Thursday, February 23, 2006

by Jorie Graham


(from Walter Benjamin's ILLUMINATIONS, and a letter)


An angel
is looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how the angel of history must look. His face is turned towards the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe that keeps piling wreckage on wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. This storm irresistibly propels him into a future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.


The angel, however, resembles all from which I have had to part: persons
and above all things. In the things I no longer have, he resides. He makes
them transparent, and behind all of them there appears to me the one for
whom they are intended. . . .


Just as I, no sooner than I
had seen you, journeyed back with you, from whence I came.

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

les moulins

Before it was annexed to Paris, the butte of Montmartre was a hillock of orchards, vineyards, and farmhouses. Many people moved very suddenly to Montmartre in the middle of the nineteenth century when Baron Haussmann demolished their apartment buildings (he usually picked the poorer areas of Paris) in order to create boulevards and grand lines of perspective appropriate for an imperial capital. Workers and families settled on the hill because rent was low and there was no tax on wine. It was a good life.

At one point, the hill of Montmartre had 14 mills on it (and it's not very big!). They were used to show Parisians which way the wind was blowing and to power early factories. Many of them disappeared in the first half of the nineteenth century, although at least one was used very late to grind pepper and, according to a historical plaque I read, to provide a lookout for the city when it was besieged by an invading army. Unfortunately for that miller, he was noticed by the invading cossacks (what war was this? The plaque was very unclear but I assume somehow the cossacks got attached to the Prussians in the war of 1870-1871) and they cut him into pieces and nailed the bits of his body to the beams of his windmill. His sons carried on the family business after that...

Two of the mills, often known together as the moulin de la Galette, were preserved and turned into ballrooms. Very stable and completely untippy ballrooms, you see.

This is where a former butcher named Zidler got the idea for the Moulin Rouge in 1889. (Architect Joseph Oller adapted the building). It's also where Renoir and other impressionists got the idea for some paintings.

Renoir's painting Le Moulin de la Galette à Montmartre is above, Willette's lithograph of a performance of the Moulin Rouge is below. Apparently Zidler and his associate Renard hid the orchestra inside the elephant. You can sort of make out a grand piano and a man standing at it, who was directing the orchestra.

Here is a fabulous description of the dancers from the official butte de Montmartre website, quoted without any editing. Note that "grille d'égout" means sewer-grill.

"He had joined together on its plate decorated by Willette a girl name "Grille d’Egout", because of the exceptional spacing of its teeth. Nini-Patte-en-l’air, la Môme Fromage (the cheese kid), la Sauterelle (the Grasshopper) , la Cascadeuse (The stunt girl) , la Guigue, Etoile Filante (Shooting star), Arc-en-Ciel (rainbow), Rayon d’Or , Clair de Lune (Moonlight), Violette, Pâquerette, Camélia (dite "trompe la mort"), Cri-Cri (who died on stage), Goulue (flabby). This universally known monument was superbly illustrated by one of its most assiduous customers, the painter Toulouse-Lautrec."

"Oui, la Goulue, elle était célèbre. Je lui ai parlé, sur les quais du métro. Je l'ai reconnue et je lui ai demandé de l'embrasser : "Vous permettez que je vous embrasse, ?" C'était très dans le genre. Un personnage du siècle. Elle était, pour moi, sans âge, grande, forte, très très grande, dans mes souvenirs. Elle aurait peut-être 125 ans aujourd'hui ? A Neuilly, il y avait un lion en cage qu'elle domptait... Arletty quoted by Michel Souvais. Les Cancans de la Goulue

The can-can, a very exciting form of the quadrille.

left: the real Goulue.

And finally, below: I wouldn't mind living in Montmartre.

Thursday, February 16, 2006

mesdames messieurs, la sainte-chapelle

--Where are we going now?
--A la Sainte-Chapelle, répondit Fédor Balanovitch. Un joyau de l'art gothique. Allons grouillons! Schnell! Schnell!
Les caméras crépitent.
-- Tu me fais mal, glapissait Zazie folle de rage.
Mais elle fut elle aussi emportée vers la Sainte-Chapelle par le véhicule aux lourds pneumatiques.

La Sainte-Chapelle is so famous that I don't have much to add to what you might know of it, except to point out that it was built in only six years (1242-1248) which I think could inspire certain architects of the twenty-first century (especially when you see the diagrams I saw of its being built, which seemed to involve only about 10 workers, some very beautiful but rickety-looking wooden cranes, a king in robes monopolizing the attention of his architect, and a surprising number of medieval people in their cups or reading a book while sitting on scaffolding somewhere off on the sidelines).

It's also worth noting that it was the "oeuvre personelle" of Saint Louis, the king who also built the Sorbonne, and it used to contain the Crown of Thorns of Christ as well as all sorts of saintly knucklebones taken from Byzantium, until the French Revolution when these things got scattered a bit.

It's astonishing for the enormous size of its gorgeous detailed stained glass windows, which incredibly manage to support the weight of the very tall vaulted ceilings of the Chapelle.

I'm a sucker for this little castles punctuating the columns...

and I like the asymmetry of this off-centered window-within-a-window. It doesn't give up its secret.

a small tease... me to the right.
and my mysterious ami.

Gothic is reliably exalting, even if it's wrapped up inside the sober walls of the Palais de Justice and the Conciergerie, where Marie Antoinette and many others waited before having their heads chopped off, and where I too tried to get my residence permit...and probably wanted to lose my head by the time that was over...


Monday, February 13, 2006

Palais de Tokyo

Before the period of absence I just marked, I went to an exhibit of contemporary French art at the Palais de Tokyo. Most of it - including the things I liked best - were life-size exhibits that you could walk into or on or sit in/on. I didn't photograph the tiny doors excavated into the museum walls with light seeping out of them, or the spinning hamster wheel you could use to walk from one room to another, or a constantly in- and de-flating circular sofa, but here are a few other things I found...

such as a room half-filled with old, out-of-date newspapers...

a giant human skeleton with flippers set up like a dinosaur in a Natural Hsitory Museum (a future mistaken reconstruction?)... and it is getting smooched by a museum-goer...

then Batman swooped in, looking a little pudgy...

a room studded with foam spikes featuring table and chairs...

a guest appearance by none other than...
...Edna Mode

and a few other wonderfully non-utilitarian things...

such as, for the hell of it, skateboarders outside the Palais' pavilion...