Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Vive le iPhone (sort of)

The new iPhone Apps make it easier than ever to create delightful artwork. Who needs a sketchbook?

IMG_0026, originally uploaded by david_stirling.

While I was in Paris, Apple came out with the much-anticipated iPhone 2.0 update. This allows you to download third-party applications to use on your phone. For example, I now have a drawing program on my iPhone that allowed me to capture this moment at a sidewalk café. Brilliant. Obviously, it's just a matter of time before the old-fashioned sketchbook goes the way of the dinosaur.

More challenging was the matter of using the phone as an actual phone. I thought I was going to be able to buy a pre-paid French SIM card and swap it into the iPhone, and in fact for a few days I was. To do this I had to download some gray-market software and perform what's called a jailbreak on the phone, which frees it from being locked into AT&Ts service. Needless to say, Apple and AT&T frown on jailbreaking. Unfortunately, when Apple provided the 2.0 update, it killed the jailbreak, so I was only able to use the iPhone as a wifi device and not as a phone (anyone want to buy a slightly-used French SIM card with 15 Euros left on it?). But in the end that worked out mostly fine, because there are a lot of spots with free wifi throughout the city, and once I got familiar with where they are (many of the parks, museums, and municipal buildings, not to mention the occasional McDonalds) I was able to check in on e-mail, post quick blog entries taken on the phone, see if Google maps could help me figure out where the hell I was, etc.

I won't waste space here detailing my thoughts on Apple's embarrassingly-named new MobileMe service, the supposed upgrade to dot-Mac, other than to say it's a hot mess, and many other blogs out there can give you the ugly details.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Tasty cakes

Cakes in the window of the "artisan patisserie/boulangerie" across the street from my place.

Paris_Cakes, originally uploaded by david_stirling.

I knew that if I added a review of French pastries to my in-progress surveys of French wine, bread, and cheese, there could be some serious repercussions girthwise. So, with very few exceptions, I completely avoided purchasing anything from the patisseries that wasn't a baguette. A couple things made this easier. For one, all those lovely dainty cakes and tartes are crazy expensive. Second, I am something of a confections philistine--for me dessert is really all about delivering chocolate to my bloodstream in the most concentrated form possible. Cremes and layers and flaky crusts are just complications. Even the budget-priced "pain chocolat" is too much about the "pain" and not enough about the "chocolat," in my opinion. If I'm going ingest those calories, I'd rather devote them purely to the chocolate and not the buttery pastry surrounding it.

That all changed when I tried a "pain suisse." The clever Swiss have upped the ante by adding a slathering of custard to the chocolate before folding over the pastry dough. Now it is no longer a croissant with some chocolate added as an afterthought. It is a performance-enhanced chocolate-creme tastebud bunker buster. All I can say is I'm glad I didn't know about these things until the last few days of my trip. I was able to limit my research to two samples, equally amazing, from two different patisseries.

And it's fortunate there were multiple patisseries in the neighborhood, because the one where I took this photo was the scene of another unfortunate language-gap mishap early in my trip. I had gone in to the store to buy a baguette, and I asked if they minded me taking photos of the pastries. After getting the green light to shoot, I commented jokingly that taking photos "costs less" than eating them, while patting my midsection. The owner asked if I liked the cakes, and if I was planning on "trying" them. I said most definitely, one day I'll try them, but "there are risks, so I'll venture forward prudently, ha ha." At this, she tersely explained that her husband had taken twenty years to learn how to properly make pastries and it wasn't something you just did. She was smiling, but her eyes flashed at me in anger. It was then I realized that she had misunderstood me and thought I was implying her cakes were overpriced so I was going to take the photos and go try to make my own cakes. I rushed to backpedal, but in France there is no such thing as a simple misunderstanding that you just laugh off, so I meekly bid them good day and went home to add that store to my list of "places in Europe I am no longer welcome."

Monday, July 28, 2008

Palais Omnisports Bercy

Paris_Bercy_Skaters, originally uploaded by david_stirling.

Yes, that is grass growing on the side of the sports arena. Totally cool.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

La fin du Tour

Carlos Sastre, winner of the 2008 Tour de France

Paris_TdF_Sastre, originally uploaded by david_stirling.

The Tour de France runs throughout most of the month of July: a grinding schedule of 21 race days with only 3 or 4 days of rest. To give you an idea of how hard this competition is, the riders must ingest 9000 calories of food each day just to keep going. Even on the rest days they all train hard for three hours because, as one rider said, "your body gets used to the pain and if you stop for a day it's too hard to start again."

I followed a lot of it on TV this year, either live or the evening recaps. It was actually a good way to gauge how my French was coming along by listening to the commentary. For the first week or so, it was little more than "blah blah blah blah attaque!" or "blah blah blah chute!" (crash). But within a couple weeks I was actually capable of telling which rider they were discussing, so that really improved the experience. Anyways, the overall plan of the race stages varies year-to-year, but the final stage always finishes in Paris on the last Sunday in July. The overall leader ( le maillot jaune, or the "yellow jersey") going into the last day is almost always the final winner, because it is too difficult for one rider to overtake another on an easy stage such as this one (and it's sort of considered bad form to try). So in terms of suspense, the final day is not the best; it's more of a celebration and giant public event. The riders all arrive as a group in Paris from around 50 miles away, then they do eight laps of the Champs Elysées, which is another 30 miles or so. They keep a leisurely pace until they begin the final laps, when the competition heats up for the honor of winning the individual stage on the final day.


This year's yellow jersey, Carlos Sastre of Spain, won on the strength of a climb up the infamous "Alpes d'Huez," a 12-mile long torture chamber of 21 switchbacks and thousands of rowdy fans, whose idea of a good time is to get as close to the riders as possible without actually knocking them off their bikes. Sastre then held onto his lead with an amazing effort in the time trial on the next-to-last day of the race, despite all the experts' predictions that Australia's Cadel Evans would overtake him.


Evans ended up coming in second, and Sastre completed an impressive trifecta for Spain in the month of July: Wimbledon (Raffi Nadal), the European soccer championship, and the Tour de France. After the awards are handed out at the Place de la Concorde, the riders all do a slow lap around the Champs as teams, to huge applause from the crowds lining the course.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

The flea market

Paris_PucesDeMontreuil, originally uploaded by david_stirling.

I spent 200 Euros at the flea market today. What did I get? I'll tell you what I got. I got destroyed at three-card monty, that's what. Sheesh.

But as bad as I am at three-card monty, I'm far worse at shopping. I thought the semi-famous "Puces de Montreuil" would be a great place to score a cool French foulard (scarf). But this was no artisans fair. This was hard core immigrant-class junk meet. I did rummage through a pile of new scarves en solde and found three that look nice, but I don't even dare give them as gifts. I don't think you'd ever speak to me again if I gave one of these things to you as a "scarf from France."

Friday, July 25, 2008

Paris à la mode

Paris_Lagerfeld-2, originally uploaded by david_stirling.

So I'm riding my bike down a side street, lost, again, when through an old wooden door steps a tall guy, all in white, wearing angel wings. Hallo. This is enough to cause me to stop. Then, following him, appears a female model, tall and skinny as a birch tree, trailed by a small group of handlers and some other folks with photographic equipment. And finally out steps probably the most recognizable man in fashion: Karl Lagerfeld of Chanel. Of course, the reason he is the most recognizable is because he has been wearing basically the same outfit for the last twenty years. (He probably re-accessorizes every few months, but those details are beyond me.)

Now I am casually fishing through my backpack, switching to my long lens, following at a respectful distance. Lagerfeld, angel, birch tree, et al set themselves up by a glass wind shelter for a surprisingly brief photo shoot. I guess they have to shoot fast, because by the time they were done a crowd had started to materialize. The whole business was strikingly drama-free and low profile. They couldn't have shot more than five or six frames before moving along. Lagerfeld would set up the shot, describe to the models what he wanted them to do while the assistant would prepare the camera. Then Lagerfeld received the camera and took the final shots.

After they were done, Lagerfeld took time to pause for some photos and to chat amiably with the group of people that had gathered. He even took out his own camera and fired off a couple photos of the angel holding an egregiously cute baby.

It's funny how when we have a brush with celebrity we're amazing and impressed when the person isn't a raging jerk. Even so, I'll admit he seemed like a charming person--someone I'd enjoy chatting with at a party. And props to anyone who can even frame a photo while wearing glasses that dark.

Musée d'Orsay

Paul Cézanne, Nature morte à la bouilloire, 1869

Paris_Orsay_Cezanne, originally uploaded by david_stirling.

If you only have one day to visit a museum in Paris, go to the Musée d'Orsay, skip the Louvre. Heck, if you have two days, go to the Orsay both days. While the Louvre will crush your puny self with its weight, the Orsay lifts you up, starting with the Barbizon school and the Naturalists, through the Nabis and pre-Impressionists as you climb the levels, until you arrive on the sixth floor and the glorious Impressionist collection, including the unspeakably beautiful Van Gogh room.

Van Gogh's paintings are so powerful I could only stay in the room for a while at a time before retreating to the passive delights of Renoir to rest for a minute. Van Gogh's brushstrokes weep color, intense like the oxygenated blood of a re-opened wound. It's almost too much to bear.

So there I am, having an emotional moment in the Van Gogh room, and couples keep coming up to ask me to take a photo of them in front of Starry Night. OK, yes, I'm glad people think I'm a trustworthy harmless-looking guy. But now and then for a minute I wish I was the one asking somebody to take a picture of me and my gal. But just for a minute.

An added bonus to all the artists you know and love, the Orsay offers a comprehensive range of other delights and horrors from the second half of the nineteenth century--when Paris was the only town that mattered. This link, which you click at your own peril, is what I consider the Parisian equivalent of the Britney-Madonna "lesbian kiss": the air-horn announcing that a culture has nowhere left to go but down.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Le pont des arts

Paris_PontDesArts-1, originally uploaded by david_stirling.

I was afraid to talk to this painter at first, because he seemed like a crusty grumpy Frenchman. But in fact, he's a really nice guy. While he was working on this piece, he invited a couple little girls over to have their picture taken helping him paint. I talked with him for a while about how it all works, being a street artist. He's got a pretty sweet location on the pont des arts. I wasn't clear exactly how they determine where artists sell their wares, but they all have to register with the city hall, and he is entitled to sell on the bridge; it's not just informal pecking order or first-come.

He is apparently firming up details to do an exhibit in Washington D.C. this fall. Needless to say, this is a big deal for someone whose income consists largely of cigarettes he gleans from passersby.

I purchased the painting second from the right in the above photo. I have it temporarily hung in the apartment and every time I look at it it still pleases me. What more can you ask for?

See the rest of the photos of him working on a painting starting here.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Here is your obligatory Eiffel Tower

Paris_Eiffel-2, originally uploaded by david_stirling.

So artsy.
Or maybe you prefer this one.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Parc la villette

Paris_Villette-kids, originally uploaded by david_stirling.

I was talking with a French woman, who said she didn't like going to la villette because it was "full of blacks and arabs." Hmm, maybe we have more in common with the French than we thought.

Vive le Coke Zero!

Paris_CokeZero, originally uploaded by david_stirling.

I've noticed a few changes in France since I was an exchange student twenty years ago. America's love of abundance has caught on. For example, when I was here before, there were three television stations, plus one pay station called Canal+. Now I can watch upwards of sixty stations in at least six languages--and my rentor only has the basic package. More important, however, France has Coke Zero.

I have a hard time communicating how much I love Coke Zero. It's like someone handed you a plate of the best chocolate cake you ever tasted, and said you could eat as much as you want and not gain any weight. Awesome.

When I was an exchange student, Coke came in little six-ounce glass bottles that cost like a buck fifty each. I would save up my Francs until I could afford a Coke, then scurry off to a dark corner so I could enjoy every delicious drop in silence.
Now the supermarket around the corner has six-packs of 1.5L bottles of Coke Zero for the bargain price of 7€95. That's like four times cheaper than water. I've been humping wheelbarrows full of the stuff back up the hill to my apartment. The downside of this is that I haven't spent as much time sampling wine as I thought I would, so I remain pretty ignorant as to what's what in grapes and regions etc. The upside is that I haven't been forced to learn to like coffee--I've been able to keep my morning Coke Zero habit unchanged.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Le Louvre

Paris_Louvre-statues, originally uploaded by david_stirling.

What can you say about the Louvre, other than it is big? It is really, really, really big. Wall after wall of paintings, case after case of antiquities. Honestly, you get desensitized pretty quickly. It is simultaneously the greatest and the worst museum in the world. The sheer volume of stuff makes it very difficult to appreciate any one piece on its own if you try to view the entire place in one day, as most people do (including me).
Here are my three pieces of advice:
1. Do not do the antiquities first. They are the easiest to get to, and therefore they are crowded. Plus, you can easily spend your entire day looking at a thousand sarcophagi, which are amazing, but you'll blow out all your nerve endings and have nothing left for the paintings.
2. Get outside for lunch. While the museum cafeteria is nice as museum cafes go, it's very crowded. It's only a short walk to the nearby square where you can have a much more relaxing lunch and plan your afternoon.
3. Do not save Delacroix for last. It's one of the more distant sections of the museum, and I thought I timed it so he would be my grand finale, but the staff start herding you out of the building 20 minutes before closing and I was out of luck.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Dots Obsession

Paris_Dots-1, originally uploaded by david_stirling.

One thing I've found about Paris is that if you wander aimlessly for more than half an hour, you're bound to run into something amazing. Case in point: "Dots Obsession". This installation by Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama is free to the public in the fabulous exhibition hall at La Villette through the rest of the summer. If I had seen this work in the Centre Pompidou, I'd be raving about it. The fact that I literally ran into it at the end of a jog up the canal is almost too good to be true. It has the two things I look for in art: pleasing on a purely emotional level, yet reaching for a more intangible reality that is outside our normal experience. In that respect, I hold it up with other great works by artists like Richard Serra and Chuck Jones.

La Villette

Paris_Villette-Geode, originally uploaded by david_stirling.

Friday, July 18, 2008

The Mitterand National Library of France

Paris_BibDeFrance-1, originally uploaded by david_stirling.

The "Bibliothèque national de France - François Mitterand" opened in 1992, the result of a highly publicized design competition won by Dominique Perrault, who happens to have an exhibition at the Centre Pompidou right now which details in multimedia format how awesome he and his signature metal link screens are. The "Bibliothèque national de France - François Mitterand" also has the distinction of being the least inviting public space I have ever visited. It makes City Hall plaza in Boston seem like the Luxembourg Gardens.

It's very cool from a distance, especially when approaching via the new Simone de Beauvoir footbridge, as in the photo at the top. However, once you arrive on site, this is the view:

Among the things forbidden on this vast expanse of pressurized decking are bicycles, skateboards, roller skates, and dogs. What few pedestrians there are have to huddle on a few uncomfortable stairs if they need to rest during their trek from one tower to the other.

Perrault's concept, supposedly, is that the library is sunk into the ground around a central garden and the book storage towers, um, tower over the ground like four open books. I'd like to interject here that the "garden" would more accurately described as a wild tangle of trees lurking menacingly in a pit. (In case you're wondering, there is no entry in the "garden.") I tried to take a photo that effectively showed how forbidding it is, but this actually looks much nicer than it is in real life.

On a sunny July morning I felt the chill of Mordor in this place; I can only imagine what it must be like in November. This is a great example of a designer coercing his ideas what a "space" should be without any consideration of its function for all the little people figurines they scatter around their architectural models like cake decorations. Can you believe that it didn't occur to them until after the library was finished that designing the book storage towers entirely in transparent glass was not the best solution for the books? (They have since installed swinging wooden shades behind every single window.)

As a final raspberry to the public, entry is $5, and there is no free wifi. In a library. Clearly, they are not interested in having this be a place where folks will congregate, despite the original idea that the library would help vitalize the scruffy 13th arrondisement. Remarkably, this celebrated building succeeds in actually worsening the sense of isolation in one of the more neglected areas of the city.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

L'atelier Brancusi

Paris_Brancusi-6, originally uploaded by david_stirling.

I've been trying to synthesize some thoughts on Brancusi, but so far all I can say is I'm glad I was advised to put in the effort to understand his work by a very wise person (and it wasn't this guy).

The atelier Brancusi is in a separate building from the Centre Pompidou, but in the same square. As per Brancusi's wishes, it is an exact recreation of his studio on the day he died. Brancusi spent years making slight adjustments to the position of each piece in the space, believing they were best viewed in unity. In fact, when he sold a piece he would replace it with a plaster model so as not to lose its place in the whole. Thus the atelier provides an endless variety of views of his work, constantly changing as your change your position.

One thing that seems inconsistent to me is his willingness to substitute a plaster model for the original material, which might have been marble, or wood, or bronze. Any one of these materials would make a radical change in the look of the group as a whole, so it seems like he puts more emphasis on shape than in texture and color, even though he claimed that the what he was doing was bringing out the object which already existed in the material.

Two of Brancusi's more famous individual pieces: "The Kiss" and "Torso of a Young Man" (the latter is a plaster model) .

I suppose that's why he spent so much time rearranging, because the position of a plaster element would be different than that of a bronze element. But it still seems strange to me that he would ascribe so much of the life of the artwork to the material from which it came, yet be willing make use of a plaster proxy to represent it in his studio installation.

The original plaster models for Olive Oyl and Iron Man. Who knew?

The sketchers

Paris_Pompidou-Sketchers, originally uploaded by david_stirling.

Outside the Centre Pompidou there is a row of sketchers who call out to passersby, "Hello, you're beautiful, you want me to draw you?" The charming come-ons often succeed in drawing the tourists into the sketcher's studio--a pair of folding stools--where the sketcher chats amiably with them, massaging the subjects' egos as he works the hidden canvas.

It's over pretty quickly. With a brief flourish, the sketcher makes his final stroke and turns the artwork on the tourists: a gross caricature of themselves in front of the Eiffel Tower, wearing a beret and holding a baguette. The tourists laugh, invariably, simultaneously delighted and embarrassed by their exaggerated features on the paper.

The sketcher rolls up the paper almost immediately, hiding it again before the embarrassment has a chance to overtake the delight. The tourists hand over some Euros for the art and continue on their way.

Alone amongst themselves, the sketchers often bicker--over the speed of their drawing, over their position in the row, over the aggressiveness of their pitch. But really, it's all over money. The sketchers probably didn't picture themselves drawing cartoons of tourists when they were studying in art school. But it's a living, and no one's getting hurt, even if there's a good chance the artwork will just end up in the back of a drawer somewhere.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

My special purpose

Paris_Pompidou-VoyeurSelf, originally uploaded by david_stirling.

After much consideration the last few days, I have decided to become a disciple of Miroslav Tichy. I have taken to lurking the local museums and snapping photos of unsupecting women. However, it will take some time to grow out my beard and adopt a sufficiently disheveled look. Until then I may still appear too much like a regular tourist and not enough like a true artist. Time will only tell if I can ultimately do this one thing worse than anyone else in the world...

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Because I am cheap...

Here is your blog entry on the Pantheon. It is a place where lots of famous French people are buried. I will send pictures of the inside next time I visit Paris, when the dollar is no longer in the tank and it doesn't cost $11 to get in.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Le 14 Juillet

This flag flies above the entrance to the Lycée (high school) Charles de Gaulle, directly below my window

Paris_Tricolore, originally uploaded by david_stirling.

Happy Bastille Day! For the ignorant among you, July 14 is France's July 4. It celebrates the beginning of the French Revolution in 1789. The French Revolution is often compared with the American Revolution as far as both being touchstone moments when the power was transferred from the plutocracy to the general population. However, there are a couple differences.

First, America's Independence Day commemorates the signing of a carefully crafted political statement, outlining the colonies' grievances against the British crown and declaring their sovereignty. On the other hand, Bastille Day commemorates a public riot.

Second, the American Revolution marked the start of a political system that has continued for the most part unchanged throughout the nation's history. France's system has experienced some bumps along the way, including an unfortunate decade called the Reign of Terror, a dictator who overran most of Europe, the restoration of the monarchy, a couple more revolutions, and a humiliating occupation by a foreign country.

All this to say, I think the French appreciation of their democracy is very different than the American one, primarily because it has been such a small portion of the nation's history.

Americans like to talk about democracy and the American way in the same breath as if they were one and the same. French people recognize that what makes them French and what makes them a democracy are two different things. It allows them to more freely call into question the actions of the government without being labeled anti-French. In the USA, when the government succeeds in tying together being patriotic and being supportive of the government as two halves of the American Way, it has undermined the democracy it claims is part of its genetic code. By assuming that just because we are American we are the very definition of liberty we run the risk of having the former define the latter rather than the other way around.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Bal de la Bastille

The night before 14 Juillet, the Place de la Bastille closed down for a giant public concert

Bal d'Europe, Place de la Bastille, originally uploaded by david_stirling.

My daily "commute" from the apartment to downtown and back usually takes me through Place de la Bastille (except when I take a wrong turn and end up two miles north of it instead). It can be a somewhat intimidating experience--a roundabout with four lanes of traffic. So it was cool to see it completely closed off to traffic last night for a huge public concert that filled the roundabout all the way to the steps of the Opéra Bastille.

Interestingly, of the four groups that performed, none were from France. Try that on July 3 in the United States. There were bands from Denmark, Germany, England, and my favorite, from Spain, called Amparanoia. If I had to sum them up in one word I'd call them Iberoska: party music with touches of flameno, rhumba, ska, North African, and more. I highly recommend checking them out, though the 30 second samples on iTunes don't do them justice.


On an unrelated topic, I gave the finger to my first European of the summer today. But he was Italian, so it's OK. As far as I'm concerned, all Italians deserve the finger by default; they must campaign individually for the right not to receive the finger. This guy had the nerve to step out in front of my bike against a Don't Walk sign, then curse me in Italian when I needed to brake and swerve to avoid him. I presented him with the finger and asked him if he knew what that meant; I wanted to make sure my message got across. This enraged him, which was very satisfying to me.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

The coolest rec room ever

Salon of the Palace Elysée while president Georges Pompidou was president

Paris_Pompidou_Agam1, originally uploaded by david_stirling.

This piece at the Pompidou Museum is a reinstallation of the "salon" commissioned by Georges Pompidou to the artist Agam for the Palace Elysée (French White House) during his presidency 1971-1974. The colored doors slide, creating a variable effect on the walls and carpets as the panels filter different parts of the design.


Can you imagine this room in any serious world leader's professional or personal space these days? Pompidou was the man.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Summer nights

Courtyard of the Louvre Museum, with the Pyramid designed by I.P. Pei

Paris_Pyramid, originally uploaded by david_stirling.

One thing that makes summer nights in Paris interesting is that it stays light quite a bit later than for most of us in the States. This photo was taken after 8 PM; dusk doesn't come until around 10 PM in mid-July. That means that people are out walking well into the night, especially on Friday. The courtyard of the Louvre is a popular place, though admittedly it is mostly tourists. The museum itself stays open until 9 PM. I had intended to spend some time looking at the exhibits, but it was so nice outside I decided to enjoy the sun instead and just people-watched in the courtyard. Apparently my impressively gigantic camera and suite of lenses had many couples believing I was the perfect person to take their portrait in front of the pyramid. I must have had half a dozen requests. I did my best not to disappoint them, having them move first one way, then the other, to get just the right angle before snapping the shot for them.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

If anyone can explain this to me...

Figures at the left door of Notre Dame Cathedral

Paris_ND-KrazyKing, originally uploaded by david_stirling.

... I'm listening.

Update: It turns out that this is none other than Saint Denis, who brought Christianity to France in the mid 3rd century and was the first bishop of Paris. He was later martyred by the Romans in a government crackdown under the emperor Valerian. Legend has it that after being beheaded, he walked a few miles north, preaching a sermon as he went, then handed his head off to a woman named Catulla and collapsed. Upon that spot was built the Basilica of Saint-Denis, and the hill he traversed was named Montmartre.

So probably snickering comments by an American tourist are inappropriate. And yet the angels on either side of him seem themselves somewhat bemused and not sure how exactly to handle the situation.

p.s. Another theory proposed to me, which has since been debunked but seemed plausible for a while, was that the above tableau was an early advertisement for the guillotine. Originally there was a sign underneath that said "Now half off!"

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Place de la Bastille

Can be a little hairy to navigate...

Why you want a Smart car

Miroslav Tichy: maverick artist or creepy weirdo?

A response to Miroslav Tichy: Untitled (women watching Tichy)

Paris_Pompidou-Tichy, originally uploaded by david_stirling.

The Centre Pompidou is holding an exhibition by the Czech Miroslav Tichy. It consists entirely of photos of women taken over the course of about 30 years. What makes these art, apparently, is that he took the photos primarily without the subjects' knowledge, often hiding the camera under his trenchcoat. Furthermore, his cameras consisted of a variety of junked parts, household refuse, and jerry-rigged elements, held together with tape and wire. To gather the exhibit, the curator and staff sifted through thousands of prints scattered throughout his run-down house. The fact that the photos were haphazardly mounted on construction paper or newsprint, stained with coffee or cigarette ash, or doodled upon with pen and pencil, serves to heighten their artistic merit, it would seem.

So where exactly is the line between artistic genius and obsessive sociopathy? Is his photography art simply because he did it relentlessly for thirty some-odd years, despite being locked up in an assylum on more than one occasion? Or has he produced something that transcends what a camera lens can transfer onto paper?

Part of the exhibition features a short documentary about Tichy, and in it he is disarmingly matter-of-fact about his pursuit. It has nothing to do with women per se, he claims; it's all about shape and line. "I am an atomist," he says. That makes the underlying sensualism in the photos the more unsettling.

At one point he wryly sums up his feelings on his "discovery" as an artist in a way that supports my suspicions about a lot of post-modern art: "The way to become famous," he says, "is to do something worse than anyone else in the world."

And yet, three days later, I'm still thinking about his photos. They have kind of gotten under my skin, and that I suppose is the measure of what we each as individuals can consider art.

Monday, July 7, 2008

I love French bread

A bakery in the square Alexandre Dumas

Paris_PainsGourmands-ext, originally uploaded by david_stirling.

Within three blocks of my apartment there are at least four different bakeries, three grocery stores, and a twice-weekly farmers market all offering a bonanza of baked goods, including, of course, baguettes. I have been making the rounds, sampling a new baguette from a different store each day. While it is debatable whether the "artisan" baguette is worth €0.30 more than the one in the Franprix, one thing is for sure: they are all better than 90% of the baguettes I have had in the United States. How is this possible? It's like German beer--there are only three ingredients involved, how can they turn out so different?


Sunday, July 6, 2008

Le Quartier Juif

Paris_QuartierJuif-1, originally uploaded by david_stirling.

The Marais is a very hip area north of the Seine bordering on Beaubourg and the Centre Pompidou. It is where the Picasso Museum located, along with a host of cafés, galleries, and clothing stores. It is also home to the ancient Jewish Quarter, dating back to the 13th century. It is particularly popular on Sundays, and in the evening the falafel stands are packed with people lining up for a snack.

At the confluence of all the falafel stands, a group of men from an orthodox temple had set up a card table with Tefellin and pamphlets, and were encouraging all the (Jewish) men passing by to take a moment to pray. I was fascinated by this missionary activity, which I had never seen in Judaism before. I watched for a while as men strapped the little black boxes to their biceps and foreheads and recited a prayer.

The head guy, who I have to assume was a rabbi, was genially yet persistently stopping anyone within reach. Since I had only the vaguest understanding of how the whole thing works, I went up to him and asked if he could explain to me what the significance of the prayer was. He politely said that it was a prayer that went up from the head and from the heart. I wanted more details, but it was clear he was there to speak with his own people, not chat about religious traditions. In that way it was very different from any other street evangelism I had experienced before. I'm sure this is nothing new in most cities--certainly in New York, but it was a first for me, so I found the whole thing very interesting.

The Picasso Museum

No photography allowed in the Picasso museum, so I had to sneak this one.

Paris_Picasso-sculptures, originally uploaded by david_stirling.

Picasso troubles me. I have been trying for years to develop an appreciation for what he was doing. But I'm still haunted by the suspicion that he was above all a terrific self-promoter and extremely charismatic--that by the force of his personality he convinced people that his work was important and therefore it became de jure important.

But I have found that the best way of understanding what he was up to with those crazy distorted figures is to look at the studies he did in preparation for the final work. The Picasso museum in Barcelona has a fantastic exhibit where they project Velasquez's painting of Las Meninas, then gradually superimpose several of Picasso's studies, followed by his final piece (which is housed at that museum). Seeing them in sequence shows how he was deconstructing ideas of light and shape, in ways that I don't pretend to understand, but at least I can appreciate that he wasn't just splashing paint on the wall. Now, Pollack, that's another story.

But anyhow...

Most guidebooks will say the Paris Picasso museum is far more important than the Barcelona one. However, I found that the Barcelona museum has a lot more of his earlier works, especially from the blue period, which I really like. I thought it actually did a better job showing Picasso's development than the Paris museum did, even though that is specifically what the Paris museum claims to be doing. There's not enough of his more traditional paintings, so the transition to his cubist and post-cubist work seems abrupt. Futhermore, the commentary on the walls eschews commenting on his work in favor of giving more of a timeline of events and people he worked with, along with occasional quotes from him at those periods. Not to mention it's only in French, which means there were probably a lot of details I blipped over once I started to get tired.

That said, it is a very impressive building with a lovely courtyard (but a conspicuous lack of sculptures outside--only one spindly piece).

Photography was not permitted in the museum. In spite of this, dozens of people were brazenly waltzing though the rooms shooting photos at will. Of course, as soon as I pulled out my camera, that's when the guard barked "Photographie interdit!" It brought me right back to eighth grade, when I was invariably the only kid caught throwing erasers. So I positioned myself casually near a doorway, and at the right moment I was able to pretend my camera was a handkerchief and sneeze this photo. (No, not really.)