Paris Review - Covering a Long List of Things to See

Map of Paris


Ah, a week in Paris!  My list was long and incomplete.  Barge cruise along the Canal St. Martin.  A lemon tart at each of four 5-star patisseries.   Monet’s Water Lilies downstairs at the Orangerie and all those other Monets –the world’s largest collection—in the Marmottan, walks in the Luxemburg Gardens and Parc Monceau…. etc., etc.  Most of the items were repeats, but what’s a heaven for?


This time was different because I was with my grownup daughter—and for a change I was in relative control.  I knew Paris 16-to-3 stays better than she did and, after life-long study, I could ask a bus driver where to get off.  (It was always a long way back:  a 4-star hotel is typically a 5-star hotel in a 2-star neighborhood—far from the center and/or far from posh).


Calm down and

Okay.  We didn’t cover everything on the list.  I didn’t even get to Galeries Lafayette (a charming department store near the Opera Garnier) where every five years or so I think I’m saving money on a new lipstick and a pair of seamless underpants.  This year I might have made a coup because the Euro had finally dipped to nearly the value of the dollar.


But what we did was tops.  Daughter Kate wanted the Musee d’Orsay, a brilliant collection of 19th-century (1848-1914) French art housed in a converted railway station that is an art-work in itself.  We shot up to the top floor and its unbeatable assembly of the Impressionists and post-Impressionists, where I said hello to Manet’s unforgettable portrait of Emile Zola, alive in my head since our first meeting in a previous home over 50 years ago.  Manet’s “Olympia” and “Le Dejeuner Sur l’Herbe” also star in this crème de la crème permanent exhibit.



We couldn’t stay long enough because my target was the special show of Portraits by Cezanne.  (Closing Sept 24).  It was heart-breaking to hurry past Monet’s “Cathedral at Rouen” and more water lilies, Renoir’s “Dancing at the Moulin de la Galette,” the Degas, the Van Gogh, my favorite Sisley landscapes…..but then we reached the summer show of Cezannes.



Parking de Paris


This outsider among his Impressionist contemporaries is venerated mostly for his pre-cubist landscapes and still lifes.  The portraits are something else.  They are intimate and humane and, as set up at the Orsay, they offer a kind of emotional biography of this tormented artist, who mostly stayed home in the south of France while his Impressionist colleagues hung out in and around Paris.  He painted the ordinary locals, making them extraordinary--his father, his uncle, card-players, the gardener of his father’s estate in Aix-en-Provence, and mostly Hortense Fiquet, his mistress for 15 years, then live-away wife.  Cezanne put off marrying her until the death of his disapproving father, by which time their son Paul was 14 years old.


And the self-portraits—so many more than I even knew about!  In six rooms full of portraits, you can see how Cezanne developed from a defiant young man—he often painted with a palette knife, sometimes nothing but—choosing unconventional models, poses and settings, not to mention style.  As he grew older his portrait-painting matured, too.  The patient Mme. Cezanne (as well as her less patient husband) became more serene, more reflective, the painting more searching, more telling.


What a thrill!  I thought I knew Cezanne but here were paintings I’d never seen--works borrowed from out-of-the-way museums, from countries I’d never landed in, from private collections.  I’ve looked at Cezannes near and far and often, but I’d never seen the dark-haired young man with I-dare-you in his eyes and an unprotected smile.  There I stood, face to face with a new Cezanne.  And good-bye was forever.


Picasso/Primitive was not quite PC but it was an exposition we could not reject. 

Next day it was another Metro to Quai Branly not far from the Eiffel Tower.  The Musee du Quai Branly-George Chirac, designed by Jean Nouvel, is approached by curving paths through a woodsy park.  A big and lush “greenwall” on the facade of the louvered wood and glass building is one of botanist Patrick Blanc’s most famous vertical gardens, making a congenial exterior for the prime collection of indigenous art and artifacts and cultural displays from Africa, Asia, Oceania and the Americas.  The interior, by the way, is beautifully lit in settings as handsomely staged as a fairly lavish Broadway musical.


Again I had to lead Kate away from the permanent exhibits into the Picasso, which turned out to be another knockout.  Again I was confronting art, much of it familiar, in an unfamiliar setting that scrambled my head as it delighted my eyes.   The show demonstrates the depth of the influence of “primitive” art on the most avant garde, prolific and acclaimed artist of the 20th century.  In public Picasso often down-played this aspect of his work but
the Branly-Chirac proves its point in the most interesting and artful way.

The Eiffel Tower in the distance


The story—told in photographs, letters, documents and the works themselves—starts in 1920, when the poor, young Catalonian settled in Paris.  It ends with his death in the south of France in 1974, still the owner of African masks and art objects that he had acquired in his Paris days.  I savored the letters to and from friends and dealers who had spotted a piece he might want to buy.  I adored the photographs of visitors to his studio—Gertrude Stein, Jean Cocteau, for example—with red ink outlines setting off the indigenous art on walls, tables or floor.  I loved the youthful Picasso’s conclusion after seeing a Paris exhibition of nonwestern art.  Taking this work seriously for the first time, he was thunderstruck.  These objects were not material for ethnographic studies; they were art--supreme art, that provides “an access to the deepest, most fundamental layers of human feelings.”

Exhibit closes on July 23.


The second part of the exhibition puts together works of indigenous art and works of Picasso that demonstrate the artist’s continuous dialogue with what the curators (to avoid primitive) call “nonwestern” art.  There is his big canvas, “The Desmoiselles of Avignon,” the first he made after his “conversion,” so clearly under the influence.  There are his endlessly inventive paintings and sculptures that include indigenous art, or are made from articles of indigenous art or that are in themselves a category of indigenous art.


restaurant du Musee d' Orsay

I have looked at Picassos in all his creative periods—blue, red classical, cubist, and on and on—in shows and permanent collections on six continents (do they have art galleries in Antarctica?).  A lot of Picassos, but I’ve never seen these works, or felt them, as fiercely or affectionately or passionately alive as they were in the Branly-Chirac.  They’ll never be the same.


And now we’re off to a third Paris museum, the newest and most talked about and the top of everybody’s Must-Get-To list.  In France it’s not just the artsy and intellectuals who flock to cultural feeders.  At the Louvre, the Pompidou, the Grand Palais, the Jeu de Paume, Musee d’Art Moderne and some 45 other special places including the Rodin and the off-beat, off-the-street Musee de la Vie Romantique (the romantic life), the waiting lines include art enthusiasts of all ages, all classes and most modes of living.


My daughter Kate, ordinarily not an enthusiast, liked the Orsay, loved the Branly and went nuts over the Fondation Louis Vuitton.  Who wouldn’t?


The breath-taking, mood-elevating building designed by our Frank Gehry is set like a giant jewel in the Bois de Boulogne (Paris’s version of New York’s Central Park, though it’s southwest).   The structure, of glass and metal with parallel piping, has huge wings and an elevation between them that looks, from one approach like a lopsided top hat.  Jaunty and friendly.  Move around its apron, paving stones made of limestone from Burgundy, and the building becomes a boat, a bridge, wings, a roller coaster.  It’s what Shakespeare attributes to Cleopatra: “infinite variety.”  I doubted that the interior could live up to it, whether there would be enough room to properly display the art.


Picasso's La Vie

No fear.  There was plenty of wall space for paintings and floor space for installations and dark space for videos.  Terraces at different heights--all curves, no corners-- offered broad views of the park and its diversions.  We found the auditorium named for America’s iconic Ellsworth Kelly, featuring, from my balcony view, three of his characteristic paintings seemed to hang in the air—a wide blue rectangle, a long yellow rectangle and a small orange rectangle.  The curtain across the stage was a keyboard color spectrum.  The place was full of light from the billowing glass façade.


Art/Afrique, Le Nouvel Atelier, the current show of untraditional African Art, takes up all of the viewing area and there’s lots of it.  Below-ground levels are spacious and well lit.  (Handy of escalators and elevators).    One exhibit was contemporary works from Louis Vuitton’s foundation collection, another of works from 1989 to 2009 from a private collector, Jean Pigozzi.  The one we came to see was “Being There:  South Africa, a Contemporary Scene.”


It is a striking, mind-changing (my mind, anyway) show of strong, sophisticated art that often translates the heat and ferocity of its ancestors into topical subjects and polished technique.  Rigobert Nimi from Johannesburg paints hard-edged figures in clear, graphic colors on big, confrontational canvases.  “The World Before Continents” responds to the 9/11 attacks on the U.S.  “The City of the Stars” by Cheri Samba is made from metal, wood, plastic, light bulbs and electric components.


Pablo Picasso, Harlequin and his companion

The African art I’ve been admiring in New York City has been crafted in delicate, nuanced textures and colors—flowing curtains or veils hanging from ceilings, trailing across floors, climbing walls.  This tough, new, tightly constructed art sends a different message.  I was drawn to a group of abstracts (by Athi-Parta Ruga) in deep spice colors.  At a close look, they turned out to be framed tapestries, dense as waterproof woven bowls.  “Tail,” a solid black sculpture by Nicholas Hlobo from Cape Town was powerful and intimidating.


I (and I think even Kate) could have lingered longer but we had a reservation for late lunch at the Vuitton.  One more delight of the Fondation Louis Vuitton is the café  named for Frank Gehry, and set in the lobby under a school of ruffly white fish floating below the ceiling.  The view is lovely. The chairs are comfortable, the service friendly and the food—well, this is Paris—c’est magnifique


Kate, after shlepping through the exhibitions, found a stairway on an upper level and climbed it.

        “You must go up,” she urged me.  “You can see horseback riders.  You can see a lake with      paddleboats.”

     “You go up again,” I said from a bench, “and tell me about it.”

     What a role switch!  That’s what is called “transformative art.”



  Photos: Courtesy of Paris Tourist Bureau



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