I like to imagine Sir Kenneth Clark and Rita Hayworth sharing a couple of pastis at a cafe table in the Marais, discussing culture and the flamenco, Gothic art and Fred Astaire. Between them, they express two persistent ideas about Paris – civilisation and love, sense and sensibility.
Many years ago, at the very beginning of Sir Kenneth’s 10-part television series, Civilisation, the great man stood on Pont des Arts. I do not know how to define civilisation, Sir Kenneth mused. But I think I can recognise it when I see it, and I am looking at it now.
Over his tweedy shoulders, viewers could see the Louvre, the Institute of France, the Cathedral of Notre Dame in the distance, the long lines of harmonious buildings that line the Seine. Sir Kenneth was big on harmony. Also on order, which he saw as a prerequisite of civilisation.
We all swoon at the elegant order of Paris, the long perspectives of the Hausmann boulevards, the gracious uniformity of its buildings, the poetry of those steep roofs, the arcades of Place des Vosges, the gravel paths and the pollarded trees of the Tuilieries or the Jardin du Luxembourg.
I know April in Paris is meant to be the thing, but for me autumn is the city’s loveliest season. The summer is over, Parisians have returned from Provence and Ile de Re, the heat and the tourists have dissipated, and the city is returning to itself.
September is still warm and seductive, a month of flirtatious days. October brings the first chill to the air, as the leaves of the plane trees along the river begin to colour and a sweet autumnal melancholy sidles through the streets and the parks.
It is also when the city’s cultural life – the life that underpins that sense of order and civilisation – re-emerges from its summer slumbers. This October it will be Picasso who is honoured in the great exhibition rooms of the Grand Palais, and Warhol’s monumental installation Shadows, which dominates the galleries of the Musee d’Art Moderne.
At the Opera Bastille, Don Giovanni and Madame Butterfly hold the stage, while the must-see night at the Palais Garnier is opening Gala of the Paris ballet on September 24. It’s already far too late to get a ticket.
But October also feels like the end of something, a moment of transition when the city is strangely charged with emotion. Which brings us to Rita.
Across town from Pont des Arts, on the shoulders of Montmartre, Ms Hayworth was waiting with the counterpoint to Lord Clark’s precious order. She is in the Place des Abbesses. On the north side of the square is a small park bordered by a tall wall covered in tiles. This is 'le mur de je t’aime’. In 80 languages the wall tiles say 'I love you'.
Above the love tiles is an image of Rita. She seems to be at the end of a long night. She is wearing a blue ball gown. She is sultry, sexy, slinky. A white fur is slung over one arm while she carries her shoes in her other hand.
I imagine she is making her way home, barefoot with a lover, along a quai of the Seine, as the dawn lightens the sky and Lord Clark’s harmonious buildings begin to emerge from their own silhouettes. Rita has a speech bubble. 'Aimer, c’est du desorder,’ she says. 'Alors, aimons.’ To love is disorder? So then, let’s love. She is the intoxicating romanticism of Paris. Chaotic passions flutter beneath its fine sensible civilised face.
Its reputation as the city of love is so pervasive that I once met nomads in Outer Mongolia discussing fantasy dates in Paris. Despite their geography being a bit hazy – they seemed to feel Paris was a day’s ride from Moscow on a decent horse – they talked of the river, the bridges, the spires of Notre Dame. Only their idea of dinner jarred, though I liked the image of grilling sheep intestines on an open fire on Lord Clark’s Pont des Arts.
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I was in love in Paris once, and cannot arrive in the Gare du Nord without thinking of that beloved figure waiting at the gate. We haunted the bouquinistes along the Seine for vintage posters and naughty post cards. We browsed the shelves of Shakespeare & Co by the Quai de Montebello for poetry and obscure romances. We went to the Picasso Museum, set in a gorgeous, 18th Century mansion with the kind of order and symmetry that Lord Clark so admired and Picasso did so much to undermine in the hope of making us see things anew.
We hung out in jazz cellars in the rue de la Huchette and trekked out to an obscure guinguette on the riverbanks in Joinville, where we drank jugs of dark wine and danced polkas to an accordion among sedate elderly couples. We went to the races at Longchamps and won a packet on 10 to 1 long shot and then spent it on a wonderful dinner in Brasserie Bofinger beneath that fin-de-siecle dome, savouring the theatrical spectacle of mirrors and chandeliers and bustling white-aproned waiters.
But love is tidal – it flows, it ebbs, it is rarely still. This week, revisiting old haunts, I found myself, for sentimental reasons, in the Place Emil Goudeau. There were two couples in the square. The first were kissing, the second were breaking up. The kissing couple paused occasionally to smoke cigarettes and admire the view – of each other, as well as of Paris. On other side of the square, among tears and recriminations, a young woman was berating her (former) boyfriend.
The Place Emil Goudeau could be a Parisian film set – a sloping cobbled square, benches in the dappled shade, an accordion playing, bustling waiters serving a terrasse of tables overlooking the city’s skyline. It was bathed in delicate afternoon light that had a nostalgic autumnal feel. What love scenes had it seen.
Picasso – womaniser, bonviveur, love rat – spent several years in this square, in a studio whose state of dishevelment prompted Max Jacob to dub it Le Bateau-Lavoir, the washing boat. It was here that Picasso fell so passionately in love with the model Fernande Olivier, and here, too, that they had spent so much of the next seven years locked in lovers’ rages. He moved on, to success and a string of other relationships. She moved on to bitterness and penury.
Every street in Paris seems to echo with the ghosts of love stories. It is not that Paris has more love stories than anywhere else but that the city seems to make more of them, that they become part of its currency, a reference point for us all. On the Left Bank, in the cafes of St Germain, it is hard to avoid thoughts of Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, lovers with benefits, regaling one another with their latest conquests while remaining intimate and close all their lives.
In the Place de la Contrescarpe, in the Latin Quarter, I always think of Hemingway, at work in the mornings in what is now the Cafe Delmas on the sunny side of the square. His betrayal of his young wife, Hadley, marked the end of his Paris and of his innocence.
Across town, in the bourgeois neighbourhood of Batignolles, Edith Piaf’s lover, Albert, used to relieve the rich girls of their money in order to spend the rest of the night buying Edith Champagne in the Cafe de la Nouvelle Athenes. Not far away, 10 minutes from the Moulin Rouge, in the gentrified neighbourhood of SOPI or South Pigalle, is the charming Musee de la Vie Romantique, like a country cottage, full of mementos of George Sand, whose cross-dressing and love affairs cut such a scandalous swathe through 19th Century literary Paris.
As for Rita Hayworth, perhaps she is just a graffiti artist’s fancy, the poster girl for despairing romance. Did she ever say 'Love is disorder’? It hardly matters.
No one should be shocked that The Kiss, Robert Doisneau’s famous photograph of a couple in passionate embrace in front of the Hotel de Ville, is posed with models. Even in Paris, perhaps especially in Paris, love requires a degree of artifice.
Down on the Ponts des Arts, beneath the grand facades of the Louvre, the repository of more than four millennia of civilisation, the city authorities have cleared away the lovers’ locks. A tradition had developed in recent years. As a symbol of enduring love, couples attached locks to the railings and threw the keys into the river.
In no time the railings had vanished beneath hundreds of thousands of locks. Parisians complained about the disfiguration of one of the city’s fine bridges, and when part of the railings collapsed under the weight of love, the city authorities stepped in.
But love is as persistent and unruly as water. This week I crossed the Pont l’Archeveche, and found its railings, too, have disappeared beneath love locks. Along the quayside dodgy characters sidle up to visitors offering €3 ($A4) locks like dealers offering bags of coke in Times Square.
I doubt Sir Kenneth would be impressed with this uncivilised clutter. But he was too wise a head to ignore the role of love. He directs his viewers and his readers to the Cluny Museum near the Sorbonne where the medieval tapestries of The Lady and the Unicorn are displayed so exquisitely.
All the creations in the tapestry – the rampant unicorn, a ferocious lion, the birds of the air, the beasts of the field, even a silly little dog on a cushion – are civilised by the power of love, represented by the lady, 'poetical, fanciful, and profane'. It is, Clark reminds us, what the French might call douceur de vivre, the sweetness of life. Paris is bursting with it.
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This article was written by Stanley Stewart from The Daily Telegraph and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.