Tuesday 29 September 2009

Rue Stick

When I met Ariane Pasco recently she told me about the Rue Stick event that would be taking place in Paris the following weekend. Taking her advice, I went along on a sunny, Sunday afternoon to watch a group of street artists decorate a pair of bare, grey walls between la Bastille and the Seine.

This was apparently the third such Rue Stick event in Paris, an occasion that is basically a meeting of street artists in sufficiently large numbers to enable them to work without fear of being stopped or arrested. For this event, around 30 artists were present, surrounded by an even larger number of friends, photographers and simple observers.

For me it was another opportunity to see the faces behind the creations. Ariane Pasco was not present, but Nice Art was represented by her associate Dominique Decobecq. Other well-known creators I discovered in the flesh for the first time were Mimi the Clown, Tian, Epsilon and Titi from Paris.

So what is a typical street artist? The answer seems to be that there isn't one! This gathering was a joyous collection of the young and the not so young, men and women, individuals and groups, all drinking wine together from plastic cups. When an artist needed a hand with a large poster somebody would pop up with a brush or a ladder, and once the creations were in place, everybody took photos of each other's work.

Local residents came along to have a look, some to criticise, but most to admire. Eventually the police appeared, but they chose simply to observe with a kind of detached amusement. It must be noted though that the creations were all pre-prepared on paper and were simply pasted in place on the day. They will eventually fade in the sun or slide away in the rain, and then Rue Stick will find another temporary gallery!



Sunday 27 September 2009

Paris People: Ariane Pasco, Street Artist

Veteran of the Paris street art scene and creator of ‘take away’ art, Ariane Pasco tells me how the Nice-Art collective first came into existence and why she continues to take her messages to the streets.

As a mother of teenage girls and a teacher of Natural sciences Ariane Pasco is perhaps not the archetypal street artist. Then again, it is an almost impossible task to describe a typical artist in this genre when so many choose to remain anonymous. The street artist is a peculiar breed, a creator that often works using a particular logo or character, but about whom we know very little. Ariane Pasco agreed to meet me and let me get to know what drives the people behind the creations.

Ariane Pasco has been creating art in Paris since the mid 1980s. She is a founder member of a collective known as Nice-Art, a group that has had as many as seven members but which today counts just two (the other survivor being Dominique Decobecq). The group works mostly with stencils, often based around recognisible icons. Why did they begin creating in the first place though? "There was certainly something about that era in Paris" she remembers. “When we began in 1986, Paris was totally different” she adds. Her eyes glitter as she tells me about this golden age for street art in the city. "We had complete freedom to do as we liked. The city council supported us and even Jacques Chirac (mayor of Paris at the time) was a fan". Paris was a city in transition, with some of the older districts around Belleville and Bastille undergoing radical change. These zones, a curious mixture of the demolished and the still standing, became their favoured areas to work in.

I ask if there a particular message they wanted to get across, and Pasco shakes her head. "Well, we did do a lot of images of nature at that time because we saw the city becoming more and more concrete, but really we were just having fun". At first they worked almost entirely as a team. Each member had responsibility for one particular colour, enabling them to finish their creations and move on very rapidly. They then created a logo, meaning that team members could then work individually but sign their creations in the name of the group. The styles were similar, but each member was free to choose their own icons. Pasco has always favoured rock stars, whilst others have chosen jazz musicians or famous writers. "One member always created stencils of his girlfriends" smiles Pasco.

Several other well known artists began working in the city at the same time (Blek le Rat, Miss-Tic, Jef L'Aerosol, Epsilon), and the community was a very close one. They described themselves as the 'gang des mains noires' (black hand gang), and it is interesting to note that almost all still continue today. Miss-Tic is the one who has perhaps had the most success, and I ask Pasco what she thinks about her contract with a van hire firm (Miss-Tic has provided a logo and slogan for this company). She does not hesitate in her reply, "I'm very happy for her and I'm glad that she has so much success today. She struggled a lot, but she has always been someone who has helped others when she can, and she always helped us a lot".

Much of Ariane Pasco's work involves nostalgia, but she is far from being a nostalgic person herself. She has always tried new things, and two years ago she began a project for which the collective is now almost best known - take-away art using vinyl discs as support. Where did this idea come from? "I have always loved vinyl. It's the sensation of the material in my hands, but also they fact that they are visually attractive. I was a big collector of vinyl too". She is a fan of rock and retains a passion for the music and the people who create it, and it seemed a natural extension of this for her to work with the material for which the genre is particularly associated.

She also wanted to offer something that other people could collect. The disc is decorated and stencilled then placed on a wall in a place which is tricky to access. “They are designed to be seen – and taken!” she tells me. Each one is signed and numbered and constitutes a unique work of art. This gives her street art a certain value, she feels, and also means that it lives on when it is removed from its initial environment, something that is very rare in this world. Posters get torn and damaged, but vinyl is sufficiently solid to resist when people pull it down from the wall. The decision to place them in difficult positions was deliberate, because Pasco believes that when people take them it is shows that they really wanted them.

She has created and displayed around 400 so far. She shows me her book where each of her creations has been carefully noted, and explains that she is careful not to make too many of each personality. “I’ve done 10 Preverts now” she tells me, “so there’ll be no more of him”. Her chosen icons are not just faces from the past though. She has recently produced stencils of Pete Doherty, Matt Bellamy from Muse and Alex Kapranos from Franz Ferdinand, with the latter being an interesting case. "We went to Glasgow this summer to place some of our art and I went to a Franz Ferdinand concert. After the show I was able to give him one of the discs with his picture on, and he seemed very happy with it". It is refreshing to meet someone who has not only retained the energy to create, but also the passion of a teenage rock fan!

In recent times, Ariane Pasco has also begun making creations on canvas which she sells in galleries. I ask what she thinks about street art in this environment and she frowns. “We have to live” she says, but it is clear that she sees it more as a necessary evil for her. “Street art is spontaneity and energy” she adds, "but in a gallery it just looks flat". She knows that her canvases cannot recreate this, but she understands that people who like the style want something that they can take home with them. Generally such people look for something clean, but she tries to make them as dirty and energetic as possible.

As someone who has been involved with the Paris street art scene for nearly 25 years, I'm curious to know what she thinks about the scene in the city today. When I suggest that it seems to me as if there are more street artists than ever working in Paris today she rapidly agrees. "It's a real explosion" she says. "I think it's wonderful" she continues, "there is so much variety today, and there are really no limits to what can be done. I think people have been downtrodden for a long time now, and they really want to express themselves again".

What about Nice-Art -what is the future for them? "Oh we still have plenty of projects" says Pasco. "We're going to be involved in some gallery shows, and we're going to travel a bit more and spread our art, but what we really want to do is start bombing again". I wonder if the collective will grow again, and whether there is a new generation ready to take up the reins. Ariane Pasco smiles. It seems that there is another member of the family who has shown creative skills and who appears to be hearing the call of the city walls...

Note: Thanks to Ariane for agreeing to meet me and for letting me use some of the photos from her website. If you want to know about her work and that of the Nice-Art collective, visit http://www.nice-art.net/.

If you are interested in Street Art and would like to visit some of the key areas in Paris, download my Street Art walking tour.

Thursday 24 September 2009

Something for the Weekend? (26th/27th September)

Once more, a few suggestions for interesting or unusual things to do in Paris for the coming weekend. This will be the first weekend of Autumn, but the sun is forecast to shine, so I’m sending you out into the streets again!

Please add any events or activities you think should be promoted or which you would like to promote yourself in the comments, and let me know if you have any events in the coming weekends you would like to promote.

La Fête des Jardins
Throughout the weekend, just about every park and garden in the city will have some kind of activity organised. It may be tasting food, learning how to pot plants, or just live music, but ‘something for everyone’ is the cliché that comes to mind.
For those looking for something a little out of the ordinary, try the Parc de Buttes Chaumont which is always a fascinating visit, but which this weekend will also feature a demonstration by the city tree-surgeons! On a quieter note, many of the secret and private gardens of the city’s religious institutions will be open, with most of these being situated on the left-bank in the 6th and 7th arrondissements.
Click here for the full programme (5 Mo PDF).
26th and 27th September, various locations.

Rue Stick – an “Affichage Sauvage”
On Sunday afternoon, a group of street artists are planning to decorate a pair of bare walls near the Bastille with the idea being that the more of them there are, the less chance they will be stopped by the police! Many well-known names on the scene will be present, including Nice-Art, Kouka, Tian and Titifromparis, and the atmosphere should be fun and festive. The two walls span the corner of two streets and provide a surface of upwards of 7Om² - enough space for some spectacular creations!
Click here for more information.

Sunday 27th September, 1.30pm
Rue des Lions Saint-Paul and Rue du Petit Musc
Métro Line 7, Station Sully - Morland

Les Portes Ouvertes des ateliers de Ménilmontant
Several districts around Paris have an annual weekend where artists open up their studios to visitors, and this weekend it is the turn of Menilmontant in the North-East of the city. Outside of any discussions as to whether these are true artists or just part-time painters and photographers, it is an excellent opportunity to explore the normally closed passageways and courtyards of this old and largely unspoilt part of the city.

More information here, including maps and mini-biographies on each participating artist.
Friday 25th to Monday 28th

The Autumn is considered to be the beginning of the artistic season in France. In an attempt to promote some of the forthcoming events, the city of Paris has had the curious but interesting idea of organising a promotional weekend alongside the river Seine. The 1 km long space will be organised by theme, including music, theatre and museums, and 12 stages will host over 100 entirely free performances over the weekend.
The full programme can be found here.
Saturday 26th and Sunday 27th from 10 :00 – 18 :00
Port de la Gare & Port de Tolbiac (Metro: Quai de la Gare)

Last Weekend of the Planète Parr exhibition
Just a reminder that this weekend marks the last chance to visit the fascinating and amusing exhibition of English photographer Martin Parr’s pictures and private collections.
Jeu de Paume, 1 place de la Concorde 75008 Paris
Saturday 26th and Sunday 27th from 10:00 – 19:00

Wednesday 23 September 2009

Hôpital St Louis - le Musée des Moulages

The recent Journées du Patrimoine gave me the opportunity to visit a museum that had long been an unobtainable grail for me - the very private Musée des Moulages Dermatologiques (museum of dermatological casts) within the walls of the Hôpital St Louis. An extraordinary experience, but certainly not one that I would recommend to everybody!

Living close to the hospital, I often find myself wandering around inside. A hospital is a city within the city, and the barriers between the two are very clear at the walled Hôpital St Louis. It is a place that was designed to be cut away from the rest of Paris, left apart to live alone and treat the outcasts and virulent sufferers. Today outsiders are welcome, and families come to picnic in the 17th century quadrangle at its heart.

In one corner there is a building that has always fascinated me. The Musée des Moulages. The doors have always been resolutely closed, apparently open only at sporadic times and then only to students or professionals that have previously requested a visit. Last Sunday though, I finally found them open. At first sight, the interior seems a little like that of a light and airy country house. Busts of famous doctors stand in the hallway alongside paintings, bookcases and a statue of Saint Louis. To one side, a sweeping staircase leads visitors past a procession of leading dermatological specialists upwards towards the museum.

The building dates from 1889 and was designed to house the growing collection of casts. The Hôpital St Louis was still on the periphery of the city and because of its self-sufficient autonomy had developed a world-renowned speciality in infectious skin diseases and afflictions. Three doctors were responsible for the creation of the museum. Alphonse Devergie donated his collection of paintings and drawings, but it was the doctors Fournier and Lailler who added the collection of casts. It is an institution which always had the intention of teaching and educating, and the two doctors believed that it would be more useful if the exhibits were three-dimensional.

The sight that greets you as you push open the doors is remarkable. A rectangular room bordered on all four sides by a double level of wooden display cases housing literally thousands of casts. The earliest dates from 1867 and the most recent 1958, but all share a gruesome, realistic form. The collection includes full heads, mouths, tongues, noses (or lack of!), arms, feet...and more intimate parts of the body. Any unusual or exceptional skin disfunction was quickly captured by the team at the museum.

The majority of the collection was produced by a man called Jules Baretta. It was the Doctor Lailler who found him, producing paper mache models of fruit in the Passage Jouffroy in Paris. He was so taken with the quality of the work that he immediately invited him to take up a post at the hospital. It was a radical change for Baretta, but he took to the work, producing incredibly realistic models which included features such as hair and colourings.

The collection is sorted by affliction, but I didn't want to look too closely at the details. Photos of the exhibits were not permitted, but respect for the 'patients' (and for my readers!) would have prevented me from taking any pictures anyway. I did want to capture the particular atmosphere of the place though, an installation that is almost unchanged 120 years later. Apparently students would learn little from a visit today (some diseases have been eradicated and many remedies are now known to be wrong), but it remains a fascinating historical monument (recognised by the state in 1992). One can only imagine the suffering as a plaster cast was placed on a painful or intimate place, but perhaps the patients were reassured by the fact that they were helping to further science and medicine.

I was there as a tourist of history and architecture, and this is part of the beauty of this hospital for me. It is history dragged into the modern day, centuries old stones that still exist for the reasons they were first put down. As I left, I saw that it is impossible to separate the reality of these buildings from the grim remnants of the past and today's thin, worn out individuals who are wired up to drips but still pulling on guilty cigarettes. We like to think we live in a safe, modern world, sheltered from the kinds of afflictions found in this museum. The reality is that we are towers of sand next to the solidity of these bricks and stones.

Note: If you are interested in visiting the museum, it is theoretically open from Monday to Friday, 9:00 - 17:00. However, you will only be allowed to enter if you have previously arranged a visit, and generally you will need to have a good reason for visiting (if you work in the medical profession for example). To contact them, call 01 42 49 99 15 or mail them at biblio.dermato@sls.aphp.fr.

There is a lot more to say about the Hôpital St Louis, but I'm not sure that a blog is the best place to do it. For this reason I am working on a walking tour of some of the most interesting hospitals in the city, including this one.

Sunday 20 September 2009

Paris People: Gina Rarick, Racehorse Trainer

A woman in a male-dominated business is not a unique situation, but an American woman in the very closed world of French horseracing is certainly a more unusual proposition. I met with the racehorse trainer Gina Rarick who gave me an insight into both the sport and how she has managed to find her place in this business.

Where does Paris begin and end? My vision of the city takes it out beyond the concrete ring-road into greener suburbs, and indeed it seems that you do not need to go far to find stables and racetracks. It’s just a 20 minute train ride out to Maisons-Lafitte where Gina Rarick is based, and once you pass the skyscrapers of La Defence and cross the river Seine twice, you find yourself in what today looks like a pleasant country town. Maisons-Laffitte is famous for its chateau, and most of the stables are now situated in what was previously the hunting forests of this large old house. I arrive on a bright Saturday morning and a whiff of crisp Autumn hangs in the air. The leaves on the trees are turning a ruddy orange but are still clinging on to their branches, and I pull up my collar and cross to the sunny side of the street.

After a 15 minute walk I arrive at the stables and feel as if I am hundreds of kilometers from Paris. The stables are an attractive collection of buildings from the 1920s built around the owner’s house. Rarick rents some units here and is ready to welcome me when I arrive. I immediately see that she is a ball of determined energy, with a passion for her job that is often apparent in those who have made radical mid-life switches.

I’ve always loved horses” she tells me, “even if I was actually brought up on a dairy farm in Wisconsin”. From these small town origins she moved to Chicago where she became a journalist, working first for Knight Ridder then for the International Herald Tribune. Her specialty was the commodities markets, but it was far from being her passion. She began taking horse riding lessons in her spare time, and when an opportunity came up to transfer to Paris, she jumped at the opportunity.

She continued working for the IHT, and used horses as a means to integrate into French society. She joined a club and began competing at show jumping meetings (“against 10 year olds” she points out), and slowly managed to get her newspaper to accept articles on horseracing. With these commissions she was able to travel to the top meetings around the world (the Grand National, the Kentucky Derby, the Hong Kong Derby) and meet many people in the industry. It grew to become an obsession and soon she was sucked into the world of jockeying and horse ownership.

Finally, there came two turning points. Firstly, to her great surprise she competed in and won a journalists’ horse race at Saint Cloud near Paris, and secondly the IHT began feeling the effects of the economic downturn and began offering attractive redundancy packages. Rarick knew that it was a ‘now or never’ moment, took the money and decided to set herself up as a qualified racehorse trainer.

On September the 1st 2008 she became the first American woman to receive the necessary qualifications to train and race horses in France. “It’s been a really exciting adventure” she tells me on this day a little over one year later. “I now train seven horses, and although ideally I would like to increase that number to a maximum of fourteen or fifteen, I believe I have made the right choice by becoming a boutique yard”. Generally she has had to scrape around the lower levels of the horse sales, mostly in the UK, using her sense of feeling to make intelligent purchases, and as yet she has made few mistakes. “All my horses have either won or been in the money” she tells me. Indeed, when she tells me how the system operates in France, I’m tempted to invest myself!

It really is the best country in the world to be a racehorse owner” she tells me. Prize money is high, and because bookmakers are kept away from the sport, all the money generated by the state run PMU system is channeled back into the sport. “It costs around 2-3000 Euros to buy a horse” she explains, “and perhaps 20000 Euros to keep it in stables and have it trained. If your horse wins just two races in that year though you’ve covered your investment”. Rarick owns some of the horses herself, whilst others are leased to external owners (mostly ex-pats). “If you want to get into the game slowly, you can just lease one leg and pay 25% of the fees”. Watching her as she carefully bandages up the leg of one of the horses, I’m sure that the limb would be in good hands.

Rarick is very modest about her role as a trainer. “The ratio for producing a successful runner is 40% breeding, 40% care and just 20% training” she explains. “In fact, the worst thing you can do is to over-train them and tire them out. You just have to keep them fresh, good and happy”. Rarick lives over the street from her horses, and can spot new scratches or bumps in seconds. After preparing thier lunch (including a can of Guiness for one of the horses!), she gives them all the once over, stroking them and talking to them softly as she does so. Clearly she loves her job and the beasts she looks after.

What is the downside of the game in France then? Rarick considers for a second then gives her opinion. “It was difficult to be accepted at first. Sure I’m a woman, and there are some jockeys who have a problem with that, but I’m also an American. The game is different in the States, where a form of doping is seen as fair and legal, and people here kind of assumed that I work in the same way. I have no experience as a trainer in the US though, and I’m completely anti-medication”. However, as opposed to the UK, there is no elitist element to the sport, and winning on the track has helped her to become accepted.

"You should come and check out a race meeting one day" she suggests.
It's a deal. The next time she has a runner on a weekend in the Paris region I'll be there. I'll even have cash ready to back her horse whatever the odds are. Gina Rarick seems like a winner to me.

Note: There's plenty more to write about on this topic. I'll report back after attending the race meeting!

Gallopfrance: If you are interested in investing in a race horse or just interested in the sport, be sure to check out Gina Rarick's website. She also runs a very interesting and informative blog.

Friday 18 September 2009

Something for the Weekend?

As an experiment, I have decided to create a new feature each Friday with a few suggestions of interesting or unusual things to do in Paris each weekend. This weekend is particularly rich in events, so it is a good time to start! Please let me know if you have any events or activities you think should be promoted or which you would like to promote yourself.

Les Journées du Patrimoine
My suggestions have already been mentioned here.
Various sites around Paris, the 19th and 20th September.

Le Techno Parade
The fact that there is now an ‘official store’ for this event should tell you that this is not exactly an underground happening, but there should be some interesting surprises this year. Perhaps best of all will be the float representing the electronic scene of Istanbul to celebrate the current ‘Saison de la Turquie en France’.
Saturday 19th – begins 1pm at Place Denfert Rochereau and ‘finishes’ at 8 pm at place de la Bastille.

Tattoo Art Fest
Now is perhaps the time to confess that I too have a tattoo. It’s just a small one, and quite discreet, but discretion will probably not be the word of the weekend at this event. Tattoos have of course become far more mainstream in recent years so it seems natural that the industry should now have its annual exhibition.

18th – 20th September
Parc Floral de Paris (Metro Chateau de Vincennes, Line 1)

Biergarten in Paris
The Café Titon has become something of an institution for the German population of Paris, and to celebrate this fact they have decided to organise an outdoor ‘Biergarten’ to celebrate the start of the Munich Oktoberfest. Expect sausages, beer and lots of music!

19th and 20th September
Rue Bouvier (around the number 11) Metro Rue des Boulets, Line 9

An evening of music!

Good friend and occasional contributor Tim Pike will be performing tonight at the bar La Tactique on Rue Pascal, in the 5th arrondissement of Paris. I’ll be there!
La Tactique, Rue Pascal

Tuesday 15 September 2009

One Year Already!

I promise, this is the last time I will mark any kind of significant date or number on this blog! One year though seems important. I didn’t imagine that I would still be writing a year later when I made that first post, but then again, I didn’t imagine anything at all. Blogging was a new world to me, but it is one that has taken me on a fascinating journey.

365 days, 48 followers, 140 posts. Figures are important in blogging, but should not be the objective. As a matter of fact, the statistics for the blog increased exponentially for the first few months, but have stabilised more recently. I used to watch them carefully, but I realised how unimportant they are when I discovered that you could bump them up significantly by posting a link on sites such as Stumbleupon. Traffic increases, but these are visitors who stay for mere seconds before skipping on to the next site.

Blogging for me is about making connections with people. There are those who stop by and leave a message, those whose blogs I visit and enjoy, and those that I have met and talked to whilst researching my posts. I made a conscious decision early on to concentrate on detail and research, firstly for my own interest and culture, but also because I believe I can only respect whatever audience I have if I attempt to bring them something new and different.

Blogging is also about sharing. This may seem like a strange opinion to hold when you consider that it is in fact a very personal activity, but I have also deliberately avoided talking about myself and discuss only what I see. If I look forward from this point, my major objective is to open this space up to other people. The subject is Paris, not me, and it would become very dull if I only described my perspective and my place in this city. It is for this reason that I have created two new regular features; Paris People, where I meet others who live and work in the city and talk about their jobs and passions, and Paris Polaroids, where people can contribute anything they like about their experience of the city.

The other major deviation during the year was the creation of the Paris Walks PDF documents and their hosting on the
http://www.freepariswalks.com website. Again, for me this falls into the zone of sharing, and I have been delighted to see that the three walks have been downloaded around 1600 times now. This is something that I will strive to continue over the next year, even though it means a crazy amount of work for me! Who knows, I may even decide to break out of the internet and do some (very occasional, but free!) guided tours...

Work? This is certainly the wrong word. Time. Yes, this all demands a lot of my time, but it is time spent on something that brings me pleasure, and I think this is the crucial factor for a long-lasting blog! What I do, I do first and foremost for myself, but when I saw two people following one of my walks last weekend, I was happy to think that I had perhaps encouraged people to go somewhere they may never have gone by themselves.

So, whoever reads this – regulars who I know and thank, or anonymous visitors who have always sat at the back of the room in silence, I can tell you that I’m not finished yet! Coming up will be investigations into many other parts of the city and a breakout to the suburbs, features on racehorse trainers, street artists, photographers and bar owners, and I sincerely hope, contributions from many of you too!

Sunday 13 September 2009

Journées du Patrimoine: My Recommendations

Next weekend sees the annual 'heritage days' in France when many secretive institutions throw their doors wide open to the curious eyes of the public. Well, this is the official line, but in reality it often seems to be simply a choice between waiting for hours to visit an official building or just having the opportunity to visit a museum without paying for once. However, it would be a shame to view it this way as there are several places that are offering something unique next weekend. Here is my selection, including several buildings that I have already previously mentioned on Invisible Paris. This is your chance (and mine!) to see them more closely:

Maison d'Auguste Comte
Auguste Comte's house is kept as a museum, but it is generally only open for two hours each week, and that at a time when I'm working! Weekend openings are very rare, so here is an opportunity to view the unchanged apartment of the philosopher/sociologist. You can also view his library and several of his manuscripts, and at certain times during the weekend there will be guided tours. If you want to know more about Comte, click on the link above.

10, Rue Monsieur le Prince - 75006 Paris
Saturday-Sunday 10h-13h and 14h-17h

Chapelle Notre-Dame-de-Consolation - Mémorial du Bazar de la Charité

Built on the spot of a terrible fire that cost the lives of over 150 members of the aristocracy (with around 95% of the victims being female), this chapel is always open to the public daily. What is more rarely seen though is the memorial section at the rear which explains the tragedy in more detail and celebrates the lives of the victims.

Rue Jean-Goujon, 75008
Saturday - Sunday 14:00 to 17:30

Hôpital Saint-Louis
Being one of the oldest in Paris and similar in style to the Place des Vosges, the hospital itself is always worthy of a visit. However, the true rarity this weekend is the opening of the famous Musée des moulages dermatologiques (Museum of dermatological masks) to the general public. It is one of the most secretive museums in Paris and is certainly not suitable for everybody, but if you have any interest in the subject the time to visit is now as it is generally only ever open for pre-arranged visits and then only to professionals or students in the subject. What is displayed in the museum? Several hundred moulds made from the faces of patients suffering from all possible skin diseases, created over one hundred years ago.

1 Avenue Claude-Vellefaux, 75010
Sunday from 14:00 to 18:00

Hôpital Salpetrière

Another hospital and another interesting event. I have written several times about this hospital and its links with the Charcot family, but normally it is Jean-Martin Charcot the father and neurologist to whom it is most closely associated. However, in an interesting twist for this weekend, the Charcot library (the collection of the father, given to the hospital by the son) will present several articles and archive documents on the time Jean-Baptiste Charcot (the son) spent at the hospital before changing tack and becoming a world-famous sailor and explorer. It will be an almost unique opportunity to see such information, but it should be noted that the hospital, particularly the chapel, is also a fascinating visit in itself.

91, Boulevard de l'Hôpital, 75013
Saturday, 10:30 to 17:00

Palais d'Iéna
Auguste Perret is an architect who fascinates me, and I previously wrote about him in connection with his design for the Mobilier National building. For the Journées du Patrimoine, it is his most well-known and well-respected building that will be open, the wonderful Palais d'Iéna. Following classical, academical principles, it is nevertheless resolutely modernist in design.
Once again, this is a rare opportunity to visit a building that is today used by the French Economic and Social Council.

9, Place d'Iéna - 75016 Paris
Saturday - Sunday, from 10:00 to 17:00

Moulin Rouge
This is not a place that I would normally recommend visiting to anybody, but I can't deny that it is a historical institution. It's difficult to resist the idea of visiting the private salons and backstage areas and wandering around amongst the costumes without being asked to pay 30 Euros for a glass of champagne. This is the first time it has ever been opened to the public for this event, so expect large queues!

82, Boulevard de Clichy, 75018
Saturday - Sunday, from 09:00 to 15:00

Siège du Parti communiste français

It has become something of a tradition for me to visit Oscar Niemeyer's fantastic 'siège du Parti Communiste' each year during this event. Living close by, I often see it from the exterior, but it is the interiors that are really worth investigating, particularly the space-age underground auditorium!

2, Place du Colonel-Fabien - 75019 Paris
Saturday - Sunday from 10:00 to 17:30

Friday 11 September 2009

Killing Time

Le Musée de la Prefecture de Police
As light necessarily brings shadow, so it must follow that the city of light should also have its dark side. Behind the Paris illuminations, a small museum takes visitors to this côte obscure, guiding them through some of the more sombre chapters in the city’s history, with photos and recreations of executions, poisonings and massacres. If you have a strong stomach, let me take you on a guided tour!

The Musée de la Prefecture de Police is probably the most difficult museum to locate in the city. X marks the spot on the map, but following the instructions leads to a building that looks like it belongs in Stalinist USSR. From the outside you would be hard pressed to find a single clue that would signal that there is a museum inside, but fortunately when you are lost here you can always ask a Policeman.

A uniformed arm points towards a temporary staircase that sends you clanking through the scaffolding on the outside of the building and suddenly you find yourself alone inside a working Police station. A piece of paper on a notice board says ‘Musée 2eme étage’, but nothing or no-one is around to stop you from setting off and exploring the entire building. The corridors are dimly lit, and echo with the dull banging of hidden construction sites, whilst the staircases unnervingly feature the staring faces of the 167 policemen who were killed during the liberation of Paris. Scampering up the stairs, it is relief to see the mounted sign that announces the entrance to the museum.

A large notice points out that photography is not permitted, so you will have to make do with just my words on this visit. The museum is apparently 100 years old this year, but in reality it looks more like something that was put together in the 1960s or 70s. There is a selection of moth-bitten costumed models, exhibits described by fading typewritten notes and not a whiff of multimedia in sight. This though all adds to its charm!

Unless you are fascinated by uniform and medals you can probably skip the first part of the exhibition. At their origins in the 17th century the police were little more than groups of militia, nicely dressed but with few responsibilities (their mission was resumed in three words: “netteté, clarté, sûreté”), and necessarily little of interest concerned them in this period. The story warmed up during the French Revolution when groups of people spontaneously organised themselves into a makeshift police force, but there was still no official service until the 19th century when the “Sergents de ville” were created in 1829.

The first item of interest is a reconstruction of Giuseppe Fieschi’s “Machine infernale”, a kind of homemade machine gun with two dozen or so barrels that the Corsican used in an attempt on the life of the Roi Louis-Philippe on July 28th 1835. Louis-Philippe survived but 18 others were killed in the incident. Fieschi himself was severely wounded by his own machine, and was saved from death purely so that he could later be tried and executed!

"Tête de Giuseppe Fieschi après son exécution" – Raymond Brascassat, 1836 (Musée Carnavalet, Paris)

Later in the 19th century comes a page in the history of the city that the museum quickly turns over. In many respects, the museum, run by the Police and largely about the Police, finds itself in a tricky position. How can an organisation that has been implicated in some of the greatest crimes during the period covered by this museum present itself in a fair-minded way? Many questions are simply swept under the dusty rugs, and that is certainly the case with the massacres that marked the ending of the 1871 Commune uprising. Indeed, the impression one gets is more of the police as victims, with a large painting showing the burning down of their headquarters earlier on in the uprising.

At the end of the 19th century, photography began to become an important aspect of police work and the museum gets more interesting! A photo-montage highlights the actions of a group of anarchists who terrorised the city in the 1890s, leading us into the most important room in the museum; crime and criminals in the 20th century. This long room hosts a series of glass cases organised by individual crimes. Often there is the original murder weapon with dubious stains and gruesome archive photos, and details on how the crime was solved. It’s a procession of ten inch spikes, serrated knives and crushed skulls!

The museum finishes with documents relating to the Second World War. Once more a very tricky subject for the Police, an organisation that was absorbed into the machine of the Nazi occupiers. A small display shows how members of the police force were responsible for the persecution of Jewish members of the community and for the rounding up of many of these people, but again here the focus is more on the policeman as victim. Larger cases and the photos that line the staircases highlight the individuals who fought for the resistance or who died during the liberation of the city, but how many of these had also been involved in the crimes against innocents beforehand?

Arriving at the end of the visit, this leaves a slightly bitter taste in the mouth. The police play a key role in the life of any city, but in the city’s darkest moments, the role of the police has not always been to bring back light. It’s a relief to leave the building and see the sun again, but since I have discovered the museum, morbid fascination urges me back from time to time to taste the dark side once more.

Monday 7 September 2009

Paris Polaroids: An Afternoon Spent in 1968

For the first in a new series of Paris Polaroids guest posts, Tim Pike remembers his brush with the 1960s and his unique perspective on a Paris film set.

In 2002 I was mid-way through a two-year tenure at an organisation based on Avenue de Messine, just a stone’s – or, as we will soon find out, a cobblestone’s – throw from Parc Monceau in the 8th arrondissement.

Avenue de Messine has all the hallmarks of Haussmann’s Paris: it is a wide, tree-lined boulevard flanked by elegant but somewhat identikit buildings that mix and match residential dwellings with office space. It also happens to lack the hustle, bustle and vibrancy of the city’s more high-profile arteries. Automobile traffic there is always sparse, giving drivers the extra impetus to put their foot down and make the occasional pedestrian crossings potentially lethal for anyone who has the misfortune to be on foot. And it was Avenue de Messine that was momentarily closed to all-comers to form the backdrop to the May 1968 riot scenes in Bernardo Bertolucci’s movie The Dreamers, which were filmed there on a quiet August day and August night in, yes, 2002.

Granted, there’s nothing particularly novel about being in Paris and spotting a film being made. However, enjoying an office-window view of the clock being turned back 34 years in the space of an afternoon was a fascinating experience. The lone cars to have ignored the A4 warnings displayed on lampposts were towed away. Benches were uprooted and replaced with older models, as were the ornate metal grids that sit around the base of tree-trunks across the city. Parking meters were hidden. A 2002-vintage bank was boarded up and airbrushed out of reality. Then a procession of vintage Citroëns, Renaults and Peugeots arrived, driven by their proud owners. And finally, the pièce de résistance: thousands of possibly hand-crafted polystyrene cobblestones were tipped out onto the street by a delivery van, ready to be hurled at the police/authorities by the student demonstrators.

Meanwhile the main cast-members were hard at work in a nearby building filming some interior scenes, and outside a small army of extras reported to a desk which had been set up on the pavement. They were allocated their 1968 clothing, had their 21st-century hairstyles coiffed out of them and went to sit, smoke and drink coffee on makeshift seating a little further down the avenue, biding time until they were to be called on to riot against the Establishment.

Observing the people, artefacts and surroundings as they were sucked into the past, the colour scheme changed from bright, vibrant shades to a palette of browns, off-whites, greys and blacks. Suddenly the summer sun didn’t seem to be shining quite as brightly. But strangely, in much the same way as a black and white photograph puts greater emphasis on shadow and light, giving whole new dimensions to the subject matter, Avenue de Messine also instantly gained in character and personality; for once, there was a bit of life about the street.

My working day drew to a close as the cameras and crew relocated outside for the night-time riot scenes. I reluctantly left the office and my second-floor vantage point, whilst reminding myself that one thing the film didn’t need was a character wearing 2002 dress staring down from an office window. Walking past the piles of cobblestones, I pedantically wondered whether their airborne trajectory would be anything like that of their rock-solid counterparts, but reckoned researchers in white coats had probably already looked into the issue and that it was probably long-solved.

Returning to work the next day, just about every trace of it having been 1968 for a few hours had been scraped, moved or driven away. 2002 was back out in force and Avenue de Messine once again became its succession of interchangeable buildings and drivers in a hurry. I made a mental note to go and see the film when it came out but never did, so sadly I have never witnessed the end-product. Writing about it now though, I’m beginning to wish I had, if only to see how convincing those polystyrene cobblestones actually looked on the silver screen.

Tim Pike
Outside of his day job, Tim is also a talented musician and songwriter. He can be found at http://www.myspace.com/drbrochet and will also be playing a concert at the La Tactique bar on rue Pascal, in the 5th arrondissement of Paris on Friday September the 18th.

Send Your Paris Polaroid! The beauty of the Polaroid was that it captured an instant. Such pictures were celebrations of the emotion of a moment, but like memories, Polaroids faded over time. In this series I am aiming to compile a selection of these Paris instants for posterity. If you have a memory of a Paris instant you would like to share, please send it to me and I will publish it here. A photo (which I will transform into Polaroid form) would be a bonus but is not a necessity (I can find one!). If you have a site, a project or a business to promote, send me the link and I will add a mention to your post!

Sunday 6 September 2009

Windows on the World

Three windows bring a reflection of the city in quick fragments. The first, in four quarters, panes of glass that cannot be looked through but which now act as a support for a simple creation. Painted white to hide what is happening on the other side, all I can see are these joyous characters. Strangely, I found these three females on an old building at the extremity of the Hôpital St Louis.

Further along, raindrops sliding down the dusty window of a telephone booth, draw my attention to a message hastily stuck inside. A week ago I mourned the forthcoming death of this simple piece of street furniture, but here it seems that somebody has found a novel use for the structure. This is not a request though, a lost dog or a person for hire, but...a recipe! This simple act of altruism reminds me of the BookCrossing book sharing initiative, and its nice to think of a city where people leave a trail of their favourite books or recipes behind themselves (click on the photo for a full list of ingredients and instructions!).

Back home, a view from my window. The wasteland opposite my flat is still just an empty space, and has become almost an unofficial park for street artists. Looking outside, I quickly snap this amusing game of perspectives. The artist and the passer by are both oblivious to each other, divided by a corrugated metal fence, but from above I can see both. I was impressed by how the artist manipulated the brush on such a long extended pole, but am not sure what the final message represents. Interestingly, it spelled out 17H51, almost exactly the time he finished painting, but he could not have known that before he began...could he?

Thursday 3 September 2009


An invisible line runs down the centre of Paris and through the Observatoire in the 14th arrondissement, marking the point zero of France. Beaten to the prestige of being the centre of the world by the Greenwich meridian in London, it has left Paris feeling slightly askew. A fraction off of this line, overlooking the Observatoire, is a curious anomaly in itself – a building which never knew what time to set its foot in, and which stands as a monument to a similarly unaligned individual.

What makes us different from the others? A child often craves similarity and hopes not to stand out from classmates, but if an accident or illness strikes and leaves lasting traces, the child knows that they must adapt to a world where they will always be seen as a kink in that safe line of normality. How the child deals with this determines the route their life will take.

Xavier Haas was born in Paris in 1907 to hotel owning parents. Two sisters quickly followed and life was idyllic until illness struck Haas when he was only 6 years old. He had contracted Poliomyelitis when on a trip to Alsace, and soon realised that he would be condemned to a life of health problems and physical suffering. A year after this incident, the First World War broke out and the father was sent off to battle. He would survive – just – but would never be the same afterwards having been gassed in the trenches.

The house where Haas was born with the construction his parents had built behind.

Amidst this suffering, Haas discovered art. His Uncle, a talented but depressive artist, lived on the ground floor of his building and the young boy would often spend time with him. Haas had problems walking but he decided that he would excel with his hands, and become an illustrator, sculptor and engraver. After his education in Paris, he spent much time in Brittany where he struck up a lifelong friendship with another artist, Xavier de Langlais.

A portrait of Haas by his friend Xavier de Langlais.

The parents of Xavier Haas supported him in his chosen career and decided to construct a building that would enable him both to work and give him a steady income. It would also prove to be his lasting monument in Paris. The construction at 12 Rue Cassini was entrusted to the architect Charles Abella* in 1930, and the result is a curious but fascinating mixture of forms and styles, completed by an extraordinary sculptured frieze by Xavier Haas himself.

The building was designed as a place where artists could live and work, and was built alongside the house where Haas had been born. It is seven stories high, with bay-window fronted studios and an incredible twisting tower of Babel staircase. It is a building that is very much caught on the cusp of modernism (in its forms and the fact that the functions are so clear) and the neo-classical (Abella chose a kind of pebbledash stone exterior rather than bare concrete), and certainly stands out from other structures in the vicinity.

Haas took a studio in the building and added the frieze at the entrance. For one who was so physically weakened, the creation is a muscular show of force and a robust celebration of art. The art deco styled figures - solid, winged deities - and the extravagant swirls and decorations make it a very powerful work.

Haas would create other works, notably in Brittany, but his influence would be felt more in other areas. He was behind the setting up of an organisation known as the Paralysés de France, and contributed to their magazine called ‘Faire Face’. He continued creating, but ill-health would catch up with him and he died in 1950 aged only 43. His friend, de Langlais, who had often painted portraits of him during his life, sketched him as he lay on his deathbed. It is a quickly scratched picture of calm repose, but Haas would probably want to be remembered more for something else - the vigour of his remarkable sculpture which ensured that he would always stand out from the crowd.

*Charles Abella was not a prolific architect and only designed two buildings in Paris (the other is another similarly curious mix of styles on the Avenue Hoch). However, his name is associated today with one of the most prestigious architectural competitions in France – the Grand Prix d'Architecture de l'Académie des Beaux-Arts. The first prize is known as the Prix Charles Abella, and is awarded to promising young architects.
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