Monday, 27 April 2015

Nepal - How To Donate

Courtesy of The Guardian, there's a very useful article that lists and provides links to all the ways we can donate to help people in Kathmandu and Nepal. The article is here.

I chose to donate to Oxfam since I've been a lifelong supporter (and am a regular giver) but also because I bought a tablecloth from the Oxfam shop in Kathmandu when I was there in the '90s. I went for 'soft goods' on that trip since they were easier to pack and carry.  The tablecloth was bright yellow and has a green Hindu 'knot' design. I still have that tablecloth and it's still bright yellow. I remember the shop as having big windows and being bright and airy, built on the side of a hill and me being the only punter in there at the time. I have fond memories of Kathmandu.

I don't mind which organisation you donate to but please donate. Nepal is a small but very special and beautiful country and the Nepalese people need our help and support at this sad time. It will survive and rebuild but, just now, a helping hand would be welcomed.

Sunday, 26 April 2015

Vlaminck at the Atelier Grognard, Paris

Maurice de Vlaminck is an artist I know very little about but I've seen some of his marvellous fauvist paintings at the Courtauld Gallery in London and at Musee D'Orsay in Paris. There was an exhibition of his later works at the Atelier Grognard out in the suburbs of Rueil-Malmaison while I was in Paris recently so out came the map to try and find the gallery. Find it I did, and the nearest rail station which looked miles away… Still, where's there's a way there's a will!

So there we are, trudging down a quiet residential road, posh houses in walled grounds either side and the hot sun of an unseasonably warm and sunny Paris spring beating down. And no signposts or posters in sight. Luckily, my phone includes a map so I know I'm heading in roughy the right direction. And then finally there's a poster! At the end of the residential road, there are a few shops and then turning right, yet more walled in private houses and private roads. Posh indeed. And then there it is, the gallery, looking for all the world like a community art centre anywhere in the world.

The exhibition is in a large room with sections panelled off to make it more interesting and to separate out the works on display. We have a few early works including a couple of self-portraits with a pipe (I'm assuming Maurice liked a pipe) and a section with some of his vibrant fauvist-inspired works such as 'Restaurant' which normally hangs in Musee D'Orsay. I admit to loving 'Restaurant' and I want to eat there. I'd like a table outside please, beside the orange wall, so I can look at the pink-orange trees and the red grass. I'd sip a nice red while I waited for the surly waiter to serve me my food and drink in the colour along with the wine. Why isn't the world always like this?

These are the paintings I really wanted to see but most of the exhibition was made up of paintings of landscapes, of fields of corn and villages, of woods and trees being blown around. And all with a big sky. I didn't really notice at first but then that's all I saw - lots of skies. I should have got the hint from the exhibition poster, with half the painting being of the sky.

The skies were quite entrancing in their own way. None were the same and none done by rote. All were worked and moulded into being the right sky for that particular picture, occasionally blue but, more often, dangerous shades of grey, a sky that could change from benign to terror in the blink of an eye.

Some skies were violent and turbulent, some seascapes made little difference between the storming waves and the storming clouds but it was always there. The sky is a character in it's own right, not just the bit at the top of the painting that's normally blue.

Some of my favourite paintings were the snow scenes with the lowering grey skies contrasting with the often dirty, trodden snow on the ground. The people in these paintings were always negligible and roughly drawn, a few slashes of the brush and that's it, always bent as they trudged through the snow, almost cowering from the sky. They were all terribly atmospheric, a world Vlaminck has created in which we live in terror of the sky. Having so many of them on the walls together was almost oppressive. He might not have put much effort into painting people but he was a master of depicting the terror of clouds and atmospherics.

After a short sit down to rest, off we started on the trek back to the railway station. By now the afternoon heat was oppressive and a bottle of water wouldn't go amiss but where can you buy a simple thing like a bottle of water? Not in this neighbourhood certainly! It wasn't until we found the station again that we also found the station shop that sold water! What a funny area that was. I wasn't sad to be leaving at all and it was a delight to get a double-decker train back into Paris proper.

But there you go - at least I've seen some Vlaminck paintings I'd probably never have the opportunity to see without that odd trek into the middle of suburban nowhere. And I've learned about skies.

Sunday, 19 April 2015

Sonia Delaunay at Tate Modern

I saw posters for an exhibition of Sonia Delaunay's works in Paris when I was there in October 2014 but the exhibition opened the day I left so didn't manage to see it. That exhibition is now in London at the Tate Modern and opened a few days ago so I immediately went along to bask in her colours. I didn't know much about Sonia, although I'd come across her husband before (Robert Delaunay), so here was an opportunity to learn about this fascinating woman and see some of the works that have influenced avant-garde art movements throughout the last century.

As well as being an artists she branched out to design books for the dadaists, designed costumes for Diaghilev and the Ballet Russe, designed fabrics for Liberty and designed clothes for the great and good such as this coat for Gloria Swanson. This makes it such a great exhibition to wander round since you have no idea what might be in the next room.

There are sketches of clothes in her special colours and designs as well as specific examples, including a couple of woollen bathing suits and a parasol. There are shoes, ties, shawls, designs for commercial adverts, a dress and waistcoat and all sorts. In one room there is a big display of three of her fabrics rolling round and round, an interesting way to exhibit her works.

She was, of course, also an artist of great perception and power and, on arriving in Paris in 1906 she was attracted to the Fauves and the first couple of rooms are dedicated to this phase of her work. There were several portraits of 'Philomene' and this was my favourite with it's bright wallpaper behind the sitter. There were also a few portraits of a Finnish girl with a similarly yellow-based face, experimenting with the contrasts of colour on the body and how the eye interpets it.

From these early figurative works Sonia soon ventured down a more abstract route, developing the concept of 'simultanism' with her husband, using contrasting bright colours to bring a new vibrancy and life to painting at a time when other painters were becoming increasingly monochrome.  One of my favourites of her move to abstraction is a painting called 'Bal Bullier', named after a ballroom Sonia used to visit to sketch the dancers during the tango craze in Paris. There are two versions of the painting on display and you can see the shapes of the dancers swirling and strutting across the dance floor. The painting is full of energy and life.

From there she moved further into abstraction, focusing on geometric shapes, particularly circles in magical colours.

She contrasts colours and shapes to give them a vibrancy, make them resonate against and with each other and they're wonderful mandalas to gaze into and see the colours bubble and glow. Her art theories extended into trying to make them sing, to represent music with shapes and colours and she began her 'Rhythm' series of paintings.

I can't help but feel her forays into design and the applied arts helped her to develop her work, adding beauty to everyday life. That's partly what art's all about and Sonia's brings added depth. The swirling colours of her fabrics and magazine covers must have helped her to see ever more clearly where she wanted to go. What happens when the fabric falls just like this and the colours sit together…?

After the Second World War Sonia started using darker colours and is noted as saying that her great achievement was to discover black as an expressive colour in its own right. Who but a great artist would say something like that? The colours of her works are deeper and richer, more striking and just as gorgeous. Her 1969 painting called 'Syncopated Rhythm, known as The Black Snake' illustrates this perfectly and represents three phases of her artistic development from right to left. It really is quite marvellous in the flesh.

Sonia died in 1979 at the age of 94. She was born in the Ukraine and grew up in St Petersburg before moving to Paris in 1906 to train as an artist and what a life she must have seen. And kept painting and designing. A true artist. She is one of only two living artists to be exhibited at the Louvre and was awarded the Legion D'Honour. I learned so much by seeing this exhibition and there is so much more to learn. I have found a new hero and I need to learn more about her.

'From Giotto to Caravaggio' at the Musee Jacquemart-Andre, Paris

When in Paris a visit to the Musee Jacquemart-Andre is almost mandatory. I went there to see the marvellous exhibition about Fra Angelico a few years ago (indeed, that exhibition was the sole reason for going to Paris) and, last year, the exhibition about Peregrino (Rapheal's master).  A visit to the cafe is also mandatory for delicious cakes (my favourite is a raspberry and cream cake with a macaroon base and topping - yum!).

This time it was an early evening visit (since the museum stays open late on Mondays) to see the latest exhibition, 'From Giotto to Caravaggio'. The exhibition is based around the theories and collection of Roberto Longhi, a collector and art historian and many of the exhibits come from his collection. The focus is on Caravaggio and his many followers and imitators who played with the dramatic light and shade and almost theatricality of his subjects that are central features of his work.

As well as the 'Boy Bitten By A Lizard' in the poster for the exhibition, the other main painting by Caravaggio was 'The Crowning with Thorns', a dramatic painting of the thorns being forced onto Christ's head, too thorny for the guards to touch so they ease it on with sticks. This painting was then followed by a room of similar paintings, all with the crown of thorns and sticks, all dramatically lit and all very derivative if you've seen the Caravaggio.

The depiction of the crowning looks painful - as it must have been - but I had difficulty in seeing Christ in that painting. He was 33 when he died and that face is of a man who is definitely in his 50s. The trials of his last days couldn't make him age so quickly so I wonder what the artist was trying to say by making him look so old. And yes, the aged face is also copied in the other paintings.

The essays in light and shade by the followers of Caravaggio were all very well but the highlights of the exhibition for me weren't those of the 16th and 17th Centuries, but rather the beauties of the 14th Century.

As everyone knows, Giotto invented art and it's always a thrill to see his paintings. I've never been to Sienna to see his chapels but I have seen the two small chapels he painted in Santa Croce in Florence and they take the breath away. Such marvels and colour, such simple storytelling yet so powerful. There are two paintings by Giotto in this exhibition, St John the Evangelist and St Laurence and this is St John (which was my favourite). There were angels above both paintings and the one above St John almost looked bored - c'mon, get on with it, he's almost saying. I liked his wings.

Giotto's St John could almost have been a real person, drawn from a model with a baldy head and a great two-pronged beard. There's probably a thesis in there somewhere, but when did artists start depicting saints with bald heads? It's the attention to the 'real' as well as the artistic license. On closer inspection you can see the wrinkles around John's eyes, bringing yet more realism to the painting. By comparison, St Laurence is more theoretical and less based in the reality of what a man looks like, but John is marvellous. Both paintings are dated as 1320.

Another favourite was by Masaccio and painted a few years later, a beautiful small Virgin & Child. It's much smaller than the Giottos, maybe about 12 inches tall and framed and the blue of Mary's shawl is incredibly vivid and attracted me from across the room.  It's a very calming painting and I can well believe it was used to aid quiet contemplation and meditation and it's almost like Mary is playing with the baby in her arms. The gold background with the imprint of haloes is reflected in the hem of Mary's shawl and you can easily see the folds and drapes in the material, an innovation back then. It really is quite lovely.

I've seen Masaccio's great frescoes at Santa Maria del Carmine in Florence and they are magnificent. There's also another version of the Virgin & Child in the National Gallery in London, surrounded by angels, but I think I prefer this version. It's simple and gentle and lovely to look at.

The exhibition ends with three large three-quarter length portraits of saints by Jusepe de Ribera and one of these I actively disliked - Saint Bartholemew wielding a knife and a flayed skin. What's that all about? Clearly I need to read up on the saints but this wizened, cruel old man isn't someone I ever want to know too much about. I don't like this painting despite the expert rendering and realism of the subject. I much prefer the painting of the young St Thomas with his staff, interestingly in profile holding his billowing cape. He looks slightly weather-beaten and unwashed and is very believable.

So there you have it, my latest trip to Jacquemart-Andre and, like the Musee Marmottan Monet, it also has an excellent book and gift-shop to pop into on the way out. Until next time...

'Gypsy' at the Savoy Theatre

Last years' season at Chichester included three great musicals - 'Amadeus' (with Rupert Everett), 'Guys and Dolls' (with Sophie Thompson) and 'Gypsy' (with Imelda Staunton). The only production to transfer to London is 'Gypsy' which has just opened for a limited season at the Savoy Theatre on the Strand. Imelda still leads the cast (and has pride of place on the poster) but Herbie is now played by Peter Davison rather than Kevin Whateley. I have to report that Dr Who can do many things but either he had a terribly sore throat or he can't sing (I suspect the latter, but Herbie doesn't need to sing so that's ok).

It's the same production as in Chichester (and I blogged here) but on a smaller scale since the Savoy doesn't have the vast expanse of stage as Chichester. No less energy in the performances, of course, despite having done the matinee that afternoon. You'd never have guessed.

As you probably know, it's the tale of a stage-mother who is tirelessly driven to make her daughter June a star, the star she wanted to be herself but the moment passed her by. We see the same old, tired act again and again as the children grow up and move from town to town and vaudeville theatre to theatre. And then they have their big break with a shot at Broadway but the theatre only wants June, not the rest of the act or the mother and they turn it down. Then June runs off with one of the dancers after getting secretly married and setting up their own act. So Mama Rose turns her attention to her older daughter, Louise, to make her the star instead of June.

They end up in a burlesque theatre with strippers and that's where Gypsy Rose Lee is born when Rose insists Louise (played by Lara Pulver) does the strip when the booked stripper is arrested since it means she will bow out of the business as a star. A hesitant Louise does the strip by simply removing a glove and then goes on to become the star her mother always wanted, as the most highly pay stripper in the business. Without Rose. And that leads to Rose's eventual breakdown on stage with her name in lights and the crowd on its feet applauding the latest and greatest star in Mama Rose. But it's all fantasy and she walks off to a party with her newly reconciled daughter, walking into the lights off-stage. Phew! What a roller coaster that fully deserved the standing ovation at the end.

It's a great production of a great show and is a perfect showcase for Imelda Staunton, particularly her big songs that close both halves - 'Everything's Coming Up Roses' and 'Rose's Turn'. Imelda captures the fire and passion of ambition and blasts it out at the audience in an astonishing performance that reveals so much of her character, of the pain of being in the background and trying to push forward to reach her dreams. She won't give up on her dreams despite losing the man she loves and her daughters along the way. A portrait in tenacity.

If you can, go and see this show and see Imelda's career-defining performance. It's only on for a couple of months so book tickets now. Anita Dobson and Brian May enjoyed it too - they were sitting along the row from us and I bet Brian was itching to get out his guitar and join in with a solo.

'Play Mas' at The Orange Tree Theatre, Richmond

A few weeks ago we went to see the revival of a play from the 1970s by Mustapha Matura at the Orange Tree Theatre in Richmond, 'Play Mas' about events before and after the liberation of Trinidad from Empire in the 1960s. Well, freedom from the British Empire to be swallowed by the American empire. Apparently this was it's first revival since the '70s which seems odd but its politics of big business and money are still as current today as they ever were.

It starts out in an Indian tailors' workroom with the tailor and the family servant bantering about making a suit and films, while the tailor's off-stage mother needs to borrow the servant lad for odd tasks. It takes a while to get going and gradually the political overtones start emerging of class and race and the ridiculousness of the one white character appearing all sweaty and exhausted from just walking from his car to the tailor's workroom. And then there's the political rally that the servant lad wants to go to but is forbidden by his employer and subsequently fired. That was a long scene that was pleasant enough but didn't seem to go anywhere until you make the connections in the penultimate scene.

Next we have the 'Mas' or 'masquerade' of the title, with various people visiting the tailors' workroom in costume and character as part of the Trinidad carnival. Firstly the servant lad returns in military fatigues and carrying a rifle threatening to kill the tailor and his mother, totally convincing until he broke out laughing, swigs some rum and leaves in high spirits. But that's too much for the tailors' mother and she dies off-stage of a heart attack. That makes the next few has characters even more surreal as it's never entirely clear who's playing who - the doctor, the priest, the undertakers. This was a throughly engaging and enjoyable part of the play and Victor Romero Evans was great as the witchy-doctor character, servant of the underworld wanting a few pennies.

The second half kicks off a few years later with the former servant now serving as the chief of police under the new regime with his social climbing wife, rich friends and new entrepreneurs trying to influence what happens and his wanting to ensure that America will invest in the newly safe and trouble-free nation that's being created. He tries to enlist the tailor to be a spy while telling him about being wined and dined in New York and going to see international films (films - or flims - keep cropping up). Mas is banned that year to ensure no civil disturbances but he's eventually persuaded to reinstate it and give an amnesty to the anti-American groups so that can join in. At his Mas party in his office over-looking the city square all his rich friends come dressed to the nines as the army takes on the rebel groups celebrating and his plan comes together as the lights go down.

It was such an odd ending that it wasn't immediately clear that is was the end and then the clapping started. Seun Shote was excellent as the servant/police chief moving quite easily from the shambling servant lad in cut-off trousers to the be-suited police chief. I also liked Victor Romero-Evans as the indebted spiv, the witchy-doctor and the thrusting entrepreneur in the final scenes. It was well produced on the tiny stage, made even smaller by the audience members in the front rows sitting with their legs stuck out.

So that's two trips to the Orange Tree in the first months of 2015. That suggests there may well be more during the year if the quality of works stays at this high standard.

Friday, 17 April 2015

'A View From The Bridge' at Wyndham's Theatre

A powerful new production of 'A View From The Bridge' is on at Wyndham's at the moment, transferred from the Young Vic. Mark Strong has just won best actor in the Olivier Awards for this play, so that tells you all you need to know.

It\s a painful, slow play, gradually developing its themes and telling its story, slowly getting more complicated and murky as truths start to emerge. The tension starts to mount early on as the small family becomes more dysfunctional and the young girl who I originally thought was meant to be about 12 turns out to be more like 18 but kept a child by an over-bearing father figure who doesn't know what he's doing. That's Eddie, the Mark Strong character. But we can see it.

When two cousins arrive from Italy as illegal immigrants Eddie takes against the younger cousin who is blond, likes singing and dancing and can even sew. He can't express what he feels, can only say that he's 'different', that he's 'wrong' whereas what he means is that he thinks he's gay. Or, more accurately, that he's a threat to his relationship with his adopted daughter. His frustration at not being able to express his thoughts and feelings is almost painful to watch and experience. And just ratchets up the tension.

To get rid of the threat of the cousin Eddie reports them to immigration and starts his downfall as he's now shunned by neighbours and friends alike. He wants his name back but can't see that it's his own fault that he's lost it. His daughter and the blond cousin plan to marry but the other cousin can't forgive Eddie since he's now lost his means of making money to send back to his starving family. He attacks Eddie with a knife and the family and friends try to pull them apart as a rain of blood starts as the people form a pyramid of humanity drenched in blood. And the pyramid collapses…

And I don't know what happens next in the last minute of the play since a woman in front of me chose that moment to switch on her mobile phone to check for messages. I mentioned that here but by the time she switched off her phone the final lines had been said and the lights went out. At the peak of all that tension and I miss it because of a selfish woman who thinks she can do as she likes.

I thought about going back to see the play again so I could see it all the way through but don't think I could take all that tension and frustration again. So this is a rather frustrating end to a blog...

'Stevie' at Hampstead Theatre

There's a new production of 'Stevie' at Hampstead Theatre, the play about Stevie Smith with Zoe Wanamaker in the title role. Stevie holds a rather odd place in modern English literature, a lauded poet in her day but largely forgotten today, a name we've heard of but who can name any of her poems? Not me. It's also not that easy to find her books.

The title page of the theatre's website includes a quote from Stevie:

"You expect me to behave in a certain way, to think a certain way, to lead a certain life. Well, I don't think I can do it."

That makes her enormously attractive to me.

The play is, essentially, Stevie telling us about her life growing up in Palmers Green in north London, being a bit different, a bit idiosyncratic, finding love but deciding it's not for her and living with her 'lion-aunt' played by Lynda Baron with a mane of grey hair. Within seconds of Zoe coming on stage she convinced me that she was Stevie - that's no mean feat and a tribute to Zoe's skills as an actor. She was just standing there, then moving across the stage which was set as their living room with chairs and a desk, smoking incessantly, speaking quickly and slowly, thinking as she remembers and tells us about her life. And there was Stevie.

There's a great partnership between Zoe and Lynda as long-term cohabitees of their house in Palmers Green, knowing each others foibles and preferences. Lynda was excellent as the lion-aunt shuffling in and out with tea and, later, dinner, worried about her niece and her life. It was really touching to see her in the second half, grown old and unable to walk unaided and now looked after by Stevie, the dutiful and loving niece.

I loved the set - simple in a sense since it was based entirely in the living room of the house but very complex in the detail. The lovely front door with stained glass panels, the living room bay window with trees outside, the big book case with the small stool to reach the books higher up. I thought it was great.

Greater still was Zoe Wanamaker acting her socks off and making it all look so easy. The dialogue includes quotes from Stevie's poems and prose and provided a few dramatic moments when least expected. We see Zoe all dressed up to go to meet the Queen at Buckingham Palace and then fall ill while nursing her sister, all terribly laconic.

What this play achieved was to make me want to find out more about Stevie Smith and make her more than just a name in the back of my head. Zoe brought her to life and I need to take the next step and learn about her.

'Sweeney Todd' at The Coliseum

Do you like meat pies and a nice, close shave, the closest shave in London? If you do then you're a bit late to see the latest production of 'Sweeney Todd' at the Coliseum, the home of the English National Opera. The production closed last week but I was lucky enough to catch it before it ended. This was 'Sweeney Todd' with Emma Thompson and Bryn Terfel.

The Coliseum is terribly ornate and old school but, when I walked into the auditorium, my spirits fell slightly when I saw a line of microphone stands at the front of the stage with the orchestra behind. O, I thought, it's a concert version. Not what I was expecting but it should still be good (I hoped).  After all, it was Emma Thompson's first time on the London stage since the '90s and Emma is always worth watching.

And then on came the cast carrying their songbooks, Emma and Bryn in the centre with the rest of the cast along the front of the stage. Bryn started singing and then after a minute or so stood at his microphone, picked up his songbook and dropped it on the stage. Emma tipped hers into the orchestra pit and the others started throwing their songbooks around. The other leading ladies went up to Emma and pulled the sleeves of her frock off and all of them began ripping clothes, moving around the stage, upturning the grand piano to make it a small platform and generally causing mayhem. This was more like it!

Bryn has a big operatic voice and menacing presence that needs a similar voice to challenge it so Emma didn't even try. Instead, she went for comedy and acting to hold her place against Bryn and she more than succeeded with her comedy East End accent and taking over the stage. I loved how she used the orchestra at the back of the stage, taking the conductor's baton at one point to help give Sweeney a hair cut, swiped the double bassist's stool to give Sweeney his first barber's chair and walked to the violin section when talking about pie made of fiddlers. Emma was great fun and easily ruled the stage. She seemed to be having a ball!

I'm very pleased to have seen this production - and seen Emma on stage at last. It certainly wasn't what I expected but that would've been boring, to just put on a standard version with a couple of big names. No, this was different and deservedly so and a production I'll remember for a long time.

Musee Marmottan Monet in Paris

It's always fascinating to visit a new museum or gallery and a highlight of my recent trip to Paris was going to the Musee Marmottan Monet in the inner suburbs of Paris. It is located in the mansion house of M. Marmottan and it houses a truly eclectic range of arts on display as well as being the repository for the biggest collection of Monet paintings in the world, mainly donated my Monet's son, Michel.

The collection begins on the first floor of the house with rooms laid out in their Empire glory with some lovely furniture illustrating the uses of the rooms. All light and airy, the place feels comfortable and welcoming, being able to wander round at leisure without having to avoid crowds. The walls are hung with a wide range of paintings, from Empire and the Restoration to a lovely painting of a vase of flowers by Gaugin and a painting by Marc Chagall, 'Fiancee With A Blue Face'. There's also a room full of small head and shoulders portraits - maybe a couple of dozen - of random early 18th Century people by Boilly. Very ragged fringes over the forehead seem to have been all the vogue at the time.

Wandering round the rooms I stumbled across a large room full of paintings from illuminated manuscripts and a few larger gothic paintings. I've always loved illuminated manuscripts, their delicate power and simple beliefs, with scenes from the life of Christ and some from 'books of days' showing the seasons and other more mundane scenes.

The museum houses the Wildenstein Collection of illuminations from the middle ages to the early Renaissance and they're all gloriously colourful and fascinating. Illuminated manuscripts have been secret passion of mine since I first discovered them as a teenager. You can rarely get close enough to them in displays to really see the detailed miniature paintings but the Wildenstein Collection is laid out so you can get really close and enjoy the colour and design. Many are miniature versions of full sized paintings - and what skill that must have taken - whereas others were clearly lifted from manuscripts. But what a joy to find the exhibition!

Another, much smaller exhibition, was a couple of rooms full of paintings and drawings by Berthe Morisot, usually referred to as the first woman Impressionist. There's a series of paintings of one of her nieces, showing her as she grew into a young lady but my favourite was 'Les Cerises' showing two girls picking cherries. I can't find a good reproduction online - they all look a bit too anodyne and chocolate-boxy, but the real thing looks vibrant and almost like it's just been hung up to dry as Berthe finishes it. The multiplicity of greens in the painting, the sun-drenched orchard and the girl balancing on the step ladder to get to the cherries makes for a very intimate  depiction of a scene that must be reproduced countless times in late summer the world over.

Another painting of her's I really liked was of a shepherdess lolling on the ground next to one of her sheep, a lovely, lazy scene when you just know she should probably be doing something else. It's a very simple and very effective composition with warm colours and the sun beating down.

Another surprise was the current exhibition which I expected to be relatively small since all the other rooms were ordinary sized, but the exhibition space is surprisingly large and well designed. The exhibition is 'The Toilet: The Birth of Intimacy' and is exactly what the title says it is, ie, paintings of women in the bath! Or what counted as a bath over the centuries. What an intriguing idea for an exhibition!

We're shown some very early paintings of women bathing up until the 20th Century with the captions explaining progress through the years from the decline of public bathing in the early Renaissance to making it a more private experience, but one in which other people (and strangers) could still participate at times. The captions explained the move away from bathing using water in the plague years to avoid the threat of contagion to gradually discovering it again as water came to become more easily available in people's houses. It was a rather fascinating history lesson and a novel idea for an exhibition.

I suppose that in a city where every artist has had his or her own solo show over the years you've got to be a bit more creative in coming up with ideas to show paintings so that we can get some new insights. Brigading these paintings together is an inspired way to bring new life to them.

The paintings run through the centuries from artists barely heard of to works by Degas, Toulouse Lautrec, Berthe Morisot, Picasso and others. One of my favourites was this one, 'La Rouge a Levres' by Frantisek Kupka of a woman applying lipstick. Such a simple image but, in the context of this exhibition, very powerful. One of the more graphic paintings was of a woman holding up her voluminous skirts to urinate into a bowl she holds in front of her - so that's how it was done! It's an interesting exhibition - not really about naked women (which is freely available everywhere) but about women in intimate and private moments. A bit voyeuristic but also something to learn from.

All of this and I haven't even mentioned Monsieur Monet yet. He has his own custom-built exhibition space downstairs and it is fab. Very light and airy, well lit and nicely spaced out to provide lots of space to view these great paintings. The current exhibition is a mix of his early works with his later painting of his gardens at Giverny and the inevitable waterlillies.  Given the wealth of Monet paintings the museum has in its collection then I assume the exhibition space is re-hung every now and then but the paintings currently on show are top notch.

It was a delight to see 'Impression, Sunrise', the painting that gave the name to the Impressionists, with Monet's vision of an orange sunrise. It's astonishing to think that this one painting changed the way we see - not immediately, since it took decades for Impressionism to become accepted - so what must Monet have seen and thought as he gazed out that morning? It's that vision that makes him an artist, an originator and not a copyist. And he kept on originating for the rest of his life.

One of my favourites, and a painting I'd never seen before, was 'Vallee de Sasso, Effet de Soleil' with the mad foliage swaying in the breeze and the sun creating a new colourful Eden. One hillside forested with dozens of greens and the valley floor and other hillside flooded by the sun bringing out a mass of colours in the leaves and trees, the foliage and flowers surrounding the artist's house. This is a poor reproduction and doesn't properly illustrate the wild colours that make you want to step into the painting and pick some of those branches and flowers to bring back into this drab world.

The Monet room closes with a series of paintings of his waterlillies, as it must. I've been spoilt of course, since I've seen his eight giant canvases at the Orangery gallery in the Tuileries and it's difficult to compare anything less than the heroic to those great paintings. But it's always good to see more!

What an astonishing museum Marmottan Monet is, with so much comfortably packed into a relatively small space. There was a steady flow of visitors but it wasn't crowded, which made it a joy to wander round and see everything properly and leisurely. Another great plus was that it had a good shop as well - loads of postcards, loads of books (in English as well as French) and loads of merch of all sorts. It also did very brisk business that shows the wisdom of it's ways - pay attention bigger museums: people will buy stuff if you've got good stuff and Marmottan-Monet certainly has the right stuff! Now all it needs is a little cafe with nice cakes...

I will definitely go back on future visits to Paris - such a great discovery!