Monday, July 16, 2012

Bones, Bones and More Bones

On this visit to Paris we succeeded in visiting a location that we had attempted to visit on several prior occasions, the Catacombs. On our prior attempts we had arrived there by metro only to be told that it had been closed due to vandalism. This time we could easily walk there from our hotel and realized that the line around the block signified it was open.

One of our rainy Paris mornings soon found us at the end of that line. About three hours later we stood ready to enter the portals that are inscribed "ArrĂȘte! C'est ici l'empire de la Mort (Halt! This is the Empire of the Dead)". Now the reason we were so persistent in attempting to gain entrance despite those words of warning was a personal one. My husband, Martin Arend, is also an artist and had done a piece on the Catacombs for a project with a group of artists who each did a painting on one of the movements of Mussorgsky's composition "Pictures at an Exhibition" (see above). He did the one on the Catacombs and had worked from pictures, but was interested in viewing the real thing.

The Catacombs are an underground ossuary that holds the bones of six million Parisians dating back to the 1700s. The city was once filled with churchyards where burials occurred and over time the cemeteries filled. The resulting decay presented a health problem for the city so they moved the bones from Paris cemeteries to a former quarry.

To enter the Catacombs we went down about 170 steps and walked through a lengthy tunnel. Then we continued through a winding tunnel bordered with skulls and femurs often forming artistic arrangements. Broken skulls resembled pottery and French sayings on mortality were embossed in the walls. A very eerie place indeed.

After catching our breath from our climb out of the Catacombs, we stopped for a meal of crepes. Our continuing tour of typical French food now includes tarte tatin, cassoulet, duck confit, croque monsieur and of course frites. When in Paris do as the Parisians.

Later in the day we went to the Pompidou which has an extraordinary permanent collection. They also had a special exhibition of one of my favorite artists, Gerhard Richter. I knew segments of his work, but it is always a rare treat to see a cross-section of work and appreciate the evolution of the current work. I chuckled when I saw a painting of a skull. Two things especially intrigued me. Remember the Utrillo white period of which I wrote? Richter also made use of white in many of his works, often layering it over colors and scraping it away to reveal the colors beneath.  As I often use white within some of my work, I came away with an appreciation of how it can be used to create a powerful painting. As a family historian who has painted her family history, I was also intrigued by Richter's use of family photos as source material for paintings. He had one of his uncle Rudy in his National Socialist uniform as well as an aunt who was euthanized by the Nazis due to schizophrenia, a complex family history in his unique blurred style. Viewing other artwork always brings new perspective to my own work and makes me anxious to get back to painting upon my return.

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