Sunday, July 29, 2012

Van Gogh in Auvers

Church of Auvers Sur Oise
Musee d'Orsay
Today July 29 marks the death of painter Vincent van Gogh. It is believed he died of a gun shot that he inflicted on himself two days before (July 27, 1890).  The actual circumstances of how it happened are unclear. Pulitzer-prize winning authors Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith in their recent biography of the painter have advanced the theory that he died in fact not of his own hands but that he had been the victim of a gun accident.  Two teenaged boys he knew could have shot him accidentally and to protect them he had claimed a suicide.  He died in Auvers sur Oise, a village located  just 27 km northwest of Paris.

In May 1890 van Gogh left sunny Provence following his hospitalization  at the mental hospital St Paul de Mausole in Saint Remy de Provence.  He came to Auvers sur Oise following the advice of fellow artist Camille Pissaro so that he could be close to Dr. Gachet who could treat him and who himself was an amateur artist.  Auvers sur Oise in the late 19th century was a popular artist retreat - the like of Daubigny, Renoir, Corot came here to paint.  Vincent van Gogh took a rented room with half-board in the village inn--the Auberge Ravoux.  During his 70 days in Auvers, van Gogh was prolific.  He produced some 80 paintings and sketches including portrait of Dr. Gachet, Wheat Field with Crows,  Church of Auvers sur Oise and  Daubiny' s Garden.  After two days of intense suffering from his wound, van Gogh was buried on July 30 1890 in the village cemetery.  His beloved brother Theo in attendance at this funeral died sixth months later and was buried alongside him in Auvers. Today you can visit this charming little town and the Auberge Ravoux where room number 5 has been painstakingly restored to its original  condition as well as  the dining room where van Gogh took his meals  (incidentally, it is now a restaurant serving 19th century inspired dishes) .  Of interest in the village is also the Church of Auvers immortalized by the artist as well as the cemetery where the painter and  his brother lay side by side.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

France Land of Festivals

Each summer, hundreds of festivals take place in the four corners of France for the pleasure of locals, vacationers from France and elsewhere.  Villages and towns attract visitors by staging artistic performances in castles, ancient abbeys and churches, roman arenas or in parks under the canopy of century old oak trees and on the beach. Each festival has its own recurrent theme and performances can range from opera to concert of classical,  reggae, jazz, pop, Celtic or other forms of music; from dance to  theatre and from cinema to photography.  France values art and for a summer it brings Moliere, Berlioz, Bejart, Doisneau, Gillepsie and other artists to the vacationing masses. One of the most active festival region is Provence in the south of France.  Here is a selection of "must attend" festivals in 2012:

  • Aix en Provence (July 5-27) Founded in 1948, the Festival International d'Art Lyrique has now become a world class opera venue. Held in late June and July every year, it takes place in the picturesque Provencal town of Aix and most notably in the former garden of the Archbishop Palace, the 18th century Theatre du Jeu de Paume and the Grand Theatre de Provence.  This year the program includes Mozart the Noces de Figaro and La Finta Giardiniera; Marc Antoine Charpentier's biblical tragedy David and Jonathas and a new opera "Written on Skin" by contemporary artists  Georges Benjamin and Martin Crimp which recounts a 12th century Occitan legend adapted for the 21st. century.

  • Nimes- (July 7-31) Opera lovers relish Les Choregies de Nimes, the oldest festival in France that dates from 1860. It is dedicated to opera and lyrical music and is staged in the well-preserved Roman Arena and the Theatre Antique.  This year's program honors Pucini's La Boheme (July 7,10) and Turandot (July 28, 31) and in the Cathedrale Notre Dame d'Orange,  Rossini's "Petite Messe Solenelle" has been performed (July 20, 21).

  • La Roque d'Antheron (July 21 -22 August)  For piano lovers this is the festival not to be missed.  For the last 31 years the International Piano Festival of la Roque d'Antheron has gained huge popularity in the musical world.  It attracts crowds who come to listen to world-class pianists and new talents perform classical as well as contemporary music from jazz to electronic.  La Roque d'Antheron is a village located at the foot of the Luberon Hills in Provence.  Musical venues are held in the park of the Chateau de Florans and in the nearby magnificent Cisterian Abbey of Silvacane.  The month long musical program includes works by Brahms, Chopin, Schubert, Ravel , Debussy, Beethoven, Bach to name a few.  

  • Avignon (7-28 of July)  Festival fever takes over the town of Avignon every July since 1947 when actor and stage director Jean Vilar created the festival.  This year, the 66th edition honors the birth of its founder. The festival is dedicated mainly to theatre but also dance, and art exhibitions. On average it stages 35-40 different works in about 300 performances performed outdoor or in historic venues. The works range from classical theatre to contemporary and avant-guard and often activist. This year The Seagull of Anton Tchekhov is to be played in the Honor Courtyard of the 14th century Pope's Palace (UNESCO World Heritage site); The Master and Margarita, work by Russian author Mikhail Bulgakov, is being directed by Simon McBurney. All throughout the festival the streets are animated with street fairs and performers.

Elsewhere in France the following exciting cultural events take place:

  • Jazz a Antibes-(July 12-22 )
  • Berlioz Festival in Cote Saint Andre (22 aout-September 2)-Festival honoring its native son, Berlioz.
  • Nuits de Fourvieres a Lyon-- (June 5-July 31)--Theatre, dance, music and cinema amidst Gallo-Roman ruins.
  • Festival Interceltique in Lorient Brittany (3-2 August)-- Celtic music
  • Francofolies of La Rochelle- (11-15 July) --Francophone contemporary music by performers from France, Quebec and other French speaking countries.

To partake at any of these popular festivals, plan well in advance and reserve early your hotel and tickets to performances.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

We Remember... Never Again

70 years ago on July 16 and 17, 1942 took place one of the most odious event in the history of Paris. Under German occupation and Vichy government,   13, 152 Jews were rounded up by the French police and interned in a cycling stadium Le Velodrome d'Hiver  and the nearby internment camp in Drancy.   It came to be known as the Rafle du Vel d'Hiv.  The arrests were sudden and without warning.   Among those  arrested were 4000 children of all ages forcefully seized from their homes, schools and playgrounds. During four miserable days innocent people were held without  food, drink and in horrible sanitary condition where dyphtheria and dyssentry caused many to die.    After their detention they were sent to concentration camps such as Auschwitz  never to return.  On July 22, President Francois Holande will participate in a ceremony of commemoration to take place in the former site of the velodrome (it burnt down in 1959). In a recent survey up to 67% of the under 35 years of age had never heard of the round-up of the Vel D'Hiv. It is not surprising, after the World War II the government kept quiet the role of the French police in sending many Jews to death camps.  It was considered taboo and the government felt that it was solely the responsibility of the Vichy Government.  It took 50 years for a French president to acknowledge the responsibility of the French state in the round up of the Vel d'Hiv. This was President Jacques Chirac in 1995 who declared in a ceremony:

"These dark hours forever sully our history and are an insult to our past and our traditions,"  "Yes, the criminal folly of the occupiers was seconded by the French, by the French state."

A current exhibition " C' Etaient des Enfants"  at the Paris Hotel de Ville tells the moving story  from the point of view of the children themselves with photos, drawings, poems, toys and eyewitness accounts of the events of July 1942.  In all   11, 400 Jewish children were deported from France 1942 to 1944 .  Among the "deportes" were my cousins from Lyon- Robert (15), Huguette (13), Gilbert (10) and Georgette (4) who along with their mother Zakia entered the Drancy Camp on July 25, 1944.  They were sent six days later on July 31, 1944 from Drancy to Auschwitz in Convoy 77 and never returned.  Their memory and that of all the children victims of the Holocaust  should be perpetuated so that such despicable acts should never happen again.

 Exhibit "C'etaient des Enfant" at Hotel de Ville through October 27.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Happy Bastille Day! In Remembrance of Marie Antoinette

Young Marie Antoinette
On this Bastille Day 2012, I would like to comment on one of the most celebrated victims of the French Revolution--Queen Marie Antoinette. The newest movie  about the legendary French Queen by director Benoit Jacquot  recounts the last days of the royal family in Versailles starting on July 14, 1789 the day of the storming of the Bastille.  It escalated on October 5, 1789 when an angry and hungry mob of Parisians marched to Versailles demanding the return of the royal family to Paris.  Since her unfortunate demise, Marie Antoinette has been the subject of many books, movies, plays and even a Japanese manga.  The fascination for the queen is stronger than ever 271 years after her decapitation. While today she is viewed by many authors and historians as a modern, liberated women who tried to change the rigid conventions of the French court, in her times she was reviled by the French populace who considered her as a hedonistic and frivolous spender with an "immoral" life-style. Her life as a princess and subsequently queen was a  fairy tale that ended tragically.  Here are some key dates that marked the life of Marie Antoinette.

Born on November 2, 1775 Maria Antonia of Austria led a charming and idyllic childhood in Vienna's Hofburg Palace.  Born into a family of ten children, she was the youngest of daughters of Francis I, Holy Roman Emperor and Maria Theresa.

Marriage of Dauphin and Marie Antoinette
To preserve the alliance of France and Austria forged after the Seven Year War, Maria Antonia was married at 12 years of age to Louis August, Dauphin of France first by proxy in 1763 . Three years later, she was sent to to France to live at the French Court. The princess and the dauphin were married in a lavish ceremony in Versailles Palace on May 16, 1770.  She was now called Marie Antoinette.

At first the Dauphine received a warmed welcome by the French people who were charmed by her beauty and personality. When she visited Paris for the first time in 1773, a massive crowd came to cheer her. However, many in the French court disliked her and most notably the Contesse du Barry,  favorite of Louis XV.

In 1775 King Louis XV dies of smallpox and his grand son Louis August is crown King Louis XVI in Reims.
Madame Vigier le Brun

After 8 years of marriage, Marie Antoinette gives birth to a daughter Marie Therese Charlotte, also called Madame Royale.  In 1781, a son Louis Xavier Francois is born and was heir to the throne. He will unfortunately die of tuberculosis at the age of 8 in June 1789.  A second son Louis Charles was born is 1785, the future Louis XVII. Finally a baby sister Sophie Helene Beatrice de France  was born in July 1786 but died 11 months later.

Marie Antoinette suffered from poor reputation. Many pamphlets and libels portrayed her as a dissolute, adulterous, empty headed, frivolous, spendthrift..  In truth, she did spend excessive amount of money on clothes, jewelry and gambling.  Around 1785 she was the victim of a bizarre and scabrous swindle that tarnished even more her reputation. At the center of the affaire, was a diamond necklace which had been commissioned by Louis XV for his favorite Madame du Barry.  It was was elaborate in design and consisted in 647 diamonds.  A con-artist Jeanne de Lamotte Valois constructed a plan whereby she persuaded the Cardinal de Rohan to buy the necklace on behalf of the queen who was too embarrassed to ask her husband Louis so expensive a present. Jeanne de Lamotte's lover Retaux de Villette forged letters supposedly from the queen imploring the Cardinal to buy the necklace.  The Cardinal who wanted to return to the good graces of the queen, acquired the necklace and delivered it to an impostor disguised as the queen.  In the hands of thieves, the necklace was smuggled to England where it was taken apart and sold piece by piece. When the jewelers demanded payment to the queen, the queen had no idea what they were talking about.  Livid, she demanded that the Cardinal de Rohan be arrested and stand trial. He was acquitted by parliement against the wishes of the king. Though innocent, Marie Antoinette was considered by the public the guilty one.

Marie Antoinette at the
On October 5, 1789 the royal family returned to the Tuileries Palace where they were  held hostage.  After a failed attempt to escape in 1790 the king and his family were returned to the Tuileries where they stayed until  1792 when the monarchy was abolished on 21 of September.   The king, queen and their two children were then imprisoned in the sinister Temple prison.  Found guilty of treason, the King is executed on January 21, 1793 on Place de la Revolution, today Place de la Concorde in front of an estimated crowd of 20,000.  In the summer of 1793 Marie Antoinette is taken to the Conciergerie where she will be imprisoned till October 1793.  Ordered to stand trial on October 14 on charges ranging from treason to her role in the Diamond Necklace affair and sexual depravity.  On October 15 she is found guilty by a panel of 9 male judges and condemned to death.  The next day october 16 she is executed by guillotine.  The young dauphin died  at the age of 10 in his jail brutalized and alone.  Her daughter  was exchanged for French prisoners and sent to Austria.  She returned later to France and became Duchesse d'Angouleme. She died childless at the age of 72.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Stage 6 of the Tour de France - En Passant par la Lorraine

Metz was honored of the arrival of the 6th stage of the Tour de France. The capital of the Lorraine region, Metz, located at the confluence of the Moselle and Seille rivers has over 3000 year history.   It was an important Gallo-Roman settlement, then in the Middle Ages an independent republic that ruled till the 15th century.   It came peacefully into the Kingdom of France in 1552 under the treaty of Chambord.  After the Franco-Prussian  war of 1870, Metz was annexed to the newly created German Empire.   Returned to France following the armistice that ended WWI,  Germans occupied the city again in 1940.  In 1944, General George S. Patton of the US Third Army commanded an attack to retake the city from the German army.  After a fierce battle that lasted several weeks, Metz was finally captured by the American forces in November 1944 and the city returned to France after the war.

The old town of Metz is compact and centered on the Place d'Armes, an 18th century square flanked by the Hotel de Ville and the Gothic Cathedral Saint Etienne,  France's tallest and with the largest expanses of stained glass windows designed by master craftsmen in the 14th, 16th and in recent times by Marc Chagall.  The rue Serpenoise, the main Roman north-south road is a bustling pedestrian shopping street leading to the Place Saint Jacques, a lively square filled with cafes and restaurants.  The old historic town features  ancient cobblestone streets with names evoking the trades plied by former residents -- Chapelerue was for the hatters or Forges for the blacksmiths.

The town is considered one of the greenest cities in France with many parks and flower gardens; its river banks lined with weeping willow trees are inviting for strolls. The Moyen Pont, down on the Moselle, offers the best views onto the river banks and its monuments.  Up on the Esplanade above the River Moselle sits Saint Pierre des Nonnains, considered to be one of the oldest surviving churches in France dating back to the 4th century.

Just opened in 2010 is the Centre Pompidou-Metz, a branch of the Paris museum for Modern and Contemporary art. Designed by Japanese architect Shigeru Ban,  it features temporary exhibitions and live performances.  At present, the exhibit "Year 1917"  is underway which addresses the theme of artistic creation in wartime (till September 24).

Metz is an important university and cultural city which holds many festivals during the year.  In the summer the Mirabelle, the local golden plum is feted; Les Montgolfieres de Metz one of the largest hot air balloons fair is held at the beginning of September; and in november /december the festive Christmas markets of Metz attract large crowds.

 To get to Metz is fast and convenient thanks to the TGV train (about 1h30 minutes from Paris).  Note   though the TGV station is 30 km from the center of town.  A shuttle bus service links the TGV station to Metz.