UVI History of Art Trip to Paris

UVI History of Art Trip to Paris – April 2017: Last Sunday (30th April) watching the Parisian demonstrators of all political persuasions as they grouped in Place de la Nation and Place de la République took on a particular relevance: only a few weeks ago the UVI History of Art group, Mrs McMahon and I had been based in our hotel which was minutes away on the Rue de Faubourg Saint-Antoine. This location was of particular interest to us as historically the area had been home to the furniture makers and fabric designers who supplied the Kings of France and were rewarded with the freedom to produce at liberty in return. Certainly, the informal restaurants serving freshly cooked, simple French food, the greengrocers and the supermarkets contributed to the sense of local community which can hark back to the 17th century. Even more significant, however, are the area’s associations with the French Revolution, the beginnings of which were signalled by the storming of the Bastille – Paris’s prison and gunpowder store.

Although Paris is on the cusp of massive change once again, this was barely discernible to us as we made our way by foot to the Musée d’Orsay via the refined and elegant Marais district and the long expanse of the Rue de Rivoli. So much of the former railway station’s magnificent collection of 19th century art deals with the theme of transience, highlighting the city’s long history of insurrection and defiance which can be traced from the revolution of 1789, through to the July Days of 1830, further revolution in 1848 and the Commune of 1871. It was the sense of a city in flux that artists ranging from Thomas Couture in his ambivalent political allegory The Romans of the Decadence to Berthe Morisot in her honest depiction of maternal love in The Cradle captured so evocatively through their radical painterly technique. Sculpture also provided opportunity for a departure from tradition and Carpeaux’s The Dance and Degas’s Little Fourteen Year Old Dancer demonstrate how the process of creating sculpture could also reflect societal change and both artists undoubtedly paved the way for Rodin’s even more dramatic expression of interest in the materiality of creation.

The Musée Rodin is testimony to the almost obsessional concern of the artist with the retention of evidence of production from casts to broken fragments, repeated themes and finished work with visible thumb marks imprinted on the surface and an illuminating afternoon was spent in the former home of the artist. The highlight of our time in Rodin’s former home and studio was the beautiful garden which contained such iconic works as The Gates of Hell and The Burghers of Calais which invite the viewer to share the emotional turmoil of the sculpted forms as they extend in to the surrounding space.

The following morning, we made our way towards the historical heart of Paris once more and this time took a detour to the Pompidou Centre and witnessed another example of artistic reversal as mechanisms and materials that had been traditionally concealed inside were laid bare on the outside, forming part of the vibrant Post-Modern design. The Louvre, on the other hand conveys status through elaborately dressed tone, Classical vocabulary and numerous grand entrances; yet its collection also revealed much about Paris’s turbulent history and legacy of complex political allegiance. The 18th century Rococo idylls of Watteau and Boucher represent a hazy dream, the delicate glazes and soft golden light suggestive of a mood of melancholy from which even the most decadent of libertines was not immune. Indeed, David’s grimly austere subjects drawn from the earliest days of the Roman Republic paralleled a deeply divided nation that would have to endure a bloody revolution before reaching the greater sense of unity that was reflected in the more conciliatory Intervention of the Sabine Women, produced in 1799. In contrast, David’s pupil Ingres celebrated continuity to the point of anachronism and it is easy to see why Joan of Arc at the Coronation of Charles VII (1854) with its focus on supplication was so popular with Napoleon III even though France was no longer a monarchy by this time. The day was completed with a luxurious cup of tea at the historical Café de la Paix which is situated on the intersection of the ‘grands boulevards’ which provided Manet and the Impressionists with so much inspiration. Charles Garnier’s resplendent neo-Baroque 'Opera’ provided us with an exuberant backdrop as we basked in the glory of the refined haunt of the beau-monde who benefited from all that Haussmannisation had to offer.

On Thursday morning, we took an atmospheric Métro journey to Montmartre – another area famous for its working class, socialist and artistic origins and we observed a sense of detachment from the rest of Paris as a result of this proud identity. Sacré-Coeur symbolises the spirit of the city, with its voluptuous, exotic forms, the pale stone mass of neo-Byzantine domes and arches watching over a city that has endured much pain in recent years. Like a primordial goddess it spreads luxuriantly at the summit of the butte Montmartre, its function to symbolise reconciliation after both the Franco Prussian War and eventually WWI.

France is currently under siege – it is also in transition as demonstrated by the very high levels of security at the Gare du Nord. Yet, as the study of 200 years of History of Art has demonstrated, Paris will always survive, retaining its luminous joie-de-vivre and celebrating the pleasures of the senses. Paris embodies the dual beauty of joy and pain and it is unsurprising that the theme of flowers returns time and time again in the work of its 19th century artists and poets as they remind us that life is here to be lived because it is so short.

Dr Penelope Wickson