Old in years but young at heart, Paris remains one of my favourite cities. Last weekend, I went there for relaxation, stimulation and culture: all three came my way in abundance. There was no getting away from reality, but there are worse things in life than facing up to Paris.
It is impossible to walk past Parisian street newsagents now without seeing the image of Emmanuel Macron dominating front covers of weekly digests, Sunday magazines, political journals and celeb media. It is equally impossible not to see this as orchestrated; even the established media from Le Figaro to Le Monde were talking of the French President as ‘the new Napoleon’, and the dangers such power brings with it.
On Sunday – from nothing beforehand – the French voters awarded Macron’s shiny new Party En Marche! a clear overall majority in the National Assembly. Thus, as of Monday last, he is become Bonaparte made flesh. The turnout, however, was very poor by French standards….and when Le Figaro asked 50,000 French adults how they felt about the result, a whopping 57% said they were unhappy with it.
So here we are again: asked to choose between some fairly unpleasant alternatives, voters stayed at home in what appears to have been a very clear abstention. Meanwhile, yet another dubious Messiah has captured the imagination of a naive minority.
As if to prove it would make no difference to Islam, another assailant tried to explode two gas canisters in the Champs Elysées the next day. He was spotted by security police, who first tried to flag him down….and then shot him dead.
On Saturday night, my companion suggested a walk along the lower corridors of the Seine. The weather being warm, Paris was in the mood to party. Things have changed a lot since the days of Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn, but the experience on a darkening Summer’s evening is as romantic as ever. Young couples walk along in serious discussion or blissful silence, attentive to each other’s every halting step or word. On moored boats, well-heeled professionals ate supper on board, savouring the break from pressure. But we two retired old fogeys sat and talked about the buildings, the bridges, the Place de la Concorde and all the things that make Paris Paris.
I’d asked if we could go to the Musée D’Orsay and so, refreshed next morning, we set off to beat the crowds to this, easily my favourite Parisian museum. My friend (considerably more artistically knowledgeable than me) has a Privilege Card for the D’Orsay, and so we bypassed the queues – and had only to share the new Cézanne exhibition with a few enthusiasts for the first hour or so.
I’m not an expert or even a reasonably informed amateur on Cézanne, beyond an awareness of him being infinitely more portrait-focused than other impressionists. What the current D’Orsay exhibition (on until September 24th) offers is some stunning examples of painter/subject emotional interaction, how the artist used paint application to express feelings about those who sat for him, and some really meaty wall notes in French and English. These last are a great improvement on the usual run of such things, in that they are neither pretentiously obtuse nor low-brow simplistic.
One couldn’t help thinking that the subjects themselves must, in some cases, have observed the finished article and been either blindly pompous or mortified about the portrayal.
It seems clear to me, for example, that he didn’t like his Uncle Dominique (left) very much, a bloke whose smug yet coarse features are almost caricatured at times by the relish with which Cézanne slaps on palette knife paint. Equally, his wife Hortense is shown by turn as plain, cantankerous, boring and even brainless….although to be fair, as their relationship improved, she gains more depth in his eyes.
My chum usefully pointed out that the artist’s painting of his son (below) by contrast, was an attempt to give the ordinary some depth and dignity: she is right, and several sources confirm that Cézanne felt a tender love for Paul Junior. In adulthood, the son made a study of artists’ workshops, and acted as a sort of unofficial curator of Papa’s work. He died in 1947.
The other main interest for me was, thirty years on, to revisit the permanent exhibition of art nouveau furniture at the Musée D’Orsay. The line, sweep and confidence of aesthetic output tried to convey a sense of classical beauty its adherents felt was missing in their contemporary world. The illustrations and paintings of the period overwhelmingly feature women, and for me the furniture reflects a desire to glorify the female sex as an ideal ‘form’. While Bauhaus and minimalism, for example, always seem to me masculine, there is something ecstatically feminine about art nouveau furniture….if not lust, then certainly desirability, is portrayed
This bed (left) strikes me as the sort of thing likely to give one nightmares if one slept in it all the time, but as an object to be interpreted, it is serpents, soft arms and willing legs playing a symphony of captive passion, or it is nothing.
It is this sublime conjunction of metaphor and symbol (to produce something gracefully sexual) that blew me away the first time I saw the D’Orsay collection all those years ago.
This is the point at which the post moves on before I disappear up myself.
It is a tribute to my profound ignorance about so many things that, while I had heard of the Place des Vosges in Paris, I knew nothing about it, and had never been there. It lies in the Marais district, and was the first planned square developed in Paris (1800). Dominic Strauss-Kahn lives there. In fact, when we arrived at the Vosges on Monday morning, there was a large, fat, grey-haired bloke sunbathing on one of the lawns. It wasn’t him.
The densely-planted trees offered a cool respite from what was by now a blistering sun, and also a vantage point from which to observe nannies, mums and grandparents variously entertaining and scolding toddlers.
We talked and talked and talked in this strangely level playing field. About life, loss, pain, reality, hypocrisy and denialism as members of the species Homo sapiens. About parallels and Time and fate and a thousand other things. It was – often without pause – a set of experiences mixed with debate, gently coasting from awareness to sympathy via comparison and shared experience. Mainly, it was moving, cryptically astonishing and above all funny.
I can’t remember any other telescoped period in which I had learned and laughed so much without ever once going to a movie, restaurant, opera or play. We ate simply and grew inconceivably. It was all magically real and infinitely sustaining. And I want to do it again as soon as possible.