Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Another Free Museum Sunday Rolls Around

Sunday, July 1, 2012
Paris, France

Its hard to believe a month has passed since I arrived in this incredible City of Light--and Art, and Food, and Fashion, and Scarves, and Perfume! I've had a blast (as my blog posts would testify) in the month that has passed. And now the summer is well and truly here in Paris! Happy July to you!

Free Museum Sunday rolled around again and since I have Llew in tow this time, I cracked the whip. Made sure he understood we were waking up to the alarm clock this morning (despite our late night) to race off to the museums to beat the lines.

So although our friends dropped us back to our apartment last night at 2.00 am, we were up at 8. 15 to shower, breakfast, dress and take the RER and the metro to Concorde (after buying ourselves a Mobilis--a metro day pass--for 6. 40 euros each) in order to arrive at the Musee de L'Orangerie at exactly 9. 00 am.

Deja-Vu All Over Again at L'Orangerie:
It felt odd to retrace my footsteps of exactly a month ago, back to Claude Monet's masterpieces--his Nympheas or Waterlilies at the Musee de l'Orangerie...but I was keen for Llew to see them in the environment that was specially created for their display. He was an absolute sport about the early get-up and totally co-operated with me in trying to see as much as we could while the free day lasted. Unlike the last time, when I had to stand in line for a good 15 minutes waiting for the museum to open, this time--having arrived at 9.05, there was no line at all as everyone had trooped in already. We waltzed right in, saw the superb canvasses, commented on them (it was fantastic to have someone to talk to!) and left, about 20 minutes later. We're looking forward now to our visit (for the third time) to Monet's Garden at Giverny when our friend Cynthia joins us from London. We will see the real water lilies then--they were such perfect models!

One Disappointment After the Other:
Our aim was to get to the Musee des Arts Decoratifs (part of the Louvre complex) as soon as we could. And how thrilled we were to find that there was not another soul ahead of us! And then we realized why...it was for a very good reason! The museum did not open until 11. 00 am and so we had a whole hour to kill.The guards suggested we get a cafe and return at 11.00am.

But we had other plans. We hopped back on the metro and hotfooted it to the Centre Georges Pompidour , the Musee de l'Art Moderne (Paris' Museum of Modern Art, which we had intended to 'do' in the afternoon). Well, having arrived there at 10. 30 am, we had another disappointment in store! It, too, opened at 11.00 am. Not to feel completely crushed, I spied an ancient Gothic church in front of me and, leaving Llew in the line (with about 80 people ahead of us), went off with my camera to explore.

The Church of St. Merry:
It turned out to be the Church of St. Merry (short for the original name of St. Meredic), a martyr who has had a church in his name on this site since the 7th century. Built in the flamboyant Gothic style, its most interesting features were its beautifully carved wooden pulpit and its opulent gilded altar. Mass was reaching its conclusion when I got there, so I waited patiently until it ended to take my pictures. Just a few people were gathered close to the altar--making for a very intimate experience in a church which is huge in its dimensions with the soaring Gothic nave and ceiling that are so common in Paris.

Inside the Centre Georges Pompidour:
I joined Llew in the line for the last 5 minutes, during which I read up on the unique building and its collection. I had visited this superb museum in 1987--all of 25 years ago--and I remembered my experience well. I recalled riding in the escalators on the exterior of the building in what looked like giant glass tunnels all the way to the fifth floor and marveling at the manner in which the "metabolism" of the building is visible on the exterior. This Renzo Piano-Richard Rogers' design was unique for its time and has been much imitated since it was constructed in 1977. Different colors on the pipes that run on the outside of the building represent various functions: heating, electricity, stairways, elevators, escalators, etc. that keep the building operational. Just because the building was so revolutionary for its time and so pivotal in terms of postmodernist architecture, I wanted Llew to see it. In many ways, the concept of turning the building inside out is imitative of the intention of the artists whose works make up the contents of the building.

So we began on the 5th floor with Art from 1905-1960. Brilliantly curated, it took us through the most important artistic movements of the 20th century from Post-Impressionism (Cezanne was a massive influence and could indeed be considered the first great Modernist) to Cubism, to Fauvism, to Dadaism, to Surrealism, to Abstract Expressionism. We were enthralled by the work of Picasso and Braque but also Derain, Leger, Kandinsky, Gorky, Dali, Duchamps, Marc Chagall, Francis Bacon and the sculpture of Giacometti, Picasso and Brancusi. We gave ourselves ample time to see it all, to read and absorb all the curatorial notes that walked us through the history and the influences that impacted the artists and their perspectives. This is an astonishing collection and it is amazingly well laid out--even if it is extensive and very tiring.I could not believe that I had waited 25 years to return!

The bonus is that the top-most floor (the 6th) offers some of the most rivetting views of Paris. I was simply unable to drag myself away from the panoramic 180 degree views of the landmarks and rooftops that comprise this city: from the Eiffel Tower to Notre-Dame, from Sacre Coeur at Montmartre to the Pantheon, from the Opera to the spires of the many churches that I can now recognize so easily (from St. Suplice, to St. Eustache to St. Merry)--this was a treat indeed. Llew and I enjoyed it all thoroughly and took loads of pictures. Luckily, sunshine gilded the grand gold tipped Dome Church and the humblest rooftops and made our perspective a truly happy one.

Lunch at Flunch:
We did not want to spend too much time on a meal--so it was super convenient to find Flunch--part of an inexpensive buffet type meal chain that exists in France--just around the corner. We ate Chicken Curry over Rice and Andouille Sausage over Couscous with ratatouille and haricots vert and cauliflower and when we had rested and felt satiated, we were ready to move on to the next part of the day--a return to the Louvre.

Braving Hordes At the Louvre:
The queue of the morning in which there were easily over a thousand people had diminished considerably by the time we got back to the Louvre at about 2. 30 pm. No matter how often you enter the imposing courtyard of the Palais de Louvre or go below I.M Pei's glass Pyramid to sample the wares offered by one of the world's greatest museum collections, you are still awed by what you see. I honestly do believe that the gorgeous exterior decoration of the palace, its vast dimensions, its splendour, contribute the greatest amount to one's experience of the art works contained within.

We joined the line (about 100 people were ahead of us) and found our way to the two works I absolutely wanted to see--one for the nth time and one for the first time: The Mona Lisa (because you simply cannot enter the Louvre and not see it) and The Death of Horatio by Jacques-Louis David to which Simon Schama in his History of Art series devotes a whole hour.

It was so easy to get sidetracked by the masterpieces we passed en route to the Mona Lisa. There was Paolo Uccelo's Battle of San Romano (one part of which is at the National Gallery in London); there was Ghirlandaio's Grandfather and Grandson (one of my favorite portraits of all time); there was Bellini and Botticelli and so many other Italian Masters. But Llew was quick to point out that we ought to stay our course--or else we'd have no time for the Museum of Decorative Arts which was also on our agenda. Well, I dragged myself away and came face-to-face with the Winged Victory of Samotrace (apart from the Venus de Milo, one of the two greatest Hellenic sculptures in the Museum). I adored the porphyr figurines from the Borghese collection--but then again, I reined myself in and we were finally at the most crowded room in the entire museum--the one devoted to Leonardo da Vinci's La Giaconda or The Mona Lisa.

Elbowing our way to Say Bonjour to Mona:
There were thousands, and I mean thousands, of people in the Louvre today and almost all of them were there to see Mona. Needless to say, the crowd in front of us was at least 7 rows thick. We waited patiently and as the front lines thinned out, inched further to the front until there was only a thin pane of glass that separated us from the lady with the mystic smile. While I am usually always struck by her smallness, this time I found her looking larger than I expected! The mind, eyes and memory do combine to play strange tricks, don't they?

Well, what is left to say about the Mona Lisa that hasn't been said before? She intrigues. She teases. She enthralls. She is beloved of the art world and we were bowled over. Enough said. On the way out of the room, we paused to appreciate the huge dimensions of Veronese' Marriage at Cana. And once again, the contrast between the tiny Mona Lisa and the gigantic Marriage, was not lost on us.If anything, what the contrast in the mass appeal between the two paintings proves is that size does not matter.

David's Paintings:
We did find David's works in a section of French paintings that were awesome in their size. Yes, I did find the Horatio and I do realize that I will need to return to the TV series to understand again why Schama picks it out as one of the most significant paintings of all time. Suffice it to say, that it was arresting and indeed one could linger over it forever. Since the monumental canvas of the Coronation of Napoleon, also by David, was just next to it, we spent some time there as well. It was thrilling to recall that, unlike most of his contemporaries, David survived the French Revolution and went on to become the greatest exemplar of French Neo-Classical painting while so many of his patrons were guillotined.

Off to the Musee des Arts Decoratifs:
Then, off we raced to the Museum of Decorative Arts, which happened to be rather conveniently located just next door o the Louvre. It was a relief to get away from the throngs which were absolutely the worst I have ever seen in a museum. Clearly, people wait a whole month if they have to (as I did) to take advantage of the museums' open-door policy. Within the confines of the Museum of Decorative Arts, order reigned again.

Spread out on four floors, this fabulous museum offers examples of the work of the stylists--the ones who gave Paris its glamour, its taste, its style. Names like Lalique, Daum, Guimart--these were the folks who used glass and crystal, furniture and accessories to dress the interiors of the wealthy. Names like Lanvin, for instance, could afford the services of such designers and it is, therefore, not surprising, that Lanvin's boudoir and bathroom are both featured in the collection. Lalique's use of the lost wax method to create sculptural forms through the combination of clear and smoky glass have continued to delight collectors of art glass. We saw countless examples of the work of these artists. Rooms devoted to a depiction of the styles of each century and then each decade of the 20th century are also highlights of this museum as are the Art Nouveau works to be found on the top most floor.

Louis Vuitton and Marc Jacobs Have Their Moments:
The lower floors were devoted to a brilliant special exhibition on the steamer trunks of Louis Vuitton who burst upon Paris' couture scene in the late 1800s by providing leading fashion houses of the time the opportunity to make their wardrobes portable in the great age of the luxury ocean liner. Thus was born the much-coveted Louis Vuitton handbag of today--an offshoot of those steamer trunks! In fact, the exhibition then moved to a higher floor for a viewing of the creative genius of Marc Jacobs who joined Vuitton in 1997 and has created some of the company's most iconic bags--the ones with the monogrammed LV worked into the fabric designs. This part of the exhibition was beautifully presented and reminded me a great deal of the blockbuster Alexander McQueen exhibition that had been held at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York last year. Although we were well and truly fatigued by this time, the work on display was so compelling that we just could not drag ourselves away from the displays.

Ice-Cream from Berthillon:
Eventually, it struck 5. 45 pm--Museum closing time. We simply had to get out and indeed we had covered all that we could possibly see today! It was time for some serious refreshment. Crossing the Jardin de Tuileries, we found a bus stop that took us along the banks of the Seine to the Ile de La Cite where, at a most convenient stall, we found Berthillon's superb ice-creams--supposedly the best available in Paris. Since Llew is such an ice-cream lover, I decided he must taste some. Llew and I chose our flavors with difficulty--there were so many and they were all enticing; (Salted Caramel and Mango for me; Salted Caramel and Hazelnut for him) and took our cones to the banks of the Seine. We dangled our feet over the parapets and waved at passing tourists in their bateau-mouches as we relished our frozen treats--they were just fabulous! What fun we had as we enjoyed Paris' simplest pleasures: Berthillon ice-cream and cool summer breezes that danced all over us.

Back on the RER Home:
We were home within 20 minutes of boarding the RER train from Notre Dame-St. Michel, just in time for me to rustle up dinner as Llew got ready to watch the finals of the Eurocup with Spain and Italy competing. I fried circles of goat cheese and served them over greens, sliced figs, tomatoes and avocado and completed it with a lemon vinaigrette, then made a lemon cream sauce flavored with bacon for the ham-filled tortellini we had for a main course. Paris is certainly bringing out the creative chef in me!

Off to see Paris By Night:
Quite relaxed by the time the sun set at 10. 30 pm, and with the game going nowhere, Llew and I decided to make the best use of the last couple of hours left on our day pass by taking a bus to see Paris by night. I had been awaiting his arrival to tick this intention off my To-Do List and although he was fatigued and sleep-deprived, he did go along with me. It was easy to hop into a tram and then a bus from Porte D'Orleans and ride it all the way to Pigalle and Montmartre and then take the same bus back! What joy it was to spot the landmarks that I now know so well and to admire them bathed in the soft gilding and shadows of electric lights. I do feel very strongly now that we should take the dinner-cruise on the bateau-mouche and enjoy the monuments up close and personal by moonlight.

By midnight, we were back home to tumble exhausted into bed while marvelling at the fruitful day we'd had. Truly, tomorrow we shall have a long lie-in.

A demain!

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