Monday, May 30, 2011

Add Two Letters

There are signs on the métro cars with quotes from various literary sources, well-known and not.  Last night I noticed one that said "Ajoutez deux lettres à Paris, c'est paradis".  Add two letters to Paris and it's paradise.  The last few days even the additional letters haven't been needed.

Where else but paradise would you see this poster offering a reward for finding someone's lost unicorn?  Just to be sure you've found the right one the description specifies a large white female with a horn in the center of her forehead, very friendly, last seen at the Concorde entrance of the Tuileries gardens.  No other unicorn will do.

We spotted this on our way to visit the annual Portes Ouvertes of Belleville, the open artists studios we've done before, although this time in another part of the quartier.  Aside from the possibility of coming across some art that interests you, this event offers the opportunity to sneak peeks at the courtyards and gardens behind locked street doors.  In this one we found several artists showing paintings and sculpture, but what we were taken by were the carnets de voyage of Nicholas Dupayron.

Scattered on a table top were the charming notebooks he had kept from dozens of trips, filled with watercolor and ink sketches, bits of ephemera like tickets or brochures, and notes about what he was seeing and his reactions to it.  We fell in love with these not-for-sale carnets and came away with several prints from limited editions he had made of some of the pages.  It's almost like visiting Burma or Ile de la Réunion with him.

Along with being an artists' enclave, Belleville has many immigrant communities.  These kids were likely of Chinese origin but the crêpe stand interested them as much as it would have any other kids.

The last studios we visited were on a street that was a work of art in itself.  Serious graffiti effort was expended on the walls here, and the combination of summer weather, open studios and French Mother's Day had hordes of people sitting, standing, walking and dancing in the street.

And as for that unicorn?  I suspect she's run off with this fellow, always ready for a party.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Wilkommen, Bienvenue, Welcome

I went to Berlin last week for the first time since I left it as a toddler.  I come from a background that leads me to avoid Germany rather than to visit it.  The sound of the language grates on my ear.  Gemütlichkeit is a mask for horror.

But virtually everyone I know who has visited Berlin in recent years has urged me to go, saying it's the most exciting city in Europe at the moment, young, arty, happening.  And Gene wanted to go, so we went.

It was confusing. There's no attempt to hide the Nazi era.  If anything, it's right in your face in the center of town.  The Topography of Terror Museum, the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, the Jewish Museum, all upfront.  Lots of acknowledgement, but somehow...

I noticed occasional metal squares placed in the sidewalk in front of buildings, random buildings anyone might have lived in, some pre-war, some newly built, probably after being bombed during the war.  These two said that Hanna Niegho, 22 years of age, and Elvira Niegho, 4 years old, had lived there before being deported and murdered at Auschwitz.

Much of Berlin is post war construction, since the city was bombed to bits by the Allies.  During the Occupation the city was divided into four zones, Russian, US, British and French.  Crossing between them meant crossing a border, with all the attendant limitations.  Today Checkpoint Charlie remains, non-functional except for providing a photo opportunity for tourists.

On Unter den Linden, the once-fashionable boulevard leading eastward from the Brandenburg Gate that found itself in the Russian zone after partition, the huge Stalinist Russian embassy remains, more functional than Checkpoint Charlie.

There's still a lot of construction going on and areas that had been empty for years are filled with highrises.  There are occasional pre-war buildings and a walk in the streets of Charlottenburg can give you some feeling for what this upscale area must have been like in the early 20th century.

The art in Berlin is phenomenal, both what you find in the many, many superb museums as well as in the numerous galleries scattered all over town.  We finally felt sated by the German Expressionist work we saw at the gorgeous Mies van der Rohe Neue Nationalgalerie, with a show called "Modern Times" in the galleries below ground,

at the "Max Liebermann's Rivals" exhibition at Liebermann Haus next to the Brandenburg Gate,  and the wonderful auction house we wandered into where hundreds of works were being previewed before an auction to take place on the following day.

We also went to the Gemäldegalerie, enormous and nearly deserted, to see art from the 13th to 17th centuries.  I was exhausted, ready to leave, when out of the corner of my eye I saw a Botticelli Venus in a room I hadn't even gotten to.  We had to spend another few minutes after all.

The museum I knew I wanted to visit was the Pergamon, which holds many of the spoils of 19th century German archeology.  The huge Pergamon Altar, Nebuchadnezzar's Ishtar Gate were on my childhood bucket list.

We had breakfast one morning at the Reichstag.

I had heard that it was difficult to get permission to visit the building and Sir Norman Foster's Dome at its center, but that restaurant patrons were sure to be allowed to visit, so I emailed for reservations.  After sending our full legal names and birth dates 48 hours ahead of time to be screened, we arrived to get in the security line, pass through the metal detectors, and wait for a jam-packed elevator to take us to the top.  Security lines guarded by German uniforms and elbow-to-elbow crowded spaces didn't feel great, I must admit, but we got to the top and found this fabulous structure.

Oh, and there's a view.

Music, another highlight of German culture, was also on the list.  We saw a lovely production of Mozart's Magic Flute and managed to get tickets to Daniel Barenboim conducting a program of Mozart and Mahler at the Philharmonie.  What else?  Sports?  We arrived in Berlin to find the streets awash with blue-shirted soccer fans in town for the Germany Cup.  Later that night the streets were more litterily [sic] awash with beer and plastic cups.

There're still tons to do and see.  We drove through the Tiergarten but didn't walk or picnic.  We were too late to get a boat ride on the river the day we arrived and never had the time afterwards.  We never got to Kreuzberg or Prenzlauer Berg, the younger, supposedly hipper areas of town.  We didn't see the other three museums on the Museum Island, or the contemporary art at the Hamburger Bahnhof, or the Berggruen Museum's Klees, Picassos and Matisses.   We saw art that we wanted to buy but didn't in galleries in the West but never got to see the more 'street' artists' work in the East.  It was a full visit.

I think it's my last.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Law & Order, Live

As you might imagine, the arrest of Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund, in New York for attempted rape among other charges is the major, not to say only, subject on the lips of the French at the moment.  The television shows have brought out all the talking heads, the newspapers are all over it, and the bail hearing is being televised live as we speak.  The French will be getting a quick lesson in the American judicial system, very different from their own, and the experts are all over the TV news shows, explaining it all.

The general response seems to be that although Strauss-Kahn has a history of sexual escapades that is well-known to the journalists who cover politics as well as to the public that interests itself in the private lives of politicians, it has remained just that, his private life, not so different from Chirac, Mitterand, and many others.

The notion that a man who looked, until yesterday, to be the likely next president of France could possibly be so out of control as to sexually attack a hotel chambermaid makes at least the French left talk about set-ups, about mental illness, about anything other than crime. 

The news program I'm watching has just announced that the judge has denied bail until he can be brought before a grand jury.  He'll be in jail until at least Friday.  He was scheduled to be in Germany at a meeting of the Eurozone finance ministers, discussing the Greek economic crisis.  Not this week.


Every year Paris selects an artist to create a piece of art in its Monumenta series.  It's called Monumenta because the art is meant to take advantage of the enormous volumes of the nave of the Grand Palais to showcase an installation of equal spacial importance.

Previous artists have been Anselm Kiefer, Richard Serra and Christian Boltanski.  I've seen them all and written about them here.  While the Kiefer has been my favorite, they've all been extraordinary in their own, very different, ways.

This year's installation is by Anish Kapoor and is called Leviathan.  You'll recall that Leviathan was a biblical sea monster and a Melvillian whale.  Kapoor's version is a three-lobed sculpture made of a fabric of PVC fibers and filled with air pumped from the outside.  An enormous balloon in effect, it reminds one of anatomical structures, zeppelins, stranded sea creatures.  It's stunning, enormous and overwhelming in its size and complexity of construction.

And then you enter it.

In daylight the sun throws the shadows of the roof struts of the Grand Palais' glass roof onto the piece and you're in the center of a translucent whale.  Noah's got nothing on this experience.

The three lobes are connected and from the inside you can understand how.  It's like being at the convergence of two wormholes.  The softly radiused edges of the openings to the side lobes tempt you to slip over them and slide down.  Luckily they're too high and the way up to them too steep.  The fabric is actually relatively fragile and we were asked nicely not to knock on it to hear the resonance.

When the cloud cover obscured the direct sunlight you can see the seams of the Leviathan itself, looking remarkably like a Japanese lantern.  We've already been twice to visit it.  And this boy is doing what you want to do in there.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Paris Destroyed

Lovers of Paris have long been grateful that German General Von Choltitz defied Hitler's order to destroy Paris before surrendering to the Allies in World War II.  The idea of this beautiful city blown to bits is horrifying.  That's why the images included in the exhibition now showing at the Hôtel de Ville are so startling.  Paris was blown up, by Frenchmen themselves, less than 100 years earlier.

After the disastrous 1870 war between Napoleon III and Prussia and the terrible siege of Paris,  the workers revolted against the caretaker government and established the Commune, a revolutionary, participatory government meant to finally establish the rights of the common man and woman (there were women on the barricades as well) against what they viewed as the capitalist oppressors.  The Commune never extended very far beyond Paris itself, despite calls for other cities to join.

The government of President Thiers retreated to Versailles and used the army, recently defeated by the Prussians, to take back the city of Paris.  In a bloody internecine battle, Paris was shelled by the French army and its defenders were killed in the hundreds.  Survivors were rounded up and shot, jailed or exiled.  The painter Gustave Courbet was among them.

The picture above shows the Legion of Honor building in the foreground and the Orsay Palace in the back.  The palace was so badly damaged that it was razed and eventually a railway station took its place.  As you know, that has since become the Musée d'Orsay.

This picture shows the rue Royale, with the Madeleine church in the background.  This is probably just about where Maxim's is today.  The Belle Epoque roistering at that restaurant was only a generation away from this scene.

And this is the rue de Lille, very near our apartment.  Looks like Berlin in 1945, doesn't it?

Monday, May 9, 2011


It's not completely unknown in France to see men discreetly (or sometimes not so discreetly) using a wall instead of a toilet.  They seem to have been told from childhood that outdoor urinating is OK.  Why anyone would think this is beyond me, especially when passing a particularly fragrant corner.

However, this little graffiti'ed schoolboy is so adorable that I would forgive him even this.