Letter from Paris
Our first major stop was Castle Vincennes. Castle Vincennes was only a few Metro stops from our place near the Bastille. Sainte Chapelle at Vincennes which was begun around 1379 was the site of an exhibition of Medieval Bulgarian Orthodox Icons. Although it sounds obscure, it was
quietly powerful Byzantine imagery. At Vincennes “A donjon tower, 52 meters high, served as a residence for the royal family, and its buildings are known to have once held the library and personal study of Charles V during the 100 Years war with the English”. (courtesy Wikepedia). The Louvre, shown in this early fifteenth century illumination, was rebuilt during the reign of Charles V. His brother, Jean, Duke of Berry commissioned the manuscript, The Very Rich Hours of Jean du Berry, each page illustrating an astrological sign. Charles V’s central residence was the Louvre and he had other residences as well. We had a tour of the castle, our guide was quite thorough and followed up each segment with a summary.
There was heat and plumbing and for centuries the castle keep was used to incarcerate aristocratic prisoners, read ‘dungeon’, (donjon, en français), with an interesting roster of prisoners: Marquis de Sade, Denis Diderot were imprisoned there and members of French Resistance were shot by the Germans during WWII. Although NOT included in the information at the Castle, Mata-Hari was shot as a spy there during WWI. If only the walls could talk; prisoners generally were given paints and brushes to keep them occupied, and the walls still have traces of pictures and names carved in the limestone. The doors were extremely heavy. It always gives me a jolt to stand on a spot where so much has happened. The apartment we stayed in was close to the Bastille. I think the spot of Marie Antoinette’s execution sits somewhere in the middle of a crosswalk.
We stayed on the Rue Sedaine exchanging apartments once again with Leïla Olivesi and Donald Kontomanou, both musicians. Leila composes music that is often based on her mother’s poetry. Their CD is entitled L’étrange Fleur, very original and haunting music having a jazz base with many other influences, i.e. middle eastern and Cuban jazz. June is the month for roses there, as well as in NYC, and it was a pleasure to find so many right in the city since NYC seems taken over by construction projects and it is nearly impossible to find any place for contemplation without a jackhammer bursting into sound. Being close to the Marais, we visited the Picasso Museum, which is under renovation. Also the the scene of a recent crime: a sketchbook was snatched out of an exhibition case. Daniel Buren’s installation of mirrors is a great solution to the renovation problem. Picasso’s work is overwhelmingly inventive, sadly there were lots of mirrors, the mirrors are engaging but there is also less of Picasso’s work to see.
elles@pompidou, an exhibtion of the Pompidou Center’s collection of modern and contemporary art, created in order to show its commitment to women artists, attempts to place them them at the core of modern and contemporary art of the 20th and 21st centuries. Standouts for me are Sonia Delaunay, Joan Mitchell, almost always transporting for me; Lee Bontecou: her airplane themes, craftmanship, and persona; Eva Hesse, Marlene Dumas and Barbara Kruger. Barbara Kruger’s Untitled,(What big muscles you have!), (1986) has a graphic quality that is both engaging and reinforces the verbal message shrewdly and unexpectedly. Kruger is a master of typography. I am not a fan of Dumas, but it is refreshing to see work that is engaged and realized. These artists all stand on their own without reference to being part an identified group. Women are woefully under-represented everywhere and it can be hard to name 10 important female writers or artists off the top of your head, simply because you don’t see the names over and over again and so you don’t remember them. That maybe part of the aim of Agnes Thurnauer’s piece: Portraits Grandeur Nature, (2007-08) that feminizes famous male artists’ names, it brings that notion to one’s attention. It is sad that we still need pieces like that. The Guerilla Girls are still necessary after 20 years. My heart sank when I saw their poster because I realized that not enough has changed. I would like to be engaged in art that is involved in a deeper and more visual or structural way without the rhetoric. Lee Bontecou was obsessed with airplanes, and obsessions like that which fuel the art engage me. Sophie Calle is another who amazes me because her graphic and visual representation can’t be separated from her message, although is about sexism. Her graphic sense is impeccable. As shown by Jerry Saltz’s lively discussion on FaceBook, we need MOMA to follow suit. These shows are very important.
Eric Fischl’s Sculpture Exhibition, Ten Breaths at Galerie Daniel Templon is a tremendously inventive show. It opened in November 2008 at Mary Boone and is traveling. The catalogue mentions that Fischl felt challenged by making sculpture It shows in the way he dealt with a different deck; three dimensional space offers another set of problems. The sculpture pieces embody the vulnerability of the figures in a way that his paintings don’t. There are scale issues he is working with here that are challenging in three dimensions. The spatial interplay is different from that of his paintings. These formal issues become more engaged. The weight and gesture of a hand say a lot. Making sculpture must have forced him to rethink the possibilities of making figures in space that are more about interplay of figure to space. The gesture of the figures can say alot without a storyline. This can only serve to make his paintings more powerful. The tumbling figure is a tribute to WTC catastrophe; it is beautiful. I understand why the initial response to the piece was hugely negative here in New York City. The piece was in Rockefeller Center, a large public space, which gave it a context that didn’t serve it well. It needs the intimacy of a room. For me, in the space at Daniel Templon it recalls the tombs in Pere Lachaise with a beauty and levity.
The Air France plane went down just after we got there. Avion D’Air France disparu. I was walking to a yoga class on the Rue St Jacques where I saw a huge crowd in front of Notre Dame Cathedral. It was solemn as solemn could be. I didn’t connect the dots right away. It was a service for all the people who died in the crash. I heard the sermon and the choir over the loudspeaker. The choir, rapturous, could be heard for blocks. The plane crash was a national tragedy. I was moved by the levity and solemnity of the people in the crowd. I’ll never forget it. The yoga class on the Rue St Jacques was really wonderful because the teacher’s instructions sound so different in French. In English, the yoga instructor will say, breathe deeply. In French for instance, it is respirez profondément. I felt like I should be about to have a vision.
In Montmartre we ate at a resto on a hill with a view. The whole time we ate and drank there, there were drums approaching making a fearful noise. The drums seemed to be getting closer and closer as the sound reverberated through the streets. I wanted to find the source of the noise. It was nowhere to to be seen. Later, at Sacre Coeur, the cathedral on the hill, the nuns were singing devotional prayers. It sounded like the Anonymous 4; it would be more correct to say that the Anonymous4 emulates the nuns. It brought tears to my eyes because prayers, poems and song in French are so expressive. The language seems to be closer to the emotions somehow. Later we went to have a crepe flambeé. It was exquisite, it was Paris in the Spring.