A Level History of Art Trip to Paris

A Level History of Art Trip to Paris: February Half Term 2020

Inspired by the libertine writings of the Marquis de Sade, the Surrealist, Georges Bataille, elaborated on the notion that Eros and Thanatos are fatally entwined. His discussions of the necessity of the death drive to love and creativity seem particularly Parisian and as we arrived in Paris during a strange and eerie time marked by the spectres of civil unrest, strikes and the Coronavirus, it was not hard to grasp why the city had spawned such a decisive cultural movement as Surrealism. We arrived at night, taking in the brittle beauty of the city illuminated by neon and passed by sites marked by suffering and resistance: the Place de la République, the Bastille and the Bataclan.

We made an early start on Saturday and arrived at the Musée d’Orsay for our 8.45am booking. Focusing this time on the art of the 19th century we studied the Realism of Courbet and Manet in depth, concluding with the yellow tinged, deathly decadence of the Symbolists. The girls hadn’t heard of Thomas Couture until now and discovered that he was Manet’s tutor. We observed at first hand the lineage of the close friend of Baudelaire that could be traced back to the painterly falling petals and over-ripe fruit spilling in to the viewers’ space from The Romans of the Decadence – a political allegory of the collapse of the Juste Milieu government prior to the revolutions of 1848. As we studied the flowers represented in Manet’s Olympia (or the ‘yellow bellied venus’ as it had once been labelled in derisory tone), the exchange between Manet and the author of Les Fleurs du Mal became even more apparent.

Following a lunchtime stroll around the left bank we made our way on foot to the Musée du Quai Branly – the ethnographic museum that inspired Picasso to create his radical Demoiselles d’Avignon. As a key part of the A Level specification focuses on non-Western art and architecture, it was important to consider alternative attitudes to death and beauty to our own and to appreciate that so much of the so-called primitivism on which European Modernism depends is rooted in cultural misunderstanding and preoccupation with the darkest self as opposed to empathy for the other.

We spent the evening in Montparnasse: once home to the literary and artistic avant-garde as they abandoned Montmartre following World War I. We enjoyed milkshakes and mocktails in the Café Select, former haunt of the Surrealists and American émigrés such as Henry Miller, Anaïs Nin and Fitzgerald as they fled from the Prohibition. It was a fitting tribute to our interdisciplinary approach that we headed for the Metro via Rodin’s iconic statue of Balzac, located on the intersection of Montparnasse and St Germain and also marking the transition from the Classical to the Modern in sculptural form.

The next morning we made another early start and walked through the Marais to the Rue de Rivoli and the Louvre via the Pompidou Centre. Unfortunately for us, the Pompidou Centre was closed for renovation but we were still able to take in the visionary high-tech style of Richard Rogers (one of our specified architects) and the nearby Stravinsky Fountain created by Niki de St Phalle who we study as part of the Nature theme.

Within the vast corridors of the Louvre we once again noticed numerous examples of the close relationship between beauty and death: from the ominous ennui of the rose laden Rococo to the glacial horrors of David’s Neo-Classicism and Delacroix’s bloodied Romanticism. The intense day of study was concluded by a visit to the Parisian Museum of Modern Art. The Modernist temple of the Palais de Tokyo treated us to the wonders of Orphic Cubism, Fauvism, Dada and Metaphysical painting and our tour was made particularly special by the exclusive private view of the galleries that had been arranged for us.

After an evening meal in the extremely bo-bo Extra Old Café, we took an atmospheric Metro journey to Montmartre to see the illuminated windmill of the Moulin Rouge and the intimate darkness of Le Chat Noir. Such icons of fin-de-siecle Parisian nightlife were central to the Modern experience of the late 19th and early 20th century avant-garde and would have been the natural habitat of radical artists such as Suzanne Valadon, Toulouse-Lautrec and Puvis de Chavannes. Huge chocolate milkshakes were enjoyed in the Café des Deux Moulins, central location in the film Amélie – the cinematography of which drew on the traditions of Surrealism and La Nouvelle Vague to explore the inextricable bond between love, creativity and death that has fascinated artists for centuries.

Sadly, due to another Metro strike on Monday morning we were unable to make it to the top of Montmartre and were relieved to have seen the voluptuous presence of the Sacré-Cœur presiding over Paris from the Musée d’Orsay. Instead, our final stop was the Place des Vosges, the refined and aristocratic home to French monarchs, Victor Hugo and STEM pioneer Émilie du Châtelet. As we made our final steps back to the hotel we said goodbye to Paris – a harrowed city on the cusp of spring and social change - and were lucky enough to witness the very first magnolias in bloom.

Dr Penelope Wickson, Head of Department