One recurring element of this month’s trip to London and Paris was flowers, a thematic initiated by an unplanned trip to the RHS Chelsea Flower Show. The fountain-filled show gardens and the vast pavilion of exhibits were admittedly memorable, even for amateur gardeners such as us. We were completely, and delightedly, out of our league. Florals followed us to France, where our Saint-Germain neighborhood was the locus of a walking tour of shops and art galleries, an “ephemeral vernissage” presented under the rubric “la fleur d’art.” In the studio garden of the district’s Musée Delacroix we encountered the hybrid rose “Othoniel,” only to find a marvelous installation of the artist Jean-Michel Othoniel’s rose-inspired works in the Louvre’s Cour Puget. We have yet to visit his Les belles danses at Versailles, but were enchanted nevertheless by Othoniel’s enigmatic solo show, Oracles, at Gallerie Perrotin in the Marais. His indoor 2019 Blue River, in particular, evoked some of the light-reflecting revelations of a garden’s water elements.
Though for several decades now Félix Féneon has been among LNB’s artistic heroes, awareness his self-effacing presence in French cultural history has only become evident to the American literary community in recent years. (We point out Mary Maxwell’s poem about the mysterious gentleman, “The Reading,” which first appeared in Agni Review in 1996.) Féneon is beginning to get even more of his due in France, where the exposition Félix Féneon: Les arts lointains has opened at Paris’s Musée du Quai Branly. Like the similarly mutifarious Lincoln Kirstein, Féneon is hard to place or explain. (It is therefore appropriate, we’d note, that a second part of the show will be mounted at MOMA in 2020.) There are Féneon’s writings: art reviews and and prose (his Nouvelles en trois lignes being century-old predecessors to current flash- and micro- fiction); there’s his editing of La Revue Blanche; there are his friends and colleagues (Modigliani, Rimbaud, Laforgue and Van Gogh …) whose work he promoted and sometimes underwrote. And then there are his collections of “primitive art,” some of which is on display at the Branly. Oh, yes, and then there’s the fact that he was an anarchist. Some elements of the show (20th-century “Negro Art”) intersect with another fantastic Paris exhibit, Black Models: From Géricault to Matisse at the Musée d’Orsay. One of the best-curated exhibits we’ve ever seen (kudos to the American Denise Murrel), the d’Orsay contains the same film clip of Josephine Baker as at the Branly, but presented with a different perspective. Beginning with 19th-century and colonial-era French painting, the show bumps up against the literary with a mixed-race Alexandre Dumas (for us adding considerable poignance to our childhood reading of The Count of Monte Cristo) and Baudelaire’s mistress, Jeanne Duval. All this moves towards 20th century Paris and Afro-American NYC, ending up with Matisse’s Jazz, the dancer Katherine Dunham and the sublime Romare Bearden.
Sometimes travel produces wonderful coincidences, related images and topoi that are too profound to be planned. At the Beauborg we came across Coffret Number 7, a one-room exhibit put together by Raphaël Denis about the heroic art dealer Paul Rosenberg. As he represented artists such as Ingres, Delacroix, Courbet, as well as Picasso, Braque and Matisse, by the 1920s Rosenberg was acknowledged to run the most important art gallery in the world. The somewhat conceptual exhibit preserves in size and number (“faux” pieces wrapped as though for shipping) the dealer’s art holdings and accompanying archives held in a Libourne bank vault circa 1941, when the Nazis confiscated the works and removed them to the Jeu de Paume; there they were identified as “ownerless cultural goods” and earmarked for Göring’s personal collection. Much of Rosenberg’s art had been to removed to London and America in the late 1930s, and Rosenberg and his family, despite extensive French collaboration, were able to escape to New York where he established a new gallery. And though the installation means to question the whole concept of an art “collection,” to us its more significant accomplishment is to record an amazing story of plunder and restoration; the recovery of the looted artworks remains ongoing. But we were moved to encounter a 1918 portrait of Rosenberg’s wife and daughter (renamed “Mother and Child” by Göring) at the nearby Musée Picasso, the painting donated by the gallerist’s family in 2007. Picasso’s emotionally warm (atypically so, we might add) representation of Rosenberg’s family makes evident the close relation between the painter and gallerist. As added resonance, the painting hangs in the same gallery as a perfect small Corot the painter purchased (or traded for his own work?) from Rosenberg early on in his career.
In Paris at the Musée Picasso we toured the richly endowed Calder-Picasso exhibit. Though the two artists met several times, and their works do occasionally overlap formally and chronologically, ultimately they are the products of distinct and oppositional sensibilities. Separate from the featured show, for example, on the museum’s top floor there was displayed a series of Picasso prints inspired by Maupassant’s Maison Teillier, these shown alongside a set of predecessors made by Degas and purchased by Picasso. Such brothel scenes tell a lot about their creators. For Degas, the women are working bodies, as professional as his danseuses. But Maupassant’s affectionate and moving portrait of working girls is reduced to brutal erotica by Picasso. It’s hard to imagine the playful Calder presenting sex as a thing to be paid for. Some might say he was too childish; we’d describe him as never having lost his innocent and practical genius. And so we have to admit that the thing we perhaps enjoyed best in the Calder-Picasso show was Calder’s journal reminiscence of the fourth encounter between the two artists in 1953. Picasso showed the American an embarrassingly commercial ceramic platter he’d recently made, with a bull-fight in the center and a raised ridge around the edge. Said Calder in somewhat faulty French, “That’s so the meat doesn’t slide.” According to an onlooker, Picasso’s face became bright red; the two never met again.
In the basement of the London Review Bookshop we were surprised by how many “door-stop” Carcanet Collecteds we came across whose authors we’d never heard of — names such as Iain Crichton Smith, Elizabeth Jennings, and Lorna Goodson. We like to think we keep up with current poetry, but the experience was humbling. We’re not talking about slim volumes of the long-dead but massive tomes of the near-contemporary. The 2013 book we ended up purchasing was not one these newish monsters, but we recommend it highly: Towards Re-Enchantment: Place and Its Meanings. Among its contributors are Kathleen Jamie, Robin Robertson, Lavinia Greenlaw and (the recently elected Oxford Professor of Poetry) Alice Oswald. Within its pages our attention was brought to another volume we’d not known about: Home Ground: Language for an American Landscape. It may sound oversimplified, but the matter of remembering what things in nature are called and how they got their names is a fundamental task of the poet. Such a glossary is slipping away yet, as Robert Macfarlane writes, “Certain kinds of language can restore a measure of wonder to our relations with nature.” Such recollecting “does not so much define as evoke, or it defines through evocation.” We are much looking forward to Macfarlane’s newest (and much-reviewed) volume, Underland.