A corner of Paris that is forever Poland
April 21, 2015 § 4 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…