Paris sera toujours Paris

Published June 29, 2011

There is such an incalculable amount that may be said about Paris, it’s tempting to just shut up. However, having not yet reached that charmed state where, like Anish Kapoor, I can title a volume of conversations: “I Have Nothing to Say”, I’m obliged to blog on regardless.
Paris may not be the world capital of art any more, or so the received wisdom runs – but it has never let me down for exhibitions. As well as the Manet retrospective at the Musée d’Orsay, which I wrote up for the SMH, there was an exhibition of the Futurist, Gino Severini at the Orangerie; Odilon Redon at the Grand Palais; Kees Van Dongen at the Musée de l’Art Moderne, and the very peculiar Paris-Delhi-Bombay show at the Centre Pompidou. About the only thing I missed was Anish Kapoor’s monumental installation out the back of the Grand Palais, which Marion Borgelt tells me was “amazing”. I was able to tell her the Redon, which she missed, was “amazing”.
The Paris-Delhi-Bombay show was not what I’d expected. India is producing some bold, ambitious contemporary art, but the Pompidou show was so jam-packed with sex and violence, it seems astonishing that the Indian Tourist Bureau didn’t slap an injunction on it. Perhaps it’s a stage that Indian art has to go through, just like Chinese art having to restage the entire history of Modernism during the 1980s.
The Severini and Van Dongen shows were almost diametric opposites: the Futurist with a penchant for mathematics and classical order; and the Fauve, with a taste for cocktail parties and high society. But if Severini must have been a slightly reluctant participant in the Futurist excesses, Van Dongen remained a wild man in a tuxedo. Both of them had their moments as artists, and some of Van Dongen’s works of the 1910s and 20s were as exciting as anything being made, apart from Picasso, Matisse and Braque. In later life he became a textbook example of the artist who traded his talent for the financial security of portrait commissions. Even Manet was guilty of this at the end. Severini found his metier in the Return to Order, which suited his temperament.
Odilon Redon was unlike any other artist: the complete eccentric, living in his own, dark fantasy world, regardless of the ‘isms that bubbled up on all sides. I realised that I’m doomed to permanently associate his work with the covers of old Dostoevsky paperbacks in the Penguin editons. This is an association that probably made dazzling sense to a designer, but there is little point of comparison between the two men. Dostoevsky probed the psychological motivations that make people act in extreme, irrational ways. The stength of Redon’s work lies in its non-analytical openness to unconscious fantasy: the spider with a toothy smile, the egg with a face peering over the egg cup, the hot air balloon that is really a gigantic eye. He evokes the atmosphere of the dream more convincingly than almost any other artist. He is the furthest pole from Impressionism, but he is also much deeper and darker than a Symbolist such as Gustave Moreau, whose work always comes across as more overheated than a Marvel comic.

One of the lesser-known Parisian sites: Musée de la Chasse et nature

Apart from the art, my great Parisian discovery this time was Café Constant in Rue St. Dominique, which was one of the best eateries I’ve encountered in a city full of good restaurants. It was also remarkably inexpensive, although one might have to wait for a hour to get a table. I knew it was the right place when we finally got through the door and ran straight into master chef, Tony Bilson. “I always come here,” quoth he.
From The Pompidou