Friday 26 June 2015

A couple of smaller Parisian museums: Cognacq-Jay, and Zadkine

Before and after attending the radiology congress which was the principal purpose of my trip to Paris, I got to visit a couple of smaller but delightful museums.

The Musée Cognacq-Jay, located in the district known as the Marais, is devoted to the art of the 18th century and houses the collection acquired between 1900 - 1927 by Ernest Cognacq, founder of the Samaritaine department store, and his wife Marie-Louise Jay. In addition to a fine collection of paintings and sculpture, the collection includes porcelain, furniture, silver, snuffboxes, and other decorative items, all beautifully displayed in the Hôtel Donon, a house from the late 16th century.

Among other things, I was pleased to see a small selection of paintings by the Venetian painters Canaletto, Francesco Guardi, Francesco's son Giacomo, and by imitators. I'm rather keen on Francesco Guardi, who was the subject of my MA dissertation. I had not seen this collection before, and it was interesting to have similar works by artists of varying quality displayed sided by side.

The big, famous museums like the Louvre, or the Musée D'Orsay are of course wonderful places to visit, but smaller museums have their appeal too, and in a different way. The grand museums are so large that it's impossible to see more than a small sample of their collections in a single visit. with smaller museums, it's usually possible to take a more leisurely perambulation through the displays, and I find that the smaller scale of the rooms creates a more relaxed framework in which to view the exhibits. In great tourist cities like Paris, the lesser-known museums also tend to be less crowded, which is a great bonus, I find.

During our visit to the Musée cognac-Jay, there was also an exhibition about the history of tea, coffee and cocoa in the 18th century, which was informative and enjoyable.

Among the exhibits, this 18th century menu offering a few "English" dishes: Rosbiff and several variants of Beef-stake.

In the courtyard, a pop-up café offered Espresso Tonic: espresso in tonic water.

Unlikely as it might seem, this is rather nice, but if you make it yourself, pour the coffee very slowly and carefully into the tonic, or the whole thing will froth up all over the table, as I found.

The other, even smaller museum I visited was the Musee Zadkine, contaning works by the sculptor Ossip Zadkine (1890 - 1967), and housed in his former studio. The street entrance is rather inconspicuous, and it's easy to walk right past it, as I did.

Zadkine was born in Russia. Sent to Sunderland in England to study English, he began to attend art classes, and moved to London in 1906 where he studied sculpture. In 1909 he moved to Paris where he spent the rest of his life, apart from a period of exile in New York during the second world war, and he was friends with Appolinaire, Picasso, Brancusi, and Eileen Gray.

The museum houses examples of his work from the start of his career, right up to those produced towards the end of his life. These are situated both inside the building, where the white walls and natural light set them off marvellously, as well as in the small garden.

Admission is free, but there is an audioguide in French or English for 5 Euro. Apart from discussing the background and context of the sculptures, it also it describes how the works were made, and aspects like the subtle application of pigment to what I took to be unfinished wood or stone, which I found particularly interesting. Audioguides can be variable in their quality, but I thought this one was well worth the money.

I enjoyed the visit immensely, much more than I did an earlier visit to the better-known and larger Rodin museum. I think I rather prefer Zadkine to Rodin, in fact.

Musée Cognacq-Jay
8 Rue d'Elzevir, 75003 Paris (in French only)

Musée Zadkine
100 bis, rue d'Assas, 75006 Paris

Both museums are open 1000 - 1800 daily except Mondays and Public Holidays

Friday 19 June 2015

La Cité de l'Architecture et du Patrimoine: the architecture museum of Paris

I've just returned from Paris where I have been attending a radiology conference, straddled by a few days of vacation. I became aware of this museum from a poster in the Paris metro. When I looked it up in the Time Out Guide to Paris, they didn't seem to rate it highly, but mentioned the fact that it contained a reconstruction of an apartment from Le Corbusier's Unite d'Habitation in Marseille. Having been slightly disappointed by the big Corb exhibition at the Pompidou Centre which I had visited a few days previously, I thought this might be worth seeing. And it certainly was.

The Cité is located in the Palais du Chailliot, the building with the curved collonades on the Trocadéro, the hill that looks out over the Eiffel Tower. On the entrance level, is an enormous cast court with full scale plaster casts of the masterpieces for French religious and civil architecture, arranged chronologically from the Romanesque and Gothic middle ages, through to the nineteenth century. It has much in common with the cast courts at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, but dedicated exclusively to French architecture. 

It's like a full scale illustrated history of French architecture prior to the modern period. Because the displays are of portions of buildings (sometimes very large ones indeed), you get to look at things in more detail than you might on a visit to the actual location. The museum was almsost empty when we visited on a Friday afternoon in summer, and I suspect it never gets crowded.

I was particularly intrigued by the cast from the 12th century abbey church of St Gilles du Gard, with its mixture of classical Roman  and romanesque elements

I left this section somewhat more interested than before in romanesque architecture, and wanting to visit other parts of France.

The next level up is the modern architecure section. It contains mainly models and displays of modern architecture, but for me the highlight is the full scale reconstructed apartment from Courbusier's famous apartment block in Marseille. 

If the Pompidou Centre exhibition left me feeling somewhat ambivalent about Corb, walking through this small duplex apartment gave me a renewed appreciation of his work. It's beautifully proportioned and exquisitely designed, and a joy to explore.

There are clever features like, for example, this arrangement for storing pots and pans, which combines the adnantages of hanging them up with the protection from grease afforded by a cupboard door. It's something I'll certainly consider if I re-do my own kitchen.

Many years ago while visiting a friend who was studying in Paris, I had the opportunity to visit another Corbusier apartment, a student flat in the Swiss Pavillion   at the Cite Universitaire, and I remember being similarly impressed then. 

Le Corbusier has been criticised for many things, particularly his ideas on town planning (for example, he wanted to replace Paris with giant skyscrapers), and he got a lot of things wrong, but when he got it right, he was pretty good. Even if his scale of measurement, the Modulor, is based on someone 183 cm in height (all the visitors I encountered were shorter, except one, who told me he was 192 cm).

The top floor is devoted to mural paintings and stained glass, with copies of the finest examples from all over France. Pretty impressive too, but we were getting a little tired by then, and probably didn't do it justice.

If you're interested in architecture and architectural history, I think you'll really enjoy this museum, and you should try to visit if you're in Paris. If you're mainly interested in interior design rather than architecture as such, I think it's still worth visiting just to see the Corbusier apartment. The architecture from this period has had a bad press, partly due to the way it was implemented. It was new, and not everything new will work out the first time round. The materials were not as developed as they are today. But the Corb apartment is an illustration of how, when everything came together properly, it could be wonderful. 

La Cité de l'Architecture et du Patrimoine
1, place du Trocadéro et du 11 novembre , 75116 Paris
Closed Mondays, and 1 May, 1 Jan, 25 Dec
Opening hours 1100 - 1900 (and until 2100 on Thursdays)

Related content:

A good artcicle by Stephane Kirkland covering other aspects of the Cité: 

Le Corbusier: mesures de l'homme (the measures of man) at the Centre Pompidou. My review 

Friday 12 June 2015

Le Corbusier: the measures of man, at the Centre Pompidou, Paris

I've always been a fan of the modernist architect Le Corbusier, at least in some respects (and as an architect rather than as an urban planner), so I was thrilled to learn that I would be able to visit a big retrospective exhibition dedicated to him at the Centre Pompidou during my trip to Paris for a radiology meeting.

The exhibition, Le Corbusier: mesures de l'homme (Le Corbusier: the measures of man) has as its theme le Corbusier's conception of the human figure as being at the centre of architecture, which led him to develop the Modulor, a system of proportion based on the human figure, the golden section, and the Fibonacci series. At least that's what we're told. In fact, although this aspect is covered, it's not really evident as a theme through most of the exhibition.

The exhibition does have an impressive and comprehensive display of drawings, paintings, photographs, and movies about the architect, that will delight anyone interested in the topic. However I found the coverage rather superficial, especially as regards it's central theme. There was, for example, no discussion about why the Modulor, which le Corbusier thought of as a universal system that could be applied to all architecture, furniture and industrial production, was not adopted by anyone else. It's interesting that although Albert Einstein's approval of the Modulor was mentioned, I didn't see any comments from other architects or designers.

Incidentally, the Modulor was initially based on a man 176 cm in height. This was later changed to 183 cm to accommodate inhabitants of the "Anglo-Saxon" nations. Either way, items made to those proportions would not have fitted me. So much for universality. It's not Moi-dulor, at any rate.

Although the exhibition is subtitled the measures of man, people seem to appear in it mostly as an adjunct to architecture. There is no discussion whatsoever about whether or not the inhabitants of his housing projects liked living there, or how they have fared over the years (the evidence, in fact, is that they have fared rather well, but none of this was explored, unless you count a few promotional films). 

Although le Corbusier's rhetoric may have been humane ("Soleil, Espace, Lumière!" -- "Sun, Space, Light!"), the vision depicted in the exhibition seemed a little bleak to me, and I was really surprised to find myself emerging from the exhibition feeling less enthusiastic about the architect than I had been when I entered.

Despite its shortcomings however, I'd still recommend a visit to the exhibition, to see all the items on display.

Le Corbusier: mesures de l'homme.
Centre Pompidou, Paris.
daily, 1100 - 2100, until 3 August 2015