Paris beckons, and I dream of returning to the city whose streets I never tire of wandering. Paris is a city steeped in self-awareness — of its past and of possibilities for its future. It mourns its losses, struggles with turmoil, envisions change, and celebrates survivals, like the ship of the city’s emblem that’s buffeted by waves but never sinks.
And it endlessly analyzes and debates all of the above.
Like geological shifts, Paris folds over itself and crumbles, exposing layers of history, myth, and urban self-reflection. Paris continually re-imagines itself — from major urban upheavals like the Haussmannian decades of the 19th century . . .
. . . to the more recent explosion of street art that has transformed parts of the city into vast outdoors art galleries.
Sometimes Paris overwhelms with a blaring sennet, like its grand boulevards and hôtels particuliers.
Other times, it seduces with a whisper or ironic smile, like this quirky little fountain:
Paris beckons, and for several years I’ve responded, wandering its streets for hours, meditating on a city that ebbs and flows between preservation and impermanence. I ventured into Parc Georges-Brassens, which has safeguarded its past as a horse slaughterhouse by keeping its market stalls and clock tower.
I strolled through Parc Monceau, which maintains the kitschy fake ruins installed by its former aristocratic owner.
I meditated on Paris’ ancient layers in the reconstructed Gallo-Roman amphitheatre, part of which was lopped off by Haussmann’s creation of Rue Monge.
I explored neighbourhoods that have become laboratories for urban renewal and modern architecture, such as the ZAC district around Diderot University.
I peered into elegant, offbeat storefronts . . .
. . . and encountered unexpectedly sublime park benches.
And I visited memorials to a dark chapter in the history of Paris.
I dream, sometimes literally, of returning to Paris. COVID-19 happened, so the trip I’d planned for fall 2020 got postponed. The images and musings that I’ll post over the next few weeks are my love letter to Paris, and my pandemic therapy.
The murals painted onto the blank canvases of Paris buildings and walls open up imaginary spaces. By turns playful, philosophical, and poetic, they fill Paris’ art gallery of the streets.
I never intentionally visited any of these murals (you won’t find them on GoogleMaps). I came upon them by chance. Around the corner always lay the possibility of surprise.
By the time you read this, some of the murals will no doubt have vanished. Although some are considered treasures to be restored periodically, others are more ephemeral, giving way to new imaginings, new visions.
The international nature of the explosion of street art is evidenced by the origins of the artists below.
Fabio Riéti (Italian-French)
Fabio Riéti, one of the earliest practitioners of modern street murals, believes that
Street art is made for the passer-by who doesn’t go there at all for that, but to go and buy bread, and who is pulled by the ear as he comes across a work.
I’d make a special trip to see a Riéti mural, but his point is well taken. Coming across a mural involves the passer-by in the process of discovery, and later, in viewing an old friend. I was fortunate to stumble upon two of Riéti’s works.
At the bottom of the stairs, Glenn Gould accompanies a violinist. At the top, an open-armed little girl awaits the man climbing the stairs with a suitcase.
Luggage is a recurring motif in the murals of Riéti, as in his L’Escalier above. Early in his life, he twice escaped Nazi deportation due to his Jewish surname. His family moved from Italy to France and later to the United States. After the war, he returned permanently to France.
Trompe l’oeil mural of J. S. Bach, by Riéti:
Riéti, who has painted scores of murals in several countries, sees street art as democratic at heart, connecting passers-by with the material world around them and with one another, provoking dialogue:
Many young people walk around with a tablet in their hand and no longer have any connection with the urban landscape. It’s a new and dangerous thing, which ends up locking us into a virtual life instead of a material one. In this respect, the city should be seen as one big apartment. The painted walls are paintings in the background of this common apartment, made for everyone, for anyone.
Gonzalo Borondo (Spanish)
Les Trois Ages:
Hallucinogenic mural on Rue Lahire:
Mural on the wall of an OpenBach building, a multidisciplinary art space:
Tourbillon de Poissons (Swarms of Fish), in the Quartier Asiatique:
Seth (French) & Faile (American)
You don’t always have to be on foot to view street murals. Some are visible from elevated metro lines.
Unfaded depicts patterns of Portuguese and Parisian ceramic tile as if printed on panels of wallpaper torn in diagonal strips to reveal past layers of patterns beneath. The archaeological process of revelation is driven by a sensual and chance aesthetic. The tear patterns, however, make it ambiguous which layers are older and which are newer.
One of the layers is simply sky blue, no pattern. Is nature the blank slate staring at us behind all those peeled-back layers of human artifact?
Jana & Js (Austrian-French)
Paris observes herself observing herself . . .
For decades, speculation has murmured over the relationship between Tintin and Captain Haddock, creations of Belgian cartoonist Hergé. Street artist Combo seems to state the obvious in his depiction of the two in an amorous embrace:
More . . .
A building that lives up to its address on Rue des Artistes:
Silver leaf pattern on a building around the corner from Tchann bookstore:
Ghostly trompe l’oeil trees and park benches on a wall abutting Square des Missions-Étrangères:
A splash of tinker-toy colour in the Marais:
Wall of an OpenBach building
Near Université Paris-Diderot:
Mural at preschool:
A mural in Paris’ Chinatown:
Detail: Your children will come from all countries:
A still from Charlie Chaplin’s The Kid:
Monumental trompe l’oeil door. Note the apartment balconies to the right, and the “tiny” street lamp. If we’re living in a dollhouse, what would happen if we entered the giant door?
Alice in Wonderland “Drink me” & “Eat me” at an open market entrance:
A colourful cubist woman enlivens grey high-rises:
A moment in time:
A tinkerbell liberty angel reigns supreme:
I’m thinking of you:
An unusual artwork embedded in a wall near Rue Mouffetard
Chance mirror art:
La Butte aux Cailles
This village on a hill, a haven for artists, deserves special mention for its ever-changing gallery of street art.
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.