Saturday, June 22, 2013

That Was The Week That Was...

I am often asked, sometimes with great bewilderment, "so what exactly do you do all the time you are in Paris?"  It's true, it is very different to be here for a period of months rather than days. There's no real rush to run around trying to see and do as much as possible as quickly as possible.  The result is that we lead a pretty normal life here, lots of regular activities along with special outings and a chance now and then to stumble across unexpected things. To give you a flavor, here's how this week has been playing out.

It began with this ominous, menacing sky. It's 11 am on Monday morning looking out of my dining room window! You had to wonder, for a moment, if it was the end of the world....but, no, it was merely the prelude to a major major thunderstorm! By 3 pm, the skies were completely clear and the temperature in the low 80s and life went back to normal!

Once or twice a week, I start my day by popping downstairs to the Café Sentier, literally, in the building next door. Here, the fabulous Fabienne, who manages the cafe for this new owner, brings me my favorite breakfast...

...a piping hot café crème and a "tartine avec de la confiture." Yum!

Thus fortified, I then head up to my gym, usually three times a week.  Just about a five minute walk away, I stroll through the Sentier district, passing all kinds of wholesale and retail dress shops, fabric shops and real estate businesses.

At the gym, I have a choice of joining the stairmaster crowd, pumping away, watching soccer on the big screen television, or tuning in to their favorite tv channel on the individual tvs at each station.

I usually begin, though, with some stretches, then ride one of the bicycles for a good 30 minutes, before tackling some of these fearsome weight machines! Most days I am very much one of the most "senior" women there, and certainly one of the few with gray hair! But people are very friendly, the management even gave me two months free membership as their way of making up for all the renovations that were going on earlier in the year!  I use my time on the bicycle to watch French television shows, and I read a French newspaper between repeats on the weight machines. In this way, I have a French lesson at the same time as I, supposedly, remain fit!

This week, I decided to do a little detective work. One of my favorite books of recent years is The Hare with Amber Eyes by Edmund de Waal. A memoir of his family's life in Odessa, Paris, Vienna and Japan, but one that also traces a collection of netsuke as it is passed through the family, and that carries the reader through the cultural and momentous history of late 19th to late 20th century. The Ephrussi family came to Paris in the 1870s and took up residence at 81 rue de Monceau. I had been curious to see the house, so I took the Metro out to the 8th arrondissement and found it! With its four Corinthian pilasters rising up through the body of the house, it is one of many beautiful formerly private homes in this part of Paris.

On the oval street windows, there is a double back-to-back E for the Ephrussi family that forms the metal protective grill. Alas it was not enough to protect the family from the devastating losses they suffered during both World Wars.

Today, the building houses offices, but when I saw someone going in, I slipped in behind them into the entrance hall. Here a beautiful staircase winds its way up to the various floors. The gold filigree pattern made me think of a wheat sheaf, a reminder perhaps of the family's origin as grain merchants from Odessa before they became one of France's largest banking concerns. I went back outside and looked up at the second floor windows, where Charles Ephrussi lived during the period of La Belle Epoque, writing art reviews, collecting impressionist paintings and buying his 264 netsuke.

A little further down the rue de Monceau stands the former home of the de Camondo family, another prosperous Jewish banking family from the late 19th/early 20th century.

Here, Moïses de Camondo began his astonishing collection of 18th century furniture, paintings, tapestries and art objects.

With its extensive library...

...its impressive and modern kitchen...

...and its elegant garden that leads directly into the Parc Monceau, the de Camondo family would seem to have every possible success and comfort in the world.

But, as this plaque sadly and simply states, this story did not have a happy ending. Moïse's only son, Nissim, died in combat during WWI, serving as a pilot in the French Air Force.  And in WWII, nine years after Moïse's death and following his gift of the house and its contents to the French nation, his daughter, Beatrice, her husband and their two children were arrested and deported to Auschwitz, where they died. Today, the house is part of the Musée des Arts Decoratifs. The contents are beautifully maintained as the treasures they are, but the sense of tragic loss that runs through every room is almost overwhelming.

Thursday found me at the Basilica of Saint-Denis, where the 2013 Musical Festival of Saint-Denis is centered. With performances of works by Mahler, Bach, and Stravinsky, among others, tickets are quickly snapped up. If you're too late, there's always the offer of a deck chair outside in the beautiful square, and a big flat screen television on which the concert will be shown.

 For this music lover, it meant he could bring his dog with him!

Saint-Denis (3rd century AD!) is a patron saint of France, and, according to legend, was the first Bishop of Paris. There has been a church on this site since the 5th century AD. The present glorious medieval building provided a change from the Romanesque to the Gothic style. It is here that all the French kings from the 10th to the 18th century were buried.

Throughout the Basilica, their tombs line the walls and the floors. Here, Louis XII lies with his wife, Anne de Bretagne. He died on New Years Day, 1515.

What could be a better setting for a performance of Gabriel Fauré's Requiem. My favorite Sacred work. There was not an empty seat as the Philharmonic Orchestra of Radio France took their seats, and the choir -- the Maîtrise de Radio France -- filed into their positions. Under the direction of Sofi Jeannin, this glorious and incredibly moving work filled every corner of the Basilica with its melodic beauty.

Meanwhile, back in the centre of Paris, things are warming up for the annual "July Sales".

My friend, Anne-Marie, who is not only an esteemed university professor, but also a seriously successful shopper, invited me to join her this week on a special preview day at Le Bon Marché!

I am normally way too nervous to even set foot in this, the oldest department store in Paris, but armed with this "gold key" invitation, I was happy to dive in and prowl around.

And there was plenty to see, and touch, and try on!

We each came away with a bargain or two -- at 40% off, and another 10% with the detaxe, it was hard to resist! The sales open to the general public next week, when every store will be jammed with eager shoppers. Who knows, perhaps I will go back...

My final adventure for this past week was an unexpected and lovely invitation to attend a dress rehearsal (avant-première) of La Sylphide, opening this weekend at the Palais Garnier with the Ballet de l'Opera.

 Built at the height of the Second Empire, the Palais Garnier displays every opulent trait of that era, when Paris was being rebuilt. It's almost giddy in its exuberant, flamboyant, style and richly ornate detail.

In startling modern contrast, a ceiling by Marc Chagall, installed in 1964, features scenes from operas by 14 different composers. Its reception has been mixed over the years, but I found it stunning, spread out above the chandelier.

The ballet itself was just breathtaking. Such a sad romantic story, La Sylphide (not to be confused with Les Sylphides, a shorter work set to music by Chopin). In this one, a young Scotsman falls under the spell of a sylph, abandons his fiancée and follows her to the woods, where, in a tragic turn, she loses her wings and dies, and he collapses. This may have been a dress rehearsal, but the dancing was superb. I especially loved all the kilts!

Leaving the Palais Garnier just after 10 pm, it was, as you see, still light! June 21st, the longest day, and to celebrate Paris offers its residents La Fête de la Musique. Every year, all over the city, free concerts are given, open air performances are held, neighborhood musicians set up on street corners. The town is alive with music. Believe it or not, right in front of the Palais Garnier, this crowd is watching a big brass band going full bore with YMCA!!

It's been quite a week.

À bientôt!

Sunday, June 9, 2013

"Every woman alive...

...loves Chanel No. 5"

One of the most famous advertising slogans of all time for one of the most famous products, and 93 years after its creation, Chanel No. 5 continues to be one of the top-selling perfumes.

Over at the sprawling, multi-level Palais de Tokyo arts complex, right by the Trocadero, a recent exhibition celebrated the Culture of Chanel No. 5, and its creator, Gabrielle "Coco" Chanel. Born into poverty in 1883 in Saumur, Chanel grew to become a legend in the fashion industry with her timeless trademark suits and little black dresses that are still popular today.

Raised in a religious orphanage, the nuns taught her how to sew, giving her the skill that led to her life-long work. Beginning modestly with a hat business, Chanel soon found her stride and moved into the broader fashion business, always looking for clean, comfortable lines that enabled women to throw away those constricting corsets, and always paired with great accessories, like these strings and strings of pearls.

And then, in 1920, came the launch of her signature perfume, Chanel No. 5, the first that featured a designer's name. "Perfume is the unseen, unforgettable, ultimate accessory of fashion. . . . that heralds your arrival and prolongs your departure,” Chanel once explained. The fragrance was developed by this man, Ernest Beaux, a Russian-French chemist. At the time, Chanel was the companion of the Grand Duke Dimitri Pavlov of Russia. Beaux used his connections to the Russian ex-pat community to arrange a meeting with Chanel, where he presented a selection of his current and earlier perfumes, numbered 1-5 and 20-24.

Chanel chose the sample in the fifth vial, and named it Chanel No. 5. Why this name? Because the number 5 had mystical significance to her, dating back to her years at the orphanage, where the paths to the cathedral (and daily prayers) were laid out in patterns of five, and her favorite rose had five petals. Throughout her life, she presented her new collections on the 5th day of the 5th month. By naming this new perfume Chanel No. 5, she knew she would have good luck.

All of that was certainly interesting, but the focus of the exhibition was to place this perfume within the cultural context of the times. To be honest, I found it awkwardly laid out in a narrow room, very cramped, with only one constricted pathway (also very crowded). The photographs and documents were tiny, hard to read/see, while the audio narration frequently droned on way too long!

With my attention slipping, I focussed on the larger items, including this beautiful Francis Picabia gouache and crayon drawing, Tickets, from 1922. It seems that among Chanel's many friends in the artistic community, the number 5 appears over and over again.

Certainly, the early 1921 packaging for Chanel No. 5 reflects the clean cubist lines of some of Picasso's collages. It's almost a collage itself, basically a small carton made of grosgrain paper, with a black border glued on, and a vertical stripe with the product name sealing the box. 

And who could resist this Ed Feingersh photograph of Marilyn Monroe from the 1950s. Monroe, who when asked what she wore when she went to bed, famously replied "5 drops of Chanel No. 5".

The one item that literally stopped me in my tracks, though, was this stunning bronze head by Constantin Brancusi, La Muse endormie, from 1910. I just loved the serene lines, the perfect oval face.

Reflecting the ideal of feminine beauty, this image clearly became the inspiration for Richard Avedon's 1970s series of ads for Chanel No. 5, featuring Catherine Deneuve. That same perfect oval face!

Leaving this rather frustrating exhibition space -- where, unless I missed it, I did not see any reference to Chanel's dubious WWII activities regarding the ownership of Chanel No. 5  that led her to be accused of being a "collabo" -- I noticed a sign: "Suite de l'Éxposition" (exhibition continues) with an arrow. Following this, I found another line and automatically joined it, assuming that it would take me into the next space.

Instead, I found myself in a whole new exhibition, all about the beauty, wonder and construction of jewellry! Unlike the Chanel show, this one was in a large, light-filled space, where you could move around easily and in any direction. In no particular order, here are just a few examples of "bijoux" from over 250 contemporary jewellry designers... rings, sculpted with precious stones...

 ...silver and white gold bracelets and bangles, encrusted with diamonds and pearls...

...incredibly ornate ring and necklace sets (would be hard to wear gloves with that ring!)...

...a stunning black gold and green garnet (tsavorite) set that just "glowed" in its display case...

...more ornate sets, this one in Tiger's Eye, I believe.

Along with all this glittering splendor, there were also several practical stations, such as this one where a group of women "of a certain age" are getting tips on re-stringing their pearls!

Up some stairs, and behind a black curtain, a row of display cases were set up like dioramas in a museum. Against this ominous "Mordor" backdrop, skulls are lurking, all set about with diamonds and emeralds and sapphires! 

And, in what I naturally took to be a small homage to Dragonslayer, I found this pendant: a cute, chubby dragon with a huge opal belly.
The grand centerpiece of the whole show was this "Collier Crabomard", made from real crab claws, representing two hands that are linked with chunks of sapphires. Created by Jean Vendome, this version was made in 2007. An earlier model, from 1987, may be found at the Glasgow Museum of Modern Art.  

A grand accessory, indeed, but a far cry from those strings and strings of pearls favored by Coco Chanel! 

Up yet another flight of stairs, I finally made it to the Chanel "Suite de l'Éxposition", which turned out to be a beautiful, spacious, skylit gallery, lined with comfortable couches, where you could lounge and pore through a whole library of books about Chanel. A small screening room in the corner showed all the tv and film commercials for Chanel No. 5 from Catherine Deneuve, Carole Bouquet, Nicole Kidman, Audrey Tatou -- all the way down to the current "poster boy" for the perfume: Brad Pitt!!  Surely, Coco Chanel is turning in her grave.....

À bientôt!