Tuesday, September 2, 2014

These Days

And then there are extraordinary ordinary days. Like when your brother and his awesome wife and their two fantastic boys come to where you live, and you find yourself very soon at the park and the kids are running around and maybe you've actually been here a while now. And it's on this day that I realize that the kids completely know their way around our neighborhood on their scooters, that they're the ones getting the baguettes for lunch and dinner (oh yes), that Iris has memorized the bus stops from La Défense to our house, that we love our house very much, and that somehow this has become home base.

Little kids have a way of simultaneously slowing things down and speeding them up. It is one of their many powers. Little Henry and tiny, mighty Emmett guided us through a dreamy afternoon of play, play, play. I'd forgotten that: the play all day. I now have kids who (need to?) retreat into their own worlds for a bit - books, intimate conversation, drawings, videos, books. It's quite something, then, to see my kids enthralled by their cousins, to enter that play, and go with it. To walk with it. I know that Oliver is 12 (France reminds me every day), and I see that in this picture and I can't see it. It's Oliver at any age, it's Oliver fixed in time but always Oliver. He's always been the kid to take the little kid's hand. Just now everybody's bigger.

And so three different days. Everyone but me and Eleanor and my mom are off to Nice where my sister-in-law has a conference (nice!). I'll shift work to start on a book review that's due in three months (fresh!) and we'll see what Paris has to offer three generations all at once (thus far, Musée de la Vie Romantique calls - we'll see if we can get Eleanor to join my new George Sand obsession: I've been reading Indiana (because why wouldn't I? Sand's first novel as Sand, the heroine is the daughter of colonial settlers, highly recommended by esteemed colleagues, and the heroine's name is Indiana!), and we're eager to see a movie - good thing the new Pariscope comes out tomorrow!). We have our habits, it turns out - there for us to realize when something wonderful happens.

Musée Nissim de Camondo meets Malmaison

Abraham Solomon de Camondo
The Musée de Nissim de Camondo and Malmaison meet in the Middle East, are furnished by far-flung itineraries of modernity, and come to rest in Paris. A section of my "Politics/History of Display" course will feature house museums, specifically those that are shaped by their owners' identities and/or collections outside of Europe, and these sites offer treasure troves of possibilities. "Treasure" is an operative word, in all its problematics. The houses house treasures, the houses are treasures, all bespeaking histories of fascination, exchange, and exploitation (capitalism and culture) . There's no comparing them: they are stopping points along the long trajectory that has linked France and the Middle East since the Crusades in the 12th century. Nissim de Camondo's path to Paris begins in 1492, when Queen Isabella of Spain exiled all Jews from her kingdom. The family emigrated to Venice, and 300 years later when the Austrians came, to Istanbul. At the very same time that Napoleon was leading his wild campaigns in Egypt and Syria (1798-1801), Abraham Solomon Camondo and his family established what would become the Imperial Ottoman bank in 1863 with a thriving subsidiary in Paris as of 1869.

Beatrice and Nissim de Camondo
In 1870, King Victor Emmanuel II of Italy made Abraham a hereditary count, changing the family name to "de Camondo" in honor of the family's contributions to Italy during another set of Austria attacks. A new country bestowing an ancient title on an esteemed family. Abraham would join his son Moïse in Paris and die there three years later. He would be buried in the Jewish cemetery of Istanbul and that wish, and images of him, close out the long chapter we know of this family that began in Spain. The rather stunning shift in costume and demeanor from Abraham to Nissim in these two photos tell a tale of modernity, of France and the Ottoman Empire, of this family negotiating two worlds. Moïse, son of Abraham, built the house you can visit today in the posh 16th arrondissment near the Parc Monceau in 1911, and raised his two children, Nissim and Beatrice, there.

Books bound unbounded at the
Musée Nissim de Camondo
There is a strange intimacy in this house. Everything seems so whole, so complete: no restorations, no substitutions: these are the books of Moïse, these are the hallways that Nissim and Beatrice ran down, this is the dining room where they ate, here is the porcelain collection they used. The house was only lived in for 14 years: Nissim was killed in 1917, serving in the French air force. It was then that Moïse decided to will the house to the French government. When he died in 1935, the house was given to the Musée des Arts Décoratifs, which is still its steward today. It heralds the house not as the culmination of hundreds of years of displacements and achievements, not as a crossroads of France and the Ottoman Empire, but as one of the finest collections of 18th-century furnishings anywhere in Paris. Which it is. But.

The Grand Salon
So this would be one of the conversations we would have in this class: what is spoken, written up, and celebrated in any museum setting; what is mentioned, elided over, glossed and in what proportion. Because the only thing that acknowledges the end of the Camondo family at Auschwitz, where Beatrice, her husband and her two young children died in 1944, is an inscription in the entrance drive stating the names and relationships of the house's inhabitants. The big bunch of fresh flowers in the red, white, and blue of the French flag tell a story of more care, more attention - what were the decisions made? Would the tragedy frame the house or the house the tragedy? It's not remotely that simple, but that is certainly the tension I felt going into the house - my mind thinking back to that entrance inscription, while the text everywhere drew my attention to this fine 18th century rug, this amazing Louis XVth chair. And it is an astounding collection of French 18th-century furniture and furnishings.(1) And here, in being astounding and complete it becomes very difficult. I need to think of a critical framework that can sustain the question: "How dare this furniture survive and its collectors not?" How dare this fussy, overblown, furniture of scandalous French privilege survive and its philanthropic, complex, Jewish collectors not? Maybe this should get shut down right away: maybe there is no critical framework for moral indignation, or historical shock. Maybe the framework should be to trace the trajectory: to track what would motivate Moïse, a child of Istanbul, a banker of an international world renewed by early 20th-century capitalism, to collect works of art heralded as the epitome of French style and French elegance, which was itself derived from the early flourishing of capitalism and the availability of Indian cotton and Chinese silk that it created. To trace the violent rupture in the trajectory so that in 1943, neither Beatrice's conversion to Catholicism, nor her philanthropic work continuing that of her father, nor her socio-economic standing, nor her friends could stop the Gestapo. I could use help on this. It's a powerful testing ground for the clash of materiality and ethics, for an unforgiving and unconscionable presence in the face of human absence.

Paintings at Malmaison
To say that Napoleon could fill a room is an understatement. And no, I'm not trying to be funny. His presence at Malmaison brings with it the ghosts and shadows of hundreds of thousands more. He peopled it that way, and these presences remain. Past the entrance hall, past the billiards room, is a small antechamber which houses the six portraits of the Sheiks of the Divan of Cairo that Napoleon had commissioned when he was First Consul (between 1799-1804). He had them painted by a Michele Rigo, and they hung in the billiard room until 1810. There's a conversation.

The Egyptian heads on chairs

In a geopolitic harkening back to the Crusades, and certainly Christopher Columbus's forays, Napoleon attempted to thwart Britain's access to its colonies in India by controlling Egypt. A complex series of moves that would ultimately fail militarily but gain tremendous traction culturally (the Rosetta stone, and Champollion's translation and an enormous chapter of Orientalism). How Napoleon brought his campaign in Egypt and Syria "home" will be what I would want to study. These portraits (minor academic painter, a series, billiard room?, friends and colleagues?), the chairs of almost all of the rooms, with their Egyptian heads at the arms...

Tent ceiling of the Council Room
... the tent ceiling of the Council Room. Deep in the research of my dissertation, I found Napoleon exclaiming to Alexandre Lenoir in the 12th-century room the latter had established at the Grands Augustins, "Cette lumière me rapelle ma belle Syrie!" or words to that effect. I went nuts with it because here was Napoleon being reminded of Syria by a room illuminated with 13th-century French stained glass. There's much to read on Napoleon and Egypt and Syria and I can't wait to do so for this class. In the meantime, his Council Room sits, bedraped by/as an enormous military tent, as these had been set up in Europe, as he had set them up in Egypt.

Shock
You could say that Napoleon and his ambitions filled just about any space he inhabited, but Malmaison, this house that belonged to Josephine, this retreat, this haven, 30 minutes from Paris, was where he worked. It, along with the Tuileries, was actually the seat of the French government in the early 20th century. Napoleon and his counselors, and eventually visitors like Thomas Jefferson would come here and would do things like sign the Louisiana Purchase of 1803 (I need to keep researching this, I've found "Paris" as the site, thus far, but the Treaty of Ildefonso of 1800, in which Spain returned the Louisiana territory to France was definitely signed here - you see Oliver and Iris processing the shock of Really Big Things having been decided, signed and sealed, in the very room where they stood. That's its own kind of Stendhal Syndrome).

And now to dine
It's all here: Egypt, France, Italy (the dining room is modeled on a Roman villa, breezy between the billiard room and the council room), Louisiana, Haiti (the rebellion that was part of the push for Napoleon to sell the Louisiana territory), more. The very tricky question of asking "Qui est Français?" (who is French?) and the very nasty term "français de souche" (basically, French without a history of immigration) are both fantasies undermined by the very museums used to herald them. France has never been as French as some strains of French politics and culture would have it be.

Josephine's Bedroom
The fantasy starts to unwind right here, in these museums presented as emblematic of core French culture. In Moïse de Camondo's pleasure in Louis XV furniture, in Josephine's bedroom presented as a sultan's tent, lines blur and objects and desires, identities and trajectories meet to confuse certitudes and ideologies. This makes France (and everything it purports to be) much more complicated, much more complex, and brings a whole host of questions to American museums and American identity as well.


(1) The Cognacq-Jay Museum has such a collection as well, but it's more of a museum than a house. In looking around, it seems that the Cognacq-Jay collection was also given to the French state, this time in 1929. And its collector was the founder of the La Samaritaine department store. There's something to examine in who is collecting 18th-century French furniture in the early 20th century. I envision the furnishings on the market, more than impoverished aristocracy selling it all off - or a combination of the two.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Coming to the Table

I was honored to give the faculty welcome at this year's Opening Convocation.

Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry
Welcome, everyone. I come to you with an invitation from the generous and esteemed faculty members by my side, one that bespeaks the good will with which we seek to think and work with you; and one that I hope will sustain you during your four years here. I study the Middle Ages, so we’ll start there, but no worries, we’ll end up back here. Right around 1414, six hundred very full years ago, John, Duke of Berry, had a party. It was New Year’s Day, the traditional feast day for exchanging gifts in the Middle Ages, and he’d gathered his household around a huge feasting table for the occasion. The event is pictured in a lavish manuscript he had made, and the glorious January page of his Very Rich Hours shows us what we’ve come to expect of a medieval banquet scene: knights and attendants reveling, heraldic finery, fabulous tights, and a table groaning with tasty dishes. But, there is a strange apparition beneath, or rather, mingled within this feasting scene. Amidst all the pomp and circumstance, tiny golden letters etched in mid-air above the revelers’ heads hover to spell out the words “aproch, aproch.” Suspended within this busy, festive, at times confusing atmosphere is this quietly insistent invitation: “approach, approach.” Come to the table, sit with me, talk with me, let us be together and understand all this and more.
Tables are rather ordinary objects, but they do extraordinary things. They are by design level surfaces, usually of geometric shapes (squares, rectangles, and of course you can talk to King Arthur about a Round Table), and mostly made of sturdy no-nonsense material. Yet despite these standard measures, they create a series of transformative spaces, and I would even argue times, apart. They turn food into a meal; talking into conversation; gesture into ritual; and sitting into gathering. In the most unassuming way, they host relationships. There’s a desk in your dorm room right now, waiting to hold a treasured photograph of your roommate, an award that means the world to you, the biggest biochemistry or art history book either of you have ever seen, and the first of many (many) delivery bags from Marvin’s. There are dining tables where you’ll sit with someone that at one point you didn’t know but now look for; there’ll be makeshift tables where you’ll set down a dish you made from a home recipe to share with friends during one of our famous winter nights. And there are seminar tables (so many!) in your classrooms where students before you struggled and triumphed with difficult work, where tough questions were asked, where laughter burst out unexpectedly, and where ideas changed.
The professors here with me have prepared many tables for you. The upper reaches of Asbury hold some of the oldest tables at DePauw and your thoughts and contributions will join those of thousands before you, and herald yet more thousands to come. The Green Center has some of the newest, but the urge to make music that energizes the building has been a part of the human condition for millennia. The ones in Olin auditorium have a certain age, but they always make me like a member of some futuristic inter-stellar federation (a nice feeling actually). There are numerous tables for you to discover at DePauw, and each one is an invitation from a professor. Some will be more abstract than others: there are lab tables and there is the periodic table of the element; there are seminar tables and tables of content. Matter or metaphor, they call for you to gather around ideas and work hard to understand them. So accept them all; look at your schedule of classes as a series of invitations to the table. When you pull up your chair to a seminar table, you are entering into a magnificent conversation that engages you, your professor and your peers and radiates to wherever knowledge illuminates understanding.
You all, each and every one of you here today, brings something to the table: your experiences, your curiosities, your questions, and your differences. No one comes empty-handed; everyone has something to offer. Do so gladly; talk willingly. Listen to each other; strive towards the lines of poetry, equations, molecular models, dilemmas, paintings, marvels of botany, miracles of music, and models of social justice and struggle that your professors share with you. And let the table do its work: let it bring you closer together, and closer to knowledge that was only a faint outline before. Come to the table with every expectation of being transformed by what you will experience there.
           There’s a great deal going on today: you’re saying a few intense good-byes and more hellos than you can count. When you leave here, it will be to go with your First Year Seminar professor and peers to share a meal together – maybe not a medieval feast, but a first gathering, a first pulling up of chairs. It may be a while before you get a chance to rest. But when you do, I invite you to think ahead just briefly to the end of the semester, to the emotions and accomplishments of your sitting around a familiar table from home. Parents and caregivers, I invite you to think of that same moment, when this young person you love so very much returns to you and starts to tell you of what they now know. That will be a feast day. That will be a day to celebrate much. In the meantime, entering class of 2018, on behalf of the faculty of DePauw University, I warmly invite you to “approach, approach” and come to the table.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Make-Believe

Bonsai at the Jardin d'Acclimation
I've always loved that English term, "make-believe." I love its directness and its hope, maybe even its innocence. I don't know if there's an equivalent term in French ("prétendre" doesn't count, "faire croire" is a phrase like any other, it doesn't mean "make-believe"). These past two days, we've walked in the Paris of make-believe: Paris presenting itself as the backdrop for one fantasy, one world of make-believe, after another. It's not that the city shimmers away, it's that in becoming the backdrop it blurs the line between itself and the fantasy it frames. Within the 850+ acres of the Bois de Boulogne lies the Jardin d'Acclimation. For years, I had thought it was a series of greenhouses (acclimated garden!), but it turns out to be a magical wonderland for children. There are goats and peacocks and carousels and ropes courses and crêpes and deer and bunnies and roller coasters and swings and boats and you name it. There is even a Cedar of Lebanon (I had to come to Paris to see my first live Cedar of Lebanon - I now see that heralding that your lover has "legs like the cedars of Lebanon" is indeed a compliment, oh Song of Songs). There is also a pretty astounding outdoor bonsai garden and...

House of Kiso (and Oliver)
... a Japanese country house brought to France wood panel by wood panel in the early 19th century as a gift to a renowned anthropologist. Imagine that!!! It had been reassembled in the Jardin des Plantes in the 5th arrondissement in Paris and then in the 1990s it had been moved to the Jardin d'Acclimation. Oliver and Mac were fascinated by the wooden joints (no nails were used at all), and we noted the stones weighing the roof down as being exactly the same technique used in Swiss alpine houses. The Jardin des Plantes and the Jardin d'Acclimation share this strange heritage of putting other cultures on display: making their reality a wondrous (but dangerous) make-believe. We read a tucked away sign that stated that the last human exhibits at the Jardin des Plantes were in 1931 (!) featuring peoples from an island in the South Seas. Hard to read, hard to see in this place. Children may always delight, but they have been given very different things to delight in in the past one hundred years.

Dauberton and the aviary
It was Napoleon III who decided to make this part of the Bois de Boulogne an enormous children's park with a farm, an aviary, and (among many other things), a "pedagogical beehive" (la ruche pédagogique!). So we have his imperial vision, and love of the thriving bourgeoisie, to thank for this park. He gets mention in a plaque or two, but it's a scientist who gets a statue. I'd always known about the Censier-Dauberton metro station, but now, to see Dauberton himself stand before me: absolutely grand! He is framed by an exquisite garden and a huge stretch of the aviary which holds 200 birds. Peacocks and roosters prevail and we lingered a good while (pretty much all of us have a thing for roosters), but most kids run on to feed the bunnies. Because bunnies. In the midst of all this (and there is no French word for fun, children - to be discussed later), Dauberton's happy form, with an animal at his side, made sense. One can only hope that it comes alive at night once the visitors are all gone.

Because Bretons are always funny?
The last place we went to was an ersatz Breton seaside, complete with beach lawn chairs, water everywhere, and this delightful cut-out. Eleanor was so totally insulted at this display of Brittany that pictures with her in it are boring or full of scowls. Gotta stand by your principles, little one. This one with Mac fits the bill of vacation, and I must say that Oliver and Iris definitely rose to the occasion. Iris is super happy with the fact that she is making a crêpe and Oliver would love to play the bagpipe someday (truly). I know that we'll go back to Bois de Boulogne (that old hunting forest that is now an enormous park for the common people); definitely the Bois itself that stretches all around the Jardin. But the Jardin, too, because the make-believe here is very, very verdant and complex.

Le mec Mac

For those of you missing Mac le mec (Mac the dude), here is a picture of him right outside the Institut du Monde Arabe, that most glorious architecture, that statement of knowledge of research, that architecture that put an end to Orientalism. Except maybe not. The reason that Mac is standing with the Institut du Monde Arabe to his back is that the show "Orient Express," which invites visitors to walk through several luxury cars of the famous train, is so massively sold out that we could only get tickets for Friday. This apparently has been the best selling show of the Institut, and its love of velvet and crystal, wood paneling and embroidered pillows makes you wonder if this isn't make-believe. But one (certain ones) really did travel like this. One lucky make-believe person was even murdered in Agatha Christie's book, so we decided we needed to buy Murder on the Orient Express as soon as possible.

Le fun!
This decision led to a lovely long bus ride on the 67 for a stop at the Librarie Gourmande (all. cookbooks. all. the. time) (!!!) and then a somewhat lovely (got crowded) walk down through Place des Victoires to Rue de Rivoli for the English bookshop W.H. Smith (which, by the way, is a treasure-house: very comfy English setting, and then hundreds of books, multiple copies, a dream! and an answer to the anxiety about keeping our children in books while we're here). We walked through the gardens of the Palais Royal, and then through the permanent exhibition put up by Daniel Buren in the 1980s, which totally invites le Fun of kids, while adults walk rapidly through.

 Right before we got to W.H. Smith, we walked through the square where this glorious statue of Joan of Arc strides bravely forth. It played a major role in the opening scene of the 2010 film Adèle Blanc-Sec which made for a fantastic surprise for Oliver, who loves the movie. Paris can do that: it can pop out of what you thought was only make-believe and show you that it was all true all along. It takes these places and monuments and holds them up to a different light (midnight, not a soul in sight, a protagonist approaches), and then when you see them in the light of day, surrounded by dozens of people, somehow it becomes all the more magical for being recognized, for being real after all in movie you never wanted to leave, in a book you wanted to never end. W.H. Smith finished out our make-believe time, and the kids came out laden with books to take them yet other places. They read all the way home on the metro, and all the way through dinner, they'd still be reading now. There is a French phrase "la réalité dépasse la fiction" (reality overtaking fiction). We might have a more complicated loop here of reality overtaking fiction but taking on hues and shades of fiction in doing so. Whatever the dynamic, it was all worth it to see the expression on Oliver's face.

I don't know where sauces fall on the reality/fantasy spectrum. They're so good in France that I would have to lean towards make-believe, some fantasy world. In that we'll be eating in a lot (which is a joy in this home with a full kitchen) and in that we'll have rice quite often, I've decided to get to know sauces. I browsed, I researched, we went to the Librairie Gourmande in the 2nd and am now the proud of owner of Michel Roux (if that can possibly be his real name!!!)'s book on sauces. Glorious, complex, brilliant, almost always with a touch of butter at the very end to make them glow. I'm leaving tomorrow for a 5-day hiatus back in the States. It's every kind of weird and every kind of wonderful. I leave Mac and the kids with their feet planted firmly on French soil and multiple projects (and food!). I go with all my clothes now smelling of French laundry detergent, of my head full of what I'm eager to do here in terms of work (and play, le fun, discovery), my heart full of the friends I'll see when I'm home, and quite possibly, a book of sauces to read up on.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Gudea, King of Lagash, and Stillness

Gudea with a plan
Museums are often accused of stilling works of art: of stripping them of their environment and noise, ritual and performance. But in the case of the statues of Gudea (which were built for the quiet rooms of a temple around 2100 B.C.E., and were later buried for safekeeping or after an attack), the Louvre may actually be a louder place than he had ever bargained for. Visitors are frequent here and, even if they intend to walk through to the Law Code of Hammurabi, they are themselves stilled and stopped by this gallery full of Gudea statues, standing or sitting in poised silence. There is an inexplicably great Wikipedia page on the Gudea statues, and if you scroll down it, you'll see that all of his statues are largely held at the Louvre, with the British Museum and various museums in the United States dividing up the rest. The desire for statues of the Neo-Sumerian ruler whose robes flow with columns of cuneiform writing was ravenous and the West, as ever, helped itself.  I've been thinking a good deal all day about Karl Steel's excellent piece at In the Middle on, among other things, origins shared and origins jealously guarded. In that cuneiform is one of the oldest forms of writing, in that Mesopotamia is heralded as one of the oldest civilizations with writing and urban planning and complex administrative structures, it was taken up as an origin of the Western world by early Orientalists (Edward Said's Orientalism remains a great source for these twists and turns, and I hope to find more during this sabbatical's research). Appropriated origins; selective origins (for go up the stairs and around the corner to Khorsabad and its grand lamassus and then it's all about difference from Western "democratic" sensibilities - the kind of shift and Orientalism brilliantly critiqued by Zainab Bahrani, especially in "Assault and Abduction: the Fate of the Royal Image in the Ancient Near East" (Art History 1995). It's complicated, and we talked to the kids about this idea of writing as a particular kind of human origin. And then we talked mostly about rulers and images and how the body politic of the ruler can project certitude and re-assurance to his subjects. I'm still thinking about this, and I know that it will sound like a stretch in a few weeks, but for now, how a governing body presents and represents itself is very much on my mind (my heart) concerning Ferguson, MO. It's in the news all the time here, and the images just keep coming and the governing body in tanks, firing tear gas, aiming weapons, strong-arming citizens... there is no certitude or re-assurance there.

We started our Louvre visits in this gallery, with some of the earliest art the museum contains; an attempt (maybe precisely because of the mess of democracy that is happening right now in the States) to start some narrative of human invention for ourselves and the kids (also: good material for my politics of the museum course). Having gone to the Center of Adhesion (sorry, I love doing this - le Centre d'Adhésion =  Membership Services), we now have our family pass. We are ready. The family membership comes with a book that really stresses the "genies and demons" aspect of Mesopotamian art - not a word about cool, calm Gudea. We would have spent the majority of our time here, anyway, not necessarily out of protest. But we lodged a protest with the kids anyway. They heartily liked Gudea, were impressed by his diorite, loved the materials I pulled from Irene Winter's "Idols of the Kings" article (Journal of Ritual Studies 1992), and wanted to be close to him.

One thing I was surprised to learn from watching the kids was how, despite his smooth lines and easy curves, difficult Gudea is to draw. We'd simply asked them to find one Gudea statue that they thought was very effective in projecting the presence (could be political, ritual, urban or agricultural) of Gudea. Each kid chose a different one. Oliver took a long time, and realized the kind of genius move of the feet emerging from the framework of the robe - all carved in diorite with fluid lines and easy proportions. I don't even pause to think about the presence or absence of heads on statuary anymore, but of course the kids do. Iris chose the statue she did because it was complete, and had no writing at all. Oliver was fascinated by how the absence of a head did nothing to diminish the dignity and power of the statue.

Eleanor (and Mac it turns out!) worked on a statue of Ningir-su, Gudea's son. Smaller, of a different stone, and with the slightest variations in the face (a somewhat longer nose) but not a one in the gesture or stance. She couldn't believe how hard he was to draw, but she really liked doing it. I don't know if drawing is a kind of possession as well (like research and writing). Mac uses it to push observation: you notice more when you're trying to get it down. And the formal joys of Gudea are many: biceps, deltoids, smooth waist, elegant feet, settled face. The contrast between Gudea in his gallery and the 17th-19th century highly gestural sculptures in the courtyard below are perfect. Economy of form and resoluteness of stance can really help you do away with the histrionics of the dramatic diagonal. And so Gudea is still: a silent witness to himself and to his enduring presence. He is, after all, still here.

P.S. Something else spoke for Gudea to me this time. These enormous scroll columns, which are filled with cuneiform. They tell the tale of the building of the temple. Gudea had the idea, and the god Enlil gave him the means and creativity of execution. The best part: these two textual proclamations were part of the building foundation of the temple. I have other images of ceremonial nails in ceramic as well - also with cuneiform, also making writing the seal to architecture. Another kind of certitude, another kind of calm. I'm not going to romance ritual over militarism (Gudea's time is long gone), but I can mourn the loss of re-assurance when I see it persist here. Today, what Gudea is re-assuring his public about remains open.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Restoration/Renovation (Chartres encore)

Once and future vaults
With all the galavanting about to Brittany and then Chartres, we've had a slower-paced couple of days. (Saturday market; then Mac took off to see Kumbh Mela (click on "bande-annonce" for the trailer), the incredible documentary film based on the once-every-12-years pilgrimage that happens at the confluence of three rivers (two actual, one mythical) and then met up with a graduate student for coffee - lots to go on there!; and last night, Oliver and I plunged back into La Défense to see Guardians of the Galaxy which was really pretty good - the best part being in an enormous, fully packed screening room with so many French cinéphiles who laughed and cheered, and realizing (again) that American movies are insanely grandiose and fully entertaining). All this to say that this clears a little bit of room to jot down some notes on the work at Chartres. And ask questions of fellow medieval art historians. Briefly put, the restorations are so extensive as to defy the term.  I have walked into more cathedrals bedecked by scaffolding than I can recount, but there's much more than that going on here. This shot of the westernmost vaults gives you a first sensation of the radicality of the restoration (the Passion window is at the "top" of the photograph and you're seeing scaffolding at the "bottom"). What had been the color of stone, of ancient geological provenance and 13th-century manipulation, is now plastered over and white-washed.



Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Chartres : immersion... by culture-gouv

 The 12 minute video from the restoration web site reveals much. It's super quiet with no monologue or dialogue, but I found myself exclaiming out loud while watching it. I understand (at 4:45m) injecting fissures in the columns with something binding, but the wholesale plastering of all the columns? Is what's going on as of 9:10m ok? Are those medieval designs? Are they 19th century designs? Reading the excellent PDFs of the restoration reports, it's clear that there's a lot of the 18th century (when the eastern end and choir underwent work) and the 19th (specifically the keystone painting of the chapel of Notre-Dame du Pilier on the north side near the transept). The restoration of the marble work in the choir is pretty intense - the colors are really, shall we say, bright. Ok, garish, to me. And the white-washed columns just make no sense. Yes, there's that marvelous quote from a letter written by Kipling (fascinating choice if you ask me) at the head of the restoration website, but is this medieval Chartres? Maybe it's not meant to be. Maybe it's meant to be medieval, 18th and 19th century Chartres.

Why does a photograph taken on playful iPhone settings
 look more like the Chartres I think I know?
What am I holding on to here? Why would a 21st-century viewer be so disoriented about a 13th-century site to which she has access primarily through the 19th and 20th centuries, as to get a sense of "wrong," of something "off"? Mac took this terrific photograph of southern transept statues by playing with settings on the iPhone. I saw this and realized, "This is the Chartres I'm missing." The Chartres that really spoke stone, that displayed its age (good Lord, am I an antiquarian all of a sudden?). Why am I begrudging the cathedral its restoration? I like the medieval-modern conversation. It's good to know that a site is alive with people's creativity and care, it's amazing that the French government is putting 13 million euros ($17.42 million into the cathedral). And yet, here I sit completely reliving my disorientation even as I write this. I think very much of Janet Marquardt's brilliant work with the aesthetic created for Romanesque Art (almost single-handedly) by the monks behind the Zodiaque book series, specifically in their decision to have the books illustrated with a particular type of photography (it gets complicated, that photographic style itself is kind of high modernist, but it absolutely anchors Romanesque architecture and sculpture in a hue of heavy, stony grays). ALL THE MORE EXCITEMENT for her book, Zodiaque: Making Medieval Modern, 1951-2001, due out next year from Penn State Press.

Funnily enough, the stained glass restoration feels absolutely like a restoration - like a return to the 13th century (as if I could possibly truly know what that was like!). What is happening that I feel so absolutely not the same way about the stone of the cathedral? What would Adolf Katzenellebogen say? (For the north transept is completely restored and those sculptures shine so, so brightly). This is no longer the Chartres of Henry Adams. Am I really going to align myself with those guys? Am I going to say, "this is no longer my Chartres?" What on earth would that mean? As if the cathedral could belong to someone. Well, lest we get into issues of patrimoine and possession (ever since the French Revolution, church properties belong to the government, and it is my understanding that the Catholic Church leases them - in perpetuity, but still), I'm going to stop here. The Chartres whose every stone and sculpture, and whose every pane of glass I studied for months and months twenty years ago is transforming before my eyes. The point, of course, is not simply to dichotomize this metamorphosis into "good," or "bad" - the point will be to live and teach this new Chartres, but I don't yet have the terms.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Assumption Day at Chartres

Getting ready
Once a year at Chartres, the Virgin Mary steps out. It is Assumption Day, a feast day (and national holiday in France) to celebrate her elevation by angels into heaven and here, in this small town in central France whose cathedral stands massive and monumental all other days of the year, it occasions an outpouring of human devotion and care that seeks to meet the divine mercy and kindness accorded to her. Her presence in this statue marks both the long medieval tradition of the Black Madonna (enshrouded in Druidic lore by early modern historians of Chartres) and the 19th-century resurgence of Catholic devotion (this statue of dark pear wood was made in 1837 to replace the medieval one destroyed by the Revolution in 1792). It heralds her reach from the crypt of the cathedral to the buildings and inhabitants of the town to the crops that surround it. Her bier, seen here in the narthex of the nuns' chapel just before the procession, is decorated with daisies and lilies and fire bursts of blades of the wheat the bedecks the entire Beauce region.

The officiants
She is well-attended in every way, and there are officiants and capes and white gloves and microphones and an order of things. In many ways, the affair is as splendid (the flowers! the blue velvet! the singing!), as it is quiet (the songs all ask for mercy and protection, heads are bowed, the procession is slow). There is little room for innovation, but always a desire for improvement. I had attended the Assumption Day celebrations at Chartres twenty years ago during my dissertation research year, and the images from that experience (slides hard-won by guesswork) have nurtured my teaching of Gothic art ever since. This time, my iPhone alone was able to do all sorts of good work. This time, I brought my family. And everything was the same, and everything was different. The procession route, for one thing, had changed radically, and now, instead of starting in the Cathedral, the statue of Notre-Dame-Sous-Terre waited in a nearby convent for her walk around town. Nuns surrounded the Virgin's statue and men carried her, and waved the censer that perfumed the air all around.

The Veil (Sancta Camisia)
The Virgin's presence is diffused. She is restored in her statue, but has always been present in her relic. The tunic that Mary wore while giving birth to Christ had been the prized relic of Chartres since Charles the Bald made a gift of it in 876. In 1792, it was rent into four pieces, one of which remains (the other three parts lying in wait for a pot-boiler novel to be written). It is on display most days in a 19th-century reliquary in the eastern chapel, but on Assumption Day is it placed into a portable reliquary to be brought out. The veneration of relics in France's age of secular empiricism creates a spectrum from pious fervor to out-dated naïveté, inhabited more or less comfortably by spectators. In a ceremonial switch from the last time I saw this procession, the relic preceded the statue, textiled transcendence leading the way for wooden resurgence.

In town
Nods to mysticism have reshaped the event. Shifts in the procession route meant that the Virgin never passed by commercial sites. Where previously, I had photographed her in front of the Kookaï fashion store and signs for the train station, now she ambled among residential streets and the park at the east end of the cathedral, never once framed by the mundane. The greater liturgical mysticism has a resonance in the popular religion that emerges in the souvenir shops around the cathedral, a high/low cultural dynamic that has been in existence since the Middle Ages. The merchants of Chartres (a savvy and responsive bunch ever since their representation in the stained glass of the cathedral) now sell many more mystical healing wares: herbals and traditional medicine books, crystals and incense, divination cards (adorned with saints!) - all bolstered (initiated?) by the great paved labyrinth in the middle of the nave. Whose authenticity is this? The labyrinth was uncovered (intellectually by the great work of Dan Connolly on mapping and virtual pilgrimage, and physically by Americans (of all people) seeking New Age connections) in the past twenty years, never entirely to the pleasure of the Church (it is just too available to said New Age explorations, it is a form and tradition of the Middle Ages that has a marvelous difficulty being integrated into modern liturgy). It is now covered by chairs, which is a pity, but then, the entire interior is being restored. The restoration (I would argue renovation) of the cathedral will be another post - they are massive and extensive and completely change the character of the place. Chartres is not still by any means.

A video! (hmm, not fluid and without sound - know there were bells ringing in air!)
If you'll be taking any of my Gothic art courses or the caves to cathedral survey, you'll be seeing this 15-second video. I was up on the gate (art historian in action!) and caught this wonderful moment in which the procession makes the final turn back into the cathedral itself. I love the profile of the statue, this form of the Sedes Sapientiae that positions Mary as the Throne of Wisdom to a blessing Christ, and has been the emblem of Mary's care since at least the twelfth century (scroll down Alison Stone's wonderfully intertwined essay to see 12th-century examples of the statue). I loved this last second before her re-entry into the lithic depths of the cathedral where she will be still for an entire other year, this last moment in the world of people before she once again joins her company of saints, this last glimpse for all gathered of an embodiment of mercy that this world still craves.