April 20, 2008

Paris Potpourri

Although steeped in history and cultural tradition, Paris and Parisians can be very modern and dynamic, and looking back on the past three weeks spent here I've noticed a few changes and adjustments in the city and its personality.

The noticeable lack of American tourists discouraged by the weak dollar has French merchants lamenting the steep drop in business. It's true - coughing up $1.60 for every Euro does give one pause to reconsider previously easy purchases, and buying art for resale has been a real challenge. The no-smoking law that was enacted at the beginning of the year means much cleaner air in restaurants, but it has also taken away a certain part of the enjoyment of dining in France. Evenings seem to end much earlier as friends no longer linger over cigarettes as a coda to the meal. Finally, the idea of global warming has become a city-wide joke as people are wearing winter coats in April instead of dining at outdoor cafés. My dream of "April in Paris" turned out to be a figment of my imagination as the reality of a cold driving rain made any notion of strolling along avenues lined with "chestnuts in blossom" seem ludicrous!

However, I am a undeterred Francophile and I found the time here stimulating, restorative and fabulous. A morning visit to "Vlaminck: Un instinct fauve" at the Musée du Luxembourg bombarded the viewer with color and energy. A major member of the Fauve art movement, Maurice de Vlaminck (1876-1958) drew from such influences as Van Gogh, Gaugin and especially Cézanne to create canvas' imbued with vivid, if unnatural, tones. This exhibition explores his work from 1900, through the height of Fauvism, and ends in 1915 when he moved away from pure color to explorations with form, volume and facets and a more Cubist approach overall.

Another event was a visit to the one-year-old Musée du Quai Branly - a pet project of former President Jacques Chirac housed in a mind-bending structure designed by Jean Nouvel, this year's winner of the Pritzker Architecture Prize. Although I find the building confusing and another example of design before function, the special exhibitions are excellent.

Now on view until July 13 is "Paracas, Treasures from Ancient Peru". In a practice similar to Egyptian mummification, ancient Peruvians (200 B.C. - 100 A.D.) living on the coastal peninsula of Paracas, prepared their dead for afterlife by removing their muscles and organs, folding the bodies into a compact package and wrapping them with several layers of cloth before burying them in the sand. Since the 1920's, archaeologists have dug up 429 of these "fardos" and carefully examined their contents. Not only did they discover traditional offerings of gold, stone, ceramics and feathers, but an unexpected treasure in the form of elaborately embroidered textiles that bound the bodies. Here on display are about 25 superb examples of these burial cloths, blankets, ponchos and head wraps, most perfectly preserved and all marvelous examples of textile art. A separate but complementary exhibition explores the work of Elena Izcue (1889-1970), a native Peruvian who studied and worked in New York and Paris in the 1920's and 30's as an artist and designer. Using Pre-Columbian iconography, similar to the forms depicted on the Paracas textiles, she developed a very successful line of fabrics and wallpapers and eventually became an exclusive purveyor to the couturier Jean Charles Worth.

On a totally different note, the hot ticket for Paris museum-goers at the moment is "Marie-Antoinette" at the Grand Palais until the end of June. The French have a love/hate relationship with their royal heritage, but the 2 hour long queue to get into this show belies the fact that many citizens are actually Royalists at heart! Culled from the collections of Fontainebleau, Versailles and her native Austria, this exhibition offers a sympathetic look at one of the most famous (or infamous) women in history. Beautifully installed with period music playing in the background, visitors are guided through her transition from child bride to regal queen to despised prisoner. Although not many personal artifacts remain, this assembly of portraits, furniture, objets d'art and documents is a considered and informative look at this major historical figure.

A professional highlight, and a whole lot of fun for me was the "Salon de l'Estampe et Livre Ancien". A combined print and antiquarian book fair held for the second time in the gorgeous (if thermostatically challenged) Grand Palais. 33 print and 155 rare book dealers from around the world (including 10 Americans) displayed an amazing variety of works for sale. In the print section one can find anything from a Dürer engraving to a Japanese woodblock to a Cassandre lithographic poster. The book section choices were staggering - illuminated manuscripts, first editions, natural history books, autographs, maps, photographs, modern illustrated books and more. It took hours to complete one circuit, and a return visit took most of an afternoon just to cover the stands that I had missed. All this under the magnificent glass roof of this exhibition hall first opened for the Paris International Exhibition of 1900.

There is never a lack of things to do or see here in this beautiful city and I tried to take advantage of every wonderful opportunity. The great thing is, it's always changing and there will be a new crop of exhibitions and shows to look forward to the next time. Then there are the eternal pleasures of window shopping, dining, or enjoying the innate beauty of this magical place and that never changes!

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