| On 17 May 2001
three hundred stained glass specialists from Europe and North America in the
Corpus Vitrearum, an international committee for the preservation of
stained-glass windows, assembled in Troyes for their Fourth International
Forum on the conservation and technology of legacy stained glass. Troyes,
the old capital of the Comtes de Champagne, was chosen as the meeting place
for this confraternity of historians, art historians, preservationists,
master stained-glass specialists, and artists for its rich concentration
of stained-glass windows. The three-day conference included visits to
Troyes' famed St.Paul's and St.Peter's Cathedral, the Madeleine Church, the
Pantaléon Church, and the St.Urbain's Basilica. The forum examines the
theme of stained glass in its totality: heritage, history, techniques,
deontology of restoration, and complementary works.
| The Department
of Aube, of which Troyes is the capital, is one of France's richest in
works of art. Scattered in six hundred churches throughout the department,
thousands of art works and objets d'art make Aube the second in quantity,
and if assembled would create a museum of respectable size and quality.
There are 4,500 known protected works in addition to five to six
thousand paintings, sculptures and gold jewelries that are owned for the
most part by the state or local communities, and are preserved in churches.
Notable among the treasures are statuaries, paintings, and stained-glass
windows of the 15th and 16th centuries whose distinctive
techniques and characteristics came to be known as the école
Troyenne (School of Troyes)
After the heavy toll extracted by the Hundred Years War, Troyes
rebounded during the sixteenth century as the center of commerce and
industry. Wealthy merchants, now the new seigneurs who had eclipsed
the ruined aristocracy, renovated or built churches with donations, and
adorned them with works of art from the ateliers of local artisans,
stained-glass makers, painters, and sculptors.
It is during this period of great economic expansion that Troyes saw
a proliferation of stained-glass works, which now make up almost a quarter,
in surface area, of all French stained-glass creations. Troyes's Church of
Sainte Madeleine, with its finely carved rood screen, the Cathedral of St.
Peter and St. Paul, which tell the stained-glass story, and the Church of
St. Pantaléon with its statuary collection are testimony to the artistic
achievement made possible by the enlightened philanthropy of the great
families and confréries.
| Aube Department
is rich in beautiful churches, not only in cities and towns but in the
rural areas as well. Even in the most modest villages the church
attracts attention with its pointed arches, its finely sculpted portal, and
its graceful flèche (steeple) dominating the plain. Springing
from a Gothic origin these sixteenth-century churches show an architectural
style that archaeologists call the groupe troyen du XVIe. siècle (the
group of Troyes of the 16th century).
| Mid-spring in Paris is
warm this year. The whirlwind tour that is to take me from northern France to
southern England and the Netherlands has just begun.
The first leg of the journey is the pilgrimage to the one spot on earth that
art lovers, art historians, or anyone with cultural interest will do well
Yesterday our Parisian friends, Jacques and I drove to Giverny, northeast of
Paris, where Claude Monet had built his house and flower garden, from which he
produced some of the most celebrated Impressionist masterpieces. If you
possess poetic sensibility, no, if you possess any kind of sensibility, go to
Giverny. Though I cannot guarantee you perfect bliss, the place will
change your outlook. Follow a narrow winding road to this secluded country
corner, stop at a tell-tale busy three-way intersection covered with curtains
of trees, walk across a tiny parking lot to a roadside structure that looks
nothing like a ticket office, get your ticket there, and enter the world of
Claude Monet. The polyglot crowd from all continents that has already arrived
on its pilgrimage here is now greeting you.
Emerging from an obligatory walk through the gift shop (which was
the painter's former workshop) profusely hung
with replicas of Monet's masterpieces, you will face a huge garden. Down
one side of the crowded eden his long three-story home, whose green
shutters and white walls rise from a hillside, presides over a domain
of nature he designed to create his many landscape paintings. Everything
in the house is as it was when Monet lived there over a hundred years ago.
Dinnerware is secured in antique cabinets, and the 19th-century kitchen with authentic
appliances and plumbing is still in good working condition. The
paintings and drawings on the walls are by Japanese artists
such as Hiroshige, who were the rage in Europe
during the mid 1800's, and by his contemporaries. Much as you would like to
linger at each work, the crowds relentlessly push you onward from one claustrophobic room
to the next.
The garden is a blend of human care and untamed nature. Manicured
flowerbeds explode in luxuriant colors in a landscape of bamboo groves,
maples, and centuries-old oak. In its midst the famous pond so familiar
to Monet's fans displays patches of water lilies that attract dragonflies,
and lush bushes spread to the water's edge. Foot paths wind through
arcades of spring blossoms and green boughs, along narrow brooks and the
pond, across thickets, among flowers, brushes, and tall ornamental
grasses. At one pond-side vantage point an intense professional
photographer from California is absorbed in shooting the beautiful scene
on the other side. She comes to Giverny every year for the past ten
years. By far the biggest draw is one of the Japanese footbridges
that on this spring morning is completely covered with luxuriant, thick
clusters of pink lilacs. As you stroll among the flowerbeds, recall Monet's many still
lifes with flowers. They are still thriving here: lilac, lavender, roses, peonies, irises,
tulips, pansies, poppies, hydrangeas, daisies, begonias, chyrsanthemums, and
more. Words alone cannot adequately describe the magic
of the scene. For this monumental task poets, writers, painters,
composers, musicians, photographers, and cinematographers may have to
combine their forces.
The School of Paris (école de Paris) is the appellation of a very
disparate assembly of sculptors, poets, writers, musicians, and artists from
foreign countries in Europe, from America, and from Japan, who were attracted
to Paris during the pre- and inter-war years of 1904 through 1929, by its
beauty, fame, cultural tradition, artistic creation, and intellectual
achievement. It is not a school in the conventional sense of a defined
worldview, program, or theory. There were no leaders or followers. What this
group has in common is love of a cultural environment that fosters the
untrammeled flowering of ideas and talents that they felt was non-existent,
uninspiring, or stifling in their native countries. In short, Paris. Each
brings his own idiosyncrasies, culture, experiences, and dreams. From the
powerful spark of that diversity, reinforced by the Jewishness
of many among them, they leave their distinct mark on the scene of modernism.
German newspapers used the term School of Paris before World War I when they
were looking for avant-garde movements with which to contrast their
It is easy to see why Paris is such a powerful magnet. The beauty and grace
of its buildings and public spaces, the harmonious blend of styles, the
romantic tree-lined boulevards, the cafes that are incubators of creative
ideas, the cultural tradition, the pervasive artistic atmosphere, the
quasi-permanent expatriate intellectual community, and above all the
intellectual ferment that is the quintessence of the Gallic genius, one that
values ideas, thoughts, logic, argumentation, and protest. To those who feel
constrained in their aspirations, who drift along with shackled artistic
élan, who see their creativity stymied, their intellectual ambitions
thwarted, or their opportunities closed, Paris beckons. It promises
| The Russian Chagall,
Orloff, Zadkine; the Ukrainian Archipenko; the Italian Modigliani; the
Bulgarian Pascin; the Japanese Foujita, Koyonagui; the Dutch Mondrian; the
Spanish Picasso, Gris; Soutine,
Lipchitz, Krémègne, Kikoïne of Lithuania; Kisling, Marcoussis, Esptein, Zak,
Halicka, Aberdam, Feuerring of Poland; Kupka, Kars of Czechoslovakia; Krogh
of Norway; Bondy, Czobel of Hungary; Brancusi, Codreano of Romania; Man Ray,
Braque, De Chirico, Utrillo, Kandinsky,and a hundred others installed
themselves on the hills of Montmartre and Montparnasse. In Montmartre many,
including the Spaniard Picasso during his Blue Period, the Dutch Van Dongen,
the writer Mac Orlan, the sculptor Gargalo, the painter Juan Gris, the poet
André Salmon, lived in the Bateau-Lavoir, the nickname given by the poet Max
Jacob (from Brittany) to the building at 13 rue Ravignan, whose beams and
floor threatened to crumble every time the wind blew a little too hard, and
which reminded him of the flimsy péniches-lavoirs moored in the River
Seine. This bohemian quarter also sheltered Matisse, Derain, Dufy, Braque,
Modigliani, Utrillo, Lipchitz, Jean Cocteau, Gertrude Stein among others. The
Bateau-Lavoir had acquired a mythical aura by becoming the center of
creativity of new trends by these foreign artists.
Then after 1910 when Montmartre became too inundated with tourists, many
crossed the Seine to the heights of Montparnasse: Henri Rousseau
(a former customs officer turned artist), Picasso, Vlaminck, Pascin, Foujita,
Van Dongen, Cocteau. Many artists and writers took up residence in La
Ruche (the Beehive), a building on the blind alley Dantzig, among whom
Lipchitz, Soutine, Krémègne, Kikoïne, Kisling, Zadine, Epstein, and Gottlieb.
| They were the bohemians
of the modern world. All came with a dream
in search of opportunity. When reality set in, some of them would entertain
suicidal thoughts (such as Picasso and his homosexual friend Max Jacob for a
brief moment); one actually committed suicide (Modigliani in 1920). Some
hovered at the poverty line while others eventually struck it rich (such as
Picasso). Between themselves they brought their varied talents and
expectations to the century, and their canvases created its idioms, supported
by their spiritual kins in the literary arena.
Imagine the effervescence of this multilingual artist community, many of
whom Jews from Russia, Poland, Germany, Romania, who all understood only one
word when they arrived: Paris. Like Julius Caesar, some could say, Veni,
vidi, vici and set out to conquer the modern art world, and to give art
critics a run for their isms. Among this amorphous and diverse colony, those
who came from Eastern Europe would be influenced by Expressionism, the German
Expressionism of the Die Brücke (The Bridge), and Der Blaue
Reiter (The Blue Rider) groups. They spent their time endlessly
discussing art, engaged in love affairs, living nocturnal lives,
patronizing bars, and working intensely on their unclassifiable canvases.
Putting their new-found freedom to work, they experimented with avant-garde
approaches. Having assimilated current trends such as Fauvism,
Post-Impressionism, and Futurism, they evolved a multiplicity of strands in
which forms are purified to the extreme. Brancusi experimented with
primitivist symbolism. Modigliani, the accursed, his
African inspirations, Zadkine his expressionist cubism.
Chagall his chromatic variations in
reminiscences of his internal fairy-tale universe of the Russian country
(To him the sun of art shone in Paris brighter than elsewhere). Picasso
emerged from his Blue Period to dominate the century beginning with
analytical Cubism he developed with Georges Braque.
Mondrian tended to abstract forms while Kupka courted contrasts in cubism.
Chaim Soutine, the most liberated, sensual and
violent, explored his unconscious world and the earthy details of daily life.
School of Paris artists paint with intensity and passion using bold
colors and energetic brush, and the greatest of them inject their
Jewishness in their works: Modigliani, Soutine, Pascin, Kisling and
Chagall. Melding their cultural heritage with their freedom to experiment
they express deep emotions ranging from sadness to ectasy in a new
vocabulary of their own.
Is it any wonder that together without the
benefit of a common weltanschauung they are called the School of Paris?
Some say this name now seems passé or inappropriate. But there is no
other appropriate name.
Among the many galleries that took a chance with these foreigners whose
numbers steadily grew over the years were Galerie Bernheim
Jeune, Galerie Bing, Galerie Berthe Weill, Galerie Druet, Galerie des Quatre
Chemins, Galerie Chéron. These and other art dealers spread the School of
Paris works from the United States to Argentine to Japan, adding an international
dimension to their reach. In the 1919 Salon d'Automne 178 foreign
artists participated. In the year 1924 the Salon des Indépendants had
322 foreign participants. And even though this cosmopolitan community found
acceptance into French culture difficult, the press and art critics wrote
reviews and praises for their creations. It was a community apart existing
outside French mainstream artistic tradition but enriching its city of adoption
beyond what anyone could have anticipated.
Before long the winds of change rose. By 1925 a wave of xenophobia and
antisemitism was sweeping Europe when signs of an economic slump became
increasingly evident. The French national press joined in a reversal to nationalism,
and journalists and critics repudiated their fulsome praise of School of Paris
artists. The critic Waldemar George now likened the Ecole de Paris to a house
of cards, and exhorted a return to French tradition. In this new climate of
intolerance, the exodus began which heralded the disintegration of the School.
Kisling, Soutine, Krull left for the provinces. Foujita, Krogh, Grünewald
returned to their countries of origin. At the outset of the Second World War
many were persecuted, left the country, or joined the war never to return.
Thus for decades before and after the war the School of Paris sank into oblivion
until the Director of the Paris Museum of Modern Art Suzanne Pagé, dusting off
its forgotten records, revived it in an exhibition entitled "L'Ecole de Paris,
1904-1929, La part de l'autre." From 4 December 2000 through 11 March 2001
the museum celebrated these avant-garde foreigners and at the same time
educated the public on primitivism and cubism in their sociological contexts.
Whether French art establishment admits it or not, the School of Paris is
a unique experience in art history, and its impact on modern art is undeniable.
It was absolutely fitting to finally recognize this cosmopolitan community and
its contributions. In spite of past intolerance and rejection, Paris ought
to be proud that it was chosen to be the nexus of such an influx of artists
from so many countries at such an exciting historical juncture.
Gare de l'Est bustled with activity as travelers darted in all directions
or clustered in long lines in front of the information windows or ticket windows.
It was early afternoon of a sunny and warm spring day in Paris. Jacques and I mingled
in the crowds, most of whom lugging packs on their backs, pulling wheeled suitcases
or carrying briefcases in their hands, all of whom looking preoccupied with
thoughts of trips to some destination. A constant din filled the huge train
station, which was from time to time drowned out by announcements of departures.
Con artists too were out in force to take advantage of the travelers' slightest
moment of inattention to abscond with their bags. Dressed decently and looking
for all the world like everyone else, they worked in teams, efficiently, speedily,
and infallibly. They would wait patiently around a line that forms in front of
any window for travelers who, while busy buying a ticket or seeking information,
relax their guard by setting their bags down. In less time than the unsuspecting
owners can say "thief," the bags are gone.
Our train slowly pulled out by mid-afternoon carrying Jacques and me to the lovely
medieval city on the Seine, which he characterized as just the right size town
for him. Soon our train was hurtling through a country of curvaceous rolling green
hills that stretch endlessly into the horizon toward the Swiss border, and filling my
heart with palpitations of an indescribable sort.
O, to see Troyes again! Like coming home after a long absence abroad.
It is a curious feeling for I had not lived there long enough to develop the
bond of love of a native son. Yet somehow the affinity was real, and my thoughts
were with Joachim du Bellay, one of the poets of The Pleiades, whose Regrets
spoke, among other things, of his profound nostalgia for his Liré home in Anjou
while serving as secretary to his ambassador uncle Cardinal du Bellay, in Rome
Quand reverrai-je, hélas, de mon petit village
Fumer la cheminée, et en quelle saison
Reverrai-je le clos de ma pauvre maison
Qui m'est une province et beaucoup davantage?
Alas, when will I see of my village again
The chimney smoke, and in what season of the year
Behold the croft of yon my humble home and dear,
To me a kingdom great and yet a great deal more?
Unlike du Bellay, I was going to see my "home town" again, and its charm intact
on the River Seine. It was for both Jacques and me going to be a time to catch
up on news and how each of us had fared thousands of miles from each other in the
interim. My thoughts were racing ahead to the cobbled streets, the timber-frame
houses, the narrow lanes, the pedestrian public spaces, the sidewalk cafés and
restaurants, the churches, the pace of life, and the people.
Jacques, for his part, had a head full of plans for my visit to his almost-native
town. He talked affectionately about a walking tour of its charming quarters, its
environs, then about a drive to Bourgogne, Dijon, Beaune, and all those historic sites
whose stories are as engaging as any fiction works. There is the Route des vins
(Road of wines) to Burgundy, along which lie vineyards whose famous names resound among
connoisseurs the world over. He loves Troyes, and wants me to experience it in
a way that will leave an enduring imprint in my mind.
At the end of the hour-and-a-half-long trip we walked out of the Troyes station to
Jacques' waiting car, which he had left in a parking area reserved for employees of
SNCF (Société Nationale des Chemins de Fer). For almost three decades he was
a doctor with this French national railroad company. A short drive brought us to
his swank home, standing there as it has for the past hundred odd years, with
smiles on its gables and joy exuding from every wall, door, and window. The yellow
and red roses in the garden vied for attention, and the flower-bed exploded in a
riot of vibrant colors. Still the same charm, the same warmth, the same allure.
They all seemed to jump out of their skin to hug their old friend, and to say
sweet words of "welcome back." As I crossed the graveled yard to the house,
my steps crushing the shifting pebbles began to revive old memories. Inside
a magic spell awakened every inanimate object, which seemed eager to
tell me its story. A flood of reminiscences
inundated my every gaze, at the dining table where we had had our first lunch
before the afternoon excursions, at the couch where champagne had lubricated our
introduction, at the modern paintings on the dining-room and living-room walls.
Every step through this gallery of twentieth-century art was a step down memory lane.
The images from the last visit came back: the champagne, the wine, our Parisian
friends, Jacques, Yvonne, and the conversation, endless conversation, around the
That night we spent long hours re-discovering Jacques' past, his school days, his
medical studies, his practice, and, most importantly, his deceased wife Anne. From
these glimpses I could see the great role she had played in his happiness. Now the many
lasting friendships he had forged over the years among the town's elite, and the
innumerable acts of kindness and generosity from this web of relationships contributed
greatly to a measure of peace and happiness he now enjoys. Memories of the old days always
have their own sweet aspect, and their attraction resides in our ability to select
whatever we want to bring back. O, to be able to relive our past, selectively!
The Moulin d'Eguebaude
On the first day, we drove out to the Commune of Estissac to see Jacques'
friends, who own a thriving family business in pisciculture and the hospitality
industry. Tucked away from the beaten path and nestled in an idyllic patch of
green trees on rolling hills some twenty kilometers west of Troyes, was
a haven designed to melt away all your cares and worries for the duration of your
stay. The unfolding scenery started a parade of images of famous landscapes painted by
Watteau, Corot, Constable, Turner, and others through my mind.
Simply put, this bucolic setting enchants with the serenity and beauty that invite
immortalization by music, painting, or poetry. Without gifts in any of these arts,
I wish I could conjure up Corot's spirit to put this landscape on canvas. I
would not want an Impressionist, who will give me colors and light but no clear detail.
Nor would I want a Cubist, who excels in breaking up reality into geometrical
forms. Not a Surrealist, who cares only about his internal phantasmagoric world.
Not an abstract artist, who gives me too much work for my brain already overloaded
with sensations and impressions from the unrelenting onslaught of the modern multi-media
environment. Not a Jackson Pollock, whose impenetrable action paintings can only
worsen the torpor in which my mind sinks every time it sees lines, curves, and spirals
jumbled together. Not a Piet Mondrian, whose abstract grids of rectangles and bars may just
hyponotize the daylight out of my poorly endowed conscious self. Just give me an
old-fashioned Baroque or Romantic era artist, whose work would allow me to
commune with nature without the onus of intellectual, psychological, historical,
psychoanalytical, or socio-political theoretic speculation.
At the end of a long driveway that terminates in a spacious parking lot
just beyond the wooden bridge over a roaring creek, two two-story buildings
sit at right angle with each other. On the far side rises the family home, and by
the creek is the bed-and-breakfast-cum-variety-store, with the name Moulin
d'Eguebaude emblazoned in bold Gothic letters over its entrance. Alongside
the tumultuous creek lined with shady trees and spreading on either side of the
buildings lies the tidy fish farm.
Edouard, Jacques' friend and former class-mate, is a sturdy man with a bushy
head of white hair probably in his early sixties. As we were pulling up his
driveway, he dropped his long-handled fishnet and hurried out to greet us. In
work clothes made up of a heavy sweater to ward off the chill, and heavy rubber
boots to protect against splashes, Edouard walked us around his domain. Soon his
vivacious, charming wife Chantal, who was quite sprightly for her age,
joined in. She looked like an actress-vacationer from Hollywood getting away from
it all after finishing another blockbuster movie. But she has her feet firmly
planted on the ground and knows more about fish farming than a movie star can
hope to learn during a vacation. She delighted us with torrents of information
about her fish, and, like a proud mother, lifted them out of their ponds in her
outsize net to show off their size.
The fish farm uses the water from the creek ingeniously diverted, stored, and
controlled to feed each concrete fish basin with exactly the right amount of water
and the right flow speed. It produces trout and a hybrid salmon resulting from
cross-fertilizing the salmon and the trout. The salmon is smoked as a delicacy,
and sold fresh in the local market. The fresh-water hybrid has the orange color
of its salt-water cousin, but is tenderer and tastier. Edouard led us into the
hatchery, a low-slung building by the creek. The dimly lit room, the distinctive
smell of fish food, the deep concrete tanks where the fish reproduce and grow,
present a sight unlike anything I have seen. As well as raising hundreds of
thousands of specimens, this facility produces fish eggs for export. It is from
this land-locked facility that his fish eggs traveled abroad to populate farms
and provide gourmet diners with the unique taste from the heart of Champagne.
Listed in the French guide Gîtes de France the Moulin d'Eguebaude
is a delightful bed-and-breakfast with a wood-frame upper story and a
brick-veneered ground floor, and is well-known from the United States to Japan.
Right at the entrance the boutique du terroir offers locally made craft
and food products: champagne, souvenirs, gifts, fruit preserves, smoked ham, smoked
salmon, snacks, and gift baskets of select farm products. The term terroir
in French has no exact English equivalent. It is well-known in the
vocabulary of viticulture and refers to the land, the chemical composition of
the soil, the climate, the weather, the human care, the accumulated wisdom of
centuries of grape growing, and the mythical something
that gives a wine its specific quality.
This boutique du terroir certainly partakes of the mystique of the term.
Besides the ubiquitous champagne of the region, its house specialty is the fresh
smoked salmon of Eguebaude, prepared with the perfected technique that makes it a
well-appreciated choice delicacy for any occasion. The remaining half of the
large floor space serves as the guests' dining room, where gourmet meals may be
ordered for groups. Contemporary oil paintings from local artists enliven the
interior, and wide windows open onto magnificent views on the creek and the idyllic
environment, where you can fish for trout, take leisurely walks in the woods, or
just relax. The five cozy bedrooms occupy the upper story, with private baths
and a total capacity of eleven guests. When the guided tour of the premises
hosted by Chantal ended, I took a deep breath and looked around. The peace and quiet,
the woods, the creek, the idyllic fields beyond, and the congeniality of the hosts
all combine to promise a wonderful time away from the hubbub and maddening pace
of modern life. Jacques thinks this is an ideal place for honeymooners. I think
it is an ideal place to enjoy life for at the Moulin d'Eguebaude it is
home away from home in the bosom of affectionate Mother Nature.
A pleasant surprise awaited us in the home of this entrepreneurial couple. Here
is an ivy-covered brick house of a most curious kind. As we climbed the wooden
stairs to their living and sleeping quarters, Edouard pointed at a door by the
first landing. I looked up and saw a leaning blue door frame with one jamb three
or four inches taller than the other. Is this an optical illusion or a joke?
Edouard laughed his mysterious laugh all the while warning me against touching it,
and we continued our ascent to their homey world.
As we entered the living area, a scene of tranquil intimacy unfolded. Rustic
furniture adorned this private space, and a door in the far wall, which led to
a still more secluded den, looked as crooked and out of proportion as the first
one we encountered on the way up. As for the floor it was imperceptibly sloping
toward the entrance with a difference of about twenty inches between the highest
and lowest points, according to Edouard! After satisfying himself that I was on
the point of dying from curiosity, Edouard lifted the veil of mystery by
confiding that the house is really not one but two adjacent structures that had
to be meshed together.
We sat down to a country-style goûter of country bread, fruit preserves,
and tea, as my eyes roamed around the walls and ceiling. Just like Jacques' living
room, Edouard's is a veritable gallery of contemporary and modern art. Structural
timbers, which are visible, lend a note of unmitigated rusticity to the décor.
Here in the heart of Champenois country serenity is the essence of domestic
life. And at the Moulin d'Eguebaude communion with nature is the theme.
As we said our reluctant good-bye to Edouard and Chantal, and Jacques' car was
rolling past the bridge over the romantic creek of Eguebaude, I knew my heart
had been left behind.
The Lac-Réservoir Aube
Due East of Troyes two systems of man-made lakes lie between the Seine River
and its large tributary the Aube: the Lac-Réservoir Seine and the Lac-Réservoir
Aube. These artificial lakes form part of a network of similarly created lakes and
dams to control the Seine and its powerful tributaries, the Aube, the Marne and the
Yonne, in the Champagne-Ardenne Region. The hydrological project was conceived and
designed primarily to maintain water equilibrium in the Seine River basin, and
secondarily to achieve the objectives of nature conservancy, and provide
recreational and sports facilities.
Jacques and I arrived at the Aube reservoir on a gray and drizzly
morning at the site of a motorboat landing. The weather was not exactly clement,
and the only two people whom we met in their van were probably county employees
out on an inspection tour. A narrow jetty advances some distance into the lake
for line fishing. The lake extends as far as the eye can see with the hazy treeline
silhouetted against the horizon, and its water is as calm as a mirror. It is hard
to realize that all these waters come from the Seine and the Aube to flood 1186
acres of the Forêt du Temple under Lac Amance, and 4546 acres of the
Forêt d'Orient and Forêt du Temple under Lac du Temple. The lakes
are linked by a mile-long connecting canal capable of moving a maximum flow
of 139 million gallons per hour. A 2.75-mile-long intake canal near the town of
Jessains diverts the waters from the Aube to Lake Amance. Another, two-mile-long,
canal returns water from the Lac du Temple to the Aube near the Commune
The project is administered by a Paris-based government agency called the
Inter-departmental Institute for the Dams and Reservoirs of the Seine River Basin,
which also manages the Lac-Réservoir Seine, the Lac-Réservoir Marne, and the
Lac-Réservoir de Pannecière. Basically the system absorbs the spring flows of
the Seine and its tributaries, and excessive precipitations, and releases water
into the Seine during the dry summer months under normal weather conditions, or
when drought conditions so warrant, to protect the Paris region from the
vagaries of flooding.
The lakes and the dams that control them are subjected to stringent daily inspection
and surveillance to insure the safety of their operation and the population. Le
Lac-Réservoir Aube has 1650 sensors embedded throughout the dam-revervoir complex.
A warning system consisting of sirens strategically placed in the immediate areas
of the Brevonnes dam on the northern shore of Lac du Temple alerts the population
to vacate to designated high grounds with a series of more than three two-second
siren blasts interrupted by three-second intervals of silence.
Nature trails crisscross the forested land and follow the lake shores and
dam contours. Whereas the Lac du Temple is reserved for quiet water sports such
as rowing and sailing, the smaller Lac Amance is open for all kinds of sports and
recreational activities. There are wooded rest and picnic areas, beaches and
installations for swimming, boating, kayaking, canoeing, sailing, fishing, and
water skiing. Both lakes abound with bird watching stations, where as many as
160 species of birds may be observed depending on the season, and with protected
nesting sites for black storks and terns.
On this drizzly day Jacques and I had to be content with looking over the
immense lake and imagining the activities that take place there in fairer
weather. As my gaze was traversing the vast expanse of water of the Lac-Réservoir
Aube, and a soft breeze was gently blowing in from the horizon, I had a distinct
impression of facing a serene sea far more friendly than the one that was battering
the unfortunate people on Géricault's Raft of Medusa.
If the forest that the lake submerged had been soothing, its waters were anything
but predictable. When Lamartine sat on the shore of the lake
of Bourget to implore it to preserve forever the memory of his love for Elvire
(Mme Charles), he was in the midst of verdant nature. I was here confronted by
water without a
rocky ledge to rest my feet, but with only a sandy beach lapped by the tiny rolling
ripples stirred up by the breeze. The lake was unthreatening, but my muse had left for
other climes. Jacques and I took leave of the lake for the dryer comfort of his home.
Jacques' Art Collection
Over the years Jacques's taste for art has shifted from Impressionism through
Symbolism to Expressionism. Now it is the School of Paris that commanded his
loyalty. He has several pieces by denizens of this group: Blond, Dobrinsky, Pascin,
Krémègne,Epstein, Hayden, Kikoîne, Lubitch, Naiditch, Volovick, and Foujita, on
display in the living and dining areas, the stairwells, the hallways, the bedrooms,
and his study. Many others are in storage for lack of wall space. The collection
consists primarily of landscapes with a sprinkling of portraits and still lifes.
All bear the mark of the diverse inspirations that characterize members of the
group. Jacques fondly recalls the hardship he and his wife had to endure to
acquire the art works, and how they were determined to "eat only potato, if necessary"
rather than forgo the purchase of a painting they both loved. I wish I had the time
to study each one to do it justice, but time is a scarce commodity. Just as an art
gallery or museum demands return visits, Jacques' collection calls for nothing less.
Yet as I lingered albeit for a brief moment in front of each piece, it seemed
to speak to me with a voice coming from the mythical aura of the Bateau-Lavoir,
as if every one of the paintings had been created by the School
of Paris artists
who had lived there seven decades ago. Some of the atmosphere of that distant
Paris, to which this community of artists from all over Europe, North America and
Japan had flocked to breathe, was here in each painting, frozen in time, for my
imagination to breathe too. I did not much care if reality had been harsher to
them than my mind could contemplate. Whatever conditions of life they had lived
through mattered only to the extent that their works embodied them to pass them
on for us to see and appreciate. To me this voice through time is one of the
marvelous qualities of art.
Equally impressive is his collection of objets d'art and artifacts
originating principally from the Far East. In a modest size cabinet Cambodian
masks, Chinese jade carvings, Japanese ivory figurines, Indonesian knives, and
other objects from Singapore, and Malaysia lie beside Vietnamese imperial seals
that Vietnam's last emperor Bao Dai sold, I cannot imagine for what reason.
These seals, once endowing each piece of imperial edicts with the force of law,
are now devoid of power, mere relics from a lost empire and a nation's change of
fortune among others that are scattered in museums and private collections in the
old and new world.
One item attracts my attention by its miniscule size. It is a grain of rice on which is
inscribed an entire Chinese poem, set inside a glass tube the size of a cigarette
with a ridiculous loupe attached to the frame that holds all the parts together to
allow those with eagle eyes to read. How even a short stanza was written on a grain
of rice must be a feat that only an ingenious calligrapher with a steady hand can
pull off. Needless to say my eyes cannot see anything through the loupe but a blurry blob.
In a corner a bookcase holds collectors' editions of French literary masterpieces
and art treatises. A grand piano stands in the middle of the front room, now silent
but once filling it with classical music from the virtuoso hands of his deceased
wife Ann. Jacques pulled out a couple of humorous posters made in his honor by a
Swedish psychiatrist-artist who also illustrated a book that he co-authored. The
posters probably do not quite qualify as fine art, but then who could say Toulouse-Lautrec's
posters of the Moulin-Rouge and the Montmartre night life are not?
The Medieval Town
During the 12th century, under the astute leadership of the Comtes of Champagne
Troyes prospered as a center of regional trade for the Champagne-Ardenne region,
and as one of the most important centers of international commerce. After the Normans
and Italians cleared the eastern Mediterranean Sea of Muslim influence, especially
after the First Crusade of the eleventh century, trade with the Near-East began
to flourish. Goods from China and India brought to the Persian Gulf and Red Sea
ports were carried by caravan to the ports of Alexandria, Joppa and Acre, from
which Venetian, Genoese and Pisan merchants transported them to Italy then to markets
in Northern Europe. From Marseilles routes led up the Rhône River valley to the
county of Flanders, a trade center for wood and tin from Britain, forestry
products from the Baltic region, Flemish wool cloth, oriental silk, spices and
sugar. Among the towns and cities that sprang up along these trade routes, Troyes
held a prominent position by organizing seasonal or annual fairs for these
international merchants even before they reached Flanders. Troyes vied with the
other cities in the Hanseatic League for a thriving international commerce that
contributed to the prosperity and diversity of Northern European economies.
Today's Troyes resembles a champagne cork whose top is defined by a loop in
the River Seine, with its sides delimited by two parallel boulevards,
Boulevard du 14 juillet to the South, and Boulevard Gambetta to the North, and its
bottom by two others, Boulevard Carnot that continues as Boulevard Victor Hugo beyond
the Place General Patton. Another view likens it to the shape of a cathedral, whose
apse lies at the Seine's curvature. A transverse canal, fed by the Seine,
delineates its transept farther down whereas its façade looks to the southwest.
Both views have merits. I like to think of the first as the embodiment of
the town's economic stature and its gracious living. Undoubtedly
a prominent native product, champagne permeates everyday living from producers
to consumers and connoisseurs like Jacques, who is a Chevalier de la Commanderie
du Saulte-Bouchon (roughly, Knight of the Order of the Pop-Cork). This is a
society of champagne enthusiasts whose exclusive membership requires the sponsorship
of a chevalier of good standing, an initiation ceremony that features speeches
by local dignitaries, an elaborate ten-course gourmet dinner that titillates
fastidious palates served with ten of the most renowned champagnes, and a
membership fee. Each chevalier receives a medallion hanging from a blue collar of
the order, and a ready-to-frame distinguished-looking certificate. Once "knighted,"
it's noblesse oblige. No self-respecting chevalier will throw a party
without champagne. That would be an infraction so egregious it might rank perhaps
next to high treason. I know of no rules that expel chevaliers for unbecoming behavior,
but if any behavior deserves expulsion I submit it must be hosting a champagne-deprived
party, provided, of course, that you got caught.
The other view of Troyes accentuates its religious heritage. There are in this
town enough churches to fill treatises of art, literature, architecture, history,
and religion for a long time. How can the poetry of the Basilica of St. Urbain's
façade be exhausted? In place of the usual massive clustered piers, St.
Urbain's sports svelte columns, as if to accent the vaulting aspirations of
earthy people towards heaven. The lacy portals, like filigreed work, show in
fine detail the delicate carvings that would take the patience of Job to realize.
Its flying buttresses too are slender as there is no need for weighty supports
for such a seemingly weightless structure. The entire edifice exudes an ethereal
character rather un-Gothic-like for a Gothic masterwork.
In the midst of the eastern section known as the City Quarter stands the St. Peter's
and St. Paul's Cathedral. To one side of the cobbled parvis a discreet
waterfall over a long, low dark marble slab provides a soothing relief without
being obtrusive. Each of the three portals in the main façade
is surmounted by a triangular structure so light and airy that it seems to float
rather than rest on the pillar. And even though the pillars here are as massive
as in other large Gothic cathedrals, the interior is atmospheric, and the light
that filters through the stained glass windows of the clerestory accents the
austerity of the décor with their deep primary red, blue and green. If you are a
stained-glass specialist, historian, or enthusiast, you have come home, for the town
has a quarter of the surface area of stained-glass creations of France. To the
community of art scholars and historians, Troyes is the undisputed
stained glass capital of the world. On exiting the cathedral linger a little
at the fountain on the plaza to bring with you its fresh breath and lilting music.
Adjoining the cathedral the Museum of Modern Art houses some of the richest
collections of twentieth-century art by Derain, Dufy,
Van Dongen, Vlaminck,
Modigliani and Soutine among others. It is hard to ignore the Janus-faced
character of this juxtaposition: one side steeped in the distant past, the other
looking to the contemporary and future. My only regret is in having failed to
see the works on two attempts, once on a Tuesday, its normal closed day, and once
on Ascension, a holiday. It seems appropriate that a cultural institution such as
a museum should open on holidays for the many people who cannot find the time
during the working week to benefit from its rich offerings.
Even for those who are constrained by time a visit to the Church of Ste. Madeleine
imposes itself. This is a rather unique building. As churches go, the Ste.
Madeleine's is neither very tall nor very large, but it boasts a masterpiece of
a rood screen (le jubé), which is a marvel of stone carving from the sixteenth
century. An old couple that Jacques and I met on the street, who pointed at a
closed storefront that had been their business address forty years ago, praised
the jubé as a must-see wonder. And that was a sober assessment. Spanning a
portion of the nave, the screen is a limestone structure whose arabesques are
finely sculpted. Looking up from below the screen under accent lighting, I
could not help marveling at the intricate detail, and wondered how the medium
of crude stone could be so compelling in its impact. The carvings hung delicately
like hand-wrought stalactites from the ceiling of a man-made cave. The work brings
to mind the inimitable Baroque sculptor Bernini, whose marble chefs-d'oeuvre
gracefully capture the vividness, freshness, and naturalness of every detail of
his subjects and their clothes. But a comparison would be inappropriate as the
media are not the same.
The Wood-Frame Houses
Like medieval sections of many old towns, medieval Troyes is compact, replete
with cobbled streets, short twisted narrow alleys,
and wood-frame houses. The latter deserve a monograph to explore their charm.
To me wood-frame houses are designed to capture your heart with immediacy,
intimacy, intensity, and inevitability. Once you come under their spell, you
are bewitched and forever changed. Although in various stages of restoration,
if only to insure structural soundness, they speak with the inextinguishable
voices from a distant past. Each beam, upright and crosspiece is made from
time-wizened oak that is irregularly-shaped, rough-hewn and crude, never straight,
and exposed to centuries of abuse by the elements, yet stubbornly refusing to
decay. On close examination many of these timbers show remarkable resilience in
spite of the visible injuries of time. The timber hardened into rock shows
its fibrous texture like a muscular Hercules, solid to the touch, as sturdy
as a mountain. The spaces between the timbers, which are filled with lighter
and neutral-colored stucco-like materials, complete the wall surface and its
enchanting quality. Troyes overflows with these gems.
Picture in your mind's eye a God-forsaken, narrow, and darkened alley lined with
these structures. La Ruelle des Chats (Cat's Lane) readily comes to mind.
Resting as if on the legs of a drunkard, their walls define a verticality more
characteristic of a surrealist fantasy than of mathematically exact architectural
design. They spring from a dream, from the unconscious; in short, they seem to
embody creation sans awareness of, or concern for, objective reality. These timbered
walls do not stand up straight: they lean forward or sideways, they teeter, they
sway, they threaten to crumble. They defy gravity, perpendicularity, and plumb.
They almost touch each other over the lane along which they choose to stand as
if to offer each other the strength of closeness. They were built by and for the
common people, and for some unfathomable reason they endure just as long as the
impregnable fortified castle of their day, which was built by and for
the aristrocracy. Therein resides their mystique and, supremely, their poetry.
I deplore any restoration work that involves mechanical tools that cut, split,
saw, hew, route, plane, or grind with the precision allowed by modern science and
technology. This approach can only produce ersatz, unimaginative, box-like
structures that will abide eons of drab monotony and boredom. For I have
seen either restorations or new constructions that betray the building techniques
of a modern skyscraper, with timber frames precisely laid, and walls painted in
bright primary colors so loved by the Fauves. I would rather have a house
whose exposed timbers seemingly belie an unsophisticated architectural design, that
menaces to topple the next minute, and yet goes on to echo for centuries the
cries of joy and creativity that can only issue from remarkable minds.
Walk to the medieval Baker's House, where in those bygone days supplies had
to be hoisted upstairs by a pulley installed on its face. Now the patinated façade
and walls still seem to echo the noisy bustling activities of old at this corner.
Look up and you can almost see the baker's wife in her
bonnet waving down like a Juliet at her Romeo. The building is today a venue for
cultural exchanges and meetings. Just opposite is the sixteenth-century Silversmith's
Turret, a picturesque round structure built by a silversmith named François Roizé.
These and other relics derive their charm from their longevity, endurance, esthetics,
and their uncanny ability to arouse deep inside you a sense of wonder, of history,
of continuity, something ineffable about past generations and you.
In the heart of St. John's Quarter lies a public square where the medieval
trade fairs were held. You can imagine the hustle and bustle that reigned there
on trading days. From remote corners of Europe merchants flocked with their
exotic wares from lands that were unreachable by most people of the time. To
insure the smooth
operation of the trading system, international business laws and courts had to
be instituted to arbitrate and settle disputes. A common system of measures too
was needed to impose standards. Thus the legal and commercial infrastructures
were laid that serve the international business community. And Troyes was in
the middle of it all.
Today the square is a pedestrian haven surrounded by restaurants and their
extensions reaching out into the cobbled spaces sheltered by huge colorful
parasols and awnings, and a shopping center. In this tranquil oasis visitors
delight in lingering at their tables over fine food and wine, at window-shopping,
or at people watching. If you think about it, this is a place that has been in
continuous use for centuries and the shadows of past generations are still here
with us. In the cobblestones, in the wood-frame houses, in the square, in the
narrow lanes, even in the air. It is for me an awesome feeling to realize the
depths of time and the continuation of a town's life through all its vicissitudes.
Like those who had come and gone, I was here only a fragment of that dimension,
but a vital part of the intricate web of life that will echo for eons to come.
Troyes's charm is in its capacity to evoke its past with grace and
dignity. Knowing its history deepens your appreciation of the kind of town it is,
but even to a casual visitor Troyes's medieval heritage enchants. Troyes would
be unthinkable without its wood-frame buildings, narrow alleys, intriguing nooks
and crannies, old churches and their stained-glass windows, cobbled streets and
pedestrian precincts. You would have a town like any other modern town, still
likable and livable, but hardly compelling.
With its medieval heritage Troyes sparkles like a jewel, with a lovely
personality and an unforgettable atmosphere for when you walk its centuries-old
streets, a strange spell seizes your soul for eternity.