Saturday, 2 October 2010

The Real Treasures Of Saint-Denis

SAINT-DENIS: The Louvre’s hottest summer show was alleged to be a gathering of the treasures of the royal cathedral here, where for several centuries French kings and queens deigned to be buried.
I don’t deny that the stunning porphyry eagle lectern commissioned by the Abbot Suger was good enough to get me back on a plane to Paris just to drool over it for another half-hour. And the sweetly complicated simplicities of the Carolingian and Merovingian illuminated manuscripts left me, as usual, gratefully weak at the knees.
But wait a minute—most of the rest of these “treasures” any self-respected curator would have consigned to the basement trash bins were it not for putative and real connections with the French throne. All these gewgaws attest to, in my opinion, is the erratic tastes of successive monarchs.
Moreover, in the footnotes I read that most of the real treasures had been trashed already during the French Revolution—because the monarch’s church was such a hated focus of Jacobin wrath. No matter: Here were these hordes of glassy-eyed tourists elbowing each other to get a close look at the Royal Dreck and going slackjawed at the clichés being laid on their empty heads by the brainwashed docents. Come on. Crap is crap, even (maybe especially) if the royal anus has had its way with it.
I decided I couldn’t write about the treasures—real or otherwise—of the Cathedral if I didn’t give it an ogle. So, scrutinizing my trusty Metro map, I saw that the banlieu lay at the end of the No. 13 line, so off I went to the Faubourg St-Denis.
It was a Saturday morning—beautiful April weather, lovely lovely. I stopped at City Hall, which has got to be the best leaflet-heavy cultural office I’ve found in France so far. (Which was lucky for me because, inexplicably, the tourist office is closed Saturdays and Sundays.) The Cathedral is stained glassless, except for a few mediocre pieces some pious but incompetent artists have put together to hide the nakedness that followed the Revolutionary iconoclasts.
I pushed on several blocks to the Art and History Museum, because a squib in the local paper promised that there was a centennial exhibition for local art hero Paul Eluard. Excellent.
He had many gifted and generous friends who donated works to their surrealist buddy to keep his memory green: Picasso, Max Ernst and many, many others. It was such a rich gloss on the surrealist phenomenon that I would have gladly returned to Paris with my money’s worth.
But wait. The museum was a recycled convent which had just won a Council of Europe prize for its architectural grace. It seems that Louis XV built it for his daughter, who wanted to head up a Carmelite order. (Did you know Carmel comes from the Palestinian caves, where early monks outdid themselves in abstemiousness?) In fact, the walls are covered with the masochistic mottos that the royal daughter got off on.
There’s more. Several rooms are devoted to the failed Commune of 1871. Paintings. Propaganda tracts and posters. Flags. Everything you never knew you wanted to know about that idealistic flopperoo. But history so palpable you could almost smell the gunpowder and hear the moans of the dispatched street soldiers. St.-Denis also happened to be the hometown of the guy who wrote the lyrics for the Marseillaise. So there’s a big take on his life—and his funeral.
I just love it when I stumble on real (and untrumpeted) treasures. I had a great gab with a woman student from Martinique who was guarding the (nearly empty) galleries. And a further palaver with the guard (who proudly showed me through the backlog of major exhibitions already staged) makes me confident that you should set aside a day on your next trip to Paris to taste the true treasures of St.-Denis.
I had my first FLUNCH there as well—that’s better than fast food; let’s call it QUICK CUISINE, where speed doesn’t destroy national standards of gustation. I took a stroll through the local Carrefours hypermarket, where I was greeted by the meanest German shepherd I’ve ever encountered. Luckily he was chained to the guard, who needs it (he said) to protect himself on his nocturnal rounds.
There’s a decided North African caste to this blue banlieu, and I made a mental note to hit some of the Moroccan restaurants on my next visit. My advice to you: Pick up a Friday "Liberation" and check out what’s happening in the ‘burbs as well as the provincial cities. That’s how I found out about a Vuillard retrospective of great power in Nantes, now a quick three-hour dash form the Gare Montparnasse via the TGV Atlantique.
Reprinted from Welcomat: After Dark, Hazard-at-Large, February 5, 1992

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