Paris is like a reef of culture that is encrusted with sculpture. Sculpture is all over the city. It’s almost like the Parisians despise an empty flat spaces and have some primal urge to decorate pristine places and make them conform to their will.
When I visited La Cuesta Encantada, also nick-named “Hearst Castle” in California, USA, I was struck by how much religious art, William Randolph Hearst had carpet-bagged during his lifetime. It wasn’t that Hearst was a particularly religious man; it’s just that the best art from the time periods that Hearst was interested in was religious in nature because the Catholic Church with its enormous appetite for iconic images was the greatest patron of the arts in Europe during those eras.
In Paris, the church still seems to play an important role in supporting the arts. Not so much in the commissioning of new work but by providing space to display it.
One such place is the huge neo-classical pile known as Église de la Madeleine or just La Madeleine. It’s a dark inside the church but the outside is surrounded with sculpture.
All the parks are populated with sculpture that range from overwrought romantic nonsense through to surprising modern pieces like Dubuffet’s “Le Bel Costumé”, which was almost hidden by a hedge of trees in the Jardin des Tuileries.
The surfaces of the buildings haven’t escaped attention either, and many have been covered with so much carving they seem to be writhing with life. Even the portico roof (which most people wouldn’t even look at) of the Pantheon is stunning, never mind the rest of the building.
It just goes on and on.
I think that if I lived in Paris I’d want my home to be a plain white minimalist cube. Not because I don’t like sculpture, but to just to give my brain and eyes a rest.
Last Saturday was “Africa day”, and near the ruined Castle Valkenberg were these guys playing there drums. As soon as I started to take pictures of them, they turned their hambones up to high and mugged for me in a very overt and good natured manner.
Whilst in Maastricht, Engogirl and I went looking for the Roman tunnels we had read that were there. Unfortunately it was Sunday and just about everything including the information centre was closed.
While we were driving through the countryside, down ever narrowing dirt roads, looking for the tunnels, we stumbled across a large old building called the “Hoeve Lichtenberg”. The old building looked as though it was some kind of gigantic manor house. At the front was a very large entrance that was half opened and we could see a figure moving about, so we got out of the car to ask directions. As we walked through the large opened door we could see a group of Dutch guys at a big picnic table with one of them cooking on a barbeque.
Our intrusion sort of surprised each other as we walked, so I blurted out, “gut morgen” and received the standard polite reply in return. I then said “sorry but I don’t speak Dutch”.
Like many of the Dutch I’ve met, the guy who was cooking said, “It’s O.K. I speak English”. I felt a bit embarrassed and slightly uncomfortable that I’d walked into what looked like a private courtyard and a bunch people about to have their breakfast. So I charged on with, “so, are we on time for breakfast?”
The cook just laughed and said, “sure, sit down and join us……….. but, it will cost ten guilders”.
Realising that he probably wouldn’t have thought twice about us joining him and was joking about the money, I shot back, “sorry but I’ve only got Euros”. The guys at the table all laughed. I then went to ask, “what is this place?” It was explained to us that it was an old farm estate that was now being used as a sort of basic hotel and the guys were staying there. I then asked about where the caves were and received directions plus a lesson on how the Dutch pronounce the word, “grotto”. As I thanked the guys and was about to take my leave of them, they said, “don’t go yet, you MUST go up the tower and see the view!”
Sure enough, there was a ruined old stone tower about twenty metres (60ft) high with recent stairway inside, at the far side of the courtyard. We went up and the view was fantastic. While we were up the tower, the guys at the table called out to us every now and again, waving and laughing as they did.
On the way out, we chatted with them some more and I took the photo above.
What struck me about our encounter with these friendly strangers was how there was a palpable sense of “bon aimi”.
All very; “hail good fellow, well met!”
I was reminded of Evelyn Waugh’s, “Brideshead revisited” when Lord Sebastian Flyte introduced his friend, Charles Ryder (from a lower social order) to his friends in his college in Oxford. The narrator, Ryder remarks (something along the lines of), “they all had the good grace to treat me as though they’d known me all their lives”.
I felt that the jovial hospitality we’d been shown was of the same ilk and was a demonstration of a friendly and confident civility that I really admire.
One of the reasons why I felt I had to write this is because in the few days we’ve been in the Netherlands, in conversation with Dutch people, we’ve had them say to us several times, that they didn’t really like their own countrymen and found them to be an unfriendly, dour and miserable bunch.
Well in our experience, that just doesn’t compute. During our short stay in Holland, every single Dutch person we’ve met has been a paragon of friendliness and civility.
Perhaps the Dutch have such high standards that they are constantly disappointed with themselves and each other.
From where I stand, they are a model to us all.
When I was very young I read a biography of Charlemagne by his chronicler Einhard, so from that time I’ve had an interest in him and it was for this reason we (my wife, Engogirl and I) visited Aachen in Germany. Aachen’s big claim to fame is that it was Charlemagne’s capitol and he built a cathedral there known as the Dom.
The original Dom was an eight sided church that was originally built 1,200 years ago and it has been so rearranged; added to and redecorated that as our tour guide said, “you will not see any Carolingian decoration, only Carolingian form.
Years ago I visited the famous cathedral in Chartes, France and the guide there said that an analysis of the mathematics of gothic architecture hadn’t led to an understanding of the origins and reasons behind the design style. A few years after I’d been to Chartes, I was lying on my back on an autumn day in the forest in British Columbia; as I looked up at the deciduous trees over arching me with their multicoloured leaves I was suddenly made conscious of where the gothic architects got some of their inspiration from.
In the picture above, of a gothic addition to the Dom you can also see where H R Giger (the designer of the “Alien” movies) may have mined some of his ideas from.
Whilst listening to the guide talk about the various changes that the Dom has been through, I found myself thinking of what Joseph Campbell had to say in his “The Hero with a Thousand Faces” about the oedipal desire in the immature for things to stay the same.
In today’s western culture there is a reverence for things that are old just because of the fact that they are ancient. Cultures like the Japanese don’t care that much if something is old; they are more interested in if it is good on an aesthetic level.
The Dom was changed over the years to suit whatever the prevailing taste of whoever was in charge was. As I thought about the mentality of the people who decided to make the changes, I wondered if they made the changes through a self confident and mature sense of themselves or was it just pure ignorant arrogance. I’m pretty sure it was arrogance, but at least it got me thinking.
Is our reverence for old things, and desire to preserve them a manifestation of an oedipal desire for things to stay the same; the intellectual equivalent of not wanting to grow up? Are we now an anally retentive culture?
If our ancestors had the same attitude to the past and old things as we do, then no new art would’ve been produced to cover or replace the old, and our culture would’ve become as moribund as ancient Egyptian culture which didn’t change that much for thousands of years.
Another thing that caught my attention at the Dom was all the relics. First off there was the garments of Mary, the diaper of Christ and the beheading cloth (WTF!) of John the Baptist.
I wish I was around when that load of crock was sold; I’d have been in with an offer to sell them a bridge.
To be fair to the contemporary people of Aachen, all the descriptions of the relics are prefaced in the tourist literature with, “the so called”. I got the impression that nowadays, no one outside of the church seriously thought that the relics were anything more than the products of medieval con artists. I’d also be willing to bet that there wouldn’t be too many Jesuits who think that the “so called” relics were real.
Then there was the alleged throne of Charlemagne (no one is sure he ever sat in it), said to be made from marble from the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. It’s a fairly pedestrian affair (I was reminded of an outhouse seat) but the interesting thing about it and the relics is that that were all used to add legitimacy to Charlemagne’s rule and the rule of those who followed him.
God always seems to get dragged into whatever causes suits those in power. Funny how every side sees god as being on their side. I suppose for many people in power way back then, the fact that they were in power, was proof of god’s favour. It’s sort of similar to the thing that those bible thumping evangelists who are into “prosperity preaching” go on about. I’m rich and powerful, therefore god is my co-pilot or god is my co-pilot and therefore I will be rich. The need for physical proof of the existence of god in the form of relics goes against the whole Christian teaching of the need to have faith alone. I guess back in Charlemagne’s times, Christianity was still on shaky ground. The same could be said for some congregations in parts of today’s affluent cultures.
In the Dom there is also what is left of Charlemagne’s bones. Apparently there are only about 50% remaining, due to various bits and pieces ending up in other churches and hands. It would seem that everyone wanted a piece of the legitimacy that anything to do with Charlemagne bestowed.
All the talk of Charlemagne’s bones reminded me of The Venerable Bede’s book, “Ecclesiastical History of the English People”. In Bede’s book he mentioned about the medical practices of the 8th century. Bede told of how prayers were said over the sick person and “holy” relics (usually the bones of a saint) were waved over the affected area. Since Charlemagne was eventually canonised, his “relics” would’ve held powerful juju in the minds of many believers back in the old days.
It sounds an awful lot like the witchcraft from Africa that is lampooned so often in movies.
When you think about it, twelve hundred years ago isn’t that long ago. If a generation can be considered to be twenty five years, then a thousand two hundred years would be forty eight generations. It might sound like a lot but imagine a group of forty eight, twenty five years olds and you’d be looking at a thousand two hundred years manifest in the flesh in one hit.
We’re not that far ahead of cultures that we think of as primitive.
When I was in high school I had a friend who came from Peru called Markus. One day, Markus was with me when I was taking some photos and he asked me, “why do you take photos of all these things without you in the shot?”
I asked Markus what he meant and he went on to explain, “you might as well just buy a post card”I countered with, “but that’s not the same as me actually taking the shot”.
Markus shot back with, “a post card would be a better shot, but isn’t the idea to take photos with you in them, to show were you were really there?”
It was at this point that it became clear to me that there were different cultural approaches to photography. I was always trying make interesting images (at the age of about 14 or 15 I wasn’t too successful), whereas there was another large group of people out there that see the camera as a method of recording where they, or someone they care about has been and producing physical proof of the fact.
On the subject of people and how they relate to photography and landmarks; when I was in Paris I came across an outdoor exhibition called, “Small world” by Martin Parr. The images were of tourists at various landmarks all around the world and they show people and how they’re interacting with the famous place.
Parr’s work divides opinions and creates controversy. Some people see Parr’s images as being a fascist attack on the working class and others see it as just plain old misanthropy.
I love his stuff!
I really like the way how Parr has identified the things he doesn’t like in society, and then goes ahead and photographs them. No love, just savage ridicule. It’s not kind and doesn’t show any love, but it’s still valid in my mind.