Paris's Musée d'Orsay used to be a railway station
Image: iStock Paris's Musée d'Orsay used to be a railway station

It's got magical midnights. Springtime worth singing about. It counts among its residents the woman with the world's most beguiling smile.

No wonder then that Paris, since its very first lamps were lit, has been a beacon for adventurous hearts.

Even those who've never gone know what they would see there: the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre, the Place de la Concorde, Sacré-Cour, the Seine, Notre-Dame, the Arc de Triomphe...

Until recently, it has consistently lured 30 million tourists a year, more than any other city in the world.

Yet, things have soured of late in the City of Love. The French capital and its surrounding region recorded a staggering 1.5 million dive in visitors in 2016 compared to the year before.

We all know why. We don't have to speak of it.

At home, the city mothers and fathers talk in hushed tones and euphemisms: the Sad Events, the Troubles, the Lives Lost. Our country suffered, they say.

And yet the suffering has also ignited a momentum. Parisians want you to know that their city is still dancing, still elegant and still worthy of love.

They want you back and they're willing to woo you. And how? With their finest heart-tugging skills, of course. And that, mes amis, is art.

Paris has always been a refuge for artists. From the opulence-obsessed kings, queens and emperors who commissioned grand works to decorate their gilded fireplaces to the poets, writers and painters who descended here in the late 19th and 20th centuries to make names for themselves and to inspire one another, Paris has been a cradle for creators.

Now the central government, the City of Paris and the Paris Region are investing €8-million in what Mayor Anne Hidalgo calls "an ambitious plan to relaunch tourism".

Part of that is La Saison Culturelle 2017 (The Cultural Season), encompassing more than 500 events and programmes by arts and culture centres in Paris and beyond, catering to all sorts of styles, tastes and age groups.

The point is to remind us all of Paris's immense creative diversity and through that, its ability to make us feel. That, after all, is the reason we all travel, in the end, and why Paris is bound to keep its romance alive.

Here is a small selection from my visit last month for a taster, an amuse-bouche if you will, of some of the highlights.


SCULPTURE

Rodin, the Centennial Exhibition, Grand Palais

A closer look at one of Rodin's 'Burghers of Calais'
Image: Elizabeth Sleith A closer look at one of Rodin's 'Burghers of Calais'

Built for the 1900 World Fair, The Grand Palace on the Champs-Élysées, with its classicist stone facade and art nouveau iron-and-glass roof, is a wonder in itself. The double delight, then, is this show to mark the centenary of the 1840-born sculptor August Rodin's death.

Rodin's own story reflects perhaps the persevering spirit of Paris itself. Plagued by poor vision, he struggled at school and found refuge in drawing. As a teenager, he applied three times to study at the prestigious Academy of Fine Arts and three times he was rejected.

Still by the end of the late 1800s he had become "the father of modern sculpture", primarily through his determination to dramatise the human body.

Sculptural tradition had previously sought to represent the outside world - famous figures or scenes from history, literature and myth; Rodin carved emotion. 

"The artist simply gives shape to his own dreams," he wrote.

He saw the human body as a perfect piece of architecture, as carefully designed and as awesome as the grandest cathedrals.

He spoke of the "concert of forms" and called the human body "a temple that marches".

The exhibition has more than 200 of his own pieces on display alongside other artworks of the time - including drawings by Klimt and Picasso. Whereas those masters made delicious, licentious, reclining women in pen and ink, Rodin raised up similar figures in 3D, their hair billowing out of bronze.

His figures - embracing, twisting, explosive in stillness, screaming anguish in a clenched hand or passion in a taut shoulder - all seem smooth as chalk, the details of flesh and motion so intricate that it's astonishing, and somehow entirely possible that these were real people struck down by some divine malady and instantly turned to stone.

Until July 31. See grandpalais.fr


PAINTING

Vermeer and the Masters of Genre Painting, Musée du Louvre

Under a late-'80s-built glass pyramid, surrounded by a medieval fortress-turned-palace to the French kings, lies perhaps the world's most famous museum. Of course, somewhere inside it languishes that lady of the mysterious smile ... Da Vinci's Mona Lisa. Go smile back at her if you have the stamina to withstand the queue followed by the selfie extravaganza.

The highlight for the Cultural Season, however, is Vermeer and the Masters of Genre Painting.

The exhibit features only 12 of the 36 paintings that survive by the mysterious Dutchman, interspersed with works by his contemporaries to show that while the subject matter he was tackling was on trend with other great names of the Dutch Golden Age - women sewing, drinking tea or dressing - his was an extraordinary eye and a fine hand.

To Johannes Vermeer (1632-1675), it wasn't the details in the carpet that mattered. It was the play of light. His fine attention to the effects of illumination convey an intimacy to every scene and allow mundane moments to transcend to the spiritual. Sadly, his own Mona Lisa, aka Scarlet Johannson with an earring, isn't there. Still, what is is marvellous.

That he remained fairly obscure during his lifetime is as mystifying as that famous lady's smile.

Until May 22. See louvre.fr

Beyond the Stars. The Mystical Landscape from Monet to Kandinsky, Musée d'Orsay

Gauguin, Monet, Klimt, Munch, Van Gogh, O'Keeffe ... any one of those names is enough to send shivers down the spine of even the most basic gallery goer - and all of these are represented in this fantastic exhibition.

As if anyone needs an excuse, these specific works have been curated to highlight how the artists of the late 19th and early 20th centuries depicted landscapes and religious imagery as a means to access the intangible and explore the divine.

Among the 90-odd paintings displayed in seven rooms wait some of the most revered paintings known to man: the dreamy canvases of Monet's Water Lilies (1916-1919); Van Gogh's Starry Night Over the Rhone (1888); Georgia O'Keeffe's abstract paintings of cloud formations.

In dimly lit rooms where one can't help but whisper, these hallowed works hang like stained-glass windows on church walls. One cannot but peer into them and then through, to the reflected parts of your own inner life - the melancholy, the wonder - that they inevitably bring to the fore ...

Until June 25. See Musee-orsay.fr

The Chevalme sisters are resident artists at Le 6B in St-Denis
Image: Elizabeth Sleith The Chevalme sisters are resident artists at Le 6B in St-Denis

Le 6B

Named for its address in St-Denis, a traditionally industrial and low-income suburb on the outskirts of the captial, Le 6B is both an association and a space to gaze on the current face of creative art.

As Julian Beller, an architect and the association's president, explains, it started with 35 local creatives, all of whom were in need of a space to work and a means to survive.

They pooled their meagre resources and took up in an abandoned office block - which seven years later has grown into an exhibition space, a place to work and a place where many of them live.

The 170 residents include artists, architects, DJs, painters, musicians, filmmakers, graphic designers and craftsmen. 

Beller speaks earnestly about the struggle of young artists and how "the project is an illustration of the possibility of doing something with all this energy; a symptom of the changing world".

"This way of doing it and trying to experiment is shining," he says. "Now when we organise an event we have 3,000 people coming."

The exhibitions change frequently. My visit included an encounter with a weird cloud formed of chicken wire, dangling from a ceiling in a dark room. As I entered, I was handed a torch by the artist himself. He stayed silent. Shine the light, I understood, and collaborate with us in this art.


CINEMA

The Cinémathèque Française

Some relics of film history at the Cinémathèque Française
Image: Elizabeth Sleith Some relics of film history at the Cinémathèque Française

Film lovers' senses will whir like old-school projectors as soon as they step inside this museum and archive, with one of the largest collections of film in the world.

As with seemingly everywhere in Paris, it has its own dramatic history stemming from the 1930s, when a collector named Henri Langlois almost lost his substantial collection to the Nazis.

In occupied France, German authorities ordered that all films made prior to 1937 be destroyed. A defiant Langlois co-ordinated an operation to smuggle them out. After his return in peacetime, the French government gave him a small screening room, a subsidy and some staff and the Cinémathèque was born.

Stepping inside the museum now is like handing over your tickets to a surreal cinema. Screens suspended from the low ceilings loop footage from the first - and weirdest - days of film, while display cases trace the developing tech of moving pictures.

There are vintage movie posters, scripts, notes and drawings - even a self-portrait by Charlie Chaplin - while the iconic prop collection includes items such as Cyrano de Bergerac's cloak and the robot from Fritz Lang's 1927 Metropolis, the first sci-fi film.

The museum also makes an interesting representation on how the early innovators echo in the works of today's masters. Tim Burton, for instance, clearly drew on the 1920 silent horror Das kabinett Des Dr Caligari for his Edward Scissorhands; while Lang's robot is an obvious precursor to George Lucas's C-3PO.

There are almost daily screenings here too of films from their archives. It's all thoroughly absorbing and worth a few hours at least.

See cinematheque.fr


FASHION

Balenciaga, l'ouvre au noir, Musée Bourdelle

The Bourdelle Museum is located in the former studio of French sculptor Antoine Bourdelle (1861-1929).

A graduate of that same school that wouldn't let Rodin in (though he later worked in Rodin's studio), Bourdelle made large-scale monuments, many of which now stand majestic and imposing in the halls and gardens of the museum along with other items of sculpture acquired by Bourdelle throughout his lifetime.

The current attraction though is a fascinating meditation, for me anyway since I am no fashionista, on the interplay of arts - in this case, fashion and sculpture, and specifically the work of Cristóbal Balenciaga.

Spanish-born Balenciaga (1895-1972) was known as the couturiers' couturier. A master tailor and certainly a sculptor in his own right, he was a genius at manipulating fabric into architectural forms.

Fashionistas will know, as I did not, that he gave us such things as the barrel line (1947), the balloon (1950), the semi-fitted (1951), the tunic dress (1955) and the sack dress (1957).

The exhibition, Working in Black, features 60 of his pieces in that most classic of colours, interspersed with the permanent classical stone works. The combined effect is to set the visitor wandering entranced through an elegant and fantastical chess game. And, like all the other avenues of art, there is something spiritual here.

Balenciaga gowns and sculptures at the Musée Bourdelle
Image: Elizabeth Sleith Balenciaga gowns and sculptures at the Musée Bourdelle

Dior once said: "Clothes were his religion." It is said that, for the spectators, a Balenciaga show could be a religious experience too.

Former Vogue editor-in-chief Diana Vreeland once told how Audrey Hepburn had asked her at one of his shows in the 1960s why she wasn't "frothing at the mouth".

"I told her I was trying to act calm and detached because I was a member of the press," Vreeland said.

Others were not so reserved. "Across the way [socialite and fashion icon] Gloria Guinness was sliding out of her chair on to the floor. Everyone was going up in foam and thunder."

Wandering from room to room, eyes glancing from a glamour ballgown to a grotesque sculpture to a daring drape, you might just well too.

Until July 16. See bourdelle.paris.fr

At the launch of the Saison Culturelle, Mayor Hidalgo, herself Spanish-born, quoted - as she frequently does - the writer Sacha Guitry.

"Being a Parisian is not about being born in Paris, it is about being reborn there."

That's what all these arts can do, whichever one it is that works for you, she is dressed and ready. Her arms are open. Go and be reborn.

For a full listing of the events and attractions, see saisonculturelle.fr


Sleith was a guest of Atout France, the Paris Tourist Office, the Paris Region Tourist Board and the French Ministry of Culture.


This article was originally published by the Sunday Times.You can view the original article here.

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