Saturday, April 3, 2010

Sunday, March 28

It is Palm Sunday and Paris is very quiet. Despite the significant decline in church attendance in Europe, France is still a Catholic country. Later, while I am out I will see lots of people carrying the local equivalent of palms.

I had hoped that during this day I could wander around Paris and shot pictures. However the day is cold, grey and raining. I am simply too tired to do anything so I lie in bed reading a book called, “Labyrinth” by Kate Mosse. It is set in the area of southern France called the Languedoc, which I will be visiting in two months with Alex’s family and their friends. It is an enjoyable homework assignment.

Reflecting on the week’s activities I begin to understand a little of why I am so tired. Not only is the viewing physically tiring, but also mentally. One way of looking at it: This week I have taken a masters level class in Art, Art History, five thousand years of History, Archeology, Architecture, the New Testament, Greek Mythology and Mineralogy. And completed them all. Whew!

I wander out for a meal and I am feeling a little down. While I have now been to Paris many times, this is the longest single stay ever. With Richard’s health being rather precarious, this year’s family trip could be the last. I am not planning on staying in Paris during that trip and realize that for the first time in a long time I have no idea when I will be back in Paris.

Say it isn’t so!!!

About the images:

1. The staircase in my hotel. I never took the lift. Better than a Stairmaster!

2. My room.

Saturday, March 27

Our last day on the tour. The Louvre is kind of quite compared to previous days. And there do not appear to be any work stoppages or slowdowns!

We spend the morning with large-scale Romantic paintings from the late 18th century and early 19th century.

One of my favorites is David’s “The Consecration of the Emperor Napoleon and the Coronation of the Empress Josephine on December 2, 1804". This one of the, if not the, largest works ever done on canvas. And it has a title to go with it! The subject is Napoleon crowning himself emperor. I like to think of this as “Megalomania Triumphant”. Gone is the wild artillery corporal,; gone is the greatest field general since Julius Caesar' gone is the leader of France who preferred the title “First Citizen”. All that remains now is the megalomania. It is his high point. Never again will it be this good. In three years he will invade Spain, a war that will drain his army and finances and never come close to victory. In six years he will divorce the love of his life, Josephine, because she bore him no children.

We also take a long look at Gericault’s, “Raft of the Medusa”, considered to be the greatest of all Romantic paintings – and very grim indeed.

In the afternoon we look at Objects d’Art, starting in the beautiful Apollo Gallery. The walls are covered, top to bottom, with real gold. Must be time for a revolution!

As we move from gallery to gallery I begin to realize how tired I am and that my cold is now in full bloom. If I am to make it through our Gala Dinner tonight I am going need some rest. As soon as we enter a gallery dominated by Christian objects I know I’m done. I go back to the hotel knowing I will only miss an hour or two of items I’m not really interested in.

Tonight our Gala Dinner will be held at Le Procope. Established in 1686, it is the oldest restaurant in Paris, possibly in all of Europe. The restaurant has been frequented by a who's who of French society ever since and was a central gathering place for the men who began the Age of Enlightenment. One of the comments in Zagat says, “great for history, but not for gourmets.” And this we will experience first hand.

In addition to our group, three guests, including a couple that are friends of the Hunts, join us. The woman was born in New Orleans but has lived in France all her adult life. She married a Frenchman, who worked in San Jose for several years in the 1960s. I am seated with the man and as I look at him I am wondering what on earth we are going to talk about. But, we do alright.

Due to the size of our party we have ordered our meals in advance. Only, except for me (for obvious reasons), no one can remember what they ordered and chaos quickly ensues as plates are brought. One of the main courses is supposed to be duck, for which there are 8 orders. However, I hear the maître’d tell Dr. Hunt that the duck will not be ready for forty minutes. Everyone agrees to change to something else. Ten minutes later, eight plates of duck arrive. Huh?!?! Then my dish arrives. It is supposed to be a risotto but instead they have tossed a couple of side vegetables onto a plate, including, of course, pomme du terre. I decide to just push the potato’s aside but before I can, Dr. Hunt intervenes and the dish is whisked back to the kitchen. Quite by the time everyone else is finishing, the risotto appears. It seems like the kitchen is not having a good night.

While we are dining Dr. Hunt goes to pour himself a glass of wine. He has an odd habit of wearing a contact lens in one eye but not the other. (He has worn glasses during all of the lectures.) He does this so one eye can see far away and the other very close up. However, this leaves him with no depth perception. I watch him begin to pour the wine realizing that the bottle is nowhere near his glass. (He is not drunk by any means.) He begins to pour the wine onto the table and soon it is running onto the floor. He does not realize his mistake until the shock begins to register on the faces of those of us who are witnessing this. It is the only inelegant thing I have ever seen him do.

After this little mishap, he begins to review what we have seen on our trip. Completely from memory, he describes everything we have seen. I am constantly amazed at his memory. During this trip, as well as last years to the British Museum, he has lectured completely from memory, never referring to notes or the placards next to an item!

All too quickly (only as a feeling though, for, in typical French fashion, we have been here for three hours) the meal is concluded and our trip is at an end. It is weird to say goodbye to all these new friends and then just disappear into the cold Parisian evening. I walk back to the hotel and slump into bed, completely exhausted.

About the images:

1. Michelangelo's "The Dying Slave".

2. Detail from David's "The Intervention of the Sabine Women " Rome ascending!

3. Detail from David's "Consecration of Napoleon...".

4. The Apollo Gallery.

Friday, March 26

Today will be a two-museum day – the Louvre in the morning and the Musee National du Moyen Age (National Museum of the Middle Ages) that is in the Thermes de Cluny, in the afternoon.

I arrive at the Louvre to find a huge queue waiting to get in. The museum should have opened half an hour ago, so this is not a good sign. I go to the member’s only queue and quickly get thru security. Upon meeting up with Dr. Hunt, we learn that the museum staff is discussing a strike and is delaying anyone from getting into the museum until a decision is made. An hour after the scheduled opening time the staff begins to allow visitors in but is engaging in delaying tactics preventing visitors from getting into the actual galleries. (What this accomplishes, beyond annoying the visitors, is not clear.) Slowly we make our way to today’s galleries. The bright side to all this is that when we do reach our destinations, the galleries are nearly empty and we can have our discussions in peace.

We will spend the morning with post Renaissance painters from the Low Countries. We start with a gallery of huge paintings by Ruben’s studio. Dr. Hunt tells us that Rubens didn’t actually paint most of these. Instead, he would draw small sketches (a couple of square feet in size) and then turn the work over to his staff. Sometimes he would finish faces or other important details. He was a very accomplished diplomat and historian (a favorite theme). He was also very wealthy and he and Rembrandt had a passionate hatred for each other. His paintings are so full of references that you can’t tell who’s who without a scorecard! (Sorry, couldn’t resist!)

Next, on to Rembrandt. I have to admit I have never been a big fan of Rembrandt. Although his use of light on faces was brilliant he would paint the vast majority of his canvases very dark. Dr. Hunt has a great time in telling the story behind “Bethsabee at Her Bath”.

We spend the rest of the morning looking at stuff that does nothing for me until we get to one painting by Jerome Bosch. Now this guy was out there and I like it! I will have to look him up when I get home.

In the afternoon, we move on to the Cluny. I am excited to see this one, as I have never been in it. More importantly, it is in the Roman Bath from when Paris (then called Lutetia [in Latin] or Lucete [in modern French]) was a part of the Roman Empire. Hey, I can’t go on a trip without visiting some Romans!

We see some beautiful stained glass from 1200 CE to about 1500 CE. Then a lot of religiously themed objects, including relic containers, which while showing great craftsmanship, served a purpose of (in my opinion) of desecrating the message of Christ.

In the old bath, there are a number of statues without their heads. These used to represent the Kings of France until the Revolution when the Kings got their just desserts.

And finally, the museum’s masterpieces – The Lady and the Unicorn Tapestries, from 1482. They are huge, probably 15 feet by 12 feet and in remarkable condition. This is one of those times you are really glad to be with Dr. Hunt as his lecture about them brings the themes to life better than I ever could trying to figure them out on my own.

About the images:

1. The Rubens Gallery.

2. Dr. Hunt discussing Rembrandt's "Bethsabee at Her Bath".

3. Dr. Hunt in front of 13th century stained glass.

4. Off with their heads!

5. Detail from one of the "Lady and the Unicorn" tapestries.

Thursday, March 25

Yes, I have a cold and now have a decision to make – have a running faucet for a nose or take some Dayquil and fight thru the drowsiness it will bring. I choose the later.

While we are waiting at our usual gathering spot, one of the women in our group begins to stroke my hair (which I am wearing down this morning) like I am a cat, in full view of her husband. He looks at me and says, “She never does that with my hair!” (Which would be hard since he is nearly bald.)

… Okay! … The Hair Incident will continue to be a topic of conversation for several days.

Today we will look at the art of the Greeks, Romans and their forbearers, the Etruscans.

We take a tour through the stylistic history of Greek sculpture.

Then a look at Roman sculpture. They seem to have a lot of busts of Hadrian and his Greek lover Antinous. After the unpopular Antinous’ untimely death, Hadrian seems to have had made a lot of busts of his lover. We join the crowds around the Venus de Milo. Dr. Hunt shocks us by stating that she is probably a Roman copy of a Greek statue, perhaps a bronze. We see a lot of busts of emperors good and bad alike.

Onto the grave materials of the sensual loving Etruscans. We see the famous sarcopha-gus lid of a couple seated together. This piece has become an iconic image of the Etruscans.

We end the day with a neoclassical sclupture, Antonio Canova's famous "Psyche Revived by Cupid's Kiss", 1787.

Despite not feeling well, this has been a fun day with some of my favorite subjects.

About the images:

1. A view of the outside from the inside. A brief moment of sunshine.

2. Dr. Hunt discussing a sclupture.

3. A bust of Antinous.

4. Venus de Milo.

5. An Etruscan couple.

6. "Psyche revived by Cupid's Kiss".

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Wednesday, March 24

Today is our free day – no scheduled events. I have been making a list of ideas of what to do with this day for months – all of them revolving around shooting outdoor pictures. However, when the day arrives it is overcast and going to stay that way. I already know what those images will look like (boring), so I junk my plans and start over.

First I go to a small park behind some government offices, the Palais Royal. The combination of the gray skies and trees that are just beginning to bud make for an uninteresting scene. I do enjoy the sculpture garden, where there are a number of children running around amongst the columns. It reminds me of the Cat Stevens song, “Where Do The Children Play?”

From there I walk to the Louvre and stroll around the grounds. In my opinion, the space beginning at the Pei’s Pyramid and running thru the Jardin des Tuileries, across the Place de la Concorde and thru the beginning of the Champs-Elysees is one of the most beautiful man made open spaces in the world. Even on a gray day like this it is a joy to wander around. I stop and have lunch in an outdoor café on the grounds of the Tuileries, watching the people go by.

Eventually this brings me to my goal, the Musee de l’Orangerie, home to Claude Monet’s masterful, massive Water Lilies canvases.

This is a fabulous space within which to few these huge, endlessly fascinating canvases. I like the second room a little better, as people don’t stay as long as in the first, so it is a little quieter. Lately, I have been observing these painting while listening to Keith Jarrett’s, The Koln Concert. There seems to me to be a natural synergy between abstract impressionist painting and solo improvisational jazz. You can almost see their respective muses directing their work. (Technically, only for Jarrett [the muse of music, Euterpe], as there is not a muse for painting per se.) I enjoy this for a long while, until eventually the mood is spoiled by a bunch of just-teen school children, noisy and disinterested and I leave.

I am beginning to think that I may be coming down with a cold. The fact that the weather as been changing wildly, I have been in constant motion and have not been eating well are beginning to take their toll.

It is very hard to be a vegetarian in France. The French think that anyone who does not eat animals must be crazy. In addition, I have forgotten one of my most important reference books, a French to English restaurant menu translator. This is incredibly stupid of me and has made an already difficult situation all the harder. I hunker down for the evening, to save my strength for tomorrow.

About the images:

1. Children playing on the grounds of the Palais Royal.

2. The second gallery inside the Musee de l'Orangerie.

3. & 4. Detail from the Water Lillies.

Tuesday, March 23

Today we have a change of venue, moving from the Louvre to the D’ Orsay, as the Louvre is closed on Tuesdays.

While I am walking to the D’ Orsay, I am thinking about my ability (or lack thereof) to speak French. I am amused at my ability to recall a dozen or so polite French phrases which go so far to placate the French as an attempt to treat their language with respect that they are willing to speak English to you. Those phrases slowly emerge from the mind, like a long unused engine being turned over for the first time in ages – slowly, with much resistance, but eventually agreeing to perform the task that is its mission.

Arriving at the D’ Orsay I find long lines even for members, of which I am now one. As our party gathers we send out a scout to see what is the problem. He returns with bad news.

Last Sunday, the French have held regional elections, at which the government has suffered a significant defeat. While not affecting their majority in Parliament, it shows that the government is weak and labor has decided to take advantage of the situation by calling a strike. (I can say that one has not truly experienced France until some organization has gone on strike. Today is our day.)

The national, regional and local rail systems are in chaos, most schools are closed and other government workers show up for work only if they feel like it. At the d’ Orsay only about half the number of employees scheduled to work have actually shown up. Those that have are now engaged in a meeting to decide if they should stay or go home. The meeting is being held in the lobby of the museum, in full view of the now hundreds of people waiting to get in.

Forty-Five minutes past the scheduled opening time a decision is reached to open the museum. However the workers are not happy. In order for Dr. Hunt to lecture in the museum he needs a permit. Said permit was applied for months ago without a decision. A half hour of negotiations with the surly staff produces no permit. Poor Dr. Hunt is beside himself. We decide to soldier on. Dr. Hunt roams the halls directing us to significant pieces to make sure we don’t miss the items he was going to discuss.

In addition to not allowing us to have a discussion group, the museum has decided not to allow ANY photography. This is a significant change, as I know that I have taken pictures in here in the past. Not only that, but the staff is so reduced and so angry that enforcement of the rule becomes capricious. Any number of people walk up to an object and take a picture (including the usual idiots who still have not figured out how to turn off the flash on their point and shoot cameras) before the staff will snap at one poor individual.

After an hour or so of this, our other Michael, a debonair and sophisticated psychologist, shows up with the coveted permit! A miracle! Michael, how did you do this!?!?

After observing the distress of Dr. Hunt, Michael went in search of a solution. He went to the woman in charge of issuing the permits and explained our situation.

“I’m sorry,” she said “it is not possible.”

“To whom do I need to speak to?”

“The Director of the Museum. He is in a different building.”

Michael goes to the appropriate building but cannot get anyone to answer the door. Just then a man exits the building. Michael stops him and explains our situation. The man says he is an assistant to the Director and immediately takes him in to see the Director!

Michael again explains our situation (with just a little stretching of the truth) and the Director agrees to help. He takes Michael back to the Museum and to the afore mentioned administrator in charge of the permits.

The Director tells the administrator to issue Michael the appropriate permit. The administrator says, “No”!! Much conversation in French ensues with a final result that he administrator grudgingly issues the coveted permit.

Michael gives the permit the Dr. Hunt, whose relief is written on his face. We have lunch and then begin our tour again.

Normally, this would be THE highlight of the tour for me. The D’ Orsay is the home to most important paintings of the Impressionist movement. Unfortunately, the museum is undergoing a significant renovation and many of its most famous paintings are traveling. (Oddly enough, they are traveling to the deYoung Museum in San Francisco, which means that shortly after we get back they will be in our backyard!)

We start with Gustave Courbet still shocking, “The Origin of the World”. It shouldn’t be shocking today, not in our pornography-saturated culture, but it is. Perhaps it is the context. Not exactly what you would expect to see in a museum.

There are still a number of Van Goghs here. His use of color was his genius. However the almost militantly identical size of his brush strokes have always bothered me.

Just when you think things could not get any stranger, I hear the staff starting to yell at the visitors to clear the main gallery. Have they final decided to engage in a strike? No. Some idiot has left a bag in the gallery and walked away. Slowly the staff begins to herd us to the exits telling us the museum is closing due to a security problem. By the time we begin to see the exit the problem is cleared up and we go back to our tour.

I find something new I like, a painting by Edouard Vuillard, “Sous-bois a la dame au chien”. I get a better idea of the work of the “pointillists”, in particular Paul Signac.

I find a Monet that I am not familiar with, “Le Pont d’Argenteuil”. Its powerful reflection of light in the water fuels a lot of my photography.

At the end of the day, I take a picture of the great Art Deco clock high above the main floor. Since the museum in closing in 15 minutes, let them throw me out if they don’t like it!

Monday, March 22

Still unable to adapt to the time change I awake before dawn. I do some work on this blog while the sun comes up. It appears that it is going to be clear and sunny. Realizing this may be my only chance; I bolt the room and go to the Louvre. The courtyard, with its great pyramid, is quiet, a great opportunity to take pictures on a bright sunny morning. For the next hour or so I happily snap away.

I go into the museum as soon as it opens and work the lobby underneath the pyramid. This is the best light I have ever had down here and I enjoy myself.

The group gathers in our meeting spot and we plan the day’s adventures - Three thousand years of ancient history, starting in Mesopotamia and ending in Egypt.

Starting with a small figure of a seated king we move on to a statuette of the king as the giver of life. He is holding a vase, from which water flows down the statue. In the valley of the Euphrates and Tigers rivers, water is life and he who rules the waters rules life. But this is a mere prelude to what comes next – the stele of Hammurabi. Carved on it are the laws of King Hammurabi (~1700 BCE), know as the Law-Codex of Hammurabi. On this stone monument are carved 263 laws whose fundamental idea is that the Law is King (Lex Rex) as opposed to the King Is Law (Rex Lex). A spirited discussion follows on the subject of the possibility that the Jews, held in slavery 1000 years later in the same area by the evil Assyrians were aware of the Laws and while reformulating the Torah incorporated these concepts into what will become the Old Testament. We are having so much fun we lose track of time and a docent shoos us away – a group like ours is not allowed to monopolize individual pieces.

While the Assyrians were truly one of humanities most evil societies they also produced two of archaeologies greatest finds – the cities of Nineveh and Khorsabad. From Nineveh we get the ancient library, which includes the oldest written story ever found – Gilgamesh. (For the story of the library see last years trip to the British Museum.) And from Khorsabad, the great bulls with human heads and the huge statue of Gilgamesh holding one very unhappy lion. One must take all these great artistic achievements with a strong dose of reality – they were made possible by slavery and death on a scale unimaginable even to the Romans or the Christians.

We spend some time with the ancient Persians prior to the wars with the Greeks that will produce western civilization as we know it.

And finally the Egyptians, up to the conquest by Alexander the Great. For all of Napoleon’s “work” in Egypt, it seems to me that the British got the best stuff. (The exploration done by Napoleon’s army while in Egypt (~1800 CE) is general thought to be the beginning of scientific archeology as we know it today.)

By the end of the day my brain is in meltdown from overload and my feet are delivering notice of an imminent strike. However the sun is still shining and it is a great day to be in Paris.

About the images:

1. Ducks in the fountains.

2. Multiple pyramids.

3. Statue of the giver of life, Gudea, King of Lagash, ~2120 BCE.

4. The stele of the Code of Hammurabi.

5. Sometimes the rooms are as beautiful as what is in them.