Sunday, August 10, 2008

Musée d'Orsay: Riverfront 19th-century art

Photo by Olivier Ffrench (link at upper right)

Occupying a stunning setting on the Left Bank of the Seine opposite the Tuileries and the western extremity of the Louvre, the Musée d'Orsay is a triumph of recycled architecture. The museum building was originally a railway station, known as the Gare d'Orsay, finished in time for the 1900 Exposition Universelle.

By 1939 the station’s short platforms had become unsuitable for the longer trains that had come to be used for mainline service, and after being used as a suburban train station, the Gare d'Orsay closed in 1973. Plans were underway in the late 1970s to convert the disused station into an art museum, and the Musée d'Orsay opened in late 1986.

The grand vaulted interior gives the museum a sense of spaciousness that is rare for a museum. The paintings, sculpture, furniture and photographs date from 1848 to 1915. The museum is probably best known for its extensive collection of impressionist paintings, many of which were displayed at the Galerie Nationale du Jeu de Paume, adjacent to the Place de la Concorde, prior to the museum's opening.

Two paintings, in particular, draw massive crowds:

Van Gogh – Starry Night over the Rhone (1888)

Whistler – Arrangement in Grey and Black (1871) Whistler’s Mother

There are liberal sprinklings of paintings by Renoir, Manet, Degas, Cezanne and Monet, as well. An unusual feature is a scale model of medieval Paris housed under a glass floor. Another is a scale cut-away model of the Palais Garnier (the “old” opera house).

Musée d'Orsay
Closed Mondays.
Métro: Musée d'Orsay (RER-C)

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Palais de l'Élysée - French White House

The Palais de l'Élysée has been the official residence of presidents of the French republic since 1873. It is currently home to Nicolas Sarkozy and his third wife, Italian-born Carla Bruni, married here on February 2, 2008 (Ground Hog Day, if I recall correctly).

The Palais de l'Élysée is located in a commercial area of Paris on the fashionable Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré, just opposite a Versace retail outlet (this must make the Italian-born first lady feel even more at home). The English-style gardens at the rear of the palace stretch back toward the Champs-Élysées.

The history of this palace is as lurid as the personal lives of its current occupants. In 1753 Mme. de Pompadour bought the extravagant residence of Comte d'Evreux, built in 1718, and used it for lavish entertaining when she was away from Versailles. Her opponents showed their distaste by hanging signs on the gates reading: "Home of the King's whore."

After the Empress Joséphine was divorced by Napoléon, this house became her hideaway. Ironically, it was also here that Napoléon Bonaparte signed his second abdication after the Battle of Waterloo. Subsequently, the mansion housed a restaurant and fairgrounds run by an Italian ice cream maker, Velloni (another Italian connection for Ms. Bruni!).

French President Felix Faure suddenly died here in 1899 while in the arms of his mistress, Marguerite Steinheil. During World War One, a gorilla escaped from a nearby menagerie, entered the presidential palace and was said to have tried to haul the wife of President Raymond Poincare into a tree, only to be foiled by Élysée guards. President Francois Mitterrand is said to have used its private apartments only rarely. He preferred returning at night to his own home on the Rue de Bièvre on the more bohemian Left Bank (or to the discreet flat in another district occupied by the mother of his illegitimate daughter Mazarine, whose existence was only revealed to the public in 1994).

OK. Let’s stop and take a deep breath. So far we have a palace, once owned by the rich, spoiled mistress of King Louis XV, now occupied by an Italian-born former nude model and a 5-ft 5-inch tall twice-divorced politician of Hungarian descent who happens to be the wildly unpopular President of France – all of this set amongst English gardens across the street from Versace.

Back to the height thing. Carla is 2 inches taller than Nicolas, and it kind of bothers him. So he uses some "tricks" to diminish the height discrepancy. In most photos, you'll notice that Carla is standing a step or two back from the camera, leaving Nicolas in the foreground, thus appearing taller than Carla. So far, so good. Recently Mr. Sarkozy likes to stand on the curb, while Carla is at street level. Works like a charm. And Ms. Bruni is making flat shoes fashionable again among Parisian women. And hats are out, naturally.

Sarkozy and Bruni on a date in Egypt last January.

But we’re just getting started. Within the first nine months of Sarkozy’s presidency two different first ladies occupied the premises. Carla Bruni was preceded by another former model, Cécilia Ciganer-Albéniz (great-granddaughter of composer Isaac Albéniz), who, while first lady of France, continued an affair she was having with a Moroccan-born events planner who was working in New York (and whom she married a month after Sarkozy married Carla). In a sort of perverse tit-for-tat, it should be noted that at the same time Cécilia and her beau were planning “events,” Sarkozy was himself having an affair with Anne Fulda, a journalist at Le Figaro.

Still with me? Well, you won’t want to be, because there’s more.

OK. Cécilia was nine months pregnant and 26 years old when she married her first husband, who was 52 at the time – exactly twice her age. Can you guess who conducted the civil ceremony? Nicolas Sarkozy, who was then mayor of Neuilly-sur-Seine, where the wedding took place. No further comment on this tidbit.

Sarkozy’s political behavior has not exactly been astute, either. When he had an audience with Pope Benedict eight months ago, Sarkozy showed up late and proceeded to send text messages during their meeting. And he chose his buddy, a French comedian, as the companion for his audience with the pope. At a recent G8 summit, it was obvious that Sarkozy was drunk when he was trying to make a speech before live television cameras. And for his official portrait, which graces every town hall in France, he chose a paparazzi photographer. To his credit, however, he was voted one of the world’s best dressed men, just behind Brad Pitt and David Beckham.

I swear I’m not making this stuff up.

Anyway, the Palais de l'Élysée is not open to the public, so you won’t have to worry about catching anything by entering its gates. But I digress.

Back to the building itself. When Parisians talk about “L’Élysée,” they mean the president's palace, whereas the Champs-Élysées is known simply as “Les Champs.” Armed with knowledge like this, the locals will mistake you for a native.

You’re welcome.

Wait – I forgot to mention that Carla Bruni is a songwriter and successful pop music recording star (some of the tracks on her CDs are named for former lovers – cute). And as for those nude photos, her husband, the President of France, calls them “hot.”

And Carla, the former lover of Mick Jagger, Donald Trump and Eric Clapton (I kid you not), is not exactly a shining example of prudent public relations herself. To the media she drops quotes like bombshells. “I want a man with nuclear power.” “I’m monogamous from time to time, but I prefer polygamy and polyandry.” “Love can last a long time, but burning desire – two to three weeks.” And these days she is comparing herself to Jacqueline Kennedy-Onassis (in her own words, “a youthful elegant woman of style”), as opposed to Bernadette Chirac, a first lady in the more traditional mold.

Let me out of here.

The imposing facade on Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré.

Sarkozy's office.

The garden façade.

Perhaps they could shop for new guard uniforms across the street at Versace.

The Latin word “gallus” means both rooster (coq) and Gaulle. The garden gate of the Elysée Palace in Paris displays a gilded rooster, and the fleur-de-lis and rooster were both official symbols of the State of France during the 19th century.

Monday, August 4, 2008

Tour St-Jacques (St. James Tower)

Built in 1512, the 170-ft. tall late Gothic tower is the only surviving part of the 16th-century church Saint-Jacques-de-la-Boucherie (Saint James of the Slaughterhouse) that was demolished in 1797. Its congregants were the wealthy wholesale butchers from the nearby Les Halles market, accounting for its extravagance.

Fifteenth-century alchemist and philanthropist Nicolas Flamel, a patron of the church, is buried under its floor. Flamel was alleged to be the eighth “Grand Master of the Priory of Sion,” and he was mentioned as a character in Dan Brown’s 2003 novel, “The DaVinci Code.”

This church is located along the route taken by pilgrims to Santiago de Compostela, Spain, one of the three great places of pilgrimage of medieval Christendom (along with Jerusalem and Rome). In the Middle Ages this was an assembly point for pilgrims on their journey to northwestern Spain, the legendary burial-place of the remains of the Apostle James (“Santiago” in Spanish). These pilgrims, coming from the north of Paris along Rue Saint-Martin, continued on their way south via Rue Saint- Jacques (St. James street) on the Left Bank.

During the 1870s, when Rue de Rivoli and Avenue Victoria were constructed, huge quantities of earth were removed to ensure a flat path for these new streets, which flank the present-day Square de la Tour St-Jacques. Thus the street level was lowered considerably. The present-day pedestal at the base of the tower shields its foundations, which used to be below street level. Nowadays, this change in ground level can best be appreciated in rue St-Bon, just northeast of the tower, where a staircase leads up to the original street level at Rue des Lombards and the church of St-Merri. During this same time period, a statue of Saint James was installed on the top of the tower.

A statue of Blaise Pascal (1623-1662) at the base of the tower is here because of his experiments in atmospheric pressure performed using this tower. He determined the effect of altitude on the height of a column of mercury relating to air pressure. A series of meteorological instruments are mounted at the top of the tower and remain in use today.

A major restoration of Tour St-Jacques, lasting many years, was completed just a few months ago. The grassy square at the base of the tower is located on the Right Bank just north of the Île de la Cité. It can be reached by crossing the Pont Notre-Dame.

Métro: Châtelet

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Subway Buskers

In Paris, where there are 360 licensed subway musicians (buskers), only one in three makes the cut. Nowadays the RATP requires them to audition for authorization to perform underground. Buskers are supposed to perform only in corridors and station lobbies, and not on platforms or in trains, where they might create safety hazards or assault the eardrums. If unauthorized performers get caught, they are fined 50 Euros.

Twice a year, musicians descend to the RATP’s basement to audition before a panel of judges, who have to decide from the perspective of a passenger. Is it good music? Is it music that would be nice to hear in the Métro?

Veteran buskers must renew their badges, which requires a 15 Euro processing fee. Some of them play as buskers when the regulars clubs where they work are closed. They can pick up a little pocket money, averaging 20 euros in a few hours. However, hardly anyone can make a living by just playing in the subway these days. Instead, they see the Métro as a good place to practice in public. Most musicians keep fliers, business cards and CDs at the ready when they perform, hoping for both cash and future gig work.

Subway Symphony

Saturday, August 2, 2008

Saint Julien le Pauvre

Just across the Seine from Notre-Dame cathedral, at the corner of Rue Galande and Rue St-Julien-le-Pauvre, stands the mess that is the front of a small church – St. Julien the Poor. As the visitor approaches, it appears that this in not a church at all, but a mere ruin of a church. To the left, stretching all the way out to the sidewalk, stands a wall that once formed part of the vestibule, most of which was torn down (as a result of student riots in the 16th century, as we are to learn). Set back from the street is a modest, squat, stuccoed neoclassical false façade with a simple door and some walled up windows – this part would not look out of place in the Mediterranean. An ancient looking round stone planter sits off to the right, and beyond that is a large paving stone jammed up against the wall of the church, set slightly above pavement level. Classical concert posters are plastered all over the fence, and there are signs in Greek. The entire ensemble appears to be a sort of architectural purgatory, not quite derelict, but certainly not fully restored. What on earth is going on here?

Actually, this is one of the oldest churches in all of Paris. A basilica was here as early as the 6th century, and pilgrims making the journey to Santiago de Compostela in Spain stopped here to make use of its dormitory and adjacent fountain, known for miraculous healing powers (the monks charged a fee to access the healing waters). The street just to the west of this church is named Rue Saint-Jacques (St. James street), and was the principal route south to Spain, where the remains of St. James were washed up on the shores and subsequently enshrined. The faithful continue to make this pilgrimage to the present day.

The extant Romanesque building, constructed 1165-1240, but never finished, has origins that are contemporary with Notre-Dame cathedral. When the great educator Peter Abelard had a theological falling out with the authorities at Notre-Dame in the early 12th century, thousands of his students followed him across the Seine and set up shop in this area. They attended lectures in the open air, perched upon bales of hay. The name of the absurdly short Rue du Fouarre, which forms the southern entry to the grounds of St-Julien-le-Pauvre, refers to this (“fouarre” is an old French word that means “forage” or “hay”). Hay protected the back sides of the students from the filth and dampness of the streets, which served as latrines for the student population. As the capacity of the colleges increased, St-Julien-le-Pauvre became the home church of the university, and construction of the present, larger church building began. However, as the university expanded southward toward Montaigne Ste-Geneviève, the fortunes of St-Julien-le-Pauvre floundered. Still, the elections of the Rector Magnificus of the university continued to be held here, until students, upset over the election of a new rector in 1524, rioted and caused so much damage to the church that it was forced to close, beginning a period of long neglect.

Soon three quarters of the vestibule was in such precarious condition that it had to be dismantled; the front door was moved back from the street as part of a false wall built across the start of the nave. This accounts for the curious, partially-ruined wall that projects out to the left of the front door; what we are looking at actually served as the north interior wall of the vestibule. The round planter to the right of the front door was formerly a well that was positioned inside the church itself, providing water for baptisms, and the elevated paving stone is an actual relic of the adjacent Roman road (Rue St-Jacques) that was unearthed and placed here in 1926.

But it gets even stranger. In the 17th century the derelict church was ceded to the hospital (Hôtel Dieu) that was based next to Notre-Dame cathedral, and they spiffed things up a bit. During this time St-Julien-le-Pauvre served as the hospital chapel, not so odd a concept when we remember that this hospital stretched all the way from the banks of the Île de la Cité across the bridge to the Left Bank. A hundred years later the revolutionaries seized all church property, and St-Julien-le-Pauvre was deconsecrated and used to store salt.

What is now the picturesque north church yard known as Square Viviani was once occupied by several three story hospital annexes, not removed until 1877, when the hospital relocated to new quarters on the north side of the Île de la Cité. The disused church of St-Julien-le-Pauvre was then deeded to the Melkites, a congregation of Eastern Catholics who observe the Byzantine Rite. This accounts for the signs outside in modern Greek.

The Melkites built the handsome wooden iconostasis with painted icons depicting Christ, the Virgin, and various saints in 1891. An iconostasis is a feature of churches that use the Byzantine rite of worship, dividing the sanctuary (representing Heaven, which only clergy are allowed to enter) from the rest of the church.

Because of its fine acoustics, many classical music concerts are held in Saint Julien le Pauvre, principally piano recitals and chamber music.

The oldest street sign in Paris, a carved 14th-century stone bas-relief above the entry to no. 42 rue Galande, depicts St. Julien the Hospitaller and his wife rowing Christ (disguised as a leper) across the river towards a chapel. This address was described in 1380 as the “Maison de la Heuze et de Saint-Julien” (House of the Boot and of Saint Julien) and “La Maison où au dessus est l'enseigne de Saint Julien” (house above which is the sign of Saint Julien).

According to legend, St. Julien unwittingly killed his own parents, and to atone for his sin he built a hospice near a river where he and his faithful wife provided lodging for poor travelers, cared for the sick, and ferried pilgrims across the dangerous waters. Julien finally earned God's forgiveness by aiding one such pilgrim, a leper who turned out to be Christ in disguise. The legend was very popular during the Middle Ages, and hospitals, hospices, and churches all over Europe were named for the Hospitaller named Julien. He was the patron saint of innkeepers, ferrymen, circus performers and travelers. Medieval travelers often prayed for his help in finding good lodgings for the night. His feast day is February 12.

In the middle of the Square Viviani, which sits between St-Julien-le-Pauvre and the banks of the Seine, there is a sunken area with an unusual fountain in the center. Dedicated in October 1995, the fountain is the work of Georges Jeanclos, and it tells the story of St. Julien the Hospitaller in scenes depicting his caring for the needy. Forty years ago this square was a run-down disused tract of weeds. It has been replanted and is now scrupulously maintained. Today weary tourists can rest their feet on the plentiful benches and take in the best view of Notre-Dame cathedral that the city affords.

Friday, August 1, 2008

Café Le Tournon

During the 1950s this was the gathering spot of ex-pat African-American writers and artists, such as James Baldwin, Chester Himes, Richard Wright (who gave the pinball machine a steady workout), William Gardner Smith, painter Beauford Delaney and scuptor Howard Cousins. However, it was political cartoonist Oliver Harrington who was the main draw. A brilliant raconteur, he kept large audiences entertained and drew enthusiastic, entranced crowds. He subsequently made Le Tournon famous throughout the world. Life magazine published a feature article about African-American ex-pats at Le Tournon in the mid-1950s, greatly expanding its fame.

Paris was quite inexpensive after WWII. Americans found that they could live on twenty dollars a week. As a result, the city was crowded with ex-pat artists, poets and writers, ex-Army veterans using the GI Bill of Rights to study at the Sorbonne - and there was none of the racial prejudice that smoldered on the other side of the Atlantic.

Paris was in the midst of its long-running love affair with African-American culture, jazz in particular. Duke Ellington’s band made its Parisian debut at Le Tournon, initiating the mania for jazz that eventually took over the St-Germain-des-Prés neighborhood.

A little later George Plimpton also settled in at Le Tournon, along with others associated with the newly-formed Paris Review; Plimpton was a founding editor and continued to contribute until his death in 2003. So popular was Le Tournon with Americans that the predominant language heard throughout the café was English.

1954 Paris Review staff photo: George Plimpton (back row in hat), and author William Gardner Smith (back row, second from right).

Author Theodora Keogh, granddaughter of president Theodore Roosevelt, took up with the Paris Review literary set at the Café Le Tournon. She died earlier this year, at the age of 88.

There were notable residents in apartments upstairs in the same building. Austrian writer Joseph Roth lived above the café from 1937-1939, and there is a plaque on the building noting it. A memorable quote from Herr Roth: If you haven't been to Paris, then you're only half a person.
While they were students at the Sorbonne, sisters Elisabeth Gille and Denise Epstein were residents above Le Tournon, as well. Denise Epstein recently published long-withheld writings by her mother, Irène Némirovsky, as the award-winning novel, Suite Française (2004).

Café Le Tournon still perks along today as a wine bar and eatery with a fresh market menu, while continuing its tradition of presenting occasional live jazz concerts. The decor features murals depicting scenes of the Luxembourg Gardens, located in the back yard of the French Senate, just across the street. In good weather there is a single row of tables out front on the sidewalk terrace.

Café Le Tournon
18, rue de Tournon (6th) near the corner of rue de Vaugirard
Opens at noon.
Telephone: 01 43 26 16 16
Métro: Luxembourg or Odéon

Note: Origin of street nameFrancis de Tournon (1489-1562) was an abbot of Saint-Germain des Prés, as well as a Cardinal and noted statesman.