2 Weeks in Paris – Day 5: Versailles

Out of our entire two-week programme, Thursday was perhaps the biggest day in the schedule. My day began with a brief breakfast at Reid Hall consisting of a pain au chocolat and university-provided coffee. Dr Stefan Goebel conducted our crash-course seminar on Versailles, focusing on the periods 1789-1871-1919, highlighting the Women’s March on Versailles – a.k.a. the October March – the Proclamation of the Second German Empire, and the signing of the Treaty of Versailles. The latter two have one thing in common: the Hall of Mirrors in the Palace of Versailles.

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The Hall of Mirrors.

At one point we were presented with three depictions of the Proclamation of the German Empire by the German painter Anton von Werner: two paintings from 1877 and 1885, and a woodcut from 1880. Immediate differences were observed during the five minutes of comparison – the setting, the point of focus, even individual figures.

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Anton von Werner, The Proclamation of the German Empire, 1877. Image via www.chateau-versailles.npage.de.

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Anton von Werner, The Proclamation of the German Empire, 1880. Image via www.germanhistorydocs.ghi-dc.org.

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Anton von Werner, The Proclamation of the German Empire, 1885. Image via www.wikimedia.org.

One of the topics we did touch on was the idea of the lieu de memoire – see Pierre Nora’s Realms of Memory (1989) – of which Versailles could be seen as an example of a site of collective cultural memory or as a site of historical significance. The distinction here is that history records significant events, often exempt of cultural memory, while a collective cultural memory records an experience undertaken by a majority which may or may not have made it into the archives.

This was a particularly heavy seminar that used the old-school method of showing paintings to the class – lucky me! I was even able to link medieval traditions of representing the Last Supper with William Orpen’s Signing of Peace in the Hall of Mirrors (1919) – the Germans take the place of Judas at the table. I was also able to learn about the history of the Warburg Institute Library, founded by Aby Warburg who was one of the first to study memory. An inscription lies near the entrance of the library with the word “MNEMOSYME”, the Titan goddess of memory.

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William Orpen, Signing of Peace in the Hall of Mirrors, 1919. Image via www.wikimedia.org.

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Domenico Ghirlandaio, The Last Supper, 1480. Image via www.wikimedia.org.

Our journey to Versailles itself was a swift one. We were each given a variety of baguettes to choose for lunch – I grabbed the ham and cheese – and we ate it on the train as it travelled parallel to the Seine along a bridge. The cloud were a little dreary when we arrived but it soon died out after some time inside the palace.

The Palace of Versailles was originally a hunting lodge for Louis XIII during his reign, constructed in 1624. The palace we see today is the result of four major building campaigns in 1664-68, 1669-72, 1678 and finally 1699-1710. As soon as we were inside, I went for a sneak peak while we waited for everyone to come out of the toilets.

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The Palace of Versailles.

Pacing up the former Ambassador’s staircase I entered a room full of large paintings dedicated to the Estates-General in France. Amongst them was Auguste Couder’s Opening of the Estates-General in Versailles (5th May 1789), depicting the first meeting of the Estates-General since 1614.

My next peak was the Hercules Salon, one of the rooms created to displace one of the seven rooms originally dedicated to the seven known planets of the time and their respective Roman deities, according to Louis Le Vau’s plan for the grand appartement du roi. The ceiling painting in this room depicts the Apotheosis of Hercules (1733-6) by François Le Moyne while Veronese appears with his Feast in the House of Simon (1570) and Rebecca at the Well (late 16th century).

As a group, we began by walking through the grand appartement du roi, passing through the current structure of rooms dedicated to Hercules, Abundance, Venus, Diana, Mars, Mercury, and Apollo. At the end of this corridor was the Salon of War which forms a corner of the palace. The other corner was the Salon of Peace, and between these two rooms was the famous Hall of Mirrors.

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Oh look, mirrors! Time for a selfie!

A warning must be noted: the palace is VERY packed, comparable to the Vatican Museums in Rome. It is also VERY big, impossible to do in a single day – again, like the Vatican. Your best bet is to research the things you want to see, where they are located, and organise an itinerary, unlike the thousands of tourists flooding through the place, hoping for a gentle stroll with only a recognisable eye for the Hall of Mirrors and the luxurious Gardens of Versailles. There was also the occasional time when they crowded inside the Queen’s Bedchamber, where Marie Antoinette escaped using one of its hidden doors on the 6th October 1789 – I won’t say where.

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The Battle Gallery.

The palace was so big that I can’t even recall the rest of our route in detail. However, my eyes lit up as soon as we entered the Battle Gallery, a 120-metre long corridor in the South Wing created in 1837. The 33 large paintings depict the exploits of the major military figures of France, beginning with Clovis in 496 and ending with Napoleon in 1809 at Wagram. Directly below the Battle Gallery was a corridor of marble statues of French rulers and bust of artists, philosophers, writers – such as Voltaire, Charlemagne, and Descartes.

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The Gardens of Versailles.

Soon enough we entered into the gardens. While the rest of the group walked along the side of the Water Parterres, I went in between them to see and walk through Lee Ufan’s Relatum – L’Arche de Versailles (2014), a minimalist arch made from steel and stone – the Korean artist works only with these two materials – as part of his major solo exhibition Lee Ufan Versailles (17th June – 2nd November 2014). The ten sculptural works in this exhibition were scattered across the grounds of the Palace of Versailles, “all entirely new, some of them of unusual size to correspond to the spaces in the gardens.” “The intense and silent works of this artist” have the aim of “completing and modifying the atmosphere for a time”. I was able to locate four out of the 10 pieces. More of Ufan’s work can be viewed HERE.

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Lee Ufan, Relatum – L’Arche de Versailles, 2014.

As we walked down the Green Carpet – after several photographic attempts of the group jumping – passing the Apollo Fountain, I had a sudden urge to sail a dinghy along the Grand Canal just like the many visitors who had taken a rowing boat out into this lovely stretch of water. Alas, there were no sailing boats to be seen and I retreated to ordering a latte during our break while everyone else opted for ice cream.

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Lee Ufan, Relatum – Dialogue X, 2014.

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The Apollo Fountain.

Shortly afterwards we made our way to Petit Trianon, the Domain of Marie-Antoinette. I felt that this little mansion was particularly quaint and simple. There wasn’t an overflow of furniture nor were the walls decorated to the point of confusion, marking a transition from Rococo to Neoclassicism. There was a sparing use of gilding with the walls almost primarily white. In many ways there wasn’t a sense of pompous grandeur or of royal habitation. The atmosphere was very light and welcoming – except the barriers that prevented us from being too close to the objects. Personally it just seemed like a very ordinary large house whose occupant had very good taste in furniture, art and a want to feel at home. I was, however, rather surprised to find a billiard room containing – obviously – a billiard table and a portrait of Marie Antoinette (c. 1779) by Louise Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun.

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The billiard room in the Domain of Marie-Antoinette at Petit Trianon.

I then ventured into part of the gardens, making my way to the Temple of Love, designed by the French architect Richard Mique. Within this beautiful structure – which very nearly resembles the Temple of Vesta in Rome – is housed a statue of Cupid. The one which is located on-site is a copy by Louis-Philippe Mouchy in 1780, of which the original, now in the Louvre, was by Edme Bouchardon.

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The Temple of Love at Petit Trianon.

The path towards this temple was particularly picturesque in the sense that it followed a winding path along a river that inhabited a swan. I would have loved to explore this part of Versailles further but it was approaching closing time so we had to make our way back to the exit, through the Grand Perspective and back up to the Palace of Versailles, eventually heading towards the station to take the RER back to central Paris.

After making a brief stop at the hostel, some of us decided to have dinner in the Luxembourg Gardens, which took the form of Japanese sushi, ramen noodles, miso soup, and Japanese curry and rice. It was wonderfully relaxing as we conversed in the glow of the setting sun.

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Japanese takeaway in the Luxembourg Gardens.

Shortly afterwards, two of the girls and myself went out for an evening stroll, guided by the only one who could understand and speak French – she experienced a culture shock and fell in love with Paris when she was 19. We began along Rue Gay-Lussac, turning at Rue Royer-Collard, Rue Saint-Jacques and up Rue Soufflot towards the Panthéon where the architect Jacques-Gabriel Soufflot is buried. Going behind this huge monument along Rue Clotilde, we reached Rue de l’Estrapade – where there was a very nice exclusive block of orange buildings – and Rue Blainville which led us to Place de la Contrescarpe, already an area with more locals than tourists. We continued south along Rue Mouffetard, passing a variety of restaurants and gelateries. At this point our conversation had been on the topic of the girls’ experience of not being wolf-whistled in Paris, which has, on the other hand, happened in England. We all agreed that England was particularly judgemental compared to Paris and other European cities and regions.

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A cluster of thrown-out items on Rue Poliveau.

We managed to walk the entire length of this sloping street consisting of paved stones and cheap places we wanted to eat at. At the end it connected to Rue de Bazielles, so after stepping along the rim of a fountain outside Starbucks, we crossed the road and walked along Rue Poliveau, complaining about the smell of urine on the pavement. Halfway through we passed a cluster of thrown-out furniture, planks of wood, a briefcase and a pair of shoes, to name a few. One of the girls was particularly tempted to take the briefcase but she quickly overcame the urge and resorted to using the public toilet at the end of the road – the other girl stood guard while telling me about her ballet education.

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The entrance to the Pitié-Salpêtrière Hospital.

We had reached Boulevard de l’Hôpital where, to my surprise, I was united with memories of my first-year histories of photography classes. Just across the road was the Pitié-Salpêtrière Hospital where the neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot researched pathology and hysteria, particularly those of women in the hospital’s mental asylum. Following on from Hugh Welch Diamond’s photographic catalogue of mental patients and their designated ‘mental disorders’, Charcot’s photographs of patients’ symptoms led to the founding of the four phases of ‘female hysteria’: epileptic, clownism, passionate attitudes and hallucinations, and ecstasy and delirium. This was a breaking point in the history of photography where the camera was used as a diagnostic tool, leading to its exploitation in the fields of physiognomy and phrenology. Images of hysteria also inspired the Surrealists, especially Salvador Dali who put together a collage entitled The Phenomenon of Ecstasy (1933).

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Salvador Dali, The Phenomenon of Ecstasy, 1933. Image via www.wikiart.org.

After a quick picture of the entrance to this famous hospital, we continued along Boulevard de l’Hôpital, discussing amongst each other appropriate responses towards people living on the streets. Should we smile? Should we say hello? How do we try to be polite without engaging conversation? One thought stuck in our minds: the worst feeling these homeless people experience every day and night is that of being ignored and invisible to everyone else. How do we address such an issue without them wanting the money in our pockets?

As we walked closer to the Seine and turned on to Quai Saint-Bernard through Place Valhubert, we realised that we were outside the Jardins des Plantes, the main botanical garden in France and our next destination tomorrow afternoon. Walking along this road we had a running joke that one of the girls was leading the rest of us to the French mafia – accompanied by her new-found ‘creepy’ accent – before she went into a sudden frenzy upon seeing an ostrich for the first time through the metal fence, leaving all three of us in absolute hysterics for various misunderstood reasons. It was a moment of utter spontaneity which could not have happened any other way, nor could it ever be replicated. And yet – I hope – it will stay in our minds for many years to come, reminding ourselves of a time when childishness on the streets of Paris brought us closer together as friends. The people on the other side of the road might have thought we were insane…we probably were.

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The ostrich that left us all in hysterics!

Along this busy road on the Left Bank of the Seine was the Arab World Institute. I first noticed the wall of graffiti that occupied a part of its exterior, wondering if it was authorised and how they managed to get up there. As we turned into Boulevard Saint-Germain we passed a temporary restaurant in the form of a railway carriage outside the institute. A steam train on display prominently caught our eyes as we turned the corner.

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The mysterious carriage restaurant.

We briefly stepped into Café El Sur to rummage around the leaflets on the desk, though the thought of dessert gradually overcame us. We stopped by a crêperie on the way back to the hostel – all of us went for Nutella, with myself opting for a dash of Grand Marnier – passing old bookshops and shops containing curiosities on Rue Valette – including us debating about a particular skeleton that looked like a snake with arms and legs. We all came back to the hostel extremely content and ready for the following day’s adventures.

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Crêpes galore! Image via Stine Wannebo.

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