Is It Eiffel Tower In My Window, or Too Much Vodka Last Night?

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 After a sleepless night on the plane, squeezed next to an alarmingly restless man who had either Tourette syndrome or was simply overdosed on drugs, I am at last in the city of everyone’s dreams. You guessed it right: I am in Paris and it’s the beginning of December, and it’s a gorgeous, sunny day. I can’t believe it -- is it the Eiffel Tower outside of my hotel room window? Ooh La La, what a contrast. Last time, in Paris for less than a day, I stayed in a cheap motel near the airport and had the misfortune of eating, at midnight, the most awful food in a bistro near Ille Saint-Louis . . . talk about the Last Supper in Paris.

This time, it’s quite different. I am invited by the tourism agency, Atout France, to come along with a small group of American journalists to experience French hospitality at its best. We are staying in the beautiful Shangri-La hotel, opened almost a year ago in a former palace, built in the late 19th century for the grandson of Napolean’s brother, Lucien Bonaparte.

(L) Cecil Beaton, Gertrude Stein, Alice B. Toklas. Courtesy the Cecil Beaton Studio. (R ) Matisse, Blue Nude, 1907. Installed in the Steins Collect at the Grand Palais in Paris. Photo: Remy De La Mauviniere.

With my hunger for art, the hotel’s location, in an exclusive 16th arrondissement, offers a great advantage: a cluster of museums within walking distance.  First thing first, I rush to the Grand Palais to see the blockbuster exhibition, The Steins Collect: Matisse, Picasso, and the Parisian Avant-Garde. I missed it in when it was in San Francisco a few months ago, but there is some poetic justice in seeing this remarkable collection in the very city where Gertrude Stein and her siblings lived and collected so adventurously during the intoxicating years of the Parisian Avant-Garde.

Georg Baselitz (L-R) Modell für eine Skulptur, 1979; Blauer Kopf 1.III., 1984; Volk Ding Zero - Folk Thing Zero, 2009.

The next day, at last fully awake, I discover, around the corner from my hotel, the Palais de Tokyo, housing the Musée d'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris (Museum of Modern Art of the City of Paris). Being pressed for time, I run through its remarkable permanent collection and only slow down for the temporary exhibition of my hero Georg Baselitz, major contemporary German artist. But the subject of this exhibition is not the paintings he is famous for, but his much less-familiar sculptures: intimidating, ugly yet beautiful and very roughly carved from solid blocks of wood.

Gustave Courbet, Le Sommeil (Sleep), 1866.

After that, my luck with the weather is over, but who cares? Only a ten minutes walk under an umbrella and I am in very un-crowded Petit Palais, with its peculiar but delightful mixture of classical and 19th century art. There, hangs one of the most beautiful and famous paintings by Gustav Courbet, Le Sommeil, or The Sleep,  the one that once scandalized Parisians with its sensual depiction of two gorgeous, naked women embraced while asleep.

View of the new galleries at the Musee d’Orsay in Paris, France.

As one could expect, recently refurbished Musee d’Orsay is very crowded with visitors eager to see its reinstalled collections. After the two years of gallery renovations, the famous Impressionist paintings, which were sent on a worldwide tour, including a stop at the De Young Museum in San Francisco, have at last come home.  To tell the truth, I never liked the museum’s old galleries and therefore am happy to report that now these galleries and, most importantly, the art installed there looks its absolute best.  I wish American curators would be as adventurous with use of color for gallery walls as their French colleagues. For example, here in L.A., LACMA’s current exhibition of Claude Monet’s Rouen Cathedrals is crying for any color but the off-white on its walls.
The last day of my short stay in Paris, I go to the Pompidou Center, where art of Los Angeles was celebrated in grand style a few years ago. Two temporary exhibitions are of particular interest to me. One is of Norwegian genius Edvard Munch, whose early works, like his beloved Scream, are well-known. This exhibition gives a rare chance to get to know his later, lesser-known works, with their more open, looser brushwork.

The other exhibition is of the crazy polka dots of the one and only Yayoi Kusama, Japanese artist extraordinaire whose paintings, sculptures and installations make you suspiciously happy and even a little bit high. You start to wonder if someone slipped a certain substance into your cup of coffee.

An exterior Jean Nouvel’s Museum Quai Branly in Paris, France.

I wish my last impression of Paris would be anything but the new, ambitious but utterly confusing Museum Quai Branly, built near the Eiffel Tower by Jean Nouvel. The museum’s first-rate collection of Pre-Colombian, Oceanic and African art definitely deserves better than what this building provides with its dark, claustrophobic galleries and busy exterior architecture relating to nothing in its splendid surroundings.  But never mind this one disappointment. No matter what, Paris will always remain its beautiful self.