Tuesday, November 30, 2010


"To create is to resist."

How to sort out "art" from "vandalism" in the streets? Parisian street artists have reconciled themselves to a system of notifying officials and receiving authorization--to guard against legal proceedings and to avoid removal of their works. 

Since 2001 the artists' association Lézarts de la Bièvre opens up 70 studios to the public each June and invites a street artist to paint on selected walls along the studio circuit in the fifth and 13th arrondissements

Miss.Tic inaugurated the tradition and was followed the year after by Jérôme Mesnager, father of the Corps Blanc. Nemo, creator of a whimsical black stenciled shadow man in coat and hat, came next, then the two artists known as Mosko et Associés added their signature African savannah creatures.

In 2005 came Speedy Graphito, another first-generation street artist. His early works of angular lines and robot figures are reminiscent of the late Keith Haring's rollicking geometric shapes.

Each artist's work is added to the preceding one, forming visual dialogues, as in the mural below from 2006, featuring three figures of one of the most popular stencil artists, Jef Aérosol.

Because of their ephemeral nature, some of these works are still visible, others not, so that their photos today are archival. 

For more information, history and super visuals including videos and maps of five different walking circuits, see http://www.lezarts-bievre.com/ 

This post is the fourth in a series of excerpts, with minor revisions, taken from Inside Outsider Art, an article I wrote which appeared in France Today magazine.

Text & photos ©2010 P.B.Lecron

Monday, November 29, 2010


I'm not a fan of graffiti per se, however, from time to time when riding an urban train, my gaze has been drawn to some amazingly colorful and gaudy, if not interesting works. But less and less; paint is more and more expensive.

Although the 1970s New York graffiti explosion didn't arrive in Paris until the 1980s, according to French sociologist Alain Vulbeau it wasn't until 1988 that the proliferation of tags, or scrawling signatures, became unbearable for the Parisian population. Journalists stopped speaking of graffiti in benevolent terms, and in the public mind, taggers were urban vandals exceeding the bounds of street art. Authorities put the brakes on the graffiti movement, especially for legally responsible adult graphistes, by criminalizing the defacement of public property and making violations punishable by high fines and prison sentences.

Paris, and other French cities with the financial means to do so, mobilized anti-tag cleaning forces. Since 2000 the mayor of Paris has hired two private enterprises to patrol and rapidly remove graffiti from private and public walls. The result is that within the city limits, on any given afternoon Paris seems to be remarkably tag free, the cleanup squads having already erased the previous nights' tags. In a single year, this amounts to more than 130,000 square meters of graffiti. (If you look closely, you might notice that the lower one to two meters of some buildings look much cleaner than the upper parts...due most likely to tag removal in the past.)

"Free spray" construction fence known as Espace Graff which has recently been removed at the Palais de Tokyo.
Another preventive measure has been to tolerate graffiti on certain walls within Paris to give graffeurs who paint large, colorful calligraphy "fresques" a place to express themselves. One of the most prominent "free-spray" walls had been a construction fence, known as the "Espace Graff" along the edge of the Palais de Tokyo, a building on the Seine dedicated to modern and contemporary art. Although that metallic palisade has been recently removed, puerile taggers continue to frequent the area, regrettably and regularly defacing the statuary of the reclining Nymphes.

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder...
While I'm on the subject, I should mention that what is intended to be the reference book of Parisian graffiti goes officially on sale today, November 29, 2010. It's twenty-seven years of archives depicted in some 2200 photos of heaven-only-knows how many kilograms of spray paint applied illicitly, and in some cases licitly, to create a multitude of calligraphies and pop imagery; an imagery that has notably marked the Parisian urban and suburban railway lines' landscapes as well as maintenance budgets. The 300 page Paris City Graffiti is being sold online at http://pariscitygraffiti.com/

This post is a continuation of the previous two posts and contains excerpts, with minor revisions,  from an article I wrote for France Today magazine, entitled Inside Outsider Art.

Text & photos © P.B.Lecron

Sunday, November 28, 2010


She toys with words

Miss.Tic's provocative stenciled self-portraits with pithy phrases and plays on words, are as pertinent as they are impertinent-- which must explain in part the wide appeal of this enduring Parisian street artist.

A phenomenal success and extremely active, she's spray-painted her way from the streets of Paris straight into galleries and institutions... and has received commissions from big names such as Longchamp, Louis Vuitton and Kenzo. One of her most memorable shows was sponsored by the city of Paris: a year-long open-air exhibit,  Femmes Capitales, for which she painted more than 100 stencils on buildings and walls throughout the 13th arrondissement. An about face for a street artist who had once been fined for property defacement in the early days of her career.

Miss.Tic's ironic works mirror the feminine mystique of the modern Parisian woman, in all her superficiality and profundity. She clicks so well with the public that she inspired a parody stencil, Miss.Toc.

Like Jérôme Mesnager, (see earlier post Puddle-Hopping Paris) Miss.Tic is a first generation Parisian street artist who began painting city walls in the 1980s to capture an immediate audience for her work. During this "avant tag" period, i.e., before tagging became a favorite activity of vandals in the late 1980s, the development of art in the streets was relatively well tolerated in Paris. Graffiti made its entrance into private galleries and became a part of the popular art heritage--a good ten years after the 1970s street art movement in New York.

The above text is an excerpt, with slight revisions,  from an article I wrote, Inside Outsider Art, which appeared in France Today magazine, and is published here with permission.  It is a continuation of my previous post, Puddle-Hopping Paris. More to come...

For complete Miss.Tic resources, including photos of her in action, click on http://www.missticinparis.com/

Text & photos © 2010 P.B. Lecron

Friday, November 26, 2010


He's leapt and danced across decaying walls and condemned buildings since 1983. Now legendary, the naked, innocent figure known as the Corps Blanc, has puddle-hopped through Paris, then out into some 20 other countries, even scaling the Great Wall of China.

The ethereal white figure is the vintage creation of Jérôme Mesnager. Mesnager is among a handful of street artists who nearly thirty years after their clandestine graffiti debut have made their names in the art market. Whole sections of wooden fences bearing Mesnager's fetishized figure have been sold in galleries and auction houses. The medium is indeed a part of the message.

Catch me if you can

Rapidly painted freehand in some of the most unexpected places, Le Corps Blanc resembles a posable wooden mannequin come to life. The icon has withstood the test of time, despite the ephemeral nature of street art. Some disappear when buildings are razed or walls are cleaned and repainted, or when other graffiti artists cover them over. In certain neighborhoods, however, the streaking figures are sought after by property owners and have become a part of the local heritage, like the giant mural Mesnager painted high up on a building in the 20th arrondissement at 68 rue Ménilmontant.

Although a number of Corps Blancs can still be seen, especially in the Latin Quarter, Mesnager knows of only one in Paris that actually dates back to 1983. He's reluctant to say publicly where it is, for fear that taggers--the bane of any city dweller's existence--might blot it out with their own scrawling signatures. When a well-placed Corps Blanc does meet such a fate, Mesnager takes it in stride. "I usually wait until the city cleans away the tag, then I repaint."

That public authorities today distinguish between the differing forms of graffiti and leave his and other street artists' work in place is a triumph in itself for the artists. Mesnager recalls that once the city erased without notice a stencil on his own exterior wall that a top graffiti artist, Miss.Tic (pronounced mystique), had painted as a surprise for him. "I really was not pleased to lose my Miss.Tic!" he says, chuckling at the play on words.

The above text contains excerpts, with minor revisions,  from an article, Inside Outsider Art, which I wrote  based in part on a interview with Jérôme Mesnager. It originally appeared in France Today magazine and is republished with permission.

Text & photos ©2010 P.B.Lecron

For a zippy animated viewing of Le Corps Blanc, see http://mesnagerjerome.free.fr/

Wednesday, November 24, 2010


The French say the moon is a liar. La lune est une menteuse.

It's a charming devise they use to remember  the difference between a waxing and a waning moon. When the moon forms a crescent in the form of a C, as in croissant from the French verb croître (to grow or to increase in size), they say the moon is lying because in reality it is in its last quarter, decreasing or waning.

When the the moon forms a capital D as in décroissant from the verb décroître (to diminish), it's another lie because it's actually increasing or waxing.

Italians and musicians can look at the moon and do the same using the musical directions Crescendo and Decrescendo.

Culinary historians beg to differ on the exact origin of the crescent form for pastries. They generally agree, however, that French bakers perfected the croissant when they began using a pâte feuilletée layered with butter to create a delicately crispy but puffy and flaky breakfast staple loved the world over.

© 2010 P.B. Lecron

Tuesday, November 23, 2010


A post script to The Last Bite and All the World's a Stage, Non?

To get a quick sense of the French style of humor (or perhaps more accurately, what advertising agencies perceive to be the French style of humor) don't miss the urban advertising at city bus stops. The quirky ads  often have longer lasting effect than the naked bids for attention frequently seen here in sexy outdoor ads for lingerie, perfume, and yes, men's underwear.

What next? Everyone I polled remembers this ad.
The proof is one more ad from the past that should go on the quirky list.  It was for Lipton Tea and briefly appeared on the backends of stylish French city buses years ago in July 2003. And although I remember it well, I wouldn't deign to describe it. Anyone curious enough can view it at http://www.coloribus.com/adsarchive/prints/lipton-carousel-5226105/ .  And why not listen to Judy Garland singing How Ya Gonna Keep 'm Down on the Farm at the same time?  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=17iLn1HyF3g

Text & photo ©2010 P.B.Lecron

Sunday, November 21, 2010


When I coyly checked in at the ticket counter in the early 1980's with only one carry-on suitcase and boarded a plane to Paris for a week-long jaunt, I never dreamed that a high heel of my only pair of shoes would get caught and break off two days later in a small hole on a sidewalk in the 16th arrondissement.

It was thanks to that one pair of classic taupe Amalfi heels, however, that I had the most singular experience--about an hour and half before my hobbling descent into hell. Because those shoes determined what I wore, I necessarily dressed the entire trip looking as though I were on my way to a reception or job interview. So much so that while wearing a smart jersey ensemble and standing around on the terrace of the Palais de Tokyo admiring the building's architecture, a guardian at a side entrance mistook me for an invited guest to a private exposition being held there.

"Mademoiselle," he called to me in a loud whisper from a side entrance, "C'est par ici..."  Knowing only that he had said "it's over here," I hesitantly stepped in. Lo and behold, I had just been ushered into an invitation-only pre-viewing of the first major Modigliani retrospective in recent times.

Travel tip: Pack lightly, but not that lightly. Always take at least two pairs of shoes. After dislodging my shoe's heel, I was able to hail a taxi and go straight to a shoe repair shop or cordonnerie, but had this happened after closing hours it would have been an entirely different matter.

Text & photo ©2010 P.B.Lecron


Autumnly, Ought We

Autumnly, ought we
As leaves do
Ought not we
fall automatically under a
blanket of bright blue?

Or should we brace ourselves
and break the fall?
Oughtn' we care?

As October leaves us lovers,
As October leaves our loves,
Autumnly tumble,
Ought not we, too?
by P.B. Lecron

Dusting Kisses

Although the morning was spent
And the evening went
Before the dust was swept back outdoors,
The morning glory did not miss its bloom
Nor the moss rose in the afternoon,

And lightning bugs like silver spoons
Glinting in an opened drawer
Remind us, sweet housekeepers,
That we like spoons and moons and Junes
And kisses kept as secrets after chores.
by P.B.Lecron


These poems date back to my poetry-writing days in the early 1980's when I still lived in Oklahoma dreaming. Like dust, poetry will keep; but unlike dust, it matters.  P.B.L. 

(I've borrowed these poems from another blog I used to write. The autumn leaves are from a magnificent, century-old tilleul or linden tree in the garden I used to keep in French Flanders. The silver spoons, however, followed me to France.)

Poems, text & photos ©2009 P.B.Lecron

Friday, November 19, 2010


Urban advertising is like stage decor for the theatrum mundi set.  

Photo by Eric Tenin.
As you like it: a traditional English breakfast--baked beans and eggs---revisited in a Eurostar train ad for a romantic getaway for two to London. It might have made some passengers think twice before going.

In the urban advertising category, this is one of the ads that best exemplifies the mildly sardonic French sense of humor, especially when English culinary and eating habits are concerned. I love this particular photo of the ad, which is indeed a memorable one: although it dates back to 2006,  I could still recall it, and think it worth the while to track down the Parisian photographer, Eric Tenin, for permission to use his great shot.

No comparison: The ad briefly appeared at bus stop panels all over the Parisian region. My own photo of it, taken in broad daylight, fell undramatically flat:

For a very lively and telling daily photo of Paris, there's no better place to click than www.parisdailyphoto.com maintained by Eric Tenin.

November 2010 is photo month, an event celebrated bi-annually in Paris. See www.parisphoto.fr

 ©2010 P.B. Lecron

Thursday, November 18, 2010


From an Alsatian winegrower's neat stack of firewood. 

I have a fetish for neatly stacked, well-seasoned woodpiles. I like this one because the bûchettes interspersed with the bûches remind me of the eye-catching composition of ornamental textile designs and decors that seemingly detach from Gustav Klimt's sensual Art Nouveau paintings.

A Vocabulary Lesson:
une bûche: a log
une bûchette: a stick of wood
bûcheron, -onne: woodcutter, lumberjack
bûcher: to cut down, to fell trees
bûcher: (for students) to bone up on or cram for an exam 

Text & photo ©2010 P.B.Lecron 

Monday, November 15, 2010


They swoon and coo gleefully on the Square Montholon, one of the rare green spaces in the ninth arrondissement. The most charming of marble groups in all of Paris, La Sainte Catherine, honors the “Catherinettes.”  These were single women over the age of 25 who each year celebrated their patron saint's day by creating a new hat for the saint's statue to wear on her feast day, November 25.  The custom slowly faded except in the sewing industry, where haute couturiers and modistes celebrate Saint Catherine's day by making extravagant green and yellow hats for their female employees. Yellow evokes  either faith, or as some maintain, the aging white sheets in the spinster's armoire; and green the hope of finding a husband. Couture houses on Avenue Montaigne keep the tradition alive with a yearly  fête at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées--the comings and goings for which are a sight to see for lucky passersby.

Saint Catherine is also the patron saint of working women, to whom Julien Auguste Lorieux dedicated this sculpture in the south Pigalle neighborhood. Remarkable Louis-Philippe wrought-iron work and two magnificent oriental plane trees, a century old and 100 feet high, shelter this islet of calm. Square Montholon, 79 rue Lafayette, 9e, Métro: Cadet.

NB: The above text is a slightly revised republication, with permission, of a magazine sidebar I wrote and which appeared in France Today. The sidebar accompanied my article about south Pigalle. www.francetoday.com  

Text & photo ©2010 P.B. Lecron

Sunday, November 14, 2010


Black Lombardy Poplars breaking the wind in the Pas-de-Calais.
Pas très calé
I shouldn't tell this. When we first moved to French Flanders, I had never heard of the Pas-de-Calais, let alone know that we were living in that administrative department. So when my French husband pulled up in front of the post office and asked me to hop out and put a letter destined for the city of Calais in the correct mailbox slot, I never imagined there could be an almost metaphysically challenging choice.

In front of me were two slots; one marked Pas-de-Calais and the other marked Autres Destinations (other destinations).  What a strange way to sort mail, I thought, and dropped the letter into the Autres Destinations slot, reasoning that Pas-de-Calais meant that it was not for letters addressed to Calais.

Wrong. Pas in this case was not a negation. Mail addressed to destinations within the department was to go in the Pas-de-Calais slot, including Calais.  As it turns out, pas once signified passage; the Pas-de-Calais was so named because Calais was the port of passage between France and England.

That reminds me of another thing I shouldn't tell, one of those jokes about Belgians you hear so much in northern France. Because my Belgian surname gives me attenuated license, here goes: Why aren't there any Belgians in Calais? The road signs say Pas-de-Calais, so they turn around and go home.

Where am I?

A modicum of vocabulary:
Pas: with ne + verb it forms the negative “not,” as in the phrase: Je ne suis pas très calé(e) en la matière. I don't know much about it.

 ©2010 P.B.Lecron

Friday, November 12, 2010


Maizena to the rescue

Want to bake an American style cake in France? It could be problematic because cake flour called for in American recipes is not sold in the land of pâtisserie. 

The French often marvel at the heights American cakes attain...the secret?  Cake flour, a highly specialized type of flour not available in France. Years ago when searching for some, a sales lady at the Fauchon fine and imported foods store explained to me that because wheat is such an important agricultural product in France, its importation is strictly regulated with protective laws.

The solution? When using French flour, use half French flour and half cornstarch as a substitution for cake flour. (Note that French and American flours do not produce the same quantities of gluten, so this proportion would not work if using American flour. In that case and if you're in a pinch, a substitute for cake flour can be made with 3/4 cup sifted bleached all-purpose flour and two tablespoons of cornstarch. )

The major French manufacturer of cornstarch has finally caught on to the marketing aspect of lighter cakes and has added a new tag on its Maizena boxes: pour des gâteaux légers.

I was committed to baking an angel food cake--especially after my French husband went through the ordeal of finding an angel food cake pan for me when on a business trip in the States; then once back in France, being momentarily delayed by a customs officer wondering if it were a mini hand washing machine.

Text & photos © 2010 P.B. Lecron

Tuesday, November 9, 2010


For the approximate cook

I have it on authority, that is to say from a friend of a friend's sister whose lover is a French chef, that to make a good onion soup you should never use bouillon cubes and you should always carmelize the onions.

I take that to mean that you should make your own beef stock bouillon, but being the lazy cook that I am, I skip using bouillon altogether. The resulting soup is tasty and easy to make, although it would most likely never win a French Onion Soup Cook-Off  if ever there were to be one. I also skip adding flour as a thickening agent and never add herbs, and I usually drink the red wine rather than add it to the broth.

All you have to do is

  • Sautée until translucent a generous quantity of sliced yellow onions in butter and olive oil. 
  • Add one teaspoon each of sugar and salt and continue cooking until onions are browned. 
  • Add water to just cover the onions and let simmer over low heat about 30 minutes.
  • Season to taste. Pour hot soup into oven-proof bowls and top with toasted croûtons and grated gruyère or Swiss cheese (see how to prepare croûtons on earlier blog post, Breadboard Economy). 
  • Place under broiler til cheese is crusty and bubbly. 
  • Finish with a grinding of fresh black pepper.

N.B: This recipe is particularly interesting if you're serving a person afflicted with gout who wants to avoid  purines in the meat-based broths.

ExpressionsCe n'est pas tes oignons. (familiar):  It's none of your business.
                      Occupe-toi de tes oignons. (familiar):  Mind your own business.

For jazz listening fun: Les Oignons with Sidney Bechet

Text & photo © 2010  P.B.Lecron

Monday, November 8, 2010


A l'aise, Blaise
During the early 1990's a recently implanted costume manufacturer began promoting Halloween in France; by the middle of the decade it looked as though celebrating it had truly taken hold, much to the delight of all concerned in the  manufacturing and merchandising end of the fête. In 2000, however, a Halloween backlash supported by the Christian community was started, and for all practical purposes it snuffed out the candle in the Jack-O'-Lantern. Celebrated still by some, it's nonetheless difficult today to find the dedicated party decorations that were once so easy to find.

I mention in particular that the anti-Halloween movement was officially launched by the bishop of Clermont-Ferrand, because this is a city to which I had once beaten tracks to visit after I learned that it was twinned with my home-away-from-home, Norman, Oklahoma.  (It is also from this remote and ancient place that the first crusades were preached by Pope Urbain II in 1095, giving the Halloween backlash extra symbolic umph.)

The statue then.
First on my list to do when I arrived was to photograph a statue of Clermont-Ferrand's most famous native son, Blaise Pascal (1623-1662), to accompany an article I was writing for The Norman Transcript.  It was just a few days after Halloween, and coincidentally or not, the statue had been vandalized.

It was a discreet misdeed worked in a reasoned and rascally way, considering the long hours Pascal must have spent reading and studying. The statue's eyes had been carefully painted bloodshot red, an uncondonable prank, which except for its finesse, made me feel more like home than anything.

More about Pascal

Seventeenth century mathematician, physicist, inventor, philosopher and religious writer, Pascal is especially revered in Clermont-Ferrand for his celebrated Puy-de-Dôme experiment in 1648. Proving that atmospheric pressure decreases with altitude, the experiment was conducted just outside the city, which lies at the foot of the Puy-de-Dôme, an extinct volcano. (It was again repeated in Paris from the Tour Saint-Jacques.)

Pascal, who had poor health and suffered from migraine headaches, left an important legacy--including the Pascaline, the world's first mechanical calculator which he invented at age 16; the creation of the first public transportation system where paying passengers could ride a coach in Paris; as well as Pascal's Law, Pascal's Triangle, Pascal's Theorem and Pascal's Wager.

Through the centuries Pascal's Wager has stirred up a lot of pulpit, sitting room and armchair debate on probabilities and theology. In a nutshell it's that if you believe in God, then you have everything to gain if he does exist, and little to lose if he doesn't. Conversely, if you don't believe in God, and God does exist, then you have everything to lose.

Vocabulary lesson: à l'aise: at ease


Text & photo © P.B.Lecron

Sunday, November 7, 2010


Animal rights activist Brigitte Bardot once remarked that the French will eat anything. Having once turned my nose up at a slice of donkey sausage a French friend offered me, I concur. 

France has just repaired relations with China through a controversial transfer of French technology; but trade is not the only area where the two peoples can find common ground. As an old Cantonese saying goes, "Anything that walks, swims, crawls, or flies with its back to heaven is edible."

Chef and cookbook writer James Beard said, "Food is our common ground, a universal experience." A common ground, yes, but one through which certain social groups can be distinguished from others. "You are what you eat," a refrain of nutritionists and anthropologists alike, is simply an echo of "Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you what you are," a famous aphorism from the pithy 18th-century French gastronomist Brillat-Savarin's Physiologie du Goût.

A certain degree of snobbery exists concerning what one ingests. However, as James Michener wrote, "If you reject the food, ignore the customs, fear the religion and avoid the people, you might better stay home." Even so, an anonymous British wag once quipped, "To eat well in England, you have to go to France three times a day."

According to author Virginia Woolf, "One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well." France's most beloved  monarch, King Henri IV, must have been thinking along the same 
lines when he proclaimed in his coronation speech in 1598, "I want there to be no peasant in my kingdom so poor that he is unable to have a chicken in his pot every Sunday."

Orson Welles was more to the point: "Ask not what you can do for your country. Ask what's for lunch."

Text & photos ©2010 P.B. Lecron


A handy and simplified primer on table seating etiquette 

Having a dinner party? Even if it's going to be informal, give thought to the seating. Unless you intend to ask everyone to fall in randomly, most guests-- especially French, won't take a place until told or shown where it is. Don't be caught off-guard. This is the moment when any hesitation on your part can make them as well as yourself feel uncomfortable. Put everyone at ease by designating seats promptly.

Traditionally when a couple gives a dinner, the host seats the female guest of honor to his right, and the hostess invites the male guest of honor to sit to her right. The second most important woman is seated to the left of the host, and the second most important man to the left of the hostess, and so on. Likewise, a single host or hostess places the guest of honor to his or her right.

Who the guests of honor are depends on the circumstances or celebration. It can be an elderly person, an official, a foreign visitor, or a couple over for the first time. You decide who to honor.

No guest of honor in particular? Alternate, if possible, men and women, but avoid seating a couple side by side. Children should be seated next to parents, but don't do this to teenagers!

If it happens--heaven forbid--that you have guests who don't see eye-to-eye, don't spoil their meal by placing them face-to-face. Seat them on the same side of the table, preferably with another guest in between.

Eight or more guests? Use place cards accordingly.

Text & photo ©2010 P.B.Lecron

Wednesday, November 3, 2010


His nibs, Kitty Quatorze

Because certain caretakers live on the grounds of the Château de Versailles with their families and pets, visitors will sometimes cross paths in the parc with a resident cat. That's no surprise considering first, that the lodgings scattered around the domaine are as old as the château and undoubtedly need mousers; and second, that cats will be cats.

I didn't have my camera the day I saw a mother cat and her pre-ado kittens stroll along the hornbeam hedges of the Allée Royale, but I did get these shots when taking photos to accompany a story I was working on for France Today. My subject was supposed to be La Flottille, a small Parisian-style restaurant on the banks of the Sun King's Grand Canal, but a photogenic royal inhabitant stole the scene.

Text & photos ©2010 P.B.Lecron