By Don Rose


I have been to
Hell and back
And let me tell you
It was wonderful

–Louise Bourgeois

That wonderfully tender sentiment was embroidered on a large kerchief by Bourgeois, the protean French-American artist, whose retrospective at the Pompidou Center was perhaps the most exciting art exposition of an often chilly, rainy Paris spring.

She may be best known for her giant steel spiders and similar bugs that grace the outdoor gardens of many museums, but her work ranges from drawings to paintings to sculpture of all sizes—plus a remarkable series of room-sized installations done late in her career.

Bourgeois was born in Paris in 1911, then moved to New York in 1938 where she has lived since, a key figure in modern and contemporary art who does not fit neatly into any known niche. As an early feminist who does not use the word, she thematically morphs figures of women and houses — housewife, get it? — in numerous paintings and pieces of sculpture.

Among showings of the old masters, there was a stunning display of hundreds of Goya engravings at the newly remodeled Petit Palais. The works span his entire career, from the slightly sardonic portraits of royalty to his fascination late in life with every detail of the bullfight. The most moving, however, are the 39 well-known plates detailing the horrors of the Napoleonic wars. Amazing in detail, they retain the impact of some of the most powerful images of recent wars.

Several other shows were well worth seeing — including a photo retrospective of a bygone Chicago by our very own Art Shay. Many photos featured friends of his such as Nelson Algren and Marcel Marceau, plus a full-rear nude of Simone de Beauvoir, but Chicago was really the star.

Around the town

If you’ve been reading my political columns in The Chicago Daily Observer, you may recall that both the expat community and the indigenous French are uniformly entranced with the endless Democratic primary. Barack Obama took 71 percent of the official Democrats Abroad-France primary election.

President Nicolas Sarkozy’s popularity is plummeting –– his poll numbers are just slightly better than Bush’s these days –– and the French themselves would gladly elect Obama president by acclamation. Wouldn’t it be interesting to have someone president of two countries at the same time?

With gasoline prices triple those of the USA, what everybody seems to love here is the year-old short-term bike rental system. Throughout the city you’ll see nests of silver-gray two-wheelers. You walk up, insert your credit card, grab a bike, go to your destination and drop it off at the nearest nesting place. Then repeat for all your other errands without worrying about kryptonite locks and impermeable chains. Whenever a proud Parisian points out the system to me, I tell him or her that we have a similar program in Chicago with small cars. “Aha!” he or she sniffs. “Next year we will have the system with cars too!”

But it’s more than the price of gas that’s putting a damper on tourist fun here. The dollar keeps flirting with all-time lows. At one point the euro hit $1.60 on the currency markets, meaning the average person got an exchange rate of about $1.65. Yes, that means 100 euros—the price of a good bistro dinner with any but the cheapest bottle of wine—is really $165.

Compare this to a few years ago when the euro and the dollar were at parity—and a few years before that when you could buy a euro for 75 or 80 cents American! The rise is forcing more than one expatriate whose income is in dollars to give up Paris and return home. (Fortunately for me, the income on my apartment is denominated in euros, so I don’t have to stay awake nights doing conversions in my head and sobbing over my monetary losses!)

Ah, but whatever the price, it is still Paris, and that means French restaurants for my friend Judy James and me to visit—cost be damned.

Dining discoveries

We made a few pleasant gastronomic discoveries, such as L’Ami Marcel, a fine little bistro in the southwestern 15th district, which does its own special turns on the classics including a lovely slice of fresh foie gras sauteed with a bit of apple. An extra thrill was added knowing this would have been illegal in Chicago! Our sculptor friend Caroline Lee still cannot understand how such a thing could happen in the city she left 50 years ago.

In a very modern but still comfortable setting, Le Sensing offers inventive but not outre dishes such as perfectly crisped nuggets of lamb sweetbreads in the subtlest of sauces and a first-rate rendition of sandre, a close cousin if not sibling of walleye pike. This not inexpensive little gem is in Montparnasse, near the legendary Dome cafe.

Our friend Leon Gussow came to spend a week with us and insisted on a visit to Bistrot Paul Bert, a bit east of the Bastille, which is a picture-perfect rendition of a ‘50s movie-set bistro. My fondest recollection there was a kind of terrine incorporating baby leeks with—yes—more foie gras.

The three of us also hit Le Carre des Feuillants, one of the top-rated gastronomic restaurants in the city—with prices to match. (Don’t ask.) Here we inhaled such starters as a blend of foie gras, sweetbreads and crayfish or a bowl of sauteed baby eels about the size of toothpicks or a main course of roasted sweetbreads encrusted with minced oysters and a remarkable spring lamb roasted in a clay crust to retain all its juices.

Once again we managed to score a reservation at the 22-seat Comptoir de Relais, which serves a single 5-course meal for 48 euros—a meal you would pay more than 100 euros for anywhere else in town. Dinner began with a lovely assortment of delicate spring vegetables, including artichokes and baby peas, enhanced by a smooth gelee of beets and mousse of horseradish sauce. This was followed by the plumpest, most tender white asparagus I’ve ever tasted, enriched by a creamy sauce mousseline.

Then came the crusted slices of buttery veal paired with grilled fennel, followed by the all-you-can-eat cheese platter with 9 different cheeses at perfect temperature. Roasted apricots with almond cream and a dab of sorbet brought the proceedings to a close.

You must reserve months and months in advance—but the secret is to stay at the boutique hotel attached to the restaurant, the Relais St. Germain. They always keep a table for hotel guests. Elegant, individualized rooms here are not cheap, but compare favorably in their class with doubles starting at 285 euros.

Gallery tripping

Back to the galleries, two more shows were notable, one featuring a well-known figure from the early 20th Century—Maurice Vlaminck, long associated with Derain and early Matisse as members of the fauvist or wild beast school. Color, color and more colors—bright, sunny, blazing—applied with thick, textured, almost three-dimensional brush strokes.

His work, shown at the Luxembourg Museum, sometimes seems dashed off, but there is method behind it—a method that says the impression is what’s important, not the details. More or less self-taught, his influences are clearly Van Gogh and Cezanne, but he’s his own man.

The big revelation was a contemporary German artist, A.R. Penck (a pseudonym) whose paintings and sculpture were virtually unknown to us. More than a hundred, however, were shown in a well-deserved retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art of the City of Paris.

Many were oils in black and white with a little gray—thick, almost child-like stick figures (with male organs in silhouette as well), aping the primitive with heavy political content. Some seemed like an angry Keith Haring, others touched with the primal view of a Basquiat, but in total original. When you come into a room with full, forceful colors they are so bright it first appears to be a different artist, but the outlook and intelligence remains.

The Grand Palais offered a retrospective of the “new figurative” painters of the ‘60s and early ‘70s. Many of the earlier pieces were influenced by comix and almost seemed inspired by R. Crumb; the later works were overtly political and particularly anti-Vietnam War.

Close in spirit to the feminism of Louise Bourgeois were the six videos directed by the Spanish artist Pilar Albarracin displayed at the Maison Rouge museum. Each starts innocently enough then turns quickly decadent. In one, a woman comes into the kitchen like any on the Food Network, as the captions tell us she will make a classic Spanish omelet.

She begins breaking eggs into a bowl and then into the pan, then starts cutting away pieces of her red dress from around the waist up to the chest and tossing the shreds of fabric into the pan, stirring, flipping and continuing what amounts to an emotional breakdown of the “classic” female role in Spain.

The Fair

As April showers gave way to May, the weather improved dramatically. Out came the sun, off came the sweaters and all just in time for our annual visit to the Paris Fair. This event offers many pavilions—home improvements, motorcycles, crafts from around the world, but we go for the giant food and wine pavilion. Of course.

Here are vendors of the grape from every region of France plus purveyors of foie gras, sausages, cheeses, jams and such from every district as well. Then there are food stands galore where you sit and nosh, plus a dozen regional restaurants set up on the spot—Corsican, Alsatian, Southwestern and so forth.

We had dinner here one Sunday evening, gorging on Alsatian provender. We also stopped at one stand on the way out and picked up some jars of—you guessed it—more foie gras.

Preparing to leave town we’re looking forward to one more exhibit of the works of a sometimes forgotten female sculptor, Camille Claudel. Then it will be back to the land of the criminalized foie gras.

A bien tot –– Don

Photographs courtesy of Judy James.

Late Breaking News: Inspired by this report, the Chicago city council on Wednesday revoked the city ban on fois gras. Dig in.

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