Monday 24 October 2022

1991 Paris

29.6.91 Pyramid, Musée du Louvre

Well, I finally made it here.  Humbling, totally humbling.  The French really do have the arts sorted out.  London is an embarrassment in comparison.  This entrance hall is inspired.  So light, so logical.  A pyramid of sky and clouds.  Almost a refutation of an Egyptian pyramid – which heavy and dark: this is nothing but light.  And we are inside: it is pure volume.  John would not like it.  Nor the display of Egyptian antiquities amidst all the gilt Rococo splendour.  In fact, generally, the Louvre itself has too strong a personality, whereas the pyramid is suitably neutral.  Even the design of the Louvre is too French – long, long galleries.  Light, shining marble here.  Even with the increasing crowds, there's a feeling of space and air – they tend to stay around the outside.  A brilliant device for prams/wheelchairs: a cylinder rising and falling – an open lift.

Another gob-smacking experience: Jeu de Paume.  Transfigured.  Satie tinkles in the background; the walls a fierce white, the floors a lovely warm, bleached wood parquetry.  On the walls explosions of energy and colour: Jean Dubuffet at the west end, top floor, north wall, 36 pix – a riot of gore, jagged edges, slashes.  Mon dieu, paris est fait pour moi. Je commence à penser en français tout le temps... Je me sens presque français...

Thereafter, a long(-ish) walk to the Grand Palais, and the Seurat exhibition.  Disappointing – in that most of the "big" pix weren't there.  But once again, Seurat's mastery as a draughtsman is very clear – right from the first academic studies.  Lunch there, cheap, unspecial.  I walk to Musée Rodin in another first.  Not as I imagine: more like the Belvedere in Vienna than the dark town house I expected.  But very impressive.  You can see how this terrible old git loved the human form.  Roomful and roomful of it.  And anybody who can produce hands – especially "Le Secret" – as he can, has got to be good.  Lovely studies for the Balzac.  I sit in the garden, the sun beating down.  At the entrance to the Musée was a beautiful young woman – a model – being photographed.  

To the Musée d'Orsay.  Once again, the immediate impact is one of shame: why can't we rise to challenges like this?  Imagine Battersea Power Station turned into a huge gallery…  This place is so cool – in both senses.  Such a brilliant conceit to have a museum inside the railway hall.  Ah well, voyons.

The ground floor is a rather endearing hodge-podge of nineteenth-century stuff.  The first floor is rather tiresome second team, and at the top, under the natural light, the Impressionists.  [One thing on the ground floor: a model of the streets around Opéra Garnier – with glass over it which you could walk on.  Even though others did – and I did – I felt strangely unsafe as if tip-toeing across frozen ice.] Rather nice wicker-work chairs for viewing the pix – strangely civilised.  Typically French: by the toilets, above the café, there is a computerised system – a touch keyboard, million-pixel screen with (all/most of) the works…

By the RER to Gare d'Austerlitz.  Through the Jardin des Plantes – very French, very formal.  Glorious sunshine.  To the greenhouse – that magic smell, hotter than outside, damper.  Then to the mosque, where I sit now in a polygonal central courtyard, trees providing shade.  I have just acquired a steaming hot mint tea – sweet, needless to say.  But nice.  What can I say about this place – Paris – except that I must live here…

Well, what larks: 2.45am, Boulevard St Michel, just by the bridge, tobacco smoke wafting over me, but strangely I don't care.  It seems right for Paris, the land of the eternal Gauloise.  Anyway, to recap first.  After the Musée d'O (comme on dit), by RER to [café crème here is 40 Francs – is this a record…?  But what did I expect…?] Place de la Bastille, to gawp at the new opera.  'Orrible, no sensitivity at all – and already graffiti on its stone facing.  Then by Métro to Les Halles, where after long wanderings, a descend into the depths to FNAC.  Where, after more wanderings, I find [moon gibbous tonight – this place is La Périgourdine – live music, bluesy guitar, voice and piano stuff] I find one Racine play (Andromaque) – which has a certain resonance as I remember – the Gainsbourg pour Gainsbourg plus some Yves Montand with, ludicrously enough, "La Bicyclette", which I heard on France Inter, and was gob-smacked thereby.  Back to the hotel, utterly knackered.

Where I meet the others from work, and feel, partly out of duty, but also, je l'admets, a desire to be with a group on a Saturday night, the archetypal time of being out, of "socialising".  We discuss ad infinitum what to do, but by some miracle find a good restaurant – part of the Flo chain, directly opposite the Gare du Nord, part of the Hôtel du Nord.  We share a Fruits du Mer – well, as it happens, I end up with 20 (sic) oysters – I hope they were OK – then have capitaine – a type of white fish.  Bright, smoky, bustling, very French.

Yet more discussions.  Unable to find a taxi, some of us begin walking to the Seine, others hang about at the hotel. I lead the walkers.  Time around 1am, Paris bustling.  We find ourselves in the Rue Saint-Denis – with the ladies of the night, some quite young and attractive, many black, some none of these – sad, even – especially – on a beautiful night like this, around 19°
C.  One thing in Paris is the blatant porn everywhere – even in ads for yoghurt, I mean… ["Take 5" being played – a versatile band with sax and drums too now…]

I write now (at around 4.30am) with barely any light, sitting opposite the east end of Notre-Dame – which looks like some huge monster or a complex life-support system.  Dawn is definitely coming, with the north-east sky lightening.  Below me, two people sit on the quai; two tiny red fireflies in their hands…. The mood has definitely changed from night to morning, that most magical moment of the diurnal round, that invisible pivot.  Worth waiting up for.  Below me, too, the water like glass, the bridges reflected to perfection.  The first dog starts barking with a racking smoker's cough.


I decide two hours' sleep are better than none, waking at 8.30am.  Not feeling too bad – at Gambetta station: after Père Lachaise Cemetery.  Must be great in winter with mists and everything.  It looked very Greek to me.  Found Proust's tomb, very simple black polished stone.  Today is going to be rather unsatisfactory, I fear, with various deadlines – getting out of room, and to airport etc.

To Jeu de Paume again, for a pleasant lunch of taramasalata, then round the show after reading the intro.  I am just so gobsmacked by all this.  The more I look and learn about this geezer, the more I'm impressed.  Gave up business at 41 to be an artist.  Remained outside the establishment.  What works.  They look so energetic, so full of life – like coiled springs of DNA.  And yet there is a unity of form, and even a humanity amidst this matter.  Really, it is unique in 20th century art.

Upstairs, with the late works – which are suitably Beethovenian in their paring down, in their "spirituality".  Even more so in the very last room of all – on a black ground, like space, the universe, these last deep calligrammes, inspired doodles of noumena (yeah, well...)

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