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   Les Halles 1898 by Leon Lhermitte                Petit Palais, Fine Art Museum
                                                                                                    

St Germain des Pres 2

The Café Deux Magots - If you look closely, you will see a very young Catherine Deneuve, a pensive Oscar Wilde, Picasso in his sailor-boy period, an ever cheerful Hemingway, a smart-looking John Paul-Sartre and a don't-mess-with-me Simone De Beauvoir. trying to figure out the meaning of existentialism.

Les Deux Magots
As the rue du Dragon exits onto the Boulevard St Germain, the contrast between the sombre, shady street and the generous pavements of the busting quartier could hardly be more different.  Although the heart of St Germain des Prés is in reality the ancient and venerable Church itself, for many tourists the area is defined by its three iconic cafés -  Deux Magots, the Café de Flore  and the Brasserie Lipp, simply because they were and still are populated by celebrities old and new.  Brasserie Lipp is the haunt of politicians and businessmen and most tourists head for the famous Deux Magots which is famed for its long line of intellectuals, writers and artist down the years but is also situated in one of the most beautiful areas of Paris where you can people-watch to your heart's content - provided you aren't worried about l'addition
Deux Magots was originally a fabric shop on nearby rue de Buci which was called Les Deux Magots de la Chine after a popular play of the 1800's.  The shop moved to its present position in 1873 taking its two statues of les deux magots along; when the shop was turned into the present day café the Chinese figures were sited overlooking the dining room where they are prominent today.  There are various versions for the translation of les deux magots ranging from Chinese mandarins to magicians or simply Chinese salesmen.

Café de Flore
Opened around the same time as Les Deux Magots, the Café de Flore has never been short of customers and often outdoes its rival in every way. 

the Café takes its name from a statue of Flora which once stood on the opposite side of the boulevard.

While Les Deux Magots had its regular celebrity customers, the Café de Flore  boasted its own set of famous philosophers, writers  and poets including Appolinaire Georges Bataille, Robert Desnos and Robert Queneau - there was also André Breton and Louis Aragon who claimed they invented Surrealism at a table in the Café. During the 1920's, they even had, as a frequent customer, the future Chinese premier, Zhou Enlai, who was on a scholarship trip to foreign countries, studying their methods of resolving social issues - or so he said - but is'nt that what every student says?.


But without doubt, the most memorable customer at Café de Flore was Simone Signoret (1921 - 1985) who announced that she was  “born one evening in 1941 on a seat in the Café de Flore”.  In her 1979 autobiography Nostalgia Isn't What It Used To be, Simone speaks warmly of her teen years when she was a regular at the Café de Flore in a crowd which called themselves Fleuristes.  It was among the aspiring actors and actresses and theatre people among the Fleuristes that she first thought of taking up an acting career which led to her becoming, for many years, the leading actress in France .  Her sensual looks and smouldering style earned her a part opposite Laurence Harvey in a British film called Room At The Top (1959) which was sensational at the time and so was Simone who won an Oscar for her performance - the first time a French actress had ever done so. 
In 1951, Simone married the French actor Yves Montand ( see picture above) and besides acting, the couple shared an interest in politics which they often discussed deep into the night at the Café de Flore with a different set of Fleuristes.
Simone is buried beneath a weeping Birch tree in La Cimetière de Père Lachaise.

  Église de Saint-Germain-des-Prés
The oldest Church in Paris, at first glance, the Church itself has none of the extravagant architecture  of Notre-Dame or the grandeur of any Cathedral you care to name but its humble exterior belies the beauty and style inside. 

There has been a Church on the site since 542 A.D. but the present building dates from the 11th century and has survived Viking invaders and English invaders across the years - however, it was during the Revolution that the Church narrowly avoided being destoyed by Parisians themselves: in common with many Churches and Abbeys during the Terror, the Church of Saint-Germain-des-Prés had been appropriated by sans-culottes for the purpose of storing gunpowder and arms and it was only by good fortune that the Church avoided being blown to smithereens.   


Modern Art
                  Just outside the Church is one of those small Parisian squares where it's most pleasant to sit and people-watch without paying anything at all.  There's a sculpture in the centre of the garden of the poet Guillaume Apollinaire  - or so the plaque attached to the plinth tells us - but although it borders on heresy to criticise Picasso, it has to be said that it looks nothing like Apollinaire.  In fact, the bust is not Apollinaire at all but one of four busts made by Picasso of his muse and lover Dora Maar - and it looks nothing like her either. 

The story goes that when Picasso was commissioned to sculpt the bust of Apollinaire by the Paris City Council, the negotiations became so protracted that the artist became frustrated to the point that he supplied one of the heads of Dora Maar instead.  Cast in 1941, the bust was placed on the plinth as an homage to Apollinaire, and it tells us a great deal about surrealism, that nobody noticed the difference.  

Picasso was a great friend of Apollinaire over many years; in their younger days, when both artists were living in poverty, they took to purloining miniature statuettes from the Louvre to sell for food until they were caught red-handed and got off lightly in the circumstances.  His friendship with the poet was why he was commissioned to do the work in the first place, and the bust was placed in the garden in 1959, close to the Café de Flore, where the poet was known for holding court.

I know that Picasso is an icon of cubism and surrealism, and I don't claim to be an expert, and I apologize to all the Picasso fans out there, but the fact is that  I have never been able to fathom out why his works are so popular - sometimes, I think it's a case of The Emperor's New Clothes.  But even the most avid Picasso fan must wonder what Dora Maar had to say when he first unveiled the bizarre creation and asked if she liked it.

 


Picasso's vision of Dora Maar
Dora Maar
as she really was
Across the cobbled road, from the garden is another piece of modern art, entitled L’Embâcle.  The sculpture was given to the city of Paris by the province of Québec and placed in situe in 1984.  L’Embâcle is French for an ice-floe and the raised paving slabs are meant to represent ice floes breaking up on the St Lawrence river, with a small fountain beneath the slabs.  Although on paper, it's a good idea, in reality, most onlookers need to be told what the sculpture represents - and if you have to ask then it has'nt worked. 





L'Académie des Beaux-Arts
          Having absorbed the atmosphere around the centre of St Germain des Prés, once again, a number of streets look quite intriguing, but while rue Guillaume Apollinaire and rue de L'Abbaye to right and left, have their attractions, the rue Bonaparte which runs down to the Seine beckons most of all.  Although we are heading down to the Académie des Beaux-Arts, it is well worth mentioning that the rue Bonaparte was once a river called la Noue , which was enlarged in the 14th century to a canal which supplied the water for the moat surrounding the Abbey of St Germain des Prés - sadly, the moat and river were both demolished in the 17 th century and the river converted into two streets - the rue du Pot de Fer dite du Verger and the rue des Petits Augustins which were confined to the dustbin of history and renamed rue Bonaparte in 1852.  Working from bottom to top, No 5 (the then) rue des Petits Augustins was where Edouard Manet was born and later occupied by le Maréchal Hubert Lyautey from 1911 to 1934.  Henry Miller stayed at no. 24 between 1928 and 1930.  The restaurant at no. 30, the Café Pré aux Clercs, was Ernest Hemingway's favourite haunt in Paris ( although every Café in Paris makes the same claim).  No 42 was the home of French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, from 1945 to 1962.  There are many more of interest and I have chosen just a sample to illustrate the rich history of the street.
As you can see, it is quite easy to deviate from any chosen path in Paris, but the most interesting place on rue Bonaparte is no 14 rue des Petits -Augustins which is the home of the L'Académie des Beaux-Arts .
The entrance to L'Académie des Beaux-Arts is flanked by the carved heads of Pierre Paul Puget and Nicolas Poussin which have been in situ since 1838 and are now showing their age.  With such a compelling gateway, it is unfortunate that the academy is closed to the public - however, all is not lost, as if you meet the concierge on a good day, he just might allow you to look around the courtyard, and if he becomes a little forgetful, you may easily explore a little further.

The courtyard has been built on an epic scale and the marble column standing in the centre, topped by a statue, is just as monumental.  From the beginning there is an inescapable air of faded elegance about the whole place and if you stood here at the end of the day as the sun went down, you could quite easily conjure up the shades of the innumerable artists, sculptors and architects,who have studied here, as they made their way out in paint -spattered smocks, arguing between themselves as to the style and substance of their work.  The numbers of students that have studied here are staggering and include Géricault, Degas, Delacroix, Fragonard, Ingres, Sisley, Seurat, Bourdelle, Delaroche, to name but a few - strangely, Rodin was turned down as a student three times.

As if one colossal courtyard was not enough, beyond a dividing wall is another one, not quite so large, but made more imposing by having the impressive entrance to the buildings at the end which has been called the Palais des Etudes since 1816. 

The origins of the Academy date back to a time when Marguerite de Valois (Margot), the sister of Henry III, instigated the monastery of the Petits-Augustins ( hence the old street name) in 1617.  The Augustin monks were at first given the nickname déchaussée after their manner of going barefoot but the name changed to Petit -Augustin when they were granted an audience with the King at Versailles; the King had haughtily asked "who are these little monks?" and inadvertently gave them their name. 
The ancient chapel of the
Petits-Augustins with the portico of the Castle of Anet (1550) grafted on.

 
Five years after installing the Petits-Augustins in their new home, in an amazing volte-face, Margot tired of the monastery and the monks, and looked for an excuse to expel them: her excuse was so feeble that it was almost laughable - she said that she disliked their chanting and they should sing instead - and the Petits-Augustins were forced to find a new home.

The expulsion of the Petits-Augustins was the beginning of the monastery turned into a school and in 1648 Cardinal Mazarin founded L'Académie des Beaux-Arts, encouraging talented students in painting, sculpture and architecture and other associated skills.  Louis XIV took a great interest in the academy as it provided the finest artists in the land for the decoration and embellishment of the Palae of Versailles.  The academy became independent from the government in 1863, when Napoleon III also changed the name to l'École des Beaux-Arts.



L'École des Beaux-Arts in The Terror​

When the Bastille fell in July, 1789, it was a cataclysmic
event which resounds to this day, but a few months later 
​the Assembly went even further by making all the
property of the clergy available to Nation.  It was an
incredible  assault upon the established Church and
led to far worse depravity than the storming of
the Bastille; right across Paris, there was
hardly a Church or monastery left
untouched by an undisciplined program of
vandalism, appropriation, theft and slaughter
on a grand scale.

In a belated realization that many works of art
were being destroyed the Assembly decided that
the most valuable should be stored in the convent
of the Petits-Augustins and appointed an established 
curator, Alexandre Lenoir (1761 - 1839) to oversee
the​ storage of the treasures.  

In 1793, in yet another act of spite, the Convention decreed
that the tombs of the former Kings of France should be destroyed, and an enthusiastic mob marched on St Denis, where they set about excavating the tombs and destroying the remains of centuries of French monarchs.  In the process, they also began to destroy the monuments which were works of art in their own right, and it at this point that Lenoir intervened, at no small risk to his own life.  Most of the artworks were rescued and taken to the garden of the monastery of the Petits-Augustins.  The mob in Paris was a terrifying sight and unleashed and undisciplined, in their ignorance, the sans-culottes also destroyed the dozens of statues of French Kings on the facade of Notre Dame Cathedral - only, they were not French Kings at all but the heads of Kings of Israel. 

The picture above right is the glorious statue on a pedestal which stands in the courtyard - the contemporary painting of the garden of the Petits-Augustins (bottom left) shows the same statue along with others Lenoir rescued and placed in the garden.
The picture (top left) shows the convent stuffed with treasures rescued by Lenoir. 


Alexandre Lenoir's heroic efforts never ended there, and he   extended his rescue work to many other Churches in the city including the Church of Ste-Geneviève (now the Pantheon).  You only need to glance at the above pictures to see that the monuments he transported to the Petits-Augustins were truly monumental in size, and how he moved them is a miracle in itself.   The painting on the right by Jean Lubin Vauzelle shows the convent with some of the sculptures and monuments as they were in 1795.
In a strange way, the ancient monastery was fulfilling its role as a place of sanctuary, but of art works and not people.  By 1794, the monastery and convent were full of treasures from around the city, and in a flash of inspiration, Lenoir decided he would open them to the public.  Lenoir named his venture La Musée des Monuments Français, and so it remained for the following 20 years, with Lenoir as its administrator.   When the Restoration restored the Bourbons to the throne, the monuments began to be filtered back to their original homes - some to the Louvre, some to Versailles and some in private ownership..



the Palais des Etudes- the sculptures are from Lenoir's collection
From 1816 onwards , the ancient monastery was built upon and extended by the architect Félix Duban with just small fragments of the original remaining - notably, the convent and cloister.  The cloister was re-designed to make a Roman atrium called the Cour de Mûrier in memory of a mulberry tree planted there by Lenoir. 
Duban's most notable work is at the end of the grand courtyard and called the Palais des Etudes which is a monumental building designed for exhibitions.



However, Alexandre Lenoir's work was not lost altogether - ordinary French people and the establishment began to realize just what a fabulous heritage they had come close to losing on the bonfire of Robespierre's weird vanity.  The result was that Lenoir's legacy to the French people lives on ,with the same name of La Musée des Monuments  Français, in the Palais de Chaillot.  Most people completely ignore this marvellous museum in their haste to view the Eiffel Tower, overlooking Trocadero, but if you wish to see some of Lenoir's legacy, many of them plaster copies, this is the place to go. 
The interior of the Palais des Etudes
The Trials of Oscar Wilde
            Oscar Wilde's famous epigram, when passing through customs on his trip to America, "I have nothing to declare but my genius," tells us all we need to know about his colossal ego.  However, the British establishment was a totally different thing to American custom's officials, which Wilde should have well known, so whatever persuaded him to take on that austere organization is quite beyond belief. 

Wilde's troubles began when he met the odious Lord Alfred Douglas, nicknamed Bosie, who was homosexual and the son of a pillar of the establishment, The Marquess of Queensbury, who abhorred his son's sexual leanings.  Naturally enough, The Marquess was appalled at his son's asssociation with Oscar Wilde, who, by this time, was making no attempt to hide his affection for Lord Alfred.  Wilde was besotted by the vindictive, sulky, and petulant aristocrat, and it would soon lead to his downfall.

Although The Marquess of Queensbury was displeased with his son's behavior, to say the least, it was Oscar who he blamed for the association between the two men and after several public denuciations, he left a calling card for Wilde with the porter at the private Albemarle Club in London. The card read: “For Oscar Wilde, posing somdomite [sic].”  At this point, the sensible thing to do would have been to tear up the note and for Wilde to go on his way, but he misjudged every aspect of his situation and fell into a trap of his own making when he decided to sue the Marquess for libel.

How Oscar ever expected to win his case in the days when not only was homosexuality considered a disgusting aberration but was also a criminal offence is beyond understanding - even Lord Alfred himself called homosexuality "The love that dare not speak its name."
Even over 50 years later, Alan Turing, the brilliant Enigma code-breaker was treated so badly by an establishment that he had served so well that he committed suicide in 1954; but despite this and many other such instances,  it is astonishing that it took until 1967 before homosexuality was de-criminalised in Great Britain. 

Oscar Wilde and Lord Alfred Douglas, the son of the Marquess of Queensbury.

Nevertheless. in a total act of madness, Oscar took the Marquess to court for libel, and several days  into the case, it was thrown out, and Oscar found that it was he who was on trial for "gross indecency with men."   Matters became even worse when Oscar turned his court-room appearances into theatrical performances with himself as the star.  Oscar's posturing and pouting and witty repartee ensured the court-room was always full to the brim, with an audience enjoying every minute of the show, but Oscar's dissembling was ultimately self-destructive and predictably, he was found guilty of sodomy.

 On the 25th of May, 1895, Oscar was sentenced to two years hard labour in Wandsworth prison and began a tough regime which included hours on the treadmill.  After months of this treatment the effects on Oscar's health began to become apparent and his friends, led by the redoubtable Robbie Ross, a Canadian jounalist  and former lover of Oscar, fearing for his life, had him transferred to Reading Jail, where life was a little easier.

Thanks to his friends' intervention,  Oscar survived his ordeal and was released in May, 1897, not a day more or a day less than his sentence.  However, he was a broken man and as a shadow of his former self, he wandered around Europe aimlessly for a short time, inexorably drawn to the feckless, Lord Alfred Douglas, like a moth to a flame, when he was in Rome. 

Eventually, Oscar settled in Paris where, in February, 1898, he took a room in the Hôtel de Nice in the rue des Beaux-Arts, just 100 yards or so from the entrance to l'École des Beaux-Arts on rue Bonaparte.  Oscar moved to the nearby L'Hôtel  d'Alsace on the same tiny street, in mid-March, 1898 - he was never at a loss for words in Paris, speaking fluent French. 

L'Hôtel d'Alsace,  (the name has now changed) suited Oscar down to the ground and if you go there today, the extremely affable staff will allow you to wander around and look at the framed letters writtten by Oscar to his friends.  The hotel today is quite unique in that it retains the ambiance and atmosphere of Belle Époque Paris, and you can, with a little imagination , see Oscar Wilde flouncing down the stairs or relaxing at breakfast before wandering to Les Deux Magots and other haunts he had discovered.  The hotel is pictured right -the plaque on the left commemorates Oscar Wilde's stay there.

While Oscar had been in Reading Jail, he had been allowed  unprecedented access to paper and pen and it was there that he began his series of bitter essays which were later entitled De Profundis.   He wrote with difficulty on his release, but managed to pen a diatribe to the Daily Chronicle, outlining the plight of children in prison.  However, if anything good ever came out of his sojourn in Reading Jail it was his lengthy poem entitled The Ballad of Reading Goal which is a heart-rending account of his fellow prisoner's crimes and punishment.

Some love too little, some too long
Some sell, and others buy;
Some do the deed with many tears,
  And some without a sigh:
For each man kills the thing he loves,
  Yet each man does not die.



Oscar lived in theL'Hôtel d'Alsace  until November, 30th 1900, checking out  in every sense of the word  with the parting epigram "Either that wallpaper goes or I do."  He was just 46 years of age.

He was buried in Le Cimetière du Père Lachaise with a bizarre memorial by Sir Jacob Epstein which is visted often and covered in Oscar's epigrams in lipstick, paint or pencil.
The tiny rue Des Beaux Arts faces the entrance to the L'L'École des Beaux-Arts at one end and enters the rue de Seine at the other.  If you turn left, you will soon reach the river Seine, but turning right leads you along the street with its quirky shops which then leads you to the rue de Buci and back into the maze of narrow streets which makes the Left Bank so unique.

And as this particular ramble comes to its end with the promise of more delights in the evening in the Cafés of Montparnasse, there is one more thing which comes to mind; there is one aspect of Paris which is rarely mentioned, and that is wherever you go, you will always come across quirky shops, selling strange objects to be seen nowhere else on earth.  Some of the items in the windows, always artfully and tastefully displayed, are so bizarre that you wonder just who on earth would buy them - and there is a sense that many of the shopkeepers would find it painful to part with their goods. 

I recall one shop near to St Eustache which just sold Native American stuff - so if you wanted an authentic bow and arrows ot a Chief's head-dress that was the place to go.  Another shop I recall sold nothing but creepy straw mannekins and another catered solely for gay canines - yes, you read it correctly, gay canines. 

But here on the rue de Seine, is a statue of what could be a gilded Jesus meeting a gilded Mickey Mouse.  There is a distinct sense of Banksy in this artwork - what does it mean ? I have no idea --- but there is an idea germinating for making Parisian shops a specialist subject and one day maybe - who knows. 
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