I have been lost in Paris twice. The first time was harrowing; late at night as a student in a now-inconceivable world without smartphones, no cash, unsure of my hotel’s name, and only a faint recollection of high school French to get me by. This year, though, it was more metaphorical and with a universal language; I was absorbed into the perception-challenging, barrier-breaking world of Paris’s art and culture. This time I didn’t feel like a visitor looking on, but as part of something bigger than me: a melting pot of cultures, where talents are encouraged and celebrated, or harshly criticised, but never ignored. A place where art in all its forms can flourish and does so everywhere – not just in wealthy communities, or museums and concert halls, but on streets, in parks, in tiny theatres and in artists’ collectives.
While Paris has long been recognised as the world’s culture capital, this year is rather extraordinary. With a characteristic show of French resilience in the wake of the Paris attacks, the authorities haven’t only increased security enormously, but have launched a not-to-be-missed, life-affirming art and culture calendar for 2017 to ensure the city remains the world’s favourite tourist destination. In fact, there has never been a better time to visit, with a programme of more than 500 events planned (see saisonculturelee.fr for the full cultural diary).
Sculpture comes to life
In a fitting coincidence, 2017 marks the death centenary of one of France’s most beloved and influential artists, sculptor Auguste Rodin, with plenty of exhibitions across Paris and the world to mark the occasion. We choose Rodin: The centennial exhibition (running until July 31) at the Grand Palais, which proves the perfect setting to showcase the sculptures’ every angle, curve and texture. The enormous glass-domed roof on the ornate stone building floods it with natural light, and the windows have been left unobstructed as far as possible, while features such as its dramatic staircase have been used as flattering backdrops. There are 200 of Rodin’s own works on show, as well as sculptures and drawings from those he influenced, including Picasso, Bourdelle and Matisse.
‘The body is a cast that bears the imprint of our passions,’ said Rodin, and the exhibition illustrates how he changed the artform from convention to expression. But while he was celebrated for breathing life into sculpture, his work was not without controversy – sometimes even for being too good. When the Age of Bronze (1877) was first displayed in Paris, the lifelike male form was so realistic that Rodin was accused of surmoulage – taking a cast from a live model. Defending himself by writing to the newspapers with photos of the real-life model for comparison, and with other artists on his side, he was eventually exonerated. While a trying time for him, the furore brought attention to his work and he was awarded with the commission for the Gates of Hell, which led, of course, to its crowning glory and his most well-known piece, The Thinker.
The art of couture
Sticking with sculpture, in a broader sense, we head to Musée Bourdelle, where there is a fascinating interplay between the sculptures of Frenchman Antoine Bourdelle (1861-1929) and clothes by legendary Spanish designer Cristóbal Balenciaga (1895-1972) called Balenciaga: Working in black (running until July 16). If you hadn’t thought of fashion as an artform, this is where you’ll change your mind. The similarities are obvious: both sculpture and fashion focus on the human form and the choices of materials used are vital, while the finishing details are a test of craftsmanship and skill. This display did challenge curators, though, as sculptures are best shown off fully illuminated, while light is harmful to fabric, particularly as only Balenciaga’s black garments are displayed. Where necessary, then, the outfits each have a stage box, where you pull back the curtain to reveal the outfit, adding to the drama.
There are over 100 pieces from the couturier, and it’s amazing how many of the outfits designed as far back as the 1930s could easily be worn today. The exception would be some of the abstract creations from the 1960s, which would probably need Lady Gaga to pull them off. Some were even designed not to be sat in – so the fashionable socialite would pull up in her limo, have a quick change in the back, then stay on her feet all evening looking gorgeous at a cocktail party. But the bigger surprise to a fashion dilettante is just how many variables go into making an outfit extraordinary – from the choice of material (Balenciago had several developed especially for him) and the art of cutting the fabric based on its properties, to how the seams, darts and gathers give curves to volumes or hollow them out – this is where art meets science. As someone not known to pass up a pain au chocolate, I am fascinated by how easy it is to tell which of the outfits had been worn by runway models and which by clients, simply by glancing at the size of the waistbands!
Painting by numbers
Next it’s on to painting, and the tourist magnets of the Louvre and the Musée d’Orsay. While the Louvre houses paintings from all the major European schools from the 13th century to 1848, the d’Orsay takes on the period from 1848 to 1914, with most of the work created by French artists, who were flourishing during this period.
In addition to the Louvre’s most famous inhabitants, the Mona Lisa and the Venus de Milo, this year sees the museum celebrating the Dutch Golden Age, including exhibitions devoted to Rembrandt, Vermeer and Dutch drawings. We visit what is viewed as the museum’s biggest drawcard in years: Vermeer and the Masters of Genre Painting (running until May 22). The success of this exhibition surprised even the organisers, with 9,500 people showing up on the first day, and 40,000 in the first week. In fact, demand for bookings was so high it crashed the museum’s website and timeslots have been imposed, with a maximum of 250 visitors at a time. One reason for its popularity is that, for the first time since 1966, it brings together 12 of Vermeer’s paintings – representing about a third of the artist’s work. Another reason is the light it sheds on the work of the enigmatic painter. In fact, so little is known about Vermeer that he’s been dubbed the Sphinx of Delft. By contrasting his work alongside contemporaries such as Gerrit Dou, Gerard ter Borch, Jan Steen and Pieter de Hooch, this exhibition effectively puts to rest the idea that Vermeer worked in isolation. Rather, he was part of a network of painters who specialise in depicting scenes from everyday life while inspiring and competing with each other.
While the Louvre has a storied past, once having been home to the kings of France and with a history it can trace back to the 11th century, nothing can beat the romantic splendour inside the Musée d’Orsay. Originally a train station with attached hotel, the beaux-arts building (think Grand Central Station in New York) greets you with a central aisle dotted with sculptures, and light flooding through the glass ceiling to show off their skilled curves. We are here to see Beyond the Stars: The mystical landscape from Monet to Kandinsky (running until June 25), which also includes landscapes from Gauguin, Klimt, Munch and Van Gogh, as well as lesser-known European artists and representatives of the Canadian school of the 1920s to 1930s. Whereas landscapes had previously been relegated to background roles, these artists made them the centrepiece, reflecting on their deeper reality and where we fit within them.
In a contemplative mood, we head for the Restaurant d’Orsay after the exhibition. It’s quite something to eat lunch in what feels like a room straight out of a grand palace museum. The ornately painted and gilded ceilings and mouldings, set off by the sparkling glass of the chandeliers and coloured chairs, conjure an aura of extreme opulence befitting its status as a listed historical building (it’s from the original 1900s luxury hotel). I dither between feeling like a modern-day Marie-Antoinette deserving of this feast, to half expecting a museum guard to tap me on the shoulder and ask what I think I am doing.
Modern meets medieval
For more contemporary artwork, it’s time to leave the banks of the Seine, and head to the Centre Georges Pompidou in the fourth arrondissement. You soon learn in Paris that every new building, from the Eiffel Tower to the Louvre’s IM Pei Pyramid, is greeted with widespread criticism and controversy ‒ before being adopted and beloved as an intricate part of the cultural landscape. The Centre Georges Pompidou, strikingly modern in its medieval Paris neighbourhood, might not yet have won over all its critics since its opening in 1977, but there is no arguing that the view from the inside is among the best in the city. Built with an exoskeleton, the centre has its mechanical and structural systems on the outside, colour-coded according to their purpose, for example blue for air-conditioning and green for plumbing. Inside it houses the Musée National d’Art Moderne, the largest museum for modern art in Europe. Travelling six floors up the escalators, enclosed in glass at the edge of the building, the amazing views begin to unfold, culminating in a panoramic view of the medieval houses and tightly packed rooftops of Paris, reaching as far as the Eiffel Tower and Montmartre hill.
There are 100,000 pieces of modern art (1905 to 1960) and contemporary art (from 1960 onwards), covering everything from paintings and photography to architecture, design and cinema. The museum holds regular exhibitions and we visit a retrospective of Cy Twombly’s work but, I have to admit, it is lost on me. Our guide is so visibly moved by the artist’s splodges, scribbles and child-like lettering, reading so much into them and reciting Homer’s Iliad while she talks, that I am persuaded it isn’t just a case of the Emperor’s new clothes, but rather a testament to just how subjective art is. The exhibition ended on April 24, but there are some of Twombly’s - and similar - works in the general rotation. A less controversial artist to watch for this year is David Hockney, from June 21 to October 23.
To round off our trip, we explore vast periods of art, history and architecture simultaneously at Chateau de Fontainebleau (50 minutes from Paris by car/train) and the Palace of Versailles (about 40 minutes)
With 800 years of history, Fontainebleau is the only chateau to have been lived in by all of France’s rulers from the Middle Ages to the Second Empire. Visitors can make their way around the sumptuously furnished rooms and halls on their own or with a guide, which allows them a chance to discover certain areas that are otherwise closed to the public, including Marie Antoinette’s Turkish-style boudoir. After admiring the grand architecture, Renaissance masterpieces and decorative arts (with plenty of gold-gilding, chandeliers and intricately carved furniture and finishings), a visit to the theatre built by Napoleon III is particularly interesting for UAE residents. Thanks to the patronage of President His Highness Shaikh Khalifa Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the former Imperial Theatre has been beautifully restored and is now named in his honour. Outside the chateau, there are guided carriage tours and train rides through the magnificent landscaped gardens, as well as boats for hire from April to October (musee-chateau-fontainebleau.fr).
Similar but more grand is the palace of Versailles. Following the French Revolution, it was turned into a museum for the country’s history and art, before it was decided, in the early 20th century, that the central part would be refurbished to reflect how it had looked in its glory days as a royal residence. As a result, it has a collection of 60,000 artworks spanning the middle ages to late 19th century alongside incredibly plush rooms with ornate decorative arts and, of course, plenty of gold, glass and shiny touches. It’s hard not to be moved as the guide describes the ongoing process of replicating, restoring and reclaiming the splendid furniture lost, sold or plundered over time. The Hall of Mirrors, famous as the setting for the signing of the Peace Treaty at the end of the First World War, is particularly magnificent, having been restored just 10 years ago. But Versailles is by no means a dead or disused palace; there are weekly fountain shows (until October 31) and you can still see performances at its Royal Opera House and Marie-Antoinette’s private theatre. The palace will burst into life on special evenings such as a masked ball in the Orangerie (June 24), an open-air orchestra concert (June 30) and the Fire King pyrotechnics show in the Orangerie gardens (July 22). For full listings and to book see chateauversailles-spectacles.fr/en.
A lasting impression
On our final night in Paris, we have dinner in the Eiffel Tower, and as I look out on the twinkling lights of the Trocadéro, I find myself thinking how I would paint them in oils. I have become like first-year medical students who diagnose themselves with every affliction known to man: after a week of non-stop art appreciation, it’s hard not to see the beauty in everything. Admittedly the setting is among the world’s finest, but I take this altered perception home with me – a travelling Instagram filter on real life. Now, that’s the best type of souvenir.