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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Entertain Me?

I’ve heard art described as many things, but never as a game. Glenn Brown’s lecture at Emily Carr last Thursday night changed that.

Emily Carr University of Art & Design

He chooses titles that play games, that aren’t clear at first. The visual elements in his paintings play games too. He purposefully chooses colours that don’t match (like reds and greens) because “visual clashes animate a painting. They create an exciting game.”

Spearmint Rhino by Glenn Brown

When asked about his heavy use of religious symbols, he openly concedes his indebtedness to religion and how it has influenced the history of painting, but, in the end, “religion is just an interesting game played by society.”

Later in the talk, Brown said a good painting makes your eyes play ping pong, causing them to bounce from one corner of the canvas to another. You can see this in A Sailor’s Life, an upside-down and distorted version of Van Gogh’s Marguerite Gachet at the Piano. Brown’s version has a random black dot near the tip of the hands for no other reason than to draw the eye and deflect it.

A Sailor’s Life, like War in Peace and the majority of Brown’s paintings, have objects “lost in space and time–a state I like my paintings to be in,” he says.

War in Peace by Glenn Brown

Brown is a British painter who does reproductions, meaning he takes other people’s work and manipulates it in some way. I immediately thought of the quote about how good artists copy and great artists steal other people’s work, and he even mentioned it during his talk. “That statement is obviously something I’ve taken to heart.” The audience laughed.

After showing a bunch of paintings done in green, he said, “I once heard green paintings are the least popular to buy. So I started making a bunch of green paintings. I always wanted to do the opposite of what was popular.”

Star Dust by Glenn Brown

This desire to be different permeates Brown’s work. He’s also done sculpture, and what are you not supposed to make sculptures out of, he asks? “Paint. So what do I make my sculptures out of? Paint.”

Woman by Glenn Brown

This mindset explains why he paints old men instead of young female nudes, and why, when he began painting in the 1980s, he did the opposite of what was popular at the time, which was expressionism. His work hangs in the balance between figurative and non-figurative, female and male, beauty and the grotesque (but mostly grotesque).

Brown loves the idea of tension (the glorious and grotesque; beauty & decay; visual tension, clash of different centuries and sensibilities, etc) and I can’t help thinking about how his own work embodies it. Painting upon painting depicts his credit towards the art that’s come before him (much “high art” from his time working in the Tate Gallery in London, but also “low art” from sci fi illustrators), and so he says of his work, “This is my way of saying I can’t have an original thought. None of us are really individuals.” He brings this up in the context of poststructuralism. And yet he wants to do something different than other artists. He himself alluded to this tension during the question and answer period, and I appreciated his thoughtful reflections on why he does what he does.

There is often so much mystique about artists’ creative processes and what they want to say, but Brown was candid about how and why he creates. He manipulates images on Photoshop first before sketching them out and painting, and he even showed us some of these preliminary images. This honesty extended to his articulation of what he wants his work to do: to make people look at paintings; to make people interested in art (his approach to doing this is to make people feel a bit awkward and unsettled). His role as artist is to provide entertainment, which he says shouldn’t be such a dirty word in our society.

Zombies of the Stratosphere by Glenn Brown

His photorealistic surfaces and their ‘lost in time and space’ look are not that far from sci fi or fantasy novels, which also entertain us by helping us escape. And yet other paintings of his are very “this-worldly,” depicting everyday objects in a state of decay. He “just wanted to remind everybody of that,” he says when he showed us Burlesque. Although Brown is not concerned with beauty, he did let slip a couple times about objects being “beautiful in their decay.”

Burlesque by Glenn Brown

Although Brown’s paintings are interesting to look at, I’m not sure the idea of art as a game is ultimately that winsome for me. I think that would get old fast. I want art to do more than move my eyes in a visual game of ping pong. I want it to move me. Body, mind, and soul. To connect the visible with the invisible.

Brown wants to make people to look at art in whatever way they will notice it because “these paintings don’t exist until someone sees them.” This was a really fascinating comment. He’s not one of those painters who paint just for themselves and don’t care what anybody else thinks (if that’s even possible). He frequently discusses his ideas and sketches with others before launching full-speed into a project, and he credits his time at Goldsmith College in London for helping him see art as a collaborative process.

Art needs an audience. What will it say if it has no one to say it to? Even if the picture makes you escape, makes you cringe, makes you feel awkward or makes you feel death, Brown’s work has something to say about being human and being in tension. So . . . entertain me? Move me? Or both?

Leave: of Absence

If any of you are in the Vancouver area from now until Feb 16, I highly recommend seeing this play:

Leave of Absence posterIt’s at Pacific Theatre in the basement of Holy Trinity Church on W 13 and Hemlock:

Pacific Theatre in Vancouver

By Vancouver playwright Lucia Frangione, the synopsis reads:

A community is blown apart when an audacious young girl challenges long-held views of spirituality and sexuality. The world premiere of a searing drama of bigotry and transcendence by the author of Espresso.

In the play, four adults wrestle with their beliefs, their contradictions, their prejudices, their hurt, their anger, their doubt, and their questions in response to a 15-year-old girl and what is going on in her world. A theme linking their reactions is absence (hence the title). They all embody this word in their own ways and extents: an absent priest, an absent teacher, an absent mother, and an absent father.

What does absence look like?

Van Gogh, Pair of Shoes, 1886

For me, there was no clearer picture than the sight of these shoes.

Empty.

Left-behind.

Holes.

A scene in the play involving a pair of shoes brought this van Gogh painting so vividly to mind.

When I first came across this painting – an art history class in undergrad – I remember looking at it in the textbook and moving on quickly. There wasn’t anything particular special about a faded, worn-out pair of shoes. Then I read the description of it and if I could trace my first moment of “art appreciation,” I think it would be to that moment where I then realized this was so much more than a still life painting of shoes. Sometimes (most times I’d say) you don’t need to explain art to appreciate it, but other times, it really helps. It helped me see differently.

[read about the philosophical debate these shoes inspired over here]

Van Gogh, Pair of Shoes, 1886

Van Gogh, Pair of Shoes, 1886

Here is a picture of absence, a still life of what is left behind after a person’s life – their holes, their soles/souls. There is a sacredness to this ordinary pair of shoes. The laces are freshly untied, the leather is weathered. They are men’s shoes, worker’s shoes. Sitting there after a long day’s work or after life itself? They smell like him, they look like him. Like sadness? Like exhaustion? Holes for two feet to slip in or out of. The absence of what should be there makes the person’s presence stronger. Your mind mentally fills them in. That’s what holes do.

A letter (not one of St. Augustine’s). This one is actually from Bess Truman to Harry

When I was at UVic, a girl I knew in the Classics department was writing her thesis on presence and absence. Not in van Gogh’s work, but in St. Augustine’s. What medium did she use to explore this? His letters. When St. Augustine wrote a letter to somebody, his presence was all over it – it was signed by him, he wrote and penned the words, and his  state of mind came through in the way he expressed himself. The same could be said for us if we were to take up this lost art. Yet Augustine’s absence was everywhere in those letters. The written words remind the recipient that the living person isn’t there. They speak for him but they’re not him. A substitute at best. Ink for flesh.

Three arts.

Three ways of showing absence.

Three ways of fighting it.