A Travellerspoint blog

Day 11: Paris, Crammed

sunny 80 °F

Wednesday morning passes me by – I’m finding one of the benefits of traveling solo is that while companions probably wouldn’t stand for my sleeping in, I can confidently begin my adventuring later in the day, and also stay out later at night – and venture out around noon to see what I can of Paris. I pass by Lea’s outdoor patio and joke that I’m off to “do the Louvre” in an hour, which actually isn’t very far from my intentions.

Taking the Metro to the Louvre stop, I get out and feel the warmth of the midday Paris sun. (Outside of the Vienna downpour, I must say I’ve been blessed with almost exclusively sunny conditions on this trip.) Walking around the enormous buildings of the Louvre, it takes me a good while to locate an entrance, which I eventually discover is adjacent to the Pei pyramid. I had been warned by friends that a trip to the Louvre would risk wasting hours of time waiting in line, however I breeze by security, take the escalator down, and stand in line only for around 15 minutes to purchase a 9 Euro ticket. During this time, I multi-task by writing out a number of postcards; I would eventually reach my goal of completing 30+ postcards to Facebook friends who sent me their addresses… you know who you are!

Now, there’s obviously no way I could actually “do” the Louvre in an hour, given that it is, of course, the largest and most visited museum in the world. I make the decision to just explore the Denon wing, which houses the Italian Renaissance collection, which is probably my favorite stuff. (Though I may just be copying my art history-buff father on that. ☺)

I first enter a room filled with Greek and Roman statues, leading into the Daru staircase which opens up to the Winged Victory of Samothrace sculpture, ca. 2nd century BC, which I later realize is one of the most famous sculptures in the world. It’s quite large and the composition is dramatic, despite that fact that it has wings but no head! (Those crazy Greeks!)


Continuing to the right, I’m in a room featuring some gorgeous Italian frescoes (a typical Renaissance technique where paint is applied directly to plaster walls, rather than on canvas) by masters like Fra Angelico, whose work I remember seeing quite a lot of at the monastery of San Marco in Florence.

I continue walking – rather briskly – along the long corridors, only stopping to examine further (and/or take a photo) if a specific image jumps out at me. The works here are stunning, and I’m feeling guilty I’ve turned this visit into such a “drive-by.” Still, I'm taking in all sorts of biblical scenes: gorgeous, pained Madonnas bathed in reds and blues, stormy battle scenes with perfectly toned figures; it’s all a wonder.


I recognize da Vinci’s gorgeous work The Virgin of the Rocks, and recognize the face of my old friend Ellen; I’m sure she’ll won’t mind me tagging her in my Facebook photos.


I spend time with The Fortune Tellers (La Diseuse de bonne aventure) by Caravaggio (ca. 1598) who since a 2006 trip to Rome with my father has been my favorite Italian Renaissaince painter, mostly for his vivid, modern tone, dramatic use of narrative, and mastery of contrasting lighting. (Ironically, my parents saw the companion piece to this work, The Cardsharps, at the Kimball Art Museum in Ft. Worth, TX, of all places, prior to my arriving there for the Thomas Merton performance which preceded this trip.)


After passing through a room featuring enormous large-scale works, I come across a work which gets me, La Jeune Martyre, by early 19th century French painter Paul Delaroche. Especially in contrast to the chaos of the surrounding large canvasses, I find something in the quiet, chilled drama of this painting reminiscent of Toni Frissell’s 1947 Weeki Wachee spring, Florida photograph of a woman suspended in water. Hey, anyone seen Ophelia around?


Having made my way past the Italian, and now Spanish sections, I cave into my touristic urges to “see the famous one” and start looking around for the Mona Lisa, which ends up being in a different location from where the Louvre map claims it to be. I walk into the room where the most famous painting in the world is kept, and can immediately tell that something is different, as dozens of gawking tourists jockey for position in front of a roped off barrier about 20 feet in front of the painting, which is encased in a special glass enclosure. I had heard that one would wait for hours just for the chance to see the Mona Lisa for one minute, so I'm pleasantly surprised that not only was the wait not long, but that no one is enforcing any Sistine Chapel-like time limits on viewers. I ask a woman to take my photo in front of the painting, and ask her why she thinks its so famous. I imagine that everyone else in the room is asking the same question; like a modern-day reality TV star, this painting seems to be famous primarily because it is famous. It’s not appreciably “better” than any of the thousands of world-class works which surround it, and its actually quite small, yet there is an unmistakable mystique which comes from standing feet away from the most famous work of art in the world. It just seems so arbitrary to me, and I ponder the unpredictability of fame. On the way out of the room, I stand and study the faces of people as they enter the room and first spot the Mona.


I make my way out via a different route from where I entered, and spend some time with my 50mm lens in a room of Italian statuary, including L’Enfant Jesus jouant avec un clou by Paolo Bernini, a son of Giancarlo Bernini’s (whose works I remember seeing so frequently in Rome), Lorenzo Bartolini’s Dirce, Pierino da Vinci’s Jeune flueve accompagne de trios enfants, and Michelangelo’s Captif (“l’Esclave rebelled”).


Having spent a little under ninety minutes in the exhibits, I decide to head out, checking out the museum store on the lower floor. Continuing the theme of not wanting bulky luggage, I opt out of buying anything, and exit the world’s most famous museum for the bright afternoon sun of Paris.


Next stop on the tourism train is the “buy one attraction, get one free” area of Sacré-Cœur & Montmartre, strongly recommended to me by a member of the Suspicious Cheeselords during a recent concert at the French Embassy in DC. (Thanks Gary!) In the Metro station, I walk past an elevator, thinking that’s odd – then come to realize out why it’s there after a looooong climb up to street level.


Outside, there’s a fun jazz band playing for people sitting on benches. Having already heard a handful of jazz musicians playing on subway trains, I’m finding it’s true that jazz is a constant presence in Paris, much more so than in the US, sadly. I ask directions from a couple passing American girls as to where Sacré-Cœur is, and am told “just keep walking up, up, and up!” Along the way are many small shops selling stereotypical images of Parisian art nouveau, which although touristy, are really quite striking in their bold, jazzy coloration. I stop at an outdoor café, enjoy a cheese & tomato crepe and a Leffe, and write out a few more postcards.


Turning the corner into the large public square at Montmartre, mixed in amongst the outdoor cafes are portrait artists left and right, all offering to sketch for the tourists. (As I walk further in, there appear to be almost as many portrait artists as there are potential subjects!) I even spot aspiring artists sitting at tables, practicing their craft.


Ascending to Montmartre hill which looks out over Paris, I enter into the tall (aren’t they all?) cathedral of Sacré-Cœur, which unfortunately (and unlike Notre-Dame) has a policy of no photography. After lighting two candles, I walk around the perimeter of the church. At one point I sit on a chair in a chapel area and contemplate the fact that although at this very moment I am sitting in this famous church in Paris, in a mere 93 hours I will be standing in front of a classroom in Arlington, VA. Hard to believe. I continue walking around, and stopping into the gift shop, I start feeling that this place is a bit on the “churchy” side for my tastes – expensive religious statues and pins and pictures of the Pope’s visit and people reverently praying. On the way out, I’m fiddling with my camera and am rather bruskly apprehended by a man demanding to know how many photographs I had taken inside. (I hadn’t taken any, although I was about to take one non-flash, discrete shot of the inside of the church as I walked out of the door.) I walk out into the sunshine and decide I’m maybe not as fond of this church as I was of Notre-Dame, which although still reverent, felt a bit more embracing. Also, the sign hanging from the front of the church proclaiming that at least one person has been praying continually within the church “for over 125 years, day and night” makes me cynically think “lot of good preventing wars, atrocities, and natural disasters that did!” ☺


Serenaded by a folky singer covering Jeff Buckley's version of Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah (of course), I descend the large hill and peer out at the city of Paris which lies beneath. It’s a gorgeous view and I’m glad I followed the advice to come out here. Walking past a funky African jazz group, I make my way to the Metro to head toward my next stop.


Coming to Paris, my old friend (and former scene partner at the wonderful T. Schreiber Studio in NYC) Yvonnick was actually the only person I knew who lived here, and he had messaged me that he was to be involved with a theater piece that evening at the Le plateau, an art gallery located at Place Hannah Arendt, which Lea’s neighbor had mentioned would be found close to the Jourdain metro stop. On the way to the space, I stop into the much more casual, yet still ancient and contemplative church of Saint-Jean Baptiste de Belleville. No one grunts at me to put my camera away here.


Yvo had mentioned that while at the performance, I should “ask someone who speaks French what’s going on,” which brings up connotations of watching the Threepenny Opera in German a few nights previous. After waiting a while to get into the sold-out performance (yay for the popular avant-garde!), we enter a minimalistic white gallery with a different actor frozen in each room or section of a room. I sit on the floor and watch Yvo’s performance, which I later find out is themed “a collection of failures,” and revel in how he’s so deftly using the “private moment” (or “being private in public”) exercises from Mary Boyer'’s acting classes years ago. Going from room to room, I’m happy to discover there’s no (or few) actual words used in these performances, which center on pantomime, improvised choreography, and actors deeply focusing on their tasks, most of which remain mysterious to the audience. I take a large number of photographs; the lighting and dynamic physicality of the actors allows for some compelling composition, I think, and I feel I’ve made at least incremental progress in learning how to manually operate the camera as compared with the beginning of the trip.


After about 30 minutes of the actors working solo (save for one fascinating “couple”), all of the actors congregate in a back room for a sort of contact improvisation-inspired finale, standing in a line and improvising tiny shifts in movement. Although my impression is that all is improvised, everything feels smooth and choreographed; the sense of ensemble is strong and indicates the preparation that’s been put in. A signal is given and all the actors spring out of the room, ending the performance, and the appreciative audience (are they more “used to” unconventional work like this over here?) gathers in another room and applauds vigorously. What a thrilling, unexpected show. Before leaving the gallery, I take a number of photos of pieces from the current exhibit, which has something to do with heads topped with colorful geometric shapes.


It’s great to finally chat with Yvo and he invites me out with the group. We sit at an outdoor café down the street and it’s great fun talking about the show and life in Paris with a few of the performers and various friends. I order a vegetable couscous, which my taste buds are surprised to find out contains a large chunk of meat, but nothing a few Belgian ales can’t wash down. In addition to being a superb actor, Yvo is a terrific guy and it’s so nice to reconnect after many years. After an hour or so I depart toward the direction of Café Oz, an Australian club where I’m told English speakers will be found. I make no new friends at Oz but I do proceed to blissfully dance my face off over some familiar American hiphop beats, camera bag slung over my neck the whole time, and depart with just enough time to make the 12:30 train back to Montreuil. Oddly, in a subway tunnel, I run into the same American girls who had given me directions at Sacré-Cœur earlier. Le monde est petit. Another day packed with cultural explorations – is Paris starting to make sense to me now?


Posted by coolmcjazz 08:01 Archived in France Tagged photography

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