Paris, who are you?
Baudelaire wrote of Eugène Delacroix that he was passionately in love with passion, but coldly determined to express passion as clearly as possible. I thought of this as I visited the Musée National Eugène Delacroix in the artist’s old apartment on the rue de Fürstenberg. For me, Paris has always stirred many passions.
Delacroix’s well-known painting of Liberty Leading the People captures the ideological ferment that has always been part of Paris in a single brilliant scene. The figure of Liberty is symbolic, yet she seems to fit naturally into the crowd, striding right out of the picture at the viewer.
The fighters surrounding her represent the whole range of social classes, from the young bourgeois in his top hat to the masses of poor people. The young boy with pistols is said to have inspired the character of Gavroche in Les Misérables, which made such a strong impression on me as a child.
The scene commemorates the Revolution of 1830, but could apply just as well to many episodes in the long struggle toward democracy in France.
The painting was at first kept out of public view by the French government, which considered it too inflammatory. Only after the revolution of 1848 was it finally put on display by the new ruler, Napoleon III. Today, it resides in the Louvre and is seen by millions of visitors.
In my imagination, Paris is dark and black just like scenes from Les Misérables, the 19th century Paris with black cobblestone streets, men walking in their black hats, a shabby Paris. I remember the tears running down my face when I was eight years old, reading the story.
Then came the Paris of the Steins, Leo and Gertrude, buzzing with the new ideas of Modernism and the art of Picasso, Matisse, Cézanne, and so many others. The walls of their apartment on the rue de Fleurus are crowded with paintings. The air is thick with the excitement of innovation and discovery.
Paris, who are you? A shabby Paris? An avant-garde Paris? A Ritzy Paris? Drinks at the bar at Plaza Athénée have lights in them. Paris, who are you? The Paris of the cafés? La Palette, so close to the Ecole Nationale des Beaux-Arts, is the café where Ceézanne and Braque drank. Now Lonely Planet ranks it number 1267 of 1466 things to do in Paris.
Paris, who are you? Under the Pont Neuf bridge, on a gorgeous night with the Seine and the lights just like a Vermeer painting, a man sleeps in his bag but he is made of flesh and blood. Hollande vs. Sarkozy, what will be the outcome of the elections? I think that the man will still sleep there in any case.
Delacroix’s passion was stirred by the struggle between the old and the new, and his own art was revolutionary in its technique. The same artistic struggle was carried forward by the Modernists whose work the Steins encouraged so effectively. When I am in Paris today, I still feel the conflict between the old and new. The energy that comes from it is what I love about this city.All images © Chez Mana