Monday, December 4, 2017

This Old House

Along a quiet street in the Marais stands an imposing stone building, the Hôtel de Beauvais, glowing in spite of the rain and clouds.

Designed by Antoine le Pautre (architect to the king's buildings) in 1656, many of the details of his original plans have been lost over the centuries, leaving us today with a handsome, if slightly incomplete restoration that re-opened its doors in 2003. One of the important items that does remain, though, are the two store-fronts on the ground floor on either side of the door, a reminder that back in the 17th century this quiet street was the bustling rue St. Antoine, the main thoroughfare from the Louvre (at that time the King's palace) to the Bastille and the countryside beyond. If you were an enterprising property owner looking to augment your income, you would definitely want to take advantage of your location and include prime commercial space to rent out.

People say that behind every door there is always a story, and it is the original owner's story that makes this house so interesting. Baron Pierre de Beauvais, and his wife Catherine-Henriette Bellier, were granted the property and building materials to construct this handsome "hôtel particulier" in the mid-17th century.

Originally, a 13th century Cistercian abbey stood on the site, with its vaulted cellars. Antoine le Pautre used the sturdy vaults and their walls as the foundation to support the new Hôtel de Beauvais
Today, the beautifully restored cellars are rented out for special events. You can sip your "coupe de champagne" whilst leaning against the 13th century posts and walls, and dream of wimples and troubadors. And the heated floor panels ensure you won't be cold!

Coming through the big oak front door from the street, a triangular-shaped courtyard leads from the archway to the coach house and stables at the rear.

A 19th century engraving shows very much the same view, with the addition of a horse!

Looking down into the courtyard from the first floor gives a bird's-eye view of the small irregular shape of the building site. Somehow, though, le Pautre found a way to bring all parts of the building together, so that everything is balanced and in harmony. In the centre of the upper level a small cross on the dome roof indicates the chapel.

A beautiful winding staircase leads up from the ground level to the balcony that runs round the entire second floor, giving access to the chapel
Beneath this balcony, the initials of Pierre de Beauvais run next to the image of the ram, a family crest. But who exactly were Baron de Beauvais and his wife, Catherine Bellier, and what earned them this generous gift of land and building materials, some of which had been reserved for a planned extension to the Cour Carée at the Louvre Palace? There are no images or paintings of either one. He was an attorney and counsellor to the King, but her story is the one that history books love to dwell on.

Born in 1614 in Poitou, Catherine Bellier married Pierre de Beauvais in 1634, and became the leading lady-in-waiting to Anne of Austria, the Queen Dowager Regent to the young Louis XIV. Catherine was highly intelligent, lively, even slightly audacious according to some reports, who loved all the ins and outs of court intrigue. She was a close confidant of Anne. She is also described as being famously unattractive physically, and not only that, she was blind in one eye! Nonetheless, she apparently had many other appealing charms and took several lovers, including the Archbishop of Sens!

One has to presume that Anne of Austria was well aware of Catherine's "charms" because she persuaded her to take her 14-year-old son Louis XIV into her boudoir to be instructed on the responsibilities and joys of the marital bed. Catherine was 40 years old at the time. Louis was apparently entirely captivated by this seduction, and their relationship continued for two more years.  He went on to have love affairs with at least another dozen or more French ladies of the court, all of them earning the title "Maitresse-en-titre". This semi-official position came with gifts of apartments and properties -- which would explain how Pierre de Beauvais and his wife were granted the land and building materials for the construction of their Hôtel de Beauvais!

You could say that the height of Catherine de Beauvais' life, and probably that of her husband, and certainly that of their elegant French Baroque hôtel particulier, took place on August 26, 1660.  Louis XIV and his new wife, the Spanish-born Maria-Theresa, made a triumphal entry into Paris, coming along the rue St. Antoine on their way to the Louvre Palace. They made a stop, though, at the Hotel de Beauvais, so that Louis could salute Catherine, who stood on the balcony that overlooked the street, flanked by Mazarin, Anne of Austria and other members of the court.

Following the death of her husband in 1674, Catherine de Beauvais found herself left with large debts that forced her to leave Paris for Arrou, where she died in 1689, far from her glorious life at the French Court. In 1686 the house was sold to Pierre Savalete, a notary and counsellor to the King. In 1706 it was bought by Jean Orry, President of Metz, and in 1763 it became the home of the ambassador of the Elector of Bavaria, le Comte van Eyck.

That same year, Leopold Mozart, his wife and children -- including 7 year old Wolfgang -- arrived for a visit. A plaque in the courtyard records this event.

Seized by the State during the French Revolution, the building was then sold and renovated to create 40 individual apartments. It remained a commercial enterprise for the rest of the 19th and into the 20th century.

Many members of the Marais' Jewish population lived in these apartments, until the German occupation of 1940 took over the building, removing and deporting all the residents, an indelible stain on its history.

Following the liberation of France, and now owned by the city of Paris, the building continued to provide rental housing to local residents. Its condition, however, was deteriorating to the point where it was threatened with demolition. Happily, wiser heads prevailed and a massive renovation began in 1995.

Today, every corner gleams with new-found life. And who lives there now?  No one who could be said to be anywhere near as appealing as the original owner, but there is an "appeal" involved: today the Hôtel de Beauvais houses Paris' Court of Administrative Appeals, where you can go to appeal, for example, a conflict with your landlord, or a dispute with your neighbor.

As you sit in the reception area, waiting for your moment in court, cast a look out of the window up to the second floor where, surely, the ghost of Catherine Bellier still stands at her front balcony, waiting for the royal coach to stop, and for her young former lover to salute her.

À bientôt!

Friday, November 17, 2017

The Art of Looking

Recently, I was asked to translate (from French to English) the introduction to a catalog of drawings that would accompany an exhibition at the IDEM gallery in Montparnasse. It was a good challenge because the French language can sometimes be wildly flowery and almost untranslatable into English. I did like the author's overall premise, though, which was that we are so bombarded with visual images nowadays that we've really lost the ability to "see" any more. That we should slow down and really "look". Our friend, Eddie-the-K is good at this. He always has a small magnifying glass in his pocket that he will pull out in a museum to examine a painting or print more closely. That will certainly slow you down. We're finding that at this time of year in Paris, there are so many exhibitions to visit they can almost become a blur. Keeping in mind the "slow down" mantra, even though I don't have a magnifying glass, here's just some of what our eyes have been feasting on in the art world the last couple of weeks.

Up at the Palais Galliera, I went with a friend to the first Parisian retrospective of the life and works of Mariano Fortuny, a Spanish-born artist, inventor, designer, who lived his life in Venice, where his legacy continues today in a museum bearing his name.

Born into a family of artists in 1871, Mariano Fortuny grew up surrounded by painters, musicians and composers, and he at first pursued the life of a painter himself.  Over the years, he never lost his interest in painting, as this self-portrait from 1940 attests.

In the 1890s, he became passionate about photography, capturing images of people, places, and objects. He even invented a special photographic paper, and built several cameras.

His interest in photography led him to explore the qualities of light, and how light could be used to create theatrical effects. In 1904, he developed this inflatable, dome-shaped structure, that used projected lighting to enhance stage sets. He installed one of these mobile screens in the private theatre of the Countess of Béarn in Paris in 1906, at the same time adding a stage curtain of printed velvet, his first foray into the world of textile printing that was to become such a hallmark of his later work.

At this time, designers and artists alike were  drawing inspiration from classic Greek images. Madeleine Vionnet's fashion house reflected this influence, as shown in her watercolor sketch of one of her gowns

Mariano Fortuny, meanwhile, had been intrigued by scraps of antique printed fabrics found in Greece, and began experimenting with different printing techniques on fabric, culminating in what became known as the "Knossos" scarf. Its block-printed motifs of marine and floral life are evocative of Minoan vases, and became an overnight success in the world of the "arts décoratifs". Before long, Fortuny opened a boutique in Paris where his textiles, cushions and delicate lamps drew enthusiastic customers.

All of these passions and talents were just the "lead-in", if you will, to the main event for which Mariano Fortuny is perhaps most well known:  his iconic "Delphos" gown!  The extravagant Marchesa Luisa Casati so named it in 1909 when she purchased one. Inspired by the statue of the Charioteer of Delphi, Fortuny actually took out a patent for "a kind of garment for women derived from the antique gown", and another patent for "a kind of loose pleated fabric". Made in a fine pleated silk taffeta, with the end flaring out in a perfect corolla, the "Delphos" gown perfectly matches the movements of the body and accentuates the female silhouette.

A thin layer of albumin enhances the iridescence of the material, capturing and reflecting the light, as do the glass beads that decorate the edges. The only other decoration is a simple belt, embellished with gold-printed motifs.

Fortuny's wife and close collaborator, Henriette Nigrin -- seen here in a 1930 painting made by her husband -- is said to have invented this delicate, pleated fabric. It retains its shape at all times, can be scrunched and rolled up, and was wrapped and delivered in a round or square-shaped cardboard box. As soon as it was removed and shaken out, the pleats magically fell into place again. To this day, in spite of all kinds of technical explanations in the patent, the exact method of fabrication remains a mystery!

The immediate success of the "Delphos" gown led Fortuny and Henriette to develop other fabrics, notably velvet, printed with elegant, intricate designs, giving them a rich almost Italian Renaissance look. This one was named "Eleaonora".

Although the fronts and backs of these gowns are smooth with slender lines, a careful look at the side reveals more silk taffeta pleats and decorative glass beads to catch the light, and the eye.

Actresses Julia Bartlett and Isadora Duncan, as well as members of the French and Italian aristocracy, plus society women who frequented salons with Marcel Proust, wives of American Captains of Industry, even Oona Chaplin, all owned original "Delphos" gowns. Mariano Fortuny died in 1949, but today, after years of research and development, the Fortuny textile house in Venice, remaining true to the spirit of its founder, has reinterpreted those famous pleats in its own version of the "Delphos" gown. We found it in the final room of the exhibition. There was no indication that the original "code" had been cracked, but I imagine some computer genius came up with a fair approximation, and certainly this 2017 version of the iconic gown gleamed and shimmered almost as much as its original ancestors. And if you look very closely, you'll see a row of little glass beads running down the side!

And speaking of "haute couture", another exhibition not to be missed is the big Irving Penn (1917-2009) retrospective at one of the Grand Palais Galleries. One of the great 20th century photographers, Penn is perhaps mostly associated with high fashion, and indeed a great deal of his work centered on capturing the very latest trend in stunning black and white. Here, his wife and frequent model, Lisa Fonssagrives-Penn, wears the exquisite "Mermaid" dress from the House of Rochas.

And Anne Patchett in 1950 shows an elegant hat, scarf, handbag and gloves, all required wardrobe at the time.

That particular outfit was also featured on the cover of Vogue Magazine, where Penn's photographs were frequently to be found.

As well as photographing beautiful fashion models, though, Irving Penn was also much sought after by the cultural elite, the luminaries of the day, whom he photographed full-face, either "trapped" in a corner set up, like this photo of Marcel Duchamp in 1948...

...or in front of a simple grey silk curtain, the choice for the unforgettable Audrey Hepburn.

An avid traveller, Penn used the same simple backdrop technique to record faces from cultures literally from around the world. These two small children were "snapped" in Cuzco in 1948.

Striking and beautiful and exotic as all these images were, though, the series that really caught my eye (had me really "looking" if you will!) was called "Les Petits Métiers" (The Small Trades) that Penn began recording in 1950.

Penn once wrote: "The photographer...finds something of himself in everything and something of everything in himself."  He proceeded to photograph skilled tradespeople and street vendors with their tools and wares, using the same type of daylight studio...

...the same neutral backdrop and the same lighting as he did in sittings with fashion models and celebrities.

He skillfully posed these figures, captured their faces, their demeanors, their tools as if he really did find something of himself in each one.
This mix of fishmongers, bakers and high-style makers was, as Penn said "a balanced meal"!

With images from London, Paris and New York, this portfolio became the largest single series in Penn's career.  I especially enjoyed looking at the jolly fishmonger with his high rubber apron over his white jacket, his cloth cap, his tie firmly fixed at his neck, a dead fish in one hand, a rag in the other, and a confident, knowing half-smile. It's not there, but I could easily picture his slab counter in front of him. He looks like he's about to slap the fish down, and filet it!

Across the street from the Grand Palais galleries, stands the equally impressive Petit Palais, built for the 1900 Exposition Universelle. The Beaux Arts style building, designed by Charles Girault, replaced the earlier Palais de l'Industrie, which was considered unfitting for the big Universal Exhibition that heralded the new century! It now houses the City of Paris Museum of Fine Arts, and we were there last week to see the first retrospective in Paris in 111 years of the Swedish-born Anders Zorn (1860-1920).

Born and raised on his grandparent's farm in rural Mora, Sweden, Zorn showed artistic talent from an early age. Later at the Royal Swedish Academy of Art in Stockholm, he impressed his teachers even more strongly. In 1880, this luminous, moving watercolor En Deuil (In Mourning) was selected for the annual student exhibition at the Academy. The following year, Zorn left the Academy after a dispute with the director. By now, though, members of the Stockholm society were approaching him with commissions, he met the woman who would be his wife, Emma Lamm, he began travelling throughout Europe, and he more or less "never looked back"!

 1882 found him in the Mediterranean, where he made this impressive self-portrait, also a watercolor. At age 22, he emits an air of confidence and energy, with the jaunty angle of his cigar, the clear eyes looking ahead, and with the inscription, "Having nothing better to do -- Gibraltar".

A few years later, Zorn was travelling again, this time in the port of Algiers, where he painted a watercolor of these two women waiting at the top of the steps for the boatman who will take them to the other side. One of them holds her veil wide, the other glances furtively at the boatman. But what held my eyes more was the way Zorn painted the water: the shadows, the ripples were mesmerizing.

Another stunning watercolor shows Zorn's wife, Emma, standing on the dock at a Swedish seaside resort, waiting for the boatman to get closer. Again, lovely though the people are, it's the water that holds your attention. If I had had a magnifying glass, I would have been using it to try and understand how he made the water so translucent and alive!

As Zorn's success grew, his skill as a portrait painter (mostly in oils) gained him an international reputation, equal to fellow painters of that era:  Sargent, Carolus-Duran and Boldoni. Rather than work in his studio, he preferred to paint his patrons in their homes, where he could capture their characters and psychology. He painted Presidents and Prime Ministers, Society men and women, leading industrial giants, artists and musicians, including oil baron, Henry Clay Pierce who was once one of the richest men in America, before he was found guilty of violating anti-trust laws!

He also made portraits on a smaller scale, like this adorable painting of Mrs. Clara Rikoff's King Charles Spaniel "Charley" from 1891.

One of the most impressive portraits was this 1909 full-size painting of the King of Sweden, Gustav V,  An elegant man, as is clear from Zorn's depiction, Gustav was also a tennis enthusiast.  As I looked at how Zorn had placed him, how his arms are held, the position of his feet, I realized that with the addition of a racquet in his right hand, and a tennis ball in his left, he could be getting ready to serve an ace! Zorn was truly a "master".

Like many artists of his generation, Zorn painted many nudes. The French art critic, Henri Focillon, once said: Oh, how that son of the Baltic loved the woman's flesh! He does not labor to ennoble it, nor require it to be stylish; he loves to see it shining gloriously, gold and white, and crowned with blond hair...

Although he traveled widely -- he made seven trips to the United States! -- and lived in Paris for many years, Zorn missed the setting of his childhood, and eventually moved back to Mora. He still went abroad, but his rural roots always called him back and he made many paintings of the peasant life of that part of Sweden. As an avid knitter, I loved this painting of a young country girl in a log cabin, and was interested to learn from the label that she is using a local technique that uses a double-cross stitch, suitable for dense and long-wearing woollens. Hmm, perhaps something to try....

Our final stop in these jam-packed two weeks, was to the main floor of the Grand Palais. Every November, under the glittering glass ceiling, Paris Photo 2017 holds court with 190 galleries representing the history of photography, as well as contemporary artists. To say it is a daunting show is an understatement!  I tried to take my time to walk up and down each aisle, standing at the entrance of each booth to see if something caught my eye. Only then, did I go in.

US Marine Gunnery Sgt. Carlos Orjuela certainly got my attention. Photographed by Louie Palu in Helmand Provice, Afghanistan in 2008, his eyes have that same almost empty look that you see in soldiers throughout history, hoping to survive but not knowing what the next day, or minute, might bring.

Here's a US soldier from the Viet Nam War with the same expression, photographed by Gilles Caron in 1967.

These eyes are also riveting, captured by photographer Zanele Muholi. She is known for her work photographing the LBGT community in her native South Africa.

This moody "Edward Hopper" image Bottega Veneta  represents the work of the American Larry Sultan, part of an advertising campaign from 2008. More loneliness and alienation.

In happy contrast, a small black and white photograph by Henri Cartier-Bresson shows two couples on a river bank, enjoying a picnic. We know it's hot because the men are in shirt sleeves and one of the women is just wearing her camisole as she chews on a chicken bone. Even though we're looking at their backs, I got the feeling that everyone is very comfortable, they've had some good food, some wine and some Pastis, and maybe in a few minutes they'll all take a nap!

I also took note of this undated photograph of Fidel Castro by Luis Dominguez Reynaldo, mostly because I don't think I've ever seen him without his signature beard...

...and I spent a long time looking at this Michael Wolf image from his series Life in Cities. But which city? I studied the laundry hanging on the balconies, trying to guess:  mostly short-sleeved shirts and strips of fabric (saris?) that maybe meant this was Mumbai. Then I spotted a quilt and remembered the climate in Mumbai did not call for quilts. I finally asked a young assistant who told me it was an apartment complex in Hong Kong, also a warm climate. Maybe the quilt came from somewhere else!

Leaving the Grand Palais and walking to the bus stop, my mind was buzzing as I wanted to hold on to so many of the images I'd seen. Taking photos is a way to revisit wherever we've been, but mostly I'm finding that going slowly -- even if you don't see everything -- and "really looking" brings the best reward.

And, finally, as a thank-you reward from the IDEM Gallery director for my translation work, I'm thrilled to be receiving this black ink drawing by the current gallery artist, Christelle Téa, of one of the historic 19th century lithographic presses in the IDEM atelier. Now all I need to do is get myself a magnifying glass, so I can really study the amazing detail Christelle Téa has captured.

À bientôt!