Tag Archives: Van Gogh

Why Montmartre?

🇫🇷 The Great France Art Tour of 2017

Why Montmartre? This neighborhood is on most “must see” lists for Paris—often with little explanation. Even on my first trip to Paris, at age sixteen, I remember our Foreign Service League guide suggesting an optional trip to Montmartre on one of our “free” days, explaining that it was a funky, “artsy” area of narrow streets and open shops and stands. I imagined bearded men in berets, sitting on wooden stools, with their charcoal and drawing pads, easels, and thumb-tacked examples of reasonably accurate portraits and funny caricatures. (Actually, you will find those, even today in Montmartre and along the Seine.) I assume, more than I remember, that as a young man I was that day distracted by a young woman named Maritchu, who had her own plans, and she was not on her way to that part of Paris. I didn’t enlist for that side trip. I didn’t go to see Jim Morrison’s grave either. As I’ve mentioned, as is the case with any grand and ancient city, you can’t see it ALL!

And even on the Great Art Tour, I didn’t know much about the Impressionist connection. In my mind, I was thinking that the steps where Gil (Owen Wilson) is first picked up by T.S. Eliot in a Peugeot in “Midnight in Paris” had to be somewhere in Montmartre. I kept looking for those steps, but I never found them. (Probably because that first trip into the past occurs on the steps of the cathedral of Église Saint-Étienne du Mont on the Left Bank, definitely on the other side of Paris far from Montmartre.)

Bal du moulin de la Galette

“Bal du moulin de la Galette” by August Renoir

Nevertheless, the Moulin Rouge and Moulin de la Galette, are (or were, in their glory) located in Montmartre. If  someone mentions those names, somewhere in the back of my mind I conjure the memory of slides on a screen with vague colorful absinthe-blurred bar and club scenes by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, and Edgar Degas.  These are fairly accurate recollections. Renoir painted the festive, “Bal du moulin de la Galette” here. (Remember the men in their straw hats and the woman in the foreground in the blue and white striped dress?) And Degas painted “L’Absinthe” at café Nouvelle Athènes in the Place Pigalle at the foot of Montmartre in 1876. In the same year Vincent Van Gogh’s brother, Theo, brought him to Paris. Here he was neighbors with Georges Seurat and met Paul Gauguin, Lautrec, and others, and through their influence, and the influence of Paris scenes, his style became much more impressionistic.

"Windmills on Montmartre", 1886, Vincent van Gogh [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

“Windmills on Montmartre”, 1886, Vincent van Gogh [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Van Gogh painted many images of Montmartre, Paris, and the windmill and surroundings of the Moulin de la Galette, (the tall windmill, you can still see, although you can’t get very close). Without his paintings, it’s hard to imagine the hills of that district with a quarry, open fields and gardens. From the clock window of the Musée D’Orsay you can make out Montmartre, and Sacre Couer at the top, and the hill appears, like much of Paris, to be covered with buildings. Which it essentially is.

🚇A brief aside: Usually at the Metro station there is someone of some official capacity in attendance, usually in some kind of a booth, and usually that FRENCH person is there to provide assistance to travelers. Despite the reputation that Parisians are by nature hostile to Americans, I found this to be largely untrue. Although the difference in languages can be an obstacle, usually by pointing at maps, images, and familiar geographic names, and the patience of these attendants, you will get to the information needed to board the right train. I was most impressed one morning when we were leaving Bercy and I was asking the attendant for help, as I pointed on the map to the tiny image of the Musée Marmottan Monet. At least, that’s what I thought I was pointing at, and thought I was saying in my feeble French. We slid the map back and forth across the counter a few times, and as he was tapping on a blur that I think was the Metro Station that he thought should be our destination, I said, “Excuse me”, unfolded my glasses and put them on. At the same time, he pushed my map back at me, with neither a word nor a grumble, pulled another from a rack, unfolded it, and flattened it out in front of us. I smiled. The scale of his map was about four times larger than mine, and soooo much easier to read. He quickly marked it, and confident then that I knew where to go, I said, “Merci!”

Still more to come…

— Christo

Paris to Avignon

The Great France Art Tour of 2017

🇫🇷 Matisse, Cezanne, Chagall? Matisse, Chagall, Cezanne? I don’t know. Who lived where? This was “The Great France Art Tour of 2017” (my title, anyway) and those guys, those guys confuse me!! Monet? No problem. And well, to be sure. I am good with Van Gogh anyway.

Field of Sunflowers in Avignon
Van Gogh’s presence was there on the TGV as we rocketed south across France, starting in Paris in the North from the dirty and rundown Gare de Lyon. We left the Pullman Bercy Hotel on time, but the horrendous Paris traffic gave us a few tense moments—our French guide Christine, skeptical of the route, gently exchanging comments with the coach driver who was quite sure his way to the station would get us through the traffic lights, bicycles, scooters, narrow streets, buses, and awkwardly parked delivery trucks that line the Bercy back streets like so many hazards in a Disneyland adventure ride, pulling into our lane unexpectedly and getting out of the way just in time to let us pass. Sure enough, we rolled in through the grimy Gare de Lyon entrance gate a few minutes sooner than expected and parked the coach.

Christine had warned us of the tight departure schedule, and told us more than once that she had previously arranged for a team of porters to transport our bags from coach to train. But upon our arrival we received a quick reminder that this was FRANCE after all, and the porters, not to be seen, were all “on break”, ALL, and they gave not a whit for any pre-arranged special compensation that may have been negotiated to enlist their assistance with bags! One might think, “Well, let’s find them, and make them help!” But Christine was clear on what was needed, and what was now possible and advised us, “Take your own bags”.

We men, being men, arranged ourselves around the sides of the coach and quickly unloaded and distributed the bags, each to his friend, partner, or spouse first, then passed along if unclaimed to someone further down the line until every bag had an American tourist clearly attached to it. Then following Christine, dragging our rolling bags on the old concrete, some cobblestone, brick, and then onto the tile floor of the station, we formed a clump, prepared to dash to the gate, to the platform, and to the waiting car.

But once again our anticipation and plans were trounced by the real world, where, on the confusing electronic light board above the gates, our train was clearly not present. As commuters the world round are aware, you can’t—or shouldn’t—run to the gate until the proper authorities have identified at which gate your particular plane, train, or automobile will be boarding. And so our clump stayed clumped waiting amid similar clumps, until the proper train and destination—Avignon—flashed onto the board along with its gate, at which time we all rushed, to the growling resonant rumble of hundreds of small plastic wheels attached to many rolling suitcases, onward to our reserved section of a single long passenger car.

Our tour group discovered, (though having traveled on the TGV before, to me this was no surprise) that the TGV car has a relatively small luggage section with a rack at each end. In addition, there are overhead storage areas suitable for small bags, outerwear, etc., and in the comfortable seats, netting for water bottles, notebooks, and so on. This would have been fine for Deb and I, who had packed light with only carry-on bags for the entire journey. For our accompanying troop of thirty-five Americans from Bethlehem, Pennsylvania though, most with multiple enormous suitcases – these more the size of steamer trunks, some as large as dumpsters, and one or two which could have passed for cargo containers – the very limited luggage racks proved a challenge.

Again “the men”—of which, after completing the previous muscle-and-testosterone bag lifting challenge, I was moderately pleased to find myself still included as a member—passed the bags down the aisle like a fire brigade and piled them high at the far end of the car. The colorful, unruly stack rolled and heaved slightly as the train began to pull out, threatening to collapse on the heads of a Chinese couple and their elderly parents, one of only a few passengers not from our American Band, who dared to push through, and seat themselves among us.

For our entertainment and serving as a distraction from the loud and obnoxious Bethlehemians, in the middle of the car, across from us, and safe from the impending avalanche, sat les petit Francaise, two adorable little boys with young, attentive parents, in seats arranged as a booth, the four facing each other with a table between. The French parents were occupied with their French lives, reading French magazines, and occasionally offering French crackers to their French children. They never looked at nor acknowledged us. Except that is, for the youngest boy, maybe two years old, with a head of thick brown hair and cerulean eyes, who flirted incessantly with Deb, looking directly at her with his disarming smile. Eventually I had enough, growled at him and mouthed, “Le femme avec moi!” But other than this small conflict, you would never know from their non-chalance that these four natives were sitting in a car with a large group of noisy and rude Americans (along with four doomed Chinese).

Wisely, the Chinese got up to leave, shoving their bags, and anyone in their path, closer to the exit, long before we arrived at our first and only stop, Avignon. And after they left, to the audible racist commentary of one of our group (who we nicknamed “Donald”), the fireman’s brigade was hastily re-assembled to unload our bags onto the platform as quickly as possible, with Christine, smiling occasionally, grimacing more, as she chatted up the conductor, standing halfway in the train, and half on the platform, to prevent, she hoped, the departure of the train before we had completed our task.

This done, we rolled down the long bumpy concrete ramp into the dry heat and bright Southern sun of Avignon, with its expansive deep blue sky and bushy olive trees, a sharp contrast to the noise, bustle, grime, and overcast skies of Paris left behind. In a way the dry air and energy-sapping heat reminded me of Las Vegas, the Nevada desert—not the neon and all that casino glit and garbage—but the comfortably arid climate, to me, so welcoming.

I had started this commentary with Van Gogh in mind. Why? Avignon, Arles nearby have much history with Vincent. And from the speeding TGV, its tall long windows displaying the blurred countryside—many green fields, dirt roads, telephone poles, a few giant electricity generating windmills, red tile rooftops of homes in an occasional ancient farm village with a tiny castle tucked into a hillside, gradually transitioning into yellow, then orange fields of sunflowers blotted out quickly by more green, more sunflowers, then roads, then the fuzzy blur, purple now, lavender in fact, fields of lavender, then more yellow, orange, sunflowers until we are no longer awed, we were de-sensitized, this was mundane, the orange, the vast fields of sunflowers stretching left and right and swallowed by green hills in the distance, marked by tall cypress, and then, I don’t know, we were almost there. The train was slowing and the city and old medieval structures and Rhone River came into view and we had to gather everything and prepare for our exit.

— Christo