PARIS—This town’s long romance with the art of photography keeps growing and growing and growing. As I’ve noted before, not only are there three museums dedicated to it, but special shows abound. The first we caught was a large exhibit of the legendary Cartier-Bresson’s works at the Maison Europenee de la Photographie plus a revelatory showing at a nearby library of the earliest color photography—dating back to the latter 19th Century.
Who knew color pix went back that far? But there it was—a process called “photochrome,” similar to color lithography, that produced vivid scenes with an almost hand-painted look. Photos taken at all points on the globe were shown, including many knockout nature shots.
Another show called “Controversies” featured several hundred historic photos that caused some level of controversy, either for their subject matter or their backstory—or in some cases because the persons depicted were controversial, i.e., Oscar Wilde. The stunner for me was a shot of Adolph Hitler lying dead, a black dot on his forehead from the bullet that finished him off after he poisoned himself. Others loved the steamy full-frontal of Brooke Shield in her nymphet years.
Those were only a small part of one of the richest, widest ranging art seasons in memory, blessed with mostly great weather and sunshine giving Paris the glow of a girl in the throes of first love. Among several special expositions was one devoted to my own first love, jazz, and its symbiotic relationship with the graphic arts—of which more later.
Spring is also the season of the Paris Fair, a multitiered event highlighted by yet another passionate love, the food and wine pavilion. Hello foie gras and oodles of regional dishes!
Speaking of food and wine, as usual, we also sated ourselves at several rave-worthy new bistros, dined at some old favorites and scarfed down five pricey courses at Paris’s newest 3-star restaurant, Le Bristol.
Michelin now lists ten 3-star eateries in Paris, their top rating. We have stress-tested the bank account at all of them through the years and find Le Bristol worthy of the rating. Many years ago we ate at a bistro owned by its chef, Eric Frechon and we’re pleased at his elevation.
But real Parisian insiders know that Michelin is not the ultimate word—it is the Pudlo guide, by top critic Gilles Pudlowski, one of the few gastronomic scribblers before whom I kneel.
May Day Was a Gas
Given the state of French politics, with President Sarkozy sinking to Bushian numbers (mid-30s) in the polls and a series of wildcat strikes and demonstrations through the early spring, we expected to see a massive demo and march on May Day, the international labor holiday. The economy here is bad as anywhere, labor is bitching about cutbacks and there are grave concerns about Sarko taking steps to privatize France’s magnificent socialized health care system. He’s also mucking around with the budgetary plans of the universities, trying to “Americanize” them, as his legion of enemies put it.
A few May Days ago, when the right-wing psycho Jean Marie LePen became a ballot threat, I witnessed and marched briefly with a crowd of more than 300,000 on the traditional trek from Place de Republique past the Bastille and down to Place de Nation. In recent years, however, the celebrations have been skimpy.
This year, the expectation of a big show brought the peripatetic Jan Grayson over from London to spend a few days with me, my good friend Judy James and our regular gastronomic guest Dr. Leon Gussow, whose appetite for food, wine, art and politics sometimes matches even mine. On May Day afternoon we all set out for the Bastille but I screwed up on the timing and we wound up missing the speeches and the first part of what was a lesser demonstration than expected.
There was no march, but a large rally estimated by the press as 120,000 in the huge, cobblestoned Place de la Bastille. Lots of signs, waving of red flags, left-wing songs and general good humor. Big as it was, it seemed a letdown from expectations—though we did get a whiff of tear gas at the very end.
We took seats at a café overlooking the place when a very small skirmish boiled up between the cops and a couple of black-masked, self-styled “anarchists.” (I’m told these little acts of violence occur occasionally when the anarchos try to stir things up at other organization’s meetings and demos.)
Out came the tear gas. A bit of it drifted toward our café, souring the bouquet of the wine, and past us rushed a couple of crying, spitting, puking black-clad kids who got it all in their faces. Leon and I looked at each other mistily, our eyes watering not from the gas but from memories of Chicago ’68.
Later that evening I spoke to a meeting of Democrats Abroad France, telling them that the American center had shifted somewhat to the left, and that the change would be long lasting.
Lunch Among the Wisterias
A few weeks ago I devoted my Chicago Daily Observer column to the virtues of high-speed train travel, extolling the virtues of the French TGV system. So naturally, on our ride south to visit friends Dennis Ginosi and Kathleen Prendergast at their mini-estate near Montpellier, the train had a breakdown bringing us in 3 hours late. The Jinx of the Rose strikes again.
The visit with them however was sheer relaxing pleasure, highlighted by a lunch on their wisteria-laden terrace with Constanza Montana, a former colleague of Dennis’s at the Tribune. She recently returned to France after many years to begin rehabbing a house not too far away from Montpellier.
It was then Kathleen introduced me to a savory new food product from their region, Citrolinade. It’s a winsome dip/spread somewhat like a tapenade but made of finely minced green olives, preserved lemons, ginger, almonds and olive oil. Local purveyor Delphine Solignac puts it up in jars and someday might produce enough to ship overseas. I hope.
The Force of Art
Back in Paris the range of art expositions kept us on the go for the entire month. It included Force de l’Art, a triennial exhibit of what the French Ministry of Culture selects as the most happening art in the country, displayed under the glorious glass ceiling and dome of the Grand Palais; then came the 61st annual Salon de Mai, an artist-juried exhibit of some 175 contemporary works. Our sculptor friend Caroline Lee is now president of the artists committee that mounts the show.
The triennial consisted of 36 installations, many of them highly complex, incorporating video and painted works but only a couple of pieces of what we might call sculpture. Interesting and often intriguing, it was way too limited in breadth to be considered the best of what France offers today. You would think easel painting had disappeared from the scene.
The Salon, however, though it included several installations as well, featured loads of fresh paintings and sculpture that was perhaps more fully representative of the arts today. Plus you could actually buy one and hang it in your living room. I dunno—maybe that’s too old-fashioned.
The Orsay museum featured a finely curated exhibit of the sculpture of Rodin and the successors who strove to break his grip. A fascinating show giving insight into the 20th Century evolution of an art form.
As to individual shows, there was an infinite range, from a selection of Italian Renaissance works by Fra Lippo Lippi and his son Filippino—none of which had previously left Italy—on to a remarkable display of the words and pictures of William Blake, the mystic poet, painter and lithographer. It included the first “publication” of his famed “Tyger, tyger burning bright…” painstakingly hand-lettered on a small page about the size of an old-style paperback book, illuminated by a colorful “tyger.”
As always, much space was given to 20th Century masters. The Pompidou had retrospectives of Wassily Kandinsky—whose genius became obvious once again to one who had shoved him off into a corner of the mind—and of Alexander Calder’s wire sculptures and early mobiles from his Paris years.
I was even more bowled over by a huge retrospective of the Greek-born Italian artist Giorgio de Chirico at the Museum of Modern Art. His haunting, surreal landscapes filled with personal symbols of towers, clocks, trains, sailboats and figurative silhouettes casting shadows are his best known works, but he had many other phases including one similar to Picasso’s classic period.
Good but not overwhelming was a pairing of the works of Maurice Utrillo—he of the endless streetscapes—and his mother Suzanne Valadon, who was kind of a feminist pioneer painter, but essentially a limited talent.
An Andy Warhol show at a Grand Palais gallery was the season’s blockbuster event, generating lines even longer than the well attended Blake show. For my money there were far too many portraits and not enough of Warhol’s other inventions. In concert with the exhibit, the Maison Rouge offered a series of Warhol TV productions featuring dozens of famous-for-15-minutes “celebrities.”
The Cinema Museum, housed in a Frank Gehry building in an urban renewal area, presented a Jacques “Mr. Hulot’s Holiday” Tati retrospective replete with film clips and large-scale reproductions of his imaginative sets. Also included were tributes to Chaplin, Keaton and the mimetic stars who inspired his own wonderful antics.
Jazz Me Blues
“The Jazz Century” was the very unusual, beautifully rendered tribute to the art form born in America but often more greatly appreciated here. The Museum of the Quai Branly, the splendid new Jean Nouvel campus devoted to ethnographic arts and crafts, set up an internal pathway off which you enter a series of 10 spaces divided roughly into the historic eras of the music: pre jazz, New Orleans, Harlem Renaissance, swing, bebop, West Coast, free, contemporary, etc., including a large section devoted to jazz in Europe. Recorded classics from each era were softly heard.
Each section was filled with sheet music, photos, album covers, film clips plus popular memorabilia reflecting jazz and jazzmen of the era. The swing and bebop sections brought home how wonderful were David Stone Martin’s ink drawings for Verve album covers. Also displayed were several paintings by important artists whose work was in some degree inspired by the music, such as Jackson Pollack’s abstracts out of the bebop era.
It was fun and instructive, but embarrassing in some aspects—particularly the early graphic depiction of black people. It was also a sentimental journey for certain slobs who actually owned some of those ancient albums and pieces of sheet music in bygone years.
From Gas to Gastronomy
We didn’t allow nearly enough time for the jazz show—I could have spent a full day. But we had dinner reservations and off we went to the best new restaurant of the trip.
Afaria is a new-wave or neo-bistro in the southwest corner of Paris. It mixes tapas-style dishes with traditional starters and full plates. Each one is special: a contemporary rendition of bistro classics by a chef who has worked with the masters and understands international styles.
Consider an unlikely combination that worked brilliantly: a little cake of Lebanese bulgar studded with fresh oysters and diced preserved lemons, accompanied by a couple of schmears of garlicky hummus. Or a tagine of roasted pork belly with root veggies. This one ranks with Le Gaigne, the big winner from my November visit.
Close behind was Le Hide, a lively little place near the Arc de Triomphe, owned by a Japanese chef who trained with greats Gagnaire and Ducasse. Loved his scallops with soy vinaigrette on a roquette salad.
Jadis, yet another spot not far from Afaria, clearly had an inventive and interesting chef, but our server was abrupt and inattentive to say the least, which detracted from the experience.
In the Odeon area we enjoyed simple good flavors and sauces at another hip but very tiny place, Le Epigramme.
For the first time in a long time we revisited d’Chez Eux, a classic southwest bistro—a bit on the expensive side—for their overwhelming, all-you-can eat carts of veggie and seafood salads plus one of the finest charcuterie assortments in the city. Check with your cardiologist first.
Counterbalancing that was Le Cagouille, a terrific seafood house with the freshest of fare—true Dover sole, John Dory—simply but perfectly cooked. It’s hard to find in the shadow of the Montparnasse Tower, but worth the search. Then there were dozens of the world’s freshest oysters at Huiterie Regis, which opened a half hour early one evening just to accommodate us when we were on our way to the Salon de Mai.
Naturally, given the opportunity, we got back to Le Comptoir de Relais, the small, tight bistro with one set 5-course meal per night for 50 euros, offering what I will restate is the best food buy, quality for price, in the entire city.
Yves Cambdeborde, creator of the first neo-bistro in Paris back in the ‘90s, outdid himself with the following: a cocotte of morel mushrooms in a cream sauce into which was placed an egg that had been soft cooked, then roasted with a crumb crust. The egg then oozes into the sauce, enriching and elevating it to the culinary stars.
That was followed by a simply grilled turbot with a dab of fine olive oil—perhaps the best piece of fish I’ve ever tasted. Next up, rosy roast leg of lamb with pistou, and then the incredible all-you-can-eat platter of 10 perfect cheeses with accompaniments. Had enough? Then I won’t tell you about the fresh strawberry dessert.
Yes, there were plenty more meals, including a nice one at Fish la Boissonerie in St. Germain and at several of my neighborhood spots, plus a lot of dinners I picked up on my regular market street or the adjoining open market on Sundays.
But enough about food. Let’s talk about cuisine.
A bien tot–Don