Friday, September 5, 2014

Off the Beaten Path of the 19th Century

Yes, that's exactly what you think it is: a cast of a hand that's been bronzed, gilded, and turned into an ink well. It's in the first room of the Musée de la Vie Romantique, the one filled with George Sand's prized possessions, and I was immediately drawn to it because at first glance it looks so very much like a medieval reliquary. When I asked Eleanor, completely rhetorically, "Isn't that interesting?" I got the resigned reply, "When interesting comes with gross, yes." Poor Eleanor - she favors her father in loving modern art, sans serif font, and sleek architecture, and is ever-dismayed (lately more resigned, though) at my love of all things "gross" in visual and material culture. But come on! An inkwell? How cool is that?

Dendrite painting
Very cool, it turns out, as were most of the objects in the museum. It's one of fourteen City of Paris Museums, with free admission for all. (Free admission!) There's perceptible difference between these and the national Monuments Historiques museums - less sleek, smaller scale, more run-down (the Musée d'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris and the Musé Galeria being the exceptions), visited by serious fans of the personages in question. This museum is in a home studio that was owned by the painter Ary Scheffer and frequented by a Veritable Who's Who (love that phrase) of Romantic heroes: George Sand, Frederick Chopin, Franz Liszt, others and others. Yet, for all the 19th-century feel of the place, the presence of the Middle Ages remains palpable throughout your visit. Those medieval connections start to take you down some very strange paths. The painting technique known as "dendrite" is a brief diversion from said path I can't not mention. Very popular in the 19th century, and (yes!) named for the same effect found in stone (which of course is where I associate the term), an effect achieved by spreading gouache on the paper and then mashing it down to reveal shapes that are then modeled and built up with drawing and painting. George Sand was quite good at the technique, and this is one of her landscapes. Dendrite. Who knew I would find a geologic term in a museum devoted to the 19th-century life of the Romantics?

Le Giaour, by Scheffer
No surprise that I would find the intersection of neo-medievalism with Orientalism - there's pretty much an entire room devoted to paintings by Scheffer of themes by Sir Walter Scott and Gottfield-August Bürger and, here featured, Lord Byron. I knew about Byron's Sardanapalus play from 1821 because I teach it every year to introduce the concept of Orientalism. But no, wow no, I did not know about "The Giaour" -  a fragmentary poem by Byron published in 1813 whose Orientalism (specifically along the lines of fascination and detailed descriptions of an ascribed violence and despotism) seems even more extreme, if that's possible. I haven't read the 700+ line poem yet, but I will, as this painting and this tale intersect so many of the themes that I want to explore in this politics of the museum course, and so many of the themes of the Middle Ages, medievalism, ethnicity and identity that I'm being pushed to think through by the brilliant writing going on at In the Middle. For now, suffice it to say that there is a young woman, there is a man named Hassan, and there is the Giaour (a derogatory Turkish word for Christians), and that there is love, combat, and death - and this painting by Scheffer which presents the Giaour as a Crusader (to my eye) and (I hope you can see this in the image) Hassan emerging from the shadows to the left. Romancing this violence for as long and as fervently as the 19th century did has laid down some very dangerous ground being trod pretty freely today by Game of Thrones, other fictions, and a great deal of geo-political reality. The thought I keep coming back to, the obvious and insistent but still highly debated one, is that France is not as "French" as the Front National argues, that the very concept of France deeply intertwines ethnicities and histories and fantasies, maybe never comfortably but always and always intensely.

Café romantique
Which gave us much to talk about during our café romantique in the Jardin de Thé (and café, thank goodness) adjoining the museum. The air was cool, the ivy was growing, and the low murmur of French people having intimate café conversations surrounded us. Two people next to us were quizzing each other on Spanish and Arabic vocabulary words (yes, wow!), the doting grandfather two tables over helped his grand-daughter out of her school smock and gave her an Orangina, Eleanor played with her Playmobils, my mom and I talked, the espresso hit the spot. It was here that I received a phone call from the bank heralding yet another delay in the opening of our bank account (now they want a marriage certificate (original, of course) because we have two different last names - Love. Of. God.).

So with the momentum of annoyance and the need to shake things off, we plunged back into the city - well, took a nearby bus down to nearby Opera - and decided to engage in some serious flânerie. After all, it's free to look, and until these money troubles are over (we lose so much money not having this French account - rant to come another day), that is a lovely thing indeed. Like a beacon, the Lindt shop called to our Swiss hearts and in we went, to be greeted by a lovely person offering us truffles. Why yes, thank you, Paris - you take and you give.

Frieze of La Maison Dorée
The wild forest hunting scenes of the frieze of La Maison Dorée on le Boulevard des Italiens, for example - since 1974 the corporate headquarters of BNP Paribas, precisely the bank that is making us nuts (of course, America made them nuts, too, so I guess it's all love and war and banking or whatever). You walk down the Boulevard des Italiens and you see this incredible building and its golden gilded balconies and its hunting scenes, and then you come to an intersection and there's Sacré Coeur shimmering in the distance. So yes, flânerie, meandering is a gift here.

Regarde! Un hôtel!

Nowhere more wonderfully than when you happen upon a "passage" in Paris. Passage Jouffroy was one I'd heard about but never chanced upon and it is especially magical. The Musée Grévin (which, granted, looks pretty awful but which we're going to go to anyway at some point I just know it) is off of it, and then the rest are antique book dealers and toy shops (lots and lots of those) and this one enormous place called the "Palais Oriental" - a bazaar indeed. There was one little shop entirely devoted to doll house furniture (patisserie displays in miniature! the smallest tables and chairs!) that Eleanor particularly liked. And then, this little hotel at the end of the Passage. If ever I'm in Paris in the winter, I'd definitely stay here, because what would be cozier than coming home down the Passage? I've had fun reading the reviews on various websites - its two stars are definitely eccentric...

... and around the corner from Chartier. Inimitable Chartier, wonderful Chartier, loud boisterous Chartier, the perfect place to end our walking tour of 19th-century Paris. The place where a dear friend of mine was absolutely forbidden from ordering spaghetti by the waiter ("C'est pour les enfants!" he protested - she had the roasted chicken and he was mollified (and it was delicious)). Eleanor ate almost an entire pavé rumsteak (with its herb butter) and my mom and I highly recommend the perch in a leek sauce. The things that look like card catalogues against the walls are "casiers" in which workers would leave their napkins after they'd eaten the restorative (thus our word "restaurant") broth, le bouillon, that Chartier was famous for starting in 1896. It's famous in my heart for feeding me time and again as a student, still being amazingly affordable today, and plunging us into a noise and bustle that perseveres, and will persevere one feels, unabated, nourishing all human complexity.

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