Final Day in Paris!

July 15 was our final day as a group in Paris. It began with a street art tour. Street art may be something that we obliviously walk by every day, especially in Paris, which in many ways can be said to be the world’s largest open-air-museum. But otherwise, street art in the traditional sense, and for the most part, is ignored, is considered illegal, and is generated with the knowledge that it is ephemeral, that it will fade away, may suffer vandalism, or get altogether dismantled and removed by the authorities.

One wonders, then, what is the point of street art, specially knowing that it is by its very definition transitory, “fugitive,” illicit, and fragile. Another question is whether or not street art is indeed art: Who decides that it is really art? What is art? Why is street art illegal, what would be on a wall or a structure had the art not been there, and would the viewer be better or worse off without it? Is street art really worse than a blank dirty wall?

Our street art tour got us thinking about this public form of artistic expression in ways that we might not have considered before. It made us take heed of, and focus more attention on, things that we might have passed by, or overlooked, or disdained beforehand. Long before humans were able to write and read, they were in fact, perhaps unwittingly, making art. Indeed, there seems to be an innate human need to leave a mark on this earth, and in this case “street art” appears to be the medium of choice for leaving one’s imprints on the world about us. In fact, so important is it for “street artists” to leave their mark, that they are often willing to go to great heights and lengths, reaching for odd impracticable places, often at great personal risks to their safety, just to be able to showcase their creations.

In a way, “street artists” are immortal in the sense that when someone covers up their creation, they often return to it, and coat the “canvas” with another illustration; or other artists may come to it and add their own input. In fact, more street art is always being put up than can ever be taken down. This very public and free art form allows people to express themselves, displaying their politics, their challenges, their life difficulties, societal issues, the inhumanity (andhumanity) of humans, and hopes, dreams and fears, and perhaps even just the need to convey something that is simply and randomly beautiful and ought to be shared.

At times images can speak louder than words, without forcing one’s views on the audience, and due to the fact that art can be interpreted differently by different people. There is no wrong way or right way of artistic creation. Some may look at a piece of wall art and say “I could frame that and put it in my home”; others may cringe in horror. And so, street art is definitely a form that that doesn’t please everyone and does not move everyone in the same manner. But that is not the point. We may not know the meaning or understand the purpose of a given display; yet someone felt the need and had a desire to put it on the wall. Take for instance the impulse (or art) of glueing cards to a ceiling; or making a plaster model of a breast, painting it, and glueing it to a wall. These sorts of displays awaken a certain curiosity in the viewer, making them wonder whatever drove the author to express themselves in such a manner. To wit, the breast could be a woman’s statement on misogyny, or patriarchy, or simply a way of expressing her freedom. Other displays may pay homage to a dead artist, victims of a terrorist attack, a movie, or even traditional artists or classical paintings.

Street art may convey strong, perhaps troubling images; an African baby sitting in a Louis Vuitton bucket for instance. What is the meaning of such an image? A viewer, depending on his or her predisposition and socialization may look at such an image from different perspectives: What does an African baby sitting in a Louis Vuitton bucket mean? Some may put more value on (and bring more attention to) the baby. Others may valorize the bucket instead; a Louis Vuitton, of course. Such an image may also make us wonder where exactly our charity money go; does what we donate go to help an African baby, or does it become someone’s undeserved, decadent, luxury item?

Likewise, the Star Wars pieces that we saw could be an expression of good/bad, light/dark side, and white vs. black in our society. “VOUS ÊTES ICI” (you are here,) is a parody of Parisian street maps, telling the viewer where they are. It is placed on the wall, you know you are there but you can’t associate where. Alternatively–and again, depending on how one may be pre-disposed to interpret a given situation–“VOUS ÊTES ICI” may be someone’s take on John Lennon’s “You are not here” (a phrase that greeted visitors at the entrance of his home,) or even Magritte’s “Ceci n’est pas une pipe,” perhaps emphasizing “the treachery of images.” By the same token, the image of a sheep saying “we are all sheep” may be a statement on the way the government treats us; a soldier holding a plant suggests that we put our money towards violence instead of life; and a space invader next to a McDonald’s and KFC may be a statement on who’s really invading Paris…

Much of the street art may be on or around “ugly buildings” that were hastily erected during the housing crisis in France after World War II and the Algerian war. The artists “tagging” these structures may be trying to make them beautiful for themselves and their neighbors. If we can’t tell what it is at least it adds color and character to the wall. Artists make use of many different methods, such as spray paint, stencils, gluing on a sculpture, wood, tiles, chalk etc. Art may also be made out of biodegradable or recycled material such a grass, plants, broken glass, mirrors, paper etc., although it should be noted that these street art neighborhoods are not for every neighborhood in Paris. Yet, it may be nice to have a variety of looks and different perspectives of the city of Paris.

During our tour an old man noticed us studying the street art, and he excitedly came over to us to let us know where to find more and which ones we absolutely had to see. His eyes lit up, he was proud of the street art in his neighborhood, and he wanted it to be seen and shared.

Later in the evening we went out and enjoyed our final dinner together; a gathering à la française filled with great food and talk and laughter. We discussed our favorite and least favorite parts of our program. We all found it difficult to pick a “least favorite” besides wishing the course had lasted longer. This final day and final dinner together was bittersweet. After dinner we headed off to our bateaux mouches tour for a final ride along the seine, just before the sun was about to set. On board, we had a perfect view of the city’s monuments, with a beautifully colored sunset in the background. As night began caressing the buildings, they were lit up (albeit discretely and elegantly) with artificial light, emphasizing their breathtaking architecture. The best time to be out in Paris is by night. The Tour Eiffel was lit up as well, in the colors of the French flag, blue white and red; a beautiful sight and a powerful image, especially on the week of Bastille Day and in light of the horrors visited on Paris, most recently the carnage and terrible loss of life in the Nice attack.

A bit of unease notwithstanding, it was a beautiful way to end the night and to end the program. We will all miss each other and the good times we had together in Paris, but we know that we will all meet again, (qui sait?) perhaps in Paris as well. “We’ll always have Paris” as they say.

Quartier BNF et La Cinémathèque Française

After one full fulfilling week of walks, visits, discussions, and history lessons in Paris we were granted a well-earned restorative “grasse matinée” this Friday morning July 8, 2016; just enough time to digest and reflect on the week’s happenings before venturing out into the city again.

We began our day by visiting Boulevard Haussmann, which, compared to the smaller narrower quaint old Parisian streets that most people may be familiar with, is one grand, spacious tree-lined avenue consisting mainly of apartment blocks, but famous also for its iconic Parisian department stores, namely the famous Galeries Lafayette, and Printemps.

Boulevard Haussmann was named after the architect who designed it, Baron Haussmann, who was the Prefect of the Seine Department under Napoléon III. Haussman’s intent in building this boulevard was part of his grand vision for the renovation and modernization of the city of Paris. Au Printemps was the first department store to be built on this nineteenth-century boulevard. The store’s architecture was sumptuous, very palace-like, with statues and a gold leafed roof gracing its exterior. Before the creation of department stores in the nineteenth century people had their clothes made to order, in small tailor shops that often did not cater to, and indeed seldom welcomed, the lower classes.

Department stores “democratized” accessibility to personal attire, allowing anyone, regardless of class, accent, or social and regional background to shop without being identified with one group or another, and more importantly without being belittled or stigmatized. Also, the concept of a “price tag,” popularized in Parisian department stores, allowed people to shop around and “price check” items they may be interested in purchasing, without suffering the burden of having to deal with often onerous professional tailors. This marked the beginning of consumerism, mass manufacturing, the diminishment of small shops, and the creation and rise of a working/middle class.

Additionally, Paris’s Les Grand Boulevard, of which Boulevard Haussmann was an important example, allowed people to see more of what’s around them and gave them the possibility to go out and be seen. This then created the urban notion of “being aware” and possibly “copying” and “duplicating” the practices of “others,” and the ways in which people dressed, walked, talked and acted within the public sphere. By then, buildings were being erected at greater heights, often at equal, even heights, giving the boulevards a pleasing eyeline.

Looking closely at the architecture of apartment blocks and homes lining the boulevard reveals sections with clearly intended for distinct social classes. The ground floor apartments were ordinarily left for the very poor due to the fact that their locations, closer to the streets, made them noisier, and arguably less courtly. The floors above street level, that is to say the first floor, was generally reserved for the rich, as often could be seen from their larger windows (perhaps intended to reveal sumptuous interiors.) Likewise, as we progressively move up the floors, the windows generally got smaller, with the very top floor, the attic, where the servants lived, displaying the smallest windows.

Our class went inside to visit the Printemps department store, in order to see not only the establishment itself but also its beautiful architecture with its colorful stained glass window ceiling. Connected to the Printemps, by way of a bridge is another iconic Parisian department store, the Galleries Lafayette, also by its own stained-glass window dome ceiling. Around the dome are the coat of arms of all of France’s provinces, perhaps suggesting to the visitors that all people, from all regions and all walks of life were welcome. We later went out to the terrace, to take in a beautiful view of Paris, savored from a different perspective.

We then went to the Quartier BNF, an up and coming area which once held the working class, but was transformed into a more intellectual center. Book-shaped buildings can be seen holding books and scripts, giving way to the Passerelle Simone de Beauvoir, a pedestrian bridge over the Seine, built in the form of a wave. Although aesthetically pleasing, these “newer” architectural styles have proven to be somewhat inconvenient and less than functional.

After our little walk to la BNF we went to visit La Cinémathèque Française, a building designed by Frank Gehry, and which was originally intended for the American cultural center which was later moved to a different more practical location.

La Cinémathèque itself was created by Henri Langlois with the intention of preserving any and all films and props that he was able to get his hands on. La Cinémathèque is of great importance for the preservation of art, history, culture and knowledge which would have otherwise been lost in times past. Cinéma as an art form has been of great importance in French culture. We entered the dimmed room of the museum which had spotlights on objects and small films being projected on the walls. In this exhibit we were able to view the evolution of film cameras, moving-pictures technologies, props, costumes, and tools used for cinema throughout its history. The exhibit revealed that through history humans appeared to have always had an interest in moving pictures, as a way of preserving and perpetuating the present. We learned that some “early” moving pictures were achieved through optical illusions; others were shadow shows used in places such as Rome and China; others still were puppet shows, the unrolling of painted paper rolls (as used in India,) or a spinning cylinder with slits along the exterior to view a picture or an object “move” inside. Other moving-pictures techniques included “stop action photography” used by Muybridge.

Over time, these early forms of “moving-pictures,” or or optical illusions, eventually led to the invention of film. Films started out black and white, and silent. Some early films were painstakingly colorized by painting every slide by hand. Later the gramophone was invented which allowed to add sound to film. In 1895, the famous Frères Lumière brothers invented the first film camera to capture moving images. With this, their new technology, they planned to capture the movement of life in its social and political interations, providing an informative and documentary-like record.

In 1895 the Lumière brothers produced a very short film called “L’arrivée d’un train” (A Train Arrival,) with the first showing scaring people out of the projection room due to their thought that a real train was actually coming toward them. Film became a sensation; an incredible concept. Anyone was now able to watch moving images and understand their content, even if they were illiterate.

Likewise, film was able to capture the Industrial Revolution and various ways of life of various people around the globe. Around the same time the Lumière brothers were making their mark, in 1896, Georges Mélièrs chose to use film for entertainment, circus, comedic, theatrical, creative, fiction, and artistic purposes; in sum, two very different purposes of film which still define the medium to this day.

During this visit, were able to watch snippets of films projected on the walls with some items used during the film displayed below. Among the films we were able to see were “Metropolis” with the real metal robot suit from the film, “L’Étoile de Mer” a surrealist picture, and Charlie Chaplin’s “Modern Times,” a film which can still make us laugh to this day, featuring a story about the fast pace of technology, which humans are ill disposed to keep up with, and which may ultimately crush them; a theme that eerily still rings true in our time. Overall, today was a gratifying illuminating culmination of a likewise interesting and fulfilling week.