My arrival in Paris in mid-September was less than romantic as I discovered that my backpack did not arrive with me and I was not dressed for the unusually warm weather there. However, my new friend Mallory joined me that first night as we headed out to explore a bit of Paris before the light said, "au revoir" and we enjoyed a late dinner.
Vermont painter Mallory Lake and I met in May in Decatur, Illinois, as we both shyly recognized kindred spirits at the exhibit for French painter Eugène Carrière that we had both traveled far to see. We have since decided that we are official Carrière groupies after having recently added Paris, France, and Bremen, Germany, to the places we have gone to see in person works by this great artist.
Our first full day together in Paris was spent visiting the Rodin Museum, the Roché House of Pastel boutique (open for only a few hours one day a week), and
then the Musée d'Orsay.
The Musée Rodin in Paris was extraordinary because of its collection of the work of one artist's vision in a beautiful, wooded park in a large city. I saw many creations that I had never known existed before.
I found myself intrigued by the drawings and the more unfinished works that gave evidence of the artist's process. I practiced my very limited French as I read - and later asked an attendant - about one drawing that
Rodin purposely signed and displayed upside down because he felt that orientation showed more emotion in the line.
Below you will see an image of Mallory and me inside the museum, as well as one of my self-portraits as I photographed one of my favorite sculptures of Auguste Rodin's, adding the back view of "The Hand of God" in the mirror.
Paris - Musée Rodin:
I was intrigued and charmed by these French elementary school children here at the museum who were getting a lesson in how art is an expression of humanity. Part of why I came to Europe was to immerse myself in a culture that not only accepted the human form as part of our existence, but also engaged their children in the ideas behind the art instead of just discussing the visuals presented in a work. None of these children were taught shame while discussing a male nude sculpture and even imitating the figure's pose.
The image on the right is a detail shot of Rodin's Le Sommeil (vers 1890-1894). It shows how the sculptor added clay, wax, and even newsprint to a plasterwork to refine the form and add his famous texture to various places in the portrait. Also visible are the dots marked on the original that are used in the duplication process to recreate this end form into another material.
All I know about pastels is that I love to look at them with their juicy colors and textures. But Mallory had the scoop on our next stop. To the right you will see the very unassuming entrance to La Maison du Pastel boutique of H. Roché Pastels. (The door is there on the left between multiple small windows.) La Maison is only open every Thursday afternoon from 2 - 6 p.m. You will find this place - if you persevere - at 20, rue Rambuteau in central Paris. The shop is located inside a courtyard that also houses a laundromat
Once inside, we immediately met Isabelle Roché, who is obviously quietly passionate about her inherited career creating pastels for artists worldwide. She told us that because her father is a chemist, her branch of the family was chosen as a likely candidate for carrying on the family's secret formulas for this cherished art material. Isabelle took over from her aunts, granddaughters of Henri Roché, a chemist who, in the 1870s, gradually turned the historic art supply business from the 1720s into a solely pastel manufacturing company.
Henri (and later his son, Dr. Henri Roché) both greatly expanded the range of available pastel colors, of which Mallory and I only had time to see a fractional sampling. You can read more of the history of this interesting company that survived a German occupation during World War II online at
La Maison du Pastel - Roché Pastels:
Pictured above are only a few of the many original wooden trays of handmade pastels, neatly organized by color families. Also, you see Isabelle herself showing us some of her subtly different creations. Both of us completely understood when Isabelle explained that her laboratory location is kept private so that she may immerse herself completely in her work for most of the days of the week. Every element of the historic Roché logo is full of symbols related to alchemy and creativity. Mallory tested and selected several rich colors and I cannot wait to see what she creates with them!
Next Stop: the Musée d'Orsay, the famous beautifully renovated train station. Naturally as a sculptor, I have studied the works of Auguste Rodin. After seeing this exhibit of Rodin with the French painter Eugène Carrière, I am surprised that I did not find Carrière by way of Rodin. It turns out that the two were such great friends that after the painter's death, Rodin asked the family if he could have a death mask made of his contemporary's face and hands. Rodin also began the Society of Friends of Eugène Carrière, although it vanished around the time of World War II, only to resurface with the enthusiasm of Sylvie LeGratiet, the current president, and the family of this incredible painter and man.
Pairing these two artists in one exhibit was brilliant, as one sees the influences that each distinctive voice had on the other. The two images of the face and hand in marble are of Rodin's work, while the paintings are Carrière's.
I am not often a fan of mother and child subjects (especially what I see being created today), but when it is done on a level that surpasses sentiment and becomes something more intelligent, I find myself swept away.
The other exhibit that I came to Paris to see was Sylvie's vision. She and her husband Cristian invited us down to Gournay Sur Marne, Carrière's birthplace, for a special exhibit of this artist's drawings. How intimate and absolutely charming an experience this was! And the people here were so very friendly. I wish I had been able to stay in France a bit longer.
But I soon took the night train northeast to Bremen, Germany, to see the Carrière exhibit at the Kunsthalle Museum. Like the exhibit in Decatur, Illinois, US, this show was primarily the collection of a private individual. And what a collection and very well displayed!
I must say that I loved Bremen. I do tend to feel more at home in smaller towns than the large cities. Bremen's people were kind, the parks filled with sculptures, and stone-lined streets were everywhere in the old part of town. Everything was very walk-able, too, although I noticed many more people traveled by bicycle. When I mentioned my joy at seeing bronzes of nude figures in the parks, the woman at the Gasthaus hostel, where I stayed, agreed with my observation of the American public's opinion on nudity. Apparently Americans are the only travelers who complain about their communal showers.
Anyway, I made two small sketches after Eugène Carrière's works, one from the Gournay Sur Marne exhibit near Paris, the other from the Bremen exhibit. I hope you enjoy them.
I am living in Italy now. This November 4th marks the 40th anniversary of the devastating flood of the famous Arno River in Florence (Firenze). You can see various sized markers of water levels achieved that day all over town if you look up once in a while. It is difficult to comprehend how the water could have risen that high - and in such a short period of time. In its current special edition, "The Florentine" newspaper describes events as they unfolded during the night of the 3rd of November and early morning of the 4th. Tuscany had received a non-stop 50 centimeters of rain in 48 hours. In less than 24 hours, the Arno basin had received more than a quarter of its annual rainfall. From San Piero to Pontessieve to Empoli and Pisa, the waters tore through the Tuscan countryside at almost 40 miles per hour.
And the famous Ponte Vecchio, like the other Arno bridges in Florence, was underwater and impassable by 7:30 a.m., separating the city.
Florence's tall buildings and narrow streets served as a funnel for rising and rushing water. The force became so great that air was compressed into basements, causing them to explode under the pressure. Water was coming up out of the sewers; oil tanks stored in homes for heating spilled out into the floodwaters. Afterwards it was estimated that 500,000 tons of mud had been dumped into Florence. It took over two days for most of the waters to recede and reveal the extent of the damage.
Still, most people were unaware of the impending disaster as they moved from All Saints and All Souls Day into the Armed Forces Day on November 4. Those that were not away on holiday awoke to an often too-slow realization of what was happening to their homes and businesses. Florence is famous for her artisans, such as gold and silversmiths, leather workers (shoes and jackets are a staple here), weavers, silk and linen embroiders, mosaic artists, weavers, bookbinders, and printers. So much was lost in the flood of 1966.
Almost immediately the world came running to Florence's aid. The Italians named these volunteers 'gli angeli del fango' (literally 'the angels of the mud'). People came from other parts of Italy and far beyond bringing food, medical supplies, and blankets. Many of these Mud Angels also helped begin the restoration of damaged books and artworks. Temporary repair centers were set up at Forte Belvedere and other locations to clean and disinfect the 3 to 4 millions of soaked books. Volunteers came up with symbols to determine the extent of damage to each book, since many people did not share the same language.
Although the raging waters never reached the second floor of the famous Uffizi, where the main galleries are, more than 1,000 paintings, sculptures, and frescoes were damaged in the storerooms in the lower levels. Santa Croce and the Biblioteca Nazionale (National Library), as well as the Brancacci Chapel and other important historical locations filled with books and art were left defenseless. Down by Filippo Brunelleschi's Duomo (the well-earned pride of Florentines), five panels of Lorenzo Ghiberti's famous "Gates of Paradise" bas relief on the door of the nearby Baptistery were ripped from their frames.
Florence was already familiar with restoration techniques, having been the center and caretaker of Renaissance culture for centuries, but this event challenged Florentines. The Pitti Palace and Bargello Museum were only two of the locations used to coordinate the rescue and restoration of many of Florence's art treasures. Corrosive oils, calcites, and phosphates in the floodwaters proved as damaging as moisture. Black oil stained marble sculptures and chemicals, water, and mold created serious problems for wooden panels supporting paintings and the porous stone walls that were behind many frescoes. The sheer variety of artwork - in material and styles - proved a restoration nightmare. "The Florentine" pointed out that today - 40 years later - many of the less famous artworks have yet to be restored.
So, I must stop writing now so that I may explore more of this intriguing city and partake in its many events remembering this great flood. Thanksgiving (for Americans anyway) is right around the corner.
Florence Mud Angels:
This newsletter is dedicated to my friend Michelle McKay Otto (1977-2006). I met Michelle only twice, but was impressed with her ability to tell a story in her black & white photographs I had seen at the Bastrop Gallery in central Texas.
Michelle was a paramedic who also specialized in wedding photography. Michelle was very generous of heart. I miss her enthusiasm and was saddened to hear of her death in a car accident recently. To read a dedication to her, please
click here. Also, Michelle's own Web site showing her photographic images will be kept online as long as her mother is able to do so.
Please visit it here: www.chelmckay.com
In closing, thank you for your continued interest. I enjoy your feedback and friendship.
MICHELLE MCKAY OTTO:
Thank you for reading.
4 November 2006, updated 25 December 2006
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