Inscribed on the ceiling of an archway near Pont Neuf is a verse by 17th-century poet Claude Le Petit, from his collection Paris ridicule.
In the poem, Le Petit satirizes the newly-constructed Pont Neuf as a rickety magnet for rogues and a viewing platform for the sewage-laden waters of the Seine. He ponders the difficulty of knowing whether the bigger beasts are on the bridge or under it.
Such scandalous verses could only have fanned the flames when the 23-year-old poet was burned at the stake for being an atheist and—worse—for insulting the aristocracy. He was granted the favour of first being strangled.
Rimbaud and the Naughty Fellows
Speaking of épater la bourgeoisie . . .
Arthur Rimbaud’s long poem “The Drunken Boat” is calligraphed along a narrow Left Bank street. An inscription commemorates the 17-year-old Rimbaud’s recitation of the poem at an infamous 1872 meeting of Les Vilains Bonshommes (The Naughty Fellows) at a nearby restaurant.
The decorous members of the literary and arts club were scandalized by Rimbaud’s vertiginous imagery, by turns sublime (“golden birds” in “delirious skies”) and disgusting (“bluish wine stains and splashes of vomit”).
In turn, the enfant terrible, appalled by the genteel verses of the Naughty Fellows, threw a violent tantrum shouting “Merde! Merde!”
Thus did Rimbaud’s brief association with the Naughty Fellows come to a suitably catastrophic end.
You are here . . .
Monumental mural helps you navigate the labyrinthine streets of the 13th arrondissement. Or not, if you like wandering aimlessly like a good flâneur.
On a ceramic map, Étienne de la Hire points out your location.
In Montmartre, a man is caught in the act of passing through a stone wall.
This unsettling sculpture is based on “Le Passe-Muraille,” a 1943 short story by Marcel Aymé. The main character, M. Dutilleul, is a Walter Mitty type, a bland and old-fashioned middle-aged creature of habit. Suddenly and accidentally endowed with the magical ability to pass through walls, he secretly embarks on a series of escapades such as burglaries, while still holding his day job as a low-level bureaucrat oppressed by his boss.
In the end, he accidentally ingests medication that extinguishes his superpowers at a most inopportune time: exactly at the moment he’s passing through a garden wall, returning home from a passionate tryst with a married woman.
The sculptor portrays Dutilleul as stuck, mid-stride, unable to escape the wall that forever after holds him prisoner.
The story imagines freedom, not only from confining walls but also from oppressive bosses and prison wardens. Written during the Nazi Occupation of Paris, such a fantasy — even though it ends badly for the protagonist — must have inspired in French readers a vision of liberation.
Lunar Bird Square
Communing with the moonbird . . .
I can’t imagine a better playground for children than this little park that culminates in the large totemic Lunar Bird by Joan Miró. The rounded bronze solidity of the bird may have rendered it flightless, yet it practically levitates. Its head tilts skyward, and its little protuberances — wings, horns, beak — reach into the air on high alert.
Vestigial wings suit this monumental hummingbird.
The children seem to be inspired.
Garden tools jut out behind The Centaur, who seems to be created entirely from scrap metal.
Yet the mythical beast also radiates dignity and poise.
More about this distinguished centaur in my upcoming post on the Cimetière du Montparnasse.
Bulgarian-French cross pollination
I happened upon a sidewalk exhibit by Bulgarian-French sculptor Jivko, whose work echoes archetypes of the ancient world and fairy tales of Eastern Europe.
The dragon of the water facility
At a water control plant, a steel-and-plastic dragon slithers through pavement like a sci-fi hallucination.
The work perhaps dips into the dragon iconography of the sculptor’s Chinese heritage. It also wryly references the urban myth of creatures that grow in sanitation culverts, like the alligators that supposedly live in the sewers of New York City.
The dragon’s ribbed tubular shape (resembling a vacuum cleaner hose) and ridge of dorsal plates give it a tongue-in-cheek rather than scary appearance. At night, its colourful neon lights enthrall clubbers spilling onto Place Augusta-Holmes.
A sculpture garden for Nelson Mandela
A balloon sculpture and “grassy” fence in Jardin Nelson Mandela offer a colourful contrast to the somber Gothic backdrop of Église St-Eustache.
The exploding canoes of Diderot University
Dozens of aluminum canoes and boats explode next to a student walkway on the campus of Diderot University.
Nancy Rubins, creator of Monochrome for Paris, brushes aside literal notions about her work that don’t necessarily deepen one’s experience of it. The number of boats used, or the sculpture’s placement near the Seine River, are not as relevant as the use of the boats to create something new. She likens the work to the growth of molecules into crystals.
A canary yellow Wallace Fountain with a background of crystallizing canoes:
Mystery at Place Nationale
Le Mystère reaches its full potential at Place Nationale.
Les Colonnes de Buren
The black-and-white striped columns in the courtyard of Palais Royal were created by Daniel Buren way back in 1986. Even so, to this day the controversy following their installation haunts descriptions of them, similar to Pei’s still-notorious glass pyramid at the Louvre.
Children, however, don’t seem to find anything controversial about the columns. They’re more concerned with inventing games to play around them.
Below — as I understood the game — the girls were safe from the marauding boys as long as they occupied a column.
Homage to Rimbaud
Below, L’Homme aux Semelles Devant (The Man with Soles in Front) pays homage to poet Arthur Rimbaud.
The sculpture puns on Paul Verlaine’s nickname for Rimbaud, “l’homme aux semelles de vent” (the man with soles of wind). If I disregard the sculpture’s pun, I admire the work’s edginess.
Two sculptures by Ossip Zadkine
La Naissance des formes (The Birth of Forms)
Bas-relief of antler-man, somewhere on Rue Falguière
Across the street from Paris’ Roman amphitheatre is a place devoted to Benjamin Fondane, Romanian-French poet and philosopher who was murdered at Auschwitz at the age of 45.
Fondane lived a precarious existence in France, trying to conceal his Jewish heritage from Nazi occupiers and their French collaborators. He was arrested in 1944, sent to the Drancy transit camp near Paris, and from there to Auschwitz-Birkenau.
An excerpt from Fondane’s “Exodus”:
Whether they burn us up or nail us up whether our luck turns bad or good, Why do you think we should give a damn? The only true songs are human ones
from L’Exode, tr. Pierre L’Abée
Place Benjamin Fondane is, to my mind, one of the most moving spaces in Paris:
The paving stones define a profoundly spare place: a sunken circle at an impasse. Inside that recessed circle is a welling up, at once a refusal to sink as well as a persistence of memory.
A park for a Polish exile: Square Cyprian Norwid
Cyprian Norwid, a Late-Romantic poet, was part of the Great Emigration of thousands of Polish nationals exiled during political upheavals. Many, like Norwid and Chopin, took up residence in Paris.
What’s not to love about a park dedicated to a poet? . . .
Square des Poètes
. . . Or one dedicated to hundreds of poets?
Scores of plaques, each inscribed with a few lines by a French poet, are affixed to boulders along the park’s paths.
Below: Rimbaud recalls his carefree youth of summer, closing his eyes and smelling linden flowers and wine. I can’t think of this poem without hearing Léo Ferré singing it.
In his Testament, Villon regrets his wasted youth.
Alas, if only I had studied during my foolish youth and followed the straight and narrow, I’d now have a house with a soft bed.
Chenier was guillotined at the age of 31, a victim of The Terror. The lines below speak of Auteuil, a neighbourhood where the literati of Paris gathered at their beloved watering holes, united in their poetic rivalry. I hope Chenier is still there.
Desnos, an active member of the French Resistance, was arrested by the Gestapo in 1944. After being sent to three different Nazi concentration camps, he ended up in Theresienstadt, a camp in occupied Czechoslovakia. He died of typhoid at age 44, a month after the camp was liberated.
The excerpt below, from his poem “Tomorrow,” speaks of hope in a suspended state of despair, as if one were waiting for dawn in perpetual darkness.
Now, from the depths of night, we still bear witness to the splendor of the day and all its moments. If we don’t sleep, it’s to watch for dawn, which will prove that we’re finally living in the present.