Tag Archives: paris

London Slant: The Lady and the Unicorn are back—in glory

I’m always on the lookout for an excuse to revisit Paris’ Museum of the Middle Ages.  It’s full of treasures that culminate in its six exquisite Lady and the Unicorn tapestries. To me, they’re the most wonderful woven works of art ever.

Lady and Unicorn tapestries

“To my only desire”, the most celebrated—and mysterious—of the Lady and the Unicorn tapestries.

So imagine my excitement on my recent Paris trip when I spotted posters up and down Boulevard St Michel emblazoned with the words “The Lady and the Unicorn tapestries, as you’ve never seen them before”. Yes, these medieval gems had just been conserved and redisplayed. I couldn’t have dreamt up a better reason to go and lap them up again.

The museum itself is a fascinating Gothic-Renaissance mansion, built over Roman baths. Just stepping inside is like entering a swirl of French history, from the ruins of the calderium (hot chamber) to rooms displaying brilliant stained glass panels, gold caskets, illuminated books and marble sculptures. There’s even a medieval-style garden outside.

Cluny Museum Paris

Heads of French kings displayed in the remains of the Roman baths.

But I was here to enjoy the mysteries of the Lady and her mythical beast. The six hangings show the pair surrounded by trees, flowers and other animals. Five appear to depict the five senses, while the sixth  is enigmatically entitled A mon seul désir  (To my only desire).

Freshly cleaned, their rich colours sing out from their crimson backgrounds. Hi-tech lighting picks out every thread. There are dozens of different recognisable flowers: chrysanthemums, roses, daisies, bluebells. Luscious fruit is plentiful: on strawberry plants and orange tress. Rabbits play in the grass. Foxes, deer and dogs leap and pose. If the statuesque central figures and heraldic animals seem straight out of a fairy tale, these delights of nature are instantly recognisable as something we might spot on a country walk today.

A new, circular display enables visitors to stand among the tapestries and be absorbed into the action. We might wonder at the mystery of this ethereal lady in her gorgeous robes, yet instantly relate to the birds fluttering over her head and feel a part of this sylvan scene.

Lady and Unicorn Music

Hearing: the Lady plays a portable organ, powered by bellows.

Lady and the Unicorn

Touch: the Lady holds the unicorn’s tusk.

Lady and Unicorn tapestries

Taste: the Lady is offered a tempting dish.

I spent far too long relishing every holly berry and pine cone, every naughty monkey and snooty stoat. Now I have just one problem. How can the museum come up with a better reason to draw me back again?

More details: Musée National du Moyen Age (Museum of the Middle Ages, in the Hôtel de Cluny)

Images of tapestries courtesy of RMN-Grand Palais/Michel Urtado

London Slant: Hunting down surreal animals in Paris

Did you know that most museums in Paris are free on the first Sunday of the month? Remember this when planning your next budget cultural weekend. Plus there’s no queuing at ticket desks, which means more time to track down off-piste treats.

I began my pursuit of the unexpected at the Musée de la Chasse et de la Nature (Museum of Hunting and Nature). Now, a place with this name wouldn’t normally get my guns firing. But “freedom Sunday” encouraged me to try it out.

It’s an old-established collection in a 17th-century residence; I’d envisaged wood-panelled walls, antique pictures and stuffed animals beneath glass domes. I wasn’t wrong (although it’s had a fresh and funky makeover), but what hit me as I stepped inside was its joyful family atmosphere. As I ventured into the shadowy Room of the Wild Boar a grandfather was eagerly asking a child “Are you afraid?” Both were clearly relishing the bristly creature facing them down.

Un aigle et une colombe se transforment l]un dans l'autre

A dazzling installation: an eagle and a dove become one another

I continued to a side room with a ceiling covered in owl heads and wings. Then I discovered a stag that had been turned into bagpipes. An adjacent video showed how the carcass could be inflated to play a wailing lament when pressed. I watched as a mother had to drag her two transfixed offspring away and on to the Room of the Unicorn (or was it the Wolf?).

A stairwell was illuminated by flickering candelabra. Stuffed panthers were poised to pounce out of the gloom. A delight in the natural world was balanced by glimpses of a darker side, both its threatening recesses and how humans menace it in return.

Migratory bird machine Paris

A machine made of feathers for meditating on migratory birds

Part of the eccentricity derived from a temporary exhibition, Art Orienté Objet, of strange animal artworks inserted throughout the museum’s permanent display. Inspired by the weird world of Hieronymus Bosch’s painting The Garden of Earthly Delights, they focused on unexpected aspects of the relationship between animals, nature and man.

If you visit Paris before the exhibition closes do drop by. It’s just behind the Pompidou Centre, among quirky boutiques, cafes and townhouses with notable residents (I saw the name Renzo Piano on a door). But the museum’s collection of art and artefacts is fascinating in itself. And no doubt there’ll soon be another offbeat exhibition to plumb the more macabre realms of our natural world.

Art Orienté Objet by Marion Laval-Jeantet & Benoît Mangin, until 2 March.  Musée de la Chasse et de la Nature, 62 rue des Archives – 75003 Paris.

Photographs by Nicolas Hoffmann

London Slant: a king-size bed and Lady Gaga at the Louvre. Ça c’est Paris!

I was walking along the St Pancras platform to board my train to Paris when urgent steps came rushing up behind. I turned to face a Eurostar official brandishing a clipboard. My heart sank.

But then, unbelievably, came the question every budget traveller longs to hear: “Would you like to upgrade—free—to First Class?”

As I settled into my extra-wide seat it was clear I was on course for a great weekend. It also turned out to be as unexpected as it began.

It’s usually deemed that for quirky originality London trumps Paris every time. But on this trip our Gallic friends had put on an exhibition with more than a nod to us eccentric Brits. Our current fondness for “cabinets of curiosities” has certainly travelled south.

Robert Wilson's bed at the Louvre, Paris

Robert Wilson’s bed in Living Rooms at the Louvre

The Louvre, touchstone of French culture, can be an exhausting place: galleries and sculpture courts packed with instantly-recognisable treasures from the Mona Lisa to Michelangelo’s Slaves. So when I stumbled upon a king-size bed in one of its rooms I wasn’t just taken aback—I’d have loved to collapse onto it and curl up. Two silver boots lay discarded at its side.

Robert Wilson, Louvre, Paris

Ordered chaos in Robert Wilson’s Living Rooms at the Louvre

All around was an array of quirky objects: masks, gourds, plastic toys, strange pieces of furniture. But if you’re thinking Tracey Emin mark II, think again. All were exquisitely arranged, ordered and pristine.

Robert Wilson's Living Rooms at the Louvre, Paris

A corner of Robert Wilson’s Living Rooms at the Louvre

It turned out to be US theatre designer Robert Wilson’s recreation of his Long Island home and studio, a mass of items that inspire him—in bizarre juxtapositions. I could see how his creativity would be unleashed by lying in the timber bath with a view of the Louvre’s glass pyramid—and then stimulated by the melange of paraphernalia hanging above. I loved moving among white shelves displaying a stuffed rabbit next to a pre-Columbian pot, an elegant Asian buddha next to a contemporary American art photograph. And most of all I was intrigued by the many chairs in styles from Shaker to 1950s’ kitchen, several suspended on the walls upside down.

I moved on to a room of Wilson’s video portraits of Lady Gaga depicted as well-known works of art. There was Gaga as the head of John the Baptist and again as Mademoiselle Caroline Rivière. The near-static scenes had sudden flickers of movement: eyelids fluttering or a bird flitting behind.  I guess the original works that inspired the videos have celebrity status in their own right, and were therefore ripe for reinterpretation by today’s cult star.

Lady Gaga as the head of John the Baptist.

Recognise this person? It’s Lady Gaga as the head of John the Baptist. Of course!

Lady Gaga at Caroline Riviere

Lady Gaga as Mademoiselle Caroline Riviere by Robert Wilson

I continued my Louvre journey past its most famous female image. My best view of her was on a video being filmed on an  iPhone held above the scrum. I wondered whether she might wink, or least break into a grin.

Mona Lisa at Louvre

View of the Mona Lisa at the Louvre, best seen by iPhone

Living Rooms and Lady Gaga by Robert Wilson is at the Louvre, until 17 February