Europe at the Crossroads: Portes Ouvertes de Belleville & the Prè Saint-Gervais, Performers from Around the World — Artists Converge on Paris; Help the Arts Voyager be there

Parce que oui, la Culture française – comme d’ailleurs tous les cultures qui déferle vers Paris – appartient au monde qu’elle a si souvent rayonné, et il faut refusé de la laisse etre confiné et sequestré par les forces de l’Obscurantisme.

For subscription and sponsorship opportunities starting at $69, contact Paul Ben-Itzak at artsvoyager@gmail.com.

 The Open Studios or Portes Ouvertes de Belleville  and those of the Prè Saint-Gervais, performers including Berlin’s Constanza Macras, Portugal’s Vera Mantero, a major exhibition devoted to Camille Pissarro paintings rarely seen in France, Belgium’s Alain Platel, Spain’s Israel Galvan, Crystal Pite — these are just a few of the major cultural happenings in Paris and environs this Spring that the Arts Voyager and Dance Insider will be able to cover with your support.

Many of you first read about these internationally renowned artists and events for the first time in English in our journals and, continuing our 20-year mission of bringing you stories not told elsewhere, we’ll also be reporting on Giulio D’Anna, a Netherlands-based Italian choreographer whose “OOOOOOO” is inspired by Zagreb’s “Museum of Broken Relationships,” and Jasna Vinovrski’s “Lady Justice,” addressing the relationship between justice and art. Speaking of art, we’d also like to bring you Yasmina Reza’s “Art” as interpreted at the Theatre de la Bastille by the pioneering Belgium theater company STAN . And of intersections between art and society, this year’s Chantiers (Building Projects) d’Europe festival at the Theatre de la Ville features countries in the front lines of the refugee crisis, notably in six short films from Greece addressing this topic and a public brainstorming session with artists from six countries. Most of all we’ll be able to bring you into the studios of the 200+ artists taking part in the Open Studios of Belleville — a neighborhood which in its very MULTI-CULTURAL contours and dimensions provides the best retort to the cloistered vision of French culture represented by the National Front. (We share the FN’s stated pride in traditional French culture; we simply argue that this definition is too limited and does not do justice to the grandeur and ouverture to the world that has always been French culture.) Click here to read our coverage of last year’s Open Studios / Portes Ouvertes de Belleville.

Already a subscriber or sponsor? Please forward this story to your colleagues. Want to become one? Contact us at paulbenitzak@gmail.com . Subscribers receive full access to our 20-year archive of more than 2,000 reviews by 150 leading artist-critics of performances on five continents, plus five years of the Jill Johnston Letter as well as Arts Voyager art galleries, film reviews, and travelogues from Paris, New York, and across the U.S.. Sponsors receive this plus advertising on The Dance Insider, and/or the Arts Voyager.

France, too, is at the crossroads. On May 7  the country will choose between the fear represented by the National Front and the hope and optimism represented by Emmanuel Macron. Between closure and opening. In the campaign between these two ‘cultures’ that has raged in this country for the past two years, CULTURE has been all but forgotten. (Among Macron’s refreshing ideas: More library hours.) With your help, we will be able to do our part in restoring some light to what has always been France’s principal calling card around the world. Our calling for more than 20 years.Many thanks and

Cheers,

Paul
artsvoyager@gmail.com

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Cross Country / A Memoir of France, 15: Nobody’s Guignol

By Paul Ben-Itzak                                                                                                                                          Copyright 2012, 2016 Paul Ben-Itzak

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The man who tried to pass through cultures, or: Just because you speak French doesn’t mean you understand the French

After a year of enjoying la vie Parisian without bothering to learn to speak a speck of French that was not related to food, plumbing, dating, finding an apartment, ordering coffee (cheap cheat sheet: when the money’s tight, sit at the counter and instead of a café créme, order a ‘noisette,’ a petite café topped off with [nominally hot] milk), finding a toilet, asking directions, or setting up Internet, one early Fall morning in 2002 I spotted a notice on the window of my preferred boulangerie (for the best rapport quality-price, you want the next step up from the common baguette, be it the “Tradition,” “Banette,” “Retrodor,” “Petite Ghana,” or “Samaritaine”) announcing a French for Foreigners course at the Pari’s de Faubourg, a social welfare organization sandwiched between a park and a hospital off St.-Denis. It cost all of seven Euros — the yearly adhesion fee for this association set up to help immigrants assimilate — and I could also take other courses, such as marionettes. My fellow students were mostly refugees who had come to France not by choice but because they had no other choice, from countries including Nigeria, Ethiopia, the Sudan, Palestine, Turkey, Bolivia, the Ivory Coast, and Bosnia, with one Italian thrown in for good measure. Thus it was that on the placement test, which also quizzed us on French culture, everyone crowded around me for help with the questions, with the exception of those related to sports, in which domain a 40-year-old bearded man from the Sudan with a perpetual, mischevous smile was the whiz. “This is really not the correct level for you,” the very proper, delicately pretty, medium-length blonde-haired testing instructor told me. “I know it seems like I’m not a beginner,” I explained, “but that’s just because I’ve been here a year. I’ve never taken a class, so there are many holes in my French.”

The course, meeting two mornings per week, immediately became not only a social outlet but a place to meet women who weren’t French, those encounters having so far proved mostly frustrating. Benedicte had liked me but I’d realized (after some hanky-panky) that I didn’t like her, at least not in that way; it was just need that drew us together. I was still attached to Sylvie, but she wasn’t interested in me, at least not romantically. I was once again not speaking to Sabine, this time for an even more idiotic reason than her arguing that Judaism was not a culture but strictly a religion: She’d been 30 minutes late for a RDV at my apartment on Paradis (only because she’d stopped to get a good loaf of brown bread!), and I’d responded by tacking a note to my door and saying I’d already left for the movie (“La Traversée de Paris”), listening behind the door as she sighed in exasperation and retreated out of my life again. I’d missed her immediately and, whenever I passed by her building at 33 rue Lamartine (where Baudelaire, the author of “Les fleurs du Mal,” had also lived) in the neighboring 9th arrondissement, I looked up regretfully at her fifth-floor apartment (my first Paris sublet).

In mining the seemingly fertile field of my French for foreigners class — where, at least, the women, being new arrivals, would not already be settled into their cliques (the Parisians I’d met so far tended to hang out with the same friends they’d been hanging out with since kindergarten, and spit you back out once you’d surpassed your expiration date as the amuse bouche du jour) — what I didn’t realize was that where these women were looking for love, they were more likely to be looking for it with a Frenchman, which offered the added bonus of eventual citizenship. So I alighted on Flora, a 25-year-old refugee from the Sudan and Ethiopia who’d left her parents behind, and whose café au lait beauty reminded me of my first crush, Christine LaMar. (We met at Rooftop, one of the first alternative schools in San Francisco – the other students included Gio Coppola, the director’s son, later killed in a sailing accident — when I was 11 and she 10. We used to have stare-out contests on the 24 Divisadero bus on the way to school, until she boarded the bus one morning wearing dark glasses and I realized I needed to change my tactic. So the next day I gave her a copy of my first novel, “The Problem Cops,” about a team of police who solved racial problems, which she looked down at dubiously before stuffing it into her trenchcoat. I also annoyed my brother and my best friend by pausing to dedicate my ping-pong matches to her over our basement table in Noe Valley: “This game is dedicated to Christine LaMar. If I win, I will be 24 and 9. If I lose, I will be 23 and 10.” I ended up 187 and 9.)

Flora flirted, but whenever I’d ask her out – innocently enough, with museum invitations and such — she’d respond vaguely with “I don’t know,” “Maybe,” or “We’ll see.” Once again — in retrospect — I may have been distracted by superficial coquettry from not pursuing a much more substantial (and closer to my age) woman, also from the Sudan, who showed up for every class with a full-teeth smile, and who taught me an unlikely folk cure for a bad cough: Hot milk with garlic.

The only French person was the new teacher, Viriginie, and even she was a ‘foreigner’ of sorts, her people being from Guadeloupe; one morning she brought us delectable blood sausages made by her mother. (On the last day of the winter semester, Flora brought champagne.) She also took us on field trips, which I seized as an opportunity to show off my Paris knowledge; in Montmartre, I insisted we see the statue of the man going through the wall, explaining (as Sylvie had to me) that it was a tribute to Montmartoise resident Marcel Aymé, the author of “The Man who passed through walls.” Because I always need to be right — and this was just not going to happen in French class, where the teacher did in fact know more than I did — I sometimes fought with Virginie, but I was nonetheless outraged when she was replaced for political reasons by an unimaginative instructor from Italy whose method consisted of having us do the written exercises in class, cutting down on oral practice. I dropped out of French class, but not the Pari’s de Faubourgs. By this time I’d enrolled in marionettes, a passion since (earlier) childhood. (Even they show up in Truffaut’s Antoine Doinel cycle, with the hero and a buddy playing hookie at the Luxembourg Garden’s puppet show, the director turning the camera on the audience to reveal the gamut of emotions to which children are subject. When the show is over, the boys gambol around the park with a laughing girl between them. The last time I ventured to the Garden, in late November 2015, the metal barricades had gone up everywhere, even blocking access to the Delacroix fountain, the villains now vaporous, no longer confined to the puppet stage and no longer droll.)

Marionettes also took me back to French women. I brought flowers for the suave, hip, naturally honey-blonde teacher, probably more intrigued by her profession than any intrinsic beauty. She remained aloof, at least as far as any romantic response. Much more engaged and animated was a fellow student, Paulette, a curly-haired, dimpled brunette with a cherubic, perpetually mischevous grin — yes, Paul and Paulette. Notwithstanding that Paulette was married, she was thrilled by my American exotic-ness, and that I worked in the arts, so we started hanging out: Strolls along the Canal Saint-Martin, aperitifs; when we lunched at Les Deux Moccassins (the two baby boars) on the rue Hauteville up the street from my flat heading towards the winding garden on the place Franz Liszt and the church that dominated it, I profited from its being Valentine’s Day to give Paulette a box of chocolates. She was shocked, and skeptical when I explained that in my country, friends gave friends presents on this holiday. Things fell apart — both my adventure with marionettes and my friendship with Paulette — when I returned from a week after having missed a class because I was sick to find that the instructor had made my puppet’s costume for me. I turned as beet red as the paper maché and plaster of Paris head of the creature I’d created. I was there to learn; in my view the teacher seemed more interested in mounting a professional production than puppet pedagogy. When I complained about her to the center’s director, Paulette, who was also friends with the instructor, got upset. “In France, to file a complaint is very serious!” I panicked about losing her friendship, but she assured me, “I have confidence in you!” After I responded to an e-mailed appeal to reason from the teacher with a nasty rebuke, I panicked again about Paulette, who was not answering my e-mails. When I phoned her, she was stony and simply issued a curt “Au revoir!” before abruptly hanging up.

Looking back at these exchanges, the fault I find is mostly with myself. But at least — unlike so many Americans in Paris who are content to profit from the food but don’t venture beyond their expatriate circle — I was attempting to integrate. I loved their culture and wanted to be part of it. I wanted them to love me and wanted to find a French woman to love. But transcending my own national character and particular psycho-history and penetrating theirs was proving difficult. It didn’t help that, with the notable exception of Sabine, as opposed to Californians, who like to hash everything out, the French reaction to inter-personal friction (as a French woman once explained to me before disappearing in her turn) encompasses two elements that are lethal to enduring friendships: Taking even minor wounds and slights to heart and preferring not to talk about it. In other words, at the first sign of problems, they tend to just walk away. Add to this Balzac’s observation – still true 200 years after Balzac – that for Parisians amity is disposable, and I was finding that forging friendships with the French, not to mention localizing the femme de ma vie among them, was a much more complex proposition than finding a good baguette.

Cross Country / A Memoir of France, 11: The Other Side of Paradis

Paradis sonia hopeyThe apartment at 49, rue de Paradis, several years after we moved in on November 28, 2001. At the time of this chapter, it was empty. Except for the cats: That’s Sonia the Alaskan on the bed, Hopey the San Franciscan on the chair at right, and Mesha the other Alaskan is no  doubt looking out  at the balcony from the cat window. (See below.) Note mylar ceiling. Photograph copyright and courtesy Christine Chen.

By Paul Ben-Itzak  
Copyright 2012, 2016 Paul Ben-Itzak

Paris eternelle, petites mortes fugitifs                                                  

For Noemie Gonzalez, a California girl who came to France to look for eternal Paris, only to find a bullet waiting for her on a café terrace near the Canal St.-Martin.

Princeton, 1982: The Flatbush-born Romantic Literature professor with the ersatz French accent was explaining to an auditorium full of students many of whom were drawn to Princeton by Scott Fitzgerald ‘17’s “This Side of Paradise” that the protagonist of Jean-Paul Sartre’s “La Nausée” “sees himself as if he’s in a film. And of course, no normal person would think this way.”

Besides following the path of Antoine Doinel and searching for the femme de ma vie as had Truffaut’s hero, another goal I had when I moved to Paris in July 2001 was to insert myself into paintings I’d heretofore only observed on museum walls. (Neither scenario envisioning Picasso’s “Demoiselles d’Avignon.”) In this light, the view from my new balcony at 49, rue de Paradis, where I and the cats installed ourselves on November 28, was as promising as the girl who awaited me in the non-functional salle de bain as I took my shower in a kitchen sink squeezed under vermillion cubbards one evening just before Christmas: Across the street, at 58, was the former studio of Camille Corot, where the father of pleine air painting had given Pissarro (and, later, Berthe Morisot) his first Paris lessons in color values.

“It has a small balcony,” the proprietor, Helene Valoire, had told me when I’d called to see the place in late October. But the only thing that was small about this balcony, which stretched the length of the three French windows in the salon / bedroom / dining room, was its narrow depth, I discovered when I arrived and looked up at the 5th floor. The two mahogony doors of the building’s entrance, high enough to accommodate horses (as they once did), were flanked by brass serpents turning green. At the top of the spiral staircase but one (a sixth floor housed former servant quarters converted into studio apartments, usually occupied by twenty-something students and workers; you had to be young not to expire from the climb; at 40 the day I moved in, I was the oldest person living on the 5th floor or above), a rickety door opened to the apartment’s narrow entrance whose floor, on the day I first tread on it, was dirt, as was that of the salle de bain behind the second door on the right (the first opened to the toilet), directly facing the small kitchen, also with its own (albeit hollow) doorway. (The Napoleonic Civil Code requires there be two doors between the bathroom and the kitchen. I’ve seen apartments where the two doors are right on top of each other with nothing in between, just to accommodate the code.) An opening of about 3 x 4 feet looked out onto the main room from the kitchen; its ledge would become the cats’ dining room.

Paradis balconyThe balcony (cat window in foreground), with the view towards the rues Poissonniere, Bleue, and Papillon. Turning right at the corner lead eventually to Montmartre. Turning left to the Grands Boulevards. (For more itineraries, see below.) The first complete building across the street is where Corot taught color values to Pissarro and Morisot. Photograph copyright and courtesy Christine Chen.

If I was getting to see the place before it went on the market, it was because Mme Valoire had been planning to sell the apartment, but after learning the building itself had major foundation problems, had decided to put that off.

“Why does the floor slant?” I asked her; the rake made the living/bedroom look like the villains’ lairs from the ‘60s “Batman” television series. “Don’t worry,” she said, laughing. “It’s normal. All the buildings in the quartiere are like this.” Then, pointing up at the white mylar sheet covering the entire ceiling and at my own reflection, I asked, “What’s that for?” “It’s because you don’t want to see what’s above it.”

The French prize proprieté (my three-year lease included a requirement that tenants lead a ‘bourgeoisie lifestyle,’ which the landlord explained just meant no drying laundry on the balcony), so Mme Valoire would have preferred that I wait another month until the apartment was really ready. When I pleaded that I didn’t have any place else to go, she let me move in early but said she would not charge me for the first month. For that period, I’d have to take my showers in the kitchen sink as the tub wasn’t yet installed in the bathroom, which she was having re-done with ivory-colored Italian tiles. (My downstairs neighbors at 49 would later marvel that my bathroom was as big as their kitchen and my kitchen as small as their bathroom.) At that point — December 2001, when the imminent Euro was worth 11 cents less than the dollar — the apartment was half the cost (in U.S. $) and twice the size (42 meters squared not counting the balcony) of the Greenwich Village apartment next to Jimi Hendrix’s Electric Lady that I and the cats had just left after six years — about $570/month. The French windows were also being replaced by a ‘double-vitrage’ variety and the balcony re-soldered. (I’d later put chicken wire over one of the windows so that I could air the apartment without the cats getting out. It also proved convenient for drying my laundry en caché.) Consequently, when I moved in with the cats, my new home was already occupied, by a half-dozen workers, presided over by a jovial giant of a plumber. They’d arrive every day and change into their work coveralls in my living room. I loved the bonhomie of having the workers there. Sometimes I’d even wave to them on my balcony as I returned home, and they’d wave back. Every morning I’d offer them coffee when they arrived, which they thought was peculiar but which they accepted with pleasure.

Paradis balcony and lafayetteLeft: the rue Lafayette, which leads to the Opera House. Right: The view from the balcony down the rue de Paradis, which leads eventually to Fidelite, the rue St.-Denis, the Gares de l’Est et Nord, and the Canal St.-Martin. Photograph copyright and courtesy Christine Chen.

The first day that I had to leave the apartment with the workers still there, I taped a note on the middle window (this was before I’d put the chicken wire up) asking them to please keep the windows shut so the cats couldn’t escape, signing it, “Le locuteur,” when I should have written “le locataire,” or “the tenant.” Marc, my new friend who’d sublet me the place on the Square Albin Cachot with the catastrophic plumbing, cracked up when he saw this. “You wrote, ‘He who speaks.'”

The ongoing apartment construction was a good excuse for He Who Speaks to get out of the house and explore his new neighborhood, ideally situated for He Who Searches to Insert Himself Into La Paris d’’Autrefois.

Crossing the street from the 10th arrondissement into the 9th at the catty corner of Paradis, Papillion, Poissonniere, and the rue Bleue and heading down to the rue Bergere took me to the Folies Bergere, where in the 1920s Josephine Baker had introduced jazz to Paris. The street was also, reverse-serendipitously as far as this California Jew who felt more at home amongst Rainbow Tribes was concerned – my mother had once dallied with something called the Acquarian Minyon — home to an over-priced kosher restaurant, super-market, bookstore, Jewish supplies boutique, and discrete Orthodox temple. Heading up Papillion from Paradis and turning left at Lafayette (“I am here!”) — after passing the Square Monthion, where a metal “France has lost a battle, but not the war!” note from General De Gaulle dated June 18, 1940 guarded an alabaster statue of three buxom Belle Epoch women honoring workers – conducted me to the Opera House, where Emma Livry, protegée of Marie Taglioni (the first to dance on point), went up in flames not long after making a debut in Taglioni’s ballet “La Papillion.” (Covering Livry’s funeral procession in 1863 for Le Moniteur, Theophile Gauthier, Il St. Louis hashish den-mate of Baudelaire, lamented: “She resembled so much the butterfly; like him, her wings were burned in the flame, and, as if they wanted to escort the convoy of a sister, two white butterflies flew without rest above the white coffin during the trajectory from the church to the cemetery. This detail that the Greeks would see as a poetic symbol was remarked upon by thousands of people, because an immense crowd accompanied her funeral cart. On the simple tomb of the young dancer, what epitaph to write, if not that found by a poet of the Anthology for an Emma Livry of the Antiquite: ‘Oh earth, be light on me; I weighed so little on you!'”)

paradis book tableBackground: The ‘cat perch’ leading to the kitchen. Foreground: A door converted into a book table, where the stars include several of the important women in the author’s life, such as Leonor Fini, Kate Bush, Josephine Baker, Brigitte Bardot, Madeline, and others. Photograph copyright and courtesy Christine Chen.

If in lieu of continuing straight down Lafayette towards the Opera House I took a sharp right at the square and then a diagonal left, after passing a 19th century Portuguese synagogue (next to the Algerians, the Portuguese make up the single largest immigrant community in France), I’d eventually end up back at 33, rue Lamartine, one-time demeure of Baudelaire, PBI, and, still in that Fall-Winter of 2001, Sabine. Turning right at the end of Sabine’s block and hiking up Martyrs brought me to Montmartre. Various detours to the left off Martyrs as Sacre Coeur emerged from “La Butte” (as the top of Montmartre is called) and then veering up to Clichy took me past the homes and/or ateliers of Renoir, Toulouse-Lautrec, and Degas; the former locations of the shop where Cezanne traded canvases for pigment powder to mix brand new colors and of the Chat Noir, where Alphonse Alias once held forth with his insolent poetry and Erik Satie contributed the occasoional ditty; and, on a gated alley just before Pigalle (or, as the U.S. soldiers looking to buy ‘petites mortes’ from elderly prostitutes after the Liberation referred to it, “Pig Alley”), the long-time home of Jean Renoir. As for stepping into the paintings, I was disappointed to find that not only was the Square Adolphe Max / Vintemille, right below the Moulin Rouge, more petite than the one depicted by Vuillard from the atelier/apartment overlooking the square he shared with his mother, but the grass presided over by a bust of Berlioz was made of astro-turf.

If instead of mounting Martyrs at Lamartine I crossed it and continued along the rue St. Lazaire – after a nod at Notre Dame de Lorette, where Van Gogh once paused before heading down to the Grands Boulevards to pitch  his paintings to Goupil — I eventually came to the train station immortalized by Zola in “La Bete Humaine” and Monet in gauzy depictions of the locomotive ‘beasts’ clouding up the station with steam. (Along St.-Lazaire, I could also take a side-track to the former home and studio, now museum, of Gustave Moreau, its walls plastered with Ledas and her Swans, Salomés and Jean le Baptistes, and lolling naked sylphs caressing unicorns.) In memory of Zola’s doomed adulterous lovers (from the same book) nibbling on a Sunday chicken in their roost near the station while they plotted the demise of the woman’s husband, I’d sometimes buy a delectable chicken roasted with garlic at a rotisserie on St. Lazare, gobbling it up on a bench outside the one-time mauseleum of Louis & Marie Antoinette in an intimate park named after the royal couple interred there by the Revolutionaries before the Restorationists moved them to Versailles, arrosing the chicken with red wine under the suspicious eyes of a guardian.

If I headed right on Paradis, I soon arrived at the rue de Faubourg St. Denis and Little India-Pakistan. If instead of turning right at St. Denis as Paradis turned into Fidelité (heading the other direction, one might conclude the inverse) I continued straight to Magenta and on past the Gare de l’Est, I’d end up at the Canal St.-Martin. It was catching a projection of Marcel Carné’s “Hotel du Nord” at a park on the canal across from the current Hotel du Nord in the summer of 2001 that decided me to settle in the 10th, and my little corner of Paradis seemed to be the perfect cockpit for discovering the Paris a lifetime of being weaned on Pissarro, Tintin, Babar, “The Red Balloon,” Madeline, Frere Jacques, Brel, Montand, and Piaf had primed me for. And if my brood didn’t quite tally the dozen kittens who accompanied Michel Simon, his co-pilot, and the co-pilot’s bride when they docked at the canal at the end of a honeymoon traverse of the waters of France in Jean Vigo’s 1934 “L’Atalante,” I at least had three feline co-pilots and felt I was ready to search for the bride.

So there she was, that evening just before Christmas 2001, waiting behind the closed door of the unfinished, dirt-floored bathroom. ‘She’ was Benedicte, a 33-year-old banker (our burgeoning couple thus neatly inverting the Jamesian pair that opens “The American” with the French lass copying a painting at the Louvre and the Yank man asking “How much?”). “I’m not quite ready. I still have to take my shower, and I need to do it here in the kitchen as the salle de bain isn’t finished yet,” I’d announced. I was taking Benedicte to dinner at the La Verre Volé (“The Stolen Glass”), a cozy if snobby ‘cave au vins’ cum bistro on the rue Lancry, which wound from Magenta to the canal – and, with its ‘bio’ wines, an early outpost for the BoBos, or Bourgeoisie Bohemians, who would colonize the canal district over the next 15 years, but which in 2001 still shared the street with barber shops guarded by cigarette-toking Serge Gainsbourg dolls. Ever the banker, Benedicte had arrived punctually, covered in a non-descript jacket and with her dirty blonde hair in a neat bun above her thick librarian’s glasses and big round eyes. “It’s okay, I can wait here in the salle de bain until you’re proper,” she answered. Then, after disappearing into the large bathroom: “It’s kind of the bordel here, non?,” ‘bordel’ translating as ‘brothel’ and meaning ‘chaos.’

When we returned to Paradis from dinner, emboldened by a bottle of bio Beaujolais and romantically juiced by a walk along the fog-shrouded canal, I decided to reverse-engineer Arletty’s imprecation (in “Hotel du Nord”) and create as much “atmosphere” as possible when you’re sitting on a bare thin futon on a weathered grey-blue carpet and still coughing from the dirt in the entry-way by starting up Earth, Wind, and Fire’s “Imagination” on my laptop, posed on the only piece of furniture in the room, a sky-blue formica table I’d found along with matching square stools outside my apartment building in the Cité Falguieres next to the Pasteur Institute, one-time worker housing since converted to bourgeoisie digs.  (The rectangular glass-roofed artist atelier at the entrance of the Cité – located in the 15th arrondissement on the peripherie of Montparnasse — had once been inhabited by Chaim Soutine, who spent his sun-infused days dabbing colors on canvasses and his unlit nights dodging fleas parachuting from the ceiling before a Philadelphia art collector named Dr. Barnes rescued him from obscurity.)

So I imagined myself with you.                                                                                                                See what imagination can do.

It didn’t take much imagination to decipher the bedroom eyes Benedicte threw at me from behind her goggle-eyed glasses, but she added a hint for the hopelessly dense by briskly undoing her dirty-blonde hair from its Peggy Proper (as Jean-Pierre Leaud’s Antoine described Claude Jade in Truffaut’s “Stolen Kisses”) pony-tail and pulling me down on the futon for my first trip to Paradise on the rue de (Paradis). We grappled hungrily, two mismatched souls whose only real point in common was their desperation for love, escalated quickly to third base and stopped just short of home plate, but I was sated and she seemed content, snuggling her back against me as we fell asleep. In the morning I brought cappuccino poured into my two large brown and white Italian ceramic cappuccino mugs from San Francisco’s Cafe Trieste to the bed, my hands shaking, and promptly spilled it. “Oh la la! You are so nervous! Why do you shake like that?” Benedicte said, rising in just her tee-shirt and panties. “Do you have some white vinegar? That will erase the stain.” But the coffee stains would remain on the drab blue-gray carpet on Paradis for the next six years, long after our aborted relationship had turned to vinegar. As far as “Love on the Run” (to refer to the title of the final Antoine film) goes, I was a marked man.

L’Arts Voyager cherche mecenes pour pouvoir continuer notre travail / The Arts Voyager needs sponsors to be able to continue our work

Levé des fonds / sous-scriptions: Alors que l’Arts Voyager peut revenir a Paris cette automne pour pouvoir continuer d’ecrit sur les artistes et galeries au niveau locale, il nous faut trouvée 2,500 Euros. (Frais de location + voyage ((de la Dordogne, ou se trouve notre bureau principe)) pour 2 mois environ.) Si vous voulez donné — il n’y a aucun don trop petite — s’il vous plait a contacter Paul Ben-Itzak, chef de la redaction, a artsvoyager@gmail.com . (Si le lien ne marche pas, simplement copier cette addresse a votre messagerie.) Attention: Votre don sera ramassé seulement si on arrive a obtenu le somme totale. (Ou, le cas echeant, si on reussi a trouvée un location moins chere. Et sur cette sujet, les tuyaux sont les bienvenu aussi!) Tout mecene sera reconnu dans nos pages. Redacteur, journaliste (le New York Times, Reuters, etc.), et traducteur (clients CNRS, post-doctorale, etc.), Paul est aussi dispo pour rediger et traduire vos theses, articles, dossiers presse, romans, poemes, CVs, etc. MERCI!

Tr. anglais / In English:

For The Arts Voyager to be able to return to Paris this fall and continue to write about artists and galleries at the local level, we need to raise 2,500 Euros. (Housing in Paris for approximately two months, transportation costs from our principal bureau in the Dordogne, etc.) To make a pledge, please contact editor and publisher Paul Ben-Itzak at artsvoyager@gmail.com . (If the link does not open automatically, just paste that addresse into your e-mail program.) Important: Your donation will be collected only if we reach the total goal. (Or, if that’s not the case, if we’re able to find a less expensive rental. And on that subject: All leads are welcome!) All donors will be acknowledged on The Arts Voyager. Editor, journalist (the NY Times, Reuters, etc.), and translator, Paul is also available for your editing and translating assignments. MERCI!

 

Portes Ouvertes de Belleville 2016: Back to the Future, in a Literary Mode

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In their array and arrangement of colors, Valérie Malet’s book bindings (above) evoke the work of Spontaneous Color inventor Sonia Delaunay. Examples of book bindings by Valérie Malet  courtesy and copyright Valérie Malet.

PARIS — If the Parisian theater scene is in a bad state — see my recent review of Tiego Rodrigues’s insular spectacle at the Theatre de la Bastille — the plastic arts are experiencing a renaissance which often finds its basis in expansiveness. And I’m not talking about the museums, which, with the laudable exceptions of the national and city repositories of modern art, continue to be pre-occupied with finding new ways to market the same old artists. I’m talking about the artisans of the terrain, who continue to create work which at the same time builds on France’s rich literary and artistic tradition and innovates in both its diversity of form and complexity of subject. This connection is not to be under-estimated in a country which often prizes the new at all costs, even when it is inferior to the old or blemishes classic landmarks. The latter is a trend fast turning into an epidemic, if one is to judge by the fake-naive or  art bruit installations recently implanted in the gardens of the Palais Royale, where one now has to navigate a field of tombstone-like upright mahogony two-by-fours attached by bolts to pass under one of the tree-shaded lanes, and the Pont des Arts, where the city, in its ongoing struggle to provide an institutional alternative to the love-locks which threatened to sink the bridge across from the Louvre into the Seine has now implanted a series of mammoth brass sculptures of Acteon flexing his muscles amidst a forest of industrial steel mounted on more two-by-fours, le tout seeming much more menacing to the structure’s stability than the metal locks. To get an idea of the crassness of this juxtaposition, it’s as if you gold spray-painted images of wrestlers onto your Pissarro. Meanwhile, the hastily improvised plywood — and thus love-lock proof — barrier adorned with fake graffiti which previously replaced the chain link fence has now been supplanted by a glass wall, a much less distracting and more neutral solution which will nicely refract the sunlight, should it ever decide to return to Paris.

The rant that ended the last paragraph isn’t as much of a digression as you might think. There’s a vast qualitative difference between most of the monumental art plopped down at public sites that I’ve seen in Paris over the past decade and the work of local artists I’ve seen in their ateliers. The former seems to have been picked expressly because it doesn’t go with its setting, either in its scale or substance,  while the latter seems genuinely connected to the pulse of the city and the artists’ fellow citizens, their concerns and fears, their diversions and distractions. And much more up to the standards that preceded them. Perhaps the city officials who curate these temporary exhibtions sould take a ramble around the Open Studios of Belleville. At last month’s annual edition, I was able to discover a score of artists who both sparked my curiosity about their methods and designs and sated my thirst for more of what I’ve always loved in French culture, specifically the marriage of literary depth and painterly brilliance.

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Raoul Velasco, “Icare.” Etching and intaglio. Copyright and courtesy Raoul Velasco. 

From an engraver who has integrated newspaper clippings into a series about a child’s — our — nightmares to make the point about how much the news has infiltrated our consciousness, to a water-colorist who caresses the paper with a light touch using bamboo pens, to an engraver and monotype maker on the mythic rue Menilmontant whose tinted shade of black furnishes the perfect tone for capturing the obsolete and desuet structures of the city’s outlying arrondissements and suburbs, to a book-maker / artist who has built up a steady client base for the ancient craft of artisanal book-binding to which she applies an eye for color that rivals that of Sonia Delaunay, what I found was artists determined to pursue their craft with an eye that is as open to the world around them as it is to the potential of the canvas in front of them. And, perhaps not surprising in a city which still offers specialist (and independent) bookstores tucked into every nook and cranny, just about all the work I saw was underpinned by cerebral thematics.

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Kristin Meller, “Candide.” Woodcut. Copyright and courtesy Kristin Meller.

I’d already been captivated by Kristin Meller’s limited edition and lavish artist’s book about the Theatre des Ombres, seen at last year’s Open Studios. This time around it was a four-part series starring a heroine or hero named “Candide” that drew me. The name is a loaded — and still relevant — allusion in France. Typically it’s meant to suggest naiveté. But naiveté is a close cousin to innocence, and (at least as I interpreted the series; Meller’s work is open to multiple readings, and she disdains none) it’s rather the confrontation between innocence and the malevolent forces and events of the world that spoke to me here. The form is perfectly suited to this juxtaposition: The base or background is bright, its dark luminosity evoking the black light posters popular in the 1970s. In the sample we’ve featured here, a child — or a child-like hero/ine — might be awakening from a nightmare… or to the nightmare of the real and increasingly fragile world.

Meller and her partner, Raoul Velasco, host an annual Dia de los Muertos exhibition and fete in their atelier/gallery high atop Belleville on the rue Cascades, l’Association pour l’Estampe et l’Art Populaire. (This last term  literally translates as “Folk Art,” but that implies an unschooled skill level which doesn’t accurately describe the high level of craftsmanship in either the engravings and woodcuts of Meller and Velasco or the students of the ateliers they lead in Paris and the border suburb of Lilas that I’ve seen. I’d put this work up against that in any gallery mounting established artists.) Last fall’s festivities featured calaveras, or skeletons, lampooning public figures and subjects, such as the disparity of wealth and the beauty media’s promotion of the thin body standard for women. That might sound ponderous, but there’s a wistfulness to both artists’ approaches that’s almost… carefree. In one recent comic strip, Meller depicts the saga of a skeleton… dying… after a long illness. This is a concept that doesn’t just make you think, it makes you think twice. If a skeleton can die (in another Meller strip a skeleton falls to his death after being pushed over a fence by a woman skeleton friend he’s raped), then… when we become skeletons, are we really dead, or are we entering another zone in which we’re still subject to the mortal pains and joys of living and dying…? Meller doesn’t necessarily press us to pose these heavy questions, but her work is open to such reflections.

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Raoul Velasco, “Flight.” Etching and intaglio. Copyright and courtesy Raoul Velasco.  To read more about Raoul Velasco and Kristin Meller’s Association pour l’Estampe et l’Art Populaire, click here.

As for Velasco, his etching and intaglio “Vol,” or “Flight” features a netherworld under a city sidewalk, inhabited by an upside-down figure apparently heading… upwards. I also see both artist-teachers’ influence in the technical adeptness of their students.

Also supporting the vision of symbols of the dead as vibrant sources of life is Ulrike Klett’s silver gelatin print of a tomb at the entry to a village in the southwest of Benin, Lobogo, which, she reports, is a popular gathering place for the town’s living residents.

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Ulrike Klett, “Entre du village de Lobogo.” Silver photo on film (scan). Copyright and courtesy Ulrike Klett.

Klett was the guest, at this year’s Open Studios, of Mirella Rosner, an artist as well as activist in Belleville, often engaged in campaigns to save mixed-use housing/atelier structures from demolition by a city administration struggling with an ongoing housing crisis. If Rosner’s political commitment is sincere, her work doesn’t bear the leaden quality of some artists who think flashing their politics is enough to validate their ideas. At last fall’s exhibition of the Artists of the Bastille, she occupied a whole room with a gigantic funnel-like mobile decorated with the detritus of consumer society. Her work on paper often features multiple mediums, clashing and blending with each other in a way that produces interesting textural contrasts, such as the example featured here which combines acrylic — diluted enough to resemble watercolor — and ink swirls traced with bamboo pens.

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Mirella Rosner, “GaelleS,” acrylic and ink. 24 x 31 cm. Copyright and courtesy Mirella Rosner. Rosner’s work is also on display through June 19 at the gallery of the Ateliers d’Artistes de Belleville in the group exhibition “Our Pandora’s Boxes.” 

Like Meller and Velasco’s Association pour l’Estampe et l’Art Populaire, Caroline Bouyer’s compact atelier (half of which seems to be filled by her engraving machine) has become a Belleville institution since opening on the rue Menilmontant in 2007, frequently hosting other artists as well as classes for apprentice engravers. A pedigreed artist who has collaborated with, among others, Balthus and the late singer-composer Nino Ferrer — on a livre d’artist, a literary-art form in which she’s already established herself as a master — as well as illustrated children’s books, Bouyer also excels at portraying the carcasses of since levelled, forgotten, or remodeled buildings and railway tracks in the peripheral zones of Paris. The form and large format she’s chosen — which might resemble an architect’s blueprint — as well as the tone of her blacks, lends a veneer to her subjects that conveys the distance of time. It’s all well and good, for example, that the suburban city of Pantin is rehabilitating the ancient building of the Magasins (or boutiques) General, which is slated to house France’s largest ad agency, an organic grocery store, and a cafe-restaurant cultural center, but it’s also important to preserve history, and this is where Bouyer applies her craft, her eye, her attentive memory and a grander sense of the scope this evolution in the urban landscape represents in a city which is constantly discarding its past, often to follow fleeting contemporary architectural modes. (Although it could be worse; some planners in the 1970s envisioned a Paris in the 2000s which solved the housing crisis with aerial apartment buildings hovering over the Seine) It’s as if she’s capturing ghosts before they vanish into the ether.

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Top: Caroline Bouyer, “Magasins Généraux Désaffectés 2.” Engraving. Below: Caroline Bouyer, “Vue des Maréchaux, Paris XIII (2).” Engraving. Both images and works copyright and courtesy Caroline Bouyer. Click here for more samples of the artist’s work.

If Valerie Malet’s atelier on a side street off the top of the rue Belleville is more discrete than Bouyer’s — from the unadorned frosted glass storefront, one might guess it’s just another disaffected building — to pursue her particular metier Malet’s reached even further back. In an age in which everything is automated, with e-books  supplanting paper and 3D printers able to replace damaged body parts, I was relieved to find an artist devoting her particular talents to the ancient craft of book-binding.

In France, the art of making books has been intricately tied to the art of literature at least since Balzac delved into it in “Lost Illusions,” in which the advances in the paper-making industry were intricately intertwined with the fates of his heroes and the machinations and intrigues of his villains. The art of the reliure or book-binding seems to me the quintessentially Parisian, or French, literary art, providing artful packages for all sorts of literary endeavors. (And not just in France. Back in the day, New York publishers sometimes provided their authors with special glass and ceramic covered first editions of their work.) And Malet, in the brilliance of her palette, recalls another multi-position player of the French scene, Sonia Delaunay, the pioneer of Spontaneous Color who also sometimes devoted her craft to a practical form, fashion. “The art of the reliure is a traditional, old school technique,” Malet says, “but for me it’s a solid, fantastic base for creating, imagining, and inventing forms both contemporary and colored.” And she applies her investment in the craft not just to new works, but also to restoring the covers of antique editions, one more sign of proof of the enduring value of the metier she’s chosen — and the enduring value of artists who are also artisans. — Paul Ben-Itzak

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 Examples of book bindings by Valérie Malet  courtesy and copyright Valérie Malet. To read more about Valerie Malet and her work in painting and hte art of reliure, click here.