Heron Island, Great Barrier Reef, Australia

Saturday 26 March 2011

Goodness me, nearly a fortnight and I never finished writing up What I Did On My Holidays (or, rather that weekend in Paris). This is partly a matter of being out of touch with the news, which somehow made the images from Japan all the more shocking and somehow shaming when I did see them (by a strange coincidence I was on a train to Paris the morning of 7/7 and frivolled the day away in blissful ignorance); and partly to do with just the business of everyday life.

But back to Paris: I had no particular plans this time, but I did drop in to a couple of the free city museums that I hadn't seen before. The Cognacq-Jay is a collection of 18th-century art and furniture assembled by the founders of the Samaritaine department store, originally set up for the edification of the staff, and now housed in a restored 18th century house in the Marais. To judge by the photographs and portraits, M. Cognacq rather enjoyed being a public benefactor; Mme Cognacq-Jay rather had the look of the traditionally watchful wife in a family business. I didn't gain much impression of the reaction of the store's staff, or whether they thought them more benevolent owners than their successors (who closed the store down and sold the building off for development at very short notice, not so long ago).

It's an interesting collection, not as stuffily worthy or full of mimsy floweriness as I feared it might be: on the contrary, some lively portraits, some wonderful marquetry and other furniture, and intricately beautiful Meissen figurines. I'm not quite sure if it was meant as a joke that a corridor full of genre paintings aabove a line of small tables and cupboards was simply described as showing how furniture like that might have been used in domestic settings: for if you look at the paintings, a hastily sketched table or bedside cupboard is merely incidental to various saucy shenanigans. Here's a gentleman peeking round a lady's boudoir door, or hurriedly hiding in her wardrobe while her husband swaggers in, or stretching his riding crop in through an open window to lift the scarf from a sleeping lady's generous embonpoint; or there's a kitchen maid with an apron-full of eggs embraced by a scullion whose breeches are clearly round his ankles while the cat devours the fowl laid out for dinner. Did Mme Jay approve?

I also went down to the twin museums at the Gare Montparnasse dedicated to the General Leclerc and Jean Moulin, the heroes of the Liberation and the Resistance, respectively. Around the outsides, an overview of what was happening generally in their respective fields (building up the Free French armies, and the internal politics of collaboration and resistance), in the centre show cases of documents and videos of reminiscences, much of it now very familiar from TV documentaries. One of the most striking things to me was the extraordinarily old-fashioned way André Malraux, as Minister of Culture, intoned his speech when opening a memorial to Moulin in the 1960s. Old films suggest that was what high-flown French orators used to do as a matter of course; but by then it must have been starting to look ridiculous. As I left, the receptionist showed just what a sense of humour you can find in France: I said I'd come to collect the backpack I'd left with her, and without a pause and with the most deadpan face she simply said "Oh that? I've sold it".

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