Parisian Scenes

Paris is a city of appearances. The things I remember most are simply impressions; the glitter from the lamps onto the white tiling in the Metro, the red roses pinned to buildings in memory of the resistance, the water trickling down the side of the streets, the smell of chicken roasted in street markets or the fallen plane tree leaves on the pavement. Where London is constructed from Portland stone that grows grey and dirty over time, Paris is built from the same honey coloured stone as Oxford, Bristol and Bath, which grows warm in the late afternoon sun. Where London is a cacophony of styles from Wren churches to the Gherkin, Paris has the same sense of coherence as those other English cities; it’s noteworthy that where central London has become home to the city’s largest skyscrapers rather than the Isle of Dogs, Parisian skyscrapers remain confined to La Defense. The Eiffel Tower remains the largest building in the centre, with only one solitary competitor in Montparnasse. The long orderly boulevards contrast to London’s warren like streets and instead resemble Unter Den Linden in Berlin, but places like Montmartre instead resemble Camden or Hampstead; villages swallowed by the metropolis. On the other hand, if anything the city is more multicultural than I expected, although for all the black and Asian faces on the streets there seem to be large numbers of Japanese restaurants but hardly any North African.

My first day sees me taking the Metro to the Ile de la Cite, with its Guimard station. Sainte Chapelle is an odd experience, given that so many Victorian college chapels in Oxford are modelled on it. Under artificial light, the decoration and colour on every surface gleam, from the painted fleur-de-lys on the ceiling to the medallions on the wall, while the canoped ceiling seems to float above the walls of glass. The nearby Conciergerie grand hall is equally impressive, with it underground chamber being ablaze with light. Some of its exhibitions are somewhat tacky, although the solemn expiatory chapel dedicated to Louis and Antionette stands out. I then go for a walk through the Place de la Chatelet with its fountain sphinxes, the park with Tour St Jacques, the Fontaine St Michel along the Seine before crossing the Pont Neuf to the Saint-Germain-l’Auxerrois, the Tuileries and the Place de la Concorde with its fountain and Egyptian obelisk. I decide to visit the Orangerie. Obviously, the most striking thing here are the Monet paintings round the circular white walls of the gallery; I realise that the abstraction in his lily paintings is rather reminiscent of Rothko. For the rest of the gallery, seeing yet more Renoir’s sentimental society paintings does little to endear me to him; rather better are the paintings from Cezanne, Picasso and Rousseau. There’s a particularly large collection of Derain paintings, ranging from landscapes to an odd painting of Harlequin and Pierrot. I briefly look in at La Madeleine, beforewalking onwards down the Champs-Elysees to the Arc de Triomphe. Having compared this to counterparts in other European cities, I hadn’t realised the scale of the building; from its summit, I look out to La Defense, to Sacre Coeur perched on top of the hill at Montmartre and the Eiffel Tower.

The following day is entirely devoted to the Louvre. I start off on the ground floor with the ancient exhibits; Assyrian Sphinxes, Persian archers, the code of Hammurabi, Palmyran deities and tomb monuments, Egyptian sarcophagi, the winged victory of Samothrace, the Venus de Milo, a Roman sculpture of a Hermaphrodite and Etruscan funerary monuments. The ground floor of ancient exhibits is relatively quiet but as I proceed upwards to the paintings the rooms become more and more crowded. The Italian wing commences with Florentine art; Botticelli, Lippi, Vinci, Ghirlandaio as well as Leonardo, whose Mona Lisa is barely viewable in the midst of a scrum. By contrast, Veronese’s Marriage at Cana filling the entirety of the wall opposite is barely looked at. The Venetian section is particularly good, with a lot of Titian’s portraits. After this, the interest declines save for a few highlights; Tiepolo, Caravaggio, Arcimboldo, Reni, Panini. The adjoining Spanish section has some spectacularly desaturated El Greco paintings accompanied by a selection of Goya and Murillo paintings. The German section is particularly wonderful, with a set of paintings from Holbein, Cranach and Durer through to David Friedrich. The Danish and Dutch sections are equally good (provided one can avoid Rubens) with paintings by van Eyck, Memling, Weyden, David, Hals, Rembrandt, Ruisdael, Vermeer, Hammershoi and Eckersberg. The British section is somewhat embarrassing with a large amount of Gainsborough, Reynolds and Constable on display, although there are some good paintings by Turner, Dadd and a particularly good Martin. Out of a desire to avoid as much Fragonard and Watteau as possible, I don’t get to see as much French painting as I would have liked, but I do see most of the more impressive paintings by David, Gericault, Ingres and Delacroix. I’m somewhat surprised to see quite a lot of Delaroche in one of the rooms; I had thought he was rather more popular in England than in his native country.

The following day starts with a visit to Notre Dame. The exterior alone is marvellous, with its three richly ornamented arches covered with images of the saints and Biblical scenes, while the interior allows the rose windows to be seen in all their glory. Nearby, there’s also the archaeological crypt, with a view of the original street plan of the Ile de la Cite. While I visit, there’s an exhibition of the evolution of the city from the original Lutetia. I then walk southwards, past the Sorbonne to the Pantheon. Occupying a space between a secular temple and a church, the interior is rather stark and austere, save for the rich frescos to Saint Genevieve. The crypt, with its monuments to Voltaire and Rousseau is equally stark. I go for a walk through the Jardin du Luxembourg before visiting St Sulpice and St Germain-des-Prés; the latter has a rather dark and decayed interior, while light filters through the former’s stern neo-classicism, throwing the Delacroix frescos into relief. I then walk onto the Jardin Des Plantes, pausing to visit the St Louis Chapel at the Salpetriere. The Jarden is guarded by a stegosaur and a mammoth from the palaeontology museum at its entrance, before I go round the glasshouses with their sections dedicated to ferns and cacti.

I then walk back to the Museum of the Middle Ages. A former set of Roman baths, turned into a medieval town house for the Cluniac order, the building makes a perfect setting to a collection of stone sculptures from Notre Dame, ivory and Limoges enamel reliquaries, stained glass from Sainte Chapelle, encaustic tiles, Moorish lustreware, paintings, misericords, illuminated manuscripts and, above all, tapestries. Red is usually the colour most prone to fading from tapestries of this age, but the tapestries of the Lady and the Unicorn are vibrant in all their colours. The chapel is perhaps the most impressive part of the building, with an elaborate gothic ceiling. I also take the opportunity to visit the nearby St Severin, with its unusual Solomonic column in a gothic church.

The following day begins with a walk around Champ de Mars and the Eiffel Tower before visiting Les Invalides. In many respects, this rather reminds me of a landlocked version of Greenwich; the architectural principles at work are rather more grandiloquent than those at the Royal Naval Hospital, but not vastly different in principle. I begin with Napoleon’s tomb; a grandiose affair underneath a frescoed dome and surrounded by mourning caryatids. It does seem somewhat odd to me, analagous to the tomb of Lenin in preserving the memory of a decidedly dubious figurehead, particularly given the diminished prominence given to someone like Foch. The adjacent Soldier’s Church is rather more restrained and perhaps the better for it. Following this, I visit the sewere museum; expectations of underground cathedrals are somewhat disappointed here. I then spend the afternoon in the Musee d’Orsay, which may well be the most impressive setting for an art gallery that I’ve come across, with the old train station forming a perfect showcase for the art of Belle Epoque Paris. The sculpture ranges for a cast of Rodin’s Gates of Hell and The Bronze Age, Pompon’s Polar Bear to Degas’s Small Dancer, but most of the collection consists of more obscure pieces like Carpeaux’s The Four Parts of the World Holding the Celestial Sphere, Guillame’s Cenotaph of the Gracchi, Marcie’s David and Pradier’s Sappho. The decorative arts section forms an impressive survey of the Second Empire crafts through to Art Nouveau, exemplified by Gaudi, Guimard, Horta, Mackintosh, Baillie Scott, Tiffany and Lalique. The painting section picks up where the Louvre left off, with the likes of Delacroix and Daumier. This leads onwards to naturalism and paintings by Millet before leading onto the Barbizon school, exemplified by Courbet and Corot. The ground floor also has some diverting sections; an orientalist room featuring Lewis and a symbolist section, with pieces by Moreau and Redon (as well as Burne Jones; presumably the only space the French had available to classify him in). From here on the pieces grow more famous, such as Manet’s Dejeuner sur l’herbe, The Balcony, Olympia and his portrait of Zola. The impressionists, followed Monet’s lily paintings and studies of Rouen Cathedral, Renoir’s Dance an Le Moulin de la Galette (where by coincidence I’d eaten on one of the preceding evenings), works by Sisley and Pissarro, Degas’s Absinthe Drinkers and works by Cezanne. The highlight comes with the room dedicated to Gauguin and Van Gogh, whose Self Portrait and Starry Night overshadow everything else. The gallery continues with works by Signac (pointillist seascapes of Venice), Seurat (whose circus paintings were rather different from what I had expected of him) and Toulouse Lautrec before ending with Munch and Derain.

The following day I find walk through Montmartre to get a train connection to St Denis. I walk past the church of St Jean with its redbrick and ceramic art nouveau exterior (not to mention the lurid apocalypse themed stained glass) and Sacre Coeur, whose austere white exterior seems out of place in Paris, before getting the train connection. St Denis is the only time I go into one of the banlieue that periodically hit the headlines; certainly its grim concrete shopping centre does little to dispel any stereotypes one might have. The basilica at St Denis is a rather poor thing from the outside, with one if its spires having collapsed. On the inside, its rose windows equal Notre Dame. The main item of interest is the Royal Necropolis, with its stone monuments to French monarches from Clovis to Catherine de Medici, as well as the crypt where lie the remains of Marie Antoinette. Returning to Paris, I visit the Arts and Crafts museum. Somewhat misnamed, this is more of an analogue for the science museum, with exhibits ranging from Cray computers to steam-powered aircraft; the interior of the old prior contains another instance of Foucault’s pendulumn (matching the one in the Pantheon), a copy of the statue of Liberty (to match the one in the Musee d’Orsay and immediately outside the building) and a number of old biplanes and cars. The nearby Metro station is designed by Francois Schuiten; its wall are burnished in red bronze with portholes at regular intervals and steampunk cogs protuding from the ceiling. Later, I walk to les Halles and the church of St Eustache before visiting the copy Brancusi’s atelier near the centre Pompidou.

The day after and I find myself on a train bound for Versailles. My overall impression of the palace is that it compares unfavourably to Pottsdam, whose interior is filled with quirkky rococo touches, like the ballroom whose walls are covered in shells. The most impressive rooms are undeniably the hall of mirrors and the chapel. Conversely, the grounds at Versailles are vastly larger than those at Pottsdam or Schoenbrunn and are lined with copies of classical statuary and elaborate fountains in the lakes. The most impressive part are the follies near the Grand Trianon, with its idealised pastoral (what aristocrats imagined peasant life must be like) and classical temples.

The next day I visit the peaceful square at the Place Des Vosges before visiting the Musee Carnavalet. This something of a cross between the Museum of London and the Geffrye Museum, telling the history of Paris through paintings and exhibits as well as various period rooms, like the Mucha designed Fouquet boutique, Proust’s cork lined room or the ballroom from the Hotel de Wendel. I then go and have lunch in the Parc Monceau, with its fake ruins and statues of poets and painters before visiting the Musee Cernuschi, a museum dedicated to Oriental arts, including Chinese bronzes, Terracotta horses, Ceramic camels, gilded funerary masks, a Japanese statue of the Amida Buddha and a dragon incense burner. I also briefly visit the Musee Jacquemart-Andre, much of whose ground floor strikes me as exemplifying rather pedestrian taste but whose upper floor with its Tiepolo frescos, Uccello’s painting of St George and the dragon and other paintings by Botticelli, Bellini, Carpaccio and Canaletto is rather more interesting.

The Parisian cemeteries were somethining I particularly wanted to see. The first one I go to is the Cimetiere Du Montmartre. Finding the entrance proves difficult, particularly as it proves to be tucked away in an area of the cemetery that is now beneath a railway line. Montmartre seems to be a necropolis in the true sense of the term, with monumental houses lined up in orderly avenues rather than the higgledy piggledy layouts of London cemeteries. Equally, I note that the sentimental Victorian angels favoured in London are missing here; hourglasses and owls seem preferred instead. The cemetery seems a popular venue for cats; it’s difficult to walk round without being kept under surveillance by feline eyes. After sometime trying to find the Goncourt grave I give up looking for notable graves, although I do find Stendhal, Dalida and Zola without too much trouble. The most odd grave is one cast in the shape of a cactus. Further to the south, the Cimeterie du Montparnasse offers a similar experience; Sartre’s grave is by the entrance while the grave of Serge Gainsbourg continues to resemble a shrine laden with votive offerings (including a teddy bear disturbingly covered in moss). The oddest grave here is one cast in the shape of a fish, although this is possibly rivalled by the copper statues of the inventor of the gas lamp in a stone bed, reading by the light of his creation. Montparnasse is also noteworthy for a large Jewish section and for the remains of a windmill that must have preceded the cemetery. The last place I visit is the one that most resembles London; Pere Lachaise. The vast size of the cemetery here makes it relatively easy to get lost and it rather resembles a ruined city overtaken by the jungle than its more orderly counterparts. I walk down the central avanue, past the monuments to Rossini, Colette and Musset and go in search of Wilde’s grave. When I find, it seems out of place; Epstein’s ceremonial sculture sits oddly near the copper statues of the deceased that was the nineteenth century wont. The amount of graffit it had received means that it is now protected behind a plastic shield. I walk around the cemetery, past the Constantinople themed crematorium, the grandiose military graves, copper statues (like those of Rodenbach and Gericault) and hooded weepers until my feet begin to tire and I’m forced to give up.

On my last day, I go for a walk around Montmartre, past the Moulin Rouge, Place Dalida with its disturbingly polished bust, the statue of the man who could walk through walls, before I finish my visit at the Musee Moreau. Moreau belongs to the same sort of branch of art as Martin or Dadd; most of his works show mythological subjects depicted with all the obsession with sexual decadence that onlu the sexually repressed can muster. Some rather crowded ground floor rooms lead up to two studio floors, hung with pictures of subjects like Prometheus, Saint Sebastian, Semele, Pasiphae, Europa and Salome. After that, I wend my way back to the Gare du Nord.