Friday, February 15, 2008

An Afternoon at Les Gobelins

As part of my guidebook-updating duties, I found myself at the Manufacture des Gobelins yesterday, the place where fabulous tapestries have been made since the days of Louis XIV. I had booked myself on a tour of the workshops, which was conducted by a very affable man who attempted to explain the incredibly complex process involved in weaving a tapestry. Well, maybe not so much complicated, as very detailed and very long. He pointed to a huge modern tapestry hanging on the wall and told us that it took the weaver three years to complete. Today’s tapestries are not filled with flowers and ladies and jumping stags—they are resolutely contemporary, complete with bright slashes of colors and puzzling motifs. In fact, each tapestry is a recreation of the work of an artist, who has provided the Manufacture with a massive painting as a guide. What’s more, none of these tapestries are for sale: this is a state-owned enterprise and the works are created to be hung in state-owned places like ministries and embassies. It’s a closed ecosystem. Louis’ original intent was a state-owned workshop to make tapestries for royal castles—today, in a nod to democracy, they make tapestries for castles and mansions owned by the people, sort of.

However one feels about the logic behind the enterprise, it’s hard not to be mesmerized by what goes on in the ateliers. We went into the first workshop and saw a row of about five or six giant vertical looms, each being worked by a solitary weaver. This courageous individual, with the patience of a saint, was carefully fitting a shuttle full of woolen yarn through a forest of hundreds of threads, half of which fall under the heading "warp" and the other "weft." By literally pulling strings, she would weave the one into the other. During this operation, she was carefully choosing her colors and trajectory according to the design that she had earlier inked on each individual thread, according to the model provided by the artist. This elaborate ballet is further complicated by the fact that she works on the back of the tapestry and can only see what she is actually creating by looking at a mirror placed in front of the loom. Once the shuttle goes through, she has to delicately tamp down every inch of yarn with her fingers or a comb. Then she’s got to verify that she didn’t mess up by comparing the design in front of her with that on transparent plastic guides.

In short, it’s completely insane. It goes against everything we’ve ever learned about getting things done in the modern world. It’s a desperately slow process that shows hardly any results in the short term. And yet the weavers do not look in the least bit stressed. On the contrary, they have an other-worldly serenity that would make me think of monks working on illuminated manuscripts if it weren’t for the iPods dangling from their ears. These hardy souls have survived four years of intense training for a job that they can pretty much only do here. In other words, they have signed on for life. They have made a kind of commitment that went out of style in the Middle Ages. They are a link back to the days of artisans guilds and apprenticeships, the days when your identity was literally defined by your craft—as in Mr. Miller, Mr. Smith, or Mr. Taylor. “I’ve been here for 20 years,” said a kindly looking weaver with a smile when a man from our group posed the question. “C’est un beau métier,” the man commented—literally, a beautiful profession. “You have to love what you do,” she responded, wisely.

Monday, February 4, 2008


Nicolas Sarkozy and Carla Bruni got married over the weekend. The fact that she is an Italian ex-top-model-glamorous-pop-singer and that he got divorced from his other wife a mere three months ago wouldn’t be any big deal if it weren’t for the fact that he is the President of France. I mean, come on! Ça ne se fait pas! It just isn’t done. Even in France. It’s not that people are shocked (although many are), it’s that here it is considered the height of bad taste to discuss one’s private life in public. Sarkozy has been living his private life in public. For months, we have been treated to magazine covers, TV reports, and newspaper articles on the successive episodes of the presidential soap opera. The part I love is when the press decides that this is merely an example of how Sarkozy has adopted American presidential behavior. I think French reporters have been watching too many episodes of Desperate Housewives. Can anyone imagine what would happen in the US if a president not only divorced his wife while he was still in office, but then went and married a younger, beautiful pop star three months later? There would be a rash of moral apoplexy that would clog hospitals and mental asylums across the country. The world would cease to turn. Pundits would appear on talk shows discussing the coming of the apocalypse. It’s simply unthinkable.

It’s not just Sarkozy’s personal life that is making him sink in the polls, it’s his bizarre tendency to careen around various ideas and policy issues with the same manic energy as he careens around the world making state visits. One day he’s signing juicy contracts with Qadaffi, the next he’s telling the pope that France needs to get religious. I think it was his comments on the Church that really sent people over the edge. Secularism is almost a religion in this country, and any attempt to mix in Christianity with government awakens the revolutionary fervor that lurks not too deep in the French collective soul. If he keeps this up they’ll be storming the Bastille Opera sometime soon.

The marriage was conducted in private, mercifully, and the public was informed after it was over on the evening news. Two questions immediately popped into my mind: 1) will the marriage last his term of office? and 2) when’s the baby due?