Impression, Sunset

Thursday, June 14, 2012 /by

PsThere’s no transition from clay to grass. One season simply becomes the next season a few hours later. I’m ready to make the trip from red to green myself. I love how the sport can go from the expanse of Chatrier one day to the makeshift main court at Queens Club the next, from wars of attrition to clipped duels of serves and returns. I’ll be writing about all of that soon. For today, though, I’m going to steer clear of tennis and wrap up my French Open trip with some personal notes from three weeks in Paris.

No amount of time spent there can be summed up strictly as a “work trip.” That said, the time I spent this year didn’t feel especially Parisian. The main reason was that I didn’t ride the metro from the hotel to the site as often as I had in the past—the press van was more convenient, but offered a lot less local flavor. The second reason was my hotel’s location. In the past I've stayed in centrally located Montparnasse, in a room with a small balcony, with a view of the Sacre Coeur to the right and the Eiffel Tower to the left.

That view was an experience of the city in itself, especially in the evening, when there was still light left at 11:00 P.M. Despite switching hotels this year, it was so ingrained in my imagination of the city that I assumed I would have it again, and I began to prepare a “Crazy-Long Paris Sunset” playlist (“I’m a Fool to Want You” by Dexter Gordon and “I See Your Face Before Me,” by Hank Mobley both work exceptionally well, just so you know). This time, though, instead of the Eiffel Tower, I got a highway; it might even qualify as “an especially ugly highway.” By the middle of the tournament, there were no more sunsets, either. The sun had ceased to appear in the first place.

As for other adventures, 12 hours a day at Roland Garros didn’t leave that much time for them. The first one I had planned, a trip to Chartres before the tournament got started, was scrapped when I realized the draw was going to be made that day. Who needed a world-historic site when there were semifinal predictions to be made? Plus, the book I was consulting on the subject, by Henry Adams, told me, “For a first visit to Chartres, choose some pleasant morning when the lights are soft, for the cathedral has moods, at times severe.” I wasn’t sure, looking outside at the highway, that anything qualified as “soft” that morning.

The next day, though, I did fit in my first trip to the revamped Musée d’Orsay. Last year, the 19th century paintings were jammed into a few rooms on the first floor. It made for quite a greatest hits package. Everywhere you turned there was a masterpiece staring you in the face; there seemed barely to be room for “Whistler’s Mother,” which was shunted to a back hallway on the way to the bathrooms. Now, though, the Manets and Renoirs and Cezannes and Monets and Van Goghs and their lesser cousins are spaced out in rooms with dark blue walls. I’m not sure I’d seen that color before on a museum wall before, but it works. Two things struck me about the art itself: (1) Gauguin, for the moment, seems to be unfairly overshadowed by the now-titanic reputation of his friend Van Gogh; and (2) It was the simpler works by the big names that stood out. A rich green sous-bois scene by Cezanne; a tiny boat on the sea by Manet; a still river that mirrors the sky by Monet. Maybe because I’d never seen these reproduced, they looked fresh to my eyes. It’s odd to think that in this ornate edifice of art, it’s these unassuming pieces that seem most worth seeking out; odder still, perhaps, is that we come to the middle of a modern city to look at quiet pictures of nature from more than a century ago.

As for the last of the masters mentioned above, Monet, there’s plenty more of him in Paris. For a few years now, my colleague Chris Clarey from the Herald-Tribune has recommended the Musée Marmottan, a small, Frick-like collection lodged in a private home a few blocks from Roland Garros. One rainy morning, before either the women’s semis or final, I ducked out of the tournament and walked over. The museum has Monet's, Impression, Sunrise, which inspired the name Impressionism (it was stolen from the Marmottan in 1985 but recovered in 1990). There are a dozen other excellent paintings of the artist's here, of varied subjects and styles, culminating with a large canvas from the year of Monet’s death of a set of branches and buds. What a gift, you think as you look at it, to have been able to keep creating images and objects, finding and transforming what he saw around him, for so long.

Finally, the morning of the men’s final, under low clouds, I made my first visit to the Pompidou, the giant post-modern slab in Les Halles that was built in 1977 and is showing its age. What must have been an initial glow of surprise when it was constructed—essentially, the inside of the building is on the outside—has been dulled by the years, and the grime that’s collected on its glass exterior.

Still, the place was packed and a line threaded out the front door. Two major exhibitions were crossing paths that weekend: Matisse was closing soon, and Gerhard Richter had just opened. I was interested in both, but the wait for Matisse was far too long, so Richter it was.

I wish I had had twice as much time, and it had been half as crowded, because there was a career’s worth of the eminent German painter and photographer’s work to wade through. As with most contemporary art, it isn’t just there to be looked at; it’s there to be thought about. The impetus for Richter’s career seems to have been his reaction in the mid-60s against Duchamp’s idea of art as anything. Richter began by taking photographers and adding his own treatments to them, and there’s a fuzzy balance in his work between the abstract and the artist’s touch; half the time I wasn't sure if his pieces were photos, or paintings, or paintings on top of photos. He works well in gray. Unfortunately, Richter began to paint in color in the 1980s, an era whose deliberate garishness I usually don’t like.

Favorites: Early, murky cloud paintings; landscape photos that he then painted; a dark and haunting (there’s no other word) roomful of black works that chronicle the downfall of Germany’s Baader-Meinhof left-wing terrorist group from the 70s—the adolescent absurdity of their actions and their deaths is made clear, brilliantly, by a shot of a record player at the start of the chronology. Though there was nothing here that I liked as much as the towering dark-blue mirrors of Richter's that are housed at Dia: Beacon in upstate New York—there’s something melancholy about them, if mirrors can be melancholy. Best to me at the Pompidou were some words of his quoted at the end of the exhibit. Richter said that his goal when he paints is to try to do something that goes "beyond" how we normally think of ourselves. A simple but helpful line for anyone trying to create anything on a daily basis.

*****

Anyway, that’s my art story for this year’s Paris trip; I think I’ve managed to make it sound more boring than it was. So let me get back to tennis. I’ll finish with a quick but to me inspiring story about a colleague of mine, the aforementioned Chris Clarey of the Herald-Tribune and New York Times, from this year’s tournament. Chris has been coming to the French Open for far longer than I have—21 years, I think—but it’s nice to know he can still find his old love for the sport, even after two decades of making it his job. On a late afternoon in the middle of the tournament, we went out to watch some of Raonic and Monaco from up close on Court 2. It was everything we’d hoped it would be; hard-hitting, close, with a good crowd. At one point, Chris left the press seats at the side and appeared a few minutes later on the concrete ledge that overlooks the court. He was also a big fan of the old Crow’s Nest at Wimbledon, a recently demolished area on top of a scoreboard where you could look down on Courts 2 and 3.

Afterward, Chris came back into the press room and said, “What a match.” There wasn’t all that much response, which wasn't surprising. As usual, people were busy writing, listening to interviews, watching other matches. So Chris walked over to his desk and said it again, to no one in particular. I agreed with him, to myself, as I typed up a piece on a totally different subject. Part of the appeal of Raonic-Monaco for me was that I wasn't writing about it—I could enjoy it in a way that I rarely get to enjoy a tennis match now, as a fan, without having to analyze it and take notes on it. But Chris was writing about it, and by winning Monaco had ruined his plan to preview a much-anticipated Raonic-Nadal showdown in the next round.

It’s nice to know that you can, two decades on, still love what you do for the simple reasons you loved it in the first place. To be able to say, to a friend or a colleague or even just to yourself, “What a match."

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