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?