Les fêtes are finally underway! The city of Paris has just unveiled an online store, the Galeries Lafayette are done up for Christmas and every bakery is busy touting its büche de Noël. (Few art exhibits can rival these “Christmas logs”; just take a look at this year’s selection!)
A big contributor to all of this year’ aesthetic is…gold. Ever since the Sun King, gilt has symbolized le nec plus ultra, the best of the best. Of course, along with frankincense and myrrh, it’s also a symbol of Christmas. For me, it warms up winter air that is turning chilly.
Some of this season’s creations would also warm the heart of Scrooge. Gold accessories, gold candles and gold leaf are turning up everywhere. The Bon Marché chose gold for its Christmas bags and baubles and, for only 2,000 euros, Maison Yves Saint Laurent will sell you a gilded bottle of Opium. (It’s a limited edition designed by Manuela Paul-Cavallier, who creates only in gold).
There’s a shimmering bougie d’or on offer from Cire Trudon – who once made candles for le Roi Soleil – as well as a special mustard from Maille. The latter was ‘inspired’ by Sauternes wine, a Yuletide favourite.
Gold was also central to trendy Thirties’ design, the subject of the current expo When Art Deco Dazzled the World. Its splendid poster * is all over town, providing another sleek gleam in the dark.
But the inspiration of all this richesse isn’t the past. It’s something visible every afternoon as the sun starts fading: the powdery glow of old stones and the champagne tints of the Seine.
Winter brings its own delights: roasted chestnuts, Christmas lights, marionettes – and fantasy windows. For the big department stores, the latter is major competition.
Last year, however, some of their vitrines led to outrage. They were too commercial, with a shortage of visuals for the kids. At Galeries Lafayette, for instance, upscale Vuitton bags largely replaced teddy bears. At Printemps, girls like me loved Dior’s Paris landscapes. Boys of all ages, though, missed the usual jokes and action. Where were the animated animals? The little mice and monkeys up to Christmas tricks or tipsy on champagne?
This year everyone may get angry all over again. Not at the Galeries Lafayette, where those plush fauna are back. But certainly with the Bon Marché, where there is lots to buy yet really nothing to see. (Such a pity when last year there was wonderful!)
So people head to the Petit Palais, for a look at Frimousses de Créateurs.*
This seasonal charity attracts style’s top talents. Each has to create a Christmas doll using the year’s new theme. Until Monday, these poupées are on display – and admission is free. After that, they will all be auctioned to benefit UNICEF. For Noël 2013, the theme is Pari(s) Merveilleux ** and, for the first time, sculptures, photos, paintings, etc are also welcome.
As in the Christmas windows, though, everyone loves the dolls. Some are amusing – like Jean-Paul Gaultier‘s homage to 91 year-old accordionist Yvette Horner. Others are traditional, like bridal expert Max Chaoul‘s robe de mariée. All are witty, stylish and accomplished.
* Frimousse means “sweet little face”/”dollface” (in Internet terms, a smiley); créateur is a broad term that covers most designers in fashion
** A pun: it means both “marvellous bets” or “marvellous wagers” and “marvellous Paris-es” (i.e. the plural of ‘Paris’)
• The Frimousses de Créateurs auction for UNICEF takes place on Monday, 2 December at 8 p.m. at the Four Seasons Hotel George V
Given the glacial rain, it’s hard to get out right now – even to check out art or music. But the RATP, who run the métro, have a solution. Because “even during one’s commute, life continues”, the company are big believers in creativity. Thanks to them, Paris has even more film festivals, literary events and photo shows plus, when the weather is bad, a wealth of underground treasures.
Take, for instance, the métro station Porte de Versailles. Here a majority of the arrivals will be heading for the event centre nearby. (Every year, it hosts around two hundred happenings, which range from car shows and trade fairs to the pret-à-porter). Yet the station itself was built in 1910 and – like just a handful of others built in the Nord-Sud style – the stop retains an Art Nouveau character. It has the bevelled white tiling with dark green touches, as well as old motifs that feature stylized vegetation. Even how the station’s name was tiled is original.
In 2010, its métro line (line 12), celebrated one hundred years of operation. So the RATP decided to celebrate. Part of its decision to make some stations into “surprises”, the results are pretty entertaining. Four frescoes by the (female) graphic designer Tzu-Chun Lien marry that traditional green with the expo centre’s red. Their theme – ‘to every person his passion’ – relates to the Parc’s huge variety of shows. Really, though, it reminds locals of Invader, the street artist who has covered Paris with mosaics.
The platform also has big, red, lampshade-style structures. These are for ambient videos made by Moving Design and View. They offer looped collages of ‘Paris’ set against the sky. (Rather amusingly, Space Invaders float through some of them). It’s all witty and warm and easily seen in clement conditions. Thanks to the colours, it also has a Christmas vibe!
• Un grand merci à l’excellente Sheily de Parismamanetmoi.fr, qui m’a rendu compte lesquelles étaient les artistes qui ont fait cette station. Avec, bien sûr, mes félicitations les plus fortes sur son inclusion parmi les…Meilleurs blogs de la ville 2013 !
• Take a look at an original Nord-Sud métro car, brought back during Les journées du Patrimoine 2010:
What makes a haunted house? Certainly you could do worse than start off with large and ominous spaces. The Palais de Tokyo has 250,000 square feet of these – sprawled over multiple levels of unfinished concrete. Now it’s all been taken over by artist Philippe Parreno.
Parreno has made it into his own hi-tech spook house, a combination of dark spaces, blinking lights and murky stairways. On every level, a player piano hammers out Stravinsky while, throughout the building, wall lights shudder on and off.
It’s one way to try and make sense out of a massive site. But more than anything else, it’s Philippe Parreno’s retrospective. Like the long hallways, these paths between spaces and floors are links between video projections and installations by the artist. The whole thing begins with a giant LED projection, which looks overwhelming but which starts to dissolve as you approach. Further along, there’s a bookcase which pivots into a “secret” room. As you walk, you notice the whole place pulsing with sound – from telephones and rain to the feet of unseen dancers.
On one of the lower levels, you’re plunged into blackness – until a bunch of electric marquees start to pop and splutter above you. Modelled after those of landmark Hollywood cinemas, their flamboyant bulbs and neons go off like champagne corks. It delights children and stumps the smartphone photographers.
Upstairs the ticket desk has been remade as a wall of light and here everyone who buys a ticket gets a DVD. This contains a Parreno piece entitled Marilyn which is also central to the exposition. Marilyn is set in yet another empty space: Miss Monroe’s onetime room at the Waldorf Astoria. As the camera prowls around it, her breathy voice (re-made robotically) describes what you see.
Eventually, however, camera tracks appear onscreen. Lights fade up and, behind the scrim, a pile of “real” snow appears. Just like the actress, it seems we have been trapped in a set.
Parreno’s show is called Anywhere, Anywhere Out of the World. That title is taken from a piece by Baudelaire, who actually stole it from the English poet Thomas Hood.* Hood was trying to describe how a suicide felt, but Parreno wants to build the ‘Somewhere Else’.
With no expense of effort spared, it’s an epic undertaking. So is it more than a symphony of ventriloquism? Tp tell the truth, it’s eeriely like a Halloween chez nous.
* The phrase comes from The Bridge of Sighs, a poem by Hood that Baudelaire translated: The bleak wind of March/Made her tremble and shiver;/But not the dark arch,/Or the black flowing river:/Mad from life’s history,/ Glad to death’s mystery,/Swift to be hurl’d/Anywhere, anywhere/Out of the world!
Lately it’s been really hard to escape the dead. The triple whammy of Toussaint weekend (All Hallows Eve followed by All Saints’ and All Souls’ days) produced a lot of thought about what Le Monde called “map making between two worlds”. Some of the voices one heard were predictable, as florists bemoaned smaller sales and funeral directors debated cremation.
But there were also some fascinating contributors – such as Marie Frédérique Bacqué (President of the Societé de Thanatologie), Damien Le Guay (Vice President of the Comité National d’ethique du funeraire) and François Michaud-Nérard – who runs both Paris’ municipal funeral service* and Père Lachaise cemetery.
Their ruminations had titles more like those of books or movies (“The Dead Who Sustain the Living” or “Cemetery Without a Church”). Michaud-Nérard’s anecdotes about Père Lachaise were especially priceless, too. One of the city’s top ten attractions, the sprawling 19th century graveyard functions like its own metropolis.
After forty-eight hours of rain, All Souls dawned mostly sunny. Whether or not that made a difference, Père Lachaise was busy. In a spot this old and eminent, it’s startling to see so much activity.
Of course the cemetery’s most popular spots are always crowded with tourists; for Jim Morrison, Oscar Wilde and Piaf, every day is a big one. But, for once, the humbler folk looked just as good as the stars.
Nothing, however, quiets the cemetery’s true cults – graves which play host to what Michaud-Nérard calls “strange and disturbing rituals”. One of these is the resting spot of Spiritist Allan Kardec, always completely buried in bouquets. Installed in a mini-fortress, his bronze bust is behind chains and boasts its own plaque of rules. (No touching, no souvenirs, no attaching oneself to the monument). Devotees from around the world pray here for hours and it’s not unusual to find one in a trance.
There’s also ‘Victor Noir’ – the pen name of a journalist shot and killed by one of Napoléon III’s nephews. The statue of Noir dead has a prominent bulge in his crotch and the attentions of female visitors give it a glowing patina. Among those who’ve been up close and personal: Dita Von Teese.
One of my favourite tombs is that of DJ Sextoy (Delphine Palatsi). Sextoy, whose heart gave out at the age of 33, was a techno specialist. She spun for Jean-Paul Gaultier and the mayor of Paris. It is thanks to the latter she lies at rest in Père Lachaise.
There is also the case of André Chabot, who lies to call himself a “necropolitan promeneur”. The author of works such as Eroticism in Cemeteries, Chabot has an archive of 180,000 images. He may be the world’s top authority on funeral art. Recently, he managed to wangle himself a derelict chapel. Rebuilt as La Memoire Necropolitaine, this will eventually both Chabot and his femme.
Maybe this is what makes Père Lachaise so lively. Each generation here wanted to be seen – and each is defined by tastes all its own. Jostle and compete they may, yet it’s all on equal terms.
* Dedicated to helping citizens finish life with dignity, the city’s funeral services even offer a €789 “low cost” service (must be booked online). Their main web site also offers free downloadable copies of Michaud-Nérard’s thoughtful book La Revolution de la mort.
Plenty of Parisians don’t spend their weekends looking at art but plenty simply can’t seem to resist. Every fall during the Fiac (International Fair of Contemporary Art), work pops up all over town. The idea is to spread out the creativity. Yet crowds still mob the actual fair, which is held in the Grand Palais.
Even late Sunday, after everything was sold, what looked like acres of people patiently waited to enter.
Across the road at the Petit Palais a different show is packing them in. It’s a free exhibition called School in Pictures. It seems that, during the 1930s, Paris supported her starving artists by having them decorate the schools. To showcase its archive of works from this project, the Palais re-created a sort of period schoolroom. It has displays about handwriting practice, about the importance of learning to draw and about school customs.
There are a lot of vintage pictures and even school-by-Smell-o-vision. (You lift a wooden lid to savour Proustian smells like ink and paste).
But the most popular option is having your photo taken in the bonnet d’âne. A hat with donkey ears, this would seem like a French dunce cap. But donkeys are considered clever so, initially, the punishment was having to stay standing up. The hat itself was just meant to transfer knowledge from the ‘donkey’.
Only with passing time did the hat become humiliating.
If the Fiac art across the street was all contemporary, the Petit Palais show is school à l’ancienne. That phrase “à l’ancienne” couldn’t be trendier – it evokes tradition and the idea of artisans. On the way home, I happened to see a slick cleaning company van. Covered with pictures of modern Hoovers. It proudly promised “Cleaning à l’ancienne”.
School in Pictures seems to be a giant hit; the noonday news made it their number one outing. It’s enough to make one lift that lid and sniff a pot of glue!
Today I took a shortcut through Montparnasse cemetery – and discovered the place had really come to life. I had forgotten how close we are to Toussaint (All Souls’ Day). Here not only the holiday but the whole month is dedicated to remembering those who have died. So Montparnasse was suddenly much more colourful.
Everywhere, I saw pots of bright chrysanthemums: yellow, bronze, purple and garnet red. In France, they are flowers intended to honour the dead and, in the calendar, this is their moment.
Cemetery custodians had garnished the signature monuments. But family members were all around cleaning, planting and polishing. Investigating a bit, I discovered some new arrivals – such as Jacques Vergès, the enigmatic Terror’s Advocate. His recent death monopolized French media.
Now, Vergès reposes just across from Stéphane Hessel. As the author of Indignez-Vous!,* Hessel – who died last winter – stumbled into global fame at the age of 93. The youthful indignados of Spain took their name from his activist tract. In fact, only yesterday Mayor Delanoë presided over the unveiling of the ‘Place Stéphane Hessel’. The spot is located not far away from his resting place.
So, even cemeteries here continue to have their news.** It seems that whenever a true Parisian passes, he or she is simply promoted to a higher plane – going to join illustrious predecessors in Montparnasse, Montmartre or, perhaps, Père Lachaise.
* Published in English as Time for Outrage: Indignez-vous!
** The recent funeral of director Patrice Chereau, for instance, united a thousand actors, writers and other artists in Saint-Sulpice. They were addressed by President Hollande and, as the coffin departed for Père Lachaise, even bystanders joined in a last ovation. Chereau, best known here for theatre and opera, is known abroad for Queen Margot (La Reine Margot) and for his great cameo in The Last of the Mohicans.
Paris is famous for erudite eccentrics, characters such as Jean Cocteau or his friend Colette. But it’s usually assumed they’re part of the past.
Today’s Paris, however, has Olivier Saillard. A costume historian and man about town, he is the Director of Palais Galliera. Galliera, a neoclassical folly commissioned for a duchess, is the city’s fashion museum. Over the past four years, however, it was closed for renovations.
Saillard is a taxi driver’s son. But at the age of twelve he created his own fashion journal. This was ‘Le Grand Couturier’ – and everyone in it was named Olivier.
His life was changed by his service in the army. A conscientious objector, Saillard got himself posted to…the Museum of Decorative Arts. By the end of this stint, he wanted to be a fashion historian.
Now he writes “shopping poems” and, with friends like Tilda Swinton, stages whimsical fashion performance pieces. Saillard also collects cuttings about clothing-related deaths. “If I see that someone has hung himself with a tie or was strangled by elastic, I cut that out. Later, I print the clippings on Post-its.”
Paris really got to know Saillard back in 2010 when he was tapped to run the Galliera. (He insisted the name revert to “Palais”). As soon as his contract was dry, Saillard started staging shows. The first one featured the classically draped couture of Mme. Grès in the studio of Antoine Bourdelle. A friend of Rodin’s who worshipped antique statues, Bourdelle’s sculptures and atelier made for a lyrical resonance.
This show was followed by others, all equally stunning – and all presented in unexpected spaces.
Last month, the Palais Galliera re-opened with a dramatic tribute to Azzedine Alaïa. The Alaïa show is notable for its texts, all of which have been penned by Saillard. Their quirky storytelling blends fashion history with poetic similes.
Although Alaïa is a critical triumph, it’s not the only Saillard show in town. Right across the street, at the concrete Palais de Tokyo, he’s overseen a show called Virgule, etc (“Comma, etc”). This is a retrospective of Roger Vivier, the shoe designer who invented stiletto heels. Its punny title comes from his funky ‘Virgule’ shoe – a 1963 creation whose heel looks like a comma. Vivier also created Dior’s greatest slippers, made the Coronation heels for Queen Elizabeth II and gave Catherine Denueve iconic shoes in Belle du Jour.
Vivier’s craftsmanship and costume knowledge are impeccable. But that’s not why the show stands out. It’s also set up as a parody of the art museum, with shoes arranged in “Galleries”, “Schools”, etc. Each slipper has been titled as a work of art (‘La Viege aux Donateurs’), with a medium attached (‘Peinture à l’encaustique’). The real details of fabrication are given in separate booklets, almost hidden away on a stand in the shadows.
What is Saillard cooking up next? It’s probably not on a calendar. But he’s certainly made life in Paris more exciting. We’re all waiting for the next shoe to drop.
• Saillard’s catalogues are really adventurous, especially Alaïa.
• Watch an interview; this one is about the show Paris Haute Couture.
What has violinists performing in helicopters? Fireworks in the Seine? A fog sculpture filling Europe’s biggest pedestrian square? If they’re on the same night, it has to be the Nuit Blanche.
The first Saturday in October, Nuit Blanche – the “Sleepless Night” – runs from 7pm to 7am. It pays homage to contemporary art, while making it accessible to anyone. Another audacious idea from Mayor Betrand Delanoë, it has been going strong for twelve years. The installations and performances take over the city, happily mixing countries, disciplines and generations.
For one night, even familiar spots are new.
Although there are guerrilla contributions, the official program is daring enough. Landmarks – even the most elite or historic – always fight to be involved. Art end ups everywhere, from train stations to churches to municipal swimming pools. Every year’s events are focused in four or five areas. This year, the choice was: Canal Saint-Martin, Marais-Republique, Belleville-Menilmontant and the berges of the Seine.
Thanks to Martin Creed, things began with bells ringing citywide. Via smartphone apps, anyone could join in – even if the bell in question came from a bike. Airbourne violinists embarked on Stockhausen’s Helicopter Quartet. (As they flew down the Seine, viewers rammed bridges and quais). Later there were Cai Guo-Quiang’s fireworks on the river.
Always, no matter how hard you try, there’s too on offer much to do more than sample. But if the weather is good (and it was; in fact, it was great!), nothing is more magical. We just head out aiming to see a few key things. Along the way, we’re always seduced by random finds.
• This year was remarkable for the longest queue I have ever seen. Around eleven pm, hundreds and hundreds of people were patiently waiting to walk around an covered market built in 1863. The Carreau du Temple has been closed for years but, inside, Chinese artist Huang Yong Ping made a giant sculpture – transparent and filled with insects from around the world. Foxed by lines that ran around the giant building then for blocks beyond, we ducked into the Bourse du Travail (Labour Exchange). There we got to sit and glimpse Peter Watkins’ film The Commune.
• Watch the best of Nuit Blache 2013.
• The best thing about a Nuit Blanche is the marriage of place and atmosphere. Up in northern Paris, in a train yard that’s become a city park, we discovered a great view of Sacré Coeur. The park around us was half-deserted, beautifully lit and flooded with music. This turned out to be sounds from different Paris streets, mixed with strains of sound from around the world. It was the work of Collectif MU.