The title of this article was inscribed, along with a mini Eiffel Tower, on pink cocktail napkins that I found in a little paper store on the Left Bank. “Of course”, I thought as I bought them, “how come I never came up with the phrase myself?”
The myth is that Paris in August is precisely not a good idea. And, as all myths, it is open to discussion. I could try to prove why August is, on the contrary, a glorious month to be in Paris. I could say that the city has changed and is no longer just a ghostly, albeit tourist infested, place. That the absence of half the cars is a boon to the atmosphere and that the lack of pollution makes the city dazzle. That many good stores are now open in the summer, even on Sunday. That some of the best restaurants no longer shut their doors for the holidays. That some theatres put on good shows. The only aspect which is rather distressing is the total lack of good music, replaced by chamber orchestras of dubious quality performing, year after year, the same hackneyed pieces, especially the Four Seasons and Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, with heretic Bach suites thrown in, although the venues, quite beautiful and seldom visited churches like St. Eustache and St. Julien-le-Pauvre, might be well worth the detour. Nevertheless, I believe that describing some events of a three week long stay in Paris during this unfashionable month should be more effective than sweeping comments.
A few exceptional restaurants kept their doors open, more than enough to ruin one’s diet – along with the bakeries where baguettes, croissants, brioches and macarons were a constant provocation. And the chocolate stores…no comment.
Two exhibitions, among quite a few offerings, caught my attention. The first one, at the Musée d’Orsay, was a retrospective of portraits by Cézanne. As he is far better known for his still lifes and his landscapes, this collection of admirable portraits took me by surprise. The brush strokes are unmistakably Cézanne’s, but there is a diversity and intensity of expressions which are, obviously, absent from the other works. The exhibition’s flyer mentions the fact that Cézanne’s technique was often referred to as a “mason’s painting” in the sense that the strokes are heavy and textured, as plaster splashed on a wall. In fact, the commentary goes on, some of the portraits were painted exclusively with a spatula instead of a brush. There are many self-portraits which reveal
much about the painter’s moods, from self-assured to anxious and almost dejected. There are portraits of the artist’s father, of workers and friends. One, “The Boy in the Red Vest”, thrilled me not only by its beauty, but because of the boy’s uncanny resemblance to my grandson Alex! His more formal portraits, those of the “lady in blue”, also have an incredible resemblance to Maggie Smith as Lady Grantham, who could have sat for Cézanne at Downton Abbey. But the most striking, in my opinion, are his portraits of Hortense Fiquet, his companion and later wife, with whom he had a son, also Paul. Even after their marriage, they rarely lived together, and he married her despite having fallen out of love with her. So there is not a single portrait where she seems to be happy. They all show degrees of indifference, most with a tinge of sadness, others with a gleem of vindictiveness and yet others simply resigned. No two expressions are alike. And one immediately foresees Picasso and Matisse, the former in the faces, the latter in the fabrics.
From emotion to glamour. The other exhibition was at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs, a tribute to Christian Dior, the legendary master of Haute Couture. I imagined something bright, frothy, elegant… yet the exhibition, although admirably researched and all encompassing, was what my son would call “TMI”. The abundance of photographs, all crowded in a few rooms, followed by windows showing full size dresses, miniature dresses, shoes, the evolution of perfume bottles, costume jewelry, hats, gloves, exhibited all together according to color, left one completely dizzy and incapable of sorting things out. Then came a whole wall of magazine covers, hundreds of them, again a dizzying array. Finally, fortunately, things began to spread out, you could breathe again and take in the stunning designs, especially in a hall with a very tall ceiling and painted bright white where all the “toiles”, the sort of maquette of the dress made in white canvas, were shown in niches going all the way to the top, and in another room with gorgeous dresses and slides of celebrities wearing them. I wouldn’t say the exhibition was a waste of time, there was beauty to behold, but most of it was too oppressive to truly enjoy.
The final August treat was an excellent play on the creation of Edmond Rostand’s masterpiece “Cyrano de Bergerac”, simply entitled “Edmond”, beautifully and ingeniously written by Alexis Michalik, and performed by a smashing crew, following extraordinarily intricate stage directions which kept the action in fast, perpetual movement, miraculously without depriving the audience of any bit of the story. A wonderful “tour de force”.
There is definitely much more to do in Paris during the “season”, but August certainly does not deserve to be shunned. You see, Paris is always a good idea.