Issue #163  8/3/2009
A Pleasant Trip Out to Normandy For a Photography-Oriented Picnic, But Not Without Incident

By Alex Novak

My German friends, Anja Klafki (a superb contemporary landscape artist in the print medium; you can see her work at: http://www.anjaklafki.de/) and husband John Patrick Mikisch, joined me on Friday night for the weekend. If you are a long-time reader of the E-Photo newsletter, you might even remember them from my first report on Art Basel Miami in January 2007 where I met them for the first time.

Because my friend John Patrick had--let's say--a bit of trouble with finding places in Miami, we've always kidded him a bit about directions. This time he came prepared with a new GPS system. But he wasn't off the hook yet, because the system had a very sexy woman's voice that John spent a lot of time listening too, even outside the car! He said it was because he wanted to make sure the system worked properly, but I told Anja that she better watch out for the "other" woman".

In any case, we had a nice time together hitting some of the tourist spots, including the Centre Georges Pompidou and its two blockbuster shows on Kandinsky and Calder. The Calder show was a lot of fun for both adults and children because it centered on his circus creations and productions, including screening two films of Calder performing his mechanical circus acts with a sense of humor that appealed to all ages.

We stopped momentarily to watch one of the films (by surrealist Jean Painlevé!) and wound up spending nearly two hours. We all thought it was a ten-minute show on a loop, but it turned out to be a complete film! I had also never seen Brassai's vintage images of Calder's circus creations that were included in the exhibition. Kandinsky's retrospective show was also impressive and well curated. It is still open until August 10th. The Calder show unfortunately closed late last month.

One show coming up at the Pompidou that should not be missed is "La Subversion des Images. Surréalisme, Photographie, Film", which will run from September 23, 2009 to January 11, 2010. There will be 400 photographs in the exhibition.

Later that evening we were joined for dinner by my friend Francoise's daughter, Lohana, and one of her girlfriends. Because I have known Lohana now for over a quarter of her lifetime (she will soon be 17), she has become like a daughter to me. We decided to go casual and Mexican. Besides L'Enoteca, one of my favorite eateries in the Marais is the Studio Restaurant, which is located on an historically important 17th-century courtyard, but a courtyard you can easily walk by if you were not looking carefully for its narrow entrance. Located at 41 rue du Temple in the 4th arrondissement, the restaurant is one of the few Mexican places in Paris that I can recommend, and it makes a good change of pace from the normal Parisian fare. It has excellent enchiladas, barbecued ribs, burgers, fajitas, very good Mexican beer and much more. Prices as Paris goes are not bad either. It's open most days, except for lunch on Mondays. Dining is either alfresco in the courtyard or in one of the several inside rooms.

My thanks to my friend Kem for introducing me to this hidden little gem last November. Kem works for a company called Paris Flat, which rents apartments by the week or month and can be reached at parisflat@gmail.com . I have rented many times from the company, run by two American ex-pats, and always had very good deals.

The casual dining on the outdoor terrace amidst the many dance studios in the surrounding buildings (this is THE place in Paris to learn how to dance) makes for a pleasant evening with friends. It is also where the historic Café de la Gare makes its home. Up and running since the revolutionary days of 1968, this is Paris' most famous fringe theater. It has 300 seats that hug a small stage, and it hosts quality French stand-up and irreverent comedies. Some of France's top comedians and actors have been known to grace this stage.

After dinner in this area, you should walk over to Amorino's (this is a chain and there are a couple in Paris), as we did, for gelato at 31, Rue Vieille du Temple. Berthillon, Gelati d'Alberto and Pozzetto's are also competitors for best ice cream in Paris, and there are stores all over the city. There is a Pozzetto's also nearby to this Amorino's in the Marais, but my preference is Amorino's. The choice of ice cream/gelato is very personal and people take sides in Paris, as they do here in Philly for cheese steaks. Personally, I would rather have the ice cream.

On the following Sunday morning we planned on driving out early to the fabulous chateau (yes, it really is a chateau) of French photography dealers and friends, Marc and Brigitte Pagneux, who live in the Village Sévery near Chanteloup, Normandy. Their property used to be an old English school for girls and has a beautiful formal English garden, a swimming pool and two outbuildings, one of which Marc has converted to a gallery/research library. The plantings on the property are unique for France.

I was a little concerned though because our President Obama was in Normandy the day before our trip, and I wondered if that would have any effect on our travel. Well, yes, but not in the way that I expected. When we got up early that morning to go to John Patrick's car, we found our way blocked off. In fact all the streets around us were blockaded. We soon found out why. The President and First Lady were getting an early morning private tour of the museum shows that we had seen the day before at the nearby Pompidou. The entire area and all of Rue Rivoli, one of Paris' major streets, was blocked for their motorcade out of Paris to the airport. As we waited, we could see a helicopter flying overhead. Finally one of the policemen relented and allowed us to quickly cross the barricades and the traffic-less Rue Rivoli to get to our car. But our travel travails were just beginning.

The first problem was that the machine to pay for the parking ticket was not working properly. John Patrick then went to find the attendants, who had given him the wrong directions over the ticket machine's speaker phone to reach them. They were laughing hardily when he finally found them about 20 minutes later. It is interesting what some people find amusing.

But we were finally on our way and fortunately the exit out didn't have to deal with Rue Rivoli. The GPS worked pretty well, although the sexy voice seemed to interrupt quite often and did send us on a bit of a round-about way, unnecessarily circling the roads around the Champs-Élysées and the Arc de Triomphe. But we got out of Paris and on to the highway system and were finally on our way…

…And then we had to stop for gas. The pump was like a lot of European and English plumbing: highly confusing. People trying to pump gas, including French drivers and other Europeans, had a difficult time figuring out the system, but finally with some help from one of our neighbors we were able to get gassed up and on our way.

About 20 minutes later a car to our left beeped its horn and the people in it pointed to something at the rear of our car. Hmmm… I told John Patrick and he pulled over at the next rest stop. The back left tire was flat from a nail puncture. Fortunately he had a full tire (not one of those little donut ones), and we changed the tire, washed our hands and were back on our way once more.

That was the last of our serious travel problems and so the rest of the trip out to the Pagneux's was a pleasant drive, and the GPS's sexy directions worked quite well until the last turn or so, which fortunately I did remember from a previous trip out.

As we pulled into the long gravel driveway of Marc and Brigitte's lovely estate, we were greeted by Brigitte. We all trooped into the house where most of the company was assembled. The group was made up of fellow photography dealers and other old friends who were in town and made the long trek out to Normandy, mainly by train.

American dealers Hans P. Kraus, Jr. and Charles Isaacs; American ex-pat dealer Robert Hershkowitz and his wife Paula; curator Pierre Apraxine, whom I had a pleasant dinner with at the Plantureux's the week before; Paris dealers Serge Plantureux and Bruno Tartarin; French collector Denis Canguilhem; and German collector Dietmar Siegert, whom I also had dinner with just the Thursday before, were all in attendance. It was a companionable day of good conversation, food and wine in remarkable environs with a nice group of friends, and I thank Marc and Brigitte for the lovely time and their kindness for inviting me.

Lunch at the Pagneux's.
Lunch at the Pagneux's.

Besides the camaraderie, at least part of the reason for coming out to Normandy was to see what Marc was offering for sale. The separate gallery was only opened after lunch at 3 pm. There was lots of good natured kidding about the competition for the images. While the selection wasn't perhaps as impressive as on some past occasions, it was none-the-less fun to search through the various images. Each of us bought a souvenir or two of the day's event.

I parted company with my German friends and Marc and Brigitte, and took a cab to the train with a large company of our friends. On the train back to Paris Serge Plantureux took out a batch of autochromes, which Hans Kraus and I perused together. It was a pleasant way to pass the time, although I wouldn't want to have Serge's job of repacking all these fragile items. I would see Hans again at Art Basel in just a few days.

Serge, Hans and I exited one of the side entrances and luckily found an available taxi, which we took on to Serge's apartment together. Hans went on to his hotel, and I came up for a casual dinner with Serge and his youngest daughter Celeste, who is quite precocious for her age. I maintain that nine-year old Celeste will take over her father's business--and sooner rather than later. Watch out, Serge.