Yesterday was one of the hottest days on record in Paris. It was officially 108 degrees Fahrenheit. I suspect that on the streets, with all the heat bouncing up from the cobblestones and concrete, it was a lot hotter.
The heat was made worse by the fact that it was the third day in a row where temperatures had peaked at over 100 and not fallen below 80 or so at night. This meant that the inside of buildings never really cooled off. There is not a lot of air conditioning. Unlike Houston, Paris isn’t a city built to withstand extreme heat. But with global warming Parisians are going to have to figure out how to make adjustments. I had to jury rig a portable air conditioner to keep our rental apartment moderately cool—when it was 108 outside it was no more than 78 inside. If I hadn’t, I think that the situation would probably have been threatening to my parents’ health. As it was, the few times they went outside in the extreme heat they had to walk slowly and drink a lot of water to avoid heat stroke.
I went out at the height of the heat to visit the Musee d’Orsay. It is one of my favorite museums and I would have been disappointed with my trip if I hadn’t spent at least a couple of hours there. While I was there, I saw a commissioned exhibit by the British artist Tracey Emin and a retrospective of Berthe Morisot. Emin’s name is probably familiar to those acquainted with contemporary figurative art. Her highly erotic drawings did not disappoint. They were quickly executed ink on paper drawings of female figures in various amatory poses—some in the midst of sexual acts and some simply reclining in the nude. The figures were significantly abstracted and what caught me was that they managed to portray the emotional resonance of sexual love without being titillating.
Morisot, in contrast, is a name that is not well known. She was a major figure in the Impressionist movement—probably the most significant female artist that the movement produced. Over the twentieth-century, her work has largely been forgotten. The last time there was a solo show of her work was in 1941.
This is a shame as her painting was every bit as good as the Impressionist masters. She was particularly skilled at pushing the question: When is a painting finished? Like my brother Jorin, she frequently left the underpainting exposed and even in some places left bits of the sketches she made on canvas prior to painting visible.
What really struck me about her work, though, was the subject matter. She was a member of France’s cultural elite, but she routinely chose to paint intimate, ordinary, domestic scenes—servants at work, women doing laundry, mothers nursing or swaddling their babies, and parents at play with their children. This is quite different from the subject matter of most of the other Impressionists. It rendered a more complete sense of late nineteenth-century French life than is found in the paintings of the male Impressionists.
The Musee d’Orsay was incredibly crowded while I was there. It was filled with people trying to escape the heat. Walking and taking the Metro to and from the museum I drank almost a liter of water each way, and I only had to travel about 25 minutes to get to there.
On the way back I saw someone literally going mad from the heat on the Metro. One of the indigent men who begs on the streets in the Marais had stripped off most of his clothes and was in the midst of a psychotic break. He was gesticulating wildly and yelling by the ticket gate. And then he was walking along the street screaming expletives in French. I had seen him a few times earlier in the week and he had seemed quite calm. The heat had clearly pushed him beyond some inner limit.
Overall, the heatwave really changed in the energy in the city—especially at night. Once it started to cool off a little the streets completely filled up. One night I took a walk through the city and felt a rare kind of vibrant wonder. Another night I went down to the Seine for a drink. The river bank was filled with temporary restaurants and thousands of people collectively celebrating summer, enjoying each other’s company, and escaping some of the heat along the relative coolness of the river. It was a glorious scene filled with impromptu music performances and dance celebrations and passionate arguments in languages that I barely understand (French) or know well (English and Spanish).
I am not sure that I have ever quite experienced anything like it. It even exceeded the vibrancy normally present along the river in the summer. It was as if a milder form of the frenetic energy of the man on the Metro had been unleashed throughout the city.