TRAVEL

Paris is ex­pe­ri­enc­ing a bit of a re­nais­sance this year, with more than 500 cul­tural and cre­ative ex­pe­ri­ences on of­fer. El­iz­a­beth El­ph­ick im­merses her­self in the uni­ver­sal language of ex­pres­sion

Friday - - Editor’s Letter -

With more than 500 cul­tural and cre­ative ex­pe­ri­ences on of­fer this year, Paris is an un­miss­able tourist des­ti­na­tion.

Ihave been lost in Paris twice. The first time was har­row­ing; late at night as a stu­dent in a now-in­con­ceiv­able world with­out smart­phones, no cash, un­sure of my ho­tel’s name, and only a faint rec­ol­lec­tion of high school French to get me by. This year, though, it was more metaphor­i­cal and with a uni­ver­sal language; I was ab­sorbed into the per­cep­tion chal­leng­ing, bar­rier-break­ing world of Paris’s art and cul­ture. This time I didn’t feel like a vis­i­tor look­ing on, but as part of some­thing big­ger than me: a melt­ing pot of cul­tures, where tal­ents are en­cour­aged and cel­e­brated, or harshly crit­i­cised, but never ig­nored. A place where art in all its forms can flour­ish and does so ev­ery­where – not just in wealthy com­mu­ni­ties, or mu­se­ums and con­cert halls, but on streets, in parks, in tiny the­atres and in artists’ col­lec­tives.

While Paris has long been recog­nised as the world’s cul­ture cap­i­tal, this year is rather ex­tra­or­di­nary.

With a char­ac­ter­is­tic show of French re­silience in the wake of the Paris at­tacks, the au­thor­i­ties haven’t only in­creased se­cu­rity enor­mously, but have launched a not-to-be­missed, life-af­firm­ing art and cul­ture cal­en­dar for 2017 to en­sure the city re­mains the world’s favourite tourist des­ti­na­tion.

In fact, there has never been a bet­ter time to visit, with a pro­gramme of more than 500 events planned (see saison­cul­turelle.fr for the full cul­tural diary).

SCULP­TURE COMES TO LIFE

This year marks the death cen­te­nary of one of France’s most beloved and in­flu­en­tial artists, sculp­tor Au­guste Rodin, with plenty of ex­hi­bi­tions across Paris and the world to mark the oc­ca­sion. We choose Rodin: The centennial ex­hi­bi­tion (un­til July 31) at the Grand Palais, which proves the per­fect set­ting to show­case the sculp­tures’ ev­ery an­gle, curve and tex­ture. The enor­mous glass­domed roof on the or­nate stone build­ing floods it with nat­u­ral light, and the win­dows have been left un­ob­structed as far as pos­si­ble, while fea­tures such as its dra­matic stair­case have been used as flat­ter­ing back­drops. There are 200 of Rodin’s works on show, as well as sculp­tures and draw­ings from those he in­flu­enced, in­clud­ing Pi­casso, Bour­delle and Matisse.

Rodin be­lieved the body is ‘a cast that bears the im­print of our pas­sions,’ and the ex­hi­bi­tion il­lus­trates how he changed the art form from con­ven­tion to ex­pres­sion. But while he was cel­e­brated for breath­ing life into sculp­ture, his work wasn’t with­out con­tro­versy – some­times for be­ing too good. When The Age of Bronze (1877) was first dis­played in Paris, the life­like male form was so re­al­is­tic that Rodin was ac­cused of sur­moulage – tak­ing a cast from a live model. De­fend­ing him­self by writ­ing to the pa­pers with pho­tos of the real-life model for com­par­i­son, and with other artists on his side, he was even­tu­ally ex­on­er­ated. While a try­ing time for him, the furore brought at­ten­tion to his work and he was awarded with the com­mis­sion for The Gates of Hell, which led, of course, to its crown­ing glory and his most well-known piece, The Thinker.

THE ART OF COU­TURE

Stick­ing with sculp­ture, in a broader sense, we head to Musée Bour­delle, where there is a fas­ci­nat­ing in­ter­play be­tween the sculp­tures of French­man An­toine Bour­delle (1861-1929) and clothes by leg­endary Span­ish de­signer Cristóbal Ba­len­ci­aga (1895-1972) called Ba­len­ci­aga: Work­ing in black (un­til July 16).

If you hadn’t thought of fash­ion as an art form, this is where you’ll change your mind. The sim­i­lar­i­ties are ob­vi­ous: both sculp­ture and fash­ion fo­cus on the hu­man form and the choices of ma­te­ri­als used are vi­tal, while the fin­ish­ing de­tails are a test of crafts­man­ship and skill. This dis­play did chal­lenge cu­ra­tors, though, as sculp­tures are best shown off fully il­lu­mi­nated, while light is harm­ful to fab­ric, par­tic­u­larly as only Ba­len­ci­aga’s black gar­ments are dis­played. Where nec­es­sary, then, the out­fits each have a stage box with a cur­tain to pull back for a se­ries of un­veil­ings, adding to the drama.

There are over 100 pieces from the cou­turier, and it’s amaz­ing how many of the out­fits de­signed as far back as the 1930s could eas­ily be worn to­day. The ex­cep­tion would be some of the ab­stract cre­ations from the 1960s, which would prob­a­bly need Lady Gaga to pull them off. Some were even de­signed not to be sat in – so the fash­ion­able so­cialite would pull up in her limo, have a quick change in the back, then stay on her feet all even­ing look­ing gor­geous at a cock­tail party. But the big­ger sur­prise to a fash­ion dilet­tante is just how many vari­ables go into mak­ing an out­fit ex­tra­or­di­nary – from the choice of ma­te­rial (Ba­len­ci­aga had sev­eral de­vel­oped espe­cially for him) and the art of cut­ting the fab­ric based on its prop­er­ties, to how the seams, darts and gath­ers give curves to vol­umes or hol­low them out – this is where art meets science.

As some­one not known to pass up a pain au cho­co­lat, I am fas­ci­nated by how easy it is to tell which of the out­fits had been worn by run­way mod­els and which by clients, sim­ply by glanc­ing at the size of the waist­bands!

PAINT­ING BY NUM­BERS

Next it’s on to paint­ing, and the tourist mag­nets of the Lou­vre and the Musée d’Or­say. While the Lou­vre houses paint­ings from all the ma­jor Euro­pean schools from the 13th cen­tury to 1848, the d’Or­say takes on the pe­riod from 1848 to 1914, with most of the work cre­ated by French artists, who were flour­ish­ing dur­ing this pe­riod.

In ad­di­tion to the Lou­vre’s most fa­mous in­hab­i­tants, the Mona Lisa and the Venus de Milo, this year sees the mu­seum cel­e­brat­ing the Dutch Golden Age, in­clud­ing ex­hi­bi­tions de­voted to Rem­brandt, Ver­meer and Dutch draw­ings. We visit what is viewed as the mu­seum’s big­gest draw­card in years: Ver­meer and the Mas­ters of Genre Paint­ing (un­til May 22). The suc­cess of this ex­hi­bi­tion sur­prised even the or­gan­is­ers, with 9,500 peo­ple show­ing up on the first day, and 40,000 in the first week. In fact, de­mand for tick­ets was so high it crashed the mu­seum’s web­site and times­lots have been im­posed, with a max­i­mum of 250 vis­i­tors at a time.

One rea­son for its pop­u­lar­ity is that, for the first time since 1966, it brings to­gether 12 of Ver­meer’s paint­ings – rep­re­sent­ing about a third of the artist’s work.

An­other rea­son is the light it sheds on the work of the enig­matic painter. In fact, so lit­tle is known about Ver­meer that he’s been dubbed the Sphinx of Delft. By con­trast­ing his work along­side con­tem­po­raries such as Ger­rit Dou, Ger­ard ter Borch, Jan Steen and Pi­eter de Hooch, this ex­hi­bi­tion ef­fec­tively puts to rest the idea that Ver­meer worked in iso­la­tion. Rather, he was part of a net­work of painters who spe­cialised in de­pict­ing scenes from ev­ery­day life while in­spir­ing and com­pet­ing with each other.

While the Lou­vre has a sto­ried past, hav­ing been home to the kings of France and with a his­tory it can trace back to the 11th cen­tury, noth­ing can beat the ro­man­tic splen­dour of the Musée d’Or­say. Orig­i­nally a train sta­tion with at­tached ho­tel, the beauxarts build­ing (think Grand Cen­tral Sta­tion in New York) greets you with a cen­tral aisle dot­ted with sculp­tures, and light flood­ing through the glass ceil­ing to show off their skilled curves. We are here to see Beyond the Stars: The mys­ti­cal land­scape from Monet to Kandin­sky (un­til June 25), which also in­cludes land­scapes from Gau­guin, Klimt, Munch and Van Gogh, as well as lesser-known Euro­pean artists and the Cana­dian school of the 1920s to 1930s. While land­scapes had pre­vi­ously been rel­e­gated to back­ground roles, these artists made them the cen­tre­piece, re­flect­ing on their deeper re­al­ity and where we fit within them.

In a con­tem­pla­tive mood, we head for the Restau­rant d’Or­say af­ter the ex­hi­bi­tion. It’s quite some­thing to eat lunch in what feels like a room straight out of a grand palace mu­seum. The or­nately painted and gilded ceil­ings and mould­ings, set off by the sparkling glass of the chan­de­liers, con­jure an aura of ex­treme op­u­lence be­fit­ting its sta­tus as a listed his­tor­i­cal build­ing (it’s from the orig­i­nal 1900s lux­ury ho­tel). I dither be­tween feel­ing like a mod­ern-day Marie An­toinette de­serv­ing of this feast, to half ex­pect­ing a mu­seum guard to tap me on the shoul­der and ask what I think I am do­ing.

MOD­ERN MEETS ME­DIEVAL

For more con­tem­po­rary art­work, it’s time to leave the banks of the Seine, and head to the Cen­tre Ge­orges Pom­pi­dou in the fourth ar­rondisse­ment. You soon learn in Paris that ev­ery new build­ing, from the Eif­fel Tower to the Lou­vre’s IM Pei Pyra­mid, is greeted with wide­spread crit­i­cism and con­tro­versy – be­fore be­ing adopted and beloved as an in­tri­cate part of the cul­tural land­scape. The Cen­tre Ge­orges Pom­pi­dou, strik­ingly mod­ern in its me­dieval Paris neigh­bour­hood, might not yet have won over all its crit­ics since its open­ing in 1977, but there is no ar­gu­ing that the view from the in­side is among the best in the city. Built with an ex­oskele­ton, the cen­tre has its me­chan­i­cal and struc­tural sys­tems on the out­side, colour-coded ac­cord­ing to their pur­pose, for ex­am­ple, blue for air-con­di­tion­ing and green for plumb­ing. In­side it houses the Musée Na­tional d’Art Moderne, the largest mu­seum for mod­ern art in Europe. Trav­el­ling six floors up the es­ca­la­tors, en­closed in glass at the edge of the build­ing, the amaz­ing views be­gin to un­fold, cul­mi­nat­ing in a panoramic view of the me­dieval houses and tightly packed rooftops of Paris, reach­ing as far as the Eif­fel Tower and Mont­martre hill.

There are 100,000 pieces of mod­ern art (1905 to 1960) and con­tem­po­rary art (from 1960 on­wards), cov­er­ing ev­ery­thing from paint­ings and photography to ar­chi­tec­ture, de­sign and cinema. The mu­seum holds reg­u­lar ex­hi­bi­tions and we visit a ret­ro­spec­tive of Cy Twombly’s work, al­though I have to ad­mit, it is lost on me. But our guide is so vis­i­bly moved by the artist’s splodges, scrib­bles and child-like let­ter­ing – reading so much into them and recit­ing Homer’s Iliad while she talks – that I am per­suaded it isn’t just a case of the Em­peror’s new clothes, but rather a tes­ta­ment to just how sub­jec­tive art is. The ex­hi­bi­tion ended on April 24, but there are some of Twombly’s – and sim­i­lar – works in the gen­eral ro­ta­tion. A less con­tro­ver­sial artist to watch for this year is David Hock­ney, from June 21 to Oc­to­ber 23.

HOLIS­TIC HIS­TORY

To round off our trip, we ex­plore vast pe­ri­ods of art, his­tory and ar­chi­tec­ture si­mul­ta­ne­ously at Chateau de Fon­tainebleau (50 min­utes from Paris by car/train) and the Palace of Ver­sailles (about 40 min­utes).

With 800 years of his­tory, Fon­tainebleau is the only chateau to have been lived in by all of France’s rulers from the Mid­dle Ages to the Sec­ond Em­pire. Vis­i­tors can make their way around the sump­tu­ously fur­nished rooms and halls on their own or with a guide, which al­lows them a chance to dis­cover cer­tain ar­eas oth­er­wise closed to the pub­lic, such as Marie An­toinette’s Turk­ish-style boudoir. Af­ter ad­mir­ing the grand ar­chi­tec­ture, Re­nais­sance mas­ter­pieces and dec­o­ra­tive arts (with plenty of gold-gild­ing, chan­de­liers and in­tri­cately carved fur­ni­ture and fin­ish­ings), a visit to the theatre built by Napoleon III is par­tic­u­larly in­ter­est­ing for UAE res­i­dents. Thanks to the pa­tron­age of Pres­i­dent His High­ness Shaikh Khal­ifa Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the for­mer Im­pe­rial Theatre has been beau­ti­fully re­stored and is now named in his hon­our. Out­side the chateau, there are guided car­riage tours and train rides through the mag­nif­i­cent gar­dens, as well as boats for hire from April to Oc­to­ber (musee-chateau-fon­tainebleau.fr).

Sim­i­lar, but more grand, is the palace of Ver­sailles. Fol­low­ing the French Rev­o­lu­tion, it was turned into a mu­seum for the coun­try’s his­tory and art, be­fore it was de­cided, in the early 20th cen­tury, that the cen­tral part would be re­fur­bished to re­flect how it had looked in its glory days as a royal res­i­dence. As a re­sult, it has a col­lec­tion of 60,000 art­works span­ning the Mid­dle Ages to late 19th cen­tury, along­side in­cred­i­bly plush rooms with or­nate dec­o­ra­tive arts and, of course, plenty of gold, glass and shiny touches. It’s hard not to be moved as the guide de­scribes the on­go­ing process of repli­cat­ing, restor­ing and re­claim­ing the splen­did fur­ni­ture lost, sold or plun­dered over time. The Hall of Mir­rors, fa­mous as the set­ting for the sign­ing of the Peace Treaty at the end of the First World War, is par­tic­u­larly mag­nif­i­cent, hav­ing been re­stored 10 years ago. But Ver­sailles is by no means a dead or dis­used palace; there are weekly foun­tain shows (un­til Oc­to­ber 31) and you can still see per­for­mances at its Royal Opera House and Marie An­toinette’s pri­vate theatre. The palace will burst into life on spe­cial evenings such as a masked ball in the Orangerie (June 24), and an open-air orches­tra con­cert (June 30) and the Fire King py­rotech­nics show in the Orangerie gar­dens (July 22). See chateau­ver­sailles-spec­ta­cles.fr/en.

A LAST­ING IM­PRES­SION

On our fi­nal night in Paris, we have din­ner in the Eif­fel Tower, and as I look out on the twin­kling lights of the Tro­cadéro, I find my­self think­ing how I would paint them in oils. I have be­come like first-year med­i­cal stu­dents who di­ag­nose them­selves with ev­ery af­flic­tion known to man: af­ter a week of non-stop art ap­pre­ci­a­tion, it’s hard not to see the beauty in ev­ery­thing. Ad­mit­tedly the set­ting is among the world’s finest, but I take this al­tered per­cep­tion home with me – a trav­el­ling In­sta­gram fil­ter on real life. Now that’s an in­cred­i­ble sou­venir!

66 Thanks to the abun­dance of nat­u­ral light, the Grand Palais is the per­fect place to show­case Rodin’s sculp­tures, such as The Thinker

Musée Bour­delle con­vinc­ingly demon­strates the close con­nec­tion be­tween sculp­ture and cou­ture in Ba­len­ci­aga: Work­ing in black

You could spend hours ad­mir­ing the Musée d’Or­say’s lav­ish in­te­ri­ors, but works by artists in­clud­ing Van Gogh vie for the spot­light

This block­buster show re­groups 12 Ver­meer works for the first time since 1966 – de­mand for tick­ets crashed the mu­seum’s web­site

Both Fon­tainebleau’s Im­pe­rial Theatre, re­named af­ter the UAE’s Shaikh Khal­ifa, and Ver­sailles’ Hall of Mir­rors have been beau­ti­fully re­stored

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