Although at one point during the day of departure, it seemed as if we might not make it further than London due to poor weather conditions in Europe, our journey turned out to be smooth. However, it was a novelty to arrive in Paris to find thick snow on the ground and temperatures colder than those which we had left behind. Even though we arrived at our hotel late in the evening, we were fortunate enough to find a local café bar that was more than happy to cook us steak and chips at 10.30pm and it is fair to say that we were far from disappointed in what was rustled up for us at the last minute. Despite such delicious food we were in Paris to study – not simply to sample its cuisine – although the delicious food that we managed to stumble upon at every corner ensured that the girls were alert and vibrant at all times as evidenced by their spontaneous note taking, curiosity and desire to explore the galleries and museums further on their own.
Our first stop was the Musée d’Orsay, which enabled us to focus on the many changing styles of 19th century French painting as it paved the way for the Modernism of the following century. A particular treat was the Degas, Danse, Dessin: A Tribute to Degas with Paul Valery which was eagerly sought out by the girls and it clearly demonstrated the interdependence of images and the written word as well as highlighting the role of the critic in shaping the posthumous career of the artist. In the afternoon we took a brisk walk to Musée du Quai Branly (formerly known as the Ethnographic Museum) which contains the collections of African art which inspired Picasso’s Demoiselles d’Avignon and generated a fascination on the part of the Western avant-garde with all aspects of non-European culture. The critique of artistic Primitivism also forms part of the new A Level specification whilst African and Indian art will be studied in its own right and in terms of its own context.
We were incredibly fortunate to be able to view the temporary exhibition of art from the Museum of Modern Art, New York which was on display at the Fondation Louis Vuitton – a brand new Postmodern gallery located in the Bois de Boulogne. Room after room was filled with works that were pivotal to the changing course of History of Art including Klimt, Andy Warhol, Jackson Pollock and Jenny Holzer. Now that architecture is a compulsory aspect of all four A Level units it was incredibly instructive to view the stunning exhibition space – an embodiment of the principles of Post Modernism in its current form. Indeed, the sense of weightless volume, flexibility and movement made one of the originators of the style – the Pompidou Centre – seem old fashioned. None the less, it was equally important to witness the ground breaking creation of Renzo Piano and Richard Rogers at close proximity and to witness the concept of ‘truth to materials’ taken to its fullest conclusion. The Pompidou Centre contains France’s premier collection of modern art, and once more, we were able to appreciate truly all that we had seen so far as the impact of 19th century precursors and non-Western art on all the various strands of Modernism and Postmodernism was visible throughout.
Sunday evening offered further enchantment as we enjoyed a meal next door to the Moulin Rouge, which is surely at its iconic best when the red sails of the windmill are aglow in their red neon glamour against the black nocturnal sky. Monday began with a visit to the Latin Quarter and Notre Dame, its soothing medieval sense of mystery providing a satisfying contrast to the giddy modernism and arcane abstraction which had been the focus since Saturday. We crossed to the left bank in glorious sunshine and stopped for a much welcome café, but more importantly for the opportunity to browse the legendary Shakespeare & Co bookstore, which attracted such luminaries as TS Eliot, James Joyce and Ezra Pound (prior to his Fascist years) as they circled in the orbit of bookshop’s formidable founder Sylvia Beach. We finally tore ourselves away from the books and made our way to the Louvre, which we tackled in chronological sections as the A Level course spans over 2000 years of global art history and all that we saw was of relevance to the girls’ studies.
Even after the intensity of the Louvre, our day was far from over and we exited via the Place Colette and headed for the flamboyance of Charles Garnier’s exuberant Opera. This Neo-Baroque spectacle of Belle Epoque frivolity marks the intersection of the Grands Boulevards which were once the stomping ground of the Impressionists and we retraced their steps, along with those of their literary companions Zola and Baudelaire. We completed the afternoon in the magnificently glass-domed Galleries Lafayette, which, as one of the first ever department stores, enabled 19th century women to enjoy a degree of autonomy by shopping in small groups and selecting the newest fashions which symbolised their individuality as female consumers.
Several years later a different type of femininity would triumph in Montmartre as the queen of what was once a bohemian village-like community, Suzanne Valadon, challenged prescribed notions of female activity and used her humbler class position to assert herself first as a model, then as an artist in her own right without the constraints of bourgeois respectability. Thus our final morning was spent appropriately in the old haunts of Valadon and those who painted her and we departed in the funicular to Sacre Coeur via the uniquely peaceful square that bears her name. Resplendent in its Neo-Byzantine voluptuousness the monumental church symbolises all that is captivating about Paris: from its dream of reconciliation after conflict to its domed forms presenting clear evidence of the city’s Arabic connections. Equally, its historical revival style demonstrates a love of the past that the city continues to celebrate whilst moving forward and attempting to heal its recent wounds.
Dr Penelope Wickson - Head of History of Art