If you intend to linger in art galleries when you visit Paris, go in winter.
The cold weather quickens your pace from one gallery to another and when you arrive, there are no line-ups outside and no crowds inside. I’d discovered this on the first half of my visit when I’d done an art walk to the Picasso, Modern Art, and Grand Palais galleries.
For the second half of my visit, my goal was to seek out photography. I had read in The Eye of Photography that there were a number of shows, so I added the Maison Européenne de la Photographie, Jeu de Paume, and the Centre Pompidou museums to my must-visit list.
And along the way I also happened to stumble upon a forbidden performance at the Louvre, to dissect a dead fish on the Left Bank, and to meet my maker in Montmartre.
I didn’t have to go far to find art in the streets.
Bruno Barbey at Maison Européenne de la Photographie
At the European gallery of photography, a modest entry fee gave me access to six photographers on four floors of gallery space in a restored heritage building.
* As I write this post, I am very sad to say that Alaoui has been killed January 19, 2016 by terrorists while she was on assignment for Amnesty International.
On another floor of the gallery, six-foot-high images by Massimo Berruti showed how the gruelling search for water dominates life in Gaza, the Middle East.
But the Maison show that captivated me the most was Passages, an exhibition of images by photojournalist Bruno Barbey. He seems to have a knack for being in a place when a global political event is about to explode.
The show included 55 years of his work including assignments from LIFE magazine, as well as travel images from repeat visits to Poland, Korea, Spain, Portugal, India, Brazil, and Morocco.
A particular image he shot in Morocco really stunned me—the subject matter, the composition, the colours, the patterns, the light, the moment. It was perfect.
My next stop was near the Louvre, so I stopped at a café for a tartine jambon serrano and sat out a sudden, sunny hail shower. When it stopped, I passed the museum’s famous pyramid with no intention of going in.
Instead I short-cut through an adjoining courtyard and caught strains of recorded violin music. I kept walking and, tucked under an arch, discovered two string students performing the gorgeous music live. While they played for coins, they kept glancing furtively at the gates. On a break, they told me their performance there was interdit—forbidden…(Video, 0:41)
Philippe Halsman at Jeu de Paume
In the show Étonnez-Moi! (Astonish Me!) at the Jeu de Paume, I learned that Philipe Halsman also shot covers for LIFE magazine—but his subject matter was very, very different. He photographed celebrities.
In fact, it was Halsman who was given the assignment to shoot a group of young starlets in 1949. One of them, the blonde in the front row, caught his eye…
He and Marilyn become friends and she even allowed him to photograph her in her apartment. I was amazed by this image of Marilyn Monroe lifting weights in her home to stay in shape. I’d never seen that side of her before.
Living and photographing in New York from the 1930s to the 1970s, Halsman had a deep interest in art, science, and psychology. He also had some interesting friends with whom he collaborated, most notably Salvador Dali. This exhibit showed the contact sheets for this famous photo shoot:
Halsman also staged elaborate special effects for photo shoots such as this image of writer Jean Cocteau.
Basically, it was a dead fish on a plate.
But thanks to some practice eating seafood living in both Vancouver, Canada and Goa, India, I was able to dissect, eat, and enjoy the specimen.
Both Hazel and I have travelled to and written about India, and so after lunch Hazel kindly gave me a signed copy of her novel about India, Kanyakumari.
20th century art at Centre Pompidou
I’d saved the most modern of the modern art galleries for last: the Centre Pompidou.
I didn’t have much time, so I went straight to the Collections Modernes 1905-1965. Year by year and room by room, the fifth floor carefully explained and demonstrated the history of modern art to me. It was exhausting and fantastic.
I stood before Matisse, Picasso, Kandinsky, Man Ray, the Constructivists, the Dada-ists, the Bauhaus school—all of it. All in one place.
Sacré-Coeur church at Montmartre
My final culture stop in Paris was the Basilique du Sacré-Cœur—the grand church at the top of the Montmartre hill.
I walked back to my hotel, taking care to investigate interesting-looking sideroads.
On the way, I passed the immense Place de la République square, still charged with the emotions and mementos of the November 13, 2015 bomb attacks. Skateboarders and cyclists weaved around clumps of people staring down at the mementos or staring up at the statue of Marianne, symbol of the French Republic. She holds aloft an olive branch.
My time in Paris had come to an end.
I’d snacked on fast-food and cans of beer, but I had truly feasted on art. It felt like a sustaining, winter meal—the kind that stays in your belly and soul and keeps you alive for weeks and months afterwards.
I didn’t see the Mona Lisa at the Louvre, but I did catch a glimpse of her in the adjoining gift shop when I went searching for a toilet. She told me it was okay—I’d done a pretty good job of supporting the arts in Paris without her.
And then she smiled.