Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Buon Giorgno Artemisia! Plus Celebration NEH Dinner

Tuesday, June 12, 2012
Paris, France


NEH Session on Vichy:
Our NEH session this was morning on 'Vichy and its Legacies' was conducted by Richard Golsan and Henri Russo—both specialists on the subject. The first hour was given to Group Responses to Visit to Battlefields of the Somme on Saturday. Well, 15 American academics CAN talk. Their reflections (which includes yours truly) went on for over an hour—all very poignant, very intellectually and emotionally engaging. A short break followed, after which ‘Vichy as Depicted in Fiction and Film’ became the topic of discussion. Later, much later than 12 noon, we concluded—must have been closer to 1.00.

I sat in the Lounge at the CISP and ate my homemade smoked salmon and arugula salad sandwich—deelish! Fortified, I took the metro from Porte de Vincennes (which I found quite easily) to Gare de Lyon to buy my tickets to get to Lyon on the weekend of Jun 21. I am very much looking forward to seeing dear Genevieve again. We have been friends since we were 13, when I lived in India and we first started writing to each other as pen-friends. I will be spending a couple of days with her family in Lyon (husband Frederic, and sons Louis and Amaury whom I know and love) and then on to Rumilly, the little village in the Haute Savoie where she was born and raised, where I will meet the rest of her siblings whom I also know very well. It will be a fond reunion.

The clerk at the SNCF train station recommended that I buy Une Carte Escapades—valid for one year; it gives me huge discounts on tickets for travel anywhere in France. It costs 75 euros but after buying it, I saved 30 euros on the return ticket to Lyon. If, as I intend to do, I make the pilgrimage to Lourdes and travel to the Cote d’Azur, I will have recovered the money on the Carte within the next month. I must use it wisely and well. The line for the tickets was long and moved slowly but the clerk was very helpful indeed.

Off to see the Catacombs of Paris--Second Try:
Having tried to see the Catacombs yesterday and finding them closed (on Mondays), I made another brave attempt to get directly to Denfert-Rochereau. The line was unbelievable when I reached there at 2. 30 pm. Some American guys in the front told me they had been waiting for 2 hours! By the time I reached the end of the line, a sweet assistant informed me that the wait was 2 and a half hours and last entry in to the Catacombs was at 4. 00 pm. I probably would not get in today, she said, and advised me to return tomorrow. Since I live only 15 minutes away, I intend to arrive by 9. 30 am and be part of the first batch that is allowed in at 10. 00 am (only 200 people are allowed inside at any given time—hence the crazy queue). Hopefully, it will be third time lucky.

On the bus down Boulevard Raspail:
Refusing to be daunted, I took a bus and sailed down Boulevard Raspail with the intention of getting to Musee Maillol to see the special exhibit on ‘Artemisia Gentileschi’ which is currently on. In 10 minutes, the bus arrived and in another ten, I was entering the beautiful building called the Hotel Bouchardon which was the home of Aristide Maillol--hence the Musee Maillol--a 20th century French painter and sculptor. This was another first time visit for me. Stunning sculpture on the building’s façade was a fitting decoration for a building that offered an intense artistic experience.

Buon Giorgno Artemisia:
Readers of Diane Johnson’s novel Le Divorce that is set in Paris (made by the late Ismael Merchant and his partner James Ivory into a film of the same name starring Kate Hudson) will remember that the family dispute had begun over its possession of a painting by Artemisia Gentileschi. How appropriate it seemed that I was at an Artemisia Retrospective in Paris! And how wonderful it was to lose myself in the work of a startlingly unconventional female painter during the Renaissance—a time when men like Michelangelo, Raphael and Donatello dominated the art scene and would scarcely have taken easily to the presence of a female encroaching upon their turf. Fortunately, Artemisia was born to the well-known painter Orazio Gentileschi who taught her everything he knew about the craft before she struck out as an individual and developed her own style—which is quite obviously deeply influenced by Caravaggio.

About 65-70 Artemisia paintings are on display including a self-portrait. Her work is stunning. I mean it grips you by the throat at the very beginning (Susanna and the Elders) and keeps you gasping right through the end. For some strange reason, Artemisia was fascinated by the subject of Judith and her servant Abra with the Head of Holofernes and there are several versions of it done throughout her short artistic life—in Rome, Florence and Naples where she is supposed to have died of the plague. In like manner, there are several versions of Bathsheba in her Bath helped by her Ladies-in-Waiting. Interestingly, in all her paintings, her Biblical characters wear contemporary Italian Renaissance clothing. I even noticed that a bracelet on the hand of Judith in one painting is identical to the one Artemisia is wearing in her self-portrait. Her St. Jerome is so striking I could feel him breathe and could barely move away from it. It was probably my favorite painting in the exhibition. While the subjects of her work are limited, the scale is just spectacular. Her canvases are large and the intensity of her passion for her work clearly obvious. What a marvelous exhibition and how fortunate I was to have caught it!

One work that was equally arresting in the exhibition was by Artemisia’s father, Orazio. His David with the Head of Goliath was the most unusual miniature I have ever seen in my life. It was painted, not on porcelain or ivory as are the norms, but on a tiny slab of lapis lazuli (a cobalt-blue semi-precious stone that is quarried only in Afghanistan and Northern Pakistan and was so expensive during the Renaissance that Master Painters could only afford to use the color—achieved by grinding the stone finely and mixing with oil) sparingly (and, therefore, usually reserved for Mary’s mantle in medieval religious paintings). Well, Orazio ingeniously incorporated the blue background into his landscape creating a base for the physically exhausted David that is unbelievably powerful. The end result is a miniature painting that it was hard to tear myself from—simply brilliant!

Buying Cheese at Barthelemy:
Thrilled with the success of my artistic mission, I stopped at Barthelemy, Paris’ legendary fromagier (cheese shop) which was next door to Musee Maillol to buy my weekly supply of cheese. The middle-aged ladies who run the store were far from helpful and even though I spoke in French and asked for advice, I felt brusquely steered towards a Brie. I picked it up and then also grabbed a harder cow’s milk cheese and hoped I had made the right choices—I like my cheese to have a strong, mature flavor. Nous verrons...

Back on the Bus home:
I am becoming far more confident about using the buses and am enjoying my lovely rides through the city in them. I hopped into a 68 at Boulevard Raspail, got off at Porte d’Orleans and then took a tram for two stops—home within 20 minutes! Paris buses move much faster than the lumbering double-decker London ones and their stops are far more limited.

I barely had time to gulp down a cuppa and enjoy my croissant d’amandes when I had to shower and rush off to the CISP for our celebration dinner. The evening called for a dress (I usually live in trousers), so out came my stockings too! Back on the metro to Bel Air I went and at 7. 10, I was at the lobby waiting for the rest of our group to get to the restaurant for dinner.

NEH Celebration Dinner:
I have to say that I was doubtful about the choice of venue, the CISP Restaurant: I mean, of all the restaurants in Paris, did we really have to eat dinner in the same place where our sessions take place? But I have to admit that I was mistaken. The venue was lovely—the tables set beautifully with saffron table linen and white china plates and silverware and large posters from classic French films lining the wall. Lovely!

Kir was offered as an aperitif at the adjoining bar with a few nibbles—which is exactly how the English do dinner parties (no heavy appetizers for them as is common in America). And then someone said “A Diner” and off we were. By the end of our five-course meal, I could barely stand!

We began with the classic French starter (which, incidentally, are called entrees in France)—slices of musk melon (cantaloupe) with smoked salmon (prosciutto) and tiny balls of mozzarella—all beautifully plated. Bread and butter made the rounds as we dove in. White wine did the rounds too.

The main course (Le Plat) was Beouf En Croute (Fillet of Beef in Pastry—similar to Beef Wellington but minus the pate stuffed inside). This was tender and succulent and served with grilled potatoes and tomatoes and a ‘bundle’ of haricot vert (green beans) tied together with a string of bacon! Tres Bon! Bottles of red wine did the rounds this time.

The third course was a plate of cheese: there was a blue veined cheese and a milder one (I would guess cow’s milk). More bread and butter was made available.

The fourth course—le desert—was presented with a flourish: two large logs of Baked Alaska were brought to the table. Our server poured cognac generously over the top and flambéed them. Blue flames licked the meringue that covered the rum and raisin ice-cream and layer of cake beneath and ignited it. The aroma wafted deliciously around the table. Then he skillfully carved slices off the logs and plated them. It was heavenly!

The fifth course was tiny cups (demi-tasse) of strong espresso which took the roof right off my mouth. Two sips and I was ready to swing from the chandeliers from the combination of wine and caffeine.

It was all I could do to make the 10 minute walk at the end of the evening to the metro station with my colleague Jen. It had been raining all evening and the trek in the downpour hadn’t been pleasant. But our amazing meal more than made up for our soaking.

A superb day. I could not have asked for better! Hopefully, tomorrow will be just as wonderful.

A demain!

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