By Charlotte Parker
I remember learning, when I studied in Paris two summers ago, that the city grew in circles. It sat within a ring of walls until there were too many people and the walls came down to let it sprout again where had once been outside its skin. A new ring of city rippled out. They built a highway, the periphèrique, to contain it. Then the world continued to come and now Paris spreads beyond that ring, a city of more colors and styles than the first-century stone in the center. But I saw struts of continuity running through the whole, that summer, when I’d ride my bike from the Seine to my host family’s apartment in the far northeast corner. Each circle is different, but builds off the last. It’s something like the age rings of a tree trunk: the tree repeats itself in variations –of color, of tone—in order to grow.
In Paris this weekend, I saw a Matisse exhibit about repetition, “Pairs and Series.” It was at the Centre Pompidou, the modern art museum that looks like a Lego tower sprouted from the beige stone of the Marais, a neighborhood at the center of the city’s oldest ring. Forgive me while I reinforce all stereotypes about the good way Parisians live. My co-museum-goers were beautiful. I spent as much time looking at them as I did staring at the paintings. There was the old guard—men in jackets and silk ascots, women in neat dresses—and the new guard—skinny jeans, polka-dot denim shirts, printed canvas bags from the health food store. Parents whispered art history to their ballet-flatted, already-more-cultured-than-me children. They walked from bright painting to bright painting with an air of reverence. It was a sunny Sunday morning, and it seemed as if they had come to the Pompidou instead of going to church.
I had forgotten that art can inspire that sort of reverence, but this exhibition balanced itself well between inspiring reflection and causing joy. There were maybe 70 paintings, and they were arranged as Matisse had completed them, in multiple studies of the same subjects. You could see the process of creation from the first to the last work, the steps on the way to capturing something. There’s a bit doubt in the first few iterations—a “wait—am I doing this right?”—and then a quiet triumph. Over the course of one series, a curtain turns to a tablecloth: in another, the light shifts to the perfect suggestion of afternoon sun through jungle plants; in 12 spare sketches, a reclining woman wraps up tighter and tighter around herself, then unfurls.
My favorite progression was an experiment with Paris, a series of three paintings of the Pont St. Michel over the Seine. The first looks like it had been painted by Monet. It’s a blurred but complete and classically Parisian image, the kind that you would send as a postcard. The next iteration is simplified and more avant-garde but still recognizable as a bridge. And the last one is abstract, lines and blocks of bright color, with a patch of blank canvas that somehow suggests the time of day. To me, it is the most complete painting of the three, and the one which best captures the whole city of Paris as it is now. The 12-story apartment buildings outside the peripherique in Auberviliers or the streets of the outer districts of Belleville don’t look like the Paris of a postcard. The Parisians at the Pompidou, the ones fulfilling all Parisian stereotypes, probably don’t live there. These buildings and streets are spare and sometimes even ugly. But something bright runs through them, emerging as graffiti or the hint of a hidden garden. They’re the evolution of the city, and I think they’re where Matisse would go to paint today.
Charlotte Parker ’13 is in Berkeley College. She is blogging from Geneva. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.