Friday, September 18, 2009

Toulouse-Lautrec Advertises Montmartre Cafés

Yesterday, I joined my friends from Paris Art Studies to view Hommages à Toulouse-Lautrec: a celebration of the artist’s career as a poster artist, now hanging at the Musée des Arts Decoratifs. Among the many posters by contemporary artists honoring the great impressionist master, 26 of Toulouse-Lautrec’s 31 own prints are on exhibit. These images offer iconic souvenirs of the people and places of Lautrec’s Belle Époque. They give us incomparable insights into the world in which Lautrec worked and lived.

Take this poster of Cancan dancer, Louis Weber, who gained the nickname La Goulue, the glutton, from her habit of grabbing patrons’ drinks and downing their contents as she danced about the Moulin Rouge. She danced there with a wine merchant named Jacques Renaudin who took the stage name “Valentin le Désossé(Valentin the de-boned) because of his sinewy, boneless way of moving. Lautrec features Valentin in the foreground of this advertising poster for the Moulin Rouge, where the artist was a regular customer (he even had a reserved table). He captures Valentin’s rubber band-like motions with a simple, bold brushstroke.

Valentin and La Goulue performed on the dance hall floor, rather than on a stage, as the audience, mostly male, milled about them. Notice how Lautrec pictures La Goulue lifting her leg. It was, indeed, her signature move to tease the spectators by dancing on one foot and swirling her dress until she was ready, with a quick upward flick her foot, to kick off a gentleman’s hat, thus revealing her heart-embroidered panties underneath.

Another favorite Moulin Rouge dancer, and a dear friend of Toulouse-Lautrec was Jane Avril. Jane was the illegitimate daughter of an Italian nobleman and a Paris society girl. Jane was more beautiful and more stylish than La Goulue, the daughter of a laundress who started her career wearing the “borrowed” clothes of her mother’s clients. Jane, on the other hand, dressed the part of a refined lady, though her mother cast her off as a lunatic when Jane was only 16. She perfected a more prudish, yet no less provocative, style of the Cancan than that of La Goulue. Lautrec shows this in his posters depicting her in the plumbed hats that punctuated her costume, exposing only her slender lower leg, and puckering her lips as if ready to offer a kiss.

The men of the Moulin Rouge loved Jane Avril, who was often melancholy and withdrawn even in the constant commotion of the dance hall. Perhaps they were drawn to what they knew they could never have. We see Jane in this picture watching Yvette Guilbert, the Edith Piaf of her day, at the tiny café-concert, the Divan Japonais. Lautrec gives us Guilbert in her trademark blank gloves. And we can see by her pose and her locked arms covering the length of her torso that we will get no glimpse of undergarments from her.

Finally, Lautrec provides us clues into the character of Aristide Bruant, a former railway clerk turned popular singer known for his crude, bawdy songs and his propensity to insult the audience. No matter. They always came back for more.

Bruant started his career at the still celebrated Chat Noir (Black Cat), which later became his own café, the Mirliton, advertised here. Thanks to Lautrec, we know that Bruant held openly revolutionary views, as expressed by his red scarf and wide-brimmed hat; that he identified with the working-man rather than the bourgeoisie, as shown through his rough walking stick in lieu of a polished cane; and that he was a bit of a dandy, as revealed by his draped, black cloak.

Bruant was one of Lautrec’s first friends in Montmarte, where the artist made his Paris home. And Lautrec was the one person whom Bruant refused to insult. Indeed, when Henri Toulouse-Lautrec entered the Mirliton, Bruant would quiet the house and proclaim, “Here comes the great painter Toulouse-Lautrec…”

In his short lifetime of 36 years, and a career spanning less than 20, Toulouse-Lautrec left us 737 canvases, 275 watercolors, 363 prints and posters, 5,084 drawings, ceramic works, stained glass, and an unknown number of lost works. Step into his images for a trip back in time to Paris of the Belle Époque and the age of impressionism.

The exhibit, Hommages à Toulouse-Lautrec, runs through 3 January 2010.


Moulin Rouge, La Goulue, 1891, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Jane Avril au Jardin de Paris, 1892, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Divan Japonais, 1893, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Aristide Bruant dans son cabaret, 1892-3, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.


Paris Art Studies,

Friday, September 11, 2009

Philippe Petit: The Artistic Crime of the Century

September 11th. A day we will remember forever.

Today, I wish to remember the Twin Towers through their association with a certain French man whose reputation is the opposite of his name.

On 7 August 1974,
Philippe Petit, in the "artistic crime of the century", catapulted both himself and the WTC Twin Towers to world fame.

Flashback to the 1960s:

A rebellious teenager from Nemours, France, now expelled from his 5th and last school, runs away from home to become a magician. Quickly drawn to tightrope walking, he teaches himself everything that can be done on a rope in less than a year. He finds the tricks, however, lacking in any kind of expression or style. So he sets out to transform his new skills into an art form.

Fast forward to 1968:

Waiting for his turn in the dentist's chair, Petit picks up a magazine lying on the reception table. He reads about a project to build in New York the tallest structures the world had ever known. They will be called The World Trade Center Twin Towers.

From that point, Petit is obsessed with the WTC towers. For the next six years, he follows their construction, learning everything about them. He travels to New York on several occasions to photograph the buildings from a helicopter. He builds scale models and calculates how much the towers will sway in the wind. He sneaks into the buildings and hides out in them in order to understand their security systems. He makes false IDs for himself and his collaborators that identify them as part of the construction team. He poses as a journalist with a French architecture magazine and conducts fake interviews with roof workers. While there, he resolves how to rig a steel cable between the towers across a span of 43 meters (140 ft).

On 6 August 1974, Petit and half the members of his 7-person team step off the freight elevator of Tower 1, nineteen steps away from the roof. They use a bow and arrow to shoot first fishing wire, then larger and larger ropes, to the team members on Tower 2. They make a make-shift bridge, over which they pass a 450-pound steel cable. They anchor and stabilize the cable with guy lines, securing it at various points about the rooftop structures.

The "coup", as Petit called it, began shortly after 7:15 the next morning. No one on the ground had yet noticed that the Twin Towers were joined 417 meters (1,368 ft) above the streets of Manhattan. Petit crossed without incident from the south Tower to its northern counterpart. Then he turned around and walked the wire back again. In all, he made the trip between the Towers 8 times. He sat on the wire; he did knee salutes on the wire; he even lay down on the wire at one point and reportedly chatted up a passing seagull.

Of course, Petit's artful crime was highly illegal and police officers were dispatched to the scene immediately. Sgt. Charles Daniels, had this to say about the spectacle:

I observed the tightrope 'dancer'—because you couldn't call him a 'walker'—approximately halfway between the two towers. And upon seeing us he started to smile and laugh and he started going into a dancing routine on the high wire....And when he got to the building we asked him to get off the high wire but instead he turned around and ran back out into the middle....He was bouncing up and down. His feet were actually leaving the wire and then he would resettle back on the wire again....Unbelievable really....[E]verybody was spellbound in the watching of it.

On his 8th trip between the WTC Towers, a light rain started to fall. Petit felt it best not to push his luck any further. He stepped off the wire on the south side, and fell right into police handcuffs.

But worldwide news coverage and public appreciation resulted in legal charges being dropped. Indeed, the owners of the Towers were so thrilled at the positive publicity that Petit's stunt brought to their then much-maligned towers that they offered him a lifetime pass to the WTC observation deck and requested that he sign a steel beam close to where he began the most dangerous tight-rope exploit the world had ever known.

A happy ending and a nice way to remember the once dominant feature of the New York City skyline.

Check out the major motion picture about the event, Man on Wire:


The World Trade Center Twin Towers by photographer Edgar de Evia, circa 1990, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.


"People & Events: Philippe Petit (1948-)" in Episode 8: The Center of the World of New York City: A Documentary Film broadcast on American Experience, Public Broadcasting Service in 2003.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Right-Side vs. Left-Side Driving

This week, Samoa switched from right-side to left-side driving. Critiques say it will result in chaos. Advocates say it will make cars more affordable and accessible to more people as they can now be imported directly from neighboring left-equipped New Zealand rather than from Japan or the United States. That got me thinking. Why do some countries, like England, adhere to driving on the left side of the street, while in other places, like France, we drive on the right?

Left-side driving appears to date to the Middle Ages. People then traveled on the left side of the road for several reasons: Most folks, like now, were right-handed. They found it easier to wield a weapon against an enemy or welcome a friend with the right hand, which they preferred to keep on the passing side of the road. It was also safer to dismount a horse to the left while wearing a left-slung sword. And it was more advisable to dismount and mount, which can only be done from the left by right-handed people, on the outside, therefore left side of the road, rather than on the inside, right side, in the midst of oncoming traffic!

This left-side driving habit was transported from feudal England to the European continent and, later, to the far reaches of the British Empire. But at the time of both the French and American revolutions, folks felt it best to eschew everything from their monarchical pasts. In France, aristocrats and noblemen of the ancien régime had traveled the road on the left, forcing the peasantry to the right. From the outset of the Revolution, these former gentry found they could blend more easily with the general population by joining the right-moving crowd.

Simultaneously, in both France and the US in the late 1700s, teamsters began hauling farm products long distances in big wagons pulled by several pairs of horses. The wagons were not equipped with seats. So drivers sat on the left rear horse, using their right arm to lash the four-legged members of the team. In contrast to their feudal forebears, the teamsters preferred to pass on the right so they could better see and stay clear of the wheels of oncoming vehicles.

Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte spread rightism throughout conquered Europe during his early 19th century campaigns. This left England, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and Portugal – the countries that resisted or were left untouched by Napoleon – to continue the old habit of left-side driving. This right-side/left-side division remained in Europe for more than 100 years, until after the First World War. At that point, the rest of continental Europe shifted to the right. Only Britain and the countries of the former British Empire kept to the left. But even Canada eventually switched in order to make border crossing with the US less complicated.

Now, in an odd and unprecedented move, Samoa is going from right back to left. Bon courage, les Samoans!


View of Upolu, Independent Samoa, by Kronocide, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

This print, entitled "The knight of the woeful countenance going to extirpate the National Assembly," shows Edmund Burke as Don Quixote, wearing armor, carrying lance and shield labeled "Shield of Aristocracy and Despotism," riding a donkey, emerging from the doorway to the "Dodsley Bookseller" the publisher of Burke's "Reflections on the French Revolution" which hangs from the horn of the saddle. The head of the donkey has a human face and wears the triple-tiered crown of the pope; depicted on the shield are scenes of torture and death, and a view of the Bastille. Found on Wikimedia Commons.

Driving on the left side in Australia, taken on 11.03.2006 on the Great Ocean Road (near Lorne) in Victoria (Australia), courtesy of Free Software Foundation, and found on Wikimedia Commons.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Phrases & Expressions: La Rentrée

La Rentrée. The Return.

Return to what?
You might ask. Well, to work, school, meetings, classes, all of it. For August in France is a month of rest, while September brings back "normal" life once again.

Most French are on the move en famille (as a family) in August, spending the month at their second home, or at rented accommodations in the south, or visiting international destinations. Both governmental and economic sectors slow or stop in the month of August. But even if you are a business that stays open or you elect to remain the month at work, August is peaceful and restful and quiet whether in the major cities or in les provinces (the provinces).

Throughout the month of July, as folks begin to disperse for les vacances (the vacation) you can hear the tune of, “A La Rentrée”, ringing through the streets. A La Rentrée means, “Until the Return” or for us Anglophones, “See you in September”.

And like clockwork, in the 48-hour period coinciding with the last weekend in August, the highways and streets are clogged once again and tanned families are lined up in queues at the newly re-opened libraries (book stores) and papeteries (stationary stores) to buy the books and supplies required by their kids' schools, classes, and grades.

This year, even the weather seemed to know when La Rentrée had arrived. The last week in August 2009 was balmy and blue. On the 1st of September it rained all day, and since then the chill of autumn has been in the air. For the first time in months, our apartment windows are closed, both to keep out the cold as well as the non-stop buzz of motorized traffic. Aux prochaines vacances (until the next vacation)!

on the autoroute by Osvaldo Gago, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Traffic jam courtesy of