Paris paradox: The changelessness of change

People who tell you they’ve seen and done Paris frankly don’t know what they’re talking about.
Sure, Paris is timeless in its way: often you feel you’ve stepped back centuries. Cafés from the Belle Epoque, monuments from the Middle Ages and recipes from the butter-and-cream days before the Great War-all transport you to a place where time and taste stand still, a “been there, done that” universe.

But here’s one paradox of many: few cities have as varied and changing an arts and culture scene as Paris. How many towns can lay claim to hundreds of galleries and foundations, and 150 museums? Alongside their permanent collections, each mounts temporary exhibitions. Some art or history shows run for nearly a year at a time and appear-another paradox-to be permanent fixtures. When they’re over you can barely believe it, especially if you didn’t find time to see them.

I’ve lived in Paris for over 25 years and still haven’t seen all its galleries, foundations and museums. Every few months they shed their skin of temporary shows. Actually the metaphor isn’t accurate: the constant changing of the artistic guard is more a staggered and staggering relay race run over an eerily familiar course.

Try asking those Paris-weary friends of yours whether they’ve seen the latest Modernist show-meaning the magnificent collection of Gertrude, Leo and Michael Stein: “Matisse, Cézanne, Picasso… The Adventure of the Steins” at the Grand Palais?

What about the bowl-you-over Cézanne retrospective at the Luxembourg?Or the dozens of unexpected, less-publicized gems? Gisèle Freund’s photographic portraits of famous artists and writers are at the Pierre Bergé-Yves Saint-Laurent Foundation. The tragic tale of intellectual Walter Benjamin is told through “Archives” at the Jewish Art and History Museum. There’s a mega-show featuring the Ancient Gauls, the ancestors of today’s French, at the Science Museum. And-one of my current favorites-there’s “Gaz à Tous les Etages” at the Bibliothèque Forney.

If you don’t know the Bibliothèque Forney you should. It’s the design and decorative arts resource library of Paris, housed in a Flamboyant Gothic mansion, the Hôtel de Sens. Think dunce-cap towers and a dizzying spiral staircase. Where the archbishops of Sens once lived (when in town) you discover a brief, highly illustrated, entertaining history of “mod cons,” alias modern comforts: the show’s title means “gas on every floor.” Paris was one of the world’s first cities to get the airborne miracle-for cooking, heating and lighting.

Gorgeous Art Nouveau posters, oddments, objects and installations-including boilers and tin bathtubs-unveil the birth of luxury, the kind we now take for granted.

So how did Parisians take hot baths before gas water-heating arrived in 1850? (Answer: they didn’t, unless they were super rich). See this quirky little show and you’ll understand that venerable expression, “Honey, it’s like cooking with gas!”

Who was Gisèle Freund? Answer: a German Jewish photographer who escaped the Nazis and made her fortune in Paris. Freund knew everyone who was anyone in the international modernist avant-garde. The original Shakespeare & Co. bookstore disappeared long ago from its storefront on Rue de l’Odéon in the Latin Quarter, but you can see that storefront recreated and filled with portraits of the writers and artists of the 1930s at the Gisèle Freund exhibition.

You’ve seen these faces before: Malraux, Cocteau, Gide, Colette, Valéry, Zweig, Joyce, Virginia Woolf… But you’ve never seen them displayed and lit so skillfully.

Another German Jew who fled the Nazis and transited through Paris was Walter Benjamin, a theorist and writer whose studies of modernity turned the world on its head. Unlike Freund, who lived to a ripe age and returned to Paris after the Occupation, Benjamin met an unhappy end. This minimalist exhibition of postcards, notes, letters, photos and memorabilia reveals why he chose to commit suicide rather than fall into the hands of the Gestapo. Even if you’re not interested in Benjamin or his life and death, the museum itself, its displays and magnificent setting in the Marais would be worth your time.

The “Cité des Sciences” is what Paris’s main science museum is called. Out on the edge of town at La Villette it’s one of the capital’s biggest buildings, and this exhibition about the Ancient Gauls is a perfect fit. Bigness is all.

Why are millions of Frenchmen and women seemingly obsessed with their barbarian forebears? Why has the comic book series featuring Astérix and Obélisk-Gallic heroes-sold over 350 million copies since it was created about 50 years ago? If you’re curious you’ll find the answers here. (But no one will tell you that the men who created Astérix were immigrants-from Italian and Ukrainian-Polish families!).

Funnily, it seems the charming Gauls arrived in what’s now France (named for a Frankish, i.e. Germanic tribe) a few centuries before the bad guys (i.e. the Romans) showed up. Caesar and Co. took over and brought north the rudiments of the French language (Latin), the legal system, art, architecture, cooking, engineering, writing and most everything else, it seems, including (in the 4thcentury) Roman Catholicism. Goodbye, cannibalism! Farewell human sacrifice! Those terrible Romans, they spoiled the fun.

Yet Druidical, Pagan, Gallic throbs still beat in French breasts. And it’s that perennial throbbing, that remembrance of things past, that is the real permanent feature of this country and this great City of Light.

If the Gauls are too recent for your taste, the Louvre has a fabulous exhibition that reaches back to the 15th-century BC: “In the Kingdom of Alexander the Great – Ancient Macedonia.”

Notice anything about the above? All these exhibitions are focused on the rear-view mirror, the past, history. The truth is, no matter how many contemporary eyesores, nuclear power plants, TGVs and supersonic aircraft the French build, no matter how many contemporary art, fashion and architecture shows you see in Paris, or molecular minimalist meals you eat, it’s the timelessness, the unchanging quality of change, that’s the permanent star attraction.

Author and guide David Downie’s latest books are the critically acclaimed “Paris, Paris: Journey into the City of Light” and “Quiet Corners of Rome.” His websites are, www.parisparistours.comand, dedicated to the Italian Riviera.

[flickr image via pepsiline]