Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Highlighting the Wonders of the Animal World - Espèces en voie d'illumination - at the Ménagerie, Paris

Soon a light festival will open along the paths of the Jardin des Plantes - this prestigous botanical setting in Paris - tracing the incredible diversity of the planet through the mammals and other creatures that have populated the land, sea and air over the millenia. Large illuminated structures, created by the China Light Festival, will honour these beasts of past and present, from the dinosaurs of 65 million years ago, to their modern descendants.

Indeed the festival leads from the entrance of the gardens next to the Galerie de Paléontologie et d'Anatomie comparée, to the Ménagerie within the heart of the grounds. In this manner, these large animal lanterns will accompany the visitor, taking him past the species of prehistoric times, to the contemporary creatures which are themselves, in turn, threatened by extinction. Hence the play on words of the festival poster, highlighting the "Espèces en voie d'illumination" to recall those ‘en voie de disparition’.

Having recently seen the preparations around the Ménagerie, I am very tempted to go, although I know the pleasure of the visitors could never be matched by that of any of the animals there. If only.

The magnificent Jardin des Plantes has to be one of my favourite places in Paris and is conveniently placed near the coach station so merits a visit every time I go to the capital. As you walk alongside flowerbeds, blooms and bushes under the alleys of plane trees, you hear the distinctive squawk of the African green parakeets that now colonise the gardens. Their mocking calls and brazen freedom is in stark contrast to the other exotic creatures housed but a few metres beyond.

On display in the Ménagerie is a population of beasts of fur, feather or scale, living in the safety and sanitation afforded by these enclosed spaces. Naturally, all the charges are well-cared for and their physical well-being is carefully supervised and without such structures, many species would simply already have become extinct.

However, the fact that certain species have relatively little to occupy, let alone entertain them can surely only sour our entertainment. Unlike our predecessors who had little experience and certainly no real understanding of such exotic examples of the natural world, we have the benefit of learning and a certain knowledge.

We may well be utterly enthralled and enchanted by the sight of latest arrivals –no one could be blasé when catching sight of the Snow Leopard cubs – but we are also now aware of what such capitivity signifies. The presence in the heart of the city of captive wild creatures is not normal, but nor is the fact that these endangered species originated in a wilderness that is equally under threat. We know the cost that such confinement incurs on these animals, and we also know that without paying this price for protection and perservation, many more would die out. The beauty on show – that animal magic - has always operated an obvious magnetic force that draws us in. However, the overwhelming sense of the ‘senseless’ in this existence of containment and confinement for some of the species is almost unbearable.

The profound ennui of many of the mammals was recognized centuries ago and yet today they pace their enclosures with the same crazy clockwork movement as they did then. It is heart-breaking to see the vacant expressions in their dulled eyes, but almost impossible to break this mechanical existence that offers little more than survival in a prison sentence for life.

This autumn’s babies are a joyful sight to behold and surely represent one of the unique joys in their mothers’ lives here in captivity and yet you cannot help but wonder what this life will be when these offspring reach maturity and no longer content themselves playing as they do at present and no longer need caring for. Both young and old will learn the reality of life imprisonment or simply resume it. Next to these mischievous cubs that scale the branches and mercilessly tease their mother, other adults wander ceaselessly and aimlessly up and down the cage, showing the direction that the young leopards’ lives will duly take. It seems tragic.

Initially, the Jardin des Plantes was created in the early 17th century as a royal botanical garden, le Jardin du Roi, tended to cultivate herbal remedies known as 'les Simples'. Under the direction of le Comte de Buffon (1707-1788) this was extended to become one of the most important research centres in Europe. Shortly after the French Revolution, the national research and educational institute for science was founded in the grounds; the Muséum National d'Histoire Naturelle. In the same drive for public instruction in all affairs of the natural world, the Ménagerie was opened in 1794, under Bernardin de St Pierre, in order to enhance the museum collection with live specimens. Finally, the Galerie d'Anatomie Comparée was created just after the turn of the century.

The Ménagerie is thus one of the oldest zoos in the world and is very much a product of its time. As the French aristocracy literally lost their heads in the Revolution years, the numerous exotic animals from their private collections lost their homes. The nobility’s property and possessions were seized by the State, and likewise they were relieved of their noble beasts as these were taken off to the Ménagerie, soon joined there by other animals from the royal ménageries at Versailles and Raincy. As the public and fairground exhibits of animals were banned from the streets of the capital, the owners saw their charges confiscated and housed in the new structure in Le Jardin des Plantes.

From a relatively modest 58 beasts, the Ménagerie collection expanded as the armies of the Convention period and then Napoleonic years took possession of further animals, receiving others as gifts or simply brought them back from foreign expeditions. One can only imagine how Parisians felt when encountering elephants, buffalo, camels, lions and the like at such close proximity. New enclosures were constructed to house the animals and display them to the eager spectators. For almost two decades the Rotunda was inhabited by one of the most famous ménagerie beasts; Zarafa the girafe. This ‘graceful and kind beast’, as her Arab name suggests, was sent to Charles X in 1826 with the aim of improving diplomatic relations between Egypt and France. Following her capture in southern Sudan, she was transported across the Mediterranean before being marched to Paris to the great astonishment of the crowds en route, not to mention the 600,000 visitors that flocked to see this strange beast in the Ménagerie. 'Girafomania' was thus born in 1827, triggering a range of merchandise to honour Zarafa.

Under the instructions of the naturalist Saint-Hilaire, director of the Muséum, the Ménagerie was increased in size in the 1860s and the enclosures improved in order to observe animal behaviour. Few people could have foreseen the dark period that was about to beset the Ménagerie. Whilst certain animals were killed by the hostilities during the Prussian invasion of the city, others were eaten by besieged, starving Parisians of the Commune in 1871. So it was that the elephants Pollux and Castor were lost in the most unfortunate circumstances…

The history of the Ménagerie is traced in its very architecture. From the pitturesque straw-thatched huts that drew inspiration from Marie-Antoinette’s farm, the imposing Great Aviary of 1888, to the beautiful Art Déco buildings from the interwar years, the function and significance of the Ménagerie are reflected.

The striking forms of the Vivarium (1926), the Monkey House (1936), and the Big Cat Enclosure (1937) employed innovative metal, materials and design, to startling effect, replacing certain structures that dated back some hundred years. The Art Déco sculpture of Paul Jouve completed the tone, yet by 1834 the opening of the Parc Zoologique de Paris had already had an impact of visitor numbers.

Since 1993 the buildings of the Ménagerie have been listed as historical monuments so whilst the larger mammals are slowly being transferred to larger institutions, more appropriate to their needs, this ancient site still fascinates the public, precisely due to its own unique story and its position in the history of Paris.

The enclosures that once were home to the showcase beasts of bigger dimensions, now accommodate smaller, critically endangered species. The former bear pits are now populated with the highly-popular Red Panda. Meanwhile other less-familiar species find refuge here – the bizarre Binturong (‘bearcats’) and the curious Pallas Cat, for example. However, the big cats still remain, captive and captivating, just as they were when Rilke wrote his poem 'The Panther', over a hundred years ago. Tragic.

The Orangutans stay on too, but seem to fare far better due to the social dynamics of their community – a group which has just increased in size with the birth of 'Java'. The hope is for a future reintroduction of many of the species preserved here, once their natural habitats have been repossessed and restored, but the powers of the Ménagerie - or any similar zoological establishment for that matter – are limited.

When I see the beauty of the beasts on display here, I feel sad that we humans cannot comprend that we do not actually possess the land we inhabit or indeed the Earth itself and should not be able to dispose of the other creatures as we see fit. Let's just hope that the festival Espèces en voie d'illumination that opens in November will throw a little more light onto the plight of our planet. Human-beings and orangutans share 97% of their DNA and yet Man is knowingly endangering the existence of this, our closest relative.

Sunday, October 28, 2018

Cabbages and Things...

Amongst all the beautiful, more traditional plants at the garden centre, it was these delicate ornamental cabbages, that caught my attention. Unfortunately, leaving to one side these aesthetic qualities, the very thought of this humble vegetable from a culinary point of view triggers a host of unpleasant memories or mere mind associations... Images of unsavoury school dinners from childhood, rise up from the dim and distant past, in the same manner that the distinctive cabbage smell emanates and lingers on and on. These combine with the particular scent of hospital food and retirement home fare.

Even the well-prepared sauerkraut (known as choucroute in French) goes no further than a few token mouthfuls. The poor cabbage never stood a chance once I had read the descriptions of the Bucket family's impoverished life in Roald Dahl's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory  ".....boiled potatoes and cabbage for lunch, and cabbage soup for supper." Say no more...
A fleeting reference to cabbages in The Walrus and the Carpenter provides the perfect excuse to look at Lewis Carroll's poem, recited by the fat twins, Tweedledum and Tweedledee, to Alice in Through the Looking-Glass (1871).
1871 illustration by John Tenniel.

                                                The Walrus and the Carpenter
"The sun was shining on the sea,
      Shining with all his might:
He did his very best to make
      The billows smooth and bright —
And this was odd, because it was
      The middle of the night.
The moon was shining sulkily,
      Because she thought the sun
Had got no business to be there
      After the day was done —
"It's very rude of him," she said,
      "To come and spoil the fun."

The sea was wet as wet could be,
      The sands were dry as dry.
You could not see a cloud, because
      No cloud was in the sky:
No birds were flying overhead —
      There were no birds to fly.
The Walrus and the Carpenter
      Were walking close at hand;
They wept like anything to see
      Such quantities of sand:
If this were only cleared away,'
      They said, it would be grand!'

If seven maids with seven mops
      Swept it for half a year,
Do you suppose,' the Walrus said,
      That they could get it clear?'
I doubt it,' said the Carpenter,
      And shed a bitter tear.
O Oysters, come and walk with us!'
      The Walrus did beseech.
A pleasant walk, a pleasant talk,
      Along the briny beach:
We cannot do with more than four,
      To give a hand to each.'

The eldest Oyster looked at him,
      But never a word he said:
The eldest Oyster winked his eye,
      And shook his heavy head —
Meaning to say he did not choose
      To leave the oyster-bed.
But four young Oysters hurried up,
      All eager for the treat:
Their coats were brushed, their faces washed,
      Their shoes were clean and neat —
And this was odd, because, you know,
      They hadn't any feet.

Four other Oysters followed them,
      And yet another four;
And thick and fast they came at last,
      And more, and more, and more —
All hopping through the frothy waves,
      And scrambling to the shore.
The Walrus and the Carpenter
      Walked on a mile or so,
And then they rested on a rock
      Conveniently low:
And all the little Oysters stood
      And waited in a row.

The time has come,' the Walrus said,
      To talk of many things:
Of shoes — and ships — and sealing-wax —
      Of cabbages — and kings —
And why the sea is boiling hot —
      And whether pigs have wings.'
But wait a bit,' the Oysters cried,
      Before we have our chat;
For some of us are out of breath,
      And all of us are fat!'
No hurry!' said the Carpenter.
      They thanked him much for that.

A loaf of bread,' the Walrus said,
      Is what we chiefly need:
Pepper and vinegar besides
      Are very good indeed —
Now if you're ready, Oysters dear,
      We can begin to feed.'
But not on us!' the Oysters cried,
      Turning a little blue.
After such kindness, that would be
      A dismal thing to do!'
The night is fine,' the Walrus said.
      Do you admire the view?

It was so kind of you to come!
      And you are very nice!'
The Carpenter said nothing but
      Cut us another slice:
I wish you were not quite so deaf —
      I've had to ask you twice!'
It seems a shame,' the Walrus said,
      To play them such a trick,
After we've brought them out so far,
      And made them trot so quick!'
The Carpenter said nothing but
      The butter's spread too thick!'

I weep for you,' the Walrus said:
      I deeply sympathize.'
With sobs and tears he sorted out
      Those of the largest size,
Holding his pocket-handkerchief
      Before his streaming eyes.
O Oysters,' said the Carpenter,
      You've had a pleasant run!
Shall we be trotting home again?'
      But answer came there none —
And this was scarcely odd, because
      They'd eaten every one."

Saturday, October 27, 2018

Foujita - Artist of Fluidity, Les Années Folles and the Feline Form...

Foujita: Dora Kallmus
The name Foujita is tied to the cultural and, to a degree, spiritual heritage of Reims. The Romanesque- style chapel of Notre-Dame de la Paix, a listed historic monument since its construction in 1965 - commonly referred to as la Chapelle Foujita - is part of the stock ‘to visit’ sites for tourists to the city. It was drawn up and entirely decorated by the Japanese artist at the behest of the head of the champagne house Mumm, the site of which is just across from the chapel itself. As part of the champagne circuit, other visitors may haphazardly come across this small edifice that lies in a modest walled garden but should they go at this time of year, will be disappointed since it is closed until next Spring! I had forgotten that practical point when returning recently, so will have to wait till next May to enter. I particularly liked the carved mermaid on the façade of the building and have kept it on the right of my home page since this the last visit.... 8 years ago!

Beyond that, many people are largely unaware of who Foujita actually was, or what his full contribution to the art world represented. Until earlier this year, that is, when a large exhibition of his works was held at the Musée Maillol in Paris. Incredibly, I managed to miss Foujita; Peindre dans les années folles and so now have to live with the frustration!
However, there is a currently an exhibition in the Bibliothèque Carnegie in Reims, which coincides with the twinning of the cities of Reims and Nagoya –both martyrs of wartime hostilities in the Great War and the Second World War respectively – and the fiftieth anniversary of Foujita’s death. Furthermore, key to the works on show, under the collective title Foujita, artiste du livre, is the illustrated piece, La Rivière Enchantée, which was acquired by the Bibliothèque Carnegie in 2016.

Many of his other illustration are on display and this follows on from the donation of a vast collection of artifacts ; objects and documents to the Musée des Beaux-Arts de Reims by the estate of his last wife, Kimiyo. Reims is certainly proud of its connection to this celebrated, yet rather enigmatic artist, and through his spiritual epiphany and baptism, Foujita felt a close bond to the city. He indeed chose to be inhumed there with his tomb lying in the Chapelle de la Paix. However, Foujita goes far beyond this final creative stage at the end of his life. Indeed, his very name was once synonymous with the unique spirit of euphoria and exoticism from Les Années Folles of Paris wherein Foujita represented the meeting of East and West as the Empire of the Rising Sun collided with the Hedonistic stamping grounds of the French capital, all explored and expressed in his art, aspirations, influences and incomparable persona.

Foujita arrived in Paris just before the start of the First World War, and set about studying the great works of the Louvre in the city that he had dreamt of visiting since his art studies in Japan. By then, he was already 27 years of age, and having followed an initial artistic training in Tokyo where he had also learnt French, was finally able to explore Western art, past and present, at first hand. His perseverance, versatility and commitment to his artist endeavours enabled him to endure the war years. Not limiting himself to one particular medium, he observed and experimented in all, soon earning the reputation as a genial touche-à-tout; painter, printmaker, photographer, watercolourist, illustrator, furniture designer, film-maker, clothes designer and excentric dandy.

His name might not be an immediate reference to us today, but the names of the individuals he encountered and frequented certainly are; Modigliani, Matisse, Soutine, Pascin, Picasso, Rousseau and Renoir and the ‘Muse of Montparnasse’ and of Man Ray – Kiki. Foujita and the other members of this bohemian set of artists of the Jazz age - the Montparnos - blazed an avant- garde trail through the post-war Roaring Twenties. However, in certain respects Foujita was even more progressive than the figure at the head of the artistic and trend-setting vanguard – Picasso himself. It is said that Foujita even initiated the wearing of the striped breton shirt which would become the emblematic garment of his Spanish contemporary. Certainly his unique manner of dress caught public attention from the onset as his very appearance was another artistic venture in itself and was subject to aesthetic experimentation, be that in the multitude of mondain soirées or merely daily routines around the Montparnasse quartier.

Photo © Centre Pompidou, MNAM-CCI, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Jacqueline Hyde
Although he remained faithful to his ‘trademark’ round glasses, moustache and pudding-bowl hairstyle, his clothing and general aspect changed perpetually whilst maintaining the same note of sophistication and elegance that marked his work. As for his artistic style, that too was experimental, explorative; eclectic. He extended and blurred the boundaries between Eastern and Western art, Classicism and Modernism, drawing up new lines by using the same dexterity with which he handled his brush strokes. His calligraphic lines, from a Japanese heritage of brushwork were exemplary and drew great acclaim as he applied them to recurrent themes of women, self-portraits, still lives and cats. The ivory, lustrous foundation employed in many of Foujita’s works was based on a technique that he kept guarded as it afforded a luminosity that was largely unfamiliar to the Western public, yet was one of the signature traits of his art.

The flat, decorative approach that Foujita often turned to, bore the native Eastern influences that he would merge with Western influxes. His approach appealed to the aesthetic tastes and innovative spirit of the inter-war years that readily embraced Art Déco and hosted the Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes in 1925. Whatever the medium he was working with, his treatment or the genre from which he drew inspiration, each piece proved to be unique in itself. His work seems quite distinct in this respect and wholly impressive. From the delicately ‘scrubby’ brushstrokes that capture the dense fur of his animal subjects, to the transparent layers of oil paint that appear like watercolour, the buffing effect and use of gold leaf both reminscent of early Orthodox icons, the fluid movement of the painted line that recreated a fish in a series of rapid sketches, to the odd, rather creepy fillettes with with their detailed garments, yet unsettling domed forehead and dark, unnerving eyes ; all is undeniably Foujita. This originality led him to occupy a distinct position amongst the members of the 'School of Paris' and drew him great public acclaim.

From the encounter and mariage, some two weeks later, to his second wife Fernande Barrey in 1917, Foujita signed a contract with the art dealer Chéron. His notoreity rapidly grew during a period of prolific production that coincided, remarkably, with a wild, bohemian existence. Indeed, the City of Light wished nothing more than to forget the dark war years and embrace the new. This expat protégé was ready to help the Parisiens celebrate the aesthetics of life in every aspect and would even lead the way. However, it would be an error to assume that Foujita succombed to the same inebriating forces that flooded the city’s nocturnal festivities, in a sea of powerful alcohol and periodic inactivity. As was later remarked by an acquaintance, Foujita had a "Samurai’s strong spirit about him" which translated itself by a steely ambition and a rigid diligence in work that made him devote himself religiously to a strict creativity, to the detriment of lovers or social levity. Although the ‘Montparnos’ frequently lived in conditions barely above the direst poverty and the very poorest hygiene– the stories of Modigliani and Soutine’s state of impoverishment are legendary - Foujita seemed to thrive despite these and avoid the alcoholic excesses that incapacitated many an artist. Rumour has it that as soon as he possessed the necessary financial means to do, he had a bath with hot-running water installed in his flat – to the astonishment and envy of those who knew him, all too eager to benefit from this remarkable acquisition.

By the end of the 20s, Tsugarahu Foujita, born to a family of Japanese nobility in the late 19th century, had risen to occupy a noble position in the art world. His work was being exhibited and sold worldwide. Furthermore, he had been nominated Chévalier de la Légion d’Honneur in 1925. His watercolours had made him one of the richest, most successful artists and by this time, Foujita was sharing his fame with a ‘Queen of Montparnasse’, Lucie Badoud, whose white complexion had earned her the name Youki – signifying ‘snow’ in Japanese. She and Foujita had met in La Rotonde, one of the renowned brasseries frequented by artists and writers alike, along with Le Dome and La Coupole. The artist’s attachment to Montparnasse and his years there were represented in several of the works that form his Tableaux de Paris, published in 1929 and that mark the end of this episode in his life. For success had come with a price, in this case a heavy tax bill which led to him to return to Tokyo in order to sell his works. Furthermore, the art market that had exploded following Armistice and post-war investment now imploded.

The Wall Street Crash of 1929 heralded the long Depression years but did not prevent the Book of Cats from being published in New York in 1930 or from its going on to be a huge success – then and still today. Indeed Foujita’s love of the feline, feminine form is well documented and his numerous representations of cats and female nudes testifies to this mutual admiration and attraction. In 1931, he left for Latin America with a new partner, a dancer from the Casino de Paris – Madeleine ‘La Panthère’, having finally lost Youki to the Surrealist poet, Robert Desnos.

The couple continued to travel, but on Madeleine’s death, Foujita briefly returned to Paris yet the advent of the Second World War forced him to regain his homeland, where he was employed by the Japanese military as a war painter to record scenes of victory and loss. Accused of being a fascist collaborator, Foujita feared for any free movement in the future, but was finally able to settle in France and declared in 1950 that he intended to remain there for good, bringing with him his fifth and final wife ; Kimiyo. However, the war experience had changed him, Hiroshima had affected the man and artist. He took French nationality in 1955 on renouncing Japanese citizenship, and forsook the name Tsuguharu in favour of Léonard – in honour of Leonardo da Vinci. He and Kimiyo went to live in the Essonne at Villiers-le-Bâcle.

Raised in the Buddhist faith, Foujita had often been fascinated by mysticism throughout his life, but in the late 1950s he underwent a spiritual awakening on visiting the Basilique de Saint-Remi in Reims - the Cité des Sacres. He was subsequently baptisted in the cathedral there and the ties between artist and future patron, René Lalou, were forged when the latter became Foujita’s godfather. It was Foujita who created the symbolic rose to decorate grande cuvée bottles of the Brut Rosé champagne of Mumm in 1957.

Chapelle de la Paix, commissioned by Lalou, cemented their friendship, a shared artistic appreciation and Foujita’s conversion to the Catholic faith yet the symbolic references serve to highlight the artist’s deeply-rooted Oriental influences. Chrysanthemums feature amongst the other delicate flowers, butterflies, insects and preferential feline figures in the religious scenes depicted on the frescoes, whilst the protagonists’ expressive Asian eyes catch our attention. I just wish I could go back into the chapel to have another look!

The chapel was the last great work created by the artist as he died shortly after, in 1968, and the name of Foujita was shrouded for many decades. His widow, herself baptised as Marie-Ange, guarded her husband’s art and honour, forbidding any reproduction of his work or exhibition to celebrate his life-time achievements.

Such a vast artistic career, with its extensive range and versatility is humbling, but anyone who worshipped cats as much as Foujita did can do no harm in my eyes!