Tope Trope

We all have our little quirks. In the spirit of no-holds-barred, here is one of mine: I love topiary. I do get it that topiary is, well, silly. Why trim the heck out of some poor plant in order to give it a shape Nature never intended? The French would scoff at the idea of respecting nature’s intentions. They unabashedly fly in the face of nature. In fact, friends were shocked when we explained that we simply let the trees on our country property  grow without interfering. It just seemed bizarre to them, “You mean you don’t keep them trim?” The expression on the faces would have been the same if they were saying, “You mean you never wash your hair?” Below is an example of what untrammelled French slashing leads to:  the deformed stumps they call trees in Limoges.

IMG_0877Public square, Limoges.

 Seriously. Why would you do this? Looks like Edward Scissorhands ran amok.

Still, the sculptural possibilities of trimming plants into shapes delights me. For example, Levens Hall in the U.K.

levens Admit it, this is fun. images

 

 

 

 

His Royal Highness Prince Charles has some pretty good topes at his garden Highgrove.imagesThe-Thyme-Walk---Andrew-Lawson-2011---G395-11D-79These are yellow holly topes. So cool. How enchanting it would be to walk this allée, enjoying the artistry of the many forms these shrubs take while waiting for the White Rabbit to pop out from behind one of them. Of course, the Prince bought the topiary along with the Elizabethan era mansion that is the heart of Highgrove. I have been less fortunate. In the financial sense.

But even Prince Charles cannot manage the largesse of some other royals. Louis the XIV, for instance. One of the pleasures of Versailles are the hundreds of perfect topiary specimens that line the major axis of the gardens. I think I photographed half of them.

IMG_1651 IMG_1637IMG_1633IMG_1631 Beautiful, no?

But, having shown you Levens Hall, Highgrove and Versailles, you are no doubt breathless for a view of my own topiary, introduced some years ago in my country garden. This plan was hatched after a typically long Quebec winter that I spent poring over the very compelling book by Bunny Guiness, Highgrove – A Garden Celebrated. So what if Prince Charles had a crack team of gardeners to help him keep the Thyme Walk Topiary in trim? I had to try. And, as usual, short on time and cash, we went to our own woods to dig out baby fir trees. I chose tamaracks for their bluey-green feathery foliage. Examining our work in progress, our friend the forester, Justin, helpfully pointed to the 50 foot tall tamaracks of our forest and said, “You do realize that they get quite tall”? “I will keep them trimmed,” I said breezily.

IMG_1883 Here is half of the main axis of our garden that runs parallel to the south side of the house. The topiary were to provide structure and demarcate the axis,

IMG_1884Gulp. Here you have it . Four topiariy-in -training, one half of the topiary walk.

IMG_1875Here is my best one. I said this to a friend recently and she said, “Aren’t they supposed to be, well, round? ” “Getting there!” I responded testily. It’s OK.  Lots of other friends come to visit and say, “I LOVE the topiary!” And they smile and squeeze my hand. I think what they are saying is, I love it that you are the kind of crazy person who would conceive and try a topiary walk in a frozen little Northern garden when you are not Louis XIV or even Prince Charles. Right.

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The Stomach of Paris

“You will see what even Parisians never get to see,” Genevieve said as we lurched and swerved our way through early morning traffic. Glad that she, not me, was driving, I hoped that there would be coffee at our destination. We had left our apartment at 6:15 to rendez-vous with G. “How is it that you get to go in?” I asked. “Je suis membre d’un societé,” she said rather mysteriously. “It must be the Society of the Legion of Honour,” I murmered  to Alan. “Actually,” she said, having heard, “both my grandfathers, my father, and my ex-husband  had the Legion of Honour”. I have told readers before that G. is crème de la crème. “Then you are a Legionnaire by proximity,” I said. She chuckled.

About 15 minutes beyond the outskirts of Paris, we arrived. “It has its own airport,” G. said. “Shipments come in from all over the world.”

“And from here to the rest of France?” I asked.

“To the rest of Europe.”

We are standing on a superb, sunny and warm day in a rather bleak, unending parking lot. Silly me. I had thought that Rungis, the Marché Central of Paris, would be like the cheery, tented street markets that dot the city, only bigger.

IMG_1544 Here you see row on row of electrical lines and greenhouses at Rungis.

Rungis is the successor as the “stomach of Paris” to the far grittier and picturesque Les Halles. That the earlier market existed for centuries but a stone’s throw from the Louvre is another indicator of the centrality of food for the Parisian. You may have read those wonderful Paris memoirs in which Hemingway and friends cavort until dawn and then end their white night with a bowl of bouillabaise at Les Halles. It also is the scene of many a crime novel. Today the area is under renovation but the streets surrounding the former market site are amongst our least favorite, proving that even Paris has its tacky neighbourhoods.

“Hurry,” Genevieve said. “we must get to the flower hall. It’s the first to shut down.” We step into a building that would dwarf an airline hangar and enter…. heaven.

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Men with trolleys are running around frantically, as the French do when they’re working, and each trolley is packed precipitously with mountains of gorgeous, absolutely freshly-cut flowers.

IMG_1534 Bins of roses, four deep.

IMG_1533 Cut orchids.

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Colour and scent everywhere.

IMG_1536 How to choose? G. and I zoned in on some white and almost black anemones. I also got white sweet peas and G. got a little pot of lily of the valley.

On to the greenhouses. We drove. Everything is big and far in this market. From a plant point of view, and as a botanical garden, Paris’ Jardin des Plantes is a bit disappointing. But who needs one when you have these massive, incredible greenhouses? Suivez-moi.

IMG_1548  Topiary Olive trees. You know how I love topiary.

IMG_1563 Clematis. We can’t grow this kind.

IMG_1562IMG_1553IMG_1549 Xmas tree- shaped azalea. Not fair.

IMG_1550 Topiary azalea. Ditto.IMG_1545IMG_1552IMG_1551IMG_1554IMG_1564IMG_1546

Okay, I know that so far there has been precious little about food. Don’t worry. We did get to food. A classic Parisian hostess, G. begins most of her soirées with a glass of champagne (yes, real) and foie gras which she always prepares herself. She gets the foie gras at Rungis, by the box. Driving over to her provider, she seemed piqued that I was not getting any. How to explain? It’s a bit of an animal cruelty objection and a bit of a high fat issue. Eating a bite of foie gras is delicious, but on the third or fourth bite I feel as though I’m eating a pound of butter. I said something lame about it’s not the way I cook. No problem, though. At this provider (“He supplies all the 3 star chefs”, G. said), I found delicious smoked salmon, a large bag of escargots in butter and garlic, a pot of fig jam, hazelnut oil, argan oil – for my skin and hair –  and duck confit. In the adjacent vendor, I bought cheeses and sweet butter (see, I have nothing against fat, in modest amounts – au contraire).

IMG_1567IMG_1568 There were also entire chateaubriands and filet mignons as big as eels. There were boxes of poultry, including pigeons as you see on the right. I was very tempted by the pigeons, as I just love them, but even on Weird Food Wednesday I would not have the heart to cut off that sweet little head. There were suckling pigs, too, but enough said about that.

Our expedition was not finished, but the battery in my camera was, so you’ll just have to imagine the massive florist supply store we went into where G. enthusiastically darted about getting little bibs and bobs for her grandchildren for Easter. We ended at a wine and gourmet item warehouse (chocolates, sauces, sun-dried tomatoes and the like). We were invited to taste champagne. Well, it would have been rude not to. G., as the driver, took only a tiny sip, but the gentlemen serving were pouring out tumbler-fulls  for Alan. I guess that noon is late in the day at Rungis and they didn’t want to waste it.

Back in the car, on our way to Paris, G. asked,”Does this interest you, going to Rungis?” This is French for, “Did you like it?”

“Yes,” I said. “It fills me up. It’s like Paris itself, so packed with possibility, so expressive of a particular viewpoint on life, where everything produced is the best one can get, is just what one really enjoys, is there and will always be there and promises so many future pleasures that….” I trailed off, feeling confused. Perhaps it was the champagne leaving me feeling foolish and tongue-tied. Genevieve just smiled and shrugged.

 

The Matter of Size

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My husband is not a tall man. In fact, one of his early romantic gambits was, “You should let me move in….I don’t take up too much space.” Pictured here, at the beautiful Musée Bourdelle, you see him further diminished by the monumental sculpture typical of 19th century Paris. But for the most part, Alan is right at home in Paris where he is not short, but of medium height. We buy his pants here, which suit his slim frame and they don’t need to be altered.

IMG_1049 Here, the Smart Car doesn’t seem so tiny.

 

We have been amazed at how easy it has been to live in 400 square feet. Except in the closet/kitchen, the apartment doesn’t seem cramped at all. When I paint, it is like Jackson Pollock, on the floor. Not ideal for me, but workable.

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So, while in Paris, small may be beautiful in so many contexts. But it is also true that here, the French are also masters of BIG. La grandeur as a vehicle of power is practically a French invention, and they have perfected what my friend historian Pierre L’heureux would call the architecture of absolutism.

IMG_0660 Louis XIV, Mister Big.

IMG_1624 Versailles. You have to respect a guy whose home is big enough to accommodate 20,000 guests.

IMG_1625 The garden comes with a pool.

IMG_1634Or two. The point is inescapable. The owner of Versailles is the Big Kahuna and you better mind your P’s and Q’s. Sorry – wildly mixed metaphor.

Back in Paris, the same point is clear every time you open your eyes.

 

IMG_1189 Paris Town Hall. Huge Square in front. More statuary than you can shake a stick at.

Then there’s the Louvre which obviously supports my case. There is that breathtaking moment when you walk into the central square. It’s magnificent and imposing. It imposes its owner’s power on you.

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IMG_1606  This makes you feel pretty darn good when you are on the inside, as Alan is here, having birthday lunch at the Louvre. Dining in its vast arcade he felt like Cardinal Richelieu. Only jewish. And married.

IMG_1376 Then there are all those vast cathedrals such as Notre Dame, shown here. Towns outdid each other to produce the biggest, tallest ones. It took ages to build them and all kinds of tricky engineering such as flying buttresses but it was worth it to make the point that God is great. Pilgrims – after the Vikings, the original medieval tourists – added considerably to local economies. In this rush to impress, everyone forgot that blessed are the meek. Oh, well.

In Paris, going west is going to bigness. Below, the Grand Palais is aptly named.

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Across the road, the Petit Palais is not petit at all.

IMG_1192  It does have some very nice stuff, however.

IMG_1193 Aren’t those hooves killer?

IMG_1198 Alan coordinates with the statuary.

Come to think of it, the Greeks knew quite a lot about impressing people and the Romans even more. Or maybe they just cared about it more.  So, while the impulse to create grandeur may arrive from tyranny, greed and other nasty human traits, we,  the lucky inheritors of the architecture of absolutism, its buildings,   statues, bridges, roads and towns, get to enjoy it all and not care a whit if Louis XIV was powerful or not. In fact, if we don’t feel like cooking in a closet one night, we can even go dine on his porch.

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The State of Art

01f51b3f3c23423507b0c249a8c700a2180bb3e13dWhen you’re in love, you want to tell the world.

When he said this, Carl Sagan was explaining why his life has been devoted to explaining the cosmos, but it also sums up why I am blogging. Being here in Paris is so stimulating I am  bursting: with ideas, with feelings (not to mention with cheese, but that’s another post). Part of this is the inexhaustible feast of visual arts that Paris offers. If you are an art lover in Canada,  there is simply not that much out there to see, although we faithfully support our museums, check out temporary exhibitions in Ottawa, and consider bussing to Toronto if something is worthwhile. But  while in Canada we will largely content ourselves with nature and go to New York for art.

If you have been to Paris, you have probably been to the larger museums: the Louvre, the Pompidou and the Orsay. Although not strictly a  Fine Art museum, The Musee de l’Armee at the Hotel des Invalides is also large. Most people who go there limit their visit to Napoleon’s tomb, which is a shame because it is the least interesting item on display. Housed in a Louis XIV era hospital of stunning architectural beauty (OK, the golden dome may be in bad taste, but I think Napoleon III was responsible for that), the museum has so much to offer it’s hard to know where to begin. The many galleries of armour, all nations, all eras, highly decorated, often beautiful, reveal the making of armour to be an art form. Housed in their glass cases,  these helmets, breast plates and swords appear as interesting sculptures. I was especially drawn to the suits of armour crafted for Louis XIII as a child.IMG_0565

 

In another area, the histories of World War I and II unfold, told through film and through  displays of objects as diverse and interesting as a Paris taxicab ( the battle of the Marne, in which cabs joined the last-minute efforts to get French soldiers to the front), the first tanks, a Nazi flag, a yellow star, and gallery after gallery of uniforms, some familiar, many quite exotic. Uniforms are the signature object of this museum and in the Napoleon galleries their fabrics, embroideries and insignias are quite gorgeous and memorable.

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It’s all state-sponsored propaganda, of course. And in Paris the connections between art, architecture and particular regimes  are evident everywhere and need not be explained. Those in power -the Church, the Bourbons, the Napoleons – require artists and artisans to reflect and support their “glory”. In return the artists get to do art and live. Those in power pass away, the art lives on.

A Walk in the Park with Dinosaurs

01cfde5af29849811fc8380b8e937c3d222d29099eSunday the weather was incontournable (unbeatable).   The whole town was out for a stroll. What better spot for a walk than the Jardins des Plantes with its stately allees?

Warning: my friends in Montreal and the North-East, STOP READING NOW! What follows will be bad for your mental health. Scroll until you see bones.

01d63dd7da6ea20f8d9dadec10128a7c56cde5752101dff79901414627753921c559f5aef0f7a2d7b1370120882cc7e0f3610faff06475bf85abb55f750c7aYes, springtime in Paris with flowering almonds, hellebores and the color green everywhere.

010b5973cd9355b3bb202ba004661f870796d33a7101ff89840a377faa8e2df3994409a5adf28982fcd3As though it wasn’t beautiful enough outside we popped into the vast greenhouses to see the orchid show.

015953189819ffa491f45675f6924736460d506c3bI felt a mounting excitement as we turned into one of my favorite, top-secret, spots in Paris. An imposing 19th century building sits in the northeast corner of the Jardin. It is the Gallery of Evolution, a vast space filled with bones. Downstairs are plain old animals, upstairs extinct ones. The skeletons, in their hundreds, seem to march down the hall toward you. They are all sizes, including very large ones like whales and elephants, but small ones are also ranged around the room in oak cabinets. The whole space is entirely lit by daylight, giving a particular warmth to these old bones.

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I find it hard to express or explain why this space is so inspirational for me. It has to do with life, death, the connections between us all,  present and extinct. It relates to me and what I am doing here in Paris, visiting the past, with its old  dinosaurs of art and architecture that nonetheless continue to move us in the present. This space will come into my painting, I know.

01440167f2bc426e07d2e6976299c5783d99f66a59 I spent some minutes sketching .

0129c360e5d6195d6e23bde0c5ff759262358de870And taking photographs. This image is certainly coming into my work. Stay tuned.

The Mother of all Auctions

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Hotel Drouot is the largest auction house in the world. On a quiet day, there will be five or  more auctions taking place simultaneously and it is possible to wander from one to the other to take in the drama of this special and intense world. On their website, you can find out which auctions are taking place and even access the catalogues to see in advance if anything interests you and learn  the estimates. Today, the auctions included  Eastern Art and Antiquities, Fashion, Nineteenth Century Art, Furniture and Objets d’Art and Jewellery. Thousands of Euro’s change hands by the minute and there are many surprises as the hammer comes down. I love to see big bargains, even if I am not the one taking them home.

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Uncharacteristically for me, I was going to see jewellery today. I don’t have a lot of jewellery; what I do have is good and classic, although I also have a weakness for vintage brooches. More on that another time. Let’s say that you are in Paris, and you are celebrating what the French would call an Important anniversary, and your dear Parisian friend, Genevieve, more on her another time, said that you had to go to the jewellery auctions because the bargains were just, well, ….. (she shrugs). My indefatigable husband and I boarded the bus 67 and a mere ten minutes later, voila!photo 1

You can tell you’re there because the neighbourhood has so many antique stores of many kinds.

photo 1 photo 2 photo 3Store windows with lovely prints, stamps (still big, who knew?) and antique books. I have never been in these stores. Seem a bit scary….

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Inside, the auctions are hotting up. Standing room only.

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Look closely at the fashion auction. The Louis Vuittons are stacked up on the runway.

Now let me explain a little something. I am a prudent shopper who does not give in to impulse. I like to check out all my options and when I see something I want to buy, I wait til the next day and see if I still want it. This shopping style does not work at the auction, so I have had to change. However, I did my online research and knew what i might bid on and had an idea of how high I would go. Still, in the thick of the auction/action, it’s a heart-pounding, high adrenaline moment. SOMEONE IS BIDDING AGAINST ME, HELP!

Fear not. I won the day, my husband next to me,  clutching my hand and beaming. Here is my trophy, an extraordinary bargain, bought well under the Drouot estimate. As we strolled away, I found myself humming the Marseillese. photo

Lot number 14, an eternity band, diamonds set in a platinum cross setting. C’est magnifique, more than I could hope for. Thank you, Alan, for so many great years.

Paris Flea Market Finds

It’s early Saturday morning.  You dash out to board the Metro for a half hour trip to have about the most fun possible – and still stay within the bounds of the law and morality. Yes, it’s the Paris flea market and it may be at its best in Winter when the Parisians have it to themselves. I prefer the smaller fleas and broquantes to the Puces at Clignancourt in St. Ouen. The large one (15 acres!) is worth the occasional visit but for the real deal, small is the way to go.

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After a few visits, you get to know what’s available and  who the different dealers are. You begin to develop a sense of the prices and a shopping list. Do bargain.The vendors are real characters, have a great sense of humour and like it when you are as bold as they are. One strategy I developed was to take along a decoy: one of my pretty daughters. Get her to bid. Sexism working in my favour for a change. However, there was the time a heavily moustached, portly vendor tried to pick up both me AND my daughter. Gosh.

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There is serious treasure out there for those with the vision and persistence to dig for it.

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Try to know what you are looking for. At least have an idea of a particular color you’d like to collect, or a material – like silver plate or porcelain.

photo This lovely bench was my first furniture purchase at the puces. I proudly carried it home on the metro.

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This lovely treasure was made for cafe au lait, but serves as akitchen catch- all.

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I love my hotel plate cutlery which I collect in different patterns. They normally go for one euro a piece. One day, however, a man offered me a full bag, maybe 15 pieces for 5 euros. I asked him why he was selling them so cheaply and he said he was just tired of them. A bit fishy….

 

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I found this sconce, which the French call an applique, in a bin with broken wires sticking out. I stripped out the electrical, popped in candles, et photo (7)

The big splurge was a pair of Empire era bergeres chair. I had them recovered in linen.

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They are in our Knowlton house now.

We arrive Monday morning so I will have a long wait until Saturday morning but I’ll be posting flea market sights and finds every week.