August 21, 2015 § 3 Comments
In my tour of my previous homes in London last year, I left one out: the first. The student house in Bloomsbury where I passed the first six months of what I had no inkling at the time would turn out to be a sojourn in London that, although somewhat broken up by moves to France and the States, has now passed the ten-year mark.
I left it out for a very simple reason – it’s hard to go home again if you’ve never actually left. In contrast to Harringay, Stoke Newington and Highbury, Bloomsbury has never ceased to be part of the tapestry that makes up my London. Although I was only ever a student at UCL for six months, it’s a rare fortnight that I don’t end up in Bloomsbury at least once, whether to visit a museum or a library, spend longer than I planned browsing in a bookshop (especially if it’s the London Review Bookshop, which would definitely make my list of the Ten Most Dangerous Bookshops in London… hmm, maybe that’s for a future post), or go to the cinema. I pass my old house all the time and give it a fond glance every time I do, but this familiarity means it lacks the unsettling charge of any of my other old haunts.
However, this year I thought was a fitting one for a return, if only because it marks fifteen years since I first landed in London. I had originally intended to go for my psychogeographical wander on 5 January, which was the actual anniversary, but because I’d had to postpone my holiday trip to the States by a week because, thanks to the negligence of some low-level civil servant, I hadn’t received my renewed visa in time (thanks a lot, Home Office!) I found myself still in sunny California on that day (don’t get me wrong, there are worse places to be). I then thought about doing it in June, which was the month I left, but I couldn’t remember the exact date and I didn’t want to commemorate what had been a wrenchingly sad occasion (I’d stayed up the better part of the night before I left in floods of tears; a tad melodramatic, yes, but at that point I thought I would never see London again).
So, in the end, I settled on a random Sunday in August with no particular significance. Such is life…
My first glimpse of London (not counting Heathrow and the stretch of dreary suburbia along the Piccadilly line between it and Hammersmith) was the bottom of Tottenham Court Road just outside the Tube station, so I decide to recreate my first day in London by starting there.
Of all points on the path to my old house, this end of Tottenham Court Road has undergone the most radical changes; less jarring to me because they’ve occurred under my eyes over a number of years, but if I truly had been away for fifteen years and was only seeing it afresh for the first time, I’d be shocked.
The old Tottenham Court Road station was one of the grottier Underground stations (though I had no way of knowing this that first day, having nothing to compare it to – in any case, the Chicago subway was hundreds of times nastier, so it looked palatial to me), but I distinctly remember that when it spat me out onto the pavement – grubby and horribly jet-lagged after my first transatlantic flight, dragging what felt like all my earthly possessions in two suitcases and a messenger bag like a particularly overloaded snail, but so abuzz with joyful anticipation that my very nerve endings were alight – that grotty, noisy, traffic-choked intersection with its unglamorous shops and smoke-blackened facades looked like paradise. On the northwest corner there was a Virgin Megastore (long gone), on the southeast corner a skyscraper that looked like a cheese grater on Miracle-Grow (a skyscraper in London? I was confused; I thought they were a uniquely American phenomenon), on the southwest corner a tourist-fleecing greasy spoon called Dionysus at which I ate the worst fish and chips of my life that first evening, and beyond that, the legendary Astoria.
Now all of that is gone (well, not the skyscraper, although it’s covered in scaffolding), ploughed under by Crossrail. The new station entrance is slick and spacious, which can only be a good thing, but I can’t help mourning the passing of the Astoria (though not Dionysus). I recently came across an article in Time Out on the twenty-eight signs that you’re a true Londoner and number six was ‘You direct people using buildings that no longer exist as landmarks. “Oh it’s straight past the Swiss Centre, left at the end and then right at Astoria. You’re welcome!”’ Guilty, guilty!
As I stride past the Dominion Theatre (which had Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake when I first arrived but now has Michael Flatley’s latest extravaganza, talk about going from the sublime to the ridiculous) I can’t help seeing my twenty-year-old self tagging along beside me – exhausted, bedraggled, weighed down by luggage, naïve and shy, gawking at everything in sight, clad in head-to-toe Old Navy, which was more or less the official uniform at my university. (I returned from my two terms at UCL with a handful of dresses and skirts and a pair of pretty sandals – the first to grace my wardrobe in years – and the most frequent comment back in St Louis was ‘Ooh, you look so European now.’ It was never clear whether this was meant as a compliment or a criticism.)
How I’ve changed – outwardly, inwardly. The naïveté and shyness have gradually given way to confidence and comfort in my own skin; the terrible clothes to something that better reflects who I am. Today I’m wearing oxblood Bolongaro Trevor jeans. Fifteen years ago there was very little red in my wardrobe; now it’s one of the dominant hues. It’s a colour that exudes confidence, but you have to be confident to begin with to pull off wearing it.
Great Russell Street, in stark contrast, looks much the same as today as it did back then. The artists’ supplier, L. Cornelissen & Son, is still there and the window display looks as marvellously, defiantly old-fashioned as ever (mahl sticks, no less!). The restaurants and hotels and newsagents, too, all more or less unchanged.
Bloomsbury Street, too, has changed very little. Not so Bedford Square, but in this case the change is decidedly for the better: fifteen years ago it was the eye of a whirlpool of traffic; about ten years ago it was redone to make it more pedestrian-friendly.
Bedford Square exerted a strange fascination on me back then. That beautiful oasis of green and sylvan quiet in the midst of a severe grey Georgian square – but encircled by an impenetrable fence of iron palings that had been there so long that some of the larger trees at the perimeter had actually grown around them. I ached to get in there and revel in the green silence. One of my UCL friends was exceptionally tall and I hit upon the clever plan of getting him to hoist me over the fence on his shoulders; ‘all right,’ he said, clearly amused when I explained it to him, ‘how are you planning on getting out again?’ As I didn’t know anyone with a key and I didn’t really want my time in London to end with me in jail for attempted lock-picking and trespass, I had to abandon my plans. Instead I imagined the garden tended by a brother of Oscar Wilde’s Selfish Giant who had the reverse problem (he wanted to let children in to play, but couldn’t; it was eternally spring in his garden while it was winter outside) and wrote a poem about it which was very, very bad indeed, so I won’t subject anyone to it by posting it here.
Gower Street – my street – starts just the other side of Bedford Square. Almost every other building has a blue plaque on it, and the first one I saw denoted the house in which the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood was founded in 1848. I was dumbstruck the first time I saw it. Some of my favourite artists (indeed, partly responsible for my ultimately deciding to desert English for art history) had actually gathered here, in this unassuming house that looked no different from its neighbours, to throw down a gauntlet to the establishment! The irony was that, back in 2000, said house was occupied by the London Computer Centre, something which I imagine would have had all the artists (and probably John Everett Millais’s father, whose house it was) turning in their graves. Today it’s empty, between owners. I hold out the vague (and probably vain) hope that the next tenant is one somewhat more congenial to the memory of the prior occupants.
Little else has changed in Gower Street. Most of the houses on the east side of the street are still occupied by various departments of UCL or other colleges of the University of London (the Art Deco façade of RADA is still my favourite). The Totalitarian Deco monstrosity that is Senate House (Orwell’s model for the Ministry of Truth in 1984, and it’s obvious why) still looms at the end of Keppel Street. (It remains my least favourite academic library in London, one I tend to view as a last resort.)
The mansion block in Ridgmount Gardens in which I used to fantasise about living someday is still there – although I suspect the price of a flat in there now hovers around a million. Oh well, it’s nice to dream…
The neo-Gothic fantasy that is Waterstones still holds court over Torrington Place. When I first arrived in London, it had only just become a Waterstones and most of the price stickers still said ‘Dillons’. Waterstones/Dillons was a two-minute walk from my house. This was dangerous in the extreme – not only for my bank balance but also for the sheer number of hours I could happily while away there when I should have been working on an essay. I blame it for at least a couple of the all-nighters I pulled.
I have the same attitude to bookshops in London as James Joyce had to pubs in Dublin (‘good puzzle would be cross Dublin without passing a pub’ – the solution being to stop into every one on one’s route) so I pop in for old times’ sake and come out feeling quite sad. The place is a mess. Whole sections are empty, or very sparse. It looks as if it’s in the midst of a transitional period, and I can only hope it comes out the other side looking more like its old self.
The building opposite Waterstones used to be the Engineering School lecture theatre, which I got to know very well not for engineering reasons, but because that happened to be where the University College Opera rehearsed. I was part of it (student chorus, professional soloists and conductor, revivals of obscure operas) and had the time of my life. The production we put on that year was that star in the European operatic firmament, an early 20th-century verismo opera called The Jewels of the Madonna which is seldom performed (and notorious) because, among other reasons, the third act features an on-stage orgy. Yes, you read that right.
UCL has undergone a massive programme of new building and general spiffing up in the last decade and a half, so the old lecture theatre is no more. The new Engineering School is smart and state-of-the-art but I can’t help feeling a twinge of nostalgia for the ramshackle old one.
Around the corner is Foster Court, still home of the English department, scarcely changed (at least on the outside) from my time there. It’s shut (Sunday out of term-time, what did I expect?) but its walls hold a lot of happy memories. Seminars on the contemporary Scottish novel (which I signed up for because I couldn’t get over the fact that we got to read Trainspotting – for class!) led by a young postdoc whose soft-spoken diffidence clashed hilariously with the gusto with which she quoted profanity-riddled passages of Irvine Welsh and James Kelman. Seminars on Jane Austen led by the wonderful John Mullan (of whose stature I had no idea at the time, silly me). Tutorials – tough, bracing, always fascinating – with my tutor, the marvellously and aptly-named Alison Light. (She’s retired now and writing full-time, which is a loss for UCL but a gain for the rest of the world.)
And finally, on to my old house.
It looks more or less exactly as it did when I lived there; my room faces onto the street but the curtains are drawn. Not that there’d be much to see right now, as it’s probably empty, waiting its next set of occupants. (One of the previous ones after my time there was, by spooky coincidence, one of my cousins.) The interior wouldn’t have won any design awards – it looked as if it hadn’t been redecorated since the Second World War (literally – there were even chips of blackout paint still clinging stubbornly to the windows, if you looked close enough). And yet of all the student accommodation I lived in as an undergraduate, I was by far the happiest there. I’d shared the room with an English and dance major from Emory who, on paper, I should not have got on with at all (socially confident, loud, bit of a pothead) but she ended up being the best college roommate I ever had. We tolerated each others’ differences with respect and humour, lent each other books, shared trips to the theatre and made the rounds of most of the cheap curry houses in Drummond Street. We lost touch after we left London, but I recently looked her up and was thrilled to see that, in spite of fierce parental opposition (which was why she was studying English as well as dance) she’s built a successful career as a dancer and choreographer.
I’m almost at the end of my wanderings. I put my head into the main quad of UCL and make a quick detour to the other side of Tottenham Court Road to see if the newsagent where I bought many a late-night Cadbury bar to help power me through an essay is still there (it is!) before ambling back past my old house.
It is an unwritten rule that any psychogeographical exploration of one’s past should end with coffee and cake, and this is where one of the more welcome changes in Bloomsbury becomes apparent. Back when I first lived there, there was a conspicuous lack of cafés. All right, that’s not strictly true – there were a handful of cafés in that peculiarly English mould with cold cases full of sandwich fixings and a few rickety tables and chairs, where you could count on a decent pot of tea but you’d only order coffee if you were feeling adventurous (read: foolhardy). It was a bit of a jolt coming from St Louis, where a lot of my social life was conducted in coffeehouses, partly because I was underage but mostly because my friends and I just liked them. In London I was suddenly old enough to enter a pub, and I ended up spending a lot of time in them with my opera friends, but I couldn’t help longing for good coffee. At the time, the only place nearby that offered something resembling it was the Caffe Nero in Tottenham Court Road (now one of four or five).
Now Store Street boasts not one but three excellent cafés. After a bit of debate, I choose Store Street Espresso and I’m not disappointed. (But, reader, do not abandon common sense like I did and order a matcha cookie along with your cold-brew coffee. The cookie is delicious. So is the coffee. Together, it’s a recipe for an almighty headache.)
I kept a journal during that first six months (which now makes excruciating reading) and as I head back toward Tottenham Court Road station, my brain rattling with the caffeine overdose, one sentence I wrote that first night comes back to me: ‘Every paving stone here is fascinating.’ (I’m not sure, but I think I might possibly have underlined most of the words.) Coming ‘home’ has been salutary, and not only because, unlike the other three of my former London homes, Bloomsbury’s memories are of almost pure happiness. It’s also reminded me to pay more attention to what has now become ordinary and everyday. To not take for granted what a continually surprising and wondrous place I live in.
I might not be that unworldly and easily impressed twenty-year-old anymore. But I haven’t entirely lost my sense of wonder. I hope I never will.
August 13, 2015 § 4 Comments
Well, it’s finally happened.
I have become one of those obsessives who stalks eBay in search of expired film. There are currently a couple of rolls of twelve-year-old Fuji Velvia slide film in the door of my fridge, keeping the eggs and a knob of ginger company while they wait to be taken out for a spin.
I used the first roll on a trip to Broadway Market, not coincidentally the first place I tried out my then-new Diana three years ago. But Broadway Market and my camera don’t seem to be the best of pals. The first time I didn’t have a clue what I was doing, and the film was too fast for my taste (and therefore grainy… REALLY grainy. That was the first and last time I used 800). This time I shot the whole roll and then, as I was putting the camera back in its case, realised I’d had it on the wrong aperture setting the entire time. But there was nothing for it but to get the film developed and see what would happen.
Most of the shots, predictably, are too dark. But there were a few worth saving…
I’m not discouraged; I’ll go back and try again. Third time lucky…?
(Technical specs: Diana F+ camera, Fuji Velvia 50 slide film (cross-processed), standard lens)
July 31, 2015 § Leave a comment
A few photos from the evening before my madcap Five-Church Dash…
June 23, 2015 § 3 Comments
I didn’t end up going to Krakow last week after all. (Don’t worry, things worked out for the best – I’ll be going in August, on holiday [which also means several days’ hiking in the Tatras] rather than for work, which I think is a better result!) However, I can’t complain too much as instead, I ended up going to… Florence.
My first – and only previous – trip to Florence was fifteen years ago, part of my first travels around the Continent. I adored every minute of my stay but never made it back again (studies and work kept pulling me to France and Belgium; holidays, for whatever reason, never involved Italy). So when I had the chance for a two-day work trip to Florence, I was determined to make the most of it.
That first visit, as was the case with every other city I visited on that trip, was a breathless dash from museum to monument to museum; I was only twenty, hardly travelled, and fuelled as much by fear that it would be my one and only chance to see each city I passed through as I was by sheer passion for them. When I looked back over all I had packed into four days it made my head spin. The Uffizi, the Bargello, the Accademia, the Duomo (and its museum), the Baptistry, the Palazzo Medici, San Lorenzo, San Miniato, the Palazzo Pitti (and the Boboli Gardens), not to mention a daytrip to Siena… I thought, at the time, that I’d done it all. At least, the most important bits.
Of course, in the intervening years I realised there actually was quite a lot I missed. Mostly churches, as it turned out. And so, despite my determination to take things a little easier this time, yesterday turned into something rather extraordinary… a Five-Church Dash.
1. Santa Croce
Santa Croce is the obvious starting point – it’s a five-minute walk from my hotel and opens the earliest of the churches on my list. Unfortunately I can’t stand far enough back to gawk properly at the west front because the piazza is filled with bleachers (for the annual game of calcio storico, which I have never heard of before but later learn is like a cross between football and bare-knuckle boxing – no thanks!) but I like what I see – in fact I’m going to say something utterly sacrilegious: I prefer it to the Duomo. But the facade does little to prepare for the wonders inside…
Santa Croce is, among other things, Florence’s answer to the Pantheon – the burial place of the great and the good. Galileo, Dante, Michelangelo… the last of whom is the only one to really have a tomb worthy of him (designed by Vasari, no less). (Dante’s tomb is a hideous monstrosity that I will not dignify with photography. Grrr.) But I didn’t go there to look at tombs… I’m there for the frescoes:
It’s not all about frescoes, of course – there’s the Pazzi Chapel, too.
There was more as well – two cloisters, the sacristy, further chapels, a museum… don’t believe the signs at the ticket desk that say the visit takes 30-40 minutes. I was there for an hour and a half… and could happily have stayed longer if I hadn’t had to go off and do a bit of work.
2. The Brancacci Chapel – Santa Maria del Carmine
Santa Maria del Carmine’s not much to look at. Partly because the facade was never finished (it’s raw brick to this day), partly because a fire ripped through it in the late 18th century and destroyed most of the interior. However – by some miracle, no doubt – the best bit survived. The Brancacci Chapel.
The frescoes were started by Masolino and Masaccio, finished by Filippino Lippi. The former had loomed large in my college Intro to Art History textbook and I had mourned the missed chance to see them on that first trip; the latter I knew nothing about and were a complete revelation…
I end up staying in the chapel for an hour. Excessive, maybe, just going by its diminutive scale, but I had to wait fifteen years to see it.
3. Santa Maria Novella
It’s 3 pm when I finally emerge from Sta Maria del Carmine, and the next church on my list, Ognissanti, doesn’t reopen until 4. What am I going to do with the hour in between? I could have a gelato (and I do, from the Gelateria La Carraia, which I can heartily recommend), but it’s certainly not going to take an hour to eat.
Santa Maria Novella isn’t too far from Ognissanti, though, and although I’m pretty sure I saw it on my first trip it wouldn’t hurt to have a wander past. But when I get there, I’m suddenly seized by doubt. It actually doesn’t look that familiar. Did I really visit it, or did I confuse it with the many, many other churches I tore through? Well, I’ve got time and thanks to my ICOM membership the ticket’s free, so no harm done in having a look round, right?
The second I step through the door, I’m glad for my moment of uncertainty. The Crucifixion by Masaccio certainly looks familiar, but I realise that’s only because I’ve seen so many photos of it. The rest of the church is new to me. And glorious.
But one of the best, by an artist I’m much less familiar with, is hiding in the chapter house:
I stumble, blinking, out of Sta Maria Novella; it’s just after 4 pm and Ognissanti should be open now.
It’s a handsome church, much smaller than any of the above, but it apparently contains frescoes by Ghirlandaio and Botticelli. Sadly, ‘apparently’ turns out to be the key word. The Botticelli fresco, which depicts St Augustine, is down for conservation and has been replaced by a photographic facsimile. The Ghirlandaio frescoes are… well, okay, but the ones in Sta Maria Novella are a hard act to follow:
I’m being unfair to Ghirlandaio, of course. His best work is a Last Supper in the refectory… which is closed. As is a chapel dedicated to St Francis, which is roped off but affords tantalising and frustrating glimpses of more frescoes. One to return to…
5. Santissima Annunziata
I’m starting to question the wisdom of trying to fit five churches into a single day. It’s late in the day, the heat is stifling, my feet are starting to ache, and SS Annunziata is quite a distance (well, at least for Florence) from Ognissanti. But… it is also full of frescoes. With a difference. Mannerist frescoes. And anyone who knows me knows that I have a serious soft spot for Florentine Mannerism. Le beau est toujours bizarre... (I’ve no idea if Baudelaire had Rosso, Pontormo et al. in mind when he wrote that, but I like to think he did.)
So I bravely trudge north, pushing through the crowds around the Duomo and heaving a sigh of relief when I reach less touristed streets. SS Annunziata faces onto a quiet square whose slightly worn beauty is all the easier to appreciate for the near-total emptiness – people are outnumbered by birds.
Unfortunately, as soon as I cross the threshold I run smack into scaffolding. The cloister, which is where most of the best frescoes are, is entirely covered up. Restoration works, it appears. I press on, hoping things will improve in the nave, but no such luck. The church itself is one of those heavy, oppressive Baroque affairs, all dark stone, gilding and overblown carving, that must once have been loved because there are so many of its type in Italy; it’s so poorly lit that it’s all but impossible to make out any frescoes in the chapels. I’m about to throw up my hands in despair when I see a door leading outside – presumably to another cloister.
No more joy there. There’s a single, recently restored fresco by Andrea del Sarto above the door:
There are further frescoes in the lunettes on the other side of the courtyard. Naturally, they’re all roped off:
I leave feeling rather downhearted, but once I’ve sat down and caught my breath in the piazza, I realise this is a good thing, for two reasons:
-I have probably narrowly avoided Stendhal Syndrome. Hot and tired? Yes. Dizzy, lightheaded, suffering heart palpitations brought on by aesthetic overload? No. (Although it will probably take a while for all the day’s impressions to filter through, and I’m sure my dreams will be filled with frescoes tonight. And I’m also sure it has something to do with the fact that a single glass of wine with dinner makes me surprisingly tipsy…)
-I have an excellent reason to come back!
Dashing around five churches in a single day probably (okay, make that definitely) isn’t the most relaxing way to see Florence. But getting to see a much less touristy side of the city, through a very different lens, is an experience I can recommend to anyone.
Just bring comfortable shoes. And lots of loose change for gelato. You’ll need it.
May 28, 2015 § 2 Comments
This is the second roll of film I shot in Barcelona, on the roof of the Casa Mila. Unlike the Parc Guëll, black and white felt like a more logical choice to capture the marvellous otherworldliness of the chimneyscape.
(Fun bit of trivia – the shiny black bits atop the group of chimneys in the centre are shards of cava bottles.)
Yes, you can look down or to the side at any time and see Barcelona spread out reassuringly before you. But it still feels like being on another planet…
(Technical specs: Diana F+ camera, Lady Grey 400 black and white film, 38mm super-wide angle lens)
May 13, 2015 § 1 Comment
I went to Barcelona over Easter (how long ago it seems already!) and took my Diana with me… along with two rolls of black and white film. It seemed a bit perverse to even consider shooting Gaudi’s architecture in monochrome, but I was curious to see what might happen.
The first roll I shot at the Parc Guëll, but the weather – and time – weren’t on my side. The last time I visited Barcelona, fifteen years ago, you could just waltz into the park whenever you wanted… since then they’ve introduced timed tickets, and we showed up mid-afternoon to find that the next available tickets were for 7 pm. So by the time we finally entered the park, the light was soft and diffuse, that magic hour when shadows seem to disappear.
So here’s the Parc Guëll not as it’s normally seen (and photographed), as a riot of colour and sunshine – but black and white, in a minor key.
(Technical specs: Diana F+ camera, Lady Grey 400 black and white film, 38mm super-wide angle lens)
April 21, 2015 § 3 Comments
I’ve now been to Paris so many times that I’ve stopped counting (please, no sympathy), and one of the less desirable effects of this familiarity is that I have a tendency to fall into a bit of a rut. It’s so tempting to keep returning to my favourite places, which in itself isn’t a bad thing but means that I risk missing out on what I’ve yet to discover (and despite my feeling that I know Paris like the back of my hand, I know there’s a lot more). So for the last several years, every time I go to Paris I make a point of doing or seeing one thing I’ve never done or seen before.
Years ago, when I was a Paris neophyte, I remember reading the Rough Guide’s description of the Ile Saint-Louis as (I’m paraphrasing here) ‘the only corner of Paris without a museum, unless you count a very small museum devoted to the Polish poet Adam Mickiewicz which is rarely ever open.’ I wasn’t remotely tempted at the time (although I was mildly intrigued as to why the museum existed in the first place, and in that particular location), but last month, three months before my first ever trip to Poland (of which more in June!), I got to thinking about it again and thought well, why not?
It turns out that the Musée Adam Mickiewicz is one of three miniature museums housed in the Bibliothèque Polonaise de Paris. The other two are devoted to Frédéric Chopin (unsurprisingly) and the painter and sculptor Bolesław Biegas (whom I knew only from a single sculpture in the Musée d’Orsay). And the Rough Guide hadn’t been kidding about the opening hours (or the lack thereof) – it is, annoyingly, only open afternoons, Tuesday-Friday.
Whether because of the obscurity of the subject or the location or the abbreviated hours, I found myself in an unheard-of position one Friday several weeks ago – I was the only visitor. To all three museums. The young woman who sold me a ticket looked so discomfited to see an actual visitor that I couldn’t help but feel sorry for her. (We had a very stilted exchange in French until I figured out that she was Canadian and she realised I was American and a bit of awkwardness was averted.)
The first of the three museums I visited was the one dedicated to Chopin. It’s a single room filled with prints, photographs, medals and sculptures of the man himself (plus his death mask and, more intriguing to me, a life cast of his hands – I was surprised to discover that they were scarcely larger than mine)… and the Pleyel piano given to him by a generous patron which he used for much of his time in Paris. There was a stereo in the corner playing (what else?) one of his nocturnes. I could very happily have stayed there with his piano and his music and not seen anything else, but I knew I had two more museums ahead.
I must admit that before I set foot in the museum, my knowledge of Adam Mickiewicz was minuscule. It could be summed up as follows:
1. He was Poland’s leading Romantic poet.
2. His masterpiece was Pan Tadeusz, an epic poem that is required reading in Polish schools and which starts with the words ‘O Lithuania!’ (which tells you all you need to know about how many times Poland’s boundaries got redrawn and/or erased over the 123 years during which it technically ceased to exist).
3. There is a big monument to him on the Rynek in Krakow.
4. He had quite possibly the best hair of any Romantic poet. Ever. (Lord Byron, eat your heart out.)
I’m glad I visited the museum because I found out what a fascinating and complex character he was – poet, literature professor (at the Collège de France), librarian (at the Bibliothèque de l’Arsenal where I spent so many hours as a PhD student, with no idea whatsoever of his presence), political agitator (hence more than 20 years as an exile in Paris, along with many other Polish intellectuals), diplomat… I came out of it wanting to know more about him, but more to the point, wanting to read some of his poetry. (If anyone can recommend a good translation, please do!) The only caveat – the wall texts were in Polish and French, no English… so if you have neither language, enlightenment will elude you.
As for the Musée Bolesław Biegas… the only thing I can reasonably say is that entering this small and overcrowded room full of sphinxes, vampires, crucified Christs and multicoloured femmes fatales is like entering the Twilight Zone. Only weirder. He is easily one of the most bizarre artists I’ve ever encountered (Surrealist seems too mild a label) – bizarre and… well… not very good. I was astonished to learn that at one time his sculptures commanded higher prices than those of Rodin (!) although I assume that was for a brief moment only. I was also rather saddened by the thought that anyone without prior knowledge of 19th-century Polish art who visits the museum might emerge with a very skewed view of it – which is such a shame when you consider how much more talented so many of his contemporaries were (Mehoffer, Wyspiański, Pankiewicz, Malczewski… yes, I realise they’re not exactly household names but all the same!). That said, if my lonely experience was at all typical, perhaps not very many people ever discover Biegas in the first place.
And so I eventually emerged from the Bibliothèque Polonaise feeling happily melancholy (Chopin), enlightened (Mickiewicz) and a bit freaked out (Biegas). I can’t honestly say it’s a must-see for a first-time visitor to Paris (or someone without a decent reading knowledge of French or Polish), but for a repeat visitor, it was an interesting discovery – and for me, a nice prelude to my trip to Krakow. On which, more later…