Proust, Marcel Entries

France Day 6: Salome, Proust + the Louvre


It's hard to believe that we've arrived at the morning of our last full day in Paris! I was so exhausted last night that I didn't have a blog post in me; luckily we're taking it easy this morning and enjoying the light breeze and the view from our flat, so I can put together a post about our yesterday's adventures.


We started out with a little literary tourism in the first arrondissement, locating the site of the apartment at 9 Rue de Beaujolais in which Colette lived from 1938 until her death in 1954. This is the first of these little bookish pilgrimages whose site actually seems to fit—even to evoke—the writer in question; the flats are built over a short gallery with music box and doll shops, and on the back gives onto a public garden, which Colette would, of course, have loved. The streets surrounding the building are narrow and twisting, and discourage any quantity of car traffic. I can easily imagine Colette living out the final decades of her long life here, with her young lovers and her cats.


From Colette's flat we strolled over to the wide Boulevard des Capucines and Le Grand Hôtel. These were the deluxe accommodations of the nineteenth century, and I'm sure many luminaries have lodged there (Edith Wharton, perhaps?), but the one we had in mind is Oscar Wilde. This is the hotel in which he was staying when he dashed off Salomé on a whim, after a vigorous luncheon party. Apparently, in one of several anecdotes that convince me I would have found Wilde obnoxious in life even if I'm somewhat charmed by reading about his antics, he dashed down to the street below his window, where a gypsy orchestra was playing. He accosted the band leader, and pronounced "I am writing a play about a woman dancing with her bare feet in the blood of a man she has craved for and slain. I want to you play something in harmony with my thoughts." Oh, Oscar. The hotel building takes up the whole triangular block, and is still very posh; one night there costs about what we spent on a whole week in our Montmartre flat.


Solario, "The head of John the Baptist" (c. 1465)

From Wilde's hotel, we turned our steps at last toward the Louvre. I don't think I've ever done so much preparation for a museum visit: my idea, knowing that Proust spent many hours in the Louvre, was to research which of the works referred to in A la recherche du temps perdu are there, and to put together a tour based on those. In addition to being interesting because of my love of the book, this plan had the benefit of providing an "angle" from which to attack the behemoth of a museum, which would have seemed totally overwhelming if I'd approached it cold. It ended up being very rewarding; the only downside was that we spent a bit more time in 18th-century French painting than we might otherwise have done—but even in that case, it was interesting to learn about an era I wouldn't have gravitated to on my own.


Camille Corot, Detail: "Le Cathédral de Chartres," (1830)

[My grandmother] would have liked me to have in my room photographs of ancient buildings or of beautiful places. But in the moment of buying them, and for all that the subject of the picture had an aesthetic value, she would find that vulgarity and utility had too prominent a part in them, through the mechanical nature of their reproduction by photography. She attempted a subterfuge, if not to eliminate altogether this commercial banality, at least to minimise it, to supplant it to a certain extent with what was art still, to introduce, as it were, several "thicknesses" of art: instead of photographs of Chartres Cathedral, of the Fountains of Saint-Cloud, or of Vesuvius, she would inquire of Swann whether some great painter had not depicted them, and preferred to give me photographs of 'Chartres Cathedral' after Corot, of the 'Fountains of Saint-Cloud' after Hubert Robert, and of 'Vesuvius' after Turner, which were a stage higher in the scale of art.

Putting aside Marcel's grandmother's dismissal of photography as art, I love the idea of "thicknesses of art," articulated here, and it occurred to me that this is more or less what we, and everyone snapping pictures in these museums, are creating. In remixing, re-cropping, shooting from an unexpected angle, or merely recording an image for note-taking purposes, we create another layer, another "thickness." Rooms that are very painting-heavy are generally less exciting to photograph, in my opinion, than collections with a wider variety of media, but this quote inspired me to try. For Marcel's grandmother the painting was merely a means of making Chartres Cathedral present in her grandson's room, but I was drawn to the leisurely-seeming people in the foreground, passing a few minutes on either side of the lane leading to the church in leaning against or sitting on the stone walls.


Hubert Robert, Detail: "La maison carrée, les arènes et la tour Magne à Nimes," (1787)

One thing I realized in preparing for this project, is how infrequently Proust's visual art references are to a specific painting rather than a general tendency in a painter's work. He'll say, for example:

[T]he moonlight, copying the art of Hubert Robert, scattered its broken staircases of white marble, its fountains, its iron gates temptingly ajar. Its beams had swept away the telegraph office. All that was left of it was a column, half shattered but preserving the beauty of a ruin which endures for all time.

which could refer to any of Robert's paintings of ruins (and he made a lot of them, the one above being one of my favorites we saw). Or, in another example, he might write that

The name Gilberte passed close by me [...] forming, on its celestial passage through the midst of the children and their nursemaids, a little cloud, delicately coloured, resembling one of those clouds that, billowing over a Poussin landscape, reflect minutely, like a cloud in the opera teeming with chariots and horses, some apparition of the life of the gods...

I think the Poussin clouds below are a very nice match here, but I'm sure there are others as well.


Nicolas Poussin, Detail: "Le Printemps ou Le Paradis terrestre," (1660-1664)

There were likewise many examples of the broken-hearted Botticelli virgins and Venuses to which Swann often likens Odette. The most affecting, in my opinion, were those in a room of frescoes actually relocated from Marcel's beloved Florence.


Botticelli, Detail: "Venus and the three graces offering gifts to a young girl," (c. 1483-1485)

Of course, the most satisfying instances of an exercise like this is when Proust mentions a specific work which we could then search out. This happened a few times: Rembrandt's Bathsheba, for example, or this Luini fresco of the adoration of the Magi:


Luini, Detail: "The adoration of the Magi," (c. 1520-1525)

I should have wished [my parents] to understand what an inestimable present I had just received and, to show their gratitude to that generous and courteous Swann who had offered it to me, or to them rather, without seeming any more conscious of its value than the charming Mage with the arched nose and fair hair in Luini's fresco, to whom, it was said, Swann had at one time been thought to bear a striking resemblance.

I was especially excited to find Veronese's Crucifixion painting, as it figures in one of my favorite Proustian passages, both for the beauty of its prose and for the hilariousness of Marcel's ridiculously overwrought psychology. And indeed, the skies depicted do have a certain modern, Parisian, and ominously massing quality about them.


Veronese, Detail: "The Crucifixion," (c. 1584)

Unhappily those marvellous places, railway stations, from which one sets out for a remote destination, are tragic places also, for if in them the miracle is accomplished whereby scenes which hitherto have had no existence save in our minds are about to become the scenes among which we shall be living, for that very reason we must, as we emerge from the waiting room, abandon any thought of presently finding ourselves once more in the familiar room which but a moment ago still housed us. We must lay aside all hope of going home to sleep in our own bed, once we have decided to penetrate into the pestiferous cavern to which we gain access to the mystery, into one of those vast glass-roofed sheds, like that of Saint-Lazare into which I went to find the train for Balbec, and which extended over the eviscerated city one of those bleak and boundless skies, heavy with an accumulation of dramatic menace, like certain skies painted with an almost Parisian modernity by Mantegna or Veronese, beneath which only some terrible and solemn act could be in progress, such as a departure by train or the erection of the Cross.

This is especially cool since we, too, are about to depart for "Balbec" (actually Cabourg) on the Norman coast; luckily for us, however, we shall not be departing by train.


Claude Gillot, "Le tombeau de Maître André," (c. 1716-1717)

Of course, in looking around for Proustian references we discovered other works that were interesting and appealing. Because my primary interest is modern and contemporary art, I tend to gravitate toward things that remind me of later artists. The backdrop of the above painting, for example, reminds me strongly of De Chirico's flattened, shadowy street scenes, and the Commedia dell'arte figures are reminiscent of his surrealism as well. I tend to love sketches and unfinished pieces as well; this study by Ingres for a later, work struck me as particularly modern.


Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, "Angélique," (c. 1819)

As a lover of modern art, I was also inspired by the extent to which the curators of the Louvre choose to intermingle old and new—not in the actual collections, which stop short of Impressionism, but in the building itself. The most famous example is, of course, I.M. Pei's steel and glass pyramid entrance hall, located in the grand courtyard formed by the three wings of the French Renaissance palace. But there are other examples as well: in a gilt room housing Greek and Roman antiquities, the ceiling is a giant painting by American contemporary artist Cy Twombly.


Cy Twombly, Detail: "The Ceiling," (2007-2009)

Likewise, on a series of grand staircases in the Richelieu wing, French contemporary artist François Morellet (he of the square paintings of yesterday) has designed a series of very cool leaded-glass windows designed to look as if an entire pane is off-kilter:


François Morellet, Detail: "L'esprit de l'escalier," (2009)

Finding myself very much drawn to these contemporary details, I was excited to find that monographs were available on both the Twombly and Morellet projects. My third bookshop find, amazingly appropriate given the Wildean accents of the day, is a gorgeous presentation of Salomé in three sections: after a scholarly introduction, a facsimile of the original hand-written notebook in which Wilde composed the play; then the first French edition; and finally, the first English edition, translated by Lord Alfred Douglas and illustrated by Aubrey Beardsley.


We exited the museum to one of the most gorgeous sunsets I've ever seen, and made our tired way home. This last afternoon we're off to see the Opéra de quat'sous (Threepenny Opera) at the Comédie Française. A bientôt!


France Day 3 (Proustacular)


Well. You know how I told you were were thinking of going to Musée de Cluny today, followed by Gallimard? You were probably having a good laugh at our expense because you probably knew it was Tuesday, and you probably remembered that most of the museums in Paris are closed on just that day of the week. We too realized it this morning in time to throw together an entirely different plan, this one involving PROUST. Lots and lots of Proust.


We started out at the Jardin des Tuileries, right across the street from the (closed on Tuesdays) Louvre. We glimpsed the distinctive glass triangle, the gargantuan palace and the crows all massing around the chimneys, but the rest will wait until later in the week. The Tuileries features lots of statuary depicting Greek and Roman mythic figures, including the one above, which I felt so accomplished for knowing was Hippodamia being abducted by the centaurs at her wedding, but it's apparently actually Hercules's wife Déjenire. So much for my knowledge of mythology.

(Just to illustrate the above point: there was also a statue in this same circle depicting Theseus slaying the Minotaur. I was like, "Who slew the Minotaur again? Was it Hercules?" And David replied, "Probably. It seems like something he'd do." "Yes," says I, "that Hercules. Always doing Herculean tasks." "Well, I suppose by definition everything he did was Herculean," David said, and I was like, "Yeah. Sometimes in the afternoon he would take a Herculean catnap, and then go for a Herculean jog." "After having a Herculean snack," David said. Etc. Ugh. It was totally Theseus all along.)

ANYhow, Jardin des Tuileries was packed. I took the standard shot up the Champs-Elysées featuring Cleopatra's Needle and the Arc de Triomphe, but it turned out to be nothing special so I won't show you. Here's a demonstration of how much I love my telephoto lens, though...


Hey Dad! Your old lens is getting a nice workout!

The Champs-Elysées grows out of the Jardin des Tuileries, and right off the garden is the little footpath and park where Proust's narrator Marcel describes coming to play as an (oddly age-androgynous) kid, and falling in love with Gilberte, the daughter of his parents' old friend and neighbor Swann. The fine people of Paris have re-named this little walkway the Allée Marcel Proust, and David and I walked along it, snapping pictures.


We meandered over to the Petit Grand Palais and Petit Palais, the latter of which is one of the only museums in Paris to stay open on Tuesdays. These two buildings play a sizable role in Philippe Soupault's Last Nights of Paris, which I just finished—Soupault describes the skeletal roof structure of the Grand Palais as a sinister landmark of his noctural ramblings. I am quite enamored of the doorway of the Petit Palais (below, and also the opening image of this post):


Quite peckish by this point, we ate at the café at the Petit Palais, which is a lovely outdoor courtyard with a lush little garden and kind of a colonial vibe.


We ended up staying to take in the current exhibit on Jean-Louis Forain, sometimes known as the youngest member of the Impressionist movement (he was nicknamed "Gavroche" by Manet and Degas, after the precocious urchin of Hugo's Les Misérables). Impressionism isn't usually my favorite movement, but Forain proved interesting for the variety of media in which he worked (oil and watercolor, but also ink, lithograph, and even a set of sketches transformed into tile mosaic), and for his bridging of eras and peer groups (friends with the above Impressionists, he also knew Verlaine and Rimbaud). His work is also interesting for its social conscience, which sometimes turned reactionary; the exhibit includes several of the antisemitic newspaper cartoons he drew during the Dreyfus Affair.


Forain's painted work ran the gamut from extremely gestural and full of movement, to quite polished, and although much of his material was similar to Degas and Toulouse-Lautrec (on whom he was an influence), his work seemed to me to be more concerned with social inequities. For example, he painted and drew many ballerinas, as Degas did, but many of Forain's pieces focus on the coercion involved when poverty-stricken dancers were put in a position of basically needing to accept the advances of wealthy but sleazy men in order to achieve a decent standard of living. He also did some gut-wrenching canvases of the carnage of WWI, where he served as a correspondent from the trenches. All in all, a fascinating exhibit! The Petit Palais was also showcasing the work of architect and interior/furniture designer Charlotte Perriand, but although her midcentury modern furniture looks gorgeous and right up our alley, the museum was closing by the time we finished with Forain, so we moved on.


It felt good to get walking again, which is nice because it was a longish walk to our next destination: 102 Boulevard Haussman, where Marcel Proust lived from 1907 to 1919. This is apparently the place where the famous madeleine was actually consumed. There's nothing really there now: it's a very busy, urban street, and the ground floor of Proust's former building now houses a bank. Still, the above shot could be the very window he attempted to avoid looking out of while locked up in his cork-lined bedroom writing. In actuality, having seen the degree to which his houses were right in the middle of the hustle and bustle of Paris life, I now think Proust was less crazy for the cork-lining and nocturnal hours than I did previously. I would go to great lengths to avoid distraction, too!


We ate dinner in kind of a sketchy Italian joint, which was at least relatively cheap for this semi-swanky area of Paris. (But seriously, the cook was a dour-faced Italian man with a facial scar. And we were the only people in the place. And the waiter hovered just outside the door, glaring at passers-by. The food was okay but it still felt like a mob front.) It was only a few blocks from another Proust destination, so we hastened over to 9 Boulveard Malesherbes (above), the site of the writer's childhood home. There is still (or again) a plaque there advertising a doctor's practice, which is fitting given that M. Proust père was himself a doctor. Being full of food and wine, possibly supplied by the Paris mafia, we stood a while and tried to envision the corner as it must have looked in the late 19th century, when little Marcel was growing up there. It's located in a little courtyard where five streets come together, and today the ground floor storefronts are occupied by a mix of French clothing shops, restaurants, and multi-nationals like Burberry.


Judging by the several people who left the building when we were standing there, and by the surrounding stores, I'd guess most of the occupants are middle- to upper-middle-class, which was pretty much the Proust family's situation as well. I'm not sure if it would have been equally commercial back then or not. The vrooming engines of cars and scooters would have been replaced by the clip-clop of horse hooves, and the dog poop on the streets would have been joined by horse dung. It's amazing to reconcile all the frenzy of these two neighborhoods with the organic-seeming flow of A la recherche du temps perdu.


On our way home we happened past the Gare St. Lazare (above), and I took a few photos before the guard swooped down upon us and notified us that photography c'est interdite. I have had this same experience in Washington DC, but apparently I don't learn. Either that, or my strong desire to photograph train stations overcomes my better judgment. As you can see, the sunset was lovely, and it just got lovelier as we made our way back to the flat and to bed.


Tomorrow is Wednesday, and most museums in Paris are open on Wednesdays. So we might have another try at the Cluny / Gallimard combo. Or something different! We'll let you know.


Cross-posted to Family Trunk Project.

June 2012

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link to Wolves 2011 reading list
link to more disgust bibliography