Tuesday, March 19, 2024

Last Word

A few last words before it's time to gather our bags and head home to California. And what better place to begin than at the fancy Le Bon Marché department store, where, under curator Sarah Andelman and artist Jean Julien, the store has been transformed into a celebration of books and bookstores. 

Titled "Mise en Page", Andelman, founder of the publishing house "Just an Idea Books", takes over a big area of the ground floor, as well as the first floor, and creates a concept store featuring an eclectic array of items with a shared theme: books, literature and writing.

Among the bookstores featured, no surprise to find Shakespeare and Company, Paris...

...The London Review of Books bookstore, London...

...and New York's Strand Bookstore.

But this was a new one to us: Cow Books from Nakameguro, Tokyo! The tee-shirt caught our eye immediately. We wondered if the bookstore owners had ever visited Toby's Feed Barn in Pt. Reyes Station and seen their iconic Cow tee-shirt!

Everywhere you looked there were signs promoting the habit and art of reading, here with a photo of Marcel Proust on a book cover...

...or for younger readers, some favorite characters on the cover...

...even Charlie Brown got in on the act!


 Then there were products tied to literary figures or to the world of writing and reading in general. Here's a bag of Honoré de Balzac tea leaves, for that all important cuppa! 

And how many writers do their best work in their pajamas, (not to mention some blog writers, ahem) although maybe not in fancy Figaret pjs!

Maybe you've always fancied a custom-made reading stool...

...and who could resist some chocolate from  La Mère de la Famille chocolate store, although that large egg would take some time to digest!

For the really high-end customer, this no doubt ranks as a "must buy": Bang & Olufsen speakers, covered with Jean Julien's "NouNou" characters.

Tying the spaces and floors together, Jean Julien's whimsical Blue Man appears in giant size, here sitting on a pile of books, reading, towering over counters selling jewelry, perfumes and cosmetics.

Here, where he looks as though he is about to step up onto the balcony railing of the next floor up...

...and, finally, safely onto the second floor, he clambers onto his book-bed, ready to close his eyes and call it a day!

If you were not sleepy, though, the next room opens up into Le Bon Marché's elegant, large bookstore...

...where Monsieur Proust is featured prominently in the English language section. (I think they must have known Matthew would be visiting that day!)

Another recent outing took us to this imposing private house ("hôtel particulier") we have passed many times over the years, on Place St. Georges in the 9th arr. The former home of Adolph Thiers, 19th century journalist, historian, art and book collector and politician, today it houses the Dosne-Thiers Foundation, created in 1905, dedicated to the creation and maintenance of a library of the history of France.

The story of Adolph Thiers is rather more complex than that he was a journalist and a distinguished historian, however. Throughout the tumultuous 19th century history of France, he managed to both promote and discourage dissent, support the return of the Monarchy, and then oppose it. During his long life (1797-1877), he belonged to no fewer than six political parties, from Conservative, Liberal, Conservative, Independent and moderate Republican.

An ardent admirer of Napoleon, (they shared the fact of short stature) the Thiers house is full of images of the Emperor. This bust greets you inside the front door...

...several adornments reflect the Napoleonic era, such as this clock...

...and in almost every room, a painting of his hero, here shown with Josephine by an unknown artist. His crowning achievement in his devotion to Napoleon happened in 1840, when he arranged for the return of Napoleon's remains from St. Helena, and supervised the construction of the Emperor's tomb at Les Invalides. 

Today, it is one of the more popular items on the tourist agenda, welcoming visitors from around the world, fascinated by the mystique of Napoleon.

Photo by Nadar

Throughout his political life, Adolph Thiers held positions of high rank in government, until power swung in a different direction forcing him to step down, join the opposition, or even go into exile. During his lifetime, the country vacillated from a Republic, to the restoration of the Monarchy, and then back to being a Republic, and yet one more period of Monarchy rule, before ultimately establishing the Third Republic in 1870. 

Through all the turmoil, whether in or out of power, Thiers remained a devoted student of history, writing a ten-volume history of the French Revolution, a sympathetic account which established his reputation as a man of letters. He followed this with History of the Consulate and the Empire, in twenty volumes, which became a big success at a time when the French public was looking for heroes. He also became an avid collector of art, an admirer of the paintings of Velasquez, a frequent visitor to galleries and museums in Paris.

In 1833, Thiers married Elise Dosne, and with help from his father-in-law, he purchased the land at what is now Place St. Georges, where he built his house. Here he built up his library and art and furniture acquisitions into a famed collection.

As a member of  l'Académie Française, he acquired special robes to wear when he attended events as an "Académicien".

And he walked with a cane that included his own head as the knob!

"Le Rève" (Edouard Détaille)

In 1870, the Franco-Prussian War ended in a humiliating French defeat.  It also led to the end of the Second Empire. Adolph Thiers had opposed the war, and he was seen as the wise man who had foreseen the folly of pursuing such a policy without adequate military power. He was also clever enough to remain out of the national defense government set up after the fall of Napoleon III in September, and had no responsibility for the final French surrender in January 1871. As a result, he was placed in the ideal position to be appointed the first President of the Third Republic. 

Through deft financial skills, President Thiers made the full payment of the indemnity owed to Germany in record time, ending the German military occupation of French territory, and earning the gratitude of towns and villages throughout Alsace and Lorraine.

The other side of the coin of Adolph Thiers' legacy, though, concerns his response to the Paris Commune. As the brand-new President of the brand-new Third French Republic, he sought to restore order by ruthlessly using troops to defeat the insurrection from March to May 1871. In so doing, he  destroyed for many years the strength of French Socialists and workers’ movements. In retaliation, members of the Commune set fire and destroyed his house on Place St. Georges. Thiers had already moved many of his books, papers and paintings to the Louvre for safety. Some were then transferred to the Tuileries Palace, which in turn was burnt to the ground by the Communards.

The family worked to rebuild its collections and real estate assets. In 1873, the architect Alfred Aldrophe was commissioned to build a new mansion on the ruins of the old one. In recent years, the gardens have become a public park.

Today, the Hôtel Dosne-Thiers is run by the Institut de France on behalf of the Fondation Dosne-Thiers. The former salons, bedchambers, dining rooms have become public reception areas that are rented out for conferences and personal or professional social gatherings. The spirit of Adoloph Thiers still resides here, however,  in the very heart of the mansion: in the library. Here, scholars and historians come from all over the globe to study the over 150,000 volumes, brochures, periodicals, prints and drawings and manuscripts that preserve the history of France (political, military, general, social and administrative) from 1789 to 1914. 

In his long lifetime and career, Adolph Thiers witnessed four changes of regime, deftly navigating each one to his own advantage, and held fast to the close connections between journalism, historical writing, and politics, a position not uncommon in nineteenth-century France. His image, as the writer Jean Vidalenc wrote, was of an "old, shrewd, and wise patriot, although, by those of left-wing sympathies, he was never regarded as anything but an inveterate enemy of social reform!"


A brief fashion update before we leave: white woolen coats are still to be seen everywhere, on the streets and in the shops, so definitely the "in" clothing item this winter. They are also showing up at the dry cleaners, whose owners are no doubt very happy to get the extra business! For spring, it's looking like *very* bright colors:


At the Théâtre du Châtelet's current presentation, though, there is a distinct absence of color. Matthew Bourne's London ballet company is in town with their interpretation of "Romeo and Juliet", music by Sergei Prokoviev. When a friend was unable to use her tickets, we leapt at the chance to see this singular production.

photo by Johan Persson

Instead of the sumptuous colors of the Renaissance period normally associated with this ballet in both costumes and sets, Matthew Bourne presents a stark, dystopian futuristic world, predominantly in white. The Verona Institute houses troubled teenagers who are forcefully policed by prison guards and doctors. Freedom is limited, participation in the daily routines of exercise and medical injections are not optional. The prison bars stress the message.

Into this restricted world steps Romeo, dropped off by his parents who can no longer handle his errant behaviour. And so the relationship with Juliet begins. At the "social party" organized by the prison staff, Prokoviev's music guides the audience with its familiar motifs. The lovers entwine and begin the "balcony pas-de-deux", except here, it covers the whole stage in a series of beautiful fluid motions, the couple holding a kiss as they float up both sides of the stairs and both sides of the balcony. Truly breathtaking.

photo by Johan Persson

With this new interpretation, there are no warring families or sword fights. Instead, there is sexual harassment (Tybalt, as the prison guard, assaults Juliet). In a drunken state he later comes upon the lovers and in the ensuing fracas, that brings the other dancers onto the stage, Tybalt pulls a gun, Mercutio is killed, and Romeo strangles Tybalt! (The program notes give warning of the violence). All this to the thunderous Prokoviev score. We were completely mesmerized.

At the end, Bourne departs from the Shakespeare narrative to reach his same tragic conclusion, the death of both Romeo and Juliet. As the curtain fell, the audience stood and gave a tremendous ovation that continued through many curtain calls. The setting, choreography, lighting, drama, dancing were spectacular, different, modern and "inoubliable". And then there was the music... It was the perfect evening out, and coming so close to our departure, a fine finale to this year's blog. Thank you for following our various adventures!

 “For never was a story of more woe
Than this of Juliet and her Romeo.”

Au Revoir!

Monday, March 4, 2024

Above and Below Ground!

 Just a week after our fateful, wallet-snatching ride on the #9 Metro line, we took a deep breath and got back on the same line to continue what we had planned on that day: a visit, ironically, to an exhibition about the history of the Paris Metro, and its future plans, presented at the Cité de l'Architecture et Patrimoine on the Place du Trocadero. "I wonder if they'll talk about pickpockets," we asked ourselves!

 A big poster at the entrance linked the origins of the Metro to the future plans for this highly successful mode of transportation. 

We read in the introduction that following Haussmann's grand  overhaul of Paris streets and buildings, over 100 projects for a metro system were designed and proposed during the second half of the 19th century, none of which came to fruition.

This one, from 1854, was designed to link the Gare de l'Est with Les Halles...

...another, from 1868, preferred an above ground design...

...and this one, 1887, combined normal life above with the new form of travel below.

Meanwhile, across the Channel, Londoners were way ahead of their Parisian counterparts, taking to their new underground form of travel (the Tube) as early as 1863. Rattling through dusty, dark tunnels in open carriages must have been quite the ticket, a bit like heading into a ride at Disneyland! New York and Berlin were not far behind, with the Subway and the Stadtbahn.

Parisians, meanwhile, were still in the world of horse-drawn omnibuses to get themselves around the ever-growing city. Although the idea of a Metropolitan underground railway captured the imagination, it also raised misgivings -- fear of travelling underground, fear that the city's monuments and vistas might be harmed. 

Finally, in 1895, with the 1900 Paris Exposition looming, the French Government relented, and gave permission for the city of Paris to build a local metropolitan rail system within the urban perimeter of the Thiers Wall. Constructed between 1841 and 1846, the Thiers Wall was the last of the defensive walls of Paris, some 21 miles long, forming a complete circle around the city, as it was then.

In 1897, the project by municipal chief engineer, Fulgence Bienvenüe, for an "electric-powered metropolitan railway to transport passengers and their hand luggage", was adopted by the city council. The first part of the project comprised six lines. The first, Porte de Vincennes-Porte Maillot, crossing Paris from east to west, went into service on July 19, 1900. It took just over twenty months to complete, and began the long adventure on rails.

It was Monsieur Bienvenüe who wrote the motto for this new venture: "By the lightning stolen from Jupiter, the offspring of Prometheus are driven through the underworld".

The  work was arduous, as captured in this painting by Gaston Brun in 1899. Working on line 1 under Place de l'Etoile, two miners use pickaxes to dislodge the subsoil, which varied greatly in different parts of the city.


Tunnels began to take shape below ground...

 ...in dark, difficult conditions...

 ...other tracks were built above ground...

...at Les Abbesses station in Montmartre, the tunnel had to go 31 meters deep due to the presence of old gypsum quarries. Passengers had the choice of endless stairs, or an elevator. Similar choices greeted people at Le Cité and St. Michel due to rail lines running under the Seine...

...this model shows the bowels of the Place de l'Opéra and its complex mix of water, gas, electricity lines, sewage networks, and 3 Metro lines...

...and for an above ground look, artist Luigi Loir painted the rue de Rivoli near where the Louvre-Rivoli metro stop is today. The street was cut open in trenches. Later, the huge opening was covered by a metal deck over which the rhythm of the city resumed. In the meantime, the construction site and its workers offered passers-by a spectacular show. The painting was shown at the 1900 Salon des Artistes, where it received praise for the lovely twilight setting.

Caricaturists had a field day with the emerging new rail system, one portraying La Marianne with Moulin Rouge models on her crown and tracks running every which way!

One of the names most associated with the Metro, and one whose work is still highly visible today, is Hector Guimard, a master of Art Nouveau design. At the time (1900), people feared descending into the bowels of the city, replete with potential epidemics. The city called for a design competition to allay these fears. Guimard's designs were selected for their welcoming, reassuring shapes, drawing often on images from nature.

The guardrail design on the left, found at station entrances, has the shape of a carapace, while the orange-red light fixtures were installed atop support poles at the same entrances. The glass shades often took the form of sprigs of lily of the valley. Station interiors reflected the hygienic concerns of the day, with the use of white tiles that were bright and easy to clean. As the exhibit text added: "Electric bulbs lighted the underground space, accompanying passengers inside the cars, illuminating the tunnels through which they passed, guiding them like an Ariadne's thread."

Our very own Sentier Line 3 metro entrance still proudly boasts Hector Guimard's original lettering and shield above, a bit weathered but welcoming as ever. 

For many years, you could travel 1st or 2nd class, the latter offering hard wooden seats. Matthew remembers that option still being available when he was here as a student in 1963.

Metro-themed games and model cars delighted kids of all ages!

And let's not forget all those films with scenes set on the Metro. In this still from an unnamed movie clip, the actor (who looks like Henry Fonda, but isn't) stands close to another passenger, a newspaper in his hands. As the clip continues, he proceeds to deftly fold his paper, and lean a little toward the man. He exits the train at the next stop, sits down on a station bench, unfolds his newspaper and, voilà, there is the man's wallet, stolen as smoothly as mine was!!

And then we spotted Marcel Gromaire's 1923 painting, "The Metro Car", with passengers all crammed together, which also gave me pause for all the wallets and purses that could so easily be rifled...


After the introduction of the RER (Réseau Express Régional) service in the 1960s, connecting the center of Paris to regional destinations beyond the city limits, the city is now developing the Grand Paris Express, the largest civil engineering project currently underway in Europe. In order to service the many new towns that have sprouted within a 30 mile radius of Paris, the Grand Paris Express is developing a double loop in the area between the city of Haussmann and these new towns. Four lines are under construction at the moment, lines 15, 16, 17, and 18.

As well as involving architects in the planning, the development also includes artists working in tandem with the architects to integrate art into the construction. In this design model for the Chatillon-Montrouge intermodal station (which serves line 13, the new line 15 and the T6 Tramway) flights of stairs, escalators and walkways are designed to increase the sense of height and space. The diamond-shaped central drop well throws a different perspective on the lower levels. And artist Laurent Grasso's sky-inspired ceiling hangs over everything with its shimmering almost Renaissance-like trompe-l'oeil effect.

At the St.Maur-Creteil station (also on line 15, which forms a circle around the city), architect Cyril Trétout has designed a large, luminous disk that covers an abyssal cylinder 52 meters below ground-level. He has eliminated the escalators. Instead, the 17-meter diameter of the shaft is punctuated with 11 elevators with transparent cabins. In the center "a monumental staircase unfurls to the ground like an orange peel, in a movement of continuity with the light,"

Collaborating with Cyril Trétout, artist Susanna Fischer uses the elements that compose the stairway to create a dense array of very thin cables that form an abstract ribbon-like shape in space and vibrate in the air. The prototype on display here shimmered under the lighting.

Le Corneuve Six-Routes station (line 16), designed by architects Frédéric Chartier and Pascale Dalix, features a predominantly brick interior and a plant-covered facade, a reflection of the town's working class past, and a nearby park. Here on the second level, artist Duy Anh Nhan Duc has created a root system formed by joining the lines of the palm of the hand of several hundred La Courneuve residents.  

He also collected plants of various species from nearby Parc Georges-Valbon. These plants are dried and, in some cases, gilded by the artist, before being preserved in transparent resin walls. Really stunning! I, for one, cannot wait to see all these stations when the work is completed!


Back above ground, another recent outing took us to the Opéra Garnier, that opulent, ornate building, completed in 1875, that dominates the Place de l'Opéra. When I say "above ground", I'm not really referring to the fact that we were no longer in the Metro. In this instance "above ground" refers to a current exhibit at the Opéra Garnier, describing the dazzling dancing artistry of Rudolph Nureyev.

Margot Fonteyn & Rudolph Nureyev in "Giselle" 1962

While visiting Paris on a tour with the Kirov Ballet in 1961, 23-year-old Nureyev chose to seek asylum and not return to his native Russia. In 1962, he landed in London with the Royal Ballet, whose prima ballerina at the time was Margot Fonteyn. Although 19 years his senior, their collaboration took the dancing world by storm for the next twelve years. I was incredibly lucky to see them dance together in London in 1962, and can attest to her unparalleled grace and his explosive energy as nothing short of magical. His ability to remain "above ground" during his leaps defied gravity for what seemed like endless minutes. I have never forgotten the experience.

The current exhibition at the Opéra Garnier marks the 30th anniversary of Nureyev's death, and focuses on his years with the National French Ballet. Throughout his career, he had an intense and fruitful relationship with the Paris opera and its ballet. He frequently danced there as a guest artist "étoile", and following his twelve years with the Royal Ballet in London, he became choreographer of the Paris Opera Ballet from 1974 to 1992, and Director of Dance from 1983 to 1989.

Passing above the grand staircase that attracts visitors from all around the world, we paused to take in the scale and the ornamentation that greets patrons when they arrive for a ballet performance.

Inside the exhibition, we found ourselves surrounded by dozens and dozens of exquisite costumes worn by Nureyev, this one from "Swan Lake"...

...a  sparkling, bejeweled jacket for "Sleeping Beauty"...

...and this gorgeous Matador top from "Don Quixote"...

 ...in a dark corner, we even spotted a pair of Nureyev's ballet slippers, pretty tattered and torn!

Nicholas Georgiadis costume design for "Sleeping Beauty"

As we admired other costumes and  many costume design sketches, we learned that Nureyev made a name for himself in works created by the Ballets Russes, such as Balanchine's "Apollon musagète" and Fokine's "Petrushka".  He performed in the great repertoire roles, including "Giselle", "Swan Lake", and "La Syphide", alongside Noella Pontois and Ghislaine Thesmar, who were soon to become his favourite partners.

Costume for the ballet "Raymonda"

He danced in all the ballets he created or re-staged for the Company (Basilio in "Don Quixote", Jean de Brienne in "Raymonda", Drosselmeyer in "The Nutcracker", the Prince in "Swan Lake", Mercutio in "Romeo and Juliet", to name just a few.

Nicholas Georgiadis-designed costume for "Don Quixote"

Always interested in other choreographic languages, Nureyev also performed in ballets by Roland Petit "Paradis perdu)" Jerome Robbins "Afternoon of a Faun", and Maurice Bejart, whose "Chant du compagnon errant" was the last ballet he performed at the Palais Garnier in 1990.

As a choreographer, Nureyev not only presented ballets inherited from illustrious predecessors, he developed his own works, including "Cinderella" (1986), which made a particularly forceful impression by transposing Charles Perrault's fairy tale into the Hollywood world of the 1930s. Cinderella's costume shown in the exhibition was designed by another highly regarded artist, Hanae Mori. I would love to have seen that interpretation!

Rudolph Nureyev on the rooftop of the Opéra Garnier

In 1989, Rudolph Nureyev received long-waited approval from the Soviet authorities to return to Russia. He danced in "La Sylphide" at the Kirov Theatre in Leningrad, where he had not been since 1961! By now, his AIDS diagnosis was taking its toll. His health was failing, and his final production for the Paris Opera,“Bayadère”, was completed in October, 1992 only with painful difficulty, helped by the colleagues he trusted. Rudolph Nureyev passed away in January, 1993. He once wrote:

“The main thing is dancing, and before it withers away
from my body, I will keep dancing till the last moment,
the last drop.”


À Bientôt!