Of Mother and Child

In light of Mother’s Day recently, I’m revisiting artwork of mothers and children. This relationship is on my mind a lot as a new mom myself, but also because I was gifted this wonderful book of poems for Mother’s Day from a close friend:

Written by Vicki Rivard, the poems land like small, soothing balms to cracked hands. They are sometimes shockingly short. I kept nodding along to the words. Yes, THIS! This is what I need to hear! This is exactly how I feel too! Here’s one example:

the baby rocks the mother too.
her whole world,
in fact.

– epicenter (from Brave New Mama by Vicki Rivard)

I think of this poem when I look at Berthe Morisot’s painting Le Berceau (The Cradle).

Berthe Morisot, Le Berceau, 1872, oil on canvas. Musée d’Orsay.

This is my own picture of the painting from the Musée d’Orsay in Paris. I’m trying to remember what I liked about it enough to snap this photo back before I knew what this earth-shaking experience was like. Maybe because I could recognize a sacred moment: the sleeping babe and the mother who has eyes for nothing else but her child. She is enraptured with this creature, but now I wonder if there is perhaps doubt and fear and anxiety there too. What mother doesn’t cycle through all the emotions?

Mother and child are each other’s worlds. Enmeshed. Interconnected. Morisot shows this by having the mother (Morisot’s sister) and baby make the same gesture with one of their hands: rest it by their face. This creates a diagonal line between mother and child. As the Musée d’Orsay describes in the link above, the diagonal line is further emphasized by the angle of the curtain in the background. In her other hand, the mother holds the bassinet’s veil, putting a screen between the viewer and her child. I love this subtle but powerful gesture. It says everybody out; I’ve got a baby to learn.

Another mother/child Impressionist painting that been a long-time favourite is Coquelicots (Poppy Field) by Claude Monet. This painting is also found in the Musée d’Orsay and like The Cradle, it has a strong diagonal composition. The diagonal runs between the mother and child pairing in the background to the one in the foreground. They are the same mother and child, Monet’s own wife Camille and their son Jean.

Claude Monet, Poppy Field, 1873, oil on canvas. Musée d’Orsay.

I’ve always thought it was a bold move to portray the passage of time not through changing scenery but through human movement. Mother and son enjoy a leisurely walk through a poppy field, starting on the crest of a hill. By the time they reach the base, the mother has opened her parasol and her son has picked a bouquet. The viewer’s brain fills the space and time in between, imagining their stroll: boy running ahead a bit, stopping every so often to pick the poppies; Mother getting warm, relishing her son’s delight with the flowers, how they are almost as tall as he is, how he has grown so quickly. Wasn’t he just a baby? Oh what they say is true, I know now: the days are long, the years are short.

It’s impossible to think about mother and child paintings without at least one of the Virgin and Christ Child coming to mind. I saw more of them than I ever wanted to in The Louvre, many with golden halos and unrealistic faces. But that’s not the case with The Virgin and Child drawing by Raphael that I visited in the British Museum last spring.

Raphael, The Virgin and Child, 1510-12. The British Museum. (this is a postcard from the gift shop)

I marvel at Jesus’ fleshy plumpness and think good job, Mary! And good job Raphael—you made him look human. Jesus’ stance is so babylike, leaning in to his mother, his safe place, unlike many Virgin and Child paintings that make Jesus look like a grown man—stiff, formal, and wise beyond his years. Here, he looks like a regular baby. But of course he’s not just a regular baby. Mary cradles him but her eyes betray that they are somewhere else, perhaps thinking about the future and what makes her son different.

The curator of the British Museum writes:

The slight turn of the Virgin’s head away from her child and her lowered eyes eloquently convey a sense of the burden she has to endure, her thoughts clouded, even in moments of such intimacy, by the knowledge of her son’s fate. Such telling details give the composition a psychological depth not found in the quattrocento sculptural models on which it is based.

– British Museum website

Back to Impressionist depictions of mothers and children, I turn now to an American, Mary Cassatt, who has a painting that rifts off Renaissance depictions of the Madonna and Christ, such as the one above.

Mary Cassatt, Mother and Child (The Oval Mirror), 1899. The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

This painting, titled Mother and Child (The Oval Mirror) is at The Met in New York. The curator writes:

Here, Cassatt underscored the importance of the maternal bond by evoking religious art. The woman’s adoring look and the boy’s sweet face and contrapposto stance suggest Italian Renaissance images of the Virgin and Child, a connection reinforced by the oval mirror that frames the boy’s head like a halo. 

The Met website

The contrapposto stance originated with the Greeks but is famously depicted in Michelangelo’s David. Contrapposto means “opposite” and refers to the way one leg carries most of the weight, while the other is bent.

Michelangelo, David, 1501-04. Accademia Gallery.

Unlike Raphael’s drawing, Cassatt shows an older son looking away, while the mother’s gaze is fixed on her child. While Cassatt’s painting lacks the psychological depth that Raphael’s and Morisot’s have, I appreciate that Cassatt elevated the mother/child relationship, recognizing that these tender, ordinary interactions are important and worthy of being immortalized on canvas.

In a similar way, I am doing this (or attempting to) with my writing. Being a mother has given me a new range of experiences to process through words. I wrote one such poem called “they say you will teach me more than I will ever teach you” when I was pregnant and had the pleasure of finding out this past week that it was the runner-up for a poetry contest put on by Pulp Literature. I look forward to sharing it with my daughter when she is old enough to understand.

You can hear me read the poem on the video below—the announcement of being runner-up comes at 23:54 and my reading at 42:26.

The Look of Light

Before I move on to other cities from our trip, I remember I had written prior to visiting Paris that Adam Gopnik’s memoir Paris to the Moon “makes me want to pause long enough to notice the light.”

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Sunrise on the morning commute

Apart from the day after we arrived when jet lag didn’t wake us until 1:30pm (!), our days were full of walking different neighbourhoods; visiting art galleries, historic sites, and monuments; eating baguettes, macarons, galettes, crêpes; ordering a café crème and deciding I DID like coffee as long as there was sugar in it; taking pictures of colourful doors and narrow streets, returning to our Airbnb exhausted in the best kind of way.

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A former train station, Musée d’Orsay is filled with Impressionist paintings. Our favourite museum in Paris.

As much as I could on a first trip to Paris, I tried to pause, to really look around me, to appreciate the ordinary along with the extraordinary, the juxtaposition of old and new, sacred and secular, to follow my favourite Impressionist painters in looking for the light. Here are some of those moments.

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Strolling through Luxembourg Gardens with a view of the Pantheon

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Couples dance to live music in Montmartre. This scene for me captured Paris at its most romantic.

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The love lock bridge is gone but that doesn’t stop people from decorating the posts of Le Post des Arts.

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I could care less about the Forum shopping mall but the ceiling fascinated me.

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The enchanting Notre Dame

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Classic V-shaped building and wide boulevards from the Haussmann era of Paris’s city planning

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This boy stopped so I could get a picture of the door but I like it better with him in it.

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The light on this galette (like a crêpe but made with buckwheat flour) makes it look even more divine! One of the best things I ate.

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Dinosaur meets Eiffel Tower

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Backside of Basilica du Sacré-Coeur. Did you know it has a pig gargoyle?

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Hotel de Sully in the fashionable Marais district

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The golden hour hitting the extravagant Palais Garnier (opera house)

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I have a thing for red doors, and architecture that melds in interesting ways.

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A decadent visit to Ladurée on Les Champs-Élysées

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If this is what Sainte Chapelle looked like on a grey day, imagine if the sun was streaming through all that stained glass.

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The view from L’Arc de Triomphe is magnificent in all directions.

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La Madeleine meets Calvin Klein. Unfortunately this kind of juxtaposition was a common sight.

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Moonlight over the Louvre. Bonne nuit, Paris.

Literary Paris

Before I travel somewhere, I tend to immerse myself in literature about the place. It’s part of my pre-trip research. And I’m not talking Rick Steves or Lonely Planet (though I did my fair share of reading those too). I’m talking about fiction and memoir.

My pre-Paris reading included Paris to the Moon by Adam Gopnik, A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway, We’ll Always Have Paris by Jennifer Coburn, and The Paris Wife by Paula McLain.

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Taking my first picture

Pieces of these books returned to me on our one-week stay in Paris last fall. Upon emerging from the metro at St-Germain-des-Prés, the first thing I take a picture of (after pinching myself that that is all real) is the café Les Deux Magots made famous by literary and intellectual patrons such as Ernest Hemingway, Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Albert Camus, and James Joyce, to name a few.

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While we didn’t eat at Les Deux Magots, we did have breakfast at the neighbouring rival Café de Flore one morning, which boasted an equally impressive clientele. In “A Tale of Two Cafés,” a chapter in Paris to the Moon, Adam Gopnik muses on why the Flore has become more popular among Parisians since the late 1990s. We wanted to experience this legendary ambience but it came at a high price. And while sitting on the terrace watching a morning unfold was lovely, the slow and snobby service left a bad taste in our mouths, even though we expected it to a certain extent given we are tourists with obvious English accents and backpacks. Next time I would just go for their hot chocolate which is apparently a must-have.

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Ernest Hemingway cropped up again in The Latin Quarter. We visited his former apartment at 74 rue du Cardinal Lemoine and ate our last dinner in Paris overlooking Place de la Contrescarpe, a square he mentions several times in his memoir. We also tracked down Gertrude Stein’s apartment at 27 rue de Fleurus.

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Ernest Hemingway’s apartment

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Gertrude Stein’s apartment

Plaques indicating where famous people were born, lived, died, or did something remarkable are commonplace. I loved walking down seemingly “normal” streets (which really don’t exist in Paris), only to discover a plaque with a very famous name on it. Even on the tiny rue Visconti, the site of our Airbnb, playwright Jean Racine died and author Honoré de Balzac established his printing house. Tons of surprises like this awaited us upon arrival and added joy to our wanderings.

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“Home” for the week was down this charming, narrow street

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Keeping company with Balzac’s printing house

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Where Voltaire died

Other sites we planned for, like the apartment in Montmartre where Vincent Van Gogh stayed when he lived in Paris at 54 rue Lepic. It was his brother Theo’s. A pair of dried sunflowers hang from the third floor shutters, marking the spot. (As an aside, “0” is our first floor and their 1st is our 2nd floor, etc). In Amsterdam, the last city we visited on our one-month European trip, I bought Vincent’s letters to his brother Theo and that was a perfect way of coming full circle from our beginning in Paris.

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Can you spot the sunflowers? (three floors up from the blue door)

And of course no talk about literary Paris would be complete without mentioning Shakespeare and Company, an English-language bookstore you can get lost in in its own right, cozying up with a book on a couch next to its resident cat, reading the inspiring quotes on the walls and stairwells, breathing in the smell of old paper, playing the worn piano (though not after 8pm), chatting with fellow bibliophiles, and feeling like you are in literary heaven.

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On Emerging from a Station of the Metro

We arrive like children on the first day of school
Backpacks bigger than our bodies.

Overeager smiles, no sleep the night before
Pointing at everything.

That church! That café! That door!
Everything so old it’s new.

The city moves faster than our fingers
We learn to get out of the way.

I try out the language like I cross the street—
Quick prayer for minimal damage.

When people are kind
The lights along the Seine double their glow.

You eat a baguette as you walk
Because you can do anything!

Paris is the girl who brings the best lunch to school
The rest of us hoping she’ll share.

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In Monet’s Secret Garden Part 1

He’s arguably the best known painter in the world. His scenes of nature and Parisian life grace calendars, purses, notebooks, umbrellas, teapots, and even socks (check the VAG gift shop).

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Of course I’m talking about Claude Monet (1840-1926), the French Impressionist painter who influenced the course of modern art with his unconventional techniques. He painted outside (which wasn’t done at the time), and his quick, loose brushwork aimed to capture an impression of something, not the thing itself (hence the label Impressionist, which was first used by critics in a derogatory sense).

The Vancouver Art Gallery is currently showing 38 of Monet’s works from the Musée Marmottan in Paris. In an interview with the CBC, the exhibition’s curator Marianne Matthieu says:

[Guests] have to visit this exhibition as if they were an invited guest of Monet. All the paintings have been selected personally by Monet [while he was alive] to describe his career, his life.

I visited the VAG last Tuesday evening (when admission is by donation) along with everyone else in Vancouver, so it seemed.

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The exhibit takes you chronologically through Monet’s work, beginning with some scenes with figures in them before the majority focuses all on nature.

I liked knowing Monet picked these works out himself. It made me wonder, Why this one? What did he like about it? What did he achieve with this one?

I enjoyed seeing paintings of his I had never come across in other galleries or books:

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Claude Monet, Le chatêau de Dolceacqua, 1884, Musée Marmottan Monet, Paris

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Claude Monet, Vétheuil in the Fog, 1879, Musée Marmottan Monet, Paris

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The picture does not do this piece justice.

Monet painted the same scene many times, in different seasons and different times of the day to study the effect of light on a subject. Light was his subject.

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Claude Monet, La Seine à Port-Villez, effet rose, 1894, oil on canvas, Musée Marmottan Monet, Paris

The two below were the only figurative works included. You can see the loose Impressionist style best by looking at the undefined faces. And the little boy practically blends in with the flowers.

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Claude Monet, En promenade près d’Argenteuil, 1875, oil on canvas, Musée Marmottan Monet, Paris

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Claude Monet, Sur la plage de Trouville, 1870–71, oil on canvas, Musée Marmottan Monet, Paris

The didactic panel for the image above talks about how sand was lodged in some of Monet’s canvasses because he painted these beach scenes outside. Talk about the nitty gritty.

I had assumed there would be more water lily paintings given the title is Secret Garden and Monet’s gardens in Giverny are synonymous with his grand, rectangular water lily paintings. This was the most “quintessential” one shown at the VAG, with the characteristic pastel blues, pinks, and purples:

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Claude Monet, Nymphéas, 1903, oil on canvas, Musée Marmottan Monet, Paris

There were also these two beautiful wisteria panels hung to mimic the oval rooms at Musée de L’Orangerie where Monet’s famous water lilies live.

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But there were other paintings that were darker and challenged what I thought I knew about the painter.

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Monet devoted the last two decades of his life to painting and cultivating his gardens in Giverny, a work of art in themselves. After touring the exhibition, I was surprised Monet chose so many of these works to depict his career  when he has hundreds of others to choose from. But perhaps these works came closest to communicating his artistic vision?

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Claude Monet, Le Pont japonais, 1918-24, oil on canvas, Musée Marmottan Monet, Paris

In 1902, Monet was diagnosed with cataracts in both eyes, and his works during his later years became increasingly abstract and darker. Notice also how much of the blank canvas he lets show through. The curator’s remarks accompanying this room below suggest the anguish and grief of WWI seeped into Monet’s canvasses, particularly his weeping willow series.

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Claude Monet, Saule pleureur, 1918-19, oil on canvas, Musée Marmottan Monet, Paris

After all this heaviness and twisty contortions, Monet’s very last work closes the exhibition, returning to the light and soft palette that infused his earlier work (albeit looking unfinished). I thought it was a perfect farewell.

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Claude Monet, Les Roses, 1925-26, oil on canvas, Musée Marmottan Monet, Paris

Seeing these works has only increased my anticipation of setting foot in Monet’s gardens this fall and immersing myself in his inspiration.

I highly recommend you take in this exhibit at the VAG before it closes October 1!

Paris to the Moon

When a friend found out about our first trip to Paris this fall, she said, “You must read Adam Gopnik’s Paris to the Moon.”

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Considering I love the French language (I requested a Collins French dictionary for my 14th birthday) and reading about their culture, I was surprised I hadn’t heard of this collection of essays on Paris. I had read Hemingway’s memoir but not Adam Gopnik‘s, a staff writer for The New York Times who lived in the French capital from 1995-2000 with his wife Martha and their newborn son Luke.

It was a very serendipitous read. Many months before knowing about the book, The Artist and I had booked our accommodation on the Left Bank in the Saint-Germain-des-Prés area of the 6th arrondissement. We/I chose it because of its artsy and intellectual heritage. This district had a vibrant café culture in the 20th century where Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, and the like would think their thoughts, exchange their thoughts, and write their thoughts.

I wanted to feel a part of that, even if the area is more glam than bohemian now.

Guess where Gopnik and his wife lived during their time there? Saint-Germain-des-Prés, literally just a few blocks from where we’re staying! I basically read this book with a map in my other hand so I could follow his daily visit to the butcher and baker, his favourite walk pushing the stroller across Pont des Arts, his run around Luxembourg Gardens (using the busts of Delacroix as his reference point) and his route to fulfill un café crème or bûches de Noël craving at Gérard Mulot or Ladurée.

After reading so much guidebook-type information on Paris, it was refreshing to vicariously live “ordinary” Paris. When Gopnik mentions iconic landmarks like the Eiffel Tower, he talks about it in the context of something unexpected, like a news story that involved a clash between an American tourist and a French elevator operator. He uses this story as a springboard to philosophize on a key difference between the two cultures (absolute professionalism versus absolute tourism). I’ll leave it to you to guess what ideal goes with what culture.

I love how Gopnik can take the simplest things—for example, an error message on his fax machine (erreur distante)—and find a parallelism with French intellectuals and politicians who flash the same message “whenever they run out of paper or ink or arguments.”

But it is his reflections that come out of raising his son in a new place that stay with me the most (and provided some chuckles).

He swam, I realized, exactly the way that after five years I spoke French, which also involved a lot of clinging to the side of the pool and sudden bravura dashes out to the deep end to impress the girls, or listeners.

Midway through the book, Gopnik confesses the real reason he and Martha packed up their New York life and moved to Paris was to avoid raising their son with Barney and all that that inane purple dinosaur represents in American culture.

‘We want him to grow up someplace where everything he sees is beautiful’ we said, and though we realized that the moment our backs were turned our friends’ eyes were rolling, we didn’t care. We knew that our attempt to insist on a particular set of pleasures for our kid—to impose a childhood on our child—might be silly or inappropriate or even doomed. We couldn’t help it, entirely. The romance of your child’s childhood may be the last romance you can give up.

(spoiler alert: life doesn’t turn out the way you plan, leading to some hilarious moments in the “Barney in Paris” chapter).

Perhaps I enjoyed this book so much because I share the author’s romantic inclinations and could picture myself writing a book like this, my own Paris to the moon adventures while sitting in a garden or café. While we’re only there a week and I have a tendency to sightsee ambitiously, this book makes me want to pause long enough to notice the light.

We love Paris not out of ‘nostalgia’ but because we love the look of light on things, as opposed to the look of light from things, the world reduced to images radiating from screens. Paris was the site of the most beautiful commonplace civilization there has ever been: cafés, brasseries, parks, lemons on trays, dappled light on bourgeois boulevards, department stores with skylights, and windows like doors everywhere you look . . . I see the moon these days from Paris because I once saw Paris from the moon.