Thursday, December 9, 2010

20 Years Ago In Paris

Nearly 20 years ago I looked at my wife, Kristen, over the dinner table and asked her if we could borrow money against the house so I could go to Paris and study with Dr. Pierre Ramond. What made this conversation more difficult than you might expect is that we owned the house free and clear. It is a tribute to her trust and understanding that she agreed to the proposal.

Pierre had met me at the Getty museum and had invited me to study with him in Paris for a "Stage" which is a short term of study for a specific project, usually lasting less than 3 months. It was the most exciting offer I had ever had in my career. After all, he was recognized as the world's expert in the field of traditional French marquetry, and ecole Boulle was the most difficult trade school in France to get into. Without his invitation, it would be impossible to even visit the school, except during the annual week in January when the school opens its doors to visitors.

The first day I arrived in Paris I was invited to dinner at Chez Jenny, a famous restaurant at Place Republic which specializes in food from Alsace. More importantly, the walls were completely covered with marquetry by Spindler, a three generation family of marquetry artists from that area in Eastern France. Around the table, at the request of Pierre were the conservators of many museums from France and England, and I realized that this was my official introduction to the world of marquetry, at a very high level.

Of course I was tired after 12 hours of flight and I wanted desperately to have some French coffee. The maitre d arrived (in a tux) and asked everyone at the table (in French, of course) what they would like to drink to start. "Wine, beer, wine, wine, beer..."etc was the response as he went around the group. When he looked at me, I said "coffee, please." He took a few moments to speak and raised his eyebrows, looking sternly at me and repeated "coffee???" I just said "Yes, please, I would like a coffee." He turned and walked away.

As he left the room, I turned to the only person at the table who spoke English, the conservator from the Wallace Collection, and inquired why the strange response. He just looked at me and replied, "Coffee will damage your taste for the food, and should be consumed after the meal." I looked around the room at the other, elegant diners, and said, "That person is smoking, that person is smoking, all those people are smoking, and that person is smoking and feeding her dog oysters from a silver tray!"

"Yes, of course!" he answered, and then clarified his response, "But tobacco does not affect the taste." Welcome to France. Immediately, the maitre d returned and served everyone their drinks, without looking at me. I did not get my coffee until after dinner.

The real reason I am remembering all this is because I spent several years in Europe and always had my cameras at my side. I managed to take thousands of slides and prints of the school, marquetry exhibitions, workshops and the trade in general, as it existed at that time. Little did I know that I would document the end of an era, since I have noticed, in recent visits, that most of the business activities of that period have changed completely. It is a different world today, and I hardly recognize it.

Fortunately, I have the record on film, and I have begun to transfer this material to digital format. I will use this blog to post much of this material so that others can appreciate the work of the European masters, both ancient and recent. I think you will be amazed at what professionals and students are able to do with the technique of marquetry.

As I write this post, I am enjoying a nice hot cup of Peet's coffee, black, made with a French press. I have not yet eaten. Fortunately, food has not spoiled my taste for the coffee!


Chuck Walker said...

Patrick, I look forward eagerly to your photos and description of the marquetry scene in France 20 years ago. Is it just the way business is transacted or has the intent and scope of l'ecole Boulle changed as well?

Your story about the restaurant and drinks is great! After all, they are French! I was once in a fondue restaurant in Neuchatel, Switzerland (French speaking) and ordered beer before the meal. The waitress looked down her nose and said loudly "biere? avec fondue??) I quickly changed to the local white wine. But then let the flame go out under the pot! Talk about the stupid American!

Mat Nedeljko said...

Can't wait to see the pictures, fascinating I'm sure!