26 July 2016

215 Steps--How Many Kilometers?

I have no idea of how many kilometers (Remember, I'm in France!) I pedaled today.  I'm guessing it's not less than twenty, but not more than forty.  

There is, however, one measure I can give you with certainty:  215 steps--from 8, rue Elzevir to 5, rue Thorigny. Both addresses are mansions in the Marais district of Paris, which straddles thte Third and Fourth Arrondissements and contains, among other noteworthy sites, the Place des Vosges.  

I had intended to go to the first address.  When I was about to lock my bike to a signpost in front of it, an African man in what looked like a butler's uniform informed me, politely, that there was bike parking at the end of the block.  "Pardon", I said almost simperingly, "je n'ai lai pas vu."  I guess I wasn't the first person not to notice it. "Pas problem", he said. "Merci," I responded.

8, rue Elzevir

So why was I going to a mansion at 8, rue Elzevir.  Well, I had a free pass.  Then again, so did anyone else who wanted one.  But since I'm so, like, "over" being part of the "in" crowd (I mixed generational references.  Is that as bad as mixing metaphors?), I didn't mind.  For one, the man who showed me where to park my bike was so nice.  And so was everyone else I met inside.  And there were some really interesting things to look at.

All right, I'll admit it:  I was there to look at the stuff, and the place itself.  You see, that mansion is la Musee Cognaq-Jay.  I had seen signs for it and was intrigued by the name: "Cognac" with a "q" at the end, and "Jay"--that doesn't look so French, does it?

The fully-articulated fish in the foreground is made from gold, enamel and jade.  The other cases are made from gold , enameling and precious stones. 

Well, it turns out that Theodore-Ernest Cognaq and his wife Marie-Louise Jay founded the Samaritaine department store, which grew from a small tie vendor at the foot of the Pont Neuf to an eleven-story Art Deco colossus that took up several square blocks.   If you can imagine a combination of Macy's and Bloomingdale's, a la francaise, you'll have an idea of what the store was like.

Messr. Cognacq and Mme. Jay were, not surprisingly, among the wealthiest people in France.  This allowed them to accumulate a vast collection of art and objects, which are displayed in the museum.  What is so unusual about this collection, though, is that almost everything in it is from the 18th Century.

Although few collectors and curators focus on this period today, it makes sense that Cognacq and Jay would have spent their time and money on it.  For one thing, the work of painters like Van Gogh and other Impressionists were not yet deemed collectable, let alone immortal.  And the work of other artists who are so revered today--including one I'll mention later on in this post--was either in the process of creation, or hadn't been conceived yet. 

So, it's not surprising that whoever advised Cognacq and Jay would have told them to buy works from the 1700s.  By that time, it was a century or more old, so it (or at least some of of it) would have passed the test of time.  In other words, paintings, sculptures and other objects from that period would have gained the stature the Impressionists would attain in the 1970s or thereabouts, when Japanese collectors started to pay large sums of money for Monet and Van Gogh paintings.

I must admit, though, that I never had any great interest in 18th Century art, with a few exceptions.  If I were to become a scholar, I probably wouldn't choose that period.  The most interesting work of that time came, I believe, from philosphes, political theorists, few novelists--and composers.  There isn't much poetry to capture my attention (apart from some of William Blake's early work near the end of the century) and even less drama. 

The painting and drama of that period, with a few exceptions from Fragonard and a handful of other artists, leaves me cold, for the most part.  But seeing them in a setting in a mansion of that period made them more interesting.  Also, seeing those paintings and sculptures along with objects made of porcelain, gold and stones--some of which were intended for daily use--made the paintings more interesting.

If you are in Paris, the Musee Cognaq Jay is worth checking out, even if you're not interested in works from the 18th Century, just to see how an extremely wealthy couple would have lived with the things they collected.

After spending the morning and the first hour of the afternoon at Cognaq-Jay, I walked 215 steps to see the work of an artist I mentioned, but didn't name, earlier.  Yes, his museum is at 5,rue Thorigny:  the Hotel Sale, a.k.a. la Musee Picasso.  

If you've been reading my earlier posts, you know that the Musee Picasso has long been one of my three favorite museums in Paris.   Although it, like the Cognacq Jay, is located in a former residence, the two could hardly have had more different atmospheres:  The Cognacq-Jay has the intimate atmosphere the creators of the Picasso tried to achieve and, I believe, would if it hadn't become a tourist destination.   To be fair, the Picasso has become one of the most famous museums in the world because even people who know nothing else about art have heard his name. 

Vue de la façade, côté rue de Thorigny – détail, le fronton.
215 steps later:  5, rue Thorigny

Still, I love the Picasso, in part because of the artist himself,  but also because of the way it creates a milieu for him and his work.   But after 215 steps, I think I have found a new favorite to add to my list.  

And I got to take a late-day ride after taking in both, on a Tuesday in which clouds swirled and rippled in the breeze, diffusing but not muting the sun's rays.

1 comment: