2 Weeks in Paris – Day 7: Mona Lisa

Saturday 21st June: The first day away from seminars and the freedom to do whatever we want in this wonderful city – how about an early morning?

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Early morning queue into the Louvre.

Leaving the hostel at around 8:30am, five of us headed up to the Musée du Louvre to join the fast-growing queues of tourists. The line wasn’t as time-consuming as we had originally thought but I must say the organisation was rather terrible. Nevertheless, we made it inside I.M. Pei’s pyramidal steel-and-glass structure, took the escalator down to the grand foyer, known as the Napoleon Hall, and went straight for the museum’s poster-girl, the Mona Lisa (1503-5) – everyone else was still queuing for admission tickets so we had a head-start. Psst…it’s in the Denon wing.

On the way, we passed several significant Italian artists such as Fra Angelico and Andrea Mantegna. However, my eye was caught on Paolo Uccello’s Counterattack of Michelotto da Cotignola at the Battle of San Romano (c. 1435-55), one of three paintings depicting the famous battle between the Florentines and the Sienese and Milanese troops in the Arno Valley on the 1st June 1432. Most sources claimed that the Florentines were victorious but the Sienese also claimed to be victors. As a result, there is still much dispute as to who had won the eight-hour battle.

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Paolo Uccello, The Counterattack of Michelotto da Cotignola at the Battle of San Romano, c. 1435-55.

The other two panels reside in the National Gallery of London – Niccolò Maurizi da Tolentino at the Battle of San Romano (c. 1438-40) – and the Uffizi Gallery in Florence – Niccolò Maurizi da Tolentino unseats Bernardino della Ciarda at the Battle of San Romano (c. 1435-55). For art historians it would be a wonder to see all three panels exhibited together. Forming a triptych, these paintings were commissioned by the Bartolini Salimbeni family – they were Florentine – as a local commemoration of their city-state’s victory.

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Paolo Uccello, Niccolò Maurizi da Tolentino at the Battle of San Romano, c. 1438-40. Image via www.wikipedia.org.

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Paolo Uccello, Niccolò Maurizi da Tolentino unseats Bernardino della Ciarda at the Battle of San Romano, c. 1435-55. Image via www.wikipedia.org.

Uccello is better known for his Hunt in the Forest (c. 1470) in the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, an early example of Albertian perspective in Renaissance painting. Other perspectival devices included foreshortening and 3D-modelling. The former is most effective in the triptych when they are hung high, while false perspective is created by the positioning of the broken flags and lances in the National gallery panel. Other attempts at foreshortening can be seen in the horses that are turned away from us in the Uffizi and Louvre panels. These paintings are still relatively early in Uccello’s career so his failure to model 3D objects can be seen in the patterning of Tolentino’s hat in the National Gallery panel.

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Our Mona Lisa ‘selfie’.

Back to the Mona Lisa, we were welcomed by no less than three rows of visitors to this overrated painting – we squeezed into the front row in less than a minute and took an obligatory group ‘selfie’. Many viewers of this painting have often felt disappointed at its size, usually under the illusion that the more famous it is, the bigger the work – or the ‘bigger is better’ stereotype – or it could be the overflow of high-resolution images on the Internet and across much of the Louvre’s merchandise. I, on the other hand, saw the painting to be of average size for a portrait. At 77cm high, it compares favourably to Raphael’s portrait of Baldassare Castiglione (c. 1514-15), exhibited nearby, which is 82cm high. Nevertheless, Leonardo’s skill and mastery of oil paint in this work is outstanding, so surely the revelation that it is smaller than expected would only make viewers appreciate it more – sadly, people rarely go beyond their first impressions. Another example of unexpected scale is Salvador Dali’s Persistence of Memory (1931) in MoMA – it’s only 24cm tall and 33cm wide!

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Leonardo da Vinci, Mona Lisa (‘La Gioconda’), 1503-5.

The sitter in the Mona Lisa is often said to be Lisa Gherardini, the wife of Francesco di Bartolomeo di Zanobi del Giocondo who commissioned the painting – “For Francesco del Giocondo, Leonardo undertook the portrait of Mona Lisa” (Giorgio Vasari, The Lives of the Artists). As a result, it is more commonly referred by art historians as La Gioconda. It is characteristic of a contemporary Renaissance portrait, with the sitter in front of a landscape background, placed in a three-quarter profile. The landscape, in this case, is imaginary, allowing Leonardo to experiment with his explorations of the natural world. The blueness of the upper landscape is also an example of aerial perspective, a feature that occurs prominently in other works of his in the Louvre.

So why is this rather standard portrait one of the world’s most famous paintings? Aside from her elusive half-smile – of which there have been several face-recognition studies – and Leonardo’s demonstration of his sfumato effect, the Mona Lisa’s elevated fame is due to it having been…*drum roll*…stolen.

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The Mona Lisa’s former place. Image via www.wikipedia.org.

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Louis Beroud, Mona Lisa au Louvre, 1911. Image via www.wikipedia.org.

Yes…the world’s most famous painting became famous because someone stole it in 1911, hoping to sell it to the directors of the Uffizi Gallery – he believed that the Mona Lisa should be rightfully returned and displayed in Italy. On another note, Leonardo’s fame probably wouldn’t have risen to its current level had he not been the painter responsible for its creation. In fact, the way Vasari mentioned it in his Lives made it seem like any other ordinary commissioned portrait.

But what about the bulletproof glass and the two sets of barriers that keep visitors from being less than four-metres away from it? The answer lies in its history of vandalism. In 1956, the painting was subjected to acid damage and later, a rock was thrown at it. When exhibited at the Tokyo National Museum in 1974, a woman sprayed red paint at it, supposedly upset by the museum’s policy for disabled people. And more recently, a Russian woman threw a terracotta mug or teacup towards the painting and shattered its glass display, upset over being denied French citizenship.

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The Mona Lisa exhibition at the Tokyo National Museum in April 1974. Image via www.tnm.jp.

Despite all of this, it is a shame that we are obliged to keep this four-metre distance. For appreciators of art, this doesn’t give us nearly enough proximity to be able to see the finer details of the painting which it is admired for – and I thought glare and bucket-list tourists were the only problems.

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The dreaded barriers…and tourists.

Facing immediately opposite was Veronese’s enormous Wedding Feast at Cana (1562-63) at roughly seven-metres high and nearly 10-metres wide. It may not look like it but this painting has 130 figures within its beautifully-organised composition, each roughly life-sized. Another very busy picture in the same room was Tintoretto’s Coronation of the Virgin (Paradise) (c. 1580), a sketch for a competition to redecorate the end wall of the Chamber of the Great Council in the Doge’s Palace in Venice, after it was damaged by fire in 1577. As we made our way out, I was very happy to see Titian’s Concert Champêtre (c. 1509) on the reverse side of the Mona Lisa – supposedly conceived by Giorgione – with his Woman with Mirrors (c. 1515) nearby.

In the next room I was reunited with Paul Delaroche’s Young Martyr (1855), a painting I hadn’t seen since the National Gallery’s Painting History: Delaroche and Lady Jane Grey exhibition back in 2010. Making a right turn and passing Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres’ Roger Delivering Angelica (1819) I became a witness to his Grande Odalisque (1814), one of the most iconic female nudes in the history of Western art. In the same room was The Oath of the Horatii (1784) by Jacques-Louis David, an emblem of Neoclassicism, who also painted a very over-protective baby in the Intervention of the Sabine Women (1799) on the opposite wall. The rest of the group, however, had a particular interest in a painting by David’s pupil, Anne-Louis Girodet de Roussy-Trioson, who painted a rather monumental Scene of a Deluge (1806), unveiled at the Paris Salon in 1806.

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Jacques-Louis David, Detail from The Intervention of the Sabine Women, 1799.

Continuing out, we got a little bit lost, passing Antonio Canova’s Cupid and Psyche (1793), Michelangelo’s two Slaves (1513-16) and the Louvre’s Germanic collection of 15th and 16th century sculpture. Eventually we made it out into the Napoleon Hall and decided to have some food and drink in the museum café – they had swivel chairs! I went for a croissant, latte (café crème), and what appeared to be a mango cheesecake – appropriately called La Gioconde. This was my first time having cake for breakfast. With everyone gathered around a table, I asked what people wanted to see, resulting in a general agreement to see the Greek and Egyptian antiquities.

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Michelangelo Buonarroti, Dying Slave, 1513-16.

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Breakfast cake!

Thanks to our Classics and Archaeology specialist, I was able to learn quite a bit about early figurative representation in Cycladic culture during the pre-Hellenic age. There were supposedly three types of figurative representations, the most unique being perhaps the ‘violin’ type. Analysing a Greek vase, she was able to identify Medusa and the Gorgons, while in another room she attempted to translate areas of text from Ancient Greek inscriptions. She also really wanted to see the Winged Victory of Samothrace but it was unfortunately in the middle of conservation.

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Greek vase depicting Medusa and the Gorgons.

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Figures represented in the ‘violin’ type.

We had a look at Islamic art, mostly decorative, very precise and incredibly intricate, such as the lidded box of Al-Mughira and an 11th century crystal ewer in the same display. From above we able to peak at the gallery of the Arts of Africa, Asia, Oceania and the Americas below us, even attempting to decipher a large mosaic that contained both Latin and Ancient Greek symbols, yet neither in their entirety. We also wondered how much of the mosaic was restorative work and how the restorative design was realised.

Soon we made our way out, passing a series of Pompeiian frescoes depicting Apollo and his Muses, the Great Sphinx of Tanis with the features of King Amenemhat II, a peak at the Louvre’s medieval foundations, before emerging into the gallery of Etruscan and Roman antiquities. It was only a short walk past some rather beautiful frescoed rooms before we entered into the Greek antiquities. Here I became part of the audience to the Venus de Milo, a symbol of sophisticated taste in Honoré Daumier’s Connoisseur (c. 1860-65) and of ideal female beauty.

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A photograph of a phone taking a photograph of the Venus de Milo.

Continuing through a few more rooms into the Egyptian antiquities, we found ourselves facing an ancient bas-relief menu, specifically the menu of Tepemânkh. This was an ideal menu containing foods for the deceased which included various pastries, sweets and drinks. A few steps behind this, passing fragments of the Book of the Dead, was the chapel of the tomb of Akhethotep, depicting scenes from the life of this high-ranking dignitary. After realising that we had spent too much time in one section while certain members of the group were becoming more aware of timing and their plans for the day, we quickly headed back towards the Italian paintings section so I could show them a selection of must-see paintings that I attempted to explain in more detail. On the way, I detoured for a quick moment into the lavishly-decorated Apollo Gallery.

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The menu of Tepemânkh.

Originally called the Petite Galerie of the Louvre, the Apollo Gallery served as a model for the Hall of Mirrors in the Palace of Versailles. It contains a total of 41 paintings, 118 sculptures and 28 tapestries by the Gobelins Manufactory, woven between 1854 and 1863. The gallery originally connected the Louvre to the then-existing Tuileries Palace, built in 1564. Of the participating artists, Charles Le Brun and Eugène Delacroix were perhaps the most notable, decorating the gallery in the 17th and 19th century, respectively. I wished I’d had more time to explore this part of the museum.

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The Apollo Gallery.

Bringing us closer to home was the Louvre’s Virgin of the Rocks (1483-86), a predecessor to the National Gallery version in London from 1495-1508, both by our respected Leonardo da Vinci. The Paris version was originally commissioned in 1480 for the Milanese Confraternity of the Immaculate Conception for their chapel in the Church of San Francesco Grande in Milan. Both versions were exhibited opposite each other at the National Gallery’s Leonardo: Painter at the Court of Milan exhibition in 2011 – I queued for four or five hours on a cold Friday morning.

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A wall of Leonardos.

Two theories have been suggested about the creation of the later London version. The first is based on the idea that the Confraternity was unsatisfied with the then unfinished painting upon inspection, leading to a replacement picture. The second is that Leonardo complained about not being paid enough, therefore selling the Paris version to a private client out of anger – eventually acquired by Louis XII of France – and producing a second one for the Confraternity, after running away and spending six years in Florence before returning for his Second Milanese period in 1506.

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 Louvre version (left); National Gallery version (right).

There are many differences between the two versions – gestures, mood, colours, flowers, even haloes – but perhaps the most interesting of all is the underdrawing within the London version which features an original composition. This original composition features a figure that matches St. Philip in the Last Supper (1495-98), perhaps supporting a theory that Leonardo used and perfected his model sketches for individual heads in different paintings.

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Sebastiano del Piombo and Raphael side-by-side, just like in the Villa Farnesina in Rome.

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Inside the Villa Farnesina, Rome, where Sebastiano’s Polyphemus (1512) hangs beside Raphael’s Galatea (1511-12).

I showed them Raphael’s St. Michael Vanquishing Satan (1518) – one of my favourite paintings – and mentioned the complete restorative work done on the whole of the right half of the painting. Since Sebastiano del Piombo’s Visitation (c. 1519) hung beside it, it was very appropriate for me to mention Michelangelo’s rivalry with Raphael through Sebastiano. On the opposite wall was a selection of Giulio Romano’s paintings, Raphael’s principal studio assistant, amongst those of his master. One such example was Giulio’s Virgin and Child with St. Elizabeth and the Infant St. John (‘The Small Holy Family’) (c. 1517-8) with its respective cover panel Ceres/Abundance (‘Dovizia’) (c. 1517-8), both flanking the Madonna with the Blue Diadem (1512-8), a painting attributed to Raphael and his workshop, mainly Gianfrancesco Penni.

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Giulio Romano flanks his master…or colleague.

In the end we disbanded in front of Daniele da Volterra’s David Killing Goliath (c. 1555), a double-sided painting showing both views of the future king overcoming the giant. While several of them went to the Musée d’Orsay across the river, I stayed to immerse myself with many more paintings.

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Daniele da Volterra, David and Goliath, c. 1555.

Despite witnessing works by Annibale and Agostino Carracci, Sassoferrato, El Greco, Piero della Francesca, Titian and Pietro Perugino, Canaletto and Francesco Guardi, Guercino, Guido Reni and Delacroix – I could list plenty more – my main highlight still came full circle to Raphael when I found the Louvre fragment of his Coronation of St. Nicholas of Tolentino altarpiece (1500-1). Completed on 13th September 1501 for Andrea Baronci for his chapel in the Sant-Agostino Church in Città di Castello, the altarpiece was damaged by an earthquake in 1789. As a result, it was cut into several pieces, four of which have been recovered – the other three are in the museums of Brescia and Naples.

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Raphael, Fragment from The Coronation of St. Nicholas of Tolentino (Louvre), 1500-1.

One of things that I noticed when browsing the collection was just how much artists appropriated from other artists, even to the point of almost emulating their style completely. A small predella-like panel bears striking resemblances to Leonardo’s Annunciation (c. 1472-75) in the Uffizi, but with obvious differences such as the pose of the Virgin. Many websites claim it is by Leonardo, while others are doubtful. Sassoferrato appeared to look to Raphael’s influence, painting a Virgin and Child with Saint John the Baptist that mimics the Garvagh/Aldobrandini Madonna (1509-10) in the National Gallery, and another Virgin and Child resembling the State Hermitage Museum’s Conestabile Madonna (1502-4) in St. Petersburg. The impact of this struck me more than ever and I began questioning attributions more than ever.

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Are both Annunciations by Leonardo?

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Sassoferrato (left) with Raphael’s Garvagh/Aldobrandini Madonna (1509-10) (right). Image via www.wikipedia.org.

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Sassoferrato (left) with Raphael’s Conestabile Madonna (1502-4) (right). Image via www.wikipedia.org.

Apart from the permanent collection – which I didn’t get to see a lot of due to timing (I had hoped to see the newly restored 18th century decorative arts galleries) – I was adamant to see the Birth of a Museum: Louvre Abu Dhabi exhibition (2nd May – 28th July 2014). This exhibition was the first public unveiling of its new Abu Dhabi branch collection abroad which opens in December 2015. The exhibits ranged from ancient Buddha heads and manuscripts to modern and contemporary art, representing the diversity of the collection and, fundamentally, its cross-cultural approach to art history, discovery and cultural exchange. 150 works were on display, all of which came from the results of auctions since 2009. This was a wonderfully exciting opportunity for me to learn about a museum’s ethics and philosophy, in turn affecting its choice of exhibits and curatorial displays. Based on the exhibition, the Louvre Abu Dhabi seems to have a very good starting collection and I look forward to its opening and future success – hopefully better than the Turner Contemporary in Margate.

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Model of the new Louvre Abu Dhabi.

I soon exited by the Inverted Pyramid, through the Carrousel du Louvre and out to face the Arc de Triomphe du Carrousel, commissioned in 1806 to commemorate Napoleon Bonaparte’s military victories in 1805 during the War of the Third Coalition. Based on the Arch of Constantine in Rome, it later inspired the design of the Marble Arch in London. After getting some food and coffee from a nearby Paul stand, I sat in the Jardin du Carrousel to enjoy the sun, just like everyone else.

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The Inverted Pyramid.

Then I needed a walk…

I crossed the Pont du Carrousel, passing between Louis Petitot’s allegorical sculptures on either side of the bridge, and proceeded to stroll along the Quai Voltaire, browsing the box stalls along the edge in hope of finding a rare, authentic artist print for under €30 – obviously, most of these bouquinistes insisted that they were selling first impressions. These stalls, which literally pack into a green box of nearly two-metres wide, are full of leather-bound editions of classic French literature, from Victor Hugo to Henri Bergson – I tried to find a nice edition of Edmond Rostand’s Cyrano de Bergerac but it proved to be too popular – vintage posters, artist prints, lots of Vogue covers, old photographs and carte-de-visites – sadly, none by Nadar – and every now and then there would be padlocks on sale for an average €5.

On the upper deck of La Balle au Bond, one of the boat restaurants along the Port des Saint-Pères, was a singer-songwriter in mid-performance. He sang a few English pop songs that I recognised at the time and it certainly drew in the crowds along the Left Bank. Walking along the riverbank is one of the best things a pedestrian can do in Paris, especially on a sunny day. While tourists crowd on to the side decks of a moving Batobus or the upper decks of certain river cruises, competing against each other to photograph the sights they see, the average pedestrian can take in the same sights at their own leisurely pace and without overcrowding. Furthermore, there’s much more of a sense of community when walking past the various characters who meet up for picnics along the river, the artist who paints landscapes for a living, the group of boys having a sing-song, and the romantic couple sitting beside each other, not uttering a word, but looking out to the water and the beautiful city. These were the people that I saw and it was wonderful.

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A painter contemplates the colours of the Seine.

I soon went up the steps to Pont Saint-Michel, crossing it and Pont au Change to reach Place du Châtelet, welcomed by the Fontaine du Palmier with the gilded Victory at its summit. Hoping find the corresponding Métro station, I ended up walking along Rue Saint-Denis – had I walked slightly further along Rue de Rivoli I would have found it. Nevertheless, I was able to experience some live music outside Café Oz, a supposedly Australian bar with a vivid green and terracotta front. Eventually, I came back full circle, failing to find the bright red Métro sign. Fortunately, I was meeting members of the earlier group at Place des Vosges, the oldest planned square in Paris dating back to the 1600s. This was a straightforward walk towards Place de la Bastille along Rue de Rivoli, so that’s exactly what I did (Yay! More walking!).

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Musicians outside Café Oz.

The street was much busier than any others in the city, almost like Oxford Street back in London, but this is in part due to its location within the Marais district. Historically, this was the aristocratic district of Paris, favoured by many French nobles as a place of residence up until the 17th century. Soon it became commercialised as the area became host to Jewish communities – there are still remnants of their inhabitation today, including the Musée d’Art et d’Histoire du Judaïsme and the Jewish quarter around Saint-Paul, referred to as the Pletzl. Nowadays it is known for its art galleries, fashion houses and restaurants. The Centre Georges Pompidou is located in this district as well as the Musée Picasso. Along the way I passed the Saint-Jacques Tower – the remains of the former 16th century Church of Saint-Jacques-de-la-Boucherie – and the Hôtel de Ville – the city hall of Paris – which I remember thinking seemed like a medieval castle with the banners outside the square.

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Hôtel de Ville.

Today happened to be the day of the Fête de la Musique, a free international music festival. Musicians of all levels can participate and perform in these free concerts which are scattered all around the city, from small-scale outdoor performances to large, temporary stages. I passed several on the way to Place des Vosges, such as that by a rock band called Irène. Eventually I found Rue de Birague, a path off the side of Rue Saint-Antoine that would lead me into the famous and popular square.

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Irène performs on Rue de Rivoli.

Place des Vosges is particularly well known for being the site of Victor Hugo’s house, located at the square’s south-east corner. Hugo lived at no. 6 on the second floor of the house from 1832 to 1848, now turned into a museum that explores his life, from his childhood to his exile between 1852 and 1870 when he openly declared that Napoleon III was a traitor to France. The square was originally called the Place Royale, built by Henry IV of France from 1605 to 1612. Previously it was the site of the Hôtel des Tournelles, a royal residence built in 1388. After the death of Henry II of France in 1559 – he died while jousting in the square – it was demolished by order of his wife Catherine de’ Medici, who replaced it with the Tuileries Palace by the Louvre – it was then demolished in 1871 during the Paris Commune. The renaming of the Place Royale to the Place des Vosges in 1799 was in honour of the Vosges Department, the first administrative département and region in France to pay the new taxes introduced during the French Revolution. For a brief period the old name was restored during the Bourbon Restoration in 1815 before being changed again in 1848.

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One of the fountains in Place des Vosges.

I quickly met up with members of the group who were already sitting on the grass – this is one of the few areas in Paris where this is permitted. Joining them, I laid down on the grass, reading John Baxter’s The Most Beautiful Walk in the World, whilst listening to their recollections of the day. A group of French youths approached us, asking to borrow a pen and paper, before playing their popular music and conversing amongst themselves. One of us was drawing the repetitive architectural fronts of the houses around the square, before making a model out of me – the result was a fairly accurate likeness.

As the afternoon sun began to turn to an evening dusk, we made our way back to the hostel. We walked to Place de la Bastille, briefly stopping to appreciate a band that gathered a large audience at a corner connecting Rue des Tournelles with Rue Saint-Antoine. On the other side of Rue Saint-Antoine was a performing gospel choir on the steps of the Temple du Marais.

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Street performance at the intersection between Rue des Tournelles and Rue Saint-Antoine, with the Temple du Marais in the background.

Commemorating the Revolution of 1830 is the Colonne de Juillet, or July Column at the centre of Place de la Bastille. Built between 1835 and 1840, it celebrates the “three glorious” days (27th-29th July 1830) that saw the fall of King Charles X of France and the beginning of the “July Monarchy” of Louis-Philippe I, ‘King of the French’. The elaborated Corinthian column was designed by the architect Jean-Antoine Alavoine, with the names of the deceased during the 1830 Revolution engraved in gold, and Auguste Dumont’s gilded Génie de la Liberté (the ‘Spirit of Freedom’) (1833) at the top. Within its foundations is a columbarium containing the remains of the victims of the July Revolution and later those from the Revolution of 1848.

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Colonne de Juillet (‘July Column’).

It wasn’t long after we arrived at the hostel until we came back out again. In the spirit of the Fête de la Musique, most of us headed out to Place Denfert-Rochereau where a large temporary stage awaited us, already filled with thousands of people. There was a large mixture of ages, from adolescents to the elderly. Being naturally British, a festival wasn’t a festival without the consumption of alcohol, so we went to a nearby store for wine and beer – and my dinner, consisting largely of chocolate brioches.

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The stage at Place Denfert-Rochereau.

Personally, I’ve never been much of a fan of hip-hop music nor do I tend to enjoy places packed with people. However, I began to grow to appreciate the French hip-hop and rock music that was being performed before me by the bands Odezenne, Rocky and Griefjoy. The line-up was organised by Ricard S.A Live Music. The concert began with Pendentif, who we missed. Of all the performances, Rocky was perhaps the only one who sang in English as well as French. Together with Griefjoy, they were probably the easiest to appreciate – a member of the latter even crowd-surfed in an inflatable human hamster ball. The walk back may have incurred a few tipsy moments for certain individuals but overall, it was an incredibly eventful evening.

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Rocky.

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Griefjoy.

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Crowd-surfing in a hamster ball!

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