What to See and Do in Digital Paris

For a new series of columns on armchair travelling, editor at large Jennifer Higgie travels the myriad digital alleys of the French capital

BY Jennifer Higgie in Critic's Guides | 30 APR 20

Many great thinkers loathed travel. Socrates didn’t leave Athens after the age of 30, Immanuel Kant was wedded to Königsberg, Blaise Pascal famously quipped that ‘all of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone’ and Emily Dickinson declared that ‘There is no Frigate like a Book / To takes us Lands away’. In more recent times, the writer Gerald Murnane has never left Australia or flown in an aeroplane.

In Joris-Karl Huysmans’s novel À rebours (Against nature) (1884), the aesthete Jean des Esseintes – who is so reclusive he suffers ‘excruciating agony’ when someone brushes up against him – sets out from his home in the French countryside to visit London. Dining in a Parisian restaurant near the train station, he witnesses a group of Englishmen who remind him of characters in the novels of Charles Dickens. Satisfied, he forgoes his journey and returns home. ‘What,’ he asks himself, ‘was the good of moving, when a man can travel so gloriously sitting in a chair?’

‘Joris-Karl Huysmans, Art Critic. From Degas to Grünewald, in the Eye of Francesco Vezzoli’, 2020. Courtesy: © Musée d’Orsay, Paris; photographer: Sophie Crépy 

‘Joris-Karl Huysmans, Art Critic. From Degas to Grünewald, in the Eye of Francesco Vezzoli’ has just closed at the Musée d’Orsay. (It opens at the Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art in Strasbourg later this year.) If you missed it, listen to Andy Biles, the host of Shakespeare & Company’s podcast, talking to Andy Miller – a writer researching the tombs of aeronauts at Pere Lachaise – as they stroll through the galleries discussing, in part, Huysmans’ attempt to curate his life in order to deal with ‘the everyday trials of attempting not to be bored’. 

A man with a great distaste for factionalism, Huysmans might have approved of the decision by Paris Musées – the body that comprises the city’s 14 museums – to upload 324,932 works of art to its website, many of which are copyright free. Following the Ministry of Culture’s initiative #CultureChezNous (culture at home), you could self-isolate buried in art, although laptops in bedrooms are no substitute for the grandeur and exhaustion of an actual museum – great paintings, in particular, often appear de-fanged when they’re shrunk and varnished with digital light. 

'lifetime', 2020. Courtesy: © Lafayette Anticipations, Paris 

Jean-Luc Godard, the 89-year-old auteur who has spent a lifetime distrusting images, chose the midst of the pandemic to make his first appearance on Instagram TV. In a green vest and puffing on a large cigar, he talks for 90 minutes with Lionel Baier, head of cinema at ECAL University of Art and Design in Lausanne, about ‘images at the time of coronavirus’, the inadequacy of language to reflect reality and his belief that the alphabet has too many letters. Asked if he has any advice for aspiring filmmakers, he recommends that they ‘go home and do something else’. This prompted a re-watch of Godard’s Bande à part (Band of Outsiders, 1964), in which three young thieves – Odile (Anna Karina), Franz (Sami Frey) and Arthur (Claude Brasseur) – laugh wildly as they run through the Louvre’s corridors in order to break the record set by Jimmy Johnson of San Francisco. (They do, by two seconds.) It took me back to Beyoncé and Jay-Z – resplendent in pink and green suits in front of the Mona Lisa – performing their 2018 song ‘Apes**t’, along with a troupe of dancers decolonising the hallowed halls of the Louvre: six delirious minutes of what the art historian James Smalls describes as a ‘visual and sonic manifest about spaces, power and control’.

'not cancelled', Paris, 2020. Courtesy: © treat.agency 

There are myriad digital alleys worth exploring in the French capital. Take, for example, the weird little videos produced by the Musée de la Chasse et Nature: in one, two women in elaborate feathers search the museum for spears; in another, a ballerina attempts to seduce stuffed animals. If you’re craving a glimpse of the city in more normal times, head to La Blogothèque’s ‘Takeaway Shows’ – clips of musicians playing on the streets of Paris. A perfect antidote to the lockdown lows is Lianne La Havas wandering around Montmartre singing ‘No Room for Doubt’. If poetry is your thing, it’s easy to while away the hours delving into double change’s rich archive of readings in French and English. 

Launching today and running until 5 May is ‘not cancelled’, Paris’s first virtual art week. Fifteen of the city’s best galleries – from Air de Paris, to Antoine Levi, Galerie Sultana and Balice Hertling and others – have combined to create a programme of events and online exhibitions. Most museums are pouring their energies into podcasts, concerts and – thanks to Google Art Project – virtual tours. You can take a cello masterclass at the Fondation Louis Vuitton or watch a movie streamed by the Pompidou (a new one every week): at time of writing, it’s the aptly titled Au Printemps (In Spring) (1929), a silent paean to rebirth by the avant-garde Ukrainian filmmaker, Mikhail Kaufman. For those confined to small apartments, visit the Fondation Cartier to immerse yourself in Bernie Krause’s 1990 soundscape of the Amazon: ‘a thousand-year-old experience, which is that of the forest hunters’. Not unlike major cities right now, it’s a sonic landscape saturated in birdsong. It’s part of the museum’s terrific micro-site devoted to its current exhibition ‘Claudia Andujar, The Yanomami Struggle’, which includes recordings, photographs and videos about the legendary Brazilian artist and Indigenous rights activist.

Cécile B. Evans in 'lifetime', 2020. Courtesy: © Lafayette Anticipations, Paris 

In response to the quarantine, Lafayette Anticipations launched its ‘lifetime’ project. (‘Our doors are shut but our eyes are wide open.’) Every day, an artist is given carte blanche to ‘post work, words, images, gestures, books or sounds of our times’. Composer Tujiko Noriko creates music in her living room while her children play; Maggie Segale dances to the drawings of Cally Spooner; Nora Turato creates high-key screensavers emblazoned with desperate, delirious slogans such as ‘it seems the ice cream licked back’. Martine Syms’s short film Theory of Motion (1): Birthday, 23 is her response to a text by the poet Cameron Awkward-Rich. In the spirit of Huysmans, she intones: ‘Thank god the world has suddenly become untraversable. I can’t go to the concert. The grocery store. Can’t be in the company of people. What could be a better gift?’ April in Paris, indeed. 

Main image: Courtyard of the Museum of Louvre, Paris. Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

Jennifer Higgie is a writer who lives in London. Her book The Mirror and the Palette – Rebellion, Revolution and Resilience: 500 Years of Women’s Self-Portraits is published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson, and she is currently working on another – about women, art and the spirit world.