Friday, July 6, 2012

Last NEH Session, Musee Rodin and a Farewell Party

Thursday, July 5, 2012
Paris, France

Hard to believe I was heading out today to the IHTP (Institute d'Histoire du Temps Present)  for our last NEH session--a Round Table discussion featuring our directors Joe and Henri and a special guest appearance by two other French public intellectuals Marc and Pascal. The guests spoke in French--each presenting a lecture of 40 minutes--which was followed by a long session of questions and discussion. It was engaging, stimulating and a fine way to end our five-week long seminar. I am still stunned that my raison d'etre for Paris has come to a close. Harder still to believe that I have only one more week left to enjoy this city fully, live completely in the moment and hoard up memories to treasure for the rest of my life.

Off to Shop at E. Dehilerrin:
Since we finished much earlier than I had expected, I had about 45 minutes to kill before I needed to get to the Musee Rodin where Llew and I had arranged to meet at 2. 15. Wanting to make the time most productive, I rushed on the metro to Chatelet Les Halles (the worst station to ever make a correspondance) and finally arrived at the store called E. Dehilerrin near the Church of St. Eustache. Since it wasn't very crowded, I had hoped to be in and out in a jiffy as I knew exactly what I wanted to buy.

Well, I keep forgetting I am not in New York where speed is the very essence of life. Here, just the opposite attitude prevails--one that believes in prolonging each moment and let the clock be damned! Well, I found the items I wanted in seconds, went up to the counter and ran into a quagmire. The guy supposed to give me an affiche (an itemized bill) was nouveau (new to the job) and had no clue how to go about making one. So basically all he does right now is wrap one's wares after they have been paid for. I had to wait absolute ages for another assistant to become free to make my affiche--and, seriously, he could not have been more sluggish. In-between working it out, he made small talk with various customers (mostly Americans) in a bid  to show off his English! Once I got the affiche in my hand, I had to move to another counter to pay for them--I still had no idea what they cost as there were no prices marked anywhere (neither on the items, nor the shelf that stocked them, nor on the affiche!) The actual payment did not take too long with a credit card. Once I had paid, I was required to take the receipt back to my young useless friend who checked the items off against the receipt and wrapped them. I told him I was presse (in a hurry) at which point, I think he stirred out of his bored stupor and got down to some serious wrapping. By the time I left the store, it took more than 25 minutes for a purchase that would have taken no more than 10 in the States.

Racing To the Musee Rodin:
I raced off toward Rue de Varenne to meet Llew at the Hotel Birot where the 20th century sculptor Auguste Rodin had lived and which he worked hard during this own lifetime to turn into a museum. I reached there only at 2. 35, so poor Llew had been waiting for more than half an hour as he had arrived early at 2.00 pm.

Still, after stashing my heavy purchases in the Vestiaire (Cloak Room), we began our examination of Rodin's work at his most famous sculpture, The Thinker, which towers above the roses in the garden. Loads of people had lined up to take pictures with this iconic sculpture and we joined the queue. Le Penseur is a massive sight seated high on a stone pedestal with the gold dome of Les Invalides Church forming a splendid backdrop. He can't be doing too much thinking with the distraction below his perch: oggling tourists are only one of them. If I were him, I'd be thinking how beautiful the roses are in the gardens at this time of year. I mean they were gorgeous: huge, many colored and fragrant.

From The Thinker, we headed further and further into the garden to see Balzac, Eve, the Three Shades, Tribute to Victor Hugo and various studies for the monumental Burghers of Calais. Some construction in the garden kept the works from being enjoyed as their maker had intended them to be--which was also annoying to the viewer. Still, once we had seen the vast number of studies, we came upon the actual finished product--the Burghers of Calais of which there are many copies around the world (I have seen one in the Embankment Gardens in London close to Big Ben and there is another in the Metropolitan Museum in New York) and spent a great while perusing it from varied angles. Rodin's Modernist vision is very evident in the unusual poses he created for his subjects, most of whom would be incapable of contorting their bodies into such forms.

Eventually, we made our way to the Gates of Hell, Rodin's most gigantic work, inspired by Dante's vision of the Last Judgement and Hell in The Divine Comedy. Interestingly, the figures Rodin had sculpted earlier (The Thiker, the Three Shades) find their place in smaller size on these doors that are deeply three-dimensional. They are truly the piece de resistance of the garden collection.

A word about the Gardens at the museum: They are simple glorious and it is worth visiting the museum only to see the roses, hydrangeas (Annabel, Mophead and Oakleaf) and day lilies that are thriving in the full sunshine (why, oh why, do plants not do as lushly in my garden?) The sculptures are set around winding pathways through the perennial flower beds and make a fantastic fitting backdrop to the grandeur and monumentality of the works. Truly, I do believe that sculpture was created to be exhibited and viewed in a garden!

Inside the Hotel Birot:
We next trooped into the home that Rodin had occupied for many years--a grand hotel particulier (private mansion) in the rocaille style. I discovered this to mean a place filled with wooden panels with the lightest curlicues carved into them. After the grandeur of the gardens, the interior works seemed to lose their impact. They were much smaller and were mainly marquettes (studies) done in plaster of Paris. Two sculptures that catch the eye are by Camille Claudel who, I discovered, was Rodin's lifelong companion and Muse. Her work in onyx and brass was just grand. The pieces are table top size but they truly do enchant.

Finally, we entered the section of the museum devoted to Rodin's marble sculpture and it was here that the viewer was able to see the progression in style and vision of the sculptor and the impact of Modernism upon his work. He started with works in the late 1880s that were frankly representational and did not reflect any attempt at developing an individualistic style. The exquisite contours of Alsacienne Peasant, for instance, fall within this category.

As we moved further into the exhibition, we were able to see how his style changed. Various studies for The Kiss culminated in the final huge version which was placed in this part of the museum (there is a bronze copy right outside the Musee de L'Orangerie which Llew and I had seen earlier on Sunday). Although we were allowed to take pictures of the sculpture in the garden, we were forbidden to do so inside the special Marble exhibiton. We hurried through the last works and made our way outside once again.

Hasty Shopping:
We wondered if we were being too brave or too foolish in inviting the American Director of the Fondation Des Etats-Unis, Terence and his French wife Catherine, to come over to our minimalist apartment for drinks this evening. It turned out, we were neither, as the evening was very relaxed. But first...

I had some shopping to do for wine and nibbles. Since we do not have a well-stocked bar here, I had inquried about our guests' choice in drinks. They had informed us that they enjoy a Loire Valley white--so on our way back from the Musee Rodin, I jumped off at Montparnasse, darted into the Monoprix, picked up wine, guacamole, smoked salted almonds, cheese and strawberries--jumped back on the train again, got home to put out a platter of fruit and cheese and nuts, chilled the wine, darted into the shower and got ready for the arrival of our guests.

Terence and Catherine arrived at 6.00pm and spent the next hour with us. We had a lovely time with them--a warm, extroverted couple who kept up a lively chatter. Terence has done a great deal to keep me comfortable and happy here in my beautiful Parisian apartment and I wanted to show my appreciation in some small way. It was a pleasure to spend time getting to know them and I am so pleased we planned to have them over. It will be our only experience entertaining in this space.

Off to a Farewell Party:
At just past 7.00pm, our guests left, allowing us to get organized for the next part of the evening--a Farewell NEH Party at the apartment of one of my new friends Jennifer who provided the wine but asked us to bring along nibbles. I took guacamole and sliced baguette over to her place which is close to the Pernety metro station and in the light drizzle, we found our way to her place.

We spent the next couple of hours with friends who were sorry to be leaving Paris soon after what had been a very fruitful seminar session. My new English friend Nat fixed me a really deadly drink he called Tea Punch, made exclusively with rum, muddled lime and sugar! It was the strongest think I had ever drunk and soon had to dilute it with orange soda! As the guests poured in, they brought nibbles with them: salami sausage, pistachios, pretzels, taramasalata, pate, cherry tomatoes--it was a motley spread. And then Noit arrived with a giant Strawberry Tart and we all carved out bits of it for dessert.

At 10.00 pm, with my eyes fairly closing, we took our leave, making promises to stay in touch. Back on the metro, we arrived at our apartment at 10. 30 pm and went off to bed.

A demain!

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