New York Arts in Paris

Siegfried at L’Opéra national de Paris

The Bear chases Mime (Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke) as Siegfried (Torsten Kerl) laughs.

L’Opéra national de Paris, like most of the major opera houses around the world, with the notable exception of Bayreuth, have been building their new production of the Ring work by work over several years. I attended their Rheingold in 2010 and reviewed it in the Berkshire Review. Although I found the proleptic reference to Albert Speer’s Germania questionable, I rather liked Günther Krämer’s production at the time (The current French approach to Wagner favors native Germans both on the stage and behind it.); I was pleased with the cast; and I was deeply impressed with Philippe Jordan’s conducting. The son of the renowned Swiss Wagner conductor Armin Jordan, he has an individual and thoroughly grounded vision of Wagner, which he can only have developed on his father’s knee. Now three years later, on the eve of the Opéra’s complete performances of the Ring in June, I saw and heard the same intelligences and imaginations take on Siegfried, often considered the most difficult of the music dramas as far as audience involvement is concerned, for reasons that are both obvious and bemusing.

The Tour of Guimardia (English Version)

Métro Porte Dauphine (1900). Photo © 2012 Alan Miller.

In its shopfronts cashmere sweaters the colors of macaroons. Behind their digicodes its reposing hameaux. In its ballot boxes three out of every four votes for Sarkozy. Hidden in their Maseratis its children dressed in black. The sixteenth arrondissement of Paris is a peninsula between the Bois de Boulogne (which belongs to it) and the Seine; there is the slight feeling of a border crossing, of breaching a feeble forcefield, upon entering or leaving. One can find here the works of Perret, Sauvage and, soon, Gehry, but it is the section of the Earth’s surface with the greatest concentration of buildings by Hector Guimard (1867-1942). The seizième is to Guimard as Oak Park is to Frank Lloyd Wright, except that it contains works from all periods of the architect’s career, from 1891 to 1927. Along the way one passes other buildings which support the contention, inherently arguable and worth arguing, that the sixteenth is the most architecturally interesting arrondissement. Annexed to the city in 1860, the seizième grew up in what we might call, with light apologies to Robert Caro, The Years of Hector Guimard, a complex, under-appreciated and richly contested period in the history of modern architecture. A new eclecticism began to rebel against the last moments of a played-out Haussmannization. Many modernisms were in play. Art Nouveau, which seems barely able to contain Guimard’s work, let alone the output of the entire period, may now seem the stuff of coffee table books, a particularly beautiful dead end, a fashion, a decorative style, but its surviving remnants hint of an influence more spiritual than physical.

Le tour de Guimardia (version française)

Métro Porte Dauphine (1900). Photo © 2012 Alan Miller.

À ses devantures les pulls en cachemire aux couleurs des macarons. Derrière leurs digicodes ses hameaux reposants. Dans ses urnes les trois-quarts des votes pour Sarkozy. Cachés dans leurs Maseratis ses enfants habillés en noir. Le seizième arrondissement de Paris est en effet une péninsule entre le bois de Boulogne (qui lui appartient) et la Seine. Une frontière invisible le cerne, une petite résistance entre l’arrondissement et sa ville. On peut y retrouver les bâtiments de Perret, de Sauvage et (bientôt) de Gehry mais le seizième est le lieu de notre planète avec la plus grande concentration des bâtiments de Hector Guimard (1867-1942). Le seizième est à Guimard ce que Oak Park est à Frank Lloyd Wright, mais on peut y voir les bâtiments de toutes les périodes de sa carrière, de 1891 à 1927. Parmi ces bâtiments il y a bien des autres qui soutient la proposition, discutable j’espère, que le seizième soit l’arrondissement le plus intéressant sur le plan architectural. Après sa annexion à Paris en 1860, l’urbanisation arrivait au seizième pendant les années de Hector Guimard, une époque de plusieurs modernismes. À Paris un nouveau éclectisme architectural a commencé à résister l’Haussmannization épuisée. L’Art nouveau ne peut pas décrire l’ensemble de l’architecture de ces années, ou même l’architecture de Guimard lui-même, qui changeait au fil du temps. Puisque sa architecture n’était pas influente par rapport aux modernismes des années suivantes, l’oeuvre de Guimard vive trop souvent aux musées plutôt que dans les rues. Bien qu’il était une impasse dans l’histoire de l’architecture, qui ne veut pas habiter une telle ruelle.

Seven Ways to Improve the Tour de France

Cycling fans watch the opening time trial of Paris-Nice in Saint-Rémy-lès-Chevreuse, 3 March 2012. Photo © 2012 Alan Miller.

I wouldn’t go so far as the three-time world-champion Óscar Friere, who reckons that the Tour de France is “the most boring race of the year” — has he ever watched the Tour of Qatar? — but this year’s race did make me wonder how many more like it the old institution can take. Institutionalization is the Tour’s great burden, or at least its double-edged sword. For the casual fan it is the ‘race of record,’ cycling itself. Those who follow the sport more closely understand that while the Tour is undeniably the most competitive, and therefore the most prestigious, among the three Grand Tours of Italy, France and Spain, it often not the most interesting.

Paris aime la photographie III

Eva Besnyö, Borgerstraat,1960 gelatin-silver print, 22,8 x 19,8 cm. Collection Iara Brusse, Amsterdam. © Eva Besnyö / Maria Austria Instituut Amsterdam

When walking into Paris’s first retrospective exhibition of the photographs of Eva Besnyö at the Jeu de Paume, I was met with three mysterious images, visually linked by their askew perspectives. One is a self-portrait of Besnyö, who was born in Budapest in 1910 and broke free of Hungary’s provincial constraints to become a Berlin-based photographer at the young age of 20. The image of the woman in the portrait looks, in a word, contemporary. Unconventionally beautiful, Besnyö looks intensely into her medium format camera, hair tousled as her neck cranes above the view finder to which she is acutely focused, projecting an image of herself as an intense, slightly bohemian artist at work. Besnyö orchestrated this image of 1931 so that the viewer looks up to her from down below, and thus elevated before us is a powerful figure who directs our gaze and controls her own image long before similar strategies were conceived by feminist artists of the 1960s. It is from this point that the viewer commences into an exhibition of 120 prints by a photographer who has been given too little attention.

Must Paris Reconquer the Seine?

La Seine. Photo © 2012 Alan Miller.

The global city is an oxymoron. No one lives there. Any decent-sized city is an intensely local argument generating machine and the way in which cities fight about architecture is as revealing as the materials of their curbstones. These arguments are unfolding history. It’s worth paying attention to whether they are depressing or enlivening, who participates in them and for what reasons. In the midst of relentless planetary crisis, these juicy little local fights can seem unimportant. A dispute such as the current one about the future of the banks of the Seine might seem indulgent until one remembers the hardly old but nevertheless a bit out of fashion adage about thinking globally and acting locally. Aside from what they can teach us, local questions provide a bastion of the real against all the gloppy, terminally imprecise words about global this and global that. At a certain point the urge to turn away from the virtual and toward the animal, the mineral and the vegetal becomes overwhelming and probably healthy. Perhaps the only way to overcome, or at least hide from the hegemony of numbers will be, like Laurel and Hardy taking the sea air in Saps at Sea (1940), to seek out familiar places where the discourse suits us.

Faut-il reconquérir la Seine?

La Seine. Photo © 2012 Alan Miller.

La ville mondiale est un oxymoron. Personne n’y habite. Une grande ville est, parmi autre choses, une usine qui fabrique les polémiques locales et la façon dont ces disputes se déroulent est aussi révélatrice des différences entre les villes que les matériaux de leurs trottoirs. Ces arguments sont une histoire vivante. Quoiqu’ils peuvent sembler sans importance par rapport aux crises mondiales sans fin, il vaut la peine de les faire attention. La controverse à Paris autour de la réaménagement des voies sur berges de la Seine peut sembler indulgente si on ne souvient pas l’adage, pas tout à fait à la mode, de penser global agir local. Ces polémiques locales ont beaucoup à nous apprendre mais leur plus grand valeur est comme un bastion contre l’imprécision des discussions incessantes des questions mondiales. Le désir de virer vers l’animal, le végétale et le minérale plutôt que la virtuelle est quelquefois irrésistible et probablement bon pour la santé aussi. Le seul moyen d’échapper ou de se cacher du règne des chiffres est peut-être, comme Laurel et Hardy cherchent l’air frais du mer en Saps at Sea (1940), de retrouver les lieux familiers ou la conversation est intéressante.

Paris aime la photographie II

The exhibition of Joel-Peter Witkin at the Bibliothéque Nationale is not a retrospective, but an arresting exploration of the photographer’s work over three decades. In collaboration with Witkin, the curators of Enfer ou Ciel (Heaven or Hell), on view until July 1, compare many of his most fascinating and well-known images to the library’s exquisite and significant collection of prints. Placed in an art historical context of similar imagery found in the prints of such artists as Albrecht Durer, José de Ribera, Rembrandt, Francesco de Goya, and Pablo Picasso, Witkin’s work is thus tangibly embedded within a tradition of symbolism and mythology, and the pondering of the human condition and its spiritual dimensions by great masters of Western art.

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