Paris History of Art Trip
‘Et toujours des images, des images, des images, que nous rêvons puis ciselons une à une pour mieux vous faire entrer dans l’emotion’
Anyone who has seen Martin Scorsese’s ‘Hugo’ will agree that there is nothing quite so evocative as the interior of a 19th century Parisian railway station. As we departed from St Pancras on the Eurostar and arrived at Gare de Nord we observed how industry and art were united through the beauty and strength of iron: a theme that would be continually repeated in the bridges and street lamps of Hausmann’s Paris. Our appropriately named Hotel Claret was located in the Bercy district which for centuries facilitated the supply of red wine to the city due to its close proximity to the Seine. Now home to one of France’s biggest and most significant Film museums, Bercy is also the site of the new French national library thus provided appropriate inspiration for our study of the visual.
The purpose of the trip was to examine the works of art and architecture that form the basis of the A2 History of Art course at first hand whilst enabling us to grapple with the contextual issues that drove the historical meaning of imagery which it in turn helped to construct. It was vital therefore to gain a sense of the urban planning of Paris which had rapidly expanded during the Second Empire since it was the boulevards, intersections, cafes and department stores that formed the basis of the work of the Impressionists.
It was important to our sense of chronology to spend our first day in the Louvre exploring the genres of painting produced prior to the cataclysmic revolutions of 1848 which led to the questioning of artistic hierarchy and authority. Comparing the misty poignancy of Watteau with the austere geometry of David offered no better demonstration of changes in style that were as dramatic as the changes in political mood that characterised the long 18th century in France. After the chilly stoicism of the leader of Neo-Classicism we were ready for the passions of Romanticism epitomised by Gericault and Delacroix.
The Louvre is as iconic as the treasures that it contains and as we paused to view Leonardo’s portrait of Lisa Gherardini. Joining the crowds that swarmed to gain a glimpse of the enigma it was clear to see that the image had lost none of its power since Walter Pater explored the phenomena of the ‘Mona Lisa’ in the 1893 essay that helped to shape her myth.
After an evening excursion to the Bohemian territory of Montmartre we prepared for a full day in the Musée d’Orsay. This fomer railway station contains significant works of art produced after 1848 when the rigid hierarchy of genres and the stranglehold of the Academy began to be challenged by rebellious artists such as Gustave Courbet whose A Burial at Ornans humbled us in its stark dignity. Many images that are embedded in our consciousness as trite confections assert their original force when explored at first hand and the even the lightest, most joyful of Impressionist paintings certainly appeared radical in terms of their textures, novel compositions and depiction of the disjointed and alienating aspects of 19th century modernity.
We spent the rest of the afternoon on the stylish left-bank and paid homage to the intellectuals and artists who adopted St Germain as their own. Feeling inspired by the café discussions of Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir we took the time to study Delacroix’s extraordinary frescos in the church of St Sulpice which also houses the visionary funeral sculpture of Michel-Ange Slodtz.
A stroll along the Champs- Elysées took us to the smart 16th arrondisement which was frequented by female Impressionists such as Berthe Morisot and Mary Cassatt. We completed our stay by exploring The Pantheon (or Ste Genevieve as it was known prior to the French Revolution) and witnessed a staggering feat of structural engineering in the form of Soufflot’s enormous dome raised above an extended greek cross plan that was made possible only through the use of iron and Gothic principles of design. Once again we witnessed the radical potential of the language of Neo-Classicism to inspire patriotism and awe.
Sadly, we had to leave the Latin Quarter in order to make the journey home. We ended our sejour in the city known during the Belle Epoque as the ‘theatre of nations’ with a glamorous cup of coffee in the historic ‘Brasserie Terminus Nord’ that still contains its 1925 fittings. As we reviewed all that we had seen and developed our skills of visual re-call surrounded by the organic swirls of Art Nouveau and the brittle gloss of Art Deco we posed a crucial question: could the Parisian Flaneur have ever been a woman – a theme that will continue to perplex us as we continue our study of 19th century French art in the classroom at St Mary’s.