Friday, June 29, 2012

Footloose in Montmartre & the Museum of Romantic Life

Friday, June 29, 2012
Paris, France


Did you know that there actually exists in Paris a street called Rue de Putterie (Street of Prostitution)? Did you realize that the can can dance was the most daring form of eroticism in 19th century France although it was performed by women wearing full-length gowns?

But, as usual, I am getting ahead of myself in wanting to share all the discoveries we made on our walk around Pigalle and Montmartre today. So let me begin at the beginning...

I awoke to the coolness of a summer breeze tugging at the curtains at our bedroom window. The temperature had changed dramatically and the heat and humidity of last night were just a bad memory. Realizing that Llew is still jetlagged, I closed the windows, pulled the curtains down to bring darkness back into the room and left so as not to disturb him. I caught up with email and got breakfast organized by the time my new friend Joyce called to invite us to her place in Chamborcy for dinner tomorrow. I accepted with delight and we made plans for her to get one of her Paris-based friends to pick and drop us back. How kind of her! Vraiment tres gentile!

Llew awoke to the sound of the telephone ringing and actually joined me for breakfast: we ate fromage blanc (literally white cheese, but really a thickish plain yogurt, like Greek yogurt) with Jordan's muesli, then Poilane's Pain Aux Noix with Fig Jam and Praline Spread. I love these Continental preserves and wish I could taste a lot more of them before we leave from here. Coffee went down a treat before I left Llew to get ready and went across to Thomas at the office to get something urgent printed, scanned and emailed.

Alas, the office does not have a scanner; but the lady there was kind enough to print my stuff. I signed it and decided to put it in snail mail to NYU in New York, which meant we'd need to find a poste (post office). By the time I returned to my apartment, Llew was ready to leave and off we went.

Exploring The Museum of Romantic Life:
The RER train took us to Gare Du Nord from where we intended to take Line 2 to Blanche. But that's when our journey went awry. The 2 no longer stops at Gare du Nord--so we had to take the 4 for one station (Barbes) where we discovered that a train had broken down. All of humanity seemed to spill out of the disabled train and on to the platform. When the replacement train arrived, that same humanity fought to get in--it was packed to capacity as it pulled out. Fortunately, we traveled in it for just 2 stations. With relief, we got off at Blanche and made our way to Rue Chaptal to the Musee de la Vie Romantique (the Museum of Romantic Life) which was a recommendation of my NEH colleague Noit who teaches Art History at Tufts University.

The museum was a good 10 minutes' walk away (and probably closer to Pigalle metro station than Blanche).  Entry to it is free and we were very pleased indeed to lose ourselves in a 19th century home in which normally-endowed (meaning middle-class) people lived (as opposed to the over-the-top opulent mansion-museums that I have been exploring over the past few weeks). You enter the main door through a delightful cobbled courtyard garden that was simply full of tall colorful hollyhocks, roses and other profuse summer blooms. In the little garden at the side is a tea room and restaurant whose focal point is a glass conservatory. The museum complex consists of two more buildings where special art exhibitions are held (for which there is an extra charge).

The home belonged to the artist Ary Scheffer who was born in Holland but together with his brothers (Les Trois Freres after which another road is named), made Paris his home. Through their impressive aristocratic connections and marriages, the family was related to Aurore de Saxe (who is better known in literary history as the French writer and painter, George Sand). She took on the pen name in order to be able to share her revolutionary ideas without the censure which, in that epoch, was reserved for women (in the same way that the English writer Mary Ann Evans took on the pen name George Eliot during the same era). George Sand became romantically involved with the classical French composer, Chopin (who was born Polish but made France his home). Together, they created a domestic environment in which artists, thinkers, writers, poets and musicians shared their ideas, thoughts and creative energy.

The first floor of the museum is devoted to the memorabilia collected by George Sand: personal pieces of jewelery gifted to her that she wore all her life, snuff boxes (of her royal relations that she inherited), hair ornaments, etc. there are busts and plaster casts of faces and hands, some sculpture and a few paintings by friends and colleagues of Scheffer. It is a lovely capsule of 19th century life embodied by the pursuit of all things romantic, meaning heartfelt. The best part of exploring this floor was listening to the piano compositions of Chopin that followed us around as we moved--a truly charming touch.

On the second floor were a large number of portraits by Scheffer who had received commissions from members of the European royal families such as the Portuguese who were familiar with his work. They are lovely, subtle, very pleasing representations of aristocratic women in formal garb and they present a very intimate sense of life at the end of the 19th century. Although the museum is very small, it is deeply absorbing and certainly worth a visit. For devotees of Chopin and George Sand, it is a great place of pilgrimage. For me, the most interesting part of the visit was learning that apart from being a novelist and memoirist, Sand was a talented and passionate artist herself. The large number of water colors on which she experimented  is a wonderful testimony to the varied artistic streams of creativity she pursued during her lifetime and her deep committment to them.

Footloose and Fancy Free in Montmartre:
Leaving the Museum behind us, we found our way to Pigalle metro station to begin our exploration on foot of a quartier that is rich in findings for anyone interested in probing beaneath the touristic surface of Paris to find concealed gems. Pigalle and Montmatre have historically been associated with two things: Sex and Art (and remotely, a third--Religion; for the martyr St. Denis had his head chopped off here and walked with it to a nearby fountain where he washed it!).

We used DK Eyewitness Guide's '90 Minute Walk in Montmartre' to get us started and I should tell you that when we finished, it was four hours later! The walk took us mainly to the homes of the renowned artists of the Impressionist and Post-Impressionst era who, in those days, had barely two sou to rub together and could, therefore, only live outside the city limits of Paris. Montmartre was separated from the city of Paris by a wall that ran all around it. Those residing outside the wall paid no tax and since the artists were of the proverbial starving variety, Montmartre was the only place within nodding distance of Paris that they could afford.

Suffused with the Spirit of Toulouse-Lautrec:
Hence, we stared our walk at a spot where most of the cabarets, musical revues and dancing halls were located. And if there are provocative dancing girls and music, prostitituion cannot be far behind. So, these joints blossomed into the city's red-light district. But for the fact that celebrated artists such as Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec were fascinated by the women who entertained at these places and the men who owned the clubs and directed their acts, Pigalle would have remained just another sleazy part of a chic European city. But Toulouse-Lautrec immortalized these characters in the poster art he produced in which they were presented not just as provocative but happy, their fur flying but never in anger. Today most of those halls have been converted into movie theaters or cheap cabaret clubs offering peep shows and kinky sex to please voyeurs. It was among these that we found the building with the ornate exterior in which Van Gogh had once lived with his brother Theo on Rue Victor Masse. We also saw the original facades of the buildings in which Le Chat Noir was composed and presented--an event that gave rise to Toulouse-Lautrec's most famous portrait of a black cat!

The Village of Montmartre:
On this walk there were steep hills to climb and cobble stones to stumble over. We couldn't hurry: there was too much to see and savor. Once you leave Pigalle behind and start ascending the narrow stairways cut into the Butte (hill) towards Montmartre (literally the Mountain of Martyrs), you have also left the solidity and grandeur of Paris behind and entered the world of a little village. The streets get narrower and more charming, the French windows open out on to balconies spilling over with window boxes, there are original gas lights around every corner--this area is similar to Hampstead in London. It oozes with charm. It simply forces you to slacken your pace and look about you with eager, observant eyes at every architectural detail.

We arrived at Place Abbess (once actually the site of an Abbey) with its lovely Hector Guimard-designed Art Nouveau Metropolitan entrance with its full glass canopy (what a pity that these are fast diappearing) and its large and very gaudy carousel. We had our home made sandwich lunches in this busy square, enjoying the deliciousness of brie and smoked salmon in crusty baguettes and thinking how great they tasted and wondering why sandwiches do not taste as good anywhere else.

 We entered the Church of St. Jean the Evangelist with its typically Byzantine brick exterior and very unusual interior decoration (which actually made me wonder whether it was a Catholic church at all). On a neighboring side street, we saw the home in which the Pointillist artist Georges Seurat lived. Not too far away is the Bateau-Lavoir, a sort of community atelier where a number of struggling artists produced their work in circumstances of horrible deprivation (among them Picasso and Vuillard).

And then we were at the famous Place du Tertre, perhaps Paris' most tourist-frequented venue outside of the Eiffel Tower. We recalled La Mere Catherine, the restaurant in which Llew and I have eaten many a pleasant meal on visits past in a venue once frequented by Russian sailors who demanded that their plats be brought to the table, "Bistro, Bistro" (Quickly! Quickly") And thus was born the name of the small French eatery which provides inexpensive meals! (Or so the story goes). We saw the many cartoonists drawing representations of eager visitors (we had once had our portraits drawn too with the same enthusiasm). This part of our walk was crowded but we thrive on the energy of fellow-travelers and we loved every minute.

Inside the Church of Sacre-Coeur:
A few steps away were steps leading to the city's second most dominant feature: the domes of the Church of Sacred-Coeur de Montmatre. It is simply a brilliant concoction of towers, turrets, domes, equestrian statues (of Joan of Art and St. Louis) in light grey that overlooks the sharply etched steps that go down the Butte. And its steps offer stunning views of the entire city of Paris which I now know well enough to be able to point out its landmarks: Here is the Pantheon, there the Church of St. Suplice and at the right is the unmistakeable gold of Dome Church at Les Invalides. At night, Montmatre must have a magical appearance as, I am certain, the gas lights must cast romantic shadows everywhere. (Note to Self: Make a trip to Montmatre after night has fallen on the city).

Inside, the church is dominated by a Byzantine mosaic of Christ that overlooks the large number of visitors. There are other interesting features to make a detailed study of the chapels worthwhile. We, however, did not linger too long.

Cabaret Halls Galore:
Leaving the church behind, we continued down the hill to see the only remaining vineyard on Montnartre at a corner where another landmark makes its presence felt: the Lapin Agile, another cabaret house which still presents performances. Picasso and other artists used to hang out here--which led the actor Steve Martin to write a play very recently entitled Picasso at the Lapin Agile. And then we walked further down to arrive at the famed Moulin de la Galette, made immortal by Renoir in his paintings of the venue (to be seen at the Musee d'Orsay). The venue, still a very chic restaurant, gets its name from the many mills in the area that used to grind wheat and grapes for wine--hence, moulin which is French for windmill.

As we neared the end of our walk, we saw the home of Dadaist artists and members of the Cubist movement and finally we reached the end of Rue Lepic where Van Gogh and brother Theo had lived in yet another building. What is remarkable is that so little has changed about these buildings (at least from the outside), that one seems to be walking in another century. While at the door, one expects Vincent to walk out, smoking his pipe, his ear in a crummy bandage for he cut it off when one of the prostitutes of Pigalle snubbed his overtures!

Our walk reached its conclusion at the infamous Moulin Rouge--literally, the red windmill which sports its original 19th century sails. Of course, reveus are still performed here today and the ambience is not too different from that presented by Baz Lurhman in his film of the same name starring Nicole Kidman.

Yes, our walk did take four whole hours and we were very tired at the end of it. We decided to take the metro back home and get some errands done (phone to be topped up, baguette to be bought for dinner, etc) On our way from the stores, we walked through the second half of Cite-Universitaire that we had not explored before and saw many more interesting buildings representing a number of countries. Llew thought it was a simply brilliant concept and again, we remarked on how fortunate I am to make such a place my home for such a protracted length of time.

Dinner a Deux:
It was time to rustle up a salad with tomatoes, mozarella, lettuce and balsamic vinaigrette, ham-stuffed tortelline in a tomato cream sauce with hazelnut-chocolate mousse for dessert--all of which were just delicious. Llew was glued to the TV watching Wimbledon matches while I busied myself with chores (laundry, downloading pictures, etc.) before showering and going to bed.

Llew remarked that it was an amazingly enlightening day. And I told him that all my days in Paris have been identical. It is my greatest joy to scratch beneath the tourist surface and uncover the secrets that cities hide so deeply. Long may such foraging continue!

A demain!       

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