Sainte-Denis

Sainte-Denis

Saturday, 22 January 2011

Last Tango in Paris

No matter how stressful the work may be on this assignment, Paris is always a good idea. I stole that line from a really bad remake of "Sabrina", but it's still true. Walking today through the 4th Arrondissement, I passed tiny little medieval streets that miraculously survived the many clearings since Napolean, including Rue Nicolas Flammel, for Harry Potter fans. It was rainy and the usual black and gray sported by fashionable Parisians was allieviated by brightly colored umbrellas. I bought myself a vase at Au Printemps, the enormous department store, and red tulips in the Metro, so my room suddenly looks like a residence instead of a hotel. Assignments are what you make them.

Last Sunday, I went to the incredible Musee d'Orsay. If you love impressionist painting, this former railway station-turned-museum is the Omphalos, the world navel. Never will you see such a combination of Renoir, Van Gogh, Monet, Manet, Degas, Cassett, Morrisot, Boudin and Gaughan, including some iconic pieces like my very favorite, "Olympia." I turned a corner and there she was, the reclining nude with her African maid behind her bringing in flowers from some admirer. She looks directly out of the canvas, however, at the viewer: bold, assured, challenging. This was painted in the Victorian era when people covered chair legs out of embarrassment and any nudity in a painting had to be covered in mythological allusions. These sanitized nudes looked like pink-and-white china figurines, all coyness and unreality. Olympia surveys her audience directly and without shame. She is the first intimation of a modern woman. "Olympia" was so shocking to the Establishment that Manet's painting was refused at the yearly Salon.

Turn another corner and you will see Seuret's wild, pointillist vision of a circus, the colors jumping out at you like the acrobats. On another wall hangs Degas' "Ironers", their hands at the small of their backs or rubbing their necks, a bottle of wine at their elbows and stacks of laundry yet to do. You can feel the heat coming off the painting. Monet's haystacks and the cathedral at Rheims at all hours, Toulouse Lautrec's seamy Moulin Rouge denizens--it's all there and more. Spend a couple of hours at the Musee d'Orsay and you'll fell as if you've been immersed in the demimonde of the last half of the nineteenth century. There's nowhere else like it.

Unlike today, it was a clear day and I strolled back along the Seine. Black-headed gulls rode the river or perched on the canal boats moored below the quay. The trees were still bare, turning the sky into Mondrian's leaded fragments. I'm in Paris, I thought, but I kept running into familiar faces. Thomas Jefferson stood on the Left Bank at the edge of the bridge to the Tuilleries, his bronze knee britches and lace jabot very correct for his tour of duty as our second American ambassador. (Ben Franklyn, that old roue, was the first.) Down the river, a tiny Statue of Liberty decorates the bridge below the Eiffel Tower. I looked up river to Notre Dame's two, square towers and remembered that Shakespeare and Company is still directly across from the cathedral, selling English language books just as Sylvia Beach did when Hemmingway used to cadge a couch at night. Paris is woven into our history and our pysche like the Frontier and the American Dream.

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