10) CHAUSÉE D'ANTIN LA FAYETTE
As the number 7 Paris Metro train disappears into the dark mouth of its maze-like underground dungeon, I glance up and notice a mural on the ceiling of the train station, beneath the tracks. The mural is massive, stretching the entire length of the Chausée d’Antin La Fayette station—approximately 60 metres or so. The images are archetypal: Gods and Angels dominate the firmament, while historic scenes, so very French in feel, are scattered at intervals around the periphery. Strangely, to view the mural requires standing very close to the platform edge, bending down and forward, and twisting one's body to look up at it. Not a position recommended as the next train rushes into the station a few minutes later, but worth it to see this unusual and delightful piece of public art properly.
Exiting Chausée d’Antin La Fayette station I'm immediately transported into another universe; I have emerged at one of the global epicentres of consumerism. The glitzy flagship of the Galeries Lafayette department store is directly ahead. It is brightly regaled in its fresh Christmas finery, cleverly designed to draw shoppers into the store to purchase the ‘must have’ items of the season. This year, one of these items is a large Darth Vadar doll carrying a pink designer handbag!
I glance over my shoulder and see the magnificent Palais Garnier, the grand building of the Paris Opera. The sheer size of this building, standing alone on it’s own city block, elaborately decorated and gilded with statuary flowing gaudily from it’s walls and roof like cooled lava, is overwhelming. This truly stunning building was the centrepiece of the ‘new Paris' of Napoleon III and Baron Haussmann; culture, wealth, and grandeur being flaunted here to excess.
I've chosen to walk along Chausée d’Antin today as it is the street where Frédérik Chopin lived for most of his years in Paris. I was somewhat surprised to find on researching Chopin’s life that he lived in fairly salubrious surroundings in Paris, having made quite a splash with his early recitals here in 1831. In his later years he performed less often, mostly in small salon settings, but remained highly sought after as a teacher of music to the Parisian elite and their families.
38, Chausée d’Antin today is a plain apartment building, with nothing to indicate the emotional genius that flowed from the soul and fingers of Frédérik Chopin here before his early death in 1849, aged only 39 years, from presumed tuberculosis.
Turning and looking to the left, towards the north end of the street, the Eglise de la Sainte-Trinité is seen as an intricately decorated monumental viewpoint. The church was also built as part of Baron Haussmann’s massive city expansion, and specifically acts as a focal point of interest for the eye when walking along this famous street.
The church itself is showing signs of age; the inevitable grey discolouration of the cream local sandstone a product of standing for more than 150 years in Parisian pollution. Many of the better known monuments and buildings of Paris have been cleaned of their grime, and restored to their original colouring. From the looks of it, Trinity Church is not a particularly wealthy parish these days, so she wears her patina gracefully in silence.
Only two blocks from Eglise de la Sainte-Trinité, at 14, rue de la Rochefoucauld, is the Musée Gustave Moreau. Moreau was a Symbolism painter who was born and lived in Paris from 1829 until 1898. He gave himself the descriptive title of: “A worker and assembler of dreams.” His story is one of privilege and opportunity and, like Chopin, Gustave Moreau lived and moved in the upper class and wealthy circles of Paris of the mid 19th century.
Gustave’s father was a celebrated architect. A harsh disciplinarian by all accounts, Louis Moreau was generous in allowing Gustave to indulge his desire to be an artist. Louis did, however, insist that Gustave first complete a formal classical education. When aged only 17 years, Gustave was given a large townhouse to live and work in. He later enlarged this house to better display his growing collection of large canvases; it stands today as the Musée Gustave Moreau.
Moreau was recognized for his work during his life, but he was also harshly criticized. He was labeled, “An opium smoker with the hands of a goldsmith,” and, "wasted wealth,” and, "the ideas of a madman”, and, “a pictorial nightmare that pleads eloquently against an excess of hashish.”
Many of Moreau's works are incomplete, but canvas after canvas show the scope of his vision. The Greek pantheon is strongly represented in works such as Oedipus and the Sphinx — the hit of the 1864 Paris Salon — and Leda, which depicts Zeus/Jupiter as a swan copulating with the mortal Leda.
Christian images are also frequently represented with a winged Jesus overlooking nine panels depicting Adam and Eve, Orpheus and his muse, and Cain and Abel, in the morning, noon, and evening of their lives. This exquisite piece entitled, The Life of Humanity.
Moreau was said to have kept, on average, one painting for every work he sold in his lifetime. Those he kept now make up the collection in this museum. Again during his life he was criticized for hoarding his works for his posthumous glory. I for one am excited that he did so as the effect of seeing so many large-scale works, heavily featuring and exemplifying his characteristic Symbolism style, in the house where he lived and worked, is breathtaking . . .
November 14th, 2014.