Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Les Orientales Drink Tea with les Femmes Savantes at Saint-Sulpice (Paris)

I tell you: you give a little to Paris and it just gives back and gives back. Walk a bit, let your curiosity get the better of you, and treasures untold unfold. All. Day. Long. My mom just this second said to me "There really is something magical about Paris, isn't there?" - and yes, there is. I haven't been to all the cities of the world, not even close, but Paris I can tell you positions its surprises, one can't help but feel, just for you. Of course it's a symbiotic relationship (your curiosity takes you hither and yon, and Paris satisfies it), but there's something about how you come upon what will become a wonder untold that makes you feel like Paris itself gently nudged it out to you. And so it was that an entire day of 17th-century marvels wound itself around us. We decided to start the day with a brisk (operative word, brisk: 50degrees F and windy!) down to Saint-Sulpice, whose northern tower you see here under complete renovation. In fact, all of Saint-Sulpice is under a massive renovation project which (there was a little exhibit) is comprised of eight stages and involves things like quarrying stone (!). It was Anne d'Autriche who laid down the first stone in 1646 (with an 8-year old Louis XIV in tow!), and it looks like it may not have had a restoration since then. But aside from its own grandeur, it has inspired two other monuments: A rebours by J.-K. Huysmans (to me and Mac a monument of weird and wonderful late 19th-century literature) and, perhaps more widely accepted as a monument, its history, since the 19th century, of nurturing organists among whom number the greats of the 19th and 20th century, most notably Charles-Marie Widor and Marcel Dupré.

...both of whom are among Mamie's favorite organists! If you know Mamie, you know that she really knows her music. So for her to be at Saint-Sulpice was a pretty big deal. I love this photograph. And I loved all that I learned in talking with her: how long Charles-Marie Widor was the organist (a very long time indeed), how this organ has never been reconstructed (as apparently so many of them are), but instead how its design and thus sound has remained true to that of its builder, Aristide Cavaillé-Coll (there's a name to love). Every Sunday's mass is basically a free concert at Saint-Sulpice, with an emphasis on compositions by the church's past organists (Widor, Dupré and co.) and, consistently, new compositions by the current organist, Daniel Roth. This parish is still very much alive and well. It actually doesn't seem to ever have had a lag time in fervor and has always been well attended (I still need to know what became of it, how it was renamed, during the Revolution - I do know that it had been lined with bombs by the Nazis, bombs that were mercifully not set off by the commanding officer in charge (he loved Paris too much is the version I've heard) - and I'm sure that there are other dark chapters in its history). Even during May 1968, it was frequented by a certain Madame Giroux, a woman who had an apartment on Rue Monsieur Le Prince in the 6th and had taken students in practically her whole life (including my dad when he was here on the second-ever Sweet Briar Junior Year Abroad Program in 1948-49). On her way to mass that day, she was caught up in one of the many student riots of May 1968 and was killed. My father really loved Madame Giroux and this story was legend when I was growing up. One of thousands of legends that Saint-Sulpice has gathered throughout the centuries.

Last example: who knew that Delacroix spent six (6!) years of his life painting three enormous paintings for the Chapel of the Angels? The Saint Michael on the ceiling is an oil on canvas, but the enormous Heliodorus chased from the Temple, which you see here, was painted with oil and wax directly onto the wall. Take that, Leonardo da Vinci's Milan Last Supper! This composition, well, at least certain elements of it, reminds me mightily of Caravaggio's Martyrdom of Saint Matthew - what was Delacroix thinking of? By then he had seen the world, or at least the part that mattered the most to 19th-century Parisians: the Orient. So what was going on here? Think on this: as Delacroix was working on these paintings, Cavaillé-Coll was working on the organ. Wow.

Our end-goal was a cup of tea at Mariage Frères, but we had many detours and pleasures to enjoy along the way. The first: Notre-Dame, which looks shiny and new after its relatively recent renovation. Of course, the art history snob in me will tell you that the entire west façade (practically) is all 19th-century brought to you by Viollet-le-Duc and his vision of the Middle Ages. All the medieval damaged fragments (the heads of all of the kings of Judea, Adam, for instance) are the Musée de Cluny. But the not-art history snob in me says, "Who cares? Would you look at the hundreds of people that are here to be here?" Indeed, the line was too long, and Paris too windy, for us to stand in line, so on we pressed.

... to Dame Tartine - definitely my favorite place to eat around the Pompidou Center, which was blissfully closed today, so no enormous crowds. I love Dame Tartine: everything comes on toast! Well, it used to, now everything comes either toast-shaped or with toast on the side. Still great! We had chicken in a morels sauce with wild rice (and toast), and a chocolate pavé with crême fraîche (and toast). Yum! We had our little coffees and enjoyed watching the passers-by. The Niki Saint-Phalle fountains were kicking up quite a bit of water, too - watch out! We headed back out into the city, crossing the magic divide (rue de Renard) into the Marais (which gets a little bit bigger all the time). The neighborhood around the Pompidou is "kinda rough" - there's an enormous, hulking dinosaur of a building from the 1960s (who knew concrete aged so poorly?) that sets a glum mood on rue de Renard, but after that, the Marais and its narrow streets and sidewalks and unexpected views into the lush courtyards of 17th and 18th century private "hotels" (just really big houses - city mansions) starts to take over. Our destination was Mariage Frères (tea, tea, and more tea) after an enormous but beautiful detour around the famed Place des Vosges.

Imagine our surprise when, following my mom's idea that we not walk through the Place itself (it's a small park, basically) but instead walk around the arcades that line the Place, we came upon "La Maison Victor Hugo." My mom is a huge Victor Hugo fan and I still remember crying my eyes out when I finished reading Les Misérables, so we decided to go on. And then lo and behold, there was this AMAZING show titled "Les Orientales" in homage to Hugo's poetry collection of the same name. Yes, Mac that is the Gericault copy of the Girodet painting of "Mustapha." Pretty astound, yes? It was a very smart show, discussing the precursors of Orientalism (the early 19th-century travelers, including Chateaubriand - and they had Girodet's portrait of him there!) and then interweaving lots of works by Delacroix (whom we had just seen in Saint-Sulpice that morning you'll recall) and others with excerpts of Hugo's poetry on the walls. The words were there as works of art themselves, to be contemplated in context with images arranged in themes such as "Savagery" and "The Captive" (lots o' voyeuristic eroticism there!). It was absolutely splendid, and I hope that Matt and Hallie get to see this show. Medium-sized Insight: France (like everyone else has had to accept becoming) may be post-colonial, but that doesn't meant that its (fascination with) Orientalism is over. Not by a long shot. This show plunges you into the sexy mysteries of the Orient as much as Hugo's poetry ever did - it's homage and simulation. And: I saw a poster for the latest show at the Institut du Monde Arabe and I think I'm right (check me on this, Hallie!) it was entitled something like "Hermes Exotique" or some such - and it showed a fabulous Orientalized chair - or perhaps it was actually from the Middle East and had become part of a collection. Either way - the fascination is still there. The difference to study is, as Tavy Aherne taught me, one of "voice." Who gets to say what about whom? This is the burning political question of all and any Orientalizing. Were I to try and answer it about this show, I'd have to really stop and think. It was Hugo talking the entire time - his voice comes through quite clearly. But in being a voice of poetry, it attempts to give voice to characters normally unheard (if i knew my "Orientales" better, I'd quote you something right now). I can't dismiss this entire show as an exultation of colonialism or Orientalism - not by a long shot. I think that revisiting Hugo imagining the Orient (he never went, but considered Spain, where he did go quite often, the beginning of the Orient there by acknowledging (which few others did/do) Spain's Islamic heritage) is part of the post-colonial revision of 19th century France. What the terms of the fascination are for the audience are harder still to put into words. Yet. Ooo! One last comment: there was a line of wall text that made some things click for me in that it singled out the Middle Ages and Orientalism as the principal intellectual and cultural fascinations and influences of the 19th century. Yes - it all makes sense! The Middle Ages as the temporal Other, the Orient as the geographical Other. It's all wonderfully more complicated than that - but it does connect the two fascinations (and certainly Hugo plunged headlong into both) beneath a more coherent rubric than I'd previously realized.

The exhibition had no catalogue (!) else I would have bought one and been quoting from it madly. But we were there invited to go upstairs and visit the apartment that Hugo had rented when he was but 25, with his wife and four children. He left in 1848 (exile) and everything was sold off in 1852 by the state, but the rooms became a museum to the great man as early as 1907 and they've done some really interesting reconstructions. This room and the next one, for instance, are reconstructions of (get ready for this) the salon and dining room of Juliette Drouet's house on the Isle of Guernsey where Hugo was in exile. Juliette Drouet was Hugo's mistress. Wow. There are some tales to tell there, eh? The chinoiserie room (yes, more Orientalism) was all of Hugo's composition - turns out the man could draw as well.

I love this guy.

So by the time we made it to Mariage Frères, we felt as though we had really earned our cup of tea. This was one of those Dream Come True cups of tea - possibly once in a lifetime, with every sip delicious and new. Mamie had a green tea with almonds, and I had mint with bergmot. Flavorful, continuous, all-envelopping. We let ourselves be pampered by the beautiful young men they have working there who are clearly specifically hired by virtue of being so nice to women. And we enjoyed our tea and spoke of many things and then took home a bit of tea for home and loved ones.

Dinner was a rapid affair (beautiful bowl of Udon soup at one of the Japanese places up Rue Monsieur Le Prince - fast, fresh, and yummy) as we had (dramatic pause) a theater performance to attend. Where do I begin? How can I possibly end in describing this experience? It framed our 17th-century day (recall Saint-Sulpice and an 8-year Louis XIV, the same little boy who would go on to be Molière patron), and made it complete. was a good, long joke in its day, one that is harder to tell today because it's not such a joke that women are educated or want to be educated. BUT (and here is where it gets so interesting for so many reasons), great writing about the human condition reveals new truths. Even in its own time, LFS wasn't just about how ridiculous women who try to educate themselves are back in the 17th century either - it was as much about the fop poets who pretended to educate them (but were really after a daughter and a dowry). Molière took no prisoners (there are plays about businessmen, hypochondriac, religious folks) and he was really merciless about fellow poets. OK - Mamie says that I need to wrap this up (which is good for you guys) so, what are the wonders?
  • that it's the maid (Martine) who gives the final words of wisdom that allows Henriette to marry Clitandre, her beloved - so medieval (in countless medieval secular tales of courtly love, it's the maid who carries the day - class commentary? another joke? hard to tell, but a delicious echo from the past!)
  • that the role of Philamante, the mother who wishes her daughter Henriette to marry Trissotin the pretender poet, was originally played, in Molière's day, by a man (there were already actresses in his day, so this was a great, big joke) - makes me think of learned women being called hermaphrodites as late as the late 18th century.
  • that the young man who directed the play (brilliantly!) cast himself in the role of Trissotin the pretender (irony!)
  • that the man who played Philamante (hilariously! and with incredible restrain) was the young director's (Trissotin's) acting teacher - and apparently one of the big personalities in French theater today - hoorah!
  • that Molière cast himself in the role of the hapless and helpless father who is completed dominated by his wife, Philamante (irony, again!)
  • that yes, yes, the play argues that a woman is better off marrying and running a household than she is burying her nose it books, but it also argues that we are made of flesh and blood and have desires and should follow them (either a great big joke again, or some nascent sense of the modern self's relentless pursuit of its own desires).
There is so much more to say here, my thoughts are not at all well formulated. Suffice it to say, for now, that French theater is alive and well (the room was packed, the reviews were great), that nothing beats really good theater and being there, and that Paris is wondrous!

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