Thursday, February 25, 2016

At the Musee Picasso, Part I

One of the first things to catch my eye at the Musee Picasso in Paris was this: the actual copper plate for his etching Weeping Woman, derived from the great painting of the same name. They also had proof prints taken from the plate:

It's rare to see the actual copper plates (often because they are supposed to be scored with a big 'X' at the end of en edition, and destroyed). so this was a treat for a printmaker such as what I am. My first thought as to why the plate is so dark: the final layer of ink or resist was left on the plate in the 1940s, and it's hardened over the years. But maybe it was steel-faced, a process that prolongs the life of a copper etching (because copper is a soft metal and wears down much more quickly than steel.)

What's great about seeing the plate is how close you get to the process of creation, as you can see every etched line, and engraved line, and ragged fuzzy drypoint line:

You also get a real sense of the force of Picasso's hand as he gouged all those winding lines deep into the surface of the plate. Especially in close-up, you can see how varied the width of the lines are, and how playful and improvised the drawing is.

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

I slept in Van Gogh's bedroom

Actually, a recreation of the famous bedroom from the Yellow House in Arles, which Van Gogh rented in 1888. The Art Institute of Chicago created an exact replica of the second 'bedroom' painting in a condo in Chicago, as a publicity stunt for their exhibition Van Gogh's Bedrooms -- and I was invited to be the second person to stay in the room overnight. I'm writing an article about it for Hyperallergic. (UPDATE: Here is the link to the published article: Inside Van Gogh's Bedroom.) Meanwhile, this happened:

A photo posted by Hyperallergic (@hyperallergic) on

Monday, February 15, 2016

Six Graves

The last two times that I've taught in Paris, I've been very fortunate in renting an apartment just a few minutes south of the Cimitiere du Montparnasse. It isn't as spectacular as Pere Lachaise, but for a relatively small rectangle of land it contains the graves of dozens of interesting artists, politicians, historians, actors and actresses, and more. Some will be more well known to French people than foreigners, but in the course of quite a few walks across the cemetery during my recent trip, I either sought out or stumbled upon the following graves.

Piero Crommelynck
Piero Crommelynck, along with his brother Aldo, ran a printmaking atelier in Montparnasse for more than half a century. Clients included Braque, Picasso, Arp, Hockney, Salle, Dine. As I've mentioned several times on this blog, my etching teacher worked in their studio for a time in the 1980s. So only a small number of people in the world (the tiny world of the history of printmaking) might feel their heart leap when they find this grave -- but I'm one of them.

Jean Seberg
The American actress Jean Seberg, who starred in Jean Luc Godard's 1960 Nouvelle Vague masterpiece Au Bout du Souffle. The pebbles have been placed around an old movie magazine showing stills from that film. I noticed that the grave had fresh flowers every few days.

Chaim Soutine
The great painter Chaim Soutine, who lived in Montparnasse for the longest time. It took a hell of a long time to find this grave, because I didn't expect this eastern european Jewish immigrant to be buried in a grave with a crucifix on it. For my photo, I found the most Soutine-like drawing in my sketchbook and placed it next to the grave.

Sartre and de Beauvoir
Jean Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, buried in a joint tomb. Her apartment overlooks the eastern side of the cemetery.
Georges Auric
The composer Georges Auric. An obscure choice, perhaps, but I know his music a little bit through his association with Les Six, a group of French 20th century composers that included Satie and Poulenc, and his scores for films by Jean Cocteau.

And Brassai, the great photographer and denizen of Montparnasse who was friends with and photographed Picasso, Matisse, Henry Miller, Giacommetti, and whose shots of everyday life on the streets of Paris are part of our mental picture of the city from sixty to seventy years ago.

I don't know why I like graveyards so much. Maybe it's because they are always an oasis of greenery in the most urban of neighbourhoods. There's no special aura or magic that emanates from these graves, or anything like that. But if recognizing a name causes us to think even for a minute about a painting they did, a book they wrote, or a moment from their life, I think it creates another small link in the chain of memories that keeps our civilization going.

Saturday, February 13, 2016

Hei norske venn!

Hello Norwegian Friend(s)!

Looking at the stats for who has been visiting this blog, which country they come from, most popular posts, etc, I noticed that for the last month I've been getting a relatively high number of hits from someone or some people in Norway.

This pleases me. I always knew that Norwegians were highly educated, intelligent, and curious, and this just proves it.

It got me thinking about any Norwegian moments I could tell from my own life.

My only visit: when I was about 12 years old, I crossed the North Sea with my mother and brother on a weekend trip to Bergen. Sadly, it was in winter, and the crossing was incredibly rough, and when we got there, it just rained torrentially for two days and nights (talking about the sort of rain that makes the awnings on cafe terraces collapse from the cascading water).


I am currently watching a Norwegian series on Netflix called "Occupied", and it's completely excellent. It's a political thriller, superbly shot and acted, with an all too possible premise: a Norwegian government decides to lead the way on climate change by going 100% renewable and switching off its North Sea oil and gas production. But Russia, with the collusion of the EU and the USA, sends in personnel to "assist" the Norwegians in following the EU's orders, which are to ramp oil production back up at once. Gradually, bit by bit, the Russians more or less take over the country, in a chilling reminder of how they grabbed Crimea and half of the Ukraine. There are lots of strands to the story, but that's it in a nutshell. If you can find this on Netflix, I highly recommend it.

Gratulerer, Norge!

Friday, February 5, 2016

A bit of the old ultra-violence

Speaking of Paris, and speaking of films, I remember that it was in Paris that I saw Stanley Kubrick's film A Clockwork Orange for the first time (the title of this post is one of the central character's catch-phrases). This was 1986, and even though the film was more than ten years old by that point, Kubrick had refused to allow it to be seen in Britain after the furor cretaed by its initial release. So it was that I was strolling along the Rue de la Huchette on the left bank (I think it was there), and crammed in amid the bars, creperies, and porn shops was a small cinema showing A Clockwork Orange.

It was one of those places that mainly showed the same two or three films every day, a few times a day -- there were a few like that in Paris back then -- just like the porn places that surrounded it. After I bought my ticket at the tiny guichet and entered the cinema, it continued to feel like I was entering a place that I should feel guilty about. It was a narrow room with only about ten rows of seedy looking seats. I watched A Clockwork Orange with about three other people, all of us sitting as far apart from each other as we could in that small space. My memory of seeing the film is that I thought it was not bad, a decent document of the fashions and social concerns of early 1970s Britain, and that all the violence and the raping was so stylised and childish that I couldn't believe it had caused so much shock and offence.

But mainly I remember the cinema, and the worn and stained seats, and the walls covered with heavy black and red drapes, and the closeness of the screen, and the cold winter air of the Paris night when the film was over and I returned to the street.

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Montmartre Art Walk

On the afternoon of January 6th, 2016, I led 20 Columbia College students and two colleagues on an art walk through Montmartre in Paris. We started at the Caulaincourt metro stop on the northern side of the hill, because it's a less steep climb from there, and spent about two hours walking up the hill and around Montmartre, visiting sites that are associated with visual artists. Some of these are very well known, like the Basilica of Sacre Coeur or the Moulin Rouge, but others are much less well known, such as the residences and studios of Van Gogh, Picasso, and Suzanne Valadon. At every stop, I handed round print-outs of paintings by the artists I was talking about so that everyone could make stronger visual associations of the place with the artists and their art.

I have rounded up some of my notes and images of those paintings and linked them all together in this Google Map, which traces the exact route of the walk. Click on any of the red place markers to display the associated information and photos. Here, too, is a link to a web album of the full-size images.

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