Thursday, July 17, 2014

These photos were all taken at the

Musée de Cluny / Musee National du Moyen Age, which I had not visited in approximately 15 years.  I'd added the museum to my short list of 'Museums I Want to Visit That I Haven't Been to in a Very Long Time' and I'm so glad I did -- what a treasure it is, truly!  I loved seeing again the 16th century Retable (altarpiece) of scenes of the birth of Christ in the Grande Salle, and the statue of St. Denis holding his head (15th century), the gorgeous ceramics, the Pilier de Nautes (Pillar of the Boatmen and the oldest dated monument in Paris, from the 1st century AD), and the Gallery of Kings from Notre-Dame.  Most everyone knows that the sculpted heads were destroyed after the French Revolution because it was believed that they represented the kings of France, and in fact they are the kings of Judah, ancestors of the Virgin Mary and Christ.  But thanks to a handy laminated card at the Cluny, I learned more about these heads and the facade of the great cathedral and I took notes, which I'm sharing here as I think a number of visitors may not be aware of their interesting story:

The discovery of hundreds of sculptured fragments in 1977 at the headquarters of the Banque Française du Commerce Extérieur (now Banque Natexis) was enormous in terms of advancing our understanding of Notre-Dame de Paris.  (Banque Natexis donated all the sculptures to the Cluny.)  After the cathedral was vandalized in 1793, the sculptures were purchased by a builder named Monsieur Bertrande, who later sold them and they were used to maintain the foundation of a private mansion for a man named Jean-Baptiste Lakanal-Dupuget (I tried to find out more about these two men but an Internet search didn't turn anything up). 

Only 22 of the 28 heads remain identifiable, although according to the Cluny the heads weren't intended as portraits.  They were, however, all distinct, and there was a clear intention to differentiate one from another.  The head believed to be of David shows traces of paint, and indeed all of the heads were originally painted, as was the entire facade of Notre-Dame and most other medieval facades.  The faces are very elongated and monumental but aren't delicately carved, and the sculptors "took account of the distance and the low angle from which the statues would be viewed, elongating them disproportionately as a result, but not needlessly working on details which would not be visible."



For delving further, hands-down the very best book ever written about Notre-Dame is Notre Dame of Paris: The Biography of a Cathedral by Allen Temko (Viking, 1955).  I read this book some years ago but it was a library copy, so I was particularly pleased when, after my visit to the Cluny, I walked to Shakespeare & Company and found a hardcover first edition.  I bought it not only because the book is terrific and I wanted to have my own copy, but also in memory of Temko, who passed away in 2006.  I met him when we both worked in the same building in San Francisco, and I immediately adored him because he was smart and funny and outspoken (he was also the basis for the character Roland Major in Jack Kerouac's On the Road).  Temko was architecture critic for The San Francisco Chronicle from 1961 to 1993, and he was honored with a Pulitzer Prize in 1990 for criticism.  He served in the Navy during World War II and when the war was over he moved to France, taught at the Sorbonne, and wrote the book on Notre Dame, his very first, which I find rather astonishing as the book is absolutely superb -- it has been referred to as the "definitive profile" of the cathedral and a "landmark book."  He later noted that France "led me to see art and architecture as expressions of great civilizations."     

The Cluny is of course also the home of the 'La Dame à la Licorne' (The Lady and the Unicorn) tapestries, six of them, and there are still many more visitors in this room than anywhere else in the museum.  Again, after so many years, these weavings remain so gorgeous -- in January of this year they were returned to the Cluny after a two-year cleaning.  I love the quotations at the entrance to the room:

Ce sont des femmes sur des îles:
une grande solitude feminine
une solitude qui a l’air enchanté.
--Yannick Haenel, À mon seul désir, 2005
(They are women on islands / A profound feminine solitude / An enchanted solitude)

Il y a des tapisseries [...]
Viens, passons lentement devant elles [...]
Comme elles sont tranquilles, n'est-ce pas?
(There are tapestries here / Come let us pass slowly before them / How peaceful they are,
are they not?)
--Rainer Maria Rilke, Les Cahiers de Malte Laurids Brigg, 1910 

Tracy Chevalier, noted author of Girl With a Pearl Earring and The Lady and the Unicorn (both available in paperbacks by Plume), wrote an interesting article about these tapestries that I've had in my files for years, and I'm sorry I can't tell you exactly when it was written or where it appeared.  Occasionally I clip pieces and forget to make sure I note the publication and date, and I'm afraid that's what happened with this one.  I think the article may have been in Town & Country but I can't be certain.  But at any rate, Chevalier's article opens with, "Sometimes a picture doesn't paint a thousand words.  Sometimes a picture is so mysterious that it takes a hundred thousand words to explain it."  She relates that for years she was so fascinated with Vermeer's 'Girl with a Pearl Earring' that she decided to make up a story about it, and thus that book was born.  Later, she was likewise captivated by 'The Lady and the Unicorn.'  At the time Chevalier was working on her manuscript for The Lady and the Unicorn, she had reproductions of all six tapestries hung up on the wall behind her computer.  "But none of this," she wrote, "can equal the impact of standing in that quiet room in Paris surrounded by serene faces, beautiful dresses, curious animals, and thousands of flowers."  It is an incomparable experience, I can attest.  (Note that seeing 'The Hunt of the Unicorn' tapestries -- dating from the same period, the 15th century -- at The Cloisters in New York, which is celebrating its 75 year anniversary, is also an amazing art viewing experience.)

Chevalier closes her piece by opining that "Perhaps the best works of art are those that don't give answers, but ask questions that hang in the air long after we have stopped looking," and on that note I shall close this post as well.         





   

Wednesday, July 9, 2014



"Paris is always a good idea." - Audrey  Hepburn (not!)

A few years ago, I bought a notepad with the quote above at the top (minus the word not), in pink ink.  I love it and have thought several times that I should have purchased dozens more.  Not that I could say which film the line was from -- 'Sabrina?,' 'Paris When it Sizzles?,' or 'Funny Face?'  But when I came back from Paris a few weeks ago, the quote was in my mind and I thought I should find out once and for all where the line appears.  An Internet search revealed all kinds of confusion, though it seemed clear that 'Sabrina' was the film.  Only one thing to do: watch my copy of 'Sabrina' and hear it for myself!  So I watched the film twice, from beginning to end (I hadn't seen it in a while and didn't mind at all; such a classic) and lo and behold, not once did Hepburn say that line.  Back to the Internet, where I found some chatter about the line appearing in the remake, with Harrison Ford and Julia Ormond.  Off to the library, where I checked out the remake (not as good as the original, but I suspect most of you know that) and voila!  Near the very end, when Sabrina learns that there really is only one boat ticket, she pulls herself together and says to Linus, "Paris is always a good idea.  I was happy there.  You would have been too."

So, it seems I've been duped, and so have you if you bought any of those cute notepads.  But I'm glad I now have it straight, and anyway, even if Audrey Hepburn's character never uttered that phrase the words happen to be true. During my recent visit the weather was a bit iffy, as it can be in late May/early June, and I was forced to buy a sweater.  The sun did peek out for several hours at a time, and on some days it was out in full; but even when it was overcast, it didn't matter: the city is as beautiful and rewarding on a gray day as on a sunny one.

What follows are some brief Paris reports for anyone who has plans to visit this summer and for anyone who may be planning on visiting later:

I spent a fair amount of time by myself, which was intentional, and I wanted to revisit certain neighborhoods, sites, gardens, and eateries I hadn't been to in a long time.  On my list was

La Grande Mosquée de Paris, in the 5th arrondissement near the pretty Jardin des Plantes and which remains as lovely and moving since I'd last been there a decade ago.  The Mosque was founded in 1926 as a token of gratitude for the North African Muslims who died (some sources state as many as 100,000) fighting again the Germans in World War I.  There is a beautiful plaque inside the mosque honoring these men, as well as others for World War II and later conflicts.      






During the Nazi occupation of Paris during World War II, the Mosque's imam, Si Kaddour ben Ghabrit, and the congregation, reportedly organized a resistance effort that provided shelter and travel assistance to Jews.  According to Daniel L. Buttry, author of two editions of Interfaith Heroes, by the time the German army occupied France, the Grand Mosque was sheltering resistance fighters and North Africans who had escaped from German POW camps.  The Algerians in the mosque were mostly Berbers, and mostly from the Kabylia region.  They communicated in Tamazight dialect, which made their resistance cells virtually impossible to infiltrate.

Ben Ghabrit himself had three nationalities -- Algerian, Moroccan, and French -- allowing him to slip in and out of many contexts.  On 16 July, 1942, the French Vichy government ordered the Paris police to round up the 28,000 Jews listed on the census.  Some police officers leaked news of the sweep and only 13,000 Jews were caught.  Ben Ghabrit wrote a missive in Tamazight that was read aloud throughout the immigrant hostels in Paris, and in it he broadcast the news about the round-up, noting in part that "Their children are like our own children.  The one who encounters one of this children must give that child shelter and protection for as long as misfortune -- or sorrow -- lasts."  Daniel Buttry notes that approximately 1,700 Jews who weren't captured were given short term shelter either in the mosque or in nearby apartments.  A system was arranged so that if German or French police showed up at the mosque the fugitives would hide, even in the women's prayer room if necessary.  Some Jews were helped to safety in Algeria or Spain, others disappeared through the sewers directly beneath the mosque, and others hid in barrels on wine barges (steered by Kabyl men) down the Seine.

Ben Ghabrit apparently wrote many false birth certificates and other documents to hide Jewish children under Muslim identities.  Though he was under suspicion by the Germans, and was interrogated and threatened, Ben Ghabrit was never arrested as the Nazis were hoping to gain the support of France's Arab subjects.  The author team of Karen Gray Ruelle and Deborah Durland Desaix investigated this story for a book entitled The Grand Mosque of Paris: A Story of How Muslims Rescued Jews During the Holocaust (Holiday House, 2010).


The book opens with a quote found in both the Islamic and Jewish traditions: "Save one life, and it is as if you've saved all of humanity."  Despite various opinions on the true interpretation, I am fond of the quote, and though the authors state that "many of the details are destined to remain forever uncertain, with few facts proven to a historian's satisfaction," it's clear that something courageous and brave and kind happened here.  Whether the number of Jews saved is 100 or over 1,000, the story is worth telling and sharing.  The book is aimed at young readers but is appropriate for all ages and I highly recommend it.   


The Grand Mosque is open Saturday to Thursday from 9:00 to noon and from 2:00 to 6:00.  Its lovely and tranquil cafe/tearoom is open from 12:00 noon to 3:00 and from 7:00 to 10:30 -- the outdoor terrace is especially nice on a sunny day and the indoor section is bright and colorful.  The hammam is authentic (meaning, not fancied up for tourists) and is great after a long plane flight if you're staying in the quartier or are in need of a restorative scrub.  The mosque occupies the entire block here, so note that the entrance to the cafe and the hammam is on the corner of rue Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire and rue Daubenton, while the main entrance to the mosque is on place du Puits de l'Ermite.

*

As I began this post with a note about a film I will also end about a film: When I got home I decided that since I'd never seen 'Les Enfants du Paradis' it was high time I did.  I didn't exactly love it, but I did find it compelling enough to watch it through to the end.  More interesting was the accompanying booklet, which included an excerpt from a 1990 interview with director Marcel Carné by Brian Stonehill.  The two spoke about Carné's fondest memories in making the film, and Carné related that he consulted several books about theater and in one of them he learned that historically, the upper balcony in a theater was called "Paradise."  At the time he was working on the film (in the 1940s, during the Second World War), this was no longer a common expression.  He notes, "So we played around with words.  There was a toy store that no longer exists, on the rue Saint-Honoré, close to the Madeleine.  It was called The Paradise of Children.  So we called the film Children of Paradise, but it can bear a double meaning.  The children could be the dead so they are in Heaven/Paradise, or they could be the actors who play those characters.  Also, the actors can be the children of the audience up there in Paradise."