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Paris, Days 6

As you may have guessed, if you read my previous post, that the last few days we have been pushing things.

There is so much to see and experience in this glorious city, and it is hard not to want to fit as much into each day as possible.

So, today, though we started a bit later and moved a bit slower, we continued to work thing pretty hard.

It being Saturday and also European Patrimony weekend (a kind of pan-European celebration which means that lots of museums and attractions are free (and mobbed) and other places like municipal governments or private chapels in some of the great churches are open for visit), we decided to avoid the actual festivities and go to places that were still charging (and that our museum pass covered) and also doing things that were about visiting and seeing parts of Paris that were not "attractions" per se.

We started at a "small" flea market way out to the south in the city. It is just near the Paris beltway, which mostly marks the route of the old medieval walls of Paris. The market was very interesting. We did not find any amazing treasures, but it was fasciating to walk through. If this one was a "small" one, I think I might not make it walking a large one, as this took a lot of time to get through, there were a lot of people and lots of stuff. Also, I noticed that, while many people had dogs (buyers and sellers), every dog was extremely well behaved and calm. I was impressed.

After that experience, it was time to get back on the museum track, and we headed into central Paris to go to the great D'Orsay art museum.

The one unfortunate thing about the D'Orsay from my overall experience in Paris, is that it is a "no photography" museum. It is a little frustrating that in the Louvre it is fine to take photos as long as you don't use a flash (and the flash issue is subject to lax enforcement) but at this newer museum, there is just an absolute ban on photography (I noticed a lot of not very surriptitious photo snapping with cell phones, but I wasn't about to walk around with my camera out when I wanted to just enjoy and absorb the art). So, no photos from this part of the day.

Laura and Ian went to this museum during their visit in June, but the museum is quite large with a quite diverse collection. Even if you went through every room, you could not absorb it all, and I think with each visit, you could find new things. Also, they have temporary exhibits and make new acquisitions.

The museum was built in the shell of the grand train station created for the World Exposition for which the Eiffel Tower was also created. Neither were planned as permanent, but yet they are still here. THe D'Orsay almost did not make it. Unlike the Eiffel Tower, whose reprieve came in part because it made an excellent radio tower, important especially during World War I, the D'Orsay lost its immediate untility because it was not well placed as a working rail hub. It was too much in the center of Paris, on the banks of the Sein and within sight of the Palace of the Louvre on the other side and it generated too many noxious fumes (being all coal fired engines at the time). Having lost its purpose from the exposition, it fell into disuse and went through the better part of the 20th Century fading in glory and falling apart. Fortunately, before it was demonlished, the idea to turn it into a grand space for art caught fire, and it, like other nearly lost rail stations (Union Station in DC comes to mind), got a new lease on life.

The space is really massive, with the various show floors suspended in the area that was once the vaulted space over a rail yard and boarding platforms. The interior did not lend itself to an easy flow pattern for the various rooms of art and that is really my only complaint. It is easy to miss things as you try to maneuver around, but it is a very impressive museum.

We started, naturally enough, at the restaurant. The restaurant is a beautiful, airy and gogeously decorated and gilt room. The ceiling is covered with a huge paiting from the 1900 exibition and the floor is dotted with statuary. We got a nice table by a window and ordered what might have been our most expensive meal in Paris. It was very nice and we each had a delicious dessert (Laura a chocolate mousse cake and I a creme brule).

Thus fortified, we headed into the museum. Now, I have to admit that a bit of art/museum fatigue had set in by Saturday. It was not quite "ho hum, another Van Gogh," but it sure did make me more choosy about what I looked at and how long I spent in the room. The art in the museum runs the gamut of the great (and some not so great) European (mainly) artists of the 19th and early 20th Century. The painter of La Grande Odalisque is represented here (Ingres), though to my eye, the works here were lesser than the masterpiece we saw in the Louvre. Lots and lots of "big names": Manet, Monet, Renoire, Van Gogh, Toulouse-Letrec, Gauguin, Cezanne, and Degas. Saw lots of paintings by all of them. Many quite famous and interesting to see, others perhaps not the masters' best work. There was a fine piece by Winslow Homer (one of the few Americans) and James Abbot-McNeil Whistler's portrait of his mother is also apparently there, but we did not find it (see my comment about being easy to miss things with the layout).

There were a couple of paintings that caught my attention beyond the fact that I might have seen them in art books, on art shows, or learned about them long ago in art history. There was a very large work called something like The Romans in Decadance (Les Romains de la Decadence) by Thomas Couture. It seems to be a metaphore about a culture of excess being ready to collapes under its own weight. Or, less intellectually, it seems to say the the Roman Empire fell because they had too many parties with half naked women where drunken idiots tried to do gymnastics on the serious statues of long dead Roman statesmen. There was also another huge paiting entitled "Cain" which showed a very old man still carrying the weapon with which he killed his brother leading his tribe of animal skin clad hunters, their women and children, through the wilderness. According to the information about the painting, it was painted near in time to the discovery of the first Neaderthal skulls, and so Cain and his tribe are depicted as "cave men." There was also another "interesting" and quite large canvass showing a knight in armor, standing with a kind of serene look in a field of flowers while surrounded by dancing naked girls who are apparently personifications of flowers according to the flower hats they seem to be wearing. I thought, since this was in a room entitled something like "symbolism" that the painting might be some parable of virtue risiting temptation or something like that, but the title is just Knight of Flowers. A little research turns up the fact that this may be a character from the Parsifal legend and it may be a parable of being oblivious to the beauty of life, but it seems like the painter (Rochegrosse George) mostly had naked girls on the mind.

Then there is the painting that I recently learned is informally titled "The Athens YMCA." The painting shows a Christ-like figure in the center, apparently meant to be Plato, surrounded by mostly naked young men, uh, studying together around their master. It is a crazy bad painting and I'm not sure, or perhaps I am exactly sure what the painter (Jean Delville) had on his mind. Interestingly, according to the information on the D'Orsay website, this painting was to hang in the Sorbonne, the great central University of Paris (now broken up and decentralized in to more than a dozen city Universities), but it somehow never made it to its intended audience. I am not surprised that the folks in charge of the University decided to pass on this one.

Despite these striking and, at some points, decidedly odd pieces of art, the museum really impressed me with its diverse and beautiful collection of art. We finished mainly looking at the collections of statuary, which of course included some Rodin pieces, however, most of them were copies or derivatives of originals which we saw at the more complete Rodin museum.

All in all, however, a good outing.

So, we took the Metro to a stop from where we could walk back to the apartment without transferring to get to our exact stop.

On the way back, we stopped at a church, Saint Eustache, which we had noticed many times, but never entered. The church was specially opened for the ongoing European Patrimony Days, and, somewhat counterintuitively, not only was the church and some of the private chapels opened, but also there were acrobats performing an aerial exhibition in the vaulted space of the transept while an accompanyist played various classical pieces on the church organ. The church itself took over 100 years to build, and was completed in 1640. It was beautiful, but in serious need of restoration at various places. The stained glass was interesting, but did not match the masterworks in Notre Dame or Sainte Chapelle. It was an interesting little side trip before taking an afternoon rest.

From there, we headed home, picking up some snacks.

After some late afternoon napping, we decided to go to Monmartre and visit the Sacre Couer (Sacred Heart) church. We took the Metro and then the funicular up to the top of the Monmartre hill (the highest point in Paris). It was already dark and we had missed the spectacular sunset from this vantage, but it was still wonderful to see Paris all lit up. The scene before the church was a riotous and raucus mob. There were students, tourists, guys selling beer, musicians, drunks, con-men (and women) and performers. It called to mind the description of the scenes before Notre Dame in the Middle Ages given to us by our guide Thomas (which seems so long ago, even though it was just days). He described how beggers passed themselves off as cripples to gain greater alms from the travelers and pilgrims. He also described how the local band of thieves worked, a thieves guild, if you like. The leader would initiate a new thief by picking a target and telling the thief to steal from him or her. Then, he and his crew would spread word through the crowd that the initiate was a thief and was about to rob someone. While the mob turned on the would-be thief, the thief band would pick their pockets and otherwise make off with their things. If the initiate survived or escaped, he was in, otherwise he had given his life to help the thieves out, but just didn't make the grade.

While we had no mob attack on a would-be thief, the wild and crazy scene before Sacre Couer in some ways seemed to keep the spirit of the circus atmosphere that existed just outside the moast sacred precincts of the city.

Inside, despite the noise, there was a beauty and serenity. The church, relative to others in the city, is not that old, and was built after the Prussian seige in the 1870s by grateful survivors of the district. It is a magnificent space. Photography, without flash, was allowed. While, keeping in theme with other places, I saw some cheating on this, it was the first time I saw a priest stride across the floor saying "Madame! No flash!!" with a quite severe expression. Give that man a truncheon.

I gave him no cause to be severe with me.

After walking around the beautiful interior of the church and taking some pictures, we were moved to donate to the church and take a candle to offer for the memory of someone we lost. Laura took the little candle to the statue of Christ of the Sacred Heart and set it aflame for the memory of our dear friend Sandy Cisneros whom we lost just a few weeks ago. She was a dear friend of my parents and was one of the many mothers who looked after me and my sisters when we were young. More recently, my own children had got to know her and her grand children on trips both to the Outer Banks and to Arizona. She leaves a big hole in the world, but we offered, for our part, a small light in a beautiful church to help us remember all the good she left in the world.

After that solemn moment, we returned back to the wild crowd, took some photos of the Paris skyline, and then climbed the famous steps down the hill. We browsed a little in the tourist traps at the bottom of the hill and then returned by metro to our apartment in the 3e Arrondisement for our second to last night in Paris.

We had delicious Indian food leftovers and went to bed, preparing to face our last day with energy and excitement.

But that story has to wait.

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