Sunday, October 30, 2011

Ruins in Paris

Earlier this month I spent a long weekend in Paris.  Paris in the autumn, but 28 degrees centigrade everyday.  It was heavenly.

One morning we paid a visit to the Louvre to view one of my favourite rooms, the big hall with 19th century French paintings, where one of our students gave a presentation on David's Coronation of Napoleon Bonaparte.  It is a huge painting, but the audience that crowded around the painting as the student gave her presentation was fairly big too, as you can see in the photo below.  Sometimes it is difficult to see the art among the crowds.

Because I had written something on my blog recently about Delacroix's horses, I took the opportunity to take this photo - a detail from his The Death of Sardanapalus.

I am a creature of habit, and I always take a light lunch at one of the restaurants in the beautiful and peaceful Tuileries Garden.  This is where the French Royal Family were finally deposed in August 1792.  After the mob had taken the palace the unfortunate Swiss Guards had to be scraped from the curtains and ceilings.

Nothing of that terrible violence remains today, but I did spot a new work of art that provides a warning for the future.  As we strolled through the garden I spotted (well, how can one really miss it,) a reclining, giant white column, reminding us, after all we had just come from Switzerland, of an oversized Alphorn.  One of the things about contemporary art in public spaces is, your never quite sure what it is.  You're presented with a dilemma: what is this?  Is it a piece of rubbish? Something that has just fallen out of space? An unfinished piece of roadworks? A gigantic joke?  Or is it a work of art?  I decided to risk making a fool of myself and prompty pronounced "O look, a work of art".

Like most works of public art, it simply begged to be climbed upon.  But the good, respectable Parisians relaxed on the green caste-iron chairs or walked primly past, ignoring the unignorable.  After all, how can you not notice a giant column 100 meters long that is lying on the floor, tipping into the pond, like an oversized cigarette, or even better, a gigantic joint resting on an ash tray.

As I said, works like this are simply asking to be climbed upon.  But not being the brave sort, I suggested to a student who had accompanied me that she should.  And so she did.

Admittedly, she didn't get very far.

So, you are no doubt bursting to know what this long white piece of plaster is. It is called Poems for Earthlings and it is the creation of the Argentinian artist Adrian Villar Rojas.  It is, I suppose, a reminder that our civilization will also some day come to an end, that all that will remain of our proud towers and gadgetary will be ruins that aliens will clamber upon.  It is apt that this piece has come to lie where the ancien regime came to its bitter end in 1792.

Perhaps Poems for Earthlings is meant to depress us and it certainly reminded me of one of my favourite poems, Shelley's Ozymandias:

"Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!'
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away".

However, despite rising temperatures and news of floods in New Zealand and the Philipines, Italy and Thailand, despite news of rising seas and glacier meltdown in Greenland and the Alps, despite the catastrophe of tsunami and nuclear contamination in Japan, it was hard to feel depressed in the warmth and sunshine of Paris in October, even if that unseasonal heat is a harbinger of things to come.


  1. When I read The Clever Pup on Napoleon, I was struck by how historians' attitudes change over the decades, but how the ordinary French citizens make up their own minds. I have only written two posts about Napoleon in my own blog, and was surprised to receive many (thoughtful) comments.

    Now your photo of the crowds in front of David's Coronation of Napoleon Bonaparte suggests that the fascination continues. It may be ambivalent, but it IS powerful.

  2. Thanks Hels,
    Yes, Napoleon has a sort of magnetic draw. Personally, I refer to him as "The Greatest Widow Maker of the 19th Century".

  3. I like your thoughtful post v. much. Nice to find your blog again.

  4. Thank you Sharon. (And welcome back).