Monday, 1 February 2010

The catacombs of Paris - January 2010

Our last visit on our Paris weekend took place while Antonia was at her rehearsal. Mike and I dropped her off and made a wild dash across town to Denfert-Rochereau metro station. We knew the catacomb entrance was somewhere around there, but unfortunately we had forgotten to bring the address. There is very little signposting for the discreet entrance, but it is right there on Denfert-Rochereau square, near the sculpture of the lion, and noticeable, even on a wintery Sunday afternoon, by the queue outside.

It was a very interesting visit, but not for everyone. Not only do you have to stand in line until there is space for you underground - only 200 people can be down there at a time - but you have to climb up and down stairs and walk two kilometres underground. Furthermore, for half that time underground, you will be walking between walls constructed of human femurs, stabilised with rows of skulls. Mike rightly estimated the number of human remains present as being in the millions. If you have seen photographs, and think it will just be one or two rooms of bones, well, it isn't quite like that. I do not think it would have suited Antonia, who is on the sensitive side.

What fascinated me was how we were able to discover how Paris had faced urban disasters and responded to them. The first part of the visit is through underground quarries from which stone was drawn for buildings over the centuries. This eventually created a major subsidence problem and the state formed an organisation to shore up the tunnels. Then there was the issue of the overcrowded cemeteries. To deal with this, it was decided to transfer millions of remains to the tunnels. I can hardly imagine what it was like to have the job of digging up the bones, hauling them across town on carts and stacking them in neat walls. There is virtually no ornamentation in the ossuary, other than that formed from the bones themselves and some panels carved with mostly French quotes, encouraging the visitor to reflect on death. Compared to the luxury that is often prepared for the dead, this is utter destitution.

As the explanatory panels point out, the ossuary in the catacombs inevitably contains major figures in French history (Rabelais, La Fontaine) as well as countless ordinary people of all classes with ordinarily extraordinary lives and deaths. Many victims of the Terreur and the Revolution are here. When you think of the complexity of the life of a single human being, its humbling to think of what all these people once represented. And to see the skulls staring out in rows, of people who might have been separated by social class or many years. And then perhaps by chance, some skull finds itself next to that of someone that it knew in life.

The quarry part of the visit had its own little tribute to just such an ordinarily exception life. Some rather crude carvings of grand buildings by one Decure, a quarryman, who had previously been a captive of the English in Menorca. He had remembered these buildings which were visible from his prison and made the copies many years later. He died trying to dig out an access stairway to them. One suspects a scheme to make a few extra francs by charging for a visit. I wonder if his skull is in the ossuary.

We emerged subdued, and were greeted by a bag check at the exit, rather than at the entrance. Mike didn't understand what the attendant was saying to him at first, so I told him he needed to open his bag to prove he hadn't tried to make off with a skull. I was joking, until I noticed a small pile of skulls on a table. The attendant assured me that they had been recovered from people's bags as they left. I don't know what is wrong with people, but I suppose in general they are just the same kind of people as the ones whose skulls they were trying to pinch. And on reflection, if Paris ever has a problem disposing of its dead again, offering free skulls to all comers might help.

Incidentally, if you think of visiting the catacombs, note that you emerge in some part of Paris that you may not be familiar with, about two metro stops away from where you started, so bring a map!

Cluny Museum of the Middle Ages, Paris - January 2010

Paris is one of those places that French residents tend to get to occasionally on various business. It's technically possible for us to get there and back in a day, since the TGV only takes 3 hours. But we usually try to stay overnight anyway and that's how we get to see the capital city. On this occasion, Antonia had a dance rehearsal for a show she will be in, and we traveled up a day early. We didn't take a camera so the only pictures we have are from her sketchbook.

One of the reasons I felt we could justify an overnight stay in Paris is because of the educational potential. Antonia is currently studying the Middle Ages so the National Museum of the Middle Ages was an obvious choice. It is a less well known choice internationally, but it is very cute if you like medieval stuff (I do), and it is not overwhelming in size.

Two birds from tapestries.

The building itself, the Hotel de Cluny, is a lovely late medieval house, and original features can be seen in several of the rooms. The collections include tapestries, stained glass, carvings in stone and wood, a few paintings and everyday items. The highlight for me is definitely the tapestry collection, including the stunning and famous Lady with a Unicorn series.

Medieval art is also great for children because it has a lot of things they can relate to. The tapestries show animals and wild flowers which they may be able to identify, a lot of the narrative art is told in ways they can relate to and many of the stories, Bible stories for example, will be known to many western children. There are gorgeous dresses and chivalrous sword fights of the kind that inspired Narnia. Even when the people of the Middle Ages got down to depicting concepts like the senses or the arts, they did it in a way that children can relate to. The museum also has a medieval garden which is a lovely thing to see if you've never been to one before, but it wasn't open when we were there in January.

Antonia and I spent quite a while examining a personification of Arithmetic, amongst other things, but what she mostly did was copy animals from the tapestries in her drawing book. She loved this aspect of medieval art, though she was pretty turned off by graphic depictions of the Deposition of Christ.

Antonia's drawing of the unicorn, of which she is very proud.

Even Mike enjoyed this museum, which he went round with audioguide in hand. I've specialised in the art history of the period so of course I loved it. Antonia said it was the best museum she had ever been to, because 'it has actual stuff in it'! We were late leaving and had to rush our lunch and dash madly across town to make it to her rehearsal.

Georges Pompidou Centre in Paris - January 2010

Paris is one of those places that French residents tend to get to occasionally on various business. It's technically possible for us to get there and back in a day, since the TGV only takes 3 hours. But we usually try to stay overnight anyway and that's how we get to see the capital city. On this occasion, Antonia had a dance rehearsal for a show she will be in, and we traveled up a day early. We didn't take a camera so the only pictures we have are from her sketchbook.

We decided to see Paris's main modern art museum, the Georges Pompidou, even though we have both been there before, and there was some debate as to when we were last there. I am absolutely convinced the last time I went was when I was 19, and Mike may have been more recently.

As many people know, the Georges Pomidou is the one that looks like a pipe factory turned inside out. It has some other 'features' as well, one of which is that it seems very hard to find the main event, that is, the permanent collection of modern art. By the time we got there we had already seen an exhibition of designer furniture in the basement and a retrospective for Pierre Soulages, a painter who is rather keen on the myriad possibilities inherent in black paint, but not much else.

Actually, although I'm being a bit sarcastic, it was interesting to discuss the concepts of abstract formalism with Antonia and to analyse the aforementioned 'myriad possibilities'. She also liked reading the quotes by Pierre Soulages on the walls of the expo. These were supposed to explain his work, and they were also quite poetic. I couldn't help feeling he had somehow missed his true path in life as a poet. OK, I know I'm being a philistine, and he has many fans, etc. I do think his paintings have atmospheric potential, but some 60 of them in a very plain gallery doesn't really bring out those qualities. I guess I don't think they make ideal museum art.

What really grabbed me though, was how everybody strolled through the exhibition quite freely, then came to a halt at the windows with an amazing view over the whole of Paris. Since the external walls of the Pompidou are wall-to-wall glass the view is uninterrupted. Since Paris is mostly a sea of roofs of very similar heights, all the monuments really stand out. Especially the butte of Montmartre with the church of the Sacre Coeur, alternately brilliant white in the sunlight or brooding under the shadow of heavy clouds. Even the French visitors (probably from outside Paris) were awestruck. It might have been an exceptionally good viewing day because of the contrasts from the cloudy sky.

Antonia's impression of the Sacre Coeur and a sketch of a rare coloured Soulages image. Note typical Franglish spelling of the bicultural child (sigh!)

Eventually we did make it to the permanent modern art collection. It consists of two whole floors with probably hundreds of rooms and we made the mistake of trying to go through in chronological order when we are all really more interested in the later stuff. The result was that Antonia just about held out for the first floor, and we discovered that she likes Picabia (?!!), but by the time we got to the really cool stuff, she was dead.

Mike wanted to walk through, but I knew it just wasn't going to work for me to go so fast with her whining at my tailcoats. I did manage to find a really cool thing to do. I noticed this one piece which was the projection of a film onto a white screen on the floor, by Pippilotti Rist, (the title was 'A la belle etoile'). You could walk on top of it and I saw that three kids were there and really enjoying it. So I brought Antonia over. Boy, did she love it! She took her shoes off and danced all over this projection 'rug', chasing the sunrise, jumping over lights, pouncing on images of people's faces, lying on her back with lights flashing over her and I don't know what else. She was completely immersed in the images and loved interacting with them. Maybe I should have billed her as a performance artist and started a collection!

We stayed for four full loops of the movie, until Mike was done walking round. It occurred to me that a less arty version of this type of installation would be a really wonderful addition to indoor play areas for children, that it had educational and exercise potential, and that it might even be possible to get the technology together to produce some kind of 3-D experience. It's true that the film in this case was (dare I say it?) a bit conventional in its post-modernity, including some slightly disturbing features that went utterly over Antonia's head. But the parts that really worked for her could be adapted to all kinds of things.

Antonia on the 'rug', and still spelling blue the French way!

After that, Mike called us on the radio to say he had finished. Oh, yes, I forgot to mention, we were using these two-way radios to keep track of each other, and they were much more useful in this setting than they are in the mountains or on hikes. Anyhow, when he called us, we just left. I guess I completely missed the parts of the Pompidou I would have liked most, so it's a good job we parents are programmed to get a kick out of watching our kids have a great experience.