I started writing this while police were besieging the two Charlie Hebdo murderers: their last stand. The tension was high voltage – though sometimes it felt like the final act of a bad movie. Yet what has emerged from the blood, horror and grief is a sure sense of Parisian identity, anchored in solidarity – expressed in yesterday’s historic march. Unfortunately it looks like relations with the Muslim community will be put on trial in the absence of the killers themselves, now dead. But the point of this blog post is other.
Days before these events I was in Paris myself, revelling in a New Year break with my man, strolling along boulevards (including the Place de la République) and backstreets, lunching and dining with friends and generally soaking up that inimitable ambiance that I lived in for 16 years. So all very familiar. I return less often than I’d like, mainly due to the demands of work trips and to the urge to flop on my terrace in Andalucia with a good book(s).
It means each rare foray is an opportunity to take the temperature of a city that I knew intimately from scouring the streets while researching guide-books, or from interviewing movers and shakers and from a deeply engaged, creative bunch of friends. But on recent visits the city seemed stuck in time.
And this time (just before #JeSuisCharlie saw the light)? Well I was impressed. Suddenly it seemed this self-conscious capital had dug deep and thrown off its depression – or morosité – of the last few years. It felt alive, positive and forward-looking – despite the turgid President Hollande who increasingly resembles Berlusconi with his obviously dyed hair. Just accept your age man! It makes even his arch-rival, the dreaded Sarkozy, look cool.
First on the agenda was the new Fondation Louis Vuitton, an ambitious project in the far west of the city that opened in October. It is another baby of the Canadian architect, Frank Gehry (of Bilbao Guggenheim fame), who rather pompously stated “I dream of designing a magical vessel for Paris that symbolises France’s profound vocation.” Like a ship with huge billowing sails, its curved, opaque glass walls rise from pools of water against a backdrop of the Bois de Boulogne.
In the lower galleries, Olafur Eliasson’s spectacular sensorial installations take you through a sequence of darkened spaces, some mirrored, some projecting visitors forms on walls, other mirroring them – altogether mesmerising.
Views from the roof terraces are pretty good too, but marred by the clunkiness of the structure. What is supposed to be a showcase for art instead becomes the object itself – architectural self-inflation? The Louis Vuitton collection is mixed in quality too – from underwhelming pieces by the likes of Tacita Dean, to a beautiful little collection of Giacomettis, to an intriguing ‘growing’ sculpture on the terrace by Adran Villar Rojas.
Back in the heart of Paris, the newly refurbished and rehung Musée Picasso is a resounding success, creating new perspectives both on Picasso’s works and on the stunning 17th century Hotel Salé in which they are displayed. The pic above shows a cunningly created roof café, just one of many innovations. The metamorphosis did take five long years though (+ an eye-watering budget), no doubt involving endless philosophising. Sadly the head curator was fired as a result.
Most illuminating of all is the top floor where works from Picasso’s personal collection reveal influences and correspondences, whether Matisse, Braque, Derain, Chardin or ethnographic sculptures that he started collecting way back in 1907 – really ahead of the pack. Like every other Musée Picasso (Barcelona, Malaga, Antibes), you come away knowing that he was a genius.
I gave the Duchamp show at Beaubourg a miss, ditto for Jeff Koons, but made a beeline for Niki de Saint-Phalle at the Grand Palais. Here our nerves got decidedly frazzled as we waited with hundreds of others in the ‘priority’ queue – which wasn’t so prioritaire after all. But once inside this mammoth exhibition palace, we were air-lifted into Saint-Phalle’s magical world of huge, colourful Nanas (‘chicks’), all with their signature fat thighs and bulbous bodies painted in vivid technicolour.
Having interviewed Saint-Phalle in her extraordinary Tarot Garden in Tuscany where she lived for a period in the 1990s, I felt close to her eccentric expression of women’s empowerment. The glamorous American-French artist was actually brought up in New York’s high society – before she rebelled, cut her hair and left. Even her shooting paintings, very influential in the French Pop Art movement, looked fresh and innovative. A great lady (she died in 2002) who would have loved this inspiringly and dramatically staged exhibition. It ends Feb 02 – so get your skates on.
Paris had loads more to see – but the clock ticked, and it was back to London. Conclusion? Somehow, whatever may result from last week’s tragedies, it feels as if in some areas the Parisians have got their act together after a long long sleep. At last Paris awakes and relives.