Delight and Liberty*

March 24, 2010

Whenever I return to France, the first day of my Paris Love-Fest is always a little out of this world. If the skies are clear I will spot the Eiffel Tower from the air as my plane descends into the Parisphere. It is this moment of exhilaration, the miraculous confirmation that I have finally arrived…!

I am again reunited with one and thousands of other crazy frenchmen and usually dismissive frenchwomen. I am whisked through the maddening streets towards the heart of Paris, towards my comfort zone, my familiar nest. I am exhausted by the jet-lag, the visual bouquet, the doting attention, the immediacy of the penetrating french vibes… and then I am revived by the mouthfuls of edifying food that I have been craving for months…

I can’t wait to mount my cherry red vélo and dash through the narrow streets – barely avoiding dogs, their masters and mistresses, and the ever opening car doors. I am a little girl again on my first brand new burgundy coloured English bike that I had cajoled from my parents, and I am bombing around my neighbourhood showing it off. Except now my neighbourhood is the centre of Paris, a world and a half away from my childhood one. Who would have imagined?? Not I, back then in my sweat-soaked tropical island “innocent brightness” – when I relished in “Delight and Liberty, the simple creed of Childhood, whether busy or at rest, with new-fledged hope still fluttering in [my] breast-“*…Wordsworth says it so well, and this is still how I feel whenever I am in Paris riding through streets so different, yet so familiar now… oui oui, mes amis, toujours les grands délices et la Liberté!

On my second day, while valiantly ignoring jet-lag confusion, there are places to go, things to see, food to savour… and we head out with loose plans and serendipitous presumptions. Monsieur L needed to look for some bike parts at Decathlon, the sporting goods emporium, and since that is near the Galeries Lafayette we decide to grab some lunch from their overflowing Gourmet floor and sit on the sunny steps of the Opéra Garnier for an impromptu pique-nique. Monsieur L gallantly covers my sandaled feet with paper napkins so that they won’t get darker – because when they are too tanned, he thinks they just look dirty and wholly unattractive!

Silly little quirks aside, we share the flavours of Greece while evaluating the various tourist groups milling around waiting their turns to tour inside the sumptuous Opéra building. Always interesting to observe the idiosyncrasies of different nationalities and even social classes as they are herded to and fro! We move on as well and bike over to the Left Bank to look for the Musée Maillol where an exposition of the paintings by Séraphine de Senlis has been extended, and whose work I have been eager to see.

We had never visited the Musée Maillol – Fondation Dina Vierny before, and I must say that I did not know much about the life and work of Aristide Maillol…so this would be a double treat to learn about both Séraphine Louis and Aristide Maillol at the same location and on the same day.

Paris 001

La Rivière” [Aristide MAILLOL 1938-43]

We walk through the unassuming entrance and immediately encounter a tumbling nude giantess on a plinth. She is frozen in an awkward and uncomfortable position as well as being wholesomely exposed! I felt that she lacks a little of the grace and litheness of Rodin’s girls, but I am here to learn more about Maillol’s oeuvre after all.

Aristide Maillol was born in 1861 in Banyuls-sur-Mer in the foothills of the eastern Pyrenees and had always considered himself more Catalan than French, even in dress. He began his artistic life as a painter in Paris, where he met Paul Gauguin who would encourage him to focus on the decorative arts. Maillol eventually established a tapestry workshop in his hometown and from there he also began to produce ceramics leading to a full concentration on the sculptural female form.  His nudes evolved to encapsulate a more purified and contemporary concept of beauty but their almost architectural shapes and poses retain a sensuality that reflects a classical sensibility.  Most of his work is now on display in this museum opened in 1995 by the Dina Vierny Foundation.

The intrepid and long-living Madame Vierny had met Maillol as a young girl and modeled for him as well as for other artists of the time such as Bonnard and Matisse.  She had her own art gallery after many courageous adventures during the second world war and generously presented some of Maillol’s monumental sculpture to the French state, some of which is now installed in the Jardins de Tuileries.  An eccentric collector of antique carriages [almost a hundred of them!] as well as hundreds of dolls, Madame Vierny apparently sold off her collections to fund the foundation and underwrite the museum dedicated to Maillol.  A selection of work by Degas, Kandinsky, Picasso, Duchamp and other so-called “modern primitives” is also included in the permanent collection.

After viewing the intensely soul-suffusing temporary exhibition of  Séraphine de Senlis in an upper salon, we wandered through the rest of the museum marveling at Aristide Maillol’s impressive output and the fact that after all the time we have spent in Paris visiting many, many museums and galleries, there are still others full of “visionary gleams”* waiting to be discovered!

[*quoted lines and phrases are from “ODE  Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood” by William WORDSWORTH, 1802-04/1807]


Sweet Séraphine

June 22, 2009

Monsieur L had told me about a movie months ago that we must see. It is about a french maid who painted in secret in the early part of the 20th century. Her name is Séraphine Louis, now known widely as Séraphine de Senlis, which was the town where she had lived and worked, and eventually received some level of acknowledgment due to the serendipitous discovery of her paintings and sporadic patronage of an influential German art collector.

I was taken by her name as soon as I heard it – immediately according her as Sweet Séraphine – and I had imagined a much more romantic vision of her than the real story of her life. I couldn’t wait to see this movie, [which subsequently made a splash at the Cesars this year, with the actress Yolande Moreau portraying SS being awarded best actress], but as fate would have it, we did not have a chance when in Paris before we left for Brittany.

But, as luck would also have it, we did manage to catch an exposition of her paintings at the Musée Maillol [Foundation Dina Vierny] on the Rue de Grenelle. I am happy to have seen her work first without the images from a movie crowding my head. I had not even seen pictures of her paintings [or of her] before going to the exhibition, thereby not knowing what to expect. It was a marvelous discovery! First, the explosion of oddly sophisticated colours that she had apparently mixed herself from organic ingredients and the recipes of which have never been revealed, and secondly the bold sizing of her canvases that she vibrantly filled with stylized floral designs and compulsive dots and leaf patterns.

I felt her obsessive energy oozing outwards like some astral field around her paintings. They were exalted in the sense that she truly felt what she was painting; they poured forth from some inner font that could not be dammed. They have been labeled naive work just because she was not academically trained, but saying that she was self-taught undermines the visionary quality of her creative disgorging. She was a woman possessed, a female van Gogh who could not not paint, who painted only for herself as a subconscious form of therapy. Like van Gogh, she was also hyper-sensitive, read “mad” – and who knows to what extent multiple soul-destroying circumstances had contributed to the implosion of such fragile minds.

From such singular beings are left visual legacies to provoke, to invoke, to revoke the idea that art has to conform to any limitations, any rules, any conventions. I don’t want to see this woman, this personage, demean by her dramatic portrayal, or by her biographical details – I see her soaring above it all, lifted up by her colourfully and intricately detailed halo, by her unique visionary intensity and finally, the inevitable transcendence of her creations well beyond her earthly existence.

[I did not take photos of her paintings at the museum, partly because I was too absorbed by them all, and the lighting was kept quite low to protect the integrity of the “paint” as the exact composition of some of the colours is not known…she was rumoured to have used her own blood as well as vegetal and floral extracts…juicy berries, who knows…

But this is a link to a PDF from the museum with some images and brief details of her life and work.]


Finally I watched a French actress breathe life into poor sullen Séraphine in the movie of the year [in France, anyways!]. I have just returned from the seaside and countryside of southern Brittany where I was steeped in the lush verdancy so similarly and generously captured in the film, and I was there again with her, this driven and compulsive painter who would go hungry to spend her last centime on art supplies. I walked the grassy meadows with her, always drawn towards the comfort of the enormous embrace of a centuries old tree – a respiring life-affirming tree that stays dreaming long after we are gone…

The last years of Séraphine’s life were wasted in an asylum, and much like Camille Claudel, the obsessive creative output was extinguished for good. It is such a fine line we tread for artistic expression and I believe more in the fact that we go mad if we can’t paint [or sculpt or make music or any other creative relief], and not so much that the pursuit of artistic efforts can drive us to distraction, and eventual poorhouse and wild-eyed demise! – although non-artistic people will see it that way!

It is perhaps a cynical time to shine a spotlight on Sad Sweet Séraphine’s paintings after so many years of neglect – and I am grateful to have had the chance to view her work up close in Paris – but the movie will introduce her to a world-wide audience who may or may not appreciate her legacy. Some will read it more as a cautionary tale of a woman who tried to rise beyond her station in life and failed miserably, and thereby relegating her paintings to a particular genre of folk or outsider or naive or “modern primitive” art. For me, it is always an auspicious time to learn of another artist who kept working despite all odds and the lonely creative process had afforded her some degree of comfort and spiritual appeasement, before she was so cruelly dragged off in her gown of white silk and taffeta and interned in a sterile white room.


In Search of a Runaway Queen

March 30, 2009

I will be wandering away from Paris for a few days on the trail of a rebel queen who has captivated my imagination for many years now. Our road trip takes us to Poitiers in the Poitou-Charentes region south west of Paris and not far from the Atlantic coast.

On a desolate day drawing the last gasp of winter, Monsieur L and I stumbled into a forlorn and half-forgotten Romanesque church in this ancient town of a hundred church towers. The air within was still, not a soul adrift, but a consecrated one lay resting below in perpetuity. An ex-queen in quietus, Sainte Radegonde was once, for a brief moment, Reine des Francs.

Fourteen centuries later, her spirit still beckoned, and we descended the stairs into vespertine darkness. Her simple stone bier filled the small crypt. I lit a taper and as the flame flickered to life, a graceful eidolon appeared to the side. I caught my breath…it was a statue of the sainted queen standing in the shadows. She had been cast in the beauteous likeness of Anne of Austria, who had gifted the statue in thanks for the wellness of her young son, the future Louis XIV…the resplendent Sun King.

My senses were suddenly redolent with the long and glorious history of France…


A girl, only eight years old, the daughter of a Thuringian king, was captured in battle by a Merovingian one, the charismatic and carnal Clothaire, in the year 530 AD. The little princess was then secluded away to await the day when she would be old enough to be claimed as his virgin bride. The royal wedding prevailed at Soissons. But the young Radegonde did not wait long to bare her rebellious stance against her new role as wife and queen. The exasperated and aging Clothaire eventually relented, and with a magnanimous gesture [for a warlord of the Dark Ages!], he let her go.

The fledgling queen took flight, renouncing all her sovereign rights and worldly adornments. She had herself ordained by the Bishop of Soissons and then fled to Poitiers, where she founded her convent for reclusive aristocratic girls. The first sanctuary of its kind in all of Gaul, the Abbey of Sainte-Croix was so named for the piece of the true cross sent to her by the Byzantine emperor Justin II.

Radegonde, transformed into a benevolent nun in permanent refuge, was chaste and austere herself while being compassionate and indulgent with others. She slept in ashes, ate only the plainest of food, mortified her own flesh, performed the most menial tasks, administered to the diseased and the outcast, tended to her young charges and all the while, continued to read and cultivated her mind with literary studies and spiritual pursuits.

One fateful day, an exuberant poet-priest appeared on the convent’s doorsteps and was allowed into their cloistered world. He proved to be the intellectual soul-mate for the distinguished Radegonde and she invited him to stay for awhile. The cultured and hedonistic Roman poet Venantius Fortunatus would bring an elevated masculine perspective and no less earthy dimension into her closed feminine realm. In turn, he was fêted generously and greatly favoured by all. His poetry flowed in exalted appreciation, sometimes verging on a more sensuous persuasion…

“You, the life of your sisters…your mind in God…

You ignite your body to nourish your soul,

Tending your annual vows today have incarcerated yourself.

You forget Time, as if you were not desired by a lover.

(Momentarily, as I behold you, I fantasize myself in that role.)

But let us marry your vow, and here in the spirit,

I accompany you in your cell in which it is forbidden to go.”

Wow…so did their mutual admiration go beyond the bounds of virtue?? No one will ever know… [Monsieur L, of course, has no doubts about the primal power of attraction!]

The fair Radegonde, revered to this day, sleeps on with her secrets safe, in her now somber domain where once in a lifetime, we had alighted upon and discovered a singular rebel soul. And exulted in the memory of a woman who had lived her life her way so very long ago…


Où les vieux arbres songent…*

March 15, 2009

Un jour, au crépuscule, on passe, après la pluie,

Le long des murs d’un parc où songent de beaux arbres…”

[“One day, at dusk, we pass, after the rain, along the walls of a park where the beautiful trees dream…”]

I read this line today from a poem by Léon-Paul Fargue [1876-1947], and was so transported by this and the rest of the poem that I have been re-reading it both in French and in its English translation all morning! It reassures me to know that a tree can dream, too, even as it is forever rooted to one spot. It may not breathe in the wider world but what it sends out is precious to those in its immediate embrace. The ones who seek its shade in the heat of summer, to steal an hour or two in the day on a nearby bench, even under a shared umbrella in a light rain… and after the rain…

On entend le bruit nombreux

Des feuilles partout

Comme un feu qui prend…

Des branches clignent. Le silence


Et il passe des odeurs si pénétrantes

Qu’on oublie qu’il y en ait d’autres

Et qu’elles semblent l’odeur même de la vie…

Plus tard, un peu de soleil dore

Une feuille, et deux, et puis tout!

Alors, l’oiseau nouveau qui l’ose le premier

Après la pluie


[“We hear the dulcet rustle of the leaves all around like a fire just lit…of drooping branches. The silence observes as wafting scents pervade the air so we forget that others exist and these seem the fragrance of life itself…

Later, a ray of sunshine gilds a leaf, then two, and then all! Then the first bird to venture forth after the rain sings!”]

And the tree is now spectator and audience to the sweet sounds of other birds on its branches, to the whispered wishes of lovers in its shadows, to the delighted shrills of romping children and to the compliant murmurs of the old couple still sitting under their umbrella. The tree observes me, too, as I pass by this park – perhaps the Square Léopold Achille, just a few steps from the lovely garden of the Musée Carnavalet – small and hidden from the hurried masses and surrounded by the grace of 17th and 18th century hôtel particuliers.


Un rayon rôde encore la crête du mur,

Glisse d’une main calme et nous conduit vers l’ombre…

Est-ce la pluie? Est-ce la nuit?

Au loin, des pas vieux et noirs

S’en vont

Le long des murs du parc où les vieux arbres songent…“*

[“A beam of light touches only the top of the wall, sliding along like a calm hand and glides towards darkness… Is it the rain? Is it nightfall? Further away, go some sad aged steps by the walls of the park where old trees dream…”]

I have on occasion been moved by certain trees, beseeching of their divine greenness that is grandly evident of their long vie vitale… and believing in their innate spirits, their benign benevolence, their ever steadfast presence. And these in a little park in Paris resonate to the words of a poet who really didn’t write too much in his life, but what he did express in this poem, “Au Fil de l’Heure Pâle“, somehow found their way to one who sits for a while in the same park and dreams of the gracious reaching trees…


Monsieur Léopold Achille (1844-1921) was a writer and perfumer, and for a term the deputy mayor of this 3rd arrondissement, who was dedicated with this square in 1913. Three loyal trees have called this square home now for over a hundred years – a distinguished Caucasian Elm (Zelkova Carpinifolia), a sweet Olive (Osmanthus Aquifolium) and a pretty Peach (Prunus Persica). I like to think of them as a ménage à trois that have stayed faithful to each other all these years, and have doted on the inhabitants of this neighbourhood with their seasonal whims and offerings, and of course, always their gentle dreams.

Monsieur Léon-Paul Fargue (1876-1947) was a member of the Symbolist poetry circle and a good friend of the composer Ravel, who set to music his poem “Rêves“. Although Monsieur Fargue was not a prolific writer, he was considered a master of the modern prose poem. His work includes “Tancrède“, “Poèmes suivis de Pour la Musique“, “Espaces“, and two books, D’après Paris (1931) and Le Piéton de Paris (1939). A contemporary of his had described him thus: “Chacun des mots qu’il prononce vibre avec une étrange résonnance; est-ce la place qu’il occupe, sa musique, son sens, il semble reveiller en nous des rumeurs inconnues. C’est un art tout de finesse, de charme et de mélancholie.” He is buried in the Cimetière du Montparnasse beneath a dreaming cherry.]


A Requiem for Modigliani

February 25, 2009

On a dulcet Sunday afternoon one late fall, ochreous leaves swirled about in a light breeze grazing by the impatient crowds that have gathered at the Musée du Luxembourg. They were here to view another gathering within, one that is more subdued – largely immobile, in fact – and most securely suspended. Vividly rendered in two dimensions on flattened surfaces, each character is no longer life-sized, nor regrettably quite alive!

Nevertheless, this particular grouping had been assembled together for the first time to command the attention of the livelier one slowly filing by, paying continuous homage to the personages arranged in such orderly formations and who gazed passively back in serene detachment. The cast of hundreds, now immutably committed onto canvases, were once the lovers, friends and patrons of Amedeo Modigliani, the ill-fated Italian painter and sculptor who had valiantly tried to seek his fame and fortune in Paris in the early part of the 20th century. His artistic output was prolific considering that his life ended at the age of thirty-five, when having endured years of poverty and extreme hardship [ frequently leavened by compulsive imbibition of cheap brandy to fuel his frenzied spates of painting], he finally succumbed to tuberculosis in 1920.

As the masses congregated to marvel at the sheer voracity of his achievement, much of which was represented in this momentous retrospective, glimpses of his turbid existence were rarely witnessed through the subjects he had somehow managed to draw and to paint so eloquently, instinctively capturing enigmatic souls with a few simple lines to envelop a few patches of muddied colours, and fixing the fleeting expressions to reveal the very essences of the personalities by the poses, the gestures, the clothes [or lack thereof!], the settings and the accompanying possessions [if any]. With every depiction, he eventually stylized an iconic Modigliani image all his very own, while simultaneously immortalizing the diverse entities of his bohemian world.

Hush now… the Requiem has commenced and the ensemble was being introduced…

modiglianiLa fillette en bleu” [1918] appeared… A little girl with pale blue eyes and dressed in a matching pale blue frock. She was standing stiffly in the corner of a room with chalky gray-blue walls. A seemingly icy domain, yet her cheeks and delicate lips were rosy and she wore a festive red ribbon in her short brown hair. Her small hands were clasped shyly in front of her. For such a young child, she bore the solemn expression of the angel that Modigliani had once written about to a friend, “Le bonheur est un ange au visage grave.” [Her face had adorned the exhibition’s tickets and brochures, and the show was titled “L’ange au visage grave“.]

Her bright, clear voice began the Requiem:

“These flowers in your sweet hands/ Just how I feel to you/ If you could only touch me now…”

Nu assis” [undated]… Painted on the back of another work and framed in by the wooden stretchers still pasted randomly with the various shippers’ labels, it was of a young girl, almost adolescent. She was seated nude with her long slender arms draped languidly over her lap. Her thick black hair was loosely gathered up behind her head and her large dark eyes reflected a guileless innocence.

She joined in the Requiem softly:

“Just a ghostly paper sigh/ Until you kiss me back to life/ I’m soon to breathe the roses bloom…”

And then to more of the Nudes… The languorous older ones, and so many of them! They made a fine chorus, with some seated [legless – a shame!], some standing [trying out Botticelli’s Venus pose with one hand modestly concealing the delta], and the rest were, of course, lying around emulating Goya’s Maja and even Manet’s brazen Olympia! Elegant flesh-coloured curves were spread out over richly textured backgrounds. The bodies were elongated but still voluptuous and voluminous, punctuated by prominent nipples and curlicues of pubic hair. Faces had become somewhat more stylized but retained a hint of indifferent disdain. These were undoubtedly Modigliani’s roses in full bloom, earthy and sensual… and inviting…

They sang along nostalgically, tenderly:

“All your flowers fill my room/ And sing to me their happy tune/ Like nature’s flowers destined to die…”

Turning their gaze to the numerous portraits of Jeanne Hébuterne, Modigliani’s greatest muse, his last true love and mother of his child, who looked on sadly, they continued:

“Filling her room with all the flowers she can find, she commits the ultimate erotic suicide…”

Jeanne paid her tragic tribute to Modigliani by jumping to her death just a day after he had perished, leaving behind their only creation together – a forsaken baby girl. Through the multiple countenances of Jeanne, Modigliani had assuredly conveyed the élan vital of his spiritual sensuality and the distinctive lyrical style of his last paintings.

Although the tears no longer flowed, the tremulous solo voice of Jeanne could now be heard sullenly despairing:

“My lips are open wide/ Stretched so far apart/ Searching for the last kiss/ With my hands pressed tight to my heart…

Bye! Bye! Bye! Bye!

A thousand hungry flowers/ Loving you for hours and hours/ Soon smothers me so tenderly….

Bye! Bye! Bye! Bye!”

In sympathetic accord to Jeanne’s weary lamentation, all the others [among them Docteur Paul Alexandre, Monsieur Paul Guillaume, Miss Béatrice Hastings, Monsieur Jean Cocteau, Monsieur Leopold Zborowski, Mesdemoiselles Lolotte et Renée, Baronne de Hasse de Villers, Monsieur et Madame Jacques Lipchitz], all raised their voices in impassioned tones to the melancholic strains of the refrain, thereby concluding a fond adieu to “un grand artiste maudit du XXème siècle” – truly one of the many profound legendary figures who had haunted the art nebula that was Paris…

“A thousand kisses say goodbye/ And then they say you’ll never die/ A lonely fanfare blew/ And then they sing to you…

Bye! Bye! Bye! Bye!”*


*The inserted verses of the “Requiem” are borrowed from “Revenge of the Flowers”, written by Malcolm McLaren and sung by the indomitable Françoise Hardy, in the provocatively inspired recording Paris [1994]… with the first stanza in French:

Le parfum sucré de vos roses s’évapore/ Et moi je compose/ Vous ne m’aurez jamais donné/ Que le baiser du condamné…


Parler d’amour*

February 19, 2009

The uber-siren Ute Lemper first spoke to me of love en français soon after my Paris initiation had begun. I came across her album Espace Indécent by chance at a music store [yes, it was that long ago!]. Not knowing of her before, but drawn to her striking image on the CD cover and to the listing of french-titled songs on the back, I was moved to take her home. I was, of course, pleasantly surprised how right she was for me and my listening pleasure.

Thus flowed the early soundtrack for my grande affaire with Paris, to the strong urging voice of a multi-lingual teutonic chanteuse, a contemporary Marlène Dietrich with a softer edge. I was captivated by her sultry elegance, her wide-ranging vocal and stylistic sophistication, and her talent for other art forms, including acting and painting. Inspite of her relative obscurity in North America, I felt that I had discovered her all on my own and her songs were my secret lyrical cache. When I was not in Paris, my inner Parisian contemplations unfolded to music from three of my favourite albums of hers…the above mentioned Espace Indécent, City of Strangers, and Illusions.

Many years later, I finally had the opportunity to see her perform live and in the evocative city where her singing has added such a rich auditory layer to my experience there. The concert was held at the freshly renovated Salle Pleyel on Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré, not far from the Etoile. It was a warm spring evening and a friend and I made our pilgrimage on foot all the way from the Marais. I had never attended an event at the Salle Pleyel before and was not quite sure what to expect from this prestigious concert hall built in 1927 by the venerable Pleyel piano manufacturer to commemorate its centenary. Over the decades the Salle Pleyel has been home to the Orchestre de Paris and hosted the concerts of many celebrated composers and musicians.

Ute Lemper appeared on the stage as I had envisioned her – tall, graceful, discreetly glamorous. She was accompanied by only four others, on piano, guitar, bass and drums. The program for the evening included singing her own compositions, three of Jacques Brel’s old favourites, a few collaborative pieces by Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill, and even a traditional Hungarian song. She vocalized in German, English, French, Yiddish, Spanish, Arabic and Hungarian! Her multi-cultural and versatile repertoire was matched by her expressive and flawless performance, betraying her early dance and musical theatre training.

Needless to say, I was completely entranced and overwhelmed by her vocal virtuosity and her gracious charisma that flowed over the auditorium like a warm air-kiss! And even though she did not sing “Parler d’Amour” to me that night, I stepped out onto the enchanted Paris streets and floated lightly all the way home…

“Parler d’amour…parler d’amour poli…comme ces galets tiédis…aux marées finissantes…un soir d’avant tempête…

Parler d’amour, parler d’amour…”


*”Parler d’Amour” from Espace Indécent is a duet with Art Mengo whom I fell in love with a few years later when I chanced upon his CD La Vie de Château – not realizing immediately that it was him who had sang and composed the music with Ute on that first song of love…


A Night with Rodin

January 28, 2009


I had once dreamt of dancing nude under a full moon in the rose garden of Malmaison, the beloved abode of the forsaken Empress Joséphine. The overpowering scent of roses would intoxicate me to spontaneous yet sensuous movements as I gracefully wove my way around the thorny bushes avoiding scratches to certain vulnerable body parts.

Well, this fantasy dance number was sort of realized in the pitch black and heavily lilac-perfumed garden of the Musée Rodin one warm spring evening. No, we did not sneak in after hours to romp through a midnight garden full of Rodin’s robust nudes as intoxicated voyeuristic neo-surrealists emulating Aragon and his pals at the Parc des Buttes Chaumont almost a century ago now. We were unfortunately part of a much larger contingent who had gathered there because it was La Nuit des Musées, and free for all!

The Musée Rodin is one of the more sublime sites that has enamoured me to Paris from the very beginning. My first visit there on a late summer’s day with hardly any other visitors about was an almost spiritual affair. I wandered slowly through the airy rooms in this most elegant of hôtels, savouring the sensuousness of milky marble nudes and gazing out onto the large garden through the tall open windows and of course, thinking that I could so easily live here! There was a small armchair sitting in a ray of sunshine and I was tempted to plop myself into it and never leave.

The 18th century Hôtel de Biron was Rodin’s last home before his death in 1917, and fortunately, the French government very generously kept and restored the hôtel and its grounds to house all the work that Rodin had bequeathed to his country. Located in the heart of the stately 7th arrondissement, it is but a stone’s throw from Napoleon’s monumentally entombed remains in the Hôtel des Invalides. One can spy the shiny gilt spire of the dome poking up from above the trees of the museum’s gardens.

[Since I first visited, the entrance has been expanded and renovated around the old chapel, thereby losing some of its charm. When my boys were little I had brought them to join a children’s tour of the museum that also included a sculpture workshop held in the chapel/atelier after the tour. I remember peeking in through the stained glass windows to make sure that they were enjoying their clay project. They soon emerged triumphantly bearing their small clay busts in their muddy little hands! We had been asked to bring along empty shoe boxes with us to pack the still wet sculpture home – two miniature in situ-Rodin-inspired works to grace our home forever!]

On La Nuit des Musées, it was perfect spring weather as we biked along the crowded quais towards the Rodin museum. The congestion of car and pedestrian traffic as we neared our destination became truly frightening. I was tempted to turn back and abandon our nocturnal adventure. But we had come all this way… and we finally managed to find a spot to squeeze our bikes into and locked up. I hadn’t anticipated such a mad scramble at this smaller venue and could not imagine what it must have been like at the other major museums on this freebie night.

We entered the museum grounds along with a cast of thousands and followed herd-like towards the pond at the other end of the garden where a huge screen had been set up to show a video piece by Bill Viola entitled “The Messenger”. The images of a slowly submerging body in hazy blue water were mysterious and mesmerizing, but I was too restless to lie around like the many others tripping out on the flickering blue glow and gurgling screen bubbles.

We ran into the sculpture park to play hide-and seek in the dark amidst the illuminated bronzes that loomed up like oddly shaped ghouls between the trees. I wondered if I would stumble upon an orgy en pleine air in some more secluded corner! But perhaps later when the crowds thinned out a bit and the guards were too tired to make the rounds again, the motivated and whetted naughty few would steal away to sully the well-groomed grass of this most stimulating of cultural institutions!

Turned away from The Gates of Hell, I made my way back to The Shade, a tall male nude bending slightly in a come-hither stance, his head stretched out and lowered to one side as if checking a woman from behind. I stroked his articulated calf muscles, warming the coolness of hard metal. I couldn’t reach up any further with my hands, but I looked up at his face shrouded in the darkness and I whispered to his loneliness amidst this throng of shadowy revelers.


Later that night, soft in sleep, I felt his large hand gently caressing my back, reaching for a place that would again bring him back to life…

[Addendum: The intense and turbulent affair of Auguste Rodin and Camille Claudel has always fascinated me, and more so for the sinuously erotic sculpture it inevitably compelled from both artists. Claudel’s Sakuntala is telling and almost yearning in her need for Rodin’s all-encompassing love, which he could not give. She had surely identified with the love-lorn Sakuntala from the Indian legend by the 5th century Sanskrit poet Kalidasa in her continuing hope of reuniting fully with Rodin after their final break-up. From his hands, Rodin’s portrayals of nubile young women conjoined with their muscular and virile lovers are more evocative of sexual desire and sensual pleasure than the meaningful and heart-breaking love stories of Claudel’s accusing efforts. The Kiss, The Eternal Idol, Eternal Springtime all convey the most voluptuous of poses to celebrate the implied passionate union to come. And yet, for me, the smooth undulating bare back and flowing hair of The Danaid crouching half-hidden in the marble from which she emerges has to be the most sensuous and erotic of all his nudes… and I have stood before her many times in an aroused trance, oblivious to the boldly naked Balzac taunting me from behind!]