This April 1st was such a lovely day in Paris that I figured Nature might be fooling with me. (The next day she did turn miserable, making my taxi ride to Orly airport a hard slog.) But Cole Porter was so right: The chestnuts were in blossom. And the young couples were walking on air, nuzzling each other contentedly. Even the old ladies walking their poodles seemed to have a spring in their step.
But I spent the last week in March checking out what visitors to Paris might savor if they flew over on USAir 1789 (the return flight to Philly is 1776!) to take a look at Paris in April.
I’d tell them to start at the Grand Palais (Metro 1 / Champs Elysee / Clemenceau), where there are two knockdown / drag-‘em-out exhibitions. The most notorious is the Toulouse-Lautrec show, where they’ve rigged a humongous white tent for potential patrons to sweat it out waiting for their timed ticket.
There’s nothing too loose about the way this turnstile-clicker is run. You have to keep running to keep from being stomped to death. Which is a pity because all the biggies are there (three from Chicago, one from Philly). My advice to serious Lautrekkers is to skip the show and buy the catalog. That way you won’t be offended by the Lautrec Drek HyperMarche (ties, gloves, mugs, every imaginable whathaveyou) at the end of the forced march.
A funny thing will happen to you as you read through the catalog. You’ll experience the epiphany I had. The moiling crowds haven’t a clue as to what TL was driving at. To them, it’s like a night bus tour of Montmartre—without the potential street dangers.
But TL made it perfectly clear how he felt about the frenetic music halls and the exploitative whorehouses. He made an interesting contrast between the Paris whores and their putatively more elegant co-workers, the models. He said the prostitutes were full of life. (“Elles vivent, vivent”) whereas the models were like dead rag dolls (“Toujours empailles”—literally, “stuffed with straw”).
There’s apparently a certain irreducible authenticity to fucking—even a stranger—with your clothes off, and a deracinating regimen in posing in clothes that the haute bourgeoisie was being teased into purchasing.
Those famous music hall tableaux are full of solos—individuals without any communal attachments. “Pure” pleasure, apparently, is a pretty poor motive for relating significantly to others. Anomie thrives in this kind of isolation.
Incidentally, scuttlebutt has it that tiny Toulouse was what the French call a little pitcher with a big beak, which is to say a smallish man with a big schlong. The tarts dug it, bless them.
The most touching single piece for me was “Seule,” a peculiar perspective (perhaps at TL’s midgety eye level) of an exhausted woman half-undressed, sprawling across her bed. No fun and games in that whorehouse.
As I left the Grand Palais I couldn’t help noticing that the prissy-looking old ladies (and men) patiently waiting for their timed reservations to become valid were precisely the kind for whom TL felt a deep scorn. In his prostitute / model paradigm, the Lautrekkers were stuffed to their teeth with straw.
By the way, the restaurant at the GP is a great buy—excellent food, good cheap wine, excellent desserts and coffee—at about two-thirds of what you’d pay on the outside.
There’s also a splendid exhibition on “The Vikings” next to the Lautrec. Unlike last season’s “I Celti” at Venice’s Palazzo Grassi, where 2,000-plus items were desperately in search of adequate explication, here only 400 or so run the gamut from architectural parts to transcendently beautiful Romanesque religious carvings in wood and stone.
I had no idea that those barbarous marauders had such a rich and fascinating cultural life. I so loved its groovy shippy logo that I bought a black T-shirt bearing it. Spend a whole day at the GP, but start with the Vikings.
“Toulouse” and “The Vikings” are the shows with the most tout. But the single most satisfying exhibition was at the Museum of Natural History (Metro 5 / Austerlitz). “Fruits and Vegetables” is the typical French miracle of what they call “vulgarization”—we would say popularizing.
But the difference lies between our generally becoming too stupid in our attempts to conquer audiences (“Snoopy” megashows) and the French tradition of assuming that every human being can think if the material is presented clearly and with panache.
It opens with a funky diorama of Adam and Eve in a Garden of Eden, the floor of which is covered chock-a-block with apples. Next to this witty intro are vitrines displaying the infinite variety of pommes—I counted 33. Not far away, we get a crash lesson in the tremendous boon which pommes de terre (apples of the earth, or potatoes) have been to mankind.
This anthropological approach to fruits and veggies takes a crucial issue in natural history—the evolution of alimentation (in English, we say nourishment or nutrition) over the course of mankind’s eating—and shows what a complex and vulnerable matter growing and distributing food is.
But what I really cherish about the Museum of Natural History is the wittiness (and sheer cultural savvy) of its curators. There are classics photos of veggies by the likes of Ansel Adams and Edward Weston, and—yes, ACT UP—Robert Mapplethorpe. The show ends with 1927 photos of Josephine Baker shimmying in her banana skirt, giving you with a cocky eye her best East St. Louis Toodleloo. No wonder all Paris loved her (her funeral was as big as Charles De Gaulle’s!); no wonder she loved Paris.
If you get to the Jardin des Plantes in the spring, you’re in for an extra treat. Them-there Frenchies shore do know how to grow green things. And the garden that surrounds the Museum of Natural History is one of the world’s grandest “teaching / research” gardens.
At Orly, when you arrive, buy a bottle of wine and the fixings for some homemade sandwiches and eat in their garden. It beats the high cost of Gay Paree, and is glorious plein air.
Reprinted from Welcomat: After Dark, Hazard-at-Large, April 22, 1992
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