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Visiting the new Musée Picasso

Visiting the new Musée Picasso

It has been more than a few weeks since I last visited a gallery, and so I was quite interested to see what the newly refurbished Musee Picasso was like. The museum has been closed for renovation work for the last five years and recently re-opened (I and I am sure you can read elsewhere how the renovation work went, but I won’t go there today).

It is one of the largest of the Hotel Particuliers (The Hotel Salé) in the Marais, and many different tenants have lived in this building since it was constructed. The original owner, Pierre Aubert, was too friendly with Nicolas Fouquet and Foquet’s fall from grace took Aubert with him. The Musée Picasso has been there since the 1980s, and I think I visited a few times before the refurbishment (the building became the property of the Ville de Paris after the last descendants of the building’s owners died in the1960s). I arrived at the “new” building with ML sometime after 5pm last Saturday and there was still a small line in cour d’honneur waiting to enter in the building but nothing too terrible. The stones of the courtyard seemed to have been scrubbed to within an inch of their lives, and if a three-hundred-year-old building could look new, this one did.

Inside, it seemed that every square metre of the building had been converted to exhibition space. For the most part, building walls had been obscured behind white panelling: necessary, I think because Picasso’s works belong resolutely to the 20th century. The museum’s stairs have been left unchanged, and are magnificent. The stucco and statues on the ceiling are as beautiful as ever.  However, in what seems like a wilful act on the part of the Museum’s curators, to remind us of Picasso’s modernity, one of Picasso’s sculptures of a woman (a particularly ugly sculpture it has to be said) has been placed on a stone plinth at the head of the stairs, just before one enters the second-floor exhibition space. Just to remind you.

Three hundred years of art history

I am, it has to be said, not a fan of all of Picasso’s work. There is no denying however the staggering variety of his work and the sheer creative energy he displayed throughout his life. One is always astounded by the vast range of works that he created and that how that he perfectly mastered every different style that he worked in. Most artists only manage to master one or two different registers throughout their careers. It is also amazing to think that one man alone managed to create enough works to fill an enormous space like the Hotel Salé. I don’t think Picasso spent many days on the sofa watching the TV that is for sure.

White walls are the way to go

I will admit that my favourite part of the museum no works of Picasso exhibited. It is in a tiny space, under the roof. There are two or three windows which give a views over the jumbled Parisian rooftops. It is a cosy, intimate space. In there, on the walls, are a few of Cezanne’s paintings which were in Picasso’s private collection. One can contemplate these paintings and then take one or two steps and stare out across the Paris skyline. I imagine that in the  tall old Marais buildings that one can see from the window there are attic rooms like this one, looking back towards the Hotel Salé. I wonder what they are like, and what is inside them.

Cezanne vies for attention with Paris

An hour slipped by, and soon enough hidden loudspeakers announced it was time to leave. We made our way down the stairs to the exit, visiting rapidly the basement where there many more works we had yet to see. I think I will certainly come back here in the future, when the crowds have diminished a little, if only to mount the stairs to the little room where the Cezanne paintings are and to gaze out across the Parisian skyline.

Remembering George and Margaret Whiterod

Remembering George and Margaret Whiterod

A friend I hadn’t heard from a long time recently contacted me to let me know that a mutual friend of ours, a lecturer I had met when I was student in Manchester, was quite seriously ill. Whilst I was on holiday with Marie-Laure, surrounded by the glittering Ionian seas, I heard that he had died. George and his wife Margaret were two of the most important people in my life in the decade or so after I left Ireland, before I discovered really where I was supposed to be going. At the time, I viewed them as almost a second set of parents. The last I heard from George was in 2012, when he told me the rather shocking news that Margaret had died of cancer a few years previously. George, in telling me this, was as rational and dispassionate and ever I had known him to be. During his illness, I heard that he viewed his own approaching death without fear, which did not surprise me. I don’t think, in his own unselfish manner, he would have wanted us to overdramatise things. However, I found myself on the beautiful Vriki beach on Antipaxos reflecting on George and Margaret and realised that now both my sets of parents are gone, and that my only link with them is what I remember. These are the words I wrote for him.

When I was in Manchester, from 1988 to 1991, George was my Particle Physics lecturer. (Later on Margaret. his wife, was my careers officer). I was immediately drawn to George by his wit, knowledge, intellectual clarity and honesty. I had arrived in Manchester from the wilds of rural N. Ireland and although I had read a lot of books, they were not the right books, and I was a bit lost. It was fun to talk with George about all kinds of topics many of which I soon realised that I had preconceived ideas without even knowing it! I remember in particular one long discussion we had about the origins of consciousness: George was convinced it was all just the product of complexity and chemicals in the brain: I realised for the first time that I had never thought about it that way before and that perhaps he could be right.

I was deeply impressed by his unsentimental rational attitude. I was always curious, but talking to George I slowly began to realise that there could almost be no limits to where rational inquiry could go. After I finished my degree, I travelled a lot and during that time I always felt George and Margaret’s house in Manchester was a place I could visit and stay at when I wanted to. Looking back now, I see that George (together with my Uncle John) are probably the two people who most shaped my view of the world. It was very helpful in combatting everything which a Catholic boys’ grammar school can do to you.

During my travels, George and Margaret offered to look after all the books I had accumulated during my time in Manchester. I spent almost every weekend in Manchester going to second-hand bookshops and had bought many books. Although, George and Margaret assured me, the best thing to do with all these books would be to simply give them away, as they did (every time visited there house I was always impressed as how uncluttered it was). When I left the UK for good in 1998 this was precisely what I did myself, and it was exactly as liberating as George assured me that it would be.

I started work as staff astronomer at the IAP in 2003. A year or so after I arrived in Paris, George came to visit me. Modestly, he slept on the couch in the tiny apartment I was living in at the time. We visited the city and ate a nice meal together at the Coupole. This visit, sadly, would be the last time I would see him. When I heard that he was ill, my first thought was to go down towards the Seine and have my picture taken on the Rue Descartes and send it to him. I wanted to say to him: George, you put me here on this street, you helped me get here. Alas, it was already too late. George showed me the value of that kind of thinking and both he and Margaret had such an unselfish attitude to life and how to behave to others which I still find inspiring today.

George on the Pont des arts, 15 August 2004. Looking at the photograph, I can hear his voice…
“Blow up” in Parc Montsouris, Paris.

“Blow up” in Parc Montsouris, Paris.

I have been thinking again about images and photography at lot over the last few weeks, not in the least driven by my decision to purchase a new camera. After carefully reading “Digital photography review” once again, just to see how things have evolved since my last camera purchase around 4 years ago, I decided on the Olympus OMD-EM10. This is the first camera I have bought which has an interchangeable lens. For years I had wanted to buy an SLR-type camera but was always put off by the size and the weight: I wanted something I could take with me on my many trips and which wouldn’t add much to the overall weight of my bags. So a big heavy SLR with lenses was out of the question, even if they supposedly produced better images (which was not always the case, if you chose carefully). But this new camera is wonderful: it is very small, only slightly heavier than my old canon compact  (G11), but it produces fantastic images. There is also a very large large selection of lenses. Yesterday afternoon I went down to Parc Montsouris with my old and new cameras  and took photographs of bushes across the lake, as one does. Comparing the two photographs I realised in the olympus image I could see a man lying down next to the statue, unresolved in the canon image (okay, so the focal lengths are not exactly the same). Wasn’t that just like a film from a certain Italian director? And you know the best hing? When you press the shutter button, *it takes a photograph instantly*, not like digital cameras of even a few years ago.

This is not the first time I have used a camera with interchangeable lenses however. In one of the numerous cardboard boxes here I found an old Pentax K1000 camera that my parents gave to me for my first trip to Europe. They had bought this camera for taking pictures of headstones (yes,really), and they had allowed me to take it with me, that summer where I worked at the ETH in Zurich. I took maybe six rolls of film on that trip. Looking at the lens again yesterday I see that it was a fixed 50mm lens, radically different from the lenses on the cameras I had used since then all of which had zoom lenses with focal lengths of around 35mm at the wide end: most of the photographs I ended up taking, through laziness more than anything else, was with this wide end of the zoom, a view of the world completely different from the 50mm lens on the Pentax.  I used this camera from 1988-2002, right up to the digital epoch in 2002 when I bought my canon power-shot S40 in Bologna for the horrendously expensive price of ~1000 euro.  Now, once again, I am in the habit of using wide-angle lenses, so the first fixed-focus lens I bought for the olympus was the f1.8 17mm M.Zuiko lens — a 35mm equivalent lens. It’s an interesting experience trying to decide what fixed focal length to choose — like a lot of things today, zoom lenses I think have made people lazy.

Growing up, I remember that at first photography was expensive. We had a Polaroid camera and my mother and I would go to the graveyard to take pictures of headstones with it (this was not meant to be the third instalment of “a life in stone” but it is turning into it). There was no “catalogue”, of course, in my fathers’ business, so the best way for people decide what kind of monument they would like to have was to show them photographs. It was hard to get the polaroid prints to develop in the northern Irish cemeteries, I remember holding them inside my jersey to accelerate the process. Later, I remember pleading with my mother to let me please just take one photograph with the camera please in our garden in Burn road, and she agreed, and I took *my first photograph*, only to discover that half the image was obscured by a blurry blob. First lesson of photography, make sure that your finger is not in front of the camera. Sometime after we got the Pentax, I was eventually assigned gravestone-photographing duties and allowed to take photographs on holiday. The Pentax was a completely manual camera and the possibility of error was significant. I remember one trip we made to the ring of Kerry. Afterwards, when I opened the camera to take out the film, I discovered (with horror) that I had threaded the film incorrectly and not one single image had been exposed (I was terrified to open the box to check, certain that all the film would be lost if I did that, but of course this was not the case).

This camera accompanied me on my voyages to Zurich, New Mexico, Canada, Durham and Marseille but by the time I arrived in Bologna in 2002 I wasn’t taking that many photographs. But by 2002 it became possible to switch to digital. Now, I have around 23,000 photographs on disk. Have to organise them somehow…

In the ancient city of Tallinn, after a long day travelling.

In the ancient city of Tallinn, after a long day travelling.

(Just to take a break from all that Tyrone soul-searching, here is a little travelogue interlude. I can assure you that I will return to a “Life in Stone” before too long.)

I left our apartment this morning sometime after seven. It was a beautiful summer morning in Paris, bright sunshine, warm. Taking the train to the airport was challenging, thanks to the residual effects of a week-long SNCF strike. But I got there in the end and I got to my terminal and gate (after realising that no, I don’t have to queue as I had a  boarding pass already printed). Bizzarely, the aeroplane was full of folk travelling to Japan and China. And then a phase change, state change, a change of country: I found myself in Helsinki. The miracle of modern transportation.

The first one sees as one approaches Helsinki airport are trees, trees. There are forests everywhere around, together with shining blue lakes and bays. Through the windows of the airport one can see the stands of trees  beyond the tarmac. Low clouds hung in the sky, it looked like had rained recently. I took the bus to the train station through streets silvery with rain. The city seemed strangely empty … where is everyone? I found myself in front of the Helsinki train station, just in time to take a tram to the ferry terminal to catch my catamaran to Tallinn. I had seen this train station in Jim Jarmusch’s Night on earth many years ago and thought to myself I really would like to visit this city one day … On the bus to the port, I thought of a Finnish friend I had made in in that distant summer I first visited Europe, 1991. I promised to come and see him in Helsinki. I remember talking to my mother on the telephone about my proposed trip to Helsinki. But, she said to me, if you look at a map, won’t you have to go through Russia to get there? No, I assured her, I could simply take a ferry from Poland. Right? I got as far as Prague before I turned back.  Too far.

The crossing was extremely rough. We were warned about the bad weather and cautioned not to leave our seats. The catamaran pitched and rolled violently. Strange, because the sun shined brightly and there were no clouds in the sky. There must have been strong offshore winds.  Then, after one and a half hours, of zipping over the waves, Tallinn. I caught a taxi to the hotel, the palatial “Nordic Forum” and here I am, after having walked around the city for an an hour or two and eaten in a nice Indian restaurant (I’m not quite ready for Estonian cuisine).  It is half-past midnight and there is still sunlight in the sky.

There is a strange feeling to this city. To start with there is a sharp edge in the air. I am glad to have my cap. The temperature can’t be more than 10 or 11 degrees, but it is not so cold, at least not yet, because there is abundant sunshine. The streets seem are almost empty. Like in Helsinki, it feels as if there is no-one here. This is an after-effect of living in an overcrowded city like Paris? The old town of Tallinn is remarkable: it seems unchanged since hundreds of years (that photo up there is the Tallinn town hall). The streets are filled with tall narrow old hanseatic buildings. The city’s buildings have been wonderfully restored but if one looks carefully edges of the old unrestored past are visible…

 Perhaps everyone has left for the midsummer’s night vacation, Monday and Tuesday of next week. I’ll report back.

(On the aeroplane I began to read “The Czar’s Madman’, from the Estonian Jan Kross. A suggestion from Mr. Seagull. It is set in Estonia in the 19th century. It is indeed interesting to read it here.)