Paris: From Square to Hip (Part 2)

Long gone are the days when Paris meant avant garde in arts and letters. Braque, Picasso, Baudelaire, today, couldn’t afford the drink, and anyway, could never get into the bateau lavoir with the crowd of Montmartre-botherers outside. I’m not sure when the last time was that I saw anyone at the Flore thumbing a lovely Gallimard – all cream-crepe cover and serif red lettering, about some rumination of Agamben or Adorno. Paris is hollowed out, a result of an Anglophone world, the rise in mass tourism, France’s somewhat self-inflicted inability to adapt.

This is reflected in the commercial gallery scene – the majority of art galleries on the Left Bank specialise in conservative, valuable, in most cases utterly lovely, but almost by definition, not risky, art: Asian antiques, Art Deco furniture, prints and drawings by long-dead famous artists. All eminently collectible, and importantly, sellable. There is also quite a lot of tat, stuff that might look good in a sitting room but has zero provenance, as well a great deal of art that is made in and perhaps for the French (or Continental) market, through the system of regional foundations.

But that isn’t to say there isn’t good, internationlly-relevant, contemporary art, as anyone who has been to FIAC, the annual Paris art fair, can attest. In this note, I survey a few spaces worth checking in Paris, in between trendy coffeeshops, natural wine, and Asian-inflected French food.

Belleville: Galerie Jocelyn Wolff

On a small street just off the Rue de Belleville are a few contemporary galleries, the most exciting of which is Jocelyn Wolff. The show when we visited was a video work by Ulrich Polster, from the former DDR, a single-channel of interleaved images: super-8 home-cinema footage, stills, video, scenes from the former East Germany, and extracts from Eisenstein and Godard. Artistically and formally, I suppose he’s weaving together images whose power derives from cultural connotations (Battleship Potemkin), the now-vintage “look” of super-8 film, the imagery and self-image of the socialist East German utopia, and various architectural shots from Polster’s travels – Saxony, Vienna, the Crimea, and Chernovitz. This last is of particular importance, being a culturally significant Ukrainian city, a centre of Austrio-Hungarian life (a mix of Romanian, Ukrainian, and Jewish traditions), and the birthplace of the poet Paul Celan. He brings to much of the film, a painterly aesthetic: a focus on light, atmosphere, reflections, transmissions, haze, hauntingness. Unlike much video art, this was rapturous, dreamy visuals, with wonderful music. The conceptual element is safely hidden, but available to those who care, and is certainly not a mask for a lack of aesthetic content.

Jocelyn Wolff, significantly, was also one of the champions of the great German artist Franz Erhard Walther, who has in the last few years received deserved recognition (the Pompidou has a new acquisition on view). Very briefly, Walther’s contribution was to do performance art before Performance Art, to bring the viewer in as an active participant in the sculptural space, and to do so in an orchestrated and controlled way, documenting it all in photographs. Oh, and his canvas pieces in particular, are beautifully made.

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Bercy: Rosenblum Collection

In Bercy, on the Left Bank past the Gare d’Austerlitz, on the ground floor of a (well-to-do) housing estate, is a large black door that opens onto a hangar-like space filled, for this show, with primitive masks and casts of scarified tribal bodies; a great big fibreglass sculpture that looks like a truck engine crossed with a pig’s snout; and a full-size single-family nuclear fallout shelter. The collectors, Steve and Chiara Rosenblum, have juxtaposed masks and objects that have primarily religious, cultural, or shamanistic roots, with contemporary art that, in most cases, can be conceptually or formal linked to the anthropological pieces. Notable items were Matthew Day Jackson’s fallout shelter, Sterling Ruby’s sculpture, Amanda Ross-Ho’s bizarre work that mixes paintings, sculpture, photographs and installations. Their previous show, WYSIWYG, is timely, in retrospect, for showing Wade Guyton just as the Whitney raised him to their pantheon with the retrospective of 2012.

Matthew Day Jackson fallout shelter, and Thomas Houseago sculpture
Matthew Day Jackson fallout shelter, and Thomas Houseago sculpture
Amanda Ross-Ho
Amanda Ross-Ho
Sterling Ruby
Sterling Ruby
Casts of scarified bodies (Africa and Oceania I think)
Casts of scarified bodies (Africa and Oceania I think)

Marais: Marian Goodman Gallery

The Julie Mehretu show was interesting – her pieces, ranging from fairly large architectural or urban map drawings/printouts that are then overlayed with acrylic, pencil, and pen, creating an active, unresolved surface that combines figuration and abstraction; to small prints of etchings that are much more about mark-making and erasure, and an investigation of the process of drawing and printing. The larger work is better known, for instance at the Punta della Dogana in Venice, and at the Goldman Sachs building in New York, but the smaller pieces gave some insight as to how she arrives at her (current) “signature style”.

Julie Mehretu at Goldman Sachs
Julie Mehretu at Goldman Sachs
Julie Mehretu at Marian Goodman
Julie Mehretu at Marian Goodman

Marais: Galerie Perrotin

This vast space, ranging over two buildings, had three shows. Probably the most arresting was the Johan Creten show on the ground floor – ceramic sculptures, some anthropomorphic yet having no clear form, almost bodily without being so, others of sinister, watchful owls or griffins. His work takes a somewhat different approach to ceramic sculpture, compared to Lucio Fontana, or Thomas Schutte, while firmly separating it from the pottery and folk-art “ghetto” of popular conception, as well as the (lovely) neo-Modernism of Edmund de Waal.

Johan Creten at Galerie Perrotin
Johan Creten at Galerie Perrotin
Johan Creten at Galerie Perrotin
Johan Creten at Galerie Perrotin

The other spaces had work with less presence, though two tiny stainless-steel lifts, perhaps 20cm high, good only for moving cups of coffee from floor to floor, were a giggle.

No detailed notes, but worth a visit

Palais de Tokyo: great fun, huge semi-industrial space, in the middle of  uber-posh Paris on Avenue Wilson, that contemporary art, architecture, and a bar/nightclub aesthetic (complete with noisy skateboarders outside). Right next door is the excellent Modern Art Museum of the City of Paris. Currently, there is a show of work inspired by the great French surrealist writer Raymond Roussel, who was revered by Marcel Duchamp, Andre Breton, and Michel Leiris. Roussel’s rather impenetrable book Locus Solus inspired the excellent Japanese anime film Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence.

http://www.palaisdetokyo.com/en/exhibition/new-impressions-raymond-roussel

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Pompidou Centre: skip the gianormous queue for Dali, and go instead to the Eileen Gray show. Great furniture, fabrics, drawings, and an entertaining video of her reflecting on her student days in Soho and at the Slade School. Finish with the permanent collection, always a treat, and lunch on the top floor overlooking Paris.

Pinacotheque de Paris: didn’t go to the Japan-themed show on Van Gogh and Hiroshige, but if the 2012 Giacometti/Etruscan show was a guide, it should be fabulous. The Giacometti show put his sculptures against the context of a large number of Etruscan vessels, sculpture, and objects, many of them from the main Italian collection in Volterra, Tuscany. Importantly, the show had detailed but clear writing in English and French that explained both strains of the exhibition, and also contextualised, within the Existentialist thought current in Paris at the time, Giacometti’s contribution and artistic struggle.

Not visited:

Galerie Yvon Lambert

Galerie Thaddeus Ropac

La Maison Rouge

Fondation Cartier

Paris: From Square to Hip (Part 1)

Before the iPhone, this is how people perved over their dinner....
Before the iPhone, this is how people perved over their dinner….Chardin’s The Skate

I first hit Paris in 1997 on a boondoggle: giving a speech on (the dubious merits of) Latin American credit derivatives. Since then, I’ve visited 4-10 times a year, and have noted the steady slide in standards: food has become more average, more indigestible, and more expensive, all at the same time; the Parisians have basically given up on their fight against the Anglo-Saxons, and smartly drop into English faster than you can “Bonjour”; the old type of visitor, students, amateur philosophers and backpackers, have been replaced by tour groups full of ridiculously dressed DSLR-wielders, snapping away, hoping to bore their relatives and friends once back home.

But there is hope: even as the Left Bank and much of the Right have become uber-Disneyfied, a new, stylish Paris, international yet distinctively French, is sprouting in the northeastern arrondisements. Similarly to London, property prices have driven the graphic designers, restauranteurs, musicians, teachers, etc. to the 10th, 19th, and 20th. One can (at least in February), spend days without hearing any English at all, unless it happens to be a waiter or barman anxious to show off their (excellent) command of it.

In fairness, some of these neighbourhoods started rising years ago, like Bastille or the Oberkampf area. But there has been a perceptible change recently, particularly with superb restaurants serving a lighter cuisine, and the (hoorah!) triumphant march of natural wines. Restaurants and wine bars have been accompanied by London-style coffee shops, bakeries, clothing shops, and bookstores.

Geography

I would consider the polygon inscribed by Metros Bonne-Nouvelle, Stalingrad, Ourcq, and Parmentier. Within, you have the Rue du Faubourg-Saint-Denis, with its prepared food shops, markets, Pierre Jancou’s Vivant restaurant (much loved by the natural wine crowd, but I haven’t made it), and L’Office (very good). Up by the Gare de L’Est is some of the most authentic Indian and Sri Lankan food in Paris. The streets around the Canal St Martin have some very trendy clothes shoppes, and the hottest baker in a city of bakeries. The heights of Belleville again have some fabulous food and wine, and a few cutting-edge contemporary galleries. And down by Parmentier is the current temple (or hell if you’re trying to get a table) of BCBG (bon chic bonne genre) Paris: Chateaubriand.

paris_map

As ever, I’ve found food, wine, and art to be great scaffolding on which to hang one’s understanding of a city – so here are my picks.

Chateaubriand (Parmentier): It’s been a year since we et here, it was superb, very light, very inventive, exciting food. The service is said to be a bit too-cool-for-school, but we found them quite pleasant. Our neighbours, on the other hand, were somewhat loud and opinionated Australians. The problem, of course, is getting a booking, or even getting anyone on the telephone. However, they have a second restaurant next door, Le Dauphin, that is much bigger, and there is a unreserved second seating at the original which is worth going for.

Chapeau Melon (Belleville): One of our favourites. Tiny menu, lots of great natural wines on the shelf, for takeaway or otherwise. Standouts this time were a mackerel escabeche, and a beef cheek terrine – both were superbly textured. The sausage and lentil main course was delicious, as was the classical brandade de morue (salt cod creamed with garlic and potatoes). We had a bottle of Bois Moisette red, 100% Brocol grapes, from the Tarn: “strong aroma of perfume, maybe like incense, but described as cassis, long finish. Lovely scented wonder.” (my notes). The crowd is local, pleasantly arty, and a few foreigners who often are there with locals.

Wine at Chapeau Melon
Wine at Chapeau Melon

Chez Valentin (Belleville): Utterly improbable, a Latin American-French-Asian fusion restaurant, with a Thai (maybe) lady cooking, and a genial, pony-tailed patron presiding. One of the most enjoyable, if not particularly sophisticated, meals. Calamari with citronella, coriander, shallot in a weird ketchup and fish sauce dressing. A splendid lentil salad with lardons in vinegar dressing. Wonderful Argentine steak and potatoes fried in goose fat. A very good chicken mole, albeit less intense than in Oaxaca. Lastly, an exotic clafoutis, with bananas and rum flambee. And gentiane as a much needed digestif.

Le Baratin (Belleville): People raves about this place. We liked it well enough, the food was very well prepared, if a little on the heavy side (I did order tripe). The wine was pretty good. But somehow, it didn’t feel all that French: like Chateaubriand it is on the foodie and wealthy-art-collector circuit, so all we could hear at dinner was the conversation of a group of Americans behind us (who, to be fair, were New Yorkers and perfectly civil). But also, the waitstaff were young, and had that smooth English and confidently cosmopolitan style that makes one feel like…London or New York. In short, it wasn’t my idea of a French restaurant. But this is a minority view.

Verre Vole (Canal St Martin): Another fantastic place. Tiny wine store, bar, and restaurant. Wine can be bought by bottle or glass, and the food is simple, and fully works with and for the wine. We had a fantastic haddock tartare seasoned with coffee grounds, citron, tarragon, and baby parsley. A very good tempura-fried squid with a rich mushroom sauce. The mains were more varied: a confit du canard I thought was less good than I’ve had elsewhere, mainly because the skin hadn’t been dried and crisped up as I like. I’m not sure that was a conscious choice, or execution failure. On the other hand, lamb shoulder with anchovies, grilled green and red peppers, the latter stuffed with a feta mousse, was divine. The classic southern French flavours of anchovies, peppers and meat, were perfectly complemented by a wine from Benoit Courault (I think called La Coulee 2008, a cabernet sauvignon and grolleau blend) of Anjou: “acidic, delicious, haunting” (my notes). The whites were great too, an almost-orange wine from Tuscany, Guido Gualandi; and a clean, acidic wine from the Ardeche. Highly recommended, lunch is fun, seems mostly local people. Last time, we dined with 4 violinists and violists lunching boozily before going to play at the Paris orchestra !

Andouillette at Verre Vole
Andouillette at Verre Vole

Chez Prune (Canal St Martin): More a bar than restaurant, but has a good vibe, is very French, slightly haughty, and a great terrace on the canal.

Craft (Canal St Martin): Paris, famously, has terrible coffee. This newbie is one of the very few places that bring London- or New York-style espresso to Paris. The inside is gorgeous, angular, and white, the place is fully wired (they have a great rack of Ethernet routers next to the loo). The coffee isn’t cheap (€3 for an espresso!) but worth a try.

Craft coffeeshop
Craft coffeeshop
Architecture and morality at Craft
Architecture and morality at Craft

Le Cinquante (Canal St Martin): Little bar on the Rue de Lancry, the only place that made an acceptable Negroni (the barman took our instruction). They also refused to lift a finger until we spoke in French – like Parisien of yore !

Du Pain et Des Idees (Canal St Martin): The bakery of the moment: equally known for bread and innovative pastries: traditional pain au raisin is reinterpreted, for instance with pistachios or rum-raisin or nougat. The queue tells all.

Matcha (green-tea) croissants at Des Pains et les Idees.  Don't knock it til you try it !
Matcha (green-tea) croissants at Des Pains et les Idees. Don’t knock it til you try it !

Indian food (Gare de L’Est): If pig, duck, kidneys, cream, mushrooms, and nary a vegetable, are getting a bit tiring on tongue and tail, there is actually very good Indian food near the Gare. We went to Chettinadu Restaurant on the Rue Cail, twice. While most of the restaurants serve the meat curry staples of Brick Lane, you’re better off ordering the South Indian or Sri Lankan food (iddli, rasam, appam, bonda, vada), and sticking to vegetables, as these places mostly cater to an ethnic clientele. All that said, we had a pretty good chicken biryani also.

Great food at Chettinad, dubious wine
Great food at Chettinad, dubious wine

Chez Georges (Rue du Mail): Lastly, completely contradicting everything I said above, is a paean to one of the finest bistros in Paris, and this in the Deuxieme Arrondisement. A long railroad-car of a room, with racks for coats, it’s been described as a place where Paris’ tribes meet: on our lunch visit, an impeccably-dressed octogenarian regular dining alone, a discreetly camp pair probably from the nearby fashion houses, a trio of businesspeople on a boozy Friday lunch, and a stack of regulars in the first room. I suspect one status is indicated by whether the amuse is breakfast radishes or saucisson slices: as I’ve only been going for 10 years, and pretty irregularly at that, we earned radishes (which were excellent). But the food! Marinated herrings to die for, come in a great big porcelain vat with onions, and are accompanied by another vat of chived potatoes. One takes as much as one wants (or can), the potato richness being cut by the oily fish. The mains were a perfect filet steak and superbly naughty fries drenched in a brandy and cream sauce; and veal kidneys, medium-done and well-stinky, in a sauce of cognac and mushrooms. Many years ago, I had my first andouillette , other diners looking on approvingly as a steamy cloud that smelt, literally, of pig shit, burst out of the entrail sausage. The desserts are more conventional and completely impressive – we held back this time, and ordered prunes in armagnac – again, a massive tureen, help yourself. Their profiteroles, and the chestnut puree with whipped cream, are certified as awesome. House wine comes in a heavy pewter tankard, and there are still one or two of the old ladies in pinafores that have always served there, but are steadily retiring.

The well-known mimeographed menu at Chez Georges...
The well-known mimeographed menu at Chez Georges…