Wednesday, January 28, 2015

A Delacroix Pilgrimage

Me outside the studio building.
I didn't go into the Louvre during my recent Paris trip. But I did visit the Musee Delacroix, which is in the house-garden-studio occupied by Eugene Delacroix at the end of his life, between 1857 and 1863. Even if you don't know Delacroix's work that well, or you only know him as the painter of the big historical canvas Liberty Leading the People, it's still worth visiting, for a variety of reasons:
  • You get to see some fine smaller paintings and statues.
  • You see sketches and sketchbooks that give you a glimpse of his working process.
  • You see lots of the personal objects he collected, particularly from his life-changing visits to north Africa.
  • You get to stand inside his studio.
  • And all this without the crush of crowds inside the Louvre.

From top: two of Delacroix's painting toolboxes,
including a palette; one of his sketchbooks
For someone like me, who feel in love with Delacroix's work shortly after I left art college in the 1990s, going to this museum was like a religious zealot going on a pilgrimage. My enthusiasm for his painting was boosted by discovering about the same time Delacroix's Journals, an almost daily diary that he kept at two periods of his life: as a young man in his twenties, leading up to his first visit to Morocco and Algiers in 1832; and as an older, highly successful, established artist. Things that stand out in my mind if I try to recall the Journals:
  • His detailed descriptions of his ideas about local colour and reflected colour, the idea (fact, actually) that most objects placed very closed to each other will pick up some of the colour of the object nearest to them. This seems obvious to us now, but Delacroix was considered a crackpot at the time for trying to paint that way.His unashamed hints of sleeping with his models.
  • His account of a fight between two horses in Algiers, a subject that he painted and returned to often throughout his career.
  • Attending concerts in Paris, his love of Beethoven and his bemusement at the music of Berlioz.
  • Visiting the composer and pianist Frederic Chopin, feeling moved to tears by his suffering at the end of Chopin's short life.
  • The disillusion with his own work that he felt towards the end, even as he was executing a huge commission to paint murals in the church of Saint Sulpice.

From top: inside the studio; my drawing of a painting in the studio;
my drawing from one of Delacroix's sketches, which I drew on the
museum's hand-out then glued into my sketchbook.
The studio is a  square structure in the garden behind the modest three story mansion that was Delacroix's home. How can I describe the feeling of walking those few short steps from house to studio, entering a high ceilinged room that is about 25 ft x 25 ft, with a glass roof and a wall of windows on one side? Then to stand there in front of one of those paintings of the fighting horses, and do a crayon sketch in the very space where the master himself painted, drew, erased, smoked, stood back, appraised, decided, started again or carried on? I was very moved, actually. And I think it wasn't just because of the physical presence of the artist all around you -- his paintings, his studio, his painting equipment. It's also having read those journals, that marvellously written testament to a particular sensibility existing at a particular time. Unlike many artists, even ones living today, you feel that you've listened to Delacroix's voice, that you've come closer to him as a human being. So even 160 years after his death, a visit to his studio, more so than many shrines, makes you feel that he's still alive in some ways.

N.B. A few years ago, shortly after I started this blog, I posted a long series of excerpts from Delacroix's Journals, which you can read by entering "journals of eugene delacroix" in the Search Box, in the right-hand column, above, of this blog.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Why Paris?

There are reasons to believe that Parisians are not necessarily as enamoured of their city as the millions of starry-eyed tourists who go there every year. People with a longer acquaintance of the place, who are married to or have Parisian friends, talk about the dissatisfaction that the natives have with many aspects of life in the capital. Some of these complaints would be familiar to New Yorkers or Londoners: rents are getting higher all the time, you have to work too hard just to feel like you're barely keeping up, it's too depressing in winter and too hot in summer, traffic congestion is worse than ever, there are too many tourists, it's being turned into a tax-haven playpen for foreign billionaires. Some of the complaints are specifically French: ridiculously complicated and burdensome tax regime, a top heavy bureaucracy that slows down all interactions with officialdom, a general societal 'can't-do' attitude that can make a battle out of anything from ordering a pizza to getting a burst pipe.

Yet beneath all that, I bet that there is a 'love it' element in addition to the 'hate it' side. I'm sure that most Parisians would rather not live anywhere else, despite the difficulties of living there. During the 16 days I was there in January 2015, I often looked around and said to myself: They have to know, don't they? They can't ignore that the city they call home is still one of the best places to live out even the more trying aspects of life. Even if most Parisians have never gone inside the Louvre or up the Eiffel Tower, they have to notice the human scale of the city, the almost total lack of tall buildings visible from the Place de la Concorde (the exception being the horrible Montparnasse tower), the uniform facades of the buildings on the main boulevards and fronting the right and left banks of the Seine. If you've lived in a city dominated by Brutalist post-WWII buildings or a city that's overwhelmingly busy, it has to affect your state of mind to look up and feel that your eye can take it all in and size it all up without feeling that the skyscrapers are closing in on you.

I have always been sensitive to the architecture of the places I've lived, and the effect that the constructed space of a city has on your mood, even if you're not fully aware of it. And I am talking about cities over the countryside: I love nature, trees, mountains, deserts, oceans and all that stuff, but  only as a visitor. I could never live anywhere but a city, and only truly feel most comfortable when I'm surrounded by at least 2 million people. That said, not all cities are created equal, either. Mumbai's 12 million people or Tokyo's 13 million people are probably too big. London was a great place to live, once you got used to how it worked, but there are vast areas of London that are just drab, monotonous, suburban terraced houses, and talk about a crowded city centre ...

One morning when I was in Paris recently I walked the 3 miles from the apartment where my wife and I were staying, in Montparnasse, to the classroom centre hosting our study abroad program, near the Grands Boulevards and Bonne Nouvelle. My route took me along the east wall of the Cimitiere de Montparnasse, passing the building where Simone de Beauvoir lived for thirty years. At the Boulevard de Montparnasse, I rounded the corner occupied by the famous bar La Closerie de Lilas (the watering hole of generations of modernist artists and writers, from Paul Fort, Andre Salmon, and Picasso, to Gertrude Stein, Ernest Hemingway, and Samuel Beckett). There's an avenue then that leads up to the Jardins de Luxembourg, between pollarded trees that create a perfectly aligned channel in the air above the sandy dirt pathways, pointing in a V straight down to the Palace in the gardens about a quarter of a mile ahead. As I entered the gardens and walked around the ornamental pond, I looked to my right and saw the sun just beginning to gleam along the rooftops of the apartment buildings on the Boulevard St Michel. The front of the buildings was still in shade, but when I looked down from the faint sun to the facades, after a few seconds my eyes could begin to make out the high shuttered windows and the identical balconies with their wrought-iron railings. Quiet, mysterious, beautiful: it was that moment that made me look at the other people in the gardens, jogging or walking to their own place of work, and caused me to think: my friends, this is your route to work every day. This is the city you get to do it in. Feel alive, feel lucky, because there are very few places on the face of the earth that are as intimate and grand as this.

A couple of our students did a presentation on Anais Nin, in front of the Montparnasse building where she lived, right next door to the cafe Le Dome. They read aloud passages from Nin's writing, one of which I think noted that human scale of Paris, the way that it doesn't overwhelm you in its size, but seems in proportion to the life enacted within it.

Why Paris? Because Paris, that's all.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Remembrance of Paris Visits Past

My wife and I flew to Paris on January 2nd, arriving at Charles de Gaulle on the morning of the 3rd -- her birthday. After dropping our suitcases at a VRBO apartment in Montparnasse, we had a quick lunch and a beer at a brasserie around the corner, on the bustling thoroughfare of Rue Daguerre. We slept for a few hours, then celebrated Patty's birthday with a classic French meal at the Cafe du Rendezvous, on the corner of the Place Denfert-Rochereau. In two meals, I made two early mistakes with my rusty French: thinking I ordered a small beer, only to find that I'd really ordered a pint and a half; thinking I'd ordered a medium-to-well done steak, only to see a pool of blood squirt out from it at the first touch of a fork. In each case, by the way, I manfully finished off everything I was given. The next morning I walked about 200 metres to the nearest boulangerie and brought back a warm, fresh baguette for breakfast. The apartment was a well-appointed third-floor walk-up on the Rue Lalande, with a living room/kitchen room, a bedroom, and a bathroom with washing machine tucked under the counter. It was relatively spacious for a Parisian apartment, with a view from the bedroom window onto an interior courtyard, and a view out the front window (leaning out and looking to your right) of the ivy covered southern wall of the Cimitiere de Montparnasse. Our flight and the cost of renting this apartment for 16 nights were covered by Columbia College Chicago, because I was in Paris to teach a Creative Writing/American Writers in Paris class to ten CCC students. Believe me, I realised as soon as I walked up the Rue Daguerre that this was an opportunity to be extremely grateful for.

Here is a list of my previous visits to Paris:

1975: a school trip organised by my French teacher at my high school in the north of England. Duration: just over a week, perhaps. A long coach journey to the channel, crossing the channel by ferry to Calais (no tunnel then), staying at a large youth hostel on the outskirts of the city, being driven around the city to the sights in the same bus that got us there and took us all the way back to the frozen north. Me pining for one of the girls on the trip, but most of the girls being more interested in sneaking out to the fence that ringed the grounds of the hostel to flirt with the Algerian boys who gathered there each night. Getting a silhouette-portrait done in the "artists'" square in Montmartre.

1979: Passing through Paris with my high-school friend Peter on our way to visit his penpals in southern Spain. Either on the way there or the way back, we had time to kill between trains, and we somehow ended up in a room filled with very stoned and very large men of different races, which Peter was cool with because he was a very cool guy, but which terrified me because I wasn't.

1982: Passing through Paris again on the way back from somewhere else in Europe, in the middle of the night, waiting to catch a train back to England, and trying to keep warm by standing on the large grates that vent the air from the Metro, sharing space with an assortment of homeless French people and frazzled backpackers from different European countries.

1985-1986: Only a year out of college, accepted a job as a copywriter at an ad agency, which came with a hotel apartment on the Rue de l'Echelle, just off the Palais Royale and a stone's throw from the Louvre. Duration: five and half months. The first time I was there as anything other than a child or a very poor, penny counting student. I've written about part of this elsewhere. What comes to mind now: despite being 23, not too bad looking despite my beard and flea-market clothes, I contrived to spend nearly half a year in one of the greatest cities in the world, in a business fueled by drugs and alcohol, IN THE 1980s, and somehow contrived to get laid precisely zero times.

1986-1990: Various visits, 2 days here, 4 days there, sleeping on the floor in the apartments of people I worked with in the ad agency.

1990: A week in July, hastily arranged because of the end of a bad relationship with a French woman who I met in England. It's a long and complicated story, but it goes something like this: we went out for a few months, I broke up with her, she had a breakdown, got checked into a psychiatric hospital in England, I agreed to accompany her back to Paris (thinking I at least owed her that and thinking I was helping her, though probably it made it worse), being greeted at the airport by her parents and a few friends, the friends hating me, the parents thanking me and calling me 'Sir', spending a night with her at her apartment in Aubervilliers (just north of the city), me staying with a friend in the Ile de la Cite after that ... a tangled web, in other words.

1990, from my sketchbook: looking over the rooftops from St Paul
towards the Bastille
1993: A long weekend, staying at an apartment on the Quai de la Tournelle, overlooking the Seine and the back end of Notre Dame cathedral. The apartment was owned by someone I was working with in London at the time, who graciously let me use it. I flew there intending to rekindle a romance with an old French girlfriend (not the crazy one, a different one), but after I arrived, she stood me up. It was a very rainy weekend, making a suitably gloomy atmosphere for my solitary trudging around the Latin Quarter.

1996: A week in January, travelling from London to Paris via the recently opened Channel Tunnel. Stayed in a hotel near the Place de la Republique. My then-girlfriend and I were both vegetarians, so I remember spending a lot of time finding a suitable place to eat every day. This was the first time I really spent time looking at Delacroix's paintings, probably the first time I read his Journals, too.

2000: One day business trip, visiting a client in a business park south of the city, stopping off at Les Halles on the way back to Charles de Gaulle for an hour, sitting at a terrace table with a view of the Centre Pompidou and enjoying the early summer sun on my face while I ate a sandwich and drank a small beer (an actual small beer, I guess I still remembered how to order one then.)

2008: One night at the start of a trip to Normandy with Patty. We were researching a travel article, stayed at an Ibis hotel near Gallieni, on the other side of the Peripherique, then travelling across the city to the Arc de Triomphe to pick up a rental car -- and discovering that there is a huge multi-level complex beneath Etoile, with expensive delis and, of all things, a Europcar office.

Adding it all up, the time I've spent in Paris comes to more than seven months, from more than a dozen visits, and includes a long-ish stretch of time when I lived and worked there. I realise as I reflect on this that even though I spent more than twice that length of time in Spain, and still speak Spanish far better than I can French, it was that five and a half month spell in Paris in 1985-1986 that was the most significant for me in that it showed me how life outside England was possible. I didn't particularly like the copywriting job I was doing, but it was the first time I had lived abroad as a self sufficient adult, and it left me with a permanent need to be a foreigner, someone who enjoys the feeling of being outside the culture of the country where he lives. Like many expatriates before me, it gives me the ability to enjoy the best that a country has to offer, and it gives me a sufficient distance from my roots that I can look at them more objectively.

To a certain type of Englishman, France and Paris have always represented a higher level of civilization, in language, culture, and the everyday arts of eating and living well. Yes, that's a romanticized idea of a country and city, perhaps -- but for this most recent trip, when I was reading and teaching about Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Stein, and Baldwin in Paris, there's no harm in that.

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