Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Out & About: Exhibits: Balenciaga: Working in Black

In addition to food and art, another thing Paris is famous for is fashion.
     One of the leading fashion designers of my youth was Balenciaga, whose dresses were delicious works of art, alongside those of Schiaparelli.  So the exhibit at the Bourdelle Museum was a must for me.

When I get to the Bourdelle Museum, I find out just how much I did not know about Balenciaga. For instance, I thought he was French, but no.  Cristobal Balenciaga (1895-1972) was Basque, from the Spanish side of the border.  Learning from his seamstress mother as of childhood, he went on to apprentice as a tailor before opening his own fashion house.  Given his tailor’s training, he was able to design, cut and sew his creations himself, one of the few couturiers who could take a dress from the drawing board to the runway all by himself.  His clientele grew to include Spain’s royal family, but when the Spanish Civil War broke out, Balenciaga closed his fashion house and moved to Paris, where he became pretty much an overnight success.
     Christian Dior called him “the master of us all”, which is high praise from someone most people saw as being the master himself. To Coco Chanel, he was "the only couturier in the truest sense of the word.  The others are simply fashion designers."  And to everyone, Balenciaga was known for his uncompromising standards.
     His creations were always sculptures.  At the start of the 1950's, he drew women’s shoulders wider and did away with the waist.  Then in the mid-Fifties he moved on to the tunic dress, followed closely by the chemise dress.  His looks were many, as the exhibit points out: “the barrel line (1947), the balloon (1950), the semi-fitted (1951), the tunic dress (1955), and, of course, the sack dress (1957)”.  By the end of the Fifties, he had switched his look to Empire waistline dresses and kimono-style coats.
     Balenciaga not only created his own style; he mentored a whole generation of rising designers, the most famous of which were Givenchy, Courreges, Ungaro and Oscar de la Renta.  In addition to his European clientele, his creations attracted attention across the Atlantic.  Audrey Hepburn, Grace Kelly, Ava Gardner and First Lady Jackie Kennedy, among others, were all faithful to Balenciaga.

This exhibit focuses on his version of Chanel’s proverbial “little black dress”, in all its various forms.  He played on the opposition of matte black, as in wools and velvets, and the “brilliant black” of satin, silk or taffeta.  As one exhibit panel explains, “He used black textures to accentuate the play of shadows and to emphasise the line.”  To that he added accents with embroidery - perhaps borrowed from the “suit of light” of the matadors - or with sequins, paillettes and jet beads.
     Another of the couturier’s tricks was how he used the fabric, how he shaped and cut it.  “In order to get the best out of a fabric, Balenciaga would adapt his technique to its qualities.  According to its weight, its thickness, its hang and its feel, he would cut it or mould it or drape it differently.”
     Even when he used other colors, black was part of the formula.  At one point Balenciaga designed dresses of bright pink cloth visible only as an accent through the black lace overlay.  The lace was reminiscent of Spanish mantillas. As for the pink, sometimes it was gentle, almost flesh-toned, sometimes the bright color of a toreador’s cape.
     It must be remembered that there is black galore in Balenciaga’s native Spain.  Perhaps it was seeing all the widows, sometimes condemned to wear only black as of an early age, that led him to experiment with that “color”.
     As the exhibit explains, “...for Balenciaga, black was more than a colour or even a non-colour; he saw it as a vibrant matter, by turns opaque or transparent, matte or shiny – a dazzling interplay of light, which owes as much to the luxurious quality of the fabrics as to the apparent simplicity of his cut.  A lace highlight, an embroidered composition, some twisted metallic tape, a thick drape of silk velvet and, presto, you have a skirt, a bolero, a mantilla, a cape reinvented as a coat, a coat tailored as a cape.”
     The exhibit is broken down into three sections: “Silhouette & Volumes”, followed by “Noirs & Lumières” (Black & Light), and then “Noirs et Couleurs” (‘Blacks & Colours’).   In total there are over one hundred pieces from the Galliera Museum and Maison Balenciaga:  day clothes, suits, jackets, evening outfits, cocktail dresses and accessories.  All in black.

Initially, I found it a bit perplexing why these dresses were being shown at the Bourdelle Museum.  I mean, yes, Balenciaga was called the sculptor of haute couture so I guess that was the link with the sculpture of Bourdelle.  But once I got there and saw the dresses next to Bourdelle’s plaster casts in the museum’s Great Hall, and even a few in his atelier, it turned out to be a brilliant idea.
     My only regret:  the dim lighting.  Especially for the black dresses set against a black background.  Obviously it’s necessary to protect these works of fashion art, and harsh lighting is not kind.  But black doesn’t show up well in the shadows.  Perhaps they could pump up the luminosity just a bit.
     With that one caveat, if you enjoy fashion, this is a show for you.

Cristobal Balenciaga

Balenciaga:  L’Ouevre au noir

Musée Bourdelle
18 rue Antoine-Bourdelle, 15è
Métro: Montparnasse

Until July 16, 2017
10-6 / Closed Mondays

10 € & 7 € (free under 18 years of age)

Saturday, July 1, 2017

On the Road: Honfleur

It’s only a short trip from Paris to Honfleur - under 200 kilometers (125 miles), but one well worth making, either by car or by train.
     For art historians, it offers a look at what so many Impressionists came here to paint.  First of all, hometown boy Eugène Boudin, actually a pre-Impressionist who influenced Claude Monet greatly in the perception of light, especially on water.  Charles-François Daubigny, also a precursor of Impressionism, captured the port of Honfleur on many canvases, basing himself at the Saint-Siméon farm which became a home-away-from-home for a whole new generation of artists, including  Jongkind and Bazille. Monet and Seurat fell under the charm of the port as well.
     It’s easy to see why.  Filled with fishing boats back then, the small inner port is now booked year-round by sailboats that sometimes reach yacht size.  When I was there last, the drawbridge to the inner harbor twice blocked car and pedestrian traffic, with waiting boats circling patiently outside the harbor as the bridge was slowly raised.  Some were locals; some flew British flags and had booked ahead of time.
     (I see someone in the back of the room waving his hand.  “Why the drawbridge?”  Because there are tides in Honfleur.  It’s at the mouth of the Seine River, but actually on the English Channel, so... tides.  There’s a lock on the drawbridge; otherwise the inner port would go dry, or at least the water level would be too low at certain times of the day.  Oh, and also because of the boat’s masts.)

The fishing port
At the north end of the inner port, there’s a tower near the drawbridge.  The memorial plaque on it reminds you that Jacques Cartier sailed out of Honfleur in 1535 and up the Saint Lawrence River in Canada, claiming the New World - at least this part of it - for the king of France.  In 1608 he again sailed, this time founding the city of Québec.  All of which makes Honfleur a small port, but a historic one.
Musée de la Marine
     On the east side of the harbor is the Musée de la Marine, housed in the old Saint-Etienne Church whose religious activities ended once and for all under the French Revolution.  It became a customs house, then, since 1976, a museum with a collection of maps, engravings, paintings and model ships that trace the town’s maritime history of fishing, naval construction, commerce and ship-related crafts.  (Closed Mondays, at lunchtime during tourist season and all morning outside tourist season).

   All around the inner port runs a wide terrace that has been taken over in its entirety by the port’s restaurants, especially on the west side.  (Parasols are provided to shelter you from the sun.)  It would be hard to find fish or seafood any fresher than here.  It’s brought in by the fishermen in the morning and picked up by the chef’s staff as the boats moor.  Seafood platters are a beauty to behold - as befits an artistic town - and a blessing for the stomach.  You can pick what you want.  If I don’t give in to a sole meunière, I usually end up with half a dozen oysters, some clams, sea snails, pink shrimp and also those little grey ones you can’t find in the States.  All washed down with some chilled white wine.
     After lunch, it’s time to see “uptown”, as I call it.

Eglise Sainte-Catherine
Head down towards the tower at the drawbridge and turn left.  You’ll see the Eglise Sainte-Catherine higher up on your left.  It’s well worth a look inside.  Honfleur being a town of boat-building, this church was hewn by workers from the naval shipyards without the use of a saw, as were the ships of William the Conqueror in 1066, depicted in the Bayeux Tapestry. You’ll probably notice right away that there are not one but two naves, side by side.  The first (the one on the left as you face the altar) dates from the 15th century.  It was built once the English left shortly after the end of the Hundred Years War, to replace the stone church that was destroyed in that war.  If you look up, you’ll find it looks like the keel of a boat overturned. The second nave was added about a century later, when the town’s population had outgrown the little church, and looks less like a ship and more like a modest Gothic church, although there’s still a harmony between the two, at least to me.
     Across the street from the church is its steeple made all of oak.  Yes, you heard that right: across the street.  Given the location of the church on the side of a hill, and the height of the steeple, it would have attracted too many lightning strikes.  Which is bad for an all-wood church (the largest in France).  So the steeple was built away from the church, and the bell-ringer was allowed to live in the ground level space.  You can go in and see vestiges of the old structure.
     To the right of that as you look at the building, the Rue des Lingots heads downhill.  Turn left in the first street, and walk down the Rue de l’Homme de Bois to the Musée Eugène Boudin (closed Tuesdays).  It’s a lot of bang for your 8 €.  Inside you’ll find an old repurposed chapel of the Convent of the Augustine Sisters.  As is only fitting, there are a number of works by Boudin himself, surrounded by those of his artist friends:  Monet, Jongkind, Courbet,  Eugène Isabey, Charles Mozin, Alexandre Dubourg, Charles Pécrus, Gustave Hamelin, and Adolphe Félix Cals.  Upstairs are two levels of modern exhibit space added on in the 1970's to help house the over 2,500 works of art the museum has accumulated.  Not only can you enjoy temporary art exhibits there, but the end wall, completely of glass, offers a wonderful view out over this part of the town’s rooftops to the harbor and the very modernistic Normandie Bridge beyond.
     Music lovers may already know that Erik Satie, composer of Gymnopédies, is a native of Honfleur.  To see his house (closed Tuesdays), turn right as you leave the Musée Boudin, then left down a little alley to the Rue Haute (which means Main Street in French), then left again and it will be about a block down on the right at Number 90.  Or, if you don’t like alleyways, turn left exiting the museum, go a block or two and turn right into the Rue du Trou Miard, then right again into the Rue Haute and it’ll be farther down on the left.  The house is very small, but take the audioguide that will turn on the light-and-sound show as you enter each room, giving a commentary on a bit of Satie’s life and playing some of his tunes.  You’ll get a real feel for how small houses were back then.  But the really fun part is when you reach what I remember as the final room, which has a four-seater merry-go-round that you pedal and it makes music and sounds as you go!
   When you’re done having fun with Satie, go out the exit on the Boulevard Charles V side, turn right and head back to the harbor.  Children might enjoy a ride on a real merry-go-round at the outlet of the inner port. Adults may enjoy a drink at a different place on the inner port before heading back wherever you came from.  Or you can take a boat tour out onto the Seine and under the Normandie Bridge with Cauchois Cruises, leaving from the foot of the boulevard (1½ hr).
     Cruises, water colors, hewn wood churches, seafood on the port... Any way you look at it, Honfleur and water are intimately intermingled.

Restaurants on the inner port:  My particular favorite is L'Abricotier (68 Quai Sainte-Catherine), perhaps for no other reason than habit but I’ve never had a bad meal there.

As to hotels, there are many.
Hotel L'Ecrin
If you don’t mind steep stairs and noise from passers-by, there’s Le Dauphin on the Place Pierre Berthelot, right by the Eglise Sainte Catherine.  It has some bedrooms on the ground floor, which might be handy for people with mobility problems, but then again Honfleur is not necessarily kind to people with mobility problems.
Otherwise, try L’Ecrin a few blocks further “inland”, on the rue Eugène Boudin.  It has parking and a small pool put in recently, plus a garden where you might just get breakfast, or tea, if the weather is clement.

Musée Eugène Boudin:

Satie House: