In the footsteps of Christian Louboutin

L’Exibition(niste) – is a play of words with the English word ‘exhibition’ and the word ‘exhibitionist’. This famous French shoe creator is showing his art in the Palais de la Porte Dorée, Paris, for the first time.

There’s a reason for France’s leading role as the handicraft’s Eldorado. Fashion and especially its haute couture have helped preserve these artisans that are so skilled at their professions. But what would they be without the creators and designers?

This February 26, 2020, I took the long subway drive to the other side of Paris to this Arts Deco palace, built in 1931. It’s an imposing building that used to host African and Oceanic works of art (now in Quai Branly) as well as an enormous aquarium – that’s still there in the basement – but has lately been renamed the Museum of Immigration. So what does shoes have to do with immigration? I pondered the question.

I was soon to find out that Christian Louboutin loves to travel and different cultures have inspired his creations, as displayed in this fascinating exhibition. Shoes are of course made to walk in, but his creations looked more like pieces to be exhibited rather than to be worn. They’re so intrinsically well embroidered, designed, assembled, coloured…

An imitation of a craftsman’s room is part of the exhibition and the layperson can follow the creation from it’s beginning, as a drawing on a piece of paper, to its final stage. Using unusual materials, such as fish skin or tree barks for example, and working closely together with other artists from the pop culture, dance, theatre or literature and even from the cinema. Just to mention a few of his collaborators: the photographer and filmmaker, David Lynch; Lisa Reihana video artist from New Zealand; the English designers Whitaker and Malem; the Spanish choreographer, Bianca Li.

In the first room, the visitor is introduced to the architecture of the place through colourful and fun glass windows, not depicting the usual Biblical scenes as found in churches, but shoes and boots. These are mixed with an array of shoes as well as drawings and designs.

In the middle of the “treasury” room an enormous crystal sculpture made in India is surrounded by shoes inspired from his travels. Then comes the “nudes” where Louboutin shows his inspiration of human skin to make shoes or boots looking like “a prolongation of one’s body”.

In the atelier, I learned, through video clips and utensils, about the shoe making skills. A Bhutanese theatre showing a spectacle pointed to his Asian inspiration.

After viewing a large video from New Zealand, I arrived in the “pop corridor” – covered in bright red and entirely mirrored – where, apart from pictures of movie stars wearing his shoes, his first men’s collection is displayed.

Of course, there can’t be a shoe exhibition without a blink towards the fondness of certain people towards fetishism. Finally the “imaginary museum” illustrates works of his most cherished artists.

An unforgettable image is one of the singer Aretha Franklin’s all dressed in red, wearing the famous fire-red Louboutins, which have become his fans favourite brand. “I was sitting in my atelier and saw my assistant’s red nail- polish and decided to try it under a black high heel shoe, added some varnish to it and that was it. I never thought that it would make a world-wide hit!” he admitted. But there you are, creativity and boldness can lead to unexpected results.

Art can be seen in everything, it’s a question of having the eye and the imagination. Then it takes the skill of course. Christian Louboutin has revealed that he masters them all. Craftsmanship has been disappearing in the Western world since the beginning of the industrial area, but it’s not too late to retrieve it, as haute couture shows.

Many women would die for just one pair of his shoes, and so would I, for sure! However as long as my valet doesn’t permit me such extravaganza, I enjoyed admiring them in the Palais de la Porte Dorée.

Anne Edelstam, Paris.  

Christian Louboutin: L’exhibitioniste

26 February – 26 July 2020

Palais de la Porte Dorée

293 Avenue Daumesnil

75012 Paris

Can love be explained scientifically?

The “discovery museum”, or Palais de la Découverte, is trying to answer that question with this unusual and fun exhibition. And what a better place to show it than in Paris, the “city of love”?

Affection love

After having passed by a giant vibrant and pulsating heart made out of feathers, to remind us of the emotions that love evokes in us, I entered the heart of the exhibition. Love is much more than passion though, as I discovered in the next room.

The English word “love” is vast and narrow at the same time. We may “love a spouse” and “love eating pizza” but the significance isn’t the same, is it? The exhibition therefore starts out by exploring the ancient Greek words for love:

eros – passion; storgê – family ties; agápê – unattached or spiritual love; philial – friendship, social ties.

These are then explained one by one through sculptures, paintings, teddy bears, installations, videos, poetry, love stories or legends. I walked through this labyrinth of objects, sounds, tales and music in awe.

Among the people representing agápê, Malala (who got the Nobel peace prize in 2014), Nelson Mandela and the lately so media exposed young Swedish girl, Greta Thunberg, were cited, among others.

As in spiritual love, it’s a giving of self that counts in agápê. We aren’t just bodies, but a mixture of spirit/soul, mind and body and all three must work together for true love to flourish and deepen, as older couples can testify of.

Unfortunately that’s a too often forgotten value in our consumption society where humans are easily objectified. The flipside of love is its use for a depreciatory purpose, such as it is in pornography or with sexual harassment, as has been highlighted in the recent MeToo movement.  

 Broken love

The second part of the exhibition concerns the scientific side of love through the works of sociologists, chemists, anthropologists and psychologists among others. It consists of doing tests and games to find out our level of empathy; how we react to online interactions and meetings; the consequences of lack or distorted childhood memories of parental love for example.

I discovered, in a short movie, that it’s the brain and not the heart that is the real centre for love. And what about the molecules and genes and their role in for example gender preferences? Well apparently no scientific explanation has been found for homosexuality or transsexual penchants or for that matter for paedophiles.

The teacup was used in a video to explain what was meant by consent. Do you want more tea? No? Really no? Yes do have some more tea… The victims’ apathy in many cases of rape was explained scientifically by the fact that it’s a bodily reaction to avoid heart attack! This clarification can be used in court cases where the victim is accused of consent when there was no consent but a fear for ones life.

Finally we got a historic/scientific explication of the clitoris. I learned that it was psychoanalysts such as Sigmund Freud who “killed” the clitoris and it wasn’t until 1998 that the organ was finally given its rightful place in the female body. An Australian doctor, Helen O’Connell, managed to scan it and show how it looks using 3 D. Now some researchers are looking for the famous G-point that doesn’t seem to exist though.

Apparently we all have similar sexual organs until 8 weeks old foetuses before the genders split in two to evolve into a girl or a boy. Unfortunately still 200 million girls worldwide have had their clitoris cut off (and sometimes been sown together). Genital mutilations are common in many parts of the world, mainly in Africa and in parts of the Middle East. It’s part of the “honour” system in patriarchal systems.  

This exhibition is mostly made for adolescents and young adults who discover their sexuality. It covers many important areas especially in France where very little on this subject is taught in the schools. The classes present, with giggling girls and boys, seemed to enjoy it. But even adults can appreciate and learn from it.

Love encompasses a wide range of feelings, of dedication or lack thereof. The joy or, on the contrary, the traumas that it entails, show the importance of love and trust. “Love your neighbour as yourself”, the second command in the Bible, was a profound statement and is at the basis of the Human Rights Declaration.

Love, in its broader sense, is the glue that binds humans living together, whether in an opened and democratic society that claims gender equality, or within a family and among friends. The lack of it can also destroy a society as we’ve seen during Stalin’s purges in the former Soviet Union, Hitler’s holocaust, Mao’s cultural revolution to mention just a few.   

Fortunately, some inscrutability still remains about finding the scientific answers for love and gender. Everything can’t be explained by genes or molecules as yet, which I am grateful for. Because what’s love without it’s mysteries?

If you can’t make it for Valentines, don’t worry; the exhibition is on until the end of August 2020 and Paris remains the City of Love par excellence!  

Anne Edelstam

palais-decouverte.fr

#DelAmour

Avenue Franklin-Roosevelt, 75008 Paris

A British sculptor in Paris

A rare occasion to view Barbara Hepworth’s (1903-1975) works of art presents itself this winter at Musée Rodin, in collaboration with Tate.

The museum is an ancient palace situated in a wonderfully kept garden. Some of the famous French sculptor, Auguste Rodin’s, works are displayed outside but most of them are shown inside the palace. His pupil and muse, and to my mind at least, more sensitive sculptor, Camille Claudel, is exhibited there as well. But there is also an exhibition hall for temporary expositions, such as the one with Barbara Hepworth’s works (until March 22, 2020).    

This contemporary of Henry Moore, Picasso and Mondrian among others, brought a new and fresh ethical sense to sculpture. Barbara’s approach is inspired by the poetry of nature, resulting in organic sculptures of remarkable originality. It was difficult to refrain from caressing these pieces, displaying a woman’s sensitivity and sensuality. Only the severe glare of the guard refrained me from doing so.

Barbara Hepworth gained recognition in France during the interwar period. In the 1930s she discovered the European avant-garde with the recently founded “Abstraction-Création” movement. Sculptors such as Jean Arp, Alexander Calder and painters Robert Delaunay and George Braque invited her to exhibit with them.

The first exhibition room puts her work into context, showing several photographs of the sculptor working or contemplating, catalogues and smaller drawings. In the second room, the visitor gets an idea of her atelier with her tools etc. A movie also shows how she worked and polished her sculptures to their soft and smooth texture. It was filmed in St Ives, in Cornwall, where she had an atelier, and where the surrounding landscape by the sea continually inspired her (https://www.tate.org.uk/visit/tate-st-ives/barbara-hepworth-museum-and-sculpture-garden).  

Some paintings are present in the exhibition as well but I was mostly taken by her sculptures that display a magical combination of inner vision, landscape and material. It’s very actual in our times of ecological development and fossil free world that many are striving towards. A back to nature movement we so desperately need starts with the heart: to value what we have and desire to keep it, we must first see and appreciate it. Barbara’s sculptures also serve that purpose.     

Anne Edelstam, Paris

Discovering a genuine tea farm

Picking tea leaves for drying

Just a short drive from the heart of Nairobi, Kenya, I had the pleasure to get an insight into life on a settler’s tea plantation.

Nairobi isn’t a pretty city but it has the advantage of being close to nature and wild life delights. This cloudy but pleasantly warm morning, we drove up the hills to Kiambethu farm at Limuru province some 2000 meters.

Fiona Vernon – whose grandfather planted tea there in 1918 – came out to greet us to her spot of paradise, situated in a particularly lush and green part of Kenya. We were a bit early, so I had ample time to stroll around in her marvellous garden, with flowers we in Europe only can buy expensively in some exclusive shops. The colourful birds were rejoicing at collecting their sweet nectar. The gardener was busy cleaning away the weeds and happy to take a rest to tell me about all the different plants they were growing.

When the rest of the group had arrived, Fiona started the tour around her now much smaller tea plantation. She explained how her grand-father, AB McDonell, had bought the farm and was the first person to grow, make and sell tea commercially in Kenya – now one of the country’s biggest exports.

That was approximately at the same time as Karen and her husband, the Swedish Baron, Bror Blixen, started their coffee farm not far away. Their life story is told in Karen’s autobiography “Out of Africa”, later turned into a movie, starring Meryl Streep and Robert Redford.

Tea was easier to grow than coffee in these heights though. It grew so well that a factory was constructed on the farm. It was in use until the 1960s. Finally parts of the farm were sold to a neighbouring Kenyan tea farmer and only a small portion left for the family. However it provides enough tealeaves for the farm to survive. Fiona showed us the tea plants and how the leaves are delicately picked daily by hand. The leaves are put in baskets that the pickers carry on their backs before spreading them out on blankets on the floor. Each day they have to be taken to a tea factory for immediate processing.

Each farm’s tealeaves are mixed according to quality determined by specialized tea-tasters and then sent to the auctions at the Mombasa docks. The tea brokers know the areas and their different flavours, and can thus make the blend that suits their brand. It’s seldom that a tea is made from only one plantation. Mombasa is the port for most of the African tea growing countries from where the tea is then shipped off to far away lands.    

So whenever you take a sip of Lipton tea, you also have a taste of Kenya. Your warming cup of tea has made it through many hands and travelled far to reach your taste buds. There are many miseries in this world of ours but equally many miracles. Let’s not forget that and treasure what we do have, giving all tea farmers around the world a thankful thought and, as I am concerned, especially Fiona and her pickers. I will definitely never take my morning tea for granted any more!

Anne Edelstam

www.kiambethufarm.com         

El Greco the precursor of modernity

Saint Veronica, 1580, with the veil with the image of the Christ

The Greek painter, Doménikos Theotokópoulos, alias Greco, is one of the world’s most original renaissance painters and masters. He inspired avant-garde artists and impressionists.

Saint Lucas, 1605

The Grand Palais, in Paris, invites us to an extraordinary exhibition this winter (until 20 February 2020) with 75 masterpieces on display. The queues have circled long to get into the ancient palace to view this wild and unclassifiable genius. However, France has been on strike since nearly two weeks now, with hardly any public transport working, so the affluence to the museums has been rather restricted. It is thus an excellent time to go and see as many exhibitions as possible I discovered, provided one has good walking shoes.

The exhibition’s scenography, with simple white walls, leaves the monopoly on colour to the artist whose palette is explosive! It also gives it a touch of modernity.  

Viewing Greco’s elongated figures, reminded me of Giacometti; his flying persons of Chagall; his sometimes very sketchy portraits of the impressionists. I now understand why Greco is called the modernists’ precursor. Despite his predominantly Christine realistic paintings of the 16th century, his prodigy is such that his art doesn’t age.

The Annunciation, 1576.

During these days of Advent, Greco reminds us of why we celebrate Christmas. “A Saviour was born” and with Him: joy as a promise for humankind. Whatever metaphysical thoughts the visitor might – or might not – have, it’s impossible to stay impassable in front of such works of art. The emotions are palpable. The modern painters understood that very well.

However it was more difficult for Greco during his lifetime to get the recognition he so well deserved. After having tried his luck in the highly competitive Venetian market, he moved on to Rome where he perfected his skill at portraits in a personal style, some of which are exposed at the Grand Palais. But it was in Spain that he found his artistic roots and appreciative public, and where he finally settled down.

The Christ chasing the merchants at the Temple, 1575

Toledo, one of Europe’s leading artistic and cultural centres in those days, became the setting for many of Greco’s compositions, consisting mainly of religious scenes. The spread of private devotion led many families to found their own chapels and oratories on top of the orders he got from the Church. One of his best-known series is the one about Christ driving the traders from the temple.

Greco placed painting above all other arts and his colours are as vivid today as they must have been then. There are few drawings that have survived, as he destroyed most of them.

The Saint Family, 1580-85

This exhibition reminds us that a genius, even if he did fall into oblivion for a while, never really dies. Impressionists and avant-garde artists rediscovered him. Cézanne, Chagall and Picasso have lifted him up to be their prophet. And we’re lucky to be able to admire his works, well exhibited in this grandiose palace. Praying to Greco’s God that the strikers will make a halt during the Christmas season, so as many as possible will be able to view this fabulous exhibition. Merry Christmas!

Anne Edelstam, Paris