet.
     I’m at the Gare du Nord waiting for the train.  At ten minutes to departure the platform’s still not posted.  It’s easy to spot the train - it’s chocolate brown and has Thalys on its side - but there are two of them, side by side.  Which one’s mine?  The one with the attendants standing nearby, I decide.  And yes, it is so I get on.
Rwanda - "Dance"
     Forty minutes later we finally leave.  Electrical problems with the locomotive.  That’s better than what I feared:  a tree fallen on the tracks in the overnight near-hurricane that the French dubbed Christian and the Brits called St. Jude.
     Across from me at our four-seat table is a Belgian lady with young twins.  All the way to Brussels she reads the boys a story in Flemish.  I can’t understand a word but she does such a good job with the different voices, not to mention the special effects, that I feel I almost do.  On the four-top across the aisle is an Italian family with dog and child.  The boy spends the whole trip drawing and coloring.  We’re a very genteel and international group in this train.  And the friends I’m going to see have a four-year-old daughter who speaks German, French and very passable English.  Like I said, very international.
Fang helmet mask, Gabon
     We zip across the flat northlands of France.  Outside the window it looks like a Dutch masters landscape, except when we pass the ultra-modern Roissy CDG Airport.  The trip is a short one:  just an hour and a half.  After all, Paris to Brussels isn’t far and we are traveling at over 100 mph.  My cellphone beeps and flips to roaming, which is how I know we’re in Belgium now.  Borders disappeared with the creation of the European Union.  No more showing of passports required.  Or changing of money.
     A few minutes later we pull into the Gare du Midi station (Brussels speaks both French and Dutch) and my friends meet me on the platform.  Off we go to their house, dinner and bed.
Loi slit drum

Takwa  buffalo mask
After a good night’s sleep and a morning spent with my friends, I’m off on a quest:  the Musée Royal de l’Afrique Centrale.  This museum is made up of all the things Belgium brought back from its years of rule over Central Africa.  King Leopold II started the ball rolling in 1884, when he was given the Congo River Basin in the Berlin Conference thought up by Otto von Bismarck.  Then after that self-same Bismarck’s Germany lost in World War I, its colonial holdings were divvied up between the European powers and Belgium got what is now the Congo, Rwanda and Burundi.  A tidy little parcel of almost all of Central Africa, with its natural riches of diamonds, copper and cobalt but also petroleum, gold, silver and uranium.
Lulua mask
     Some would say Belgium pillaged its colonies.  Others would say the objects they brought back have found a home where they’re safe and admired.  All I know is that I want to see them.  And have for some time.
      I’ve visited Brussels often since I heard about this Museum.  But it’s always been on Monday, and on Mondays it’s closed.  Or there wasn’t time, because it’s a fair hike outside the city limits.  But today’s the day.  Because it’s October 29 and at the end of November the museum will close for three years of renovation.
Kuba king's mask
     A brand-new modern building will be built nearby, with an underground gallery connecting it to the existing 1910 building, which their brochure calls “charmingly unique”.  I find it lugubre, a French word that means gloomy.  It’s dark and dim and really fossilized.  I hope the architecture will remain “charming” but the displays will be totally modernized.  During those three years, the museum’s artwork will pop up around the world as traveling exhibits and the staff will either be transferred elsewhere or have to find other employment.  One advantage for me is that everything in the museum shop is half-price or less!
   There are many parts to this museum.  There’s a history section, but I only give it a glance because I’m not a big fan of colonialism and the juxtaposed statue of a “native” and the bust of a Belgian noble makes me uneasy.  (Maybe this is one facet of the museum that will disappear with the remake?)  There’s another section on agriculture and forestry, the cornerstones of Central Africa’s initial economy.  There’s yet another on geology and mineralogy and one last section on zoology.  These are the parts that really need a good dust-off and rethink.
      But the ethnography department is the one I came for.  It groups the museum’s African art and runs the entire length of the building, along the beautiful gardens and their forest backdrop. 
      And right away I wish I knew at least as much about the various ethnic groups that make up this vast area as I know about those from West Africa who lived under the French flag.  I see names that I don’t recognize:  a Ngbaka pipe, a Luba chair, a Loi slit drum...  And looking at the tags, I wonder how many times they’ve had to be reprinted as Congo Free State became the Belgian Congo, then at independence the Republic of Congo and then the Democratic Republic of the Congo until Mobutu’s more African Zaire (which frankly is shorter and eliminates any confusion with Congo-Brazzaville) and finally back to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, or DRC which fits neatly on the little tags today.

Luba chair
   The Musée Royal is a flashback to the museums of my youth:  overly didactic with little context.  A museum for the initiated.  So I focus on the beauty of the objects. Amazing masks, often with intricate beadwork and feathers or raffia hair.  There’s even a complete buffalo dance mask, which is really a raffia suit of several pieces and a carved buffalo head.  There are everyday objects, such as carved stools, bowls and pipes.  And my son would adore all the African musical instruments crowded into two huge display cases.  I write down all the details carefully... and then lose the paper on my way back to the house.
voodoo statues
      Getting to the Musée Royal and back is an undertaking.  From where I’m staying it’s almost an hour in all:  a bus to the tram, the tram to the end of the line, and finally a short walk.  The tram line cuts through the edges of one of Belgium’s largest forests, the Forêt de Soignes.  The colors are beautiful this time of year, even if the light is fading - Brussels is as far north as Labrador - and another storm is brewing.  But the air is crisp, it hasn’t rained on me - yet - and the beauty of all those artifacts really was worth it.

Completely tuckered out from the to-ing and fro-ing, and the trepidation of not getting lost, there’s just time for a slight rest before dinner.  Then it’s back to the train station and Paris.  On the subway, I realize how easy the Paris Métro is to follow.  In Brussels the lines loop around, and you can have the same name on a subway going in both directions.  When I change lines, I almost make that mistake and head the opposite way from where I want to go. 
   But I make it to the station in time to have caught the train before mine.  There seems to be one every half hour at this time of night on a weekday.  This is the corridor that links up Paris, Brussels, Rotterdam and Amsterdam.  A bit like the Northeast Corridor from D.C. to Boston in the States.  My train comes rolling in from the north right on time and only pauses for about three minutes.  There’s some jostling among natives and mild panic among tourists, but everyone gets on and we slip quietly south across the border and into Gare du Nord five minutes early... to make up for part of the 40 minutes lost on yesterday’s trip up.
     It’s been a hectic 30 hours, and I didn’t even get to the Grand-Place or have any moules-frites (steamed mussels and French... I mean Belgian fries).  I’ll just have to go to one of the Léon de Bruxelles restaurants in Paris.  But I did see my friends in their new home and I did finally get to see the elusive Musée Royal de l’Afrique Centrale and fill my eyes with wonderments.

Friday, November 1, 2013

Recipe of the Month: La poule au pot béarnaise

Way back in the 16th century, there was a king with three sons.  That’s usually enough to ensure a lineage will survive, but in this case it wasn’t.  They died one after the other.  So Catholic France had to look to the closest relative... who was a Protestant cousin from the Pyrenees city of Pau:  Henri de Bourbon.  A Protestant on the throne?  Heresy!
     Once crowned, the cousin became Henri IV.  And he became so beloved of the people that he was soon called Le Bon Roi Henri, Good King Henry.
     One reason he was loved is that he is reputed to have said “I want each laborer in my kingdom to be able to put a chicken in his pot on Sundays.”  Meaning he wanted poor people not to starve and to have at least a minimum of what the rich had... if only on Sunday.  Some meat.  It was a medieval version of Socialism, I guess.
     And that brings us to this month’s recipe:  La Poule au Pot Béarnaise, dite Poule au Pot d’Henri IV - Chicken stew from the Béarn region of the Pyrenees, aka King Henri IV’s chicken stew.
     It might just replace turkey this Thanksgiving.

Prep time:  30 min
Cooking time:  2½ -3 hrs

For 6 hearty eaters

  • a fat stewing chicken, about 5 lbs, ready to cook, and with its giblets if possible.
  • 7 oz (200 gr) of Bayonne ham or prosciutto
  • 7 oz (200 gr) of stale bread
  • 7 fl oz (20 cl) of milk 
  • 2 onions 
  • 1 garlic clove
  • 8 sprigs of flat parsley
  • 2 eggs
  • 8 carrots
  • 4 turnips
  • 4 leeks
  • 1 small celery branch
  • 2 cloves
  • 1 bouquet garni (1sprig thyme, 1 bay leaf and 4 sprigs flat parsley) 
  • salt and pepper
  • stale country bread, sliced

- Soak the bread in the milk and tear it into small pieces.  Chop up the ham and the giblets (liver, heart, gizzard), as well as one onion, the garlic and the parsley.  Mix it all together with the bread and then work in one whole egg plus one egg yolk and add salt and pepper.
- Stuff the chicken with the mixture and truss it.
- Put the chicken in a big Dutch oven and cover it with cold water.  Bring it to a full boil and then skim off any foam.  Lower the heat, add salt, cover partially and let simmer for an hour.
- Meanwhile, peel and wash the vegetables - carrots, turnips, leeks and celery.  Peel the second onion and stick the cloves in it.  Add all the vegetables and the bouquet garni into the Dutch oven with the chicken after it’s been cooking for an hour. Let simmer for 1½ to 2 hours, until tender.
- Place a few slices of stale country bread in the oven to dry while you take the chicken and vegetables out of the Dutch oven.  Keep them warm.
- Strain the bouillon and pour it in a soup tureen over the dried bread slices.
- Carve the chicken up, being careful to remove the stuffing whole.  Dispose the chicken on a warm serving plate.  Slice the stuffing and put it in the middle.  Place the vegetables around the chicken.  Serve hot.

Accompany with a strong red wine, but without too much tannin

P.S.  The idea of the stale country bread is to have crouton-like bread.  Thus the drying in the oven.  It's similar to French onion soup.  So this is really two dishes in one.