Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Impressed (As Always) By The Impressionists

Tuesday, July 10, 2012
Paris, France

After our tiring day yesterday, we took it easy with a later get-up than usual. After breakfast (packaged pain au chocolate and baguette with preserves and coffee), showers were done and we were ready to leave for Giverny. The weather was not ideal--cloud cover promised an overcast day. Still, we hoped sunshine would poke through at some point.

It was while we were on the metro literally that we changed tracks. It was much too late a start for a trip so far out of the city, I thought. Let's get to the Musee D'Orsay instead and hope for better weather tomorrow--when Giverny might seem like a rosier prospect. So, we got off one train and hopped on to another and then we were at the serpentine queue outside the Musee.

Musing Through the Musee D'Orsay:
The Musee d'Orsay is, hands down, my very favorite museum in Paris--so I saved the best for last. Our friend Cynthia had never been to it, so it made sense to wait until she arrived in Paris to take her there. But, trouble is, it seems to be everyone's favorite museum! The line had to be seen to be believed. Never have I ever seen this sort of crowd attempting to get into a museum containing art works--not at the Louvre or the National Gallery in London or the Met in NY. It was a sight for sore eyes! How wonderful to know that people could mob a museum in the same way as they would a Bruce Springsteen concert!

One of the reasons I love the museum so much (apart from its Impressionist collection, of course) is the venue: The Gare d'Orsay that once ran tracks to Nantes and Toulouse and Auvers out of Paris was converted into a space to house the national collection of Impressionist paintings. I had first visited the collection almost thirty years ago, as a backpacking graduate student in Europe, at a time when the space was brand-new and all of Paris was buzzing about the movement of the Impressionists from the Musee de Jeu de Paume on the Place de la Concorde to this new space. This time, three decades later, all of Paris is buzzing about the recent new renovation that has taken place inside that has re-grouped the paintings so that they are no longer chronological but massed in sections by Collections: the paintings shown at the first Impressionist Salon at the end of the 1800s, for instance, followed by a whole lot that belonged to a personal collection, etc. It is a tad confusing, to my mind, as my historically-oriented brain prefers chronology to make developments in the art world clear. Still, it was a good visit.

While we still were full of beans, we decided to go and see the Masterpieces of High Impressionism first--on the fifth level. The floor was packed and I mean just mobbed. Even on free Sunday, I did not feel so suffocated at the Louvre. This was just insane. Gallery after gallery went on like this. It took away much of the pleasure of our art perusal and I cursed myself for waiting until the last minute of my stay in Paris to review these works. What was I thinking???

Manet's Dejeuner Sur l'Herbe, the painting that scandalized polite French society at the end of the 1800s when the frank gaze of the nude woman sitting besides her fully-clothed male friends had discomfited Parisians, was our first big stop. From there we were jostled through rooms that held the beautiful Balcon by Manet (I love this work) that features a very lovely young Berthe Morrisot (his sister-in-law) with two other friends. Claude Monet's Waterlilies, his series on the Cathedral at Rouen (seen at varying times of day under varying levels of natural lighting, thanks to Monet's obsession with the impact of light on his subjects), Degas' best known Ballet Dancers, Henri Toulouse-Lautrec's best-known Can Can Dancers including La Goulule and Jane Avril were all on display together with Henri Fantin-Latour's monumental painting that shows the group of Impressionist friends in Manet's atelier watching with rapt attention as their friend unveils his masterpiece. We also saw Cezanne's early and late works from his Still Life with Apples and Oranges to his Card Players (it was really easy, in his landscapes, to see why he was such a huge influence on Picasso and Braque and why they acknowledge their debt to him in their creation of Cubism). I really love to go to the Orsay to see works by the lesser of the celebrity Impressionists--Alfred Sisley and Camille Pisarro whose soft depictions of snow-covered streets or orchards bursting into spring flower have always appealed to me.

Lunch at Cafe Campagna:
After we had satisfied our artistic hungers, more basic ones compelled us towards thoughts of lunch--so we made our way to the new cafe named the Cafe Campagna after the two Brazilian interior designers, Humberto and Fernando Campagna who have conceived of it. The space is dominated by the huge clock that crowns the exterior pediment of the railway station. From the new cafe, you see the back of it. Extremely futuristic in conception, the cafe is lit by huge bell-like lighting fixtures that hang low above the diners, a wall of shiny navy blue shards of glass pieced together to form a striking backdrop and low mobile 'walls' composed of orange wires clumped together. These can be moved around and repositioned wherever one wishes to create an instant partition. The overall effect was simply lovely.

Cafe Campagna offered sit-down service and although the menu wasn't extensive, it was very good. We ordered Salade Bombay--a truly yummy concoction of greens, roasted raisins, caramelized onions, sweet pieces of mango, slices of chicken breast and a really great dressing that was heavily spiced with curry powder. I absolutely will re-concoct this at home. We also ordered a Croque Monsieur. France's humble toasted cheese sandwich was taken to new gourmet heights with the addition of a whole baked goat cheese (chevre) placed on top. As you cut into it, it melted all over and created another flavorful layer on a sandwich that was already bursting with great taste from quality ham and Gruyere cheese. The pasta with pesto sauce and parmesan cheese could have had a bit more sauce added to it--it was a tad too dry. Although the chocolate eclairs doing the rounds were profoundly tempting, as usually happens, we had no room for dessert. Still, the meal was just great (and not just for a museum menu) and very reasonably priced for the excellent sit-down service we had received. I am glad I followed the advice of my NEH colleague Casey who had recommended we eat at the new restaurant.

Back to the Impressionists:
Fortified by our excellent meal, we made our way down to the second level to see the work of the Post-Impressionists, chief among these being Van Gogh and Seurat. And one again, we faced the masses or rather the heads of the masses as they congregated around Van Gogh's best-known works: His Bedroom at Arles, one version of Starry Night, the Church at Auvers Sur Oise, his portrait of his friend Docteur Gachet. There were Seurat's Le Cirque in which his Pontillism intentions were very well explained and several works by Signac, Bonnard and Vuillard. (I cannot wait now to revist the best of Van Gogh's work at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam at the very end of my summer of travel--in late-August, on my way back from India).

The second level is also packed with superb sculptural works by August Rodin and Aristide Maillot (whose hotel particulier I had visited a few weeks ago, now called the Musee Maillot). You zigzag your way through these table-top sculptures as you get in and out of the painting galleries.

On the ground floor, there are several more important twentieth century French works from Manet's Olympia (inspired by Ingres' Odalisque) to one of my favorite paintings of all time, Millet's The Gleaners (a work that was a massive influence on the early Vincent Van Gogh). There are massive canvasses on this level that take the viewer through a maze of art developments to Symbolism. We ended our perusal of the collection with a look at Monet's Dejeuner Sur L'Herbe which was his answer to Manet's work. Monet's is much larger in size and scope, features many more individuals (all fully-clothed) and was cut up by the artist into fragments which were then dispersed all over. It was only rather recently that one part of it was brought back from a museum in Moscow to reunite with a piece that had remained in France. The story of this painting was just as interesting as the subject and the people featured in it. It really did make a fitting end to what had been a really fruitful and fulfilling if deeply fatiguing day for us.

Although we had taken several 'rests' through our wanderings in the museum, we were dead on the bus that we boarded from right opposite the museum to take us home.

Last-Minute Shopping:
We got off at Porte d'Orleans to do some last-minute shopping for items I wish to take to India--port wine for my Dad, Pringles for my little niece and nephew, cheese for me, Amora mustard to send back home to Southport with Llew. We walked slowly home down Boulevard Jourdan to our building and then sank back with steaming tea and chocolate cake.

It was a good time to fill the evening chatting and catching up with our friend Cynthia. We had so much to talk about that time simply flew. Soon it grew darker outside the window--time for dinner. I put together the last bits and bobs from the fridge together to create a meal: Melon with Smoked Ham for a starter with Pain Aux Noix from Poilane and Bordier Butter, Ravioli with Bacon and Sausages in a Tomato Cream Sauce, Fresh Sliced Strawberries and Cream for dessert.

We hope to get an earlier start tomorrow and better weather for a possible trip to Giverny to see the gardens and the house that inspired and gave birth to Monet's best-known works.

A demain!                 

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