Summertime, holiday time !!! For sea, sun and sand, please click here. (1) For meandering musings, do read on.
As you may have noticed, dear reader, I suffer from a particular nervous affliction: while sorely lacking all natural zest for useful practicalities, I definitely perk up amongst dead spirits and fantasies (2).
Not that I haunt cemeteries or study the Kabbalah – no, mine is a very humanistic kind of spirituality, finding elation (almost) only (3) when layers of man-made signs allow my imagination to reconstruct meaning & beauty.
Thus, strolling through the Parc Monceau in Paris, I could not but revel in all those traces of a certain (past) Parisian “haute bourgeoisie” way of life. There is the little pseudo-roman temple at the park-entry (which houses quite decent lavatory services - honoring the Paris habit to offer public services in style).
There are the magnificent wrought-iron gates, the stately broad park avenues with their worn iron name plates commemorating the great French writers of the past (la Comtesse de Ségur!).
And the kiosk … an iron& wood & glass construction in the best public garden tradition which sells classical (4) garden toys in merry colors alongside ice cream and lollies (& delicious croissants!).
The whole conjures up images of nannies wearing starched aprons, keeping an eye on the amusements of the well behaved local bourgeois children. The adult bourgeois locals (as well as my retrograde imagination) would of course have been enchanted also by some of the more adventurously winding garden paths, by the enigmatic Egyptian pyramid on the lawn, or by the ponderous pond surrounded by a melancholy Antique colonnade.
The surrounding broad, tree-lined streets with their marvelous mansions ooze an effortlessly elegant Parisian grandeur. A worthy neighborhood for the Cernuschi museum, which houses the (very rich) private collection of Asian art gathered by the (very rich) 19th C banker Henry Cernuschi.
The vestibule is chic and hushed, making one at once feel a privileged visitor (but entry is free!). Then, there’s the elation of mounting those regal stairs, which are flanked by two huge & exquisite Chinese vases. Only to be dumb-struck a bit later by the formidable presence of a larger than life Buddha. Then, the sheer wonder of gazing at artifacts spanning continents and millennia….
And all the time: the soothing presence of large windows looking out over a very green garden, allowing tired eyes to drift off for a while amongst sunlit foliage.
Still under the impression of the Cernuschi-plendor, aimlessly ambling on in the neighborhood, I soon stumbled on another sublime mansion turned into museum: le Musée Nissim de Camondo.
Here one is enchanted to discover the lavish tribute a Turkish born (in 1860) French banker ( from a Sephardic Jewish family who made their fortune in Constantinople) pays to the French 18th C decorative arts, the life-long object of his collector’s passion .
The interior, abounding with époque furniture, draperies, objects and paintings, is luxuriant, sumptuous …. and yet delicate & graceful – the spirit of the 18th C French decorative genius captured. And the imagination is treated to yet an extra dimension in time and space …. by an exhibit of sepia photographs of a mysterious 19th C Constantinople and of the Camondo ancestors in exotic traditional dress.
Yet, amidst all this marvel, heart & eyes are moved perhaps most by some quiet light filtering through a gauze curtain, a fleeting reflection on a glass pane, by an empty chair standing by a window looking out into the garden, or by a mere shadow in a hall-corner.
This fabulous museum is also a reminder of the vanity of riches; tinged as its history is with melancholy. Moïse Camondo, the rich passionate collector, ended up giving his collection and his house to the French state, demanding it would be named after his son and alas never-to- be heir: Nissim de Camondo, who at age 25 died in an air battle in the first world war.
Ah, pondering & wondering at signs …
Now I don't ponder & wonder only in consciously aesthetically contrived surroundings. There’s for instance this other image from my Paris-visit that lingers on: in those “Roman-temple”-lavatories in the Monceau park, behind an iron gate fencing off the service quarters from the public area, one could spot a small stock of cleaning materials, a bucket & brush-with-towel ànd a flaming red plastic toy tractor, about toddler-size.
I was captivated by that little scene, framed by pseudo-roman columns, because it was a slice of suspended life, looking as if at any moment a child would burst in and mount its toy tractor, while its parent would grab the bucket and go on about his or her cleaning chores.
Also, I could not ignore that most (not all!) of the strolling or jogging park visitors as well as most (not all!) of the museum visitors where white or Asiatic while the majority (not all!) of the attendants (in lavatories, in the kiosk, at the ticket office) were black or of Maghreb-descent. Neither could I fail to notice, on signs in the window of a nearby real estate agency, that the quoted price of, say, a 50 square meter studio in the Monceau-neighborhood is above 400.000 Eur.
But does this mean that the aesthetic and imaginative delights of this neighborhood should be shunned? Written off as mere play-things of the ruling classes, discounted as the despicable fruit of social exploitation and ill gotten capitalist riches?
No. I mean: oh please, for chrissakes no!!
What a cruel waste of potential joy & happiness that would be! However embedded in a bourgeois culture, these are still aesthetic and imaginative delights that can be tasted by all, if only given the chance and some kind of introduction by a mentor (alive or in book-form).
This is written in all honest naiveté and I do hope to prove my good faith by the story of my own late conversion.
Actually, I became sensitive to (classical) aesthetics rather late. For a long time , in my youthful city explorations, I spurned ‘officially’ picturesque sites or famous “old masters” museums , preferring to explore more neglected neighborhoods (5) .
It was an almost chance encounter with some ‘old master’ paintings (6) which “hurt and connect”, that made me curious about this powerful effect of aesthetics and high art.
And I am not ashamed to confess that it is the reading (at age 30 or so) of the best-selling book by Gombrich, “The Story of Art” (written in fact for teenagers) which marked the beginning of my passion for art history books.
Now to further appease lingering doubts of anxious post-colonial blog-readers out there, yes after my Monceau-tour I also went to visit the Quai Branly museum “ built to embody President Jacques Chirac's politically correct dream of French multiculturalism “. And yes, I did come under the spell of those wondrously ponderous masks.
Notes including an opinion poll about Brigitte Bardot and a question about multi-coloured propeller toys
(1) Sun, Sea & Sand: yes, prudishly eluding that other S-Word , convinced as I am that my blog readers don’t need the web for thàt. This being said – I do want to attract attention to the Saint-Tropez Tourist Office announcement of a Brigitte Bardot exhibit. (But then again, are there any Bardot-fans amongst my select blog readership? Do let me know!)
(2) This rumination about dead spirits & fantasies of course echoes the Proust passage I read this morning: « Qui a raison du fossoyeur ou d’Hamlet quand l’un ne voit qu’un crâne là où le second se rappelle une fantaisie? La science peut dire : le fossoyeur ; mais elle a compté sans Shakespeare, qui fera durer le souvenir de cette fantaisie au-delà de la poussière du crâne. » (La bible d’Amiens, préface du traducteur)
(3) “Finding elation (almost) only amidst man-made signs” - Sorry C, that’s of course without counting you – (and anyway, there’s the “almost” qualification , dedicated to you and to sensual autumnal breezes, rays of sunlight on a tile floor, the sun hot on my skin, the smell of a park after the rain, crisp croissants et j’en passe)
(4) “Classical” in the sense of some happy form that has hardly changed since it was perfected long ago: such as red balloons, pink hoops, multi-colored mini-propellers-on-a stake - which -turn-dizzyingly-in-the-wind. (How on earth are these things called? Please let me know , together with your feelings about Brigitte Bardot)
(5) And I will always remain sensitive to the poignancy of “neglected neighborhoods”; partly out of melancholy disposition and partly out of an acute realist observer’s interest in signs of urban life & decay. Witness my Flickr-photostream dedicated to Charleroi ….
(6) Notably, Caravaggio’s “David with the head of Goliath” and Titian’s “Noli me tangere”
(7) Quote from concierge travel guide