June 6, 1914 marks the beginning of Operation Overlord, the battle to liberate France from Nazi occupation. After the dramatic landing on the Normandy beaches, the Allies continued to battle inch by bloody inch across France. In an effort to secure the Seine and pursue the retreating German army, the Allies launched Operation Paddle on August 17, 1944.
My uncle, Bertie McCombe, was a member of Britain’s 12th Parachute Battalion. On the night of August 18th, the Battalion received orders to take the little village of Putot-en-Auge from the occupiers. Under heavy shelling, they reached a hill where they could shelter until they could cross the canal. As the morning sun burned off the mist that had been giving them shelter, they realized that they would soon be fully visible to the enemy. They made their way to the village through punishing mortar fire.
Upon their arrival, they were ordered to take Hill 13. Mortars and machine gun fire from the neighboring town of Goustranville were joined by two hidden machine guns that cut the men down. Then German reinforcements arrived. Barns functioning as field hospitals quickly filled to overflowing with casualties. Medics ran out of water and had only Normandy cider to give to the injured men. Despite German reinforcements supported by field artillery, by the afternoon, the Allies were able to capture the summit of Hill 13. The village of Putot-en-Auge was liberated, but 21 year-old Lance Corporal Bertie McCombe was among those who were fatally wounded. He is buried in the cemetery of the village church in Row C 1.
The story that made him real to me took place in my mother’s village of Whiteabbey, Northern Ireland. It was August 26, 1944, my mother’s 13th birthday. She was waiting for the postman to arrive with birthday greetings. With her was her brother Bertie’s dog, Lynn, a beautiful liver and white Springer Spaniel. Lynn, a gentle dog, had been acting strangely for a few days. When the postman arrived, Lynn went berserk and wouldn’t let him in the gate. “You know me, Lynn,” said the surprised man, but Lynn would have none of it. My mother took the mail from him and brought it in the house. There was no birthday celebration that day, for the mailman had brought the notice of Bertie’s death.
Today marks Veteran’s Day, Memorial Day, or Armistice Day in many countries of the world – a time to remember all of those who gave so much. Qu’ils reposent en paix (keel ruhpoze ehn peh). May they rest in peace.
When I was in the Met on my way to the Grand Illusions exhibit, I was stopped in my tracks by a black and white photo of a boy with a cat entitled Garçon avec un chat dans les bras appuyé contre une vitrine (gar-soon ahvek uhn shah ap-we-ay kohn-truh oon bit-reen). This very long title means “Boy with a cat leaning against a shop window.” The boy is clinging to the cat like it’s all he has in the world and he thinks you’re going to try to take it from him. When I read the card, I found the name of a photographer who was new to me, French-born Dora Maar (1907 – 1997).
Born Henriette Theodora Marković in Tours, she is best known as Pablo Picasso‘s muse, although she was a poet, photographer, and painter in her own right. She was Picasso’s model for Guernica and The Weeping Woman. She also painted parts of Guernica herself. Her photography became celebrated for her series of images of Picasso working on his monumental war painting.
At age 19, Dora entered the Académie Julian, an art school that was open to women, and adopted her shortened name. She studied both photography and painting but eventually made photography her full-time pursuit. She worked as a commercial photographer, specializing in advertising, but in her own time, she took street photos, like the one at the Met.
Dora Maar met Pablo Picasso for the first time while she was working as a set photographer for director Jean Renoir. Picasso was 54 years old while Maar was 28. It wasn’t until their second meeting at Les Deux Magots, however, that Maar caught the artist’s eye. Maar splayed her hand on a table and rapidly stabbed between each finger with a knife. When she knicked herself, Picasso kept her bloodstained gloves as a souvenir. This was no ordinary woman. Is it any wonder that when Picasso painted her, he chose acidic colors and angular shapes? Maar became the rival of Picasso’s mistress and he encouraged the women to fight one another for him. What an ego! For better or for worse, Maar won.
During the tempestuous decade of their relationship, Picasso painted and sculpted Maar several times. Dora Maar au Chat (Dora Maar with Cat; 1941) was sold at Sotheby’s for over $95,000,000, making it one of the highest priced art sales in history. Maar was tormented by Picasso’s infidelity and her own infertility. Ultimately, Picasso had her committed to an institution. When she was able to leave, he gave her a house in Provence. Maar became involved in a mystical form of Catholicism. She is quoted as saying, “After Picasso, God.”
After she left the institution, Maar returned to painting and took up poetry. She then began to take photographs again and exhibit her work. Since she and Picasso shared the same circle of friends, inevitably their paths crossed. They took a perverse delight in tormenting one another with bizarre “gifts.” The relationship that began with a knife and bloody gloves perpetuated itself with less visible wounds.
In my recent jaunt to New York, I stopped in at the Frick museum. I love the Frick’s intimate size and their temporary exhibits are always interesting. This time, one of their exhibits featured French porcelain made at Sèvres, the preeminent eighteenth-century porcelain manufactory, collected by the wealthy industrialist.
In France, hard-paste porcelain was produced in one of the towers of the old royal château of Vincennes. Due to its rarity and high cost, Louis XV and his mistress Madame de Pompadour took a particular interest in the porcelain. Ultimately the manufactory was moved the town of Sèvres, halfway between the royal castles of the Tuileries and Versailles so that the king could keep tabs on it. Louis XV was the principal stockholder of the company and it became the most important soft-paste porcelain factory in Europe. Famous artists such as François Boucher provided highly detailed designs. Also key to the manufactory’s success was the continual innovation of new colors, such as bleu céleste (bluh say-lest) or sky blue.
In the 18th century, Sèvres porcelain was owned exclusively by the royalty and the wealthiest people. That hadn’t changed much when Frick began his collection in 1916. He paid over $100,000 for his first three pieces. Although the porcelain was originally meant to be functional, sets were broken up and the porcelain became purely decorative. A Sevrès sugar bowl displayed in a curio cabinet was a way to show the collector’s good taste and wealth. Frick interspersed his porcelain among the rooms of his mansion to enhance his other works of art. The colors are just as brilliant today as they were nearly 300 years ago, particularly that brilliant bleu céleste. You can see the exhibit until April 24, 2016.
After visiting the Met recently, I popped into Albertine, a francophile’s delight, just a few steps away on Fifth Avenue. There used to be a French-language bookstore at Rockefeller Center. When it closed due to exploding rents, it left a real void. The Cultural Services of the French Embassy stepped up to fill the gap with a gem of a shop stocked with more than 14,000 volumes from 30 francophile countries. The two-level bookstore is simply beautiful, the work of designer Jacques Garcia within the Payne Whitney mansion, a 1902 Italian Renaissance estate.
Albertine’s ceiling – a hand-painted mural of constellations, stars, and planets — is alone worth the visit. Busts crafted by the ateliers of the Musée du Louvre of great figures from French and French-American culture including Voltaire, Benjamin Franklin, Tocqueville and Descartes are also on display.
Albertine is a central figure in Marcel Proust’s monumental À la recherche du temps perdu. I feel compelled to admit that I gave up the effort to read the seven volume work after 200 pages. Albertine has a bande dessinée (bahnd dess-e-nay) version of the first volume, so I may have to give this classic another try. A bande dessinée is a comic book or graphic novel. These are a hugely important literary form in France. Large sections of French bookstores are devoted to them, including at Albertine. Do you think that it will be legitimate if I resort to a bande dessinée to read Proust? Perhaps if I buy my copy at Albertine.
I made a quick trip to New York City recently over a slightly longer than normal weekend. Although I love living in New England, I really miss the bustle and options that abound in New York. My trip to the Big Apple had a decidedly French flavor. One of my stops was at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I wanted to see the special exhibit entitled Grand Illusions: Staged Photography from the Met Collection.
This collection of forty images explores the ways in which photography has been used since its earliest days to play with the margins of reality. The largest photo was La Frayeur (lah fray-ur), or Fright, a “painted photograph” by Pierre-Louis Pierson. The subject, Virginia Verasis, the Countess of Castiglione, was a famous beauty known for creative self-promotion. She collaborated with Pierson on a series of portraits to portray her life as theater. She arrived in Paris from Italy with orders to get close to the Emperor Napoleon III for the purpose of influencing his decisions – pillow diplomacy, as it were. In La Frayeur she gave very specific instructions to the painter, Aquilin Schad, on how to embellish her escape from a theatre engulfed in flames. It’s kind of like extreme selfies, 19th century style.
If you’ll be in New York, the exhibit is on until January 18, 2016.
Page-A-Day Calendar 2016 from the Metropolitan Museum of Art
Les degrés frisquets (lay duh-gray friss-kay), or chilly temperatures, have come to New England. This is an casual phrase to use among friends, rather than one that should show up in your correspondence with the president. I love these crisp days; its my favorite time of the year and always has been. I took the photo, above, on a trip to Paris in on a frisquet day in early November several years ago. It takes me back to a beautiful day in the Parc de Bagatelle every time I see it.