A marvelous small gallery in Paris specializing in works on paper (always a fast way to my heart) has a marvelous exhibition of up American mid century prints. They had a fabulous selection. I’m a huge fan of Jim Dine, and I loved the pair of enormous etchings (enormous for etchings, anyway — there were plenty of even larger prints in the show), both from the same plate, with a number of extra brushes added in between printings. I love the way you simply draw into a plate and can change it so radically like that. For the prints I do, once you cut something away, it’s just gone. This is like magic to me. The other thing I totally loved about the Dine pieces is that he had two also enormous prints of his bathrobe that he titled self portraits. I have a profound relationship with my own favorite bathrobes (both winter and summer), and this was genius to me.
My 20th century art knowledge is considerably less than what I know about various other, earlier periods of art history, so I was unacquainted with Rauschenberg’s “Stoned Moon” series, done in the 60’s and based on the Apollo missions. I was blown away and will have to do more research into them. Rauschenberg, Dine, and Jasper Johns were all painters who got into printmaking by collaborating with print shops that could offer their expertise and large equipment and assistants to help these artists. I felt the same relief on learning that tibit that I felt when I learned that those exquisite floating world Japanese printmakers largely worked in watercolor and then had professionals to both carve and print for them. I feel like my work is clunky next to some of the professional printmakers out there, but doing it all by hand myself is satisfying. It may not be as perfect, but it is fully mine.
I saw other, more contemporary printmakers that I would like to learn more about, including Al Taylor, whose “Hanging Puddles” charmed me. I did a small study of it, and I also did one of Wayne Thiebaud’s exquisite sugared aquatint “Candied Apples.” The sugar technique adds a gorgeous texture in person. I’ve loved Thiebaud since college, and it was fun to see a couple of his prints in person.
These were all I managed to sketch on my first visit, but I think I may well have to go and see this show a second time before leaving Paris. I walked home feeling inspired to make more art, which is always the sign of an excellent show for me.
I was so inspired I did two pieces before I even got home. I started with one page in my smallest journal of the abstract sculpture by the Solferino metro station. This was what I had hoped. I kept the watercolor to a light wash and then mixed graphite and ink (the heavier tree branches) for the foreground. It was uncharacteristic restraint for me, and I was excited.
There’s a flat out marvelous exhibition of the Impressionists in London at the Petit Palais. My friend (Memphis urban sketcher and now a denizen of Paris) has a dual membership and kindly took me — and then left me to make my way at the glacial speed I travel through museums. Double kindness.
I loved the show not only for the art but also for the history. It centers around the end of the Franco Prussian war when Paris was first under siege and then in the hands of rebels for a while. Needless to say, no one much buys art under dire, wartime circumstances, so a number of French artists (and citizens) headed for London for a while, and a few stayed permanently. It was good to read how the early arrivals assisted later comers, introducing them to patrons and getting them teaching jobs. There is such press about how cutthroat the art world is, and likely there are aspects of that in the high market places, but I have found such a supportive and warm environment in Memphis with people sharing opportunities and rooting each other on. It felt good to learn about this group.
There were a number of gorgeous things in the show. There was one small room of three exquisite Whistler nocturnes, and there were many truly lovely works on paper (which I’m always excited to see), both watercolors and prints. I did a copy of one understated portrait etching by Legros with the lightest and most delicate of horizontal lines, just a bit varied, as the background. He also left the shirt almost completely white, except for a few lines, bringing all the attention to the face. The grey of the patterned background played nicely against the open space and against the strong detail of the features.
But what truly gobsmacked me was the five Monet renditions of the Houses of Parliament gathered together for this show. Usually they are scattered across continents. Monet did them all from the same vantage point, the window of his room in the Savoy Hotel. As an artist, that is a stroke of both luck and genius, to be able to set up and paint from the ease of your room. He had been unsuccessful when he first went (as a refugee from the war), and two decades later, he wanted to return and show London what he could do. I loved that as well.
I always look forward to spending time with Monet’s five versions of Rouen Cathedral at the Orsay, and seeing these together was a similar experience. I tried to sketch them, but my small and dirty travel watercolor palette didn’t handle the pinks and yellows well. It was still a good exercise for me to sit and study them and truly see the variations and differences. Even when a drawing doens’t turn out as you had hoped (which is often, even for professionals), you learn a lot from the doing of it.
I do know that it’s a little odd to come to Paris and paint myself, but there’s a lovely huge bathroom counter and great directional light and a largish mirror (none of which I have in my midtown, old fashioned home), so it’s an inviting place for self portraits. It’s also my 6th year here, and I feel like I’ve kind of exhausted, for now, what I’d really like to say about this place in watercolor. I brought oil pastels to try, but as much as I want to like them, I’m really not enjoying working in them. Plus Paris is also my time for self examination, and that is always literal for me, going hand in hand with self portraits as I think and plan for the year ahead. All of which adds up to a number of self portraits.
The heat finally broke in Paris, so I celebrated by walking a decent circuit of the city (over a day, with lunch and sketching and knitting breaks). It felt good to get to some of my favorite spots and just move around a bit after several pretty quiet days in mid to upper 90’s.
I had lunch and then painted in the funky Montmartre cemetery, which is now partly under a visually quite lovely overpass, even though I understand some of the neighbors weren’t happy about the addition. It adds a level of gothic funk to the cemetary that quite pleases me, though.
And I sketched my favorite door on Rue Damremont, plus a few other decorations, as I continue to think about ways to use the marvelous profusion of architectural delights in my work.
Finally, here are a couple of my favorite shots from that day, both along Rue Damremont, my old “home” neighborhood and favorite area of Paris. I loved the cafe dog.
One of the things I love about Paris is that it is created for beauty. The details on so many of the buildings are exquisite and fascinating. I began to have an idea about them and spent walk home from the Orsay sketching a good number of them (which tripled my time home, but it was so worth it.
I’m a little bit in love with my two brush pens filled with sumi ink of two different strengths. I went to Luxembourg Gardens the other night to sketch people lying on the lawn after dinner. One thing I love about Paris is how everyone floods out into public spaces together instead of staying hermetically sealed up in their own homes and cars. There’s always a party on the sidewalk and in the parks.
I hung out and sketched a while, and I also did another self portrait, moving back to watercolor to keep in practice after my figure sessions earlier in the summer.
Martha Kelly is an artist and illustrator who lives and works in Memphis, Tennessee.
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