Spending Christmas in Paris is not a bad idea. It could be an even better idea if a million others didn’t think so too. Anyway, it wasn’t the holiday per se that had us in the City of Light for five days at the end of December. We were there specifically to view a temporary exhibition in the city’s newest great museum. The Fondation Louis Vuitton, designed by Frank Gehry, opened in 2014 in the north sector of the Bois de Boulogne. For those of you who know the Bois, it sits grandly next to the Jardin d’Acclimation, the playground for children. The exterior of the museum resembles other Gehry designs— great, winged, aysymetrical shapes.
The Fondation LV is named for Louis Vuitton, the 19th-century fashion designer and businessman whose leather goods company is now owned by the LVMH, the luxury goods company most famous for its Louis Vuitton handbags for women. It was LVMH under its chairman Bernard Arnault that sponsored the museum, and it is Arnault, the richest man in France, who financed the exhibition we were there to see.
The Icons of Modern Art contains roughly half of what had once been the Shchukin Collection, 275 paintings by Cézanne, Matisse, Picasso, Derain, Rousseau, Gauguin, and others. Many of these paintings, collected before the First World War by Russian textile magnate Sergei Shchukin and nationalized after the revolution, are extraordinary in themselves and also the inspiration for the young artists of the Russian avant garde who flourished until the early 1930s when their art clashed with the values of Social Realism.
Because they reside mostly in the Russian State Museums of Saint Petersburg and Moscow (Kay and I saw some of them earlier in the Hermitage) they have been rarely, if ever, seen in the West. For these reasons Icons of Modern Art is characterized as a “blockbuster of blockbusters” among exhibitions, and interest in it has been worldwide.
The rush for advance tickets overwhelmed the museum’s website and its telephone lines. It was only due to the efforts of a Turkish friend with business contacts in Paris (thank you Gökçen) that we were able to get ours before we left for Paris.
We made our way to the museum by Métro and on foot on our first morning. We arrived before the doors opened and stood with others in the rain for half an hour, waiting to enter. A museum employee kindly leant umbrellas to those in line who didn’t have one. We thought that by being among the first inside that we would have the galleries more or less to ourselves. Wrong!
The crowds were terrific to the point that we had to jostle with others to view the paintings. Was it worth it? Absolutely! But don’t worry. I won’t list the treasures we saw, except to mention that one of the most crowded galleries contained thirteen works by Matisse and that another contained at least a dozen by Gauguin, the Gauguins that had once been hung closely side by side in Shchukin’s Moscow Palace. In hanging them in that manner, Shchukin created an iconostasis, a partition covered with icons that separates the priests from the congregation in an Orthodox church. A wall panel in that gallery had this to say about it: “. . . an iconostasis divides the world between those who have the power to communicate with the mysteries and those who can only contemplate them.”
The other day in a coffee shop in our Istanbul neighborhood, a young man asked me why we made such effort to visit art museums. I responded that for us, art was our access to spirituality and that when standing before a great painting we feel something sacred.
In all, on that first day, we spent at least six hours in the Foundation Louis Vuitton, including our lunch hour in Le Frank, the museum’s stylish restaurant. If you’ve spent much time in museums, you know that “museum fatigue” is real. Not only do you stand on your feet for long periods but you also expend serious mental energy looking closely at objects and displays. I’ve also noticed that as we’ve aged the fatigue comes more quickly and lasts longer. We’re learning to plan our visits carefully.
That said, I confess that on our second day we went to another important museum. The Centre Pompidou was built in the 1970s after the unfortunate destruction of Les Halles, the great central Parisian food market that had stood in the quarter for centuries. The museum is to our minds an architectural oddity. Its exposed mechanical systems and tubes of escalators on the building’s exterior give it an industrial look but not in a nice way. Besides, the structure hasn’t aged well. The plastic of the escalator tubes is clouded and dirty, while the surfaces we stood on look worn and dingy. Being inside just doesn’t feel good.
However, besides a comprehensive retrospective of the work of the Belgian Surrealist painter René Magritte, the Centre Pompidou houses the permanent collection of the country’s National Museum of Modern Art, containing extraordinarily fine collections. There are Mondrian and other DeStijl artists, the Bauhaus artist Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, paintings by both Sarah and Robert DeLaunay, many woks by Georges Braque, and more by Matisse and Picasso.
There are also more works of the Russian avant garde than we saw in Saint Petersburg. We would have explored more, but there came a point when we succumbed to museum fatigue again. Once again, the Centre Pompidou was jammed, and there was a long line of people outside waiting to buy tickets. We had ours in advance, thanks to a tip from our good friend Peri.
It seemed as though there were crowds everywhere we wanted to go. The great department stores on Boulevarde Haussmann were jammed. I had the idea of shopping for a new winter raincoat at Galeries Lafayette. Silly me! Even if I had found one, I couldn’t have afforded it. To misrepresent the late Crazy Eddie, “the prices are insane.”
Other than just walking around Paris, whose formal beauty is, in our opinion, second to none, highlights of our short visit included Christmas Eve dinner and a midday meal on Christmas Day.
Prior to this trip, we had not stayed in the Marais district, nor had we spent much time there. Our hotel this time was close to the Porte Saint Martin in what the French would call a quartier populaire. It is a mixed neighborhood with many African blacks and, judging by the number of Halal butchers, many Muslims.
It’s a lively neighborhood where on Christmas Eve we walked a short distance to Chez Jenny, an Alsatian restaurant near the Place de République that has been in its location since 1931. In France, Christmas and New Year’s eve dinners are called réveillons. Since my student days in Paris, I associate réveillons with oysters, and I love how the French serve them, on the half-shell dressed with vinegar and chopped shallots. They also come with thin slices of rye bread and sweet butter, ummmm! I ate twelve that night and six more the following day.
As good luck would have it, the table next to ours was occupied by a British couple in late middle age named John and Peter. They live in Manchester; life in that city was our first topic of a conversation that last four hours while we ate and drank copiously and well.
The next day we ate at another venerable restaurant. The Brasserie Flo, located in the Cour des Petites Écuries (Little Stables Court) has been at that location since 1918, and its decor has remained pretty much unchanged since its opening. There, we lunched with Belma, our next-door neighbor in Istanbul and her daughter-in-law Deniz. Belma’s visit to Deniz just happened to overlap our days in Paris. At times like these, the world seems small.
Food, drink, and art—beauty in different guises—are the Parisian memories we treasure most. They go back a long way, more than fifty years for me and more than thirty-five for Kay. No matter what the future brings, we’ll always have Paris.