Each year, 2nd year History of Art students embark on a University-funded, week-long study trip to a European city, in order to study its art, architecture and culture up-close as part of the module Art History in the Field. In the past, students have visited, among other cities, Rome, Berlin, and Brussels. This year, however, the destination was Paris, led by lecturers Dr Fran Berry and Dr Greg Salter, and Sara Tarter (PhD student and teaching associate). Here, 2nd years Hannah Binns, Louise Greenhill, Rozeena Jabeen, Beth Moody and Elizabeth Shih tell us all about what they got up to ….
Monday 12 Febuary (Hannah Binns)
In the ever-bustling New Street Station, we all gathered bright and early on Monday morning to set off for Paris. Some, me and one other nervous traveller, arrived a solid hour early and watched as everyone else gently congregated by Pret in various states of awakeness. Some light competition about who had packed most efficiently, the distribution of the various train tickets, and several litres of coffee later, and we were off. The Virgin train to Euston was painless due to my decision to purchase Travel Boggle, although the clatter of sixteen dice every three minutes was perhaps not overly popular with fellow passengers ….
Before we knew it, we were trekking down the Euston Road to St Pancras where we all made it through security and border control unscathed and the excitement began to set in. The Eurostar, like the Virgin train, was made infinitely better by Boggle – I even managed to rope in a few more players. Then suddenly, we were pulling into Gare du Nord, Paris. We piled into a coach and trundled through the city to our hostel which was, to everybody’s delight, lovely.
My friends and I pootled off to explore the surrounding streets and find food and drink before collapsing into bed to recharge before an art-filled week.
Tuesday 13 February (Louise Greenhill)
After a busy day of travelling, our first stop Tuesday morning was Musée d’Orsay, one of Paris’s most well know museums, with around 2,997,622 visitors in 2016. Its extensive collection is housed inside a nineteenth-century railway station, which means that the whole museum is filled with light, even on a rainy day in February. That, in combination with the surprisingly small crowds — although, we did get there early! — meant that this was my favourite museum of the trip. The collection comprises eighteenth- and nineteenth-century art, many of which were originally in the Louvre. The museum’s collection includes paintings, sculptures, objets d’art, and old photographs, which, along with the architecture itself, means there’s something for everyone to enjoy. One of the highlights that we all got to study was Manet’s famous and, in its day, controversial painting Olympia, which was amazing to see and think about in real life having seen reproductions of it so many times since arriving at University.
Musée d’Orsay is situated on the banks of the Seine so after the visit we took a walk along the unusually high Seine, taking in the famous padlock bridge and the beautiful architecture. We also admired the traditional Parisian sight of a few brave book and art sellers, or “libraries forain,” that were still out despite the freezing temperatures and light snow. Then we visited Sainte-Chappelle, a truly beautiful thirteenth-century building commissioned by Louis IX as an “architectural reliquary,” which, among other things, is famous for its original stained glass windows (miraculously, they survived the French Revolution). This is definitely a place worth visiting for those interested in the medieval history of Paris.
For lunch we found a suitably French-looking café and feasted on camembert and bread — all the walking on this trip definitely made us very hungry! We then took a leisurely stroll to Notre Dame, which, don’t get me wrong, is impressive but was somehow smaller than I had imagined ( … perhaps our expectations have been spoiled by Disney?).
The evening concluded with a visit to Sacré-Coeur and Montmartre by metro. Unfortunately, we did not have time do go inside Sacré-Coeur itself but were assured by several course mates that the interior is amazing. A favourite place for artists such as Monet, Renoir and Degas, Montmartre offers beautiful views of Paris from the top of the hill (be prepared for leg ache) and its old squares have lots of shops and restaurants to choose from.
Overall, the first day was a very interesting, action-packed start to what promised to be a brilliant week ahead!
Wednesday 14 February (Rozeena Jabeen)
Wednesday was the day we were all anticipating and dreading. Yes, it was the day to visit the Louvre, which we all knew had lots of amazing art on offer but had also heard all the horror stories about crowds, queues and hostile “selfie sticks”. The daunting task of navigating our way through as many wings as possible within a few precious hours was beyond me, but it was a challenge worth taking. After an initial introduction, we were free to make our own way through the museum.
Of course, Leonardo’s Mona Lisa was certainly not to be missed and most of us had it our list of must-sees. All the horror stories we’d heard about seeing this picture — of tourists climbing on top of each other, elbowing one another, or even shoving a camera in someone else’s face — didn’t seem to hold true on the day we visited: we were able to slip in through the sides and take a glance at the revered artwork before moving on to the rest of the collection.
I’ve been to the Louvre a couple of times before so I was determined to view part of the collection I haven’t seen before, the Early Netherlandish works. I was desperate to see Jan van Eyck’s Madonna of Chancellor Rolin, especially after studying it in Dr Jamie Edwards’s Renaissance Art in Italy and Netherlands c.1400-60. In fact, many of us who had taken that module in the Autumn were really keen to go and see many of the works that we’d discussed. Unfortunately, however, the Early Netherlandish galleries were closed. Nonetheless, we were able to see many other wonderful northern works of art, albeit from a little later, by the likes of Bruegel, Brueghel, Rubens, van Dyck … Rembrandt … the list goes on ….
A little respite was in order so some of went to explore the subterranean shopping centre inside the Louvre, where, to my pleasant surprise, I found out that the French have a penchant, shall we say, for cat-themed gifts – who knew! We then re-fuelled at lunch, met up with everyone else and split into two groups. One group visited the Jeu de Paume photography museum with Greg, while the rest of us went to the Musée de l’Orangerie with Fran to feast our eyes on a whole bunch of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist works.
More serene and peaceful than the Louvre, the Musée de l’Orangerie allowed us to view and to think about the works more carefully. One of the first things we saw was Monet’s amazing Nymphéas (Water Lilies), which adorn an oval-shaped gallery that was designed by the artist himself. Due to its immense size, I was able to get extremely close to the picture and examine every quick brush stroke, thick application of paint and its vibrant colours. Besides works by Monet, we studied many a famous work by artists including Matisse, Cézanne, and Renoir. Overall, the Musée de l’Orangerie was definitely a gem, and a lovely change of pace compared to the Louvre.
Due to our aching feet, some of us went back to the hostel and then went to the hostel’s cafeteria for onion soup. We chit chatted about the day’s adventures and new friendships were born. It was the perfect way to end an inspiring and thought-provoking day.
Thursday 15 February (Beth Moody)
Thursday was the perfect Parisian day for those of us with a passion for modern art. It started with a trip to Centre Pompidou, Musée national d’art moderne, the national art gallery of France that opened in 1977. Much like its British equivalent, Tate Modern, the building’s architecture is imposing and industrial. The enormous gallery contains a huge variety of collections of modern art, by artists such as Pollock, Braque, Kandinsky and Matisse. The grand scale of the gallery and vast art collection meant there was not enough time to view everything (which most of us were craving to do) and so was a popular place to return to on a free afternoons.
After crêpes for lunch, we split into two groups, one of which went to the Foundation Cartier pour l’art contemporian, whilst the others went to the Picasso museum. I visited the Foundation Cartier, which had a Malick Sidibé exhibition entitled ‘Mali Twist’. This was a contemporary photography exhibition that celebrated not only the power of the photographic image, but the happiness of the Bamako community and the love amongst those within the community. The black and white photographs, accented by the bright yellow walls of the exhibition space, together with the rock and roll vibes and overarching expression of joy omitting from the photographs, made this exhibition definitely worth visiting. Everyone left feeling content and in a good mood.
In the evening, a group of us that hadn’t been already went to see the magnificent Notre Dame, followed by a stroll to Quartier Pigalle for some authentic French food and vin (of course!) – a lovely relaxing end to a busy, modern-art-filled day.
Friday 16 February (Elizabeth Shih)
In the morning, following an introduction by Fran, the focus was on architecture, visiting works by Hector Guimard, Le Corbusier and Robert Mallet-Stevens. The walk was not long, but most of us were feeling pretty frazzled after a fun and inspiring, but nevertheless tiring, art-filled week à Paris! The sun gave us a smile, so a flurry of Instagram posts seemed essential: #LeCorbusier.
In the afternoon, I intrepidly ventured out of the City for Versailles, and whizzed into the Hall of Mirrors. The Palace was opulent, but the garden got most of my attention. There were swans swimming in the pond, submerging their head into the water. I walked down to the fountain, and saw the golden frogs and a woman with infants on the top, gathering like a choir opening their mouths prepared to sing. I sat on a bench alongside the river in the garden of Versailles, taking it all in and reflecting on the week. Absolute tranquility!
I could have wandered aimlessly and timelessly around Versaille, but a group dinner in Montmartre beckoned. We went to Le Bouillon Chartier, which is over a hundred years old. It was founded for Parisian residents, and is beloved by tourists. The restaurant didn’t disappoint but was a little busy, not to mention loud, so my voice seemed to become part of the din. Nevertheless, we ordered some good wine and food and immersed ourselves in the Parisian atmosphere.
Van Gogh was said to be inspired by the French writer Guy de Maupassant to paint his Café Terrace at Night, who described the starlit night in Paris in his novel Yvette. This painting is now in the Musée d’Orsay, hanging in the same room as van Gogh’s self-portrait. I had seen both in real life just a few days earlier, on Tuesday during our visit to the Orsay. It was not the best representation of night, nor was it the best representation of Paris; but seeing it has made a lasting impression on me, and is a fond memory from our time in Paris.
Saturday 17 February (Hannah Binns)
And so we came to our final day in Paris. We’d all certainly given the city our all and experienced a good chunk of what it has to offer, but I’m sure we’ll all be back there soon to see all the things we didn’t have time for this trip. There was time, though, for a final bit of art history in the morning ….
Half of us went to Musée Rodin with Fran and the other went to Musée de Gustave Moreau with Greg. I had been looking forward to this particular trip all week and it did not disappoint. All the works are displayed in Moreau’s house. The first floor contains much of the artist’s furniture and memorabilia, while the second and third floors, where he had his studio, are home to a huge number of his paintings and sculptures.
I spent a long time on the very top floor looking at the various depictions of Salomé as I find late nineteenth-century femme fatale figures really interesting, partly thanks to studying art in fin-de-siècle Vienna last term with Dr Sam Shaw. Two of Moreau’s paintings of Salomé become the obsession of Des Esseintes in J K Huysmans’ 1891 novel, À Rebours, which I briefly studied in one of my English modules this year (I am a joint honours student, Art History and English). Moreau’s paintings of Salomé, through their featuring in Huysmans’ novel, also had a profound effect of Oscar Wilde who I also studied as part of the same English module. When Wilde wrote his play Salomé in 1891, he sent Moreau an inscribed copy by way of acknowledging the effect that Moreau’s works had had on him.
After a fantastic morning, a few of us headed for a final coffee and sandwich before we had to return to Birmingham, a city that, for all its charm, does not have quite the same calibre of baguettes. We all gathered at the hostel quite early, a definite feeling of fatigue hanging over us by this point. When the time came, we all boarded a coach, tootled to Gare du Nord, checked in and eventually climbed aboard the Eurostar back to London. Boggle made a brief appearance, but even I, renowned Boggle enthusiast, was too tired for many rounds. Then, before we knew it, we had made it to London Euston and were Birmingham-bound.
Truly, it was truly an incredible week. I’m sure that I speak for the whole group when I say that I am so grateful to Fran, Greg and Sara Tarter for making it so interesting, enjoyable and memorable!