Dragon Crouching By the Colonnade
Alex Calder Invades the Vendôme
Imagine for a second that you’re in the Vendôme, standing near the colonnade while you listen in to a tour guide giving his spiel :
“Right you are, pretty damn dux : Ritz over there, Chanel and Piaget there, Boucheron behind you and Vuitton newly restored straight ahead. Mansart-Hardouin facades, in case you care. Throw in a government ministry for good measure, and you’ve got the luxe and splendor of empire on all sides. Fine but close your eyes for a second, gentlemen. Just a second. Knowles segued into the spiel. -Let’s imagine the place a little differently. A barricade in front of us at Saint-Honoré, blocking entrance from Concorde, and one behind, too, both serving to keep loyalists of various kinds out. 1848, 1871. Chopin, waiting for his papers so he can split for the UK, is banging the piano and George Sand at No. 12, over there – the address must have been pretty demodé by then, if a poor Pole had taken up residence – and Marat’s issuing directives for the revolution from the stately front over there. And where we’re standing ? Immediately behind us, where the despicable monument to empire soldered out of one hundred twenty nine Austrian cannons that Courbet went to great trouble to pull down, imagine, if you can, the body of Saint-Fargeau, knife wounds dripping blood, a young aristo who jumped ship to vote for the beheading of Louis the XVI and got his the evening before the king, while seated à table in a restaurant on the left bank – Lapérouse most likely. Jean-Louis David designed the tableau, so that on the plinth where an equestrian king once ponied around, the man’s body lay in state for three days. All this happening simultaneously, the column engraved with scenes from the battle of Austerlitz laying in pieces on the ground, the statue of Bonaparte Emperor Rex soon to be tossed in the Seine but let’s not leave out the best part, this was the Place des Piques during the Revo, when Parisian ladies danced like feverish Bacchantes. Theroigne Mericourt and her merry band of shiv-wielding feminists, banging their pikes on the stones until sparks flew and the heads of the fallen aristocrats waggled on the sharp end. Imagine that! En même temps, as the current president likes to say, Chopin, that Polish swan, composes a revolutionary ode to stir Polish patriots while ladies get in on the action, dancing in the moonlight with real heads jammed on real lances. If Debussy had wandered over from Solferino he could have challenged Chopin to a duel, mano à mano my nocturne for yours. Taken all together, Paris is a city of spectacular and almost punctual irruptions of violence. It has something to do with art or ardour, even if no one can precisely identify the equation. That, gentleman, is the truth in its various divisions : the elegance of art married to violence, love, death and rebellion in a sweaty cinch. No escape from the four corners of the Vendôme, a gargantuan billiard table where history collides like couples waltzing in the dark. We might as well hang around to see if we can’t jimmy the door to the column because, from all appearances, Napo has been rescued from his watery grave and is back atop the colonnade. We should pitch him off – once more for good measure. He’ll be back before we know it. Knowles watched the two men, gauging their reaction to his rant.”
So it goes in a scene from a so-far little read novel, this excerpt set in the Place Vendôme. The nerve-wracked tour guide is throwing everything in the pot willy-nilly for his guest, an Australian movie star with his writer cohort. The scene takes place now but the Vendôme – one of the absent Louis XIV’s projects, built while he was off in Versailles – is eternal. As long as one accepts that the eternal keeps changing.
Last month a weird creature, half dream figure, half B-52, arrived on the East side of the famous column. Calder’s Flying Dragon was part of the annual art fair FIAC’s Hors les Murs programs, which places modern and contemporary sculptures around the city. At first glance and last, it really was as if a spaceship had landed in the Vendôme.
Calder’s Dragon doesn’t not deconstruct anything, doesn’t argue a narrow point, doesn’t aim to deflate anyone’s ego or prove the majesty of the artist, it simply is, and it amazes, heavy metal that gives the impression of having just landed. It makes a force field all around it, which is what a body should do. Nothing dematerialized here. Canny readers will understand I’m not arguing that Alex Calder is the greatest artist who ever lived but rather that this simultaneously delicate, brutish piece that looks like it was cut with a pair of enormous scissors frees us from yet another round of fruitless debates over authenticity and privilege.
A few notes on the photographs : The quick play of light on the uniform red surface of Calder’s Flying Dragon reminds us that color is the perception of color. That’s hard to catch so long exposures are useful. The ridiculous Colonnade with Napoleon Caesar on top — a barbaric symbol of Empire and Conquest, in Courbet’s words —gets rough treatment, cut up into pieces, like something in a 70s experimental film. So it goes. I leave the imperfections in, I’m not aiming for a meticulous reproduction of reality : you’ve seen all that before. I’m making variations, trying to give you the sense, like one of Soutine’s paintings, that everything might slide off the table at any moment. In any case the question isn’t whether they’re accurate. And what about those clouds, you demand. What exactly is the nature of my fanatical devotion to those painterly angels who skitter across Paris skies just out of reach ?
A short gallery of images, straight and bent, day and nighttime, follows. All pixies are © James Graham 2021.
Riffs is an entirely reader supported project, a way to get my writing out there in between translations and novels. Subscribers free or pay are much appreciated, and even adored. In January ’23, the first installments of a novel in serial form will start to appear on the site. I invite everyone to take a look now and once again, many thanks for stopping by.
Marvelous. I like the way you worked part of the novel into this article. And I like your remarks on the clouds photographs.😁