Saturday, October 24, 2015

Out & About: Exhibits - Splendeurs et Misères

One of my favorite museums in Paris is the Orsay Museum.  And there’s a good reason for that:  Impressionism.  Which I love.
     What’s more, I love the building that houses this museum:  the former Orsay railroad station, a Belle Epoque building of great beauty.  And as the Impressionist period basically corresponds to France’s Belle Epoque - usually defined as running from the end of the Franco-Prussian War in 1871 to the outbreak of World War I in 1914 - it’s very fitting that the Ministry of Culture, in its infinite wisdom, chose to repurpose this Belle Epoque edifice as the showplace of Impressionism.

Right now there’s a major art show at the Orsay:  Splendor and Misery - Images of Prostitution in France.  “Oh, those French,” I can hear you say.  “Trust them to put sex into an art show.”
     Well, not having a clear idea what a exhibit on such a topic would offer, I decided to go find out.  And I’m glad I did because, as with any major exhibit, there are artworks here that you will never see together in one place again.  Although the majority come from the Orsay’s own cache, along with quite a few from another Paris museum, the Carnavalet, there are also works from The Met in New York City, Chicago’s Art Institute, the National Gallery in Washington, D.C., and even one from Williamstown, Massachussets.  And as there are many works by Van Gogh, Amsterdam’s Van Gogh Museum has also sent many of its masterpieces to Paris for the event.

All French museums, including Orsay, like to explain to you what you’re seeing.  Although the lighting is dim to protect the artworks, you can read huge panels - in French with an excellent version in English - at the entrance to every room.  There are smaller ones for individual works, but they’re only in French, so perhaps you’d want to rent the audiocassettes*, which I think run only 5€.
     There are many interesting facts on these panels.  One speaks of “amours tarifiés”, a tongue-in-cheek definition of prostitution as “love at a price”.  The panel at the very start states that this theme of prostitution was exclusively a masculine realm.  No Suzanne Valadon or Berthe Morisot or Mary Cassatt here.   It goes on to say that this first section is a reflection of “the ambiguity of the era’s social situation”, “the burden of the feminine condition of modern times”.  And it adds something that could apply to our own era, more than a century later:  “In working-class circles, women who had modest jobs - such as manual workers, milliners, florists or laundresses - were too poorly paid to afford decent accommodations or feed themselves adequately, especially if they had a family to support. Some therefore occasionally resorted to prostitution to supplement their earnings.”  (I also learned that laws then prohibited soliciting during daylight, and thus the origin of the term “ladies of the night”.)
The Absinthe Drinker, Edgar Degas
     The artwork here includes many famous paintings that aren’t usually associated with prostitution.  But as Nice Women of the era didn’t frequent cafés, “The Absinthe Drinker” by Degas is part of the theme.  And as the dancers of the Paris Ballet also often sidelined as courtesans, the “Prima Ballerina” taking a bow, also by Degas, covers that side of the topic.  Toulouse-Lautrec is widely represented, given his fascination with both cafés and prostitutes; I saw are at least two that I’m very familiar with:  “At the Moulin Rouge” and “The Redhead”.  Manet’s most widely known masterpiece, Olympia, is usually thought of as a nude rather than specifically as a prostitute, but I guess there’s room for doubt so it also is there, along with a spoof of it - also called Olympia - by Manet’s old friend Cézanne, in which the setting is more obviously a brothel, complete with man in top hat, waiting.
     There are many different mediums in this first section, running the entire gamut:  pen-and-ink, gouache, pastels, oils, etchings and lithographs.

After several rooms focusing on women who might be plying their wares, either as a trade or as
Au Moulin Rouge, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec
additional income off-hours, comes a narrow hallway decorated with wallpaper, floor to ceiling, depicting an old Paris street as seen in two photos in next room.  Those two photos show two of many brothels, and  the tone changes radically as of this point.  The rest of the exhibit focuses totally on love for sale, whether by a prostitute on the street or in a brothel, or by a courtesan, some of whom made a lot of money, married well and got out of the business.
     Display cases hold sheet music sold in the street - even in Edith Piaf’s time - illustrated by drawings by famous artists.  As some songs in those days were about the ladies of the night...
     To include a sociological viewpoint, there’s documentation on the jails where these women often ended up, or the hospitals where their syphilis and other venereal diseases were treated.  There’s even a side room, closed off with red velvet curtains with signs forbidding access to those under 18. As curious as ever, I went in, but soon left because porn films and photos, albeit from the Belle Epoque, aren’t my thing.  More interesting was the furniture and furnishings from the homes of those rich courtesans, although the style is  a bit too over-the-top for me,
     And I learned something I didn’t know:  that Picasso’s famous "Demoiselles d’Avignon" - which normally lives in New York’s MOMA - is not just a bunch of nude ladies with strange faces.  They’re not bathing in the Rhone River in Avignon, France, as I thought.  They’re waiting for clients at the Avignon Bordello in Barcelona.  Another illusion dashed. Guess I lead a sheltered life.
     It’s an interesting exhibit, if only for the first section.  You can go at your own speed, gloss over what you don’t enjoy and focus on what you do. Besides, there’s the entire rest of the museum to explore as well.  Not to mention lunch or tea in the Belle Epoque restaurant, with its beautiful brass and mirrors and all the rest of what goes with Belle Epoque décors. But be sure you get the right place; it’s located above the entrance and is not to be confused with the snack bar on the top floor.

P.S.  If you wonder what that lub-dub lub-dub sound is you hear and feel as you go through the lower rooms of the Orsay, it’s the trains rolling along the rails on the line running under the museum.

Splendeurs et Misères - Images of 
Prostitution in France (1850-1910)

Musée d’Orsay
1 rue de la Légion-d’Honneur; 7è
Métro:  Solférino, RER B Musée d’Orsay

Until January 17, 2016
T-Sun 9:30-6 / Th open until 9:45
Closed Mondays

11 & 8.50 €

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Les Vendanges à Montmartre

Clos Montmartre
Every fall, Montmartre celebrates something that's part of its heritage: les vendanges, the harvest of the grapes.
     Clos Montmartre is the wine made from what is billed as “the city’s last working vineyard”.
Although grapes had always been grown here, residential sprawl and then phylloxera destroyed the remnants of its vineyards in the early 20th century.  Lusted over by property developers, the one remaining plot was revived in 1933 by a group of local artists led by Francis Poulbot, a famous illustrator.  These artists petitioned the government to grant them the land so they could replant the vines.  Knowing that French law states that nothing can be built on a vineyard, they saved this small patch of nature from the builder’s shovel

The Montmartre wine specialists, in full regalia
After the grapes are harvested each year, they’re taken to the district’s City Hall, where they’re pressed, fermented and bottled in the basement - about 1,700 bottles squeezed out of the 1,900 vines of 28 different grape varieties (mostly gamay and pinot noir).  And sporting labels designed by local artists.  This has been done every autumn since 1934, except during World War II.
   The steep vineyard faces north at the corner of the rue des Saules and rue Saint Vincent.  Not the best exposure for sun-loving grapes.  The resulting wine used to be called a pisse-dru, a scathing term which could mercifully be translated as a diuretic.  When I was asked Saturday whether I would like to try some - at a steep price of €50 for a 50-cl bottle - I said I already had, and smiled.  Evidently the wine’s quality has improved greatly over recent years under the tutelage of oenologist Francis Gourdin, who took over the vineyard in 1995.  Although some critics deem it “decent enough”, food writer Alain Neyman says politely, "You buy it for pleasure, as a souvenir of a fun event. (...) Recent bottles have become collectors' items."
The Bretons with binious
     The wine is auctioned off during the Vendanges festival and proceeds go to local charities, a tradition started by the artist Poulbot for the poor children of the Butte Montmartre immortalized in his paintings.
     Each year there are harvest godparents.  The firsr godmother in 1934 was the legendary Mistinguett.  This year the godparents were model-cum-actress Mélanie Thierry and singer Raphaël, who form an unwed couple with a child in real life (see below).

Les P'tits Poulbots
Which leads us neatly from the reason behind the celebration to one of the most popular events linked with it since 2007:   the non-demandes en mariage, or non-weddings (thus the reference to Mélanie and Raphaël).  The idea comes from a famous song by Georges Brassens with the refrain, “I have the honor / of not asking / for your hand.”  This year you had to sign up before September 25th, which gave you time to decide whether you wanted to back out of not getting married.  The mayor himself officiates at your non-wedding, making it official.  And each year the number of couples who get not-married grows larger.
Japanese children
     There was also a huge fireworks display Saturday night from the foot of the Sacré-Coeur.  In other words, from the playground right across from the building where my children grew up.  If we still lived there, we would have had front-row seats for a fantastic pyrotechnic show.  As it was, I benefitted fully from the noise a few blocks away but missed out on the light show, catching only flashes in the Paris sky.
     It all ended Sunday night with a ball from 5 to 8 pm at the same place as the previous night’s fireworks.  The music was international, reflecting this year’s planetary theme.  There were biguines from the French West Indies, cumblas from Colombia, boleros and rumbas from Cuba... everything down to the Good old Parisian Apache dance.

Other events?  Well, during the week one of the professional high schools that train young people for jobs in industry - this one the hotel industry - offered up a meal.  There was a party with a mini-parade where the children dressed up like Saint-Exupéry’s Le Petit Prince, The Little Prince, one of the key literary works that talked about saving the planet long before it became Touchy-Feely to do so. There was a song-fest by the elementary school children of the arrondissement:  900 chidren this year, which is quite a chorale.
     Of course there were booths scattered around the area, handing out samples so you could taste the specialties that make France delicious.  Wine, of course, but also pâtes, cheeses, chocolates and other goodies such as cotton candy, which the French call barbe à papa - Daddy’s beard.  There were also balloon sellers and even a balloon sculptor making those balloon giraffes and dachshunds children so love.  A wall 200 meters long covered with murals by local artists.  A public ball, including Bollywood dancers when the French dancers get tired.  And of course speeches, starting with the one in the vineyards already stripped of their grapes.
     Plus the parade that snaked through a lot of Montmartre.  In it were wine-connected groups from all over France, as well as one group focused on strawberries and another on melon, those small, flavor-packed cantaloupes from southern France.  And there were musical groups, many with a Brazilian sound, but as always a  biniou group from Brittany, blowing on the Breton version of the bagpipes.  This year’s participants included young people from Japan dressed up in kimonos and a group from Ukraine who looked really happy to be elsewhere than back home.  But the stars of the parade are the P’tits Poulbots, the drum corps of children and teenagers, Montmartre’s vintage way to keep its kids busy and out of trouble.  And these kids can drum!
     The Vendanges is the Big Moment for Montmartre, event-wise.  A bit kitsch, for sure.  But we’ve learned to grin and bear it, and even embrace it.  And then we rejoice when all the additional tourists, Parisian and foreign, go home and leave us to our Butte.
     But the children enjoy it, especially the balloon-and-candy side of it. And it’s only once a year.

To hear an NPR piece on the Clos Montmartre:

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Out and About: Journée sans Voiture

Last week-end was Heritage Days, Journées Patrimoine.  This Sunday was No Traffic Day, Journée sans voiture.
     And given the traffic in Paris, even on a Sunday, the latter was probably more of a stress on the city than the former.  Because it consisted of blocking automobile traffic from whole sections of town from 11 in the morning until 6 p.m.
     The sky was a lovely blue, so once I got my errands and house-cleaning done, I decided rather belatedly to see how it was going and what success it was having.
     Again I jumped in the trusty Métro and headed for what would probably be the most potentially problematic place:  the Champs-Elysées.

Now the No Traffic Day maps said that the whole center of the Right Bank would be car-free, from the Seine River on the south to the Bastille on the east to the Grands Boulevards on the north and the Opera/Madeleine on the west, with a tentacle stretching west up the Champs-Elysées and another tentacle north along the Canal St. Martin.  (The Left Bank was also pedestrian from the arching Boulevard St. Germain to the river.)
     I decided to get off the Métro at Madeleine, so I could take a photo from the middle of the street down to Concorde and another up to Opéra, a feat that would normally get you run over in, oh, five seconds, guaranteed.  With no traffic, it would make for fantastic shots!  But as I came up the steps, I distinctly heard car traffic.  And when I reached street level, there were cars, albeit moving slower than usual, all around the Madeleine and up and down the boulevards leading in both directions.  So much for the fantastic shots I would get.
     So I walked down the Rue Royale to the Place de la Concorde, cars traveling in both directions.  When I got there, my illusions of taking a photo from the Obelisk in the center of this vast plaza up what’s touted - by the French at least - as the World’s Most Beautiful Avenue.  Cars were circling the plaza as they always do.  I looked at my watch, wondering if I’d lost three hours somewhere - in a time warp while on the subway, for instance - and the event was already over.  Perhaps the whole thing had been a bust and City Hall just gave up?
     But no, police were preventing cars from turning into the Avenue des Champs-Elysées.  I heard drivers haggling with the officers.  “But I’m only going a few blocks!”  “Are you a taxi?  No, then you can’t!  It’s closed!”  And as I looked up the avenue - ten lanes wide and over a mile long - all I saw was a flood of people.  On foot.  On scooters (the foot-propelled kind, not the motorized kind).  Bikes, lots and lots of bikes.  The only thing motorized was one Segway (they can be rented at a Concorde stall on normal days) but the man on it seemed to be helping people with directions or other problems, so maybe he was sent by the Mayor Annie Hidalgo to do damage control.  Mostly it was just thousands and thousands of people walking.
     I did something I’d wanted to go for decades; I walked right up the median line in the middle of the street.  It was kind of empowering.  I passed people sitting on the hallowed cobblestones; two women were even having a picnic.  Some young athletes had come with a goal and set up a soccer game.  Many children were there with Mom or Dad or Grandma or Grandpas to ride their pint-sized bikes on places where they would never have stood a chance of survival otherwise.  I’ll bet it’ll go down as a Red Letter Day in their memories.
   Halfway up the Champs-Elysées, I’d had enough of the crowd.  I thought I’d head down to the quais, the street running along the Seine.  But as I got to the Grand Palais, I saw and heard cars down along the riverbank, so I decided to call it a day.
     On my way back to the Métro to head home, I saw one of the riot police in front of the American Embassy talking to a boy aged about seven.  In spite of his extremely lethal semi-automatic, he was smiling and answering a question, which might well have been “Have you ever killed anyone with that?”  He seemed to be in a good mood, so I asked him “Which do you prefer:  the cars or the people?”  He told me the cars were easier because there were far too many people milling about today to make him comfortable.  I hadn’t thought of it from that angle.
     Then I saw an elderly lady standing, befuddled, just a few feet away on the corner of the plaza.  She was looking up and down, afraid to step off the curb.  I asked her if she needed help and she told me she wanted to cross the street but there were too many cyclists zipping every which way.  I gave her my arm and we walked across the busy intersection, then wished each other a good day and went our separate ways.  I hadn’t thought of how the chaotic anarchy of bikes and people and scooters and all could be disconcerting.  To me it was just people taking the streets back.

As far as I know, no one was run over by an errant bicycle, although I personally had a few close calls.  No police were hurt in the execution of this event, again to my knowledge, but there sure were a lot of unhappy motorists.
     As for the rest of us, it was amazing!