12 July, 2008

All is still well and going great.

It's the week-end and I'm seeing some friends today.

11 July, 2008

I was traveling to Auvers-sur-Oise, the small remote town where Van Gogh spent the last years of his life and painted most of his masterpieces, and where he eventually shot himself. The train sped past the city and then fields and smaller towns. It was empty for as far as I could see. The view outside was dazzling. A young man came in and sat opposite me. He wanted to try my headphones on his phone to listen to some music. He started talking to me and showing me crazy videos on his cell phone. I told him I wasn’t interested in that and he laughed. Then he wanted to see my iPod Shuffle. He also asked if I had a cell phone and I said no. The train stopped at a station, he exclaimed something in French that meant “Now it’s mine!” and ran away. I was so shocked I just sat there for a while unable to comprehend what had happened, and meanwhile the train kept moving. It was ironic that, moments before he ran away like that, the man had said “It’s important to be Muslim” and that the inscription on my iPod had been “We Who Believe” (… in peace, freedom etc). I no longer had that iPod… was this symbolic? Of course, we live and we learn, and now I am much more careful about everything. I am glad, though, about all the things he could have taken and didn’t.

The smaller train that took me to the actual town reminded me of trains in Pakistan. I wrote as I sat in it:

“As the old train groans, grunts, screeches its way forward, I find myself amidst small villages, with cottages, woods, green fields, flowers, vines, warm sunlight. This place is removed from anything I have ever experienced before. No one here speaks English. Immediately I fall in love with the beauty of the place and this sense of newness and purity, where I can discover like a child things I have never known.”

The little town was devoid of tourists. Fortunately, though, I met another visitor and we explored the place together. He works at a designer clothing firm in Korea. He had a very good guidebook and we followed its itinerary, and saw everything from the famous church that Van Gogh painted, to his house, to his grave. The whole place felt very serene and inviting.

In fact, for a while I just wanted to live there and keep painting day and night. The documentary we saw in Van Gogh’s house explained how he would paint everyday, all the time, and that that was his life. If only I could even stay the night here, I kept thinking. I even looked for accommodation but didn’t find any rooms. I did however get the chance to go and sit by the church and sketch there.

Soon it got dark and I no longer wanted to be there anymore. This I thought was strange.


The time to leave Paris is very near now. Time rushes by, and yet I don’t want to get caught trying to do everything possible before I leave. I want to slow time down by revisiting some places I went to earlier. Today, however, I am going with a friend to the Luxembourg gardens to work on some art there.

10 July, 2008

In some hurry this morning, because I am going to the location of Vincent Van Gogh’s final days, Auvers-sur-Oise, which I believe is a village outside Paris.

Yesterday I went to visit the Centre Pompidou. I visited the temporary architecture exhibition by Dominique Perrault, and then proceeded to look at the museum’s permanent collection of modern art. The architecture was very educational, and I especially loved the vivid display of process – study models, sketches, and concept drawings – as well as in-depth explanation in both French and English.

The museum of modern art was also a great delight, and once again I found myself wishing I had more time (I spent over four hours there). The new batteries I had bought in the morning immediately ran out, which was unfortunate, but it did give me a chance to give the artwork my full attention. Today, therefore, I am not taking a camera with me at all.

Later yesterday I met with Stèphanie, who I had worked with in New York a year-and-a-half ago, and we had Coke in Paris’s most expensive district, near where she works. Gregoire, who also used to work with us, and who lives in Aix-en-Provence, is coming to Paris this week-end and we’re going to see the parade at Champs Elysée on Monday.

09 July, 2008

"I have a terrible need of - dare I say the word? -religion. Then I go out at night to paint the stars..." -Vincent van Gogh, 1888

I got to see some of my favorite paintings at the Musée d’Orsay. While they invoked a great sense of awe and admiration in me, they also made me joyful and excited because of the magical sense of connectedness I felt when I looked at them. Van Gogh’s meticulous brushstrokes, or Cezzane’s almost whimsical watercolor washes, seemed many times more impressive than what I had seen on slides and in textbooks, but they also seemed much more accessible and human. Seeing them gave me courage and real inspiration for my own artwork.

Note: Photographs from the day are on Flickr and can be viewed by clicking here.

The collection at the Orsay is brilliant, superb, magnificent, opulent... exquisite. I had not expected to find works by Art Nouveau architects Gustav Klimt, Victor Horta and Hector Guimard – people I had studied and written about just last semester at Princeton. There was also work inspired by Viollet-le-Duc.

While it was great to see familiar paintings in real life – and indeed the crowds were all gathered around the famous impressionist paintings on the top floor – what really excited me much more were the watercolors. After all, a lot of the art I am working on is going to be in watercolors and so these pieces – framed behind glass and therefore impossible to portray well in photography – were a real and practical source of inspiration. I loved the rough pencil marks, the free-flowing color, the sense of spontaneity and movement... oh, and the pastels (in particular, Degas!) of course were also superb.

I spent over four hours at the museum. I took a break half-way through and sat and watched a documentary in a small theater about the mystery in Manet’s life and works. It was in French but, surprisingly, I understood quite a lot.

After the museum, I went and walked on the Seine and then went to the Tulliere Park, where I sat in a comfortable chair facing a large, circular fountain and read my book.

08 July, 2008

After the adventures of the night before, it wasn’t surprising that I got up at 3pm yesterday. I hadn’t slept properly for a few days. I wanted to go visit the Cimetière du Père-Lachaise, where Oscar Wilde is buried, and thought sunset would be a good time for photography there. There were some problems with the Metro. We were diverted from a station and I had to take a longer route. There will big military men with dogs in the stations and even in some trains. This was the day that I had decided to take my tripod stand along and so it hung on my shoulder almost like a weapon, but they didn’t so much as even notice my tripod-stand case!

The cemetery was closed. I had arrived too late in the day.

Next I wanted to head out to the Eiffel tower and the Seine, to make use of the tripod stand that I had brought all the way. That trip proved fruitful, and you can see some pictures on Flickr by clicking the link above. However, that too was cut short because I ran out of batteries after a while.
Note: Photographs from the day are on Flickr and can be viewed by clicking here.

I had been afraid of taking the tripod stand, but I felt very comfortable, even important, for example, when old couples would stand, smile and admire my admiration of the Eiffel tower as I photographed it.

Today I want to go to the Musée d'Orsay. It is housed in the old Orsay railway station built in 1900. The museum opened in 1986 and while it showcases many forms of artistic expression, it is most famous for its impressionist paintings.

07 July, 2008

The Musée du Louvre. Grand, ostentatious, overwhelming – it was everything I had expected it to be from my last visit (which must have been 10 years ago) and of course from what I had read. I knew I couldn’t “do” the whole museum in one go and even trying that would be a big mistake.

The first thing I saw was the same old pyramids and other Egyptian ruins. You see them in the Metropolitan in New York, you see them in London… you see them in Paris. I didn’t want to linger there one moment. I don’t contest their immense beauty and significance, but I don’t like the idea of seeing Egypt when I came to see Paris. For me, seeing it here is a reminder of an oppressive, colonial world. Just like the great palace was opened to the masses and turned into a museum for all to see, maybe some day these treasures will be available to a larger audience in a more egalitarian way.

So I was interested in the paintings primarily because I wanted a comparison with the contemporary art I had seen earlier. I also knew that one needs to be a little detached and ruthless about what to see and what not to see, otherwise it can be very tiring. I spent five hours there, pretending to be an expert art critic, picking out paintings I loved, paintings I would want if I could buy them. These were paintings that spoke to me, and that I could relate to – sometimes because of the subject and plot, sometimes because of the excellent technique. I stood looking at some of them for several minutes.

In the end I was exhausted, but I was full of awe at how much great art there was under this roof.

I left and went to the Michel neighborhood, to get a sandwich. Then I went back to my room. I should mention here that earlier in the day I was looking up the locations of Le Corbusier’s architecture in Paris and found, to my amazement, that the Ozenfant studio was a two-minute walk from here. I immediately set out with great excitement (this was before I visited the Louvre). It was delightful to see it, and yet there was a disappointment. For one, there was a sign that said “Private Property” and so I didn’t dare enter. Secondly, even though the famous corner window was spectacular, that and the rest of the architecture seemed fairly common and it didn’t seem like I was looking at something significant. I suppose that is what modern architecture is going for – for Corbu, the house is a “machine for living.” Also, its significance lies in the fact that it was innovative when first built.

In the evening I discovered online an itinerary prepared by an art school that brings students to paint in Paris. It gave me some new ideas of what all I could do, but above all it made me really want to visit the Montmartre hill, and see the artist community there, as well as the Basilique du Sacré Coeur.

The sun was setting on Paris and the lights were coming on. The area is a popular tourist spot, partly due to its religious significance. It is of course popular also because it has the Moulin Rouge and a street lined with sex shops. I was almost happy to note that photography was not allowed inside the Sacré Coeur – there are things I don’t like to photograph because photography might understate the effect they have on me, and thus be dishonest. In this case it would be hard to represent the peace and serenity in the atmosphere inside.

I spent the late evening in the Marais, sitting at a bar and writing (and sketching) in my journal. People from Paris go these places and start conversations with everyone present. There are introductions and questions. They were curious about what I was writing, and it always impresses people that I can speak English. I see a growing trend that it’s cool and sophisticated to know English, which is strange. I talked with a woman who had left her job and wanted to go and work in America, because the French are “very rigid in their standards and there are few opportunities to grow.” I spoke to a man Ismael and his sister Amina, and I commented that those were Muslim names, and they said that, yes, their parents are Muslim.

I missed the last Metro at 1am and had to take a taxi back home. But before I did that I walked in the deserted streets of Paris, and it seemed like it was all mine for that moment, and I got to know it intimately.

06 July, 2008

It’s said that if you put things in words you lose them forever.

Yesterday started out with a plan to replicate last semester’s class trip to the art galleries in New York. It began with a dread that angry French curators in elite galleries would throw me out. After all I had heard a friend here exclaim once that “the French are very theatrical; they like to perform!”

The location is called Quartier Saint Germain and the main streets I visited were Rue de Seine and Rue des Beaux Arts. At the end of the latter there stands the age-old, world renowned Ecole des Beaux Arts.

I went with a Spanish friend, Amelino, who was interested in looking at art too, though he insisted he knew nothing about it. The streets were lined with little galleries, marked by flags with the art neighborhood’s graphic identity on them. It was simply spectacular. The curators were mostly extremely friendly and a lot of them allowed me to take pictures.

Of the ones I wasn’t allowed to photograph I especially liked the artist Miguel Macaya, who painted, for instance, a running dog in oils in a style where you couldn’t tell if it was realistic or abstract, and yet there was a powerful impression that it was moving at a high speed. Or the dog was frozen in mid air and the viewer was moving very fast.

Until late afternoon we looked at them, and it made me very happy. My friend kept getting annoyed at the abstract paintings and complained about how it was not honest. I tried to explain that they take reality to a whole new level and indulge in a process of real creation. Looking at art in these small galleries gave me a strange sense of elation.

We went to a gallery where the two artists were actually present – a Bangladeshi and a Palestinian – and they talked with us about where we all came from, about their work, and about the end-of-year exhibition of the students of the Ecole des Beaux Arts that was on display further down the road.

At the exhibition, once again, there was work that was fresh and contemporary, beautiful but not too daring – alas, it’s Beaux Arts, the stuff Le Corbusier and the modernists reacted to. However, I suppose I am really not qualified to judge it like this. Overall, by the time we exited that gallery, I almost felt intoxicated, but also very tired and hungry.

So we saw the outside of the Louvre, my destination for today (definitely, maybe?) and then walked to the “student” neighborhood, Quartier Saint Michel, to get food that wasn’t 50 Euros.

Next we went to the Notre Dame, but did not go up just then, because there was a long line. I’ll add it to my now shorter list of things to do. I made it short because I don’t want it to be merely a checklist that I am ticking off (like a tourist). Instead I really want to do justice to the places I go to. I want to get to know and understand them, so when I draw them they will be familiar. The other things I have on my list now are some large museums, like the Louvre and Musèe d’Orsay, the gardens of Van Gogh, and maybe a visit to a Le Corbusier house outside of Paris. I also want to revisit a few locations I’ve been to, hopefully using the boat as a form of transport over the Seine.

So anyway, after the Notre Dame we went to the Centre Pompidou. On the way we saw a temporary park with very comfortable chairs. They were all taken so they must be comfortable. After an overdose of baroque, the architecture of the Centre Pompidou seemed either like heresy, or like a breath of fresh air. It was affirmed what I said earlier about Paris having a sort of balance that is maintained by points and counterpoints which anchor it in place with great harmony.

It was late and the exhibitions would soon close for the day, so we didn’t go in. We went and sat on the esplanade, which sloped toward the building, and it seemed like an amphitheatre. Everyone was on display but especially the building was on display.