How Times Change
In the light of recent terror attacks, what the reaction would be today to the proposal of a mosque in the centre of Paris can only be imagined, but in 1926 the Paris Mosque was universally welcomed. At that time, France still retained a colonial empire which included Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria, collectively known as the mahreb; many of the muslim citizens of the mahreb fought for France in WWI with more than 100,000 laying down their lives alongside the French poilus, and with that in mind President Gaston Doumergue inaugurated the mosque in remembrance of the North African tirailleurs who had fought in the trenches of Flanders. Between the wars, Moroccans, Tunisians and Algerians came to the big cities of France in search of a better life while many Frenchmen and their families travelled in the opposite direction attracted by work opportunities and inspired by innumerable and colourful posters of some oriental dreamscape which more often than not existed solely in the imagination of the poster artists.
By the 1940's there were a substantial number of North Africans in Paris living in harmony with an equally substantial population of Sephardic Jews also of North African origin. At this point in the story it's important to realize just how much both ethnic groups had in common - they resembled each other in looks, they both practiced circumcision, both eschewed pork and both spoke Arabic; in fact, there is so little difference between the two groups it begs the question as to why they are eternally at war, but that's another story.
The Mosque itself on the corner of rue Geoffroy Saint -Hilare and rue Censier, across the road from Le Jardin des Plantes in the 5th arrondisement, is from the outside deceptively small and many visitors enjoy a coffee on the tiled terrrace with its soothing atmosphere before heading off for other places. However, the interior reveals the best of Arab culture in the form of that unique tiling and exquisite calligraphy which leads on to a garden where serenity rules supreme.
The mosque had only been open for 14 years when the German occupation of Paris began in 1940 and a man named Si Kaddour Benghabrit was rector; Benghabrit began to shelter Jews in the mosque from the early days of the occupation and despite warnings from the Nazis to stop, he continued to hide Jews and provide them with false Muslim identity papers for the duration of their occupation. Providing shelter and papers to Sephardic Jews was fairly easy for the reasons given in the previous paragraph but the redoubtable Benghabrit also sheltered Ashkenarzi Jews from Northern Europe who knew nothing of North Africa and would certainly have been deported to the concentration camps.
The full extent of Benghabrit's courage and humanity has never been documented and much of the story is still filled with confusion, with some stating that dozens were saved from the clutches of the Nazis, others saying the numbers were in the hundreds and one reliable report saying that a total of 1700 Jews and Christians were given papers and sheltered in the underground caverns of the mosque. But no matter how many or how few were saved the fact remains that Si Kaddour Benghabrit sheltered and saved lives during the German occupation and did not differentiate between people's religions or they countries they came from.
In a sign of the changing times, some years after the war Benghabrit
opposed his fellow Muslims during the struggle for Algerian independence.
He died an unsung hero in 1954.
In 2011 Ismael Ferrouki directed a film entitled Les Hommes Libres which tells the story of the Paris Mosque via a fictionalized Algerian named Younes (Tahar Rahim) who is forced by the Nazis to spy on the mosque. As Younes comes to know Benghabrit, who is played by Michael Lonsdale, and the youth he is sheltering named Salim (Mahmud Shalaby) who is both Jewish and homosexual, he begins to understand the real meaning of humanity.
The Treasures of the Louvre
First time visitors to Paris usually place a visit to the Louvre high on their must-see list but unless you are a completely dyed-in-the-wool art buff then it can surprisingly be quite a disappointment simply because it's so big. As a vast repository of art from around the world, the Louvre is a staggering in its size and even if you spend a whole day there you could only ever see a fraction of its treasures - most first time visitors enter its massive portals all enthusiasm and vigour and end up wandering in a daze around its endless corridors. The Mona Lisa is always surrrounded by crowds of people all craning their heads for a view of the most famous painting in the world but although it may be heresy to say so the painting is really quite boring and most of the other pictures on show are vastly superior. As far as a visit to the Louvre goes, the trick is to choose a particular subject or work of art and go straight to it then anything else is a bonus -wandering around aimlessly is a sure path to exhaustion. Personally, I like the sculpture gallery which is tastefully arranged, dramatic and informative
Le Musée D'Orsay
Once upon a time the Musée D'Orsay was easily accessible but the more informed have caught on that it is far easier to cope with than the Louvre and the queues can be quite lengthy. However, there is good news because while you are moving along the line there is a fabulous parvis to look at filled with sculptures from the Universal Exhibition of 1878. More like a sculpture park than a parvis, the sculptures of the horse and elephant and rhino sculptures provide a dramatic hint of things to come, while providing a majestic backdrop is a line of six seated Amazons - each is by a different sculptor representing allegorical figures of Europe, Asia, Africa, North America, South America and Oceania with each one looking more formidable than the next.
Built in 1900, Le Musée D'Orsay was originally a wonderfully baroque cathedral of a railway station designed to give incoming passengers a taste of Parisian style as soon as they alighted from their train. Just a few years later, the station welcomed other passengers who were too sick to appreciate their surroundings as train load after train load of wounded arrived during the First World War. When normal service resumed after the war, train services were once again discontinued in 1939, when the world was on the brink of the Second World War. The building was never used as a station again and was left empty for years apart from the station hotel whose long-term residents overlooked the now silent but still magnificent building. Now and then the building was used as by theatre groups and in 1962, Orson Welles filmed Franz Kafka's The Trial - a fittingly surreal subject considering the surroundings. The 1970's brought about more discussions on the future of the station with some who should have known better suggesting that it should be demolished. Fortunately, common-sense prevailed and in 1979 work began on converting the station into a museum which opened its doors in 1986 which is when i first travelled there along with many others from England and other countries who had eagerly awaited the new museum.
The list of paintings and sculptures on display is too long to list here - suffice it to say that all the French sculptors and artists you have ever heard of are well represented and the museum is a treasure-trove of mostly French art. The Impressionist paintings which are always popular were for many years housed in the Jeu de Paume building at the northern corner of the Tuileries Gardens. It was in the Jeu de Paume that Hermann Goering and other high-ranking Nazis stored their looted paintings ready for transport to Berlin; the original building features in the film The Train starring Burt Lancaster as a railway man sabotaging the trains carrying the looted works of art. The same scenario is shown at the beginning of The Night of the Long Knives and many works of art from across Paris stored here did find their way to Berlin.
Another painting, which has had a chequered history is Gustave Courbet's L'Origine du Monde . Even today Courbet's painting remains controversial, scandalous and disturbing and to many can be considered obscene which is why I have not placed it on this site. Painted in 1866 for a Turkish diplomat living in Paris, the picture remained unseen for over 130 years, was once in the hands of the Wehrmacht until the Red Army gained possession of it and finally it found a home in Le Musée D'Orsay where it is discreetly tucked way in a side room. As controversial as the painting remains, its artist, Gustave Courbet (1819 - 1877) is equally controversial and besides producing other contentious paintings, he was active within the Commune of 1870. Courbet may well have been forgiven his Communard activities until he went one step too far and was seen helping to pull down the statue of Napoleon in the centre of La Place Vendôme - the penalty for his actions bankrupted him and ruined his career in a situation where the downfall of Napoleon also caused the downfall of Gustave Courbet.
Rodin's sculptures are always sought out but sometimes I suspect that it may be a case of "the Emperor's new clothes" because there are many sculptors far superior and one of them might just be Camille Claudel whose sculptures are next to Rodin's. Camille Claudel was once a student and mistress of Rodin; her relationship with her family was far from satisfactory and when Rodin discarded her and her family turned against her Camille was committed to an asylum and her life ended sadly in a downward spiral.
Selected at random, the examples above illustrate clearly how much historical background is inherent in each work of art and without that knowledge it is slightly diminished. It also shows that by their very nature artists can be neurotic, feckless, amoral and rebellious - they live lives full of drama and there are very few who work 8 hours and go home for their tea.
Rose Valland was the curator of the Jeu de Paume and a Resistance member. She was present when Goering chose his paintings for Berlin and noted them down. Although she only appeared briefly, Rose was the inspiration for the film The Train and in reality the true heroine of the story.
The statue of Napoleon following its destruction in La Place Vendôme. Courbet helped to pull it down.
Possibly the least studied sculpture in the gallery is that of a boy and his dog atop a large plinth and most visitors pass it by without so much as a glance, in search of more dramatic subjects. The statue is in fact that of Prince Napoléon Eugène Louis Jean Joseph Bonaparte (1856 - 1871), better known as the Prince Imperial, and some years later the small boy was once at the heart of one of the most poignant eras in French history. Prince Napoléon was the beloved only child of the Emperor Napoleon III and the Empress Eugènie, born into greatness and groomed as the next in line in the Napoleonic dynasty. The commission for the statue was given to the sculptor Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux (1827- 1875) who was a favourite of Napoleon and Eugènie and among his other works sculpted the Four Parts of the World Sustaining the Globe atop the Observatory Fountain. The sculptor gave drawing and modelling lessons to the Prince Imperial and has immortalized him in marble as a small boy with his dog Nero; there is a replica of the statue which is seen even less than the one in the Musée D'Orsay - it is at the top of a field beneath a small belvedere in private land adjacent to Josephine's home, Malmaison. There are also many small replicas in Sèvres for collectors of Napoleonic memorabilia.
The Death of the Prince Imperial
In a strange way the influence of Napoleon Bonaparte led to the sequence of events which brought about the death of The prince Imperial in circumstances so bizarre they were unthinkable while Napoleon III was still Emperor. Napoleon III would never accept that his talents lay in other directions than the great Napoleon Bonaparte, and never felt fulfilled until he could capture even just a fleeting part of Bonaparte's "La Gloire." Victories at Magenta and Solferino had led him to believe that France was foremost among the countries of Europe and when Prussia began sabre-rattling, the Emperor led his armies to war on a tide of emotion and hubris expecting to march on Berlin within weeks. His delusions about his talents as a general and his faith in the strength of his army, with defeat after defeat during the Franco- Prussian War culminating in the debacle at Sedan was the beginning of the end of his reign as Emperor. While Napoleon III was held as a prisoner of the Prussians, the Empress Eugènie aided by her dentist, fled through the corridors of the Louvre into a fiacre and made her way to the Channel and on to a small boat which took her and the Prince to the safety of England. There is a strange episode which occurred when Eugènie was fleeing through the Louvre while escaping the mobs in the streets - passing the painting of The Raft of the Medusa by Géricault she was heard to say "How Strange" but nobody has ever found out why.
"The Prince Imperial and his Dog Nero" by Carpeaux.
The flight of the Empress Eugènie through the Louvre.
Humiliated by the Prussians, with Paris under siege and an insurrection by the Communards, Napoleon was finally released to join Eugènie in England where in 1871 they were welcomed as exiles from France by Queen Victoria. The Prince Imperial was 14 years of age when he was suddenly transplanted from Paris to England but with the exuberance of youth he began to espouse all things English and was well liked by all he came into contact with. Two years after their arrival in England Napoleon III died in 1873 which left the Prince Imperial the de facto head of the dynasty and his supporters named him Napoleon IIII. The Bonaparte clan could never resist anything martial and The Prince eventually joined the British army where he earned a reputation for being daring and rash to the point of foolishness. This trait was acceptable in England where he could be looked after, but when The Prince persuaded and cajoled his mother to use her influence to allow him to travel to South Africa with the British expeditionary force led by Lord Chelmsford, the die was cast for a tragedy which reverberated through British and French society and changed history to an extent which is unmeasurable. The British expedition of July 1879 followed the massacre of British troops at the battle of Isandlwana with the object of redressing the humiliation of several months earlier and defeating the Zulu warriors of Cetshwayo once and for all.
Although the Prince Imperial was well liked by his fellow officers they were constantly alarmed by the chances that he took and how impetuous he was to the point of foolishness. When the expedition reached Zululand and came into contact with enemy scouts the Prince would chase after them like a hound after a fox oblivious to any danger of ambush. In retrospect, it was utter folly to allow the Prince to go on patrol with a small group of riders ostensibly led by the experienced Lieutenant Carey, but the Prince was accustomed to having his own way and although he had no right to do so he took charge of the group with fatal consequences. It was in fact the Prince's decision to choose a resting place in a deep gully surrounded by head high grasses which could not have been bettered for an ambush by a Zulu impi. And an ambush is precisely what happened when approximately 70 Zulu skirmishers crept close to the group before launching an attack. The seven men which made up the group, including Carey, raced to their horses and galloped away from the Zulus, followed by the Prince Imperial who was an outstanding horseman and under normal circumstances would have raced off with the rest. But fate conspired to thwart any escape that day when the saddle cinch on the Princes' horse (named Tommy) snapped at the most inopportune of times leaving the Prince at the mercy of the Zulus. Although he fought for his life, the Prince died under a hail of assegais, and on the 1st of June, 1879, with him died the hopes and ambitions for a future Emperor of the French.
The manner of the death of the Prince Imperial is what makes the statue of the Prince with his dog Nero at his feet, such a poignant image - a small boy staring eternally hopeful and bright-eyed into a future which came to such an abrupt end on the grasslands of South Africa.
Picture by Paul Jamin