Sunday, January 26, 2014

Ah, Paris: Pierre Cardin's Art Nouveau Museum at Maxim's

In a recent post, I commented that I would be writing about subjects that are of particular interest to me (well of course, Guy - isn't that what a personal blog is all about?). I noted that among these special interests was l'art nouveau, the great design style that began in the so-called belle epoch and quickly spread throughout most of the western world.

Ever since I first learned about art nouveau, I've loved all the sinuous botanical lines, the curved wood, the often-overly elaborate fabric designs and draperies for clothing styles, and, well, just about anything that evoked that period when - despite all the bad things that happened in the world - there was (among those who had money, as in all periods of history) a great deal of beauty. L'art nouveau was often embraced to express that beauty.

I once did a little study of my own, just to learn what I could about art nouveau. I had come to love the idea that one design "type" (we might say) had so caught the attention of society that it showed up in just about everything. Not just furniture and objets d'art as I noted above, but in architecture, interior design, commercial designs, printing and book design, construction elements (especially Métro entrances and apartment-house balcony railings and other building ornamentation in Paris and, of course, in many other cities as well), and just about everything else. It was, it seems to me, a great attempt to make just about everything look beautiful.

One of our great goals, with our recent visit to Paris, was to dive in and, once again, immerse ourselves (well, immerse Mr. Guy) in the Paris version of l'art nouveau. It's always a great adventure in Paris, and while I've had quite a few opportunities to explore this lovely style in that splendid city, this trip was particularly planned for seeing as much art nouveau as possible. And we did see a lot, and, yes, I'll probably write about some of the other art nouveau things I saw in later posts. For now, let's just focus on one special treat. It was a visit to Pierre Cardin's Art Nouveau Museum, and it came as a complete surprise.

Our visit came about in a sweet coincidence. When I mentioned my interest in art nouveau to the one of the staff I befriended at our hotel, she immediately asked if I knew about the museum (it happens to be just around the corner from the hotel where we were staying). I did not, so she gave us all kinds of information and we were able to make an appointment for a private visit (well, private only in the sense that we were in Paris in late November, with few tourists, so no one else had signed up for the visit - I presume anyone can call and reserve to visit).

As it turns out, I know little about Pierre Cardin and his personal life. Or his tastes. But apparently he has been fascinated with art nouveau, as I have been, since he was a young man. He began collecting a long time ago (I don't collect, except for a few scattered items that I either inherited or for one reason or another were made available to me).

With his success in his career, Cardin was able to branch out in a number of different areas, and it's no surprise that when Maxim's - the great (and much beloved) Paris restaurant - was for sale, Cardin bought it. That was in 1981, and in the years since, he has continued Maxim's great tradition as the place to go for an evening's entertainment.

It didn't start out as much. The story goes that the business was launched in May 1893 as a sort of meeting house (probably along the lines the coffee houses in different parts of Europe that had been around since the late-17th century or so and, later, in North America). The owner was a former waiter named Maxime Gaillard, who was given to encouraging beautiful ladies to sit in the place to add to its charm. A little later, Eugene Cornuché - the next owner - brought in the art nouveau decorations, all the rage at the time (as can still be seen all over Paris) and encouraged even more beautiful women to come in and "decorate" his establishment. So the stage was set, and Maxim's became the splendid place to be and be seen with the beautiful women of the day.

Cardin did more. When he purchased Maxim's, of course the famous restaurant continued - and does today - but he also used the building to house his collection of art nouveau artifacts, furniture, and design, combining the art nouveau items with other materials of particular and personal interest, including a considerable number of pieces relating to Colette and her writings and life. It's a fascinating place, and we highly recommend it for a visit, if l'art nouveau is of interest.

We were charmed. It's hard to describe all the beautiful things to see in the collection. There are several rooms - on several different floors - and the idea seems to be to arrange the rooms as they looked when one of the famous courtesans of those Paris days lived there (think Dumas' La Dame aux camélias or even Verdi's La Traviata). The grandeur is there, and some of the pieces on display are as good as any seen in any museum anywhere.

Part of the charm, for us, was our luck in our guide for the visit. She was Véronique Fourcaud-Hélène, an actress and singer and - I gather from the similarity of the names - connected in some way with the Art Nouveau Museum Director and art historian Pierre-André Hélène. While we're sorry we didn't have a chance to meet Pierre-André (I've viewed his introductory film which is very good - you can see it here), we were delighted to spend time with Véronique, and she went out of her way to make us welcome and to provide us with so much information about the collection and about the overall Maxim's environment. A distant cousin of painter Toulouse-Lautrec, Véronique performs at Maxim's, both in an original play by Pierre-André, connecting with Cardin's interest in Colette, I gather, and in musical evenings presented at Maxim's. Indeed, in one section of earlier promotion film clips at the Maxim's site, Véronique is referred to as "The Lady of Maxim's" and her musical performance ("The 1900 Spectacle") looks like a delight. I'm just sorry we could not attend a performance while we were in Paris.

I'm happy to share some of our photographs (Véronique graciously allowed us to take photographs, "as many as you like"), and you can see them here. You can also access the Maxim's site itself, especially for the beautiful photographs of the museum and its collections. We did not take photographs of the restaurant as it was not open when we were there and it was too dark (too late in the day) to photograph. Nevertheless, we had a lovely tour of the restaurant rooms, and it provided a very fine conclusion to our tour and our visit with Véronique).

So. Mr. Guy's advice for anyone going to Paris: Reserve some time for Pierre Cardin's Art Nouveau Museum. It's very special.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Kenya: Guy and The Old-Lady Elephant

It wasn't an empty threat.

Most of my friends know that I fell in love with the elephant when I lived in Kenya several years ago, and I've been promising to tell elephant stories since our return from the big safari last summer.

While we went to do other things, I'm not shy about admitting that my focus was on the elephant. My friend Jerry is a serious bird watcher, and Kenya is reputed to be the best country in all of Africa for bird-watching, so Jerry was a happy man. Andrew is known among his Africa friends as Bwana Punda milia, since the zebra is his favorite African animal (Charles is Bwana Simba, for the same reason). And, as reported here some months ago, I'm called Bwana Tembo, after a barely - but sweetly - mentioned character in Isak Denison's Out of Africa.

So it goes. And as you can imagine, there are lots of elephant (bird) (zebra) (lion) stories, and I would be writing too much if I tried to tell them all. And others on the safari all have their own stories - and favorite animals - so while there will probably be more elephant stories, I'm happy to start with this one.

Among our more exciting adventures was our safari into Tsavo East, one of the largest of the national parks in Kenya and one of two or three most hospitable for the elephant. As a result, Tsavo East is managed by Kenya's National Wildlife Service to ensure that visitors get to spend as much time as they like with the animals, and especially with elephants (spend time, that is, from a distance - these are animals in the wild).

As it was not too long after the birthing season when we were at Tsavo East, there were plenty of large elephant families wandering about, both in the forest and along the open fields.

Our lodge, the Voi Safari Lodge, was beautifully positioned high on a hill, and we could look down on the savannah and see the elephants. We were amazed at the spectacle, both from our room in the lodge and from the dining room. On arrival in our room, about noon, I stepped out on the balcony and looked down and couldn't believe the number of elephants. The savannah was huge, with forest very far away (several miles across from us), and elephants were everywhere. Just for fun, I started counting and quit when I got to 140! Amazing!

Being on such a high spot, overlooking so much space, the developers of the lodge had created a path (pretty steep, but with secure railings) and guests can walk down toward the elephant water hole. About half-way down, there's a sign posted, urging - in several languages - silence, as the wild animals would be frightened from too much human noise. Next to the sign you enter through a gate in a concrete wall and proceed down a solid stairwell, well carpeted (again for the quiet). You enter a bunker, standing below ground with openings for viewing the animals, exactly at the level of the elephants' water hole.

From within the bunker, we could observe the elephants more closely than I ever could have imagined possible. We could sense how they were communicating with one other - or with the group. Sometimes one of them would roughly push this one or that one out of the way, and once in a while there would be a typical "elephant" call, as the animals vied with one another for attention or had this or that message to communicate. Or simply wanted to get closer to the edge of the water hole (and sometimes stepping down into it, not at all reluctant to do so).

There was also a considerable amount of very gentle touching and a sort of soft nudging and rubbing between some of the elephants, of all ages and sizes, and among groups of them. Oftentimes it would be clear that there was a big bull or a matriarch in charge, but most of the time all the interactions between the animals was very soft and sweet, and they clearly respect one another.

After we had watched a while, about an hour, we sensed that some of the elephants were moving away from the water hole, not surprising since it was getting late, nearing sunset, and we kind of suspected that the elephants would move off after dark. We were very quiet in the bunker, and while we could see out very well, we had no idea of how well the elephants could see inside the dark bunker (it wasn't lit, and elephants aren't known to have very good eyesight). On the other hand, every once in a while one of the elephants would walk along in front of us, and we thought we noticed a glance or two in our direction but we were pretty sure they could not see us.

Or could they? As it began to get later, we noticed a great huge dark grey lady elephant come along, around the water hole, waddling over toward our side of the water hole, where we were in the bunker.

Oh, she was huge. And she was old. We could tell because of the way she moved, the way she had no tusks (I had been told that sometimes really old elephants lose their tusks, just like old humans sometimes lose their teeth), the way her breasts hung down loosely. We figured she must be really old, possibly as old as 70 or 75 years of age.

And this was what was so amazing. The old-lady elephant ambled on around the water hole, coming over to our side (the bunker side) from our left. Andrew was snapping photos like crazy. I was leaning on the frame of the opening, resting my chin on my hands, my elbows on the frame. As she moved forward - I'm not making this up - she walked right up in our direction. She got closer, looked through the opening right at me, right into my eyes, and she slowed down. She was less than ten feet away, and she stopped walking altogether. And then she leaned over a little, resting against the big "scratching rock" just outside the opening where we were standing.

And she would not stop looking at me. After a minute or two, she raised her trunk and rested it on the rock and continued looking at me. And continued looking. I looked back, not moving a muscle, not saying anything. Just looking into her eyes as she was looking into mine. We were obviously caught up in some sort of communication with each other, some sort of bonding. I found it hard to believe what I was experiencing.

And so did Andrew, who was so moved by watching her and me that he had to move away, over to the other side of the bunker. And when he came back and stood beside me, the incredible bonding continued, for what we later estimated was another 25 minutes or so.

But we had to go. Darkness had started to fall, and despite the fact that she continued to look at me, I knew I had to start back up to the lodge.

So I said something innocuous to her, speaking very quietly. I thanked her for coming to find me, said a few more soft phrases, and then I started toward the stairs. I turned around to look, for one last look, and she was still there, watching through the opening, watching something, feeling something.

An experience I'll never forget.

[The photos (with captions) of our time with the elephants at Tsavo East can be seen at Tsavo East National Park (AB) - the parenthetical initials simply mean that these were taken by Andrew, as I was too busy communing with the elephants.]