Sunday, May 30, 2010

Froissart and Frigos and Friends

The BN research room was closed today, and my head is full of ideas that need to be sorted out, and so it was off to look at actual medieval art that I took myself this morning. Seeing the Froissart show at the Invalides seemed appropriate as well, with Memorial Day week-end back in the States in mind. I've always admired the idea of the Invalides, a complex that has grown and grown since 1670, but was designed to house disabled war veterans. (It's now big enough to house several museums, administrative offices, tombs, and Napoleon's ego, uh, tomb). It still functions as a home, center, and office for disabled veterans today, and when you eat in the good and inexpensive cafeteria (as I did today), chances are that you will be seated next to a retired serviceman in a wheelchair (as I was today). We talked a little bit about Memorial Day in America and I thanked him (I have no idea what war he served in). There are subjects before which I remain consistently bereft of answers or words, and the personal cost to someone of fighting in a war is one of those subjects. Smiles and raising our glasses of wine seemed good to do, though.

Jean Froissart (1330s - early 1400s) presents several very important questions: how is war to be written? how is it to be written about? how is it to be represented visually? what are we doing when we write about war and represent it visually? The war in question is the Hundred Years' War that tore at France and England from roughly 1337 to 1458 and (whoo-ha) is incredibly complex (but the Wikipedia article linked above is quite thorough - and hey, Brittany connection! Du Guesclin was a Breton!) and Froissart's Chroniques, a massive (massive!) 4 volume work sets down in writing all the years that Froissart lived through it. I'll want to read it all someday, but it really is enormous. It's no genre that we would recognize (it's not strict military history, it's not fiction, it's medieval war writing - and he defined the genre).

And so there I am bent over one of the four phenomenal huge Froissart manuscripts (well over 100 manuscripts of Froissart's Chroniques still exist, and these have got to be the most luxurious and awesome ones of the bunch), and a man comes up to me and asks me how I like the show. I tell him that I like it very much indeed and that I'm thinking through ways that I can incorporate Froissart into my "Love and War in Medieval Art and Literature" class and he just beams. Now you'll think I'm making the next part, so charmed has this Paris visit been, but the gentleman in question was none other than the curator of the show himself, a wonderful man named Paul Ainsworth, of the University of Sheffield. Can you imagine such a thing??? To get to talk to the curator, and he be this lovely Englishman with flawless French and he's here with his extended family in Paris for a quick holiday to see how the show is doing. !!! So we talked for quite a long time about the manuscript's audiences, the shifts in its visual programs, the challenges of working with monumental literary works and more. He and his team have put together an incredible web site that allows you to explore the manuscript by its pages or its miniatures, gives you historical and military background and even has stories for children. The Brits are doing such good work on this front (digitizing manuscripts and making them available for perusal, teaching, long-distance research). Here the BN completely lags behind. It has a site for its images, but you have to search by whatever name somebody gave that image, or by manuscript number, and it's just nothing like this. Peter (if I may call him thus!) said that it's because of the terrific emphasis placed on interdisciplinarity that this is happening in England. Well, it's certainly going to make it easier for me to teach Froissart, that's for sure!

And then (oh oui!) the day got even better. I crossed half of Paris in 15 minutes (that new line 14 really is swell.) and was down at Les Frigos to meet dear Amira and (little did I know) Kelly as well!!! That Meredith joined in as well was just too cool. All of these wonderful women were students at DePauw, although I had the privilege of teaching only Amira and Kelly. I can barely express the feeling of coming upon these hip, energetic, brilliant women (in the midst of this absolutely wild art scene), and being flooded with memories of so many conversation at DePauw. It's more than that: it's seeing them make fascinating lives for themselves, hearing their flawless French, meeting their friends, and picking up the conversation as though not a minute had passed, even though so much had changed. Are students friends? Yes and no - yes, I love to have them over to the house for dinner, but no, it's a professional relationship and there are all sorts of boundaries that are very important to maintain. Are alums friends? Yes and yes - yes, because I feel that I was with them when so many things opened up to them, because I can remember them their freshman year when everything was so new or their sophomore year when everything was so difficult, and yes, because we now have so much to talk about, so much in common it turns out.

So we started out by walking around Les Frigos. This place is pretty darn cool, starting out as it did as enormous refrigerators (entrepĂ´t frigorifique ferroviaire) connected to the railways (all those Frenchfolk to feed!). It was built later than I had thought (in 1920), fell into decrepitude in the 1970s, was taken over by squatters in the 1980s, but now the city of Paris has bought it and has turned old freezing cold meat lockers into artist studios. Mac, be sure to show Oliver "who-ha! what is this stuff my parents call graffiti? I'm obsessed with it" Mackenzie the photo to the right, ok? - the place is absolutely covered in graffiti, top to bottom inside, and slowly the outside is filling up as well. The city (or the artists?) open up Les Frigos but one week-end a year, and the place was absolutely packed. Being a rebellious place (an ode to rebellion), it was filled with cigarette smoke (you're not supposed to smoke inside in France) which gave everything a kind of nice edginess. I hope that this place never goes away. There was, truth be told, quite a bit of bad, or just lame, art there. But that doesn't matter so much as the fact that there is this angry and safe haven for people to make art. Why do I say angry? Because that feeling of rebellion was palpable - in the graffiti, yes, but also in the history (the squatters, the fight with the city to not tear this place down), and of course in some of the art - and it's so important. There were also plenty of artists who were there for the beauty, who clearly wanted to display their process, not their anger. One studio in particular was a world unto itself: chock full of African portrait busts, books, music, it seemed like a place to think and think. And a washing machine indicated that the artist lived on site. 363 days of the year, artists live and work here in unheated, un-air conditioned spaces with no streaming parade of admiring publics (from all walks of life, another great thing). As much as there's a public and galleries and groups, an artist's life often seem very lonely. You and your ideas and a blank canvas (lots and lots of painting - Kingsley was right, painting isn't dead!), and no knowledge as to whether or not they will resonate, or even come close to approximating what you need them to express. Lonely. And yet, ideas do resonate, people pick up on them, and are moved by them, and, yes, for that one strong moment of potential, the world is a better place.

But there they are and they persevere and so did we, through 4 huge floors of dozens studios, carrying on 8 conversations at once, as we tried to catch up over the past 3 years. As their admirer, companion, and, for a brief honored moment their chaperone, of the life examined, I can look upon these women with great, beaming pride at their accomplishments, remembering and reminiscing about their time at DePauw. :-) Walking and talking turned into a bus ride to Amira and her (yes, Breton!) boyfriend, Tristan (who, true to his medieval namesake, is noble of thought and chivalrous of deed)'s neighborhood, which turned into coffee, and then a fantastic dinner at Bistro Chantefable. I had, almost inevitably and oh so gladly, the duck.

We sat at the very table that you see in the foreground here, and spoke of immigration and carrot cakes, of oil spills and the politics of nostalgia, of school lunches and Mother's Days, of camping (with or without making your own fire?) and how people who are asked to remember a complex number will tend to choose chocolate over fruit, whereas people who are asked to remember a simple number will more likely choose fruit (I am still pondering that one) (is this why I want chocolate now?). I can't quite believe that Amira and Kelly graduated as many years ago as they did. And I'm beyond impressed with what they've accomplished in that time. What they are doing (to borrow an expression I learned Henry IV used) is no small beer: I was in Paris as a student, which is a very safe and scripted life when you think of its long and cherished tradition. Here are Amira and Kelly writing their own scripts every day, working in Paris, at oft difficult, other times very satisfying jobs. Taking those first steps, making that first phone call, clambering over that first bureaucratic hurdle, that took a lot of courage and you, dear women, have all my admiration. As I was saying to Kelly on the Metro right before we said good-bye, you may have anxieties now about the immediate future but there'll be no regrets later thinking of this glorious past.

The sculptural presentation of the brochette d'agneau alone would make that statement true. But it's also the companionship, the triumphs, that feeling of well-being that really does happen every once in a while, and putting into practices your convictions of what you find worthwhile. You guys certainly make it all worth it for me.

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