Friday, November 28, 2014

Thanksgiving 2014

A moment in a busy time of friendship and art and knowing there's only a month left in Paris to say "Happy Thanksgiving" and record-to-remember the feast we had at our place. Expat Thanksgivings are always wonderful, with this secret feeling as the rest of the world glides past you on their ordinary Thursday. Almost all of the food merchants knew of the holiday, though, having provided countless Americans with precious vegetables and meats to pull off this feat feast. All of them asked what it was really about and, because I was shopping at the market on a Wednesday and thus there wasn't a huge crowd, we talked. Many of them thought that it was a war remembrance meal - thankfulness for survival, for the war being over, more likely WWII since Americans lost more young men there. One merchant was surprised: "So, a celebration of the invasion of the Americas?" Could be that I didn't explain it well. And by that, I mean that I find it complicated to define: the deep love for the food and the gathering and the time that Thanksgiving brackets out for by-then exhausted Americans, and the wincing at history. I should have quoted Robert Reich who, in his infinite wit and wisdom, put it this way (the passage is available on his Facebook page):

In the autumn of 1621, a group of people who had long inhabited this land sat down with a group of immigrants calling themselves Pilgrims to celebrate a successful harvest. Initially, the native born had been suspicious of the new immigrants. The newcomers had come from across the sea without permission and without any rights over the land they occupied (you might even call them undocumented). They dressed oddly, had a different color skin, spoke a language the native born didn’t understand, and appeared to have few practical skills (they were nearly hopeless at hunting and fishing). Nevertheless, the native born shared their knowledge with the immigrants -- of local crops, planting and harvesting, and navigation – and thereby helped the immigrants survive.

In that first Thanksgiving, three hundred ninety-three years ago, the two groups joined together to express gratitude and mutual respect. It seems fitting that today we honor subsequent generations of hard-working immigrants, as well as the native born who have welcomed and helped them succeed in this bounteous land.

Happy Thanksgiving.

I've been thinking so much about immigration and who comes to what lands under what circumstances during this semester in Paris, and so of course Reich's words resonated with me. They also resonated with me because of the shame of Ferguson, and the sorrow and the rage and the loss of so much. There's little room in there for a "sincere" or "simple" explanation of Thanksgiving, of what we are thankful for. It's complicated; makes more for gladness than exuberance.

And we were glad, very very glad to be together with friends from far and wide and near and close. A decision was made early on to maybe not do turkey, and to go the way of duck instead. And so we did and were richly rewarded. We spent all day at the Pompidou (and Frank Ghery's hyper-realities of architecture, and Jeff Koons's cheek, and the permanent collection's insistent testament to striving for better was also intertwined in these Thanksgiving thoughts), and then came home to cook:

Magret de Canard with a red wine orange sauce (here)
Everything else was from the UK edition of Good Housekeeping
Brussel Sprouts with Garlic Butter
Potatoes Roasted in Duck Fat
Ginger-Roasted Root Vegetables
Cranberry Sauce with Candied Ginger and Orange
Apple Marzipan Tart
Orange-Chocolate Panettone Pudding

And so, to wellness and to discussion and to change and to hope and to gathering.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Of Scale and Remembrance

I've started thinking about scale a good bit lately, and Asa Mittman and Ben Tilghman's wonderful meditation on scale and sand was with me as I stood at the Armistice Day commemoration at the Arc de Triomphe yesterday. Scale seems to bring with it an awareness-otherwise-not-to-be-had (what's the word for that?) of proportions, and for me, this is very immediate around the enormous Arc de Triomphe. Commissioned by Napoleon (but finished by King Louis Philippe in 1836, long after Napoleon had stopped celebrating his victories), that muscular stretch of triumph changes radically in scale and meaning in 1920, when the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier is created beneath it. The flame that has burned without ceasing since then, already dubbed eternal in the need to know commemorations will continue, starts to stretch time and its scale and proportions around the monument as well.

The Arc has now stood longer over the Unknown Soldier and the commemoration of the Grande Guerre which changed war and modernity and society and bodies and everything else, than it had stood without him. These small, fragile remains, in combination with a flame that is never let out, and a solemn and grand ceremony every year has pulled the triumphalism of the Arc down to remembrance and loss and commemoration. This scale seems more human (I think I might mean more humane, too) than the celebratory proportions of Napoleonic assurances of victory. The cavalry shifted scales as well: an anachronism that somehow made the commemoration timeless, and made it stretch out across all wars - these horses held still and in formation, their energy and beauty rendering the feat beautiful.

But it would be this little object, this "bleuet" (a wild blueberry flower or a cornflower) that would make itself known all day. We arrived at the Arc de Triomphe RER stop and all the exits save one were closed. Thus we actually got to the Champs Elysées by walking around the Arc from the back. This proved to be absolutely beautiful, as the back the Arc is still stunning but little populated. We met a woman and her son who were canvassing for Les Bleuets de France, an organization founded by two French women after WWI which raises money for veterans ("ceux qui restent") especially the wounded. In exchange for our donation we were given small, blue pins and Mac and I immediately put ours on. For the rest of the day people asked us where we had gotten our "bleuets" and for the rest of the day we harkened back to the ceremonies at the Arc de Triomphe. The little flower kept pulling us back, even as thoughts were already on Armistice Day and WWI - with Mac's scholarship so deeply involved in the War and with the incredible show that we would see later the same day at the Invalides, Vu du Front, featuring representations of WWI from soldiers in every media possible. The "bleuet" in France and the poppy in England (because of the poem, but also because of the incredible commemorative art project in the moat of the Tower of London) have become emblems for the Great War that defied all scale of loss - they are radically small and ephemeral objects that stand for (oh my goodness and with and against and have withstood) the enormity and presence of war.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Fake Nature Real Noise

Here I am at the Buttes Chaumont: Baron Haussmann's last project, a rural terrain then in what is now the bustling 19th arrondissement, ex-quarry/pig farm, present-day fantasy wonderland of fake nature. But really, by the 19th century, is there any other kind? That's an unfair question for about 20 reasons, but there is something delicious about reading Baron Haussmann's sentiments that Parisians, as of the 1867 construction of the Buttes Chaumont, need no longer fatigue themselves by leaving Paris, for he will have brought a better nature, an orchestrated nature to them. And yes! There are waterfalls and valleys and little mountains (made much nicer with a temple to the Sybil on top) and this cavern with a waterfall. And everywhere the bridge railings are carved in wooden forms, and there are planks, but they're all from molded concrete. It's just incredible. All arranged, all staged, all choreographed for maximum Romantic flânerie et appeal and yet - and yet and yet, when you're there, you find yourself breathing deep and staring at waterfalls and feeling very good indeed. It's not like other parks somehow - there's something a little wilder, you get lost more easily, the green is more willful, the water has more presence. I stood and smiled with Oliver and said to him, over the roar of the waterfall, "This is the only place in Paris, France where you can scream with impunity" - and his eyes gleamed and so he did: a full, rending scream, long and loud, his mouth wide open and his head thrown back. He was ecstatic when it was over - "I haven't done that in five months!" he said which a) made me wonder where he goes to scream back at home and b) made us both laugh that somehow, that - screaming - had been missing from our time in Paris.

This resonated with dinner conversation tonight which rehearsed the conversation that Mac and the kids had the Louvre this afternoon (I was "en bibliothèque") about these two entities. The one in the foreground is a taxidermied deer to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the Musée Nationale d'Histoire Naturelle. It is positioned across from a 19th-century bronze of the Genie of the Hunt which (I hope (or maybe I don't) that you can make it out) features a stag brought down by said Genie and his dog who is pinning the deer by dragging it down by the ear. The deer bellows, mouth open, eyes wide, tongue swollen. The big debate that ensued was "which is more real?" Not entirely surprisingly, the girls went with the taxidermied deer (closer to the physical real) and Oliver with the sculpture (the experiential real). The kid who screams in fake waterfalls and feels an ecstatic release isn't going to let a little bronze get in the way of the Real.

I want to end (better brief than nothing) with this marvelous image. It's two highly stylized waves from a Viking stele which was featured in the "Voyager au Moyen Age" show at the Cluny (check out the awesome itinerary for children that you can download before you go). I'm going to show the entire stele in just a few lines, but here, I wanted to focus on this patterning, this stylization of waves - the crisp new wave to the left in tight interlace, the wave starting to crash upon the shore with its crest coming undone, its interlace in loopy disarray. And the bodies of the waves themselves thick as stone, joined and rearing, barely tempering. Whoever carved this knew their sound.

Here is the full stele. A stone carved to look like stone, with the warrior it commemorates astride his horse, his wheeled shield propelling him forward. Then a boat, then those waves - and wall text about final journeys to an afterlife. I've been doing a great deal of writing and thinking and reading these past few days, but none of it about these simulacra of the natural and their real effects. Oliver's scream in the midst of Baron Haussman's confection, the taxidermied deer staring at his bronze opposite, and these stony interlaced waves undone wind these strange elements around my thoughts and have me thinking about how the real will out in noise.

Saturday, November 1, 2014

Mystery Imposed/Mystery Revealed

I follow in my children's footsteps a great deal these days. They know the way more often than not now and we all have that sense of each other as we walk streets and metros (no child/parent left behind, is our motto). I've become aware of these shapes we trace only recently when, returning from beloved Brittany, Paris's rhythms were thrown into sharp relief. Today being Toussaint, and everything (really, nearly everything) being closed for this day of remembrance, there is a little more time to think on things like this, on intimate perception in public space, on simple and complex mysteries (and yes, that is a little pot of melted chocolate that Oliver enjoyed within his hot milk while the girls were at the Bollywood dance lessons).

The Critic Happy
It starts with the Tim Parchikov exhibit at the Maison Européenne de la Photographie de la Ville de Paris (because long museum titles really are a specialty here). The show (one of four currently up) is entitled "Suspense" and I was thrilled because it was highly narrative - images of moments of suspense in a darkened room with eerie, slightly repetitive, music playing. But instead of wondering about what came before or after the moments in the photographs, I kept noticing Oliver getting more and more impatient (sighs, walking rapidly), and the girls getting more and more agitated (stage whispers, hugs). Ok, what's up? "It's just so artificial! None of these are actually suspenseful - it's just the dark room and the music. He's imposing the suspense on the images; the images themselves aren't suspenseful at all!" So I jumped in and Oliver and I started talking about where suspense comes from and what's an authentic image anyway, and how much of a photograph's effect should emerge only from the photograph itself and how much from setting. Oliver was having none of it (about the effect of a photograph coming from its surrounding rather than the photograph itself) and I found myself defending the images even as I felt my enthusiasm for them wane. Maybe Oliver's resolute modernism (art/Art is all within the frame!) was taking effect on me. I didn't really understand what he was saying until we walked into the next show, one by Alberto García-Alix, filled with shadows of birds and strangely angled figures. "Here!" says Oliver, "This guy - he takes what wasn't mysterious and shows us that it actually is mysterious. But the other guy took what wasn't mysterious and tried to make us believe it was." I've been thinking about that ever since, this duality of mystery imposed and mystery revealed. I've been thinking of it in relation to both art and the craft of art history - nourished as I've been by seeing a different art show almost every day here, and working down as I have been to the materiality of medieval works of art, that phenomenon where the mundane and the wondrous meet.

Newly discovered!
All of which (inexorably? at the very least insistently) brings me back to Brittany. As recently as 2011 (for a site listed with the Monuments Historiques as of 1931!), medieval works of art are still being discovered, or at least uncovered, there. Plaster had whitewashed this fantastic set of images on the vault of the two-aisled church of St-Gilles in Malestroit until its uncovering and restoration in 2011. Upside down and at the top, a lioness/ panther/ unicorn (as she is identified by the laminated sign propped up on the chair below) rears up; continuing clockwise, a centaur stretches out, and then down below, a marvelous marvelous elephant carrying a fortress on its back.

Truly, an elephant!
There, that's better. Now you see it in its full dappled, soft-hooved, short-tusked, lumbering glory. I love the tumult of mystery imposed/mystery revealed here: a wondrous animal made more mysterious (or more ridiculous, if you asked the kids) by this depiction whose origins and motivations remain a mystery and whose effect is well, yes, mysterious. Malestroit abounds with fantastic creatures (on its façade and all the way into its city streets with secular carvings that my beloved advisor Michael Camille loved to write about) which is really quite amazing for this tiny town of 2500 people (less in the Middle Ages) deep in the heart of the Morbihan, that most forested region of Brittany. Mystery mysteriously appearing in a mysterious place.

All of which brings me to music.

Specifically, the music of Jacob Handl (1550-1591) and Thomas Tallis (1505-1585) and other searching composers brought into bright, vivid, spellbinding life by my wondrous friend David Stein who knows this music so intimately and chose it for the program of an unforgettable concert at the church of St-Gilles at Malestroit, and directed the choir that made it shine. I remember being stunned when Kant proclaimed music the perfect art (grad school, I think, or when I used to teach art criticism; it's hazy but the temporality of visual art and the transcendence of music were suddenly opposed), but I'm not stunned to think on it when I hear the music that David wills forth. That's Handl in the clip above, the "Duo Seraphim" which splits the choir into two and took the audience's breath away as a second set of voices floated up from we knew not where in the way that medieval architecture has of confusing sound. And by confusing I mean intertwining and enveloping and making the known (the sure contours of architecture you can perceptually trace) the unknown (the fluid trajectory of sound that always eludes stillness and capture). It's hearing early modern music in medieval space that makes me realize the weight (heft, force) of music, the love and effort of the choral director lifting the music and sustaining it in the space as it starts to fill with sound and mercy, wonder, love and loss.

I've always been fascinated with where music exists as art: in the composer's head, in the score, in the voices of the singers, in the director's guidance, in the audience's emotions. In this, I can think on both music and medieval oral tradition (especially meeting in troubadours and secular poetry). In this, I marvel at how spatial music is, how spatially involved it is. In this, I perceive how a space can amplify sound (how David can somehow lift music from the page and into his choir's voices and offer it up to the space all around that receives it and embraces it and nourishes it), and how it can be amplified (how it can shimmer into something so much bigger than what I can see). How the elephant is transformed in its complicity with the wonder of this music. And doesn't Tallis and his "Lamentations of Jeremiah" above somehow make this happen?

Because what is this music, what was this wondrous afternoon, save the resonant oscillation of a most common element (our human voice, modulating sound unceasingly for millennia) with one most rare (the ephemeral alignment of voice, space, sound and all the love and survival that that alignment entails)? I felt this most when David led "Shir Hama'alot" by Salamone Rossi (1570-1630). Was this the first time the elephant had been enveloped by voices tracing Hebrew sounds into the air to be held by the vault in which it was painted? It was, when Salomone Rossi wrote the music, the first time that Jewish liturgical music had been set to the Baroque idiom. It creates, every time, a marvelous commonality between early modern synagogal space and wherever it is heard forever after. It reveals mysteries in their joy.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Fayum Friend

Lasting presence abounds in the descriptively dubbed East Mediterranean of the Roman Empire galleries. The Fayum portraits are their emblem and immediately place you in this end-of-an-era hybridity - it's the end of the Roman Empire as you know it, and at least some people are feeling fine. The Fayum portraits are this incredible encaustic decision to paint portraits of the diseased for their mummy casings. There are still masks (gold-painted not gold itself anymore, terra cotta or painted fired clay mostly) but it's the Fayum portraits that have seized the imagination in their lifelikeness, in the memory of their subjects seeming so fresh.

I had invited the kids to find a "Fayum friend," a person whose portrait would make you want to be friends with them. This was initially critiqued by Iris, who pointed out that judging the possibility of friendship by how someone looks is superficial. She's right, of course, and so made me think more about what I was going for. What is it about any one particular portrait that reaches out to a viewer? That "speaks" to us and makes us want to know more about that person? And why do the Fayum portraits do it so incredibly well? It's not just shadows and gleaming eyes and the curve of cheeks - there's something else that makes a viewer stop and connect and I don't know what it is. Once I was able to convince Iris that this was about what made her as a viewer curious (as opposed to her as a potential friend accepting), then we were good to go. Here is Eleanor with her Fayum friend, the mystery of the connection palpable.

The mystery is what remains (for me, for others, but there are experts who can explain the details) when it comes to the Mithraic cult, a mystery cult concurrent with that other, better known mystery cult, Christianity. Mystery here means underground both literally and figuratively, and also the suspicion that maybe the rituals mean more than just their act. Mithra, Persian god, is a reminder of how big and permeable the Roman empire is from the 1st to the 4th centuries C.E.. So much so that a zodiac (there's Aquarius, Pisces, Cancer) all around the sacrifice of the bull - that valiant diagonal, that murderous thrust.

Oliver was beside himself with excitement - so was I. Teaching the Mithraic materials at San Clemente in Rome (with the great teaching text by Jas Elsner) is one of my favorite moments in the survey class, and I still daydream about a "Rome 400" class (whenever the world started to go upside down for the Roman Empire and so many things were possible). Oliver loves it when I do, and we'd visited the Mithraic temple beneath San Clemente (worlds upon worlds). To find this many statues devoted to Mithra all so beautiful and complete and all positioned together like that was incredible. It was utterly unexpected and yet there they were one after another, strange creatures bedecked by their mysterious symbols, gathered in some still potent assembly.

This is a terrible photograph of a beloved icon - I've never taught it, but now I have a frame of mind for it. You find the icon, and an entire recreated room of the site of Bawit monastery where it was excavated by (the Frenchman) Jean Clédat in 1901-5. You find all this (and it's all incredible: there are shoes and chasubles, doorways of wood and stone, wall paintings, and this marvelous marvelous icon, from the 8th century, possibly the oldest Coptic icon remaining) if you just keep walking through the end-of-the-Roman-Empire galleries. Isn't that smart? It wasn't a seamless transition, of course, from the Roman Empire to the period marked by an emerging Christianity (Christian cultures, really, there were so many), and the trajectory of the rooms takes you from one time to another and actually makes room for departures from the transition, like the Mithraic material. The Coptic trajectory is brief (curtailed by the advent of Islam in Egypt in the 8th-10th centuries), more of an offshoot than an arrival, and yet the layout of the galleries is such that it comprises the final rooms of that section of the museum. Smart. Gives you pause. In this sense, the Louvre layout is more about departures and ruptures than about continuity and transition - which I like. The monastery of Bawit itself was founded in the late 4th century and continued to thrive until the 8th century. By the 10th century it was abandoned, stilled until its intersection with the mission that Clédat had been given to find Christian sites in Muslim lands (and oh my yes, there's a tale to be told there, and yes, it ultimately involves the Suez Canal). Somewhere in the monastery site (and Clédat's notes don't reveal where), this icon of Christ with his arm around Abbot Mena was found. I immediately think of Peter Brown's "friend," of Christ as companion (and oh my goodness, doesn't Brown's new book look amazing???). The stillness of this piece has always fascinated me, made me think about all sorts of stillnesses, because in this stillness is a kind of intimacy. Christ emerges (yes, seamlessly) in the 8th century to put his arm around Abbot Mena, this older man, this reigning caregiver of the monastery. Why was the portrait made? One thinks of the 8th century as a time of change, at Bewit marking the beginning of the monastery's decline, throughout Egypt as a time energized by the advent and appeal of Islam. Stillness here does not mean eternity. In that sense, this icon is very unlike the concept of icons and their transcendental stillness and eternity. In that sense, this icon is wonderfully poignant. Its stillness (I love to think about this so much I'm going to write it again) offering an image of intimacy. The painting is small (57cm x 57 cm) - you could hold it in your hands (oh!). It's painted on sycamore fig wood, a material of physical, Biblical, and even parabolic (!) availability. Was it simply part of a much greater arrangement of figures? An iconostasis? Or was it already isolated in this intimacy? The gesture of Christ marking a space around the Abbot Mena and that which, in the cliffs overlooking the Nile where his monastery lay, he held dear?

Tuesday, October 7, 2014


The past two days have been of legends awakened, things vaguely known brought into experience. Fontainebleau! The forest, the palace, that painting. The forest took us in and told us it was fall now: a loamy feel to the ground, that sweet smell of things starting to rot, carpets of faded ferns. We mapped out possible paths amongst the 27,000 acres, tried to figure out what was walkable whence and how far, and found ourselves within this extended fantasy scape of green and grey and brown, of tiny groups of walkers and bikers, of paths unfolding and turning and, throughout, and knowing there were hundreds and hundreds to see, coming upon agglomerations of boulders: massive and not so massive forms that seem to clear the space around them and turn the trees into frames.

About 150km of trails were marked out by one Claude-François Denecourt, a veteran of Napoleon's armies who, in his refuge (not quite exile) and retirement from the world shaped the forest, ancient hunting ground of François Ier and other kings of France, into a Sunday in the country. Today you take the Transilien train from Gare de Lyon (or, if there's construction like there was for us, you get rerouted to the RER D platform) and you can get out at Bois le Roi (a nostalgic name) or Fontainebleau-Avon (as we  did, thereby enjoying completely unexpectedly, a really quite fantastic meal at the Buffet de la Gare!). Walking on 19th-century trails is probably something that I can do in Indiana, but knowing Denecourt was a veteran, seeing the signs venerating his trails, laughing to realize that there were rond-points and trails radiating outwards like the streets do around Charles de Gaulle Étoile, it was rather wonderful to be aware of the presence of this French wanderer, to walk in such bucolic footsteps. It was Denecourt who named things in the forest: the trails, remarkable trees, dozens and dozens of boulders, crossroads, and fountains. Legend-maker, trail-blazaer.

 This now-famous formation, for example, has been dubbed the Boulder of Hercules. We had come because of our dear friends' passion for bouldering, a world unto itself of effort and triumph, and a true passion at Fontainebleau. It's been happening since the 19th-century (did Denecourt himself have a go? I think of all those Bretons on boulders in the old postcards), this kind of incredible strategic litheness of the climber onto the rock. You figure out where to put each hand and toe and you pull yourself along, writhing along the surface - it takes incredible strength and, depending on the surface of the rock you decide to take on, can take several tries. It's. Totally. Cool.

Here is the intrepid young climber of our company taking one of the sides of the Boulder of Hercules. Past boulderers leave thin arrows to show their solutions - none of them look possible or even logical to the eye. It's the body's logic that makes the decisions here - there's this thinking time, this sizing up, and then swift motions in momentum, as though you're planning a gymnastic routine the second before you're executing it, choreographing a dance seconds before performing it. It's quite beautiful and nerve-wracking to watch. Our kids scrambled up a possible way, with assistance and encouragement and glee.

There are few places you can go that are pilgrimages for sporty folk and for art history folk (that's probably completely untrue if I think about it) and Fontainebleau gives a great deal to art. There's the palace itself and its spectacular grounds (and some day I will see the salamander on the fireplace of François Ier), and then of course the forest itself was an inspiration for countless artists (Renoir was there, there's an entire Barbizon school). Seeing a street named after Rosa Bonheur made me and Mac both so happy - I haven't figured out her association with Fontainebleau yet save that a monument to her was raised there (and then destroyed in 1942). But there she is.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Membra Disjecta Enigmatica

Oh my goodness, so serious
My time "en bibliothèque" is drawing to a close for a while (more work from home and in the field) but not before a conférence tomorrow on "Les transferts artistiques dans l'Europe gothique" - it's a "rencontre-débat" (meeting-debate) about the transfer of artistic ideas and styles within Europe during the Gothic period (here defined between the 12th and 16th centuries). I can't wait! Should be a great way to take my leave for a bit (and next time, yes, I promise lots of pictures of the splendid space that is, l'INHA!). In the meantime...

What's in a name?
... I'd like to do a quick romp through images and ideas that have flickered past and stayed in my mind, pressing to be written about. All of these deserve more, much more, but I'm feeling them slip through my fingers and so must seize what I can. First and foremost, wouldn't you like to have a species name "enigmaticus"? Oh my goodness I know I would. This little guy was signaled in one of the cooler cave passages of the Musée National d'Histoire Naturelle (which will get many a blog post in the future - it is a wondrous place). I had to look it up. Well, the creature is so enigmatic that I can't even understand the first thing about any of the words used to describe Pliciloricus Enigmaticus. I'm sorry to tell you that the only sentence whose words (but, to be honest, not even whose meaning) I understood was "The anus is terminal." Does it have any other enigmatic family members, this pliciloricus enigmaticus? Is it enigmatic alone? Would it be more enigmatic in company? I hope to find out more - and also what makes a scientist, presumably in 1986, give the name "enigmaticus."

Suspended animation
How about asking that "Is it a crocodile or an alligator" question in mid-air? The MNHN has a well preserved series of enigmas, mostly from one Duke of Orléan's collection (my favorite is of a tiger attacking and climbing an elephant). Here is an enormous alligator (I think) with an enormous snake and others suspended in mid-air, poised and ready to freak you out. When Iris and I were there last, e discovered that the entire museum was shut down in 1969 because it was considered a public hazard. Over the next years, the entire place fell apart, animals were several damaged or rotted, any taxidermist's illusion wiped away. In then in 1986, the museum was reinvigorated, decisions were made to save it, and it opened again, the animals re-taxidermied, the space glittering and lucid, the exhibits splendid. But these old guys (and my other favorite, the Hall of Endangered and Extinct species) are just wonderful, hanging from the ceiling like that.

Animated suspense
 We'll stick with animals for just a bit longer - this time a fluid octopus upon an early Greek vase, Mycenaean. The kids couldn't get enough of it (it's at the Louvre) and though I know of other examples from books, seeing one up close like this was just the best. All tentacles and patterns and flow. And great big eyes to stare you down. I think of rounding my hands around the curve of this shape, gripping the handles and wielding the stilled creature (oh and if I knew my early vases better I could tell you if this was for olive oil or wine or...). It's vaguely an amphora. But definitely an octopus.

Very, very still
I've long known and loved teaching Kleobis and Biton (thanks to the brilliant writing of Nigel Spivey) and while the two statues thought to be (i.e. debated to be) Kleobis and Biton themselves are in Delphi, these beautiful examples of Archaic statuary in the Argive style at the Louvre. There's a terseness to their bodies that I dearly love - their thin waists and straight backs, their chests barely amplified by breath. They are in wait and ready and yet somehow seem incredibly vulnerable to me. They don't know that contrapposto and its heroics are coming, that Hercules and Apollo will set the standards, the bodies will be beholden to epic narratives. No, they wait, ever ready and promising and somehow (and I don't understand this visually yet) deferential. Maybe it was because the Lady of Auxerre was not so far from them, and she certainly commands deference. The ultimate enigma: how this Archaic Greek statuary found its way to a storage vault in Auxerre (Burgundy!) is a mystery. And it's almost as if these two have been given the secret to keep.

Oh blighted beast! Oh loud, groaning thing! How I love thee! And to hear the organ at Saint Sulpice is most sublime. Reputed to be amongst the most powerful, best, and best played in all the world, the organ at Saint Sulpice is musical, architectural, and sculptural. The clip starts with Oliver chomping away on his gum, drawing a gaggle of goblins that could hop around madly to the music being played. As happens during hour-long concerts in a church with a minimal hand-out, we lost our place, so this might or might not be Charles-Marie Widor - he whose "Toccata" from the Symphony No. 5 was the recessional at our wedding (still the only piece that can bring a tear to my eye instantly - check), he who was the official organist of Saint Sulpice for years and years. In any case, with the wonders of technology and a turn of the wrist, I can give you the ceiling of Saint Sulpice and its outrageously muscular stretches and throw all my membra disjecta enigmatica into perpetual echo among its vaults.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Les Lundis du Louvre

Hello... Do you come here often?
Every Monday we go to the Louvre. This is our big gift to the children, and, it turns out, to ourselves and our survey courses and our thinking about The Big Picture of art history. I have not chronicled these as I would wish, but then it's only now that I realize that there's a routine, that we've actually been doing this for six weeks in a row. The kids led the way today, and because we were finishing up Greek art and starting Etruscan and Roman art, they knew the way. Gift may be too ideal a word (the Louvre is always crowded, stuffy, echo-y, and splendid all at once), but the kids are into it - each with their Louvre notebook that they sketch and write answers to my wacky questions in - and that is the greatest gift. We ended our visit today in the Roman galleries, with Caracalla here glowering at us (he's the one who killed his brother and had his memory damned - damnatio memoriae - he was about as nice as his portrait busts make him look!).

We started the day in the Hellenistic galleries, late Greek art and its fabulous dilemmas and paradoxes and complexities. I found several new works I want to teach, especially this Hermes - he's pausing in the act of putting on his sandals so as to listen to the message that Zeus wants him to bear. The puzzle is to try and figure out, is Hermes being asked to bring glad tidings, or horrible news? This was the cause of much discussion based on facial expression, body language, what people thought of Hermes in the first place. And what is the idea of a god caught in the act of doing something as mundane as tying his shoe? The dilemma there, of the divine caught up in the ordinary, really fascinated Oliver and he went back a couple of times to confront the statue. Hermes has his body folded in upon himself in such a way as to make you think... (for you to decide!)

We came up with several titles for our dilemmas: "cute and cruel" for that horrid little boy who is strangling a goose; "pain and pleasure" for Pan pulling a thorn out of a satyr's foot; "good and gruesome" for the man dressed in a sheepskin skinning and gutting a deer. Eleanor chose this satyr to write about. She said she liked the weirdness of his smile - he's really happy and he looks really happy, she reasoned, but then, chances are he's also drunk. So is this the real him happy or the drunk him happy? Does the drunk him rule out the real him? (Her questions) Bottom line, she liked him. There are a lot of Pan and Silenus figures in the Room of the Caryatids - that Hellenistic pull towards the weird and compromised, a nice smooth contrapposto all but impossible anymore - satyrs grinning at children. Oof!

Iris, mighty Iris, chose the Nike of Samothrace to think, talk, write about. I asked her what she thought the dilemma was there, and she said (and I wrote this down) "She keeps on going despite an obvious wind." I just love that phrase, "an obvious wind" - there are a lot of those out there, it's a great great life metaphor. It's also an exuberantly defiant piece of sculpture: wings of marble, wet drapery in stone - all of it. Diaphanous drapery, I remember learning in college. Wet drapery to simultaneously conceal and reveal what's underneath. To insist on the strength rippling beneath. I like thinking of Nike as undeterred, as keeping on despite an "obvious wind" - what makes a goddess like her alight in the midst of earthly humanity? Whom is she gracing with victory and why? She holds her spot at the top of a huge central staircase really well, combating now invisible but obvious winds.

Crouching Venus, hidden children
I just love this picture. That is all, really. Aphrodite crouching now, her desirable belly in folds, her legs impossibly elegant for such a pose, her head (oh what was the expression on her face!) turned just so. And the kids on the step in the back, and this crazy dramatic swath of light between them and the Aphrodite. The girls were actually trying to figure out her back, and also her motivation, and what her dilemma might be. Goodness knows what Oliver was doing. Aphrodite crouches on, perpetually perturbed and turning, always graceful and ready. Mighty Aphrodite, this one.

 These last two are just so I don't forget ever ever. And it's more praises for the Bistro Victoires - the little bistro up the street and around a couple of corners from the Louvre. It bustles and we settle in and here's Eleanor wanting to have a discussion about the dilemmas of courage (what is courage? is it always fighting? is it sometimes running away?) - Oliver quoted Gandalf saying something about courage, and Eleanor decided to have her dad draw a stick figure of a man being chased by a dragon wearing a fedora. What would Socrates have answered?

Iris, untroubled by these dilemmas and questions, sat absorbed in her reading of an Asterix find (in English!) in the little alcove that our table retreats into. There was poulet rôti, and entrecôte, and (for Mac) canard. I don't want to forget, and sometimes I wonder why I'm so afraid that I will (because of an encroaching present? Because how do you remember? How do I get back to this feeling and this place?). So, to write, to consider the details of a day, the events that make museum days so different from library days. To think of how I can be changed by this; of how my teaching might be changed. To note the new mannerisms the kids have picked up (flicks of hair, positioning of hands, raising of eyebrows). To be here completely, to treasure the ordinary within all this extraordinary. To marvel at a god tying his shoe.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Writing in Good Company

Le Lunch
There's been a lot of writing lately, all in the name of a proposal, which is a particular kind of writing filled with hope and itchy dread and ambition and self-doubt and, at the core of it somehow, this deep desire to write more. The INHA (the national art history library, basically) is a fervent place to do this, because you are surrounded by dozens and dozens of serious souls bent upon their work. George Grosz to my left; Michelangelo to my right; seriousness of purpose all around. A couple of pieces of mine have come out these past few days, too: the beloved "Hewn" (a word I can't stop thinking about when I think about medieval art) is out in the beautiful, brilliant collection Inhuman Nature; and my first piece about Breton medieval art (the incredible jubé at the chapel of Saint-Fiacre in Le Faoüet) is out in the Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies, in an issue on sacred objects that looks absolutely amazing. I write this with the usual combination of anxiety about my own writing and marveling at those of others, and increasingly with a desire to think collectively about writing. To write in good company is becoming one of the great joys of doing what I do. Roland Barthes revealed the deserved demise of the concept of the singular author long ago, but it's nice to be reminded. I love the promise of a table of contents and the intertwining of ideas, and the work of all towards some thing. I really like being a part of that. Party to that. So, yes, a public thank you to Jeffrey Jerome Cohen who nurtured the project from a conference roundtable at Kalamazoo two years ago to a symposium to the world at punctum created by Eileen Joy; and thank you to Shannon Gayk and Robyn Malo who shaped and guided invitations and conversations that created the terrific assembly of the JMEMS volume. And to the continuing experiment of the Material Collective. Over lunch breaks I've been reading Jacques Le Goff's last book, Faut-il vraiment découper l'histoire en tranches? (Must we periodize? That's not a good translation, but it gets at the heart of the question, at that insistent "vraiment" - really?), which is an ode to thinking together in its loving, searching review of all those who have sought to understand why we understand history in periods and epochs with distinct characteristics. I'd heard once that Le Goff never wrote books, but rather that he dictated them all - that he spoke them in beautiful rhetorical phrases that were later just slightly edited. I have no idea if that's true, but I love to think of the trajectory from idea to word to print filtered through conversation. Because he'd be talking to us, the dear readers, wouldn't he? Because there would be an address, a place for this good company.

After my last day "en bibliothèque" last week, I met up with everybody at the ever-beloved, still-raucous Chartier. God it's loud in there: but the surround-sound of so many conversations was like some wonderful ode to all the academic conferences, symposia, gatherings, and revelries I'd been thinking about that day. Somehow, Iris found a way (or was just exhausted enough) to daydream in the midst of the mayhem. She was indeed in good company.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

On the Un/Representability of Immigration

Athena greets you!
Good writing days, long outings, and being "en bibliothèque" have meant less time to record impressions of the past few events, but they've been most provocative, and so let's go in together and try and understand. This past week-end were the Journées de Patrimoine (Days of Patrimony) in which multiple buildings are open either for free or for free and exceptionally just that day. The first day we went to the Hôtel de la Rochefoucauld (which is fun to say as well as visit), site of the Italian Embassy - only a few rooms were open really and they had been given over to restoration craftsmen (from furniture to wood working to stained glass). Iris received a lovely nail from a forger working the courtyard (!). Thinking to see the Palais de l'Esyée (sort of the equivalent of the White House), we walked over to find out that the two hour wait meant we were too late as it was closing in two hours. Tant pis - home to feast and then see Le Carré's A Most Wanted Man which provoked much discussion. The next day, bright and early, we headed out to the Musée de l'Histoire de l'Immigration, way on the southeast side of the city (near Vincennes) which was the site of the 1931 Colonial Exposition - an event meant to reawaken French popular enthusiasm for the colonies (which was waning due to increasing conflicts) by putting their luxuries and benefits on display. Athena was there in 1931, and she is there now to greet you as you come up out of the Porte Dorée metro. She absolutely sets the tone. I'm not entirely sure why it's Athena who does so, but she is all Art Deco and strong and stern.

More than a museum...
As is what is now known as the Palais Dorée. An ode, an emblem, a song of 1930s Art Deco architecture: long, strong lines and the entire surface covered with carvings of the colonies. So a first gasp. And if you're seeing a very brightly red man swimming in the shrubbery in front of the museum, you're seeing the second gasp: the contemporary art that is present in the structure, and that makes it a smart, difficult place.

"Not all our ancestors were Gauls"
The contemporary art presents a vital commentary, sometimes (as here) an interruption in the otherwise rigid and absolute surfaces of the 1930s building, and others (as upstairs) in a powerfully disorienting parallel universe with the ideology of colonialism. That the whole uncomfortable (but this is a good thing) ensemble exists under the rubric of "immigration" is itself provocative. As The Specials said, "We're here because you were there."

The politics of the museum course, but also the race and difference in medieval art course, and maybe actually most any of art history course of late asks about presence: what is made present in a work of art, what and who is brought forth and how. At the Musée de l'Histoire de l'Immigration the question of presence and bringing forth is especially pointed. Each colony is exhibited for its splendors, for the comforts or luxuries that it affords each Frenchman and Frenchwoman. But these are not the Tiepolos of old, in which the bounty of far-away lands spills forth effortlessly from enormous cornucopia. No, these are luxuries wrested and labored and otherwise pulled from the land by the people who live there. Maroc: phosphates, cereal, and wool.


Rubber from Cambodia; silk from cotton from Vietnam; nickel from New Calcedonia (a country which only last month received the remains of one of its last rulers, which had been kept here in France all this time after he was killed in a rebellion against colonial French rule). I'll be honest, I find these images hard to show: there's something about the certitude and confidence of the Art Deco style (the thick lines, the geometric forms, the insistent profile, the stilled expressions) that makes seeing the bodies of colonial subjects bent in labor for the greater glory of France remain an exploitative act today.

Do I then just show images that are less violent in their labor? Is the exploitation of artistic production any less violent in its consequences? It's more than fascinating that art is aligned with this enormous series of natural resources (tea, oil, coffee...). (And it makes the presence of a hippopotamus hunt on the banks of the Oubanghi river more than weird - but the spears and muscles of the hunters have quite an effect). I think of the hunger for works of art from Benin, from Cambodia, from Kolkata and more and more; of museum collections amplifying with each shipment, of artists each with his or her sculpture - mask - cloth. Art, rubber, fish, wood: all this stuff brought forth by labor memorialized in the carvings of this building. Time and history have not changed the building and its carvings - they still stand, as resolute as ever. But perception has changed (right?). Is there a way to look at these carvings not as a celebration of the riches of the colonies, but as a commemoration of the labor and resources exploited? Can a building stand in the exact same spot and shift from triumphalism to tribute?

You get two different answers inside the museum. The large auditorium that greets you when you walk in is decorated with a mural cycle also from 1931 which relentlessly displays Western exports to the colonies (as opposed to the colonial imports displayed in the carvings outside). So here there is religion, medicine, roads, and more and more - all of the "civilizing" structures of colonialism. If you choose to click on the Medicine image, you'll see both nuns' habits and pith helmets bent over denuded colonial bodies receiving treatment and vaccines. The emotionally terse style of Art Deco creates/allow for this ambivalence: you can read these bodies and gestures non-dramatically, either as the facts of history (and you can go from there to see these moments as triumphs in Western history); OR you can read them as the facts of history (and you can go from there to see these moments as the hubris and harm of Western history) - and a whole range of responses in between. Is that why these images of nude women being vaccinated, of black men gesturing pleadingly up towards a monk, of more nude women welcoming the viewer have not been erased? If you erase, you can forget this ever happened more easily. If you allow it to remain, you risk perpetuating its original intent. And you are on your own, dear visitor, when you're here. There's no didactic wall text providing a moral compass through this complex geopolitical landscape. The art is confident and legible, the history reprehensible and complicated, the legacies multiple and present - the façade and auditorium of the Musée de l'Histoire de l'Immigration position you to move through that tension without comment.

But then you go upstairs. As you do, you are presented with a timeline of immigration: key dates in the history of immigration - Franz Liszt coming, the first time there was a "foreigners" designation on the French census (1851), when Pablo Picasso was turned down for naturalization, Algerian independence (1954-1962)... the commentary has begun. Now there are words, and lots of them. The first room you enter asks you a question: "How to represent two hundred years of immigration in France?" I am naïve/snarky enough to ask, "Only two hundred years?" There's an unspoken gap here between colonialism and immigration. The right is most vicious when it attacks immigrants, wishing to deny entry to any and all immigrants from ex-colonies - as though immigrants had no right at all to enjoy the prosperity to which they (and their families, ancestors, and countries) gave their labor and well-being. Does France "owe" its ex-colonies anything? Some say the debt has been paid (cf. medicine, religion); others say that dual entry book-keeping is the wrong metaphor, that we need to think uprooting and transplanting and grafting, that now we are in this together, and that to deny entry to France denies where the country's prosperity, wealth and opportunity came from. This is where the outside carvings (and all those resources that France used for its prosperity) start to make a different argument.

La Galerie des Dons
The voices multiply inside the "Galerie des Dons" - the gallery of gifts. A permanent, and permanently interactive, space, the gallery invites you, an immigrant to France or descendant of an immigrant to France, to donate an object that speaks to your or your family's immigration experience. There are samovars and strike cards, violins and boots, costumes and sewing machines - hundreds and hundreds of objects. There's contact information at the end of the video on the web page linked above in this paragraph if you want to donate something. Curator's moment: what are the criteria for admission? Who controls the display? The immigration trajectory of every person who donates something is traced and the object explained, often through direct quotes. It is an utterly fragmented "picture" of immigration, and this is where I started to think about the unrepresentability of immigration. The Museum of the History of Immigration has several modes of representation: the contemporary framework for the museum, the 1931 materials, the timeline up the stairs, this gallery of gifts, the contemporary art throughout - but none give a complete picture (none can), not separately, not together. It is a history that, in fragmenting countries and families and people (Fanon), must remain fragmentary. And so looking at each fragment is trying to understand another little piece, acknowledging that witnessing (a word that gets used a lot in the wall text and in that video) is part of living with.

La Machine à Rêve. Kader Attia
And so to end with one of the contemporary works of art, the one that really sealed for me this idea that no representation of the history of colonialism and immigration (and the French do not fear long museum titles, so why not?) is possible, and that far from a retreat this becomes an invitation if not a rallying cry to fragmentation as witness. A lot of fragmentation, a lot of witness - never-ending. Seamlessly intertwined with the Galerie des Dons, contemporary works of art by immigrants to France and/or their descendants emerge to form another layer of commentary: the most recent, critical, pointed commentary of the entire museum. This work by Kader Attia is called La Machine à Rêve - the machine of dreams. It's a vending machine filled with, as the web page for this work puts it nicely, "the dream of integration of some young women."You see these all over Metro and RER stations in Paris, offering drinks and snacks. Here, it's a wedding kit, a book entitled "How to Lose Your Accent in Three Days," a credit card, hallal certified alcohol. I soon took my place next to the mannequin to see what was on offer in the vending machine, standing next to her as the visitor before me had, thinking about the objects (all of them, every last one) and where they came from and where they were going.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Bank accounts for American residents after FATCA

One of the things I can buy
with ease now, wipes clearly
designed for Nutella crêpes
I seldom provide practical advice in these pages, but after the 6-week saga / marathon / epic tale of opening a bank account... as American citizens... who are also residents in America... and (bizarrely enough this mattered) married people... after FATCA, I reason that if I can shave a couple of days off of the saga for anyone else, then yea for the blog. A tiny perfect storm developed in that a) the American laws changed and b) French banking does not react well to change. FATCA (possibly the most perfect acronym ever for a bill seeking to prevent rich Americans from tax-evading their money by putting it in foreign accounts (note: we are not these people!)) was passed four years ago, but went into effect in France last month. We had the dubious honor of being the first Americans at our local branch of PNB Paribas to open an account since FATCA. Lord. Our bankers were all young and beautiful and totally flustered but consummate professionals and gave us all sorts of incorrect information (no, we did not need to go get a utility bill from our American home notarized at the American Embassy in Paris!) until we worked it all out. We almost gave up several times, but the banking fees were eating up our savings, which are already going so fast, and if you don't have a microchip credit card here, you are nothing (seriously: you often can't make purchases, and you're relegated to long lines with others condemned to an existence without "la puce" (the louse - the endearing nickname given to microchips around here)). SO, at the end of the live-long day, here is what you need to open a bank account in France as an American citizen and resident after FATCA (at least at PNB Paribas which is a major federal bank - other banks will have their own quirks, but these should serve you well):

  • A W-9 form printed, duly filled out and signed within 3 months of your handing in your documents to open a bank account. The French bank will file this with the American government. You need not report your French bank account (via Form 8938) unless you have more than $50,000 in your French bank account (we have laughably less than that in our account, but gotta dance anyway). I point this out lest anyone get freaked out that they're going to be taxed on their French bank account because they're handing in a W-9. You won't, unless it's more than $50,000.
  • A letter of good standing from your American bank. Turns out banks have these on file (!), but the bank requires that the letter have your full name, your date of birth, and your street address in the United States. If you're a couple sharing an account, both of you need to have all of your information in the letter. You can get it notarized for good measure. As with all documents submitted for anything official in France: letterhead and a strong signature are key.
  • A utility bill from your home in the States from the past 3 months. There's a magic lapse time here of 3 months. So your bill can't be older than that. Just print it out (electric or gas are most common), in color if possible, and you're good. This somehow serves as proof that you are not only an American citizen, but an American resident as well. Because you pay your bills.
  • An attestation that you live in France. This can be a French utility bill (not more than 3 months old!) or, this is what we used and it worked very well, an attestation (they have forms) of your renters' insurance, which, of course, you are obligated to purchase if renting in France. A receipt for the rent from your landlady will not cover it.
  • A photocopy of your passport. But go ahead and bring your actual passport, they'll want to make their own photocopy.
NOW, if you're unfortunate enough to have succumbed to the sentimental act of getting married (instead of just PACSing yourself, for crying out loud - oh wait, we can't: America is insane and has made marriage a legal battleground so civil unions guaranteeing the civil rights of people who love each other are not the norm), you need to have an original of your marriage certificate. This was the one that threw us the most - may I just here and now sing the praises of the Cook County Records Office in Chicago: I made my request Thursday evening, it was there Monday afternoon. 

Racy items from Lindt are
 now more available!
Once you have all of these nice, neat things, in crisp originals, none more than 3 months old, you can make your rendez-vous with your banker and your bank account can then be set up. This takes about two hours and you sign as much paperwork as you would to buy a house. I am way too far into this description to be kidding. Page after page, "lu and approuvé" (read and approved) and then, our favorite, because (lousy sentimentalists!) we are married, we had to sign a page basically of mutual accountability for the account (if Mac goes crazy and buys All The Art, I am responsible for the debt) which had us testify that we were "solidifié et indivisible" (solidified and indivisible, which my beloved sister-in-law, newly horrified at learning of my love for a certain dish, compared to aspic). 

End of the first lesson
Congratulations! Your bank account is now open. But it is not yet approved. Ah, ah, ah! That takes a while, and things that were deemed ok to not have in the original (our hip young banker had told us to e-mail him a PDF of the renters' insurance attestation - ha!), turn out needed in the original. Finally, five visits and multiple e-mails later and the magic day comes when your codes come in the mail, and then you get the phone call to come pick up your cards (in person, with a passport). I would just like to point out that we're not idiots. We're both decently savvy (ok, I'm downright retentive) when it comes to preparing documents and dossiers, and we've opened an account in France before (but it was with Crédit Agricole which is a regional bank and we would have had to go back to Brittany to FATCA up our account over there). But FATCA changed the game and it was a wild ride. It's over now, "tout s'arrange" (things work themselves out) and my happiness at having our finances a little less chaotic almost makes me think this was no big deal. Except that it was - and for just a simple, the simplest, checking account. What, pray tell, does one do when one is a business, or anyone deemed "unusual"? I can't even ask that question without getting into some pretty existential waters. So back to the joy.  Today, with my open and approved, solidified and indivisible French bank account, I, an American citizen who is also a resident of America, withdrew money, I paid for books at Gibert Joseph, and, the most wondrous of all, I wrote a check for the fencing team. Was it all about avoiding ATM fees and "la puce"? In the end, no (I mean yes, but, more sentimentally), it was about moving through this country with a little more ease, and a little more of the wonder that the bureaucratic epic can become the cultural everyday.