AAHH Paris!! What is to be said? As per the sub-title, it is “Capital of the World”.
No other city measures up to its totality – in beauty, vibrancy, and sense of history.
This book discusses many of the features we associate with Paris:
Paris as revolution
Paris as history
Paris as modernism
Paris as urban alienation
Paris as crime
Paris as shopping centre (what can you not buy or see in Paris)
Paris as science (it was the center of science in the first half of the 19th century)
Paris as culture (museums, opera...)
Paris in literature
Paris as culinary delight (the modern a la carte restaurant started there!)
Paris as ART (think of art trends – romanticism, impressionism, surrealism, cubism; from before the French Revolution until the Nazi takeover in 1940 – if one was an artist, Paris was the ultimate destination)
All and more are discussed in this book - including a comparison with both London and New York. The main focus is on 19th century Paris. One chapter is on French writers of Paris: Balzac, Beaudelaire, and Zola.
The positive and negative are brought out – urban renewal by Haussman versus urban alienation.
Paris was a magnet that drew major historical figures to live there – Karl Marx, Chopin... various Americans from Benjamin Franklin to Josephine Baker.
One interesting point is that the government always subsidized art works.
Page 250 (my book)
“even an authoritarian, militaristic regime like the Second Empire found its ideal expression and architectural culmination in the Palais de l’Opera [or Palais Garnier] rather than a simple palais or, better yet in a system of military defenses.”
Think of that – the Opera Garnier is still there today being admired by millions of passersby.
“the state sponsorship of art was one of the few things about which everyone agreed during a century when France knew two empires, two monarchies, and three republics... Each regime, regardless of its political coloration, saw protection of the arts as part of its political vocation.”
The paintings, books, buildings, sculptures that emanated from this era are revered today.
On this the author makes two important points. State sponsorship did not imply state control (as lets say in Stalinist Russia) – there was a gifted populace who criticized and applauded these works at the public exhibitions – and many were purchased. And we know only of the painters today, but behind them was a vast schooling system (the state supported L’Ecole des Beaux Arts) of teachers, models, exhibitors, agents and buyers, who, all in their own way, encouraged the painters.
If one is in love with Paris this is a fine book, but a few caveats –
The writing often shifts time periods, going back and forth – sometimes on the same page. I found this annoying.
The writing can be wordy (overly intellectualized). As in
Page 281 (discussing Beaudelaire)
“in the new capitalistic society of commodity fetishism and spectacles, this moralistic, neo-Christian, allegorical representation of sin no longer carried conviction.”
A minor point is that the author discusses paintings and buildings of which we see hardly any in the wonderful illustrations in this book.