How’s it hanging Sade? Orgies and S&M at the Musée d’Orsay

Even the most blasé Parisian would have to leave this major exhibition incensed by the Marquis de Sade’s savage sexual politics, which penetrated the arts from Goya to Picasso.

 

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This article was written for and appears in Atlas Obscura.

Encouraged by the turnout at last year’s blockbuster collection of male nudes, Masculine, the Musée d’Orsay has whipped up a guaranteed succès de scandale with its bicentenary tribute to the Marquis de Sade (1740-1814). The scandal set in before anyone had a chance to see what’s hanging on the walls, thanks to a racy publicity video on YouTube that many have decried as unbefitting Paris’ most revered masterpiece-repository after the Louvre. In the clip, dozens of naked bodies writhe together to spell out the name Sade, the frequently imprisoned writer, divine debaucher and one of the dodgiest Frenchman who ever lived, who gave us The 120 Days of Sodom and the term ‘sadism’.

This provocative exhibition traces the impact of Sade’s banned writings on more than two centuries of art and literature. Although rarely so openly acknowledged for sparking a revolution in 19th-century thought, he liberated perceptions and portrayals of our bodies, sexuality, desire, violence and base human instinct.

Powerful stuff, even if most people will just come to the Orsay to point at the naughty bits. I went along with a young French couple and their three-month-old son. Papa didn’t want baby’s first exhibition to be a corrupting force, so he pushed the pram back to the safety of the Impressionists’ wing. I’d advise squeamish and prudish visitors to follow suit.

The Marquis himself is just a starting point in this wide-ranging exhibition curated by Sade specialist Annie le Brun. The potency of his words jumps out as us from the walls where some of the juiciest quotations have been scrawled, along with snippets by other French 19th-century authors who seized on the same ideas. There are rare illustrations from banned editions, by André Masson among others, and an astonishing surrealist caricature of Sade by Man Ray. That Paris-dwelling American artist is beloved for his brand of iconic eroticism in black-and-white prints, but certainly less familiar is his explicit fetish photography. This side of Man Ray is exposed in stark portraits – a naked female model bound in leather straps and dog collar, prostrate on the ground under the inescapable gaze of the lens (Nu attaché, 1930) – and in a series of six vignettes posing two wooden articulated artist’s mannequins in flagrante (innocently titled Mr and Mrs Woodman, 1927). This last somewhat less flexible than what you’ll find in the Kamasutra exhibition running concurrently at the Pinacothèque. More on that one soon, obviously.

All a bit tame so far, really. What, no viscera? Our good Marquis mused long and languorously over pain, cruelty and ferocity as by-products or even complementary states of carnal passion, exhorting us to strip away corporeal limitations as a snake sheds its skin. To inflict pain as much as to endure it, however, one must first understand the body. To that end, a room of the exhibition is given over to 18th-century specimens of the hyper-detailed wax anatomical figures that fascinated Sade, including some particularly unsettling examples by Honoré Fragonard. Jacques-Fabien Gautier-D’Agoty’s 1754 model dominates the space: a pregnant woman, cut open and splayed out, entrails and foetus ready for inspection. Must have missed that one at Madame Tussaud’s. Rather tongue-in-cheek on the wall (not literally, I should point out), as Balzac quipped in 1829: “A man shouldn’t get married without having dissected at least one woman and studied her anatomy.” Meanwhile, a well-chosen Baudelaire observation likens the act of lovemaking to torture or surgery.

Sade’s ‘no pain, no gain’ policy finds expression in images and objects that demand our unflinching voyeurism, and even compliance. One photograph circa 1900 depicts a young woman, legs bound to a chair, receiving from her matronly captor a brutal nipple-twist with metal pincers. Goya’s most sickening portrayals of so-called inhumane torture, rape and cannibalism get a look-in, as do the usual suspects when it comes to tales of sexual violence: the rape of the Sabine women (Picasso), Salome (Gustave Moreau, Aubrey Beardsley), Judith slaying Holofernes.

Everywhere there are reminders of man’s bestial nature, from Picasso’s rarely seen doodles of a reclining nude pleasured by a cunnilingus-trained fish; Alfred Kubin’s dark, psychosexual images of naked women devoured by giant monkeys, tigers and boas or undoubtedly the most loveable exhibit: Jean Benoît’s 1965 bondage sculpture of the sexually depraved, bloodthirsty bulldog from Isidore Ducasse Lautréamont’s 1869 prose poem Les Chants de Maldoror: decked out in leather, covered in broken-glass spikes and equipped with a life-size human penis for a surprising take on ‘doggy style’.

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Jean Benoît, Le Bouledogue de Maldoror, 1965, Collection Pinault.

Tackling religion is a must, since Sade’s stance on the Church undoubtedly a major factor in why he was always evading imprisonment, revelling in acts of sexual violence as he decried the very belief system that would condemn him for it: “The idea of God is the sole wrong for which I cannot forgive mankind.” Within these walls we find scenes of papal rape, cavorting nuns and a photograph of a female S&M offering strapped to a crucifix… The wrong way round. But for me, the theme is most elegantly summarised in Man Ray’s 1930 photograph Prayer.

prayer-1930The exhibition is a little light on Sapphic content: the penis reigns supreme, especially towards the final rooms, by which time it’s all degenerating into something carnivalesque. Engravings of allegorical penises from the 1760s, titillating female acrobats astride the erect members of her two urinating spotters (Carl Schleich’s Pièce acrobatique, 1820). Finely wrought pewter phalluses, complete with piston mechanism, marked ‘providence of widows and nuns’, circa 1800. And my personal favourite: penis phenakistiscopes – coloured, patterned discs that spin to form an image, for which no imagination required. Reproductions would have sold like hotcakes at the gift shop.

Maybe not a great first-date exhibition, depending on what signals you want to send; but definitely a conversation starter.

PhekanoscopePhénakistiscope avec disques à décors érotiques, vers 1835 Paris, collection Mony Vibescu

Sade: Attaquer le soleil runs until 25 January, 2015, but will almost certainly be extended due to popular demand.

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Paris vs The New Yorker: The Parisianer

If the proliferation of hotdog stands and bagel joints in the French capital over the last few years is any indication, Parisians heart New York. And the cultural ties between The Big Apple and Le Grand Fromage are captured nowhere more perfectly than in Sempé’s whimsical, witty cover illustrations for the iconic magazine The New Yorker.

The French artists’ collective La Lettre P decided Paris ought to have an iconic magazine all of its own, where playful imagery meets incisive social commentary in cover art that expresses the grand, sweeping poetry of the city along with the little everyday pleasures and irritations of la vie parisienne.

And so they launched the imaginary journal The Parisianer, in the spirit embodied by the classic designs of The New Yorker since 1925, but with a French manicure. One hundred painters, cartoonists and graphic artists — most born or living in the capital — were invited to submit a cover. The result: one hundred unique views of Paris across a range of eclectic and contrasting styles, all unveiled in last year’s Parisianer exhibition at the Cité Internationale des Arts and available from March 14 in a smart hardbound edition. The fact that the printed catalogue was brought to life through crowd-funding platform Kiss Kiss Bank Bank goes to show how much the idea resonated with the public.

The illustrators, too, wholeheartedly embraced the theme — it is, after all, a city famous for nourishing artists. And so we have King Kong perched atop the Eiffel Tower clutching a chic Frenchwoman who seems a bit blasé about the whole situation. A homeless man plunges his arm into a wishing fountain to retrieve a few centimes under an opulent marble statue of Fortuna.

Snobby poodles, angry motorists, the view from charming balconies sous les toits, Japanese tourists, and topless can-can girls all make an appearance. It’s a collection that showcases the state of the art in illustration and design, even as it presents Paris today from every angle, in every colour. It’s an hommage, an hymne d’amour. And for a magazine with nothing between the covers, The Parisianer has had a major success in its namesake city and beyond.

It was even reported in The New Yorker.

Tombées du Camion: Montmartre’s valley of the dolls

IMG_9217Here’s a French riddle for you. I’m standing in an 18sqm chamber, hundreds of eyes following my every move, yet I’m completely alone. Where am I?

Tucked away in a forgotten passageway, between the upmarket fashion boutiques of Place des Abbesses and the fall from grace to the seedy strip of Pigalle, you’ll stumble upon one of the most unusual and captivating spaces in Paris: Tombées du Camion. It will seem like you stumbled upon this mystery shop even if you set out intent on going there. From the métro Abbesses, one of the deepest in Paris, you face a dizzying 36m climb up a brightly decorated spiral staircase. The first thing that comes into view when you emerge is an antique carousel, the white whale of the Sacre Coeur looming beyond. Just a five-minute cobblestoned stroll away, hidden treasure awaits.

IMG_9259I pass hour after happy hour behind the counter — miraculously, gainfully employed in France — but never know quite how to sum up what we sell there. To step inside this bizarre bazaar for the first time is to step out of synch with the rest of the modern world. Time stops; I feel a little dirty checking the clock on my iPhone4, by far the newest thing in the store.

So don’t be surprised if it takes a moment to recalibrate as you contemplate this concrete cave of vintage ephemera, illuminated by industrial lamps and lined with old wooden boxes and oversized specimen jars — everything in its right place. Lots of things. Strange things, hoarded from the cobwebbiest corners of factories in secret locations around France. Unused wooden bar tokens, bicycle-shaped sunglasses from the Tour de France, packets of toilet paper circa 1950s, now objets d’art repurposed to have no purpose. Most items are fabrication française, like the Gauloises issued to French troops in World War II (consumption not advisable), a cloud of nostalgia now that everyone in the smoking capital of the world puffs on electronic cigarettes.

Sift through postcards that play an old song when you place them on a turntable; plunge your hand into a beaker of miniature plastic babies. And if you feel hundreds of eyes on you, don’t be alarmed. The eyes are an idée fixe: beady taxidermy eyes, disembodied dolls’ eyes that wink inscrutably from under thick lashes; round ones in delicate blown glass, perennially surprised. And that’s not all. Once you’ve had you’re fill of eyes, you can move on to all manner of mismatched body parts: heads, arms and legs and even white plastic femurs, the oldest items in this macabre catalogue dating from 1900.

You would have to come to the conclusion that Charles Mas, the procurer of this vast array of bibelots, bits and bobs, is a grown man who plays with dolls. When we met for my job interview I was expecting an elderly miser with a pipe. But the guy who drives the camion of Tombées du Camion — enigmatic and intense, never glimpsed without his leather biker jacket — embodies a new breed of brocanteur.

“Je suis un peu maniac,” he warned me at the beginning of my trial. No shit. Looking around the store, improbable combinations of knickknacks in meticulous patterns along the walls, it would be hard to disagree. But it’s also immediately clear that there’s a sense of humour behind the way they are brought together, in harmony or discord, anachronistically, sometimes in poor taste. Like the naked rubber belly dancer (my favourite item to demonstrate) next to glinting crucifixes priced at 33 euros.

Charles is the kind of man who will look you straight in the face and tell you that there’s poetry in a ping-pong ball — a stretch even for a Frenchman. And the strange charm of his concept store is, it’s completely believable. He’s not afraid to get all literary about it either, likening the way people respond to these unassuming artifacts to the madeleine de Proust; how a trinket worth almost nothing (represented by the French ‘madeleine’ sponge-cake) can impart profound joy and trigger memories.

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For me, it’s a bit like working in a surrealist supermarket, or in an Escher painting, where every item could repeat ad infinitum. Even though it’s a bit magic as far as first jobs in France go, it’s still a job like any other. There’s a first time for everything, even the banal: cashing my first French cheque, washing French piss off the sidewalk etc.

Tombees yeux dentisteBut excursions outside the ordinary are frequent. A typical day will likely bring a woman who buys a brooch in the shape of a sexy stilettoed leg for her amputee friend. Or a Brazilian artist inflating female condoms in-store after squeezing some delicate celluloid babies inside. An elderly man enquiring if we have doorknobs, poignées de portes, disappointed to learn we only carry coffin handles, poignées de cercueils. (I’ve amassed a pretty strange vocab list.) A surprise visit from the boss, who will breeze in for as long as it takes to explain the function of a WTF item (that metal rod is actually for crushing sugar cubes) and assign a task I’ve never been asked to perform elsewhere (polish these rusted antique keys with steel wool — but not too much, or they won’t look authentic).

It’s fun here. The eyes wink at me. And I wink back.

Tombées du Camion has just opened its second stunning boutique at the Marché aux Puces, Marché Vernaison, allée 1, stand 29. Du samedi au lundi, de 10h à 18h. Venez voir!

Photos of Tombées du Camion Abbesses by Louise Carrasco

Tombees

Anarchy dans le Musée: Europunks storm Paris at the Cité de la Musique

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It’s not too often you walk into a museum and the girl at the counter presents you with ribbons that read What The Fuck, l’Anarchie and Do It Yourself, along with a wet sponge to daub on fake tattoos. (‘Not to worry, I brought my own.’) But the Cité de la Musique is going through its rebellious teens with the new exhibition Europunk, launched at a packed vernissage Monday night.

i-hate-french-cooking-jamie_medThis is a journey through an explosive musical, artistic and political movement with a lasting influence, from its raucous underground beginnings in England circa 1976 (this year being the 35th anniversary of Never Mind The Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols) through a short but intense burst of activity to the post-punk/new wave days crowned by Joy Division in the early 1980s. In between there’s all manner of French, German, Italian and Dutch punks making their hoarse voices heard — most of which I heard right here for the first time, having arrived on the scene a decade late on completely the wrong side of the world.

Putting aside the issue of whether displaying punk ephemera in a major government-sponsored institution legitimises it culturally or simply strips it of its street cred, the first question that might come to mind for those on the other side of the world is: why separate the American and European scenes? Head curator Éric de Chassey argues that society seemed more closed in, the urgency of creative expression as anti-establishment statements even greater. The Berlin Wall was in their backyard; the scars were still fresh from events like the student uprisings and wildcat riots of May 1968 in France; and ongoing trials for war criminals meant the stain of the Holocaust had spread to the next generation. The result, he says, was more defiantly counter-culture than sub-culture:

On a du mal à imaginer aujourd’hui combien la société de l’époque était fermée, combien le contexte politique et social pouvait sembler bloqué. Cela paraît déjà très loin… En Europe, les punks ne veulent pas faire de l’art, la question de l’anonymat est centrale.

‘Les Américains, eux, se posent en permanence la question de l’art. Les chanteurs se prennent pour des poètes, les musiciens recherchent des cautions esthétiques… Le punk européen présente également la particularité de se penser comme une contre-culture, plutôt que comme une sous-culture. La contre-culture, c’est vouloir tout changer. La sous-culture demeure dans une niche.’

This is very much the message put forward in more than 500 original DIY pieces crowding the walls: fanzines, record sleeves, posters and flyers; Sex Pistols collagist Jamie Reid parodying the French Revolution, a fat sow decked out in the crown jewels, Vivienne Westwood chemise that looks suspiciously like a concentration camp uniform bearing the scrawl ‘Only anarchists are pretty’ and ‘Subversion: it’s fun’.

PHOb19b4690-34d1-11e3-95fe-3bac7a191126-300x400The French collective Bazooka certainly thought so. These ‘graphic commando’ heirs to  the Dadaists — Kiki Picasso, Loulou Picasso, Electric Clito and Bananar — emerged from the prestigious École Nationale des Beaux-Arts ready to fuck some shit up, launching their own zine, taking over art direction of the leftist paper Libération, and illustrating album covers for Elvis Costello and Iggy and the Stooges. Theirs is some of the most striking, even shocking work featured in the exhibition.

My man-bag for the evening, and one of the most heavily inked guests at the opening, was street art photographer Alex Tassot. Together we ran amok through the two halls of the Cité de la Musique until they kicked us out, listening to loose spandex-clad German girl bands like Kleenex, turning our noses up at the throbbing gristle served in the food truck on site, and peering in the window of the supervised DIY studio where you can flail wildly at a drum kit or eke out the three chords required to form a punk band. (Children, thankfully, not allowed). A grumpy attendant machine-pressed my DIY badge for me.

Outside, properly hands-on and grimy in the true spirit of DIY, tattooed man-bag and I fixed the rickety mudguard on my vélo with a bit of wire we found outside the metro. I rode home feeling proud of my inner punk.

Europunk runs riot at the Cité de la Musique until 19 January, 2014. Programmed events in October include concerts from old punks (the Buzzcocks, PiL) and new punks (Cheveu, Holograms, Kap Bambino), and onsite cinema screenings.

Nuit Blanche 2013: Paris past your bedtime. (Let the wild rumpus begin!)

nuit_blanche_2013-d6a09Sometimes being an insomniac in Paris can be lonely, especially since all my French peers have respectable jobs and turn in at a respectable hour (except for one oddball composer who texts at 3am just to see if I’m awake at my desk). Even the snootiest waiters untie their apron strings around half past one, as the épiciers are switching off the radios that pipe exotic music into their empty aisles.

But there’s at least one night a year, it seems, when I can count on all of Paris to keep me company. On Saturday October 5, the entire city was buzzing for its annual Nuit Blanche: a ‘white night’ or all-nighter in which galleries, museums and concert halls stay open round the clock to present special one-night-only events — the stuff of dreams and the stuff of nightmares.

Rather than barhopping or traipsing from one vapid club to the next (the Saturday-night ritual of the masses), you go culture-hopping, with hundreds of venues to explore from the Canel Saint-Martin to grungy Belleville and Ménilmontant; the labyrinthine streets and courtyards of the Marais to the banks of the Seine. It’s basically a pop-up arts biennale squeezed into Ben Stiller’s Night at the Museum.

A little flexible planning before setting out will hold you in good stead, in case you arrive at a chosen destination and find it too crowded, get disoriented in the billowing fog installation at République, or run into a friend who urges you to check out the giant transparent tunnel full of snakes and centipedes (Carreau du Temple) instead of the robotic surgery (Hôtel de Ville), to take a few examples from this year’s offerings.

At 7pm all the bells in the four main hubs of activity started clanging to signal the start of a long night. In fact we were already watching one of the main events, and certainly the most expensive to produce: the major Paris premiere of Stockhausen’s Helicopter Quartet. After the excitement at Pont Neuf had died down a bit, we called in at the artists’ studios at 59 Rue Rivoli — already a rather eccentric spot day to day, on this occasion completely run amok with a male bellydancer, black-lipsticked electronic musicians, naked poetry recitation and an androgynous creature painted all white, handing out crushed fortune cookies. (Mine read: ‘Une bonne conscience est un doux oreiller,’ ­or, a clear conscience is the softest pillow. Is that why I haven’t been sleeping well?)

At Café La Perle, word got out that Scarlett Johansson was skulking around in big dark sunglasses to take in a bit of interpretive dance followed by a bit of candlelit John Cage. By 1am my French companions were yawning; I realised I had the upper hand. They toddled off beddy-byes while I pressed on, towards the sound of raucous brass. This led me to the fountain at Place Stravinsky, where a sousaphonist was peeing against the wall of IRCAM while his bandmates played a Britney Spears arrangement, the crowd practically on top of the musicians. I still haven’t figured out if this was an official Nuit Blanche performance.

There was an official one inside, however. As the fireworks everyone is talking about were going off around the Seine, I was deep down in the basement of the Institut de Recherche et Coordination Acoustique/Musique watching a pale bald man in a skirt, Thorsten Streichardt, scribble on a huge strip of Möbius paper twisted around a metal frame. With paper and pencils closely miked, every movement and ambient sound was amplified and processed to create a delicate microcosm of sound. He’d been at it a while, judging by the markings on the paper — and the observers asleep in the corner.

As I zipped around on my bike feasting at this all-night buffet, the French were dropping off like flies. Circa 3am in the hip Gaîté Lyrique media centre, I hula-hooped to the electro soundtrack accompanying a trippy film projection. The Grande Salle felt like a nightclub, except that groups of revellers were slumped or stretched out on the floor, with one asleep upright against the wall. Over to the Théâtre du Châtelet (‘Qu’est-ce qu’il y a ce soir?‘Une surprise!’), where I skipped up the stairs to motivate anyone more bleary-eyed and bushy-haired than bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. ‘Vous êtes magnifique!’ the doorman called out, at least. Meanwhile, visitors dozed in the red velvet seats of the auditorium as an obscure documentary rolled on.

Crawling into bed as the sunrise wiped away the chaos of all these nocturnal festivities, I felt sure I’d be dead to the world well into the afternoon. But even without coffee or an alarm set, like it or not, I was somehow on my feet again at 10am for a leisurely Sunday run to the markets. For the rest of you mortals, I suggest a good long nap before you set out for la Nuit Blanche 2014.

A picture’s worth a thousand Parisians

affiche de l'exposition "les parisiens" de KanakoThe effortless chic it took two hours to fake this morning. Suspension of disbelief on the Paris Plage. Slapping the word ‘brunch’ on croissants and orange juice to justify the €20 bill. The dogs that bear uncanny resemblance to their owners (tel chien, tel maître!) And let’s not forget the kissing. Always with the kissing. On the métro, consequentially missing the métro; in front of Diderot or in front of Molière; beneath the spangly tower ad nauseam, a sweet and sloppy national pastime.

Just a few of the charms, quirks and easily forgiven faux pas common to these creatures known as Parisians. And you can see them writ large in fifty whimsical illustrations along the walls of the Hôtel de Ville until October 8, or online.

Like so many Japanese visitors to the city, the artist Kanako went all weak at the knees for its je ne sais quoi, relocating in 2005 to capture the magic everyday moments in her vignettes of Petits Parisiens, while she herself, slowly but surely, turned into one of these lovable walking clichés.

This week you can see tourists and locals alike in throngs around the Hôtel de Ville, peering at one poster, chuckling, and shuffling along a metre or so to peer at the next. But there are definitely a handful I appreciate much more deeply now that I can call myself a local. And that’s the beauty of this city. As Sacha Guitry put it: ‘To be a Parisian is not to be born in Paris, it’s to be reborn there.’

 

Secrets of the Palais Royale: doll fetishes & heritage moustaches behind closed doors

It started like any other weekend in Paris. A glimpse of sky through lace curtains and a rumpled descent from my attic abode to the boulangerie below to check for the rare banana tart they like to trot out just when I’ve given up hope of ever seeing one again.

But I hadn’t even made it as far as the cobblestones when something out of the ordinary came into my stuporous line of vision: a dapper gentleman and his entourage of lookie-lous politely requesting the access code to my building. From under his cape he produced a black-and-white printout photo of my sleepy little block of flats. (I’m not making this up; he was wearing a cape.)

Somewhere between bemused, confused and suspicious, I pressed him for more information.

‘Pourquoi?’
‘Because it’s famous. You’re very lucky to be living here, mademoiselle!’
‘I’d be happy to show you the courtyard, but why would I give you my door code to see it?’
‘C’est la Journée du Patrimoine, bien sûr.’

I never did find out why my building was of particular interest to this odd little Frenchman, but he did turn me on to the Journées Européenes du Patrimoine, when for one weekend a year the city’s major heritage-listed sites fling open even their heaviest, creakiest doors to reveal chambers, dungeons, backstage corridors and other areas usually off-limits to the public. In its thirtieth year this September 14–15, the proud tradition drew 12 million visitors to hundreds monuments in and around Paris.

My daily run from Montparnasse to the Louvre was dotted with crowds and security guards at even the most seemingly unremarkable street corners — though I’m starting to suspect that there is no such thing as an unremarkable street corner in Paris. But how to choose which queue to join? The most popular seems to be the one outside the palais présidentiel de l’Élysée, where a three-hour wait in the wind and drizzle might earn you a handshake from Monsieur Hollande himself. Somehow the prospect just didn’t appeal.

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Instead I called in at the Odéon, one of the five national theatres of France, a neoclassical marvel opened in 1782 and tucked away behind the Jardin du Luxembourg in the 6th arrondissement. As with many of the smaller venues airing their dirty laundry over the weekend, turns out the Odéon’s guided tours of 30 people apiece were completely booked out as far back as July. (N’inquiétez vous; larger sites around town from the Lido cabaret to the Hôtel de Ville are more-the-merrier and don’t require reservations.) Luckily, some theatrical batting of eyelashes got me into one of the plush velvet seats directly under the abstract plafond painted by André Masson in 1965. The charming guide pointed out the private box from which Marie Antoinette failed to comprehend the revolutionary undertones of Beaumarchais’s Le Mariage de Figaro at its 1784 premiere. It couldn’t have helped that hers was one of the theatre’s most restricted views of the stage — likely she was too busy admiring her own bling to notice.

From there I rushed to the Comédie Française in the 1st arrondissement – where again I was disappointed to find their visites guidées booked out weeks in advance. ‘Maybe next year!’ the concierge said chirpily. Since I was already in the neighbourhood, I joined the queue snaking around the gardens into the adjoining Palais Royale.

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2013-09-15 13.42.47The labyrinthine 17th-century complex once home to cardinals and kings is now home to a whole lot of French bureaucrats from three major organisations: le Ministère de la Culture et de la Communication, le Conseil Constitutionnel and le Conseil d’État. The French certainly know how to do bureaucracy in style (presumably there was a memo about keeping their desks tidy for the weekend’s mass viewing), with little excuse for Monday-itis under baroque chandeliers and the perennial blue sky of a frescoed ceiling.

In addition to an exhibit of medallions given to chevaliers de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres (don’t get too excited; Shakira has one), the Ministry of Culture seemed to have borrowed some Proust manuscripts for the weekend and stationed a librarian from the Bibliothèque Nationale at the display case to answer any burning questions.

We filed through 38 areas usually closed off to tourists, including a lavish chapel, a salle à manger where the president of the Conseil Constitutionnel can listen in on actors rehearsing at the neighbouring Comédie Française while he sups, and the recently restored Salle d’assemblée générale with its immense, gold-lined murals by Toulouse-born impressionist Henri Martin, gilded angels spreading their wings over tableaux denoting areas within the purview of the general assembly, including Beaux Arts, Finances and Code Pénal. With issues as important as mariage pour tous on the agenda, it’s encouraging to know the legislation-changing discussions take place in such inspiring surrounds.

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While everyone was oohing and ahhing over the trompe l’oeuil  of the Grand Escalier d’Honneur, I was assuring this very obliging attendant that the camera loved him and his mo.

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2013-09-15 13.54.11My favourite room, though, was the office of Jean-Louis Debré, president of the Conseil Constitutionnel, whose collection of heroic female dolls (or mariannes) from the French Revolution to the present has to be one of the most adorable things I’ve ever seen presided over by security guards. ‘Mais il n’y a pas de Brigitte Bardot,’ one of the watchmen told me regretfully.

All patrimonied out for the day, I headed back to my 20msq studio in an apartment block whose claim to fame I still haven’t worked out. (Apparently Marguerite Duras lived next door briefly?)

But at least I didn’t have to queue to get in.