The contrast couldn’t be starker. While the French government is closing gypsy camps and sending many of the occupants back to Romania, the Grand Palais in Paris is devoting a large show to them.
That apparent contradiction is anything but new.
The oldest item in the exhibition, entitled “Bohemes” (Bohemias), features a drawing by Leonardo da Vinci portraying a man being cheated by gypsies.
A wall text informs us that Louis XIV had tried to get rid of them. Still, that didn’t prevent him from dancing in a gypsy disguise in a Moliere ballet.
The word “gypsy” is derived from “Egypt” which, for a long time, was believed to be their country of origin. Today, most scholars agree that gypsies trace their roots to India.
The French called them “Tsiganes” or “Bohemiens,” the latter being an ill-defined name for people from Southeastern Europe. (In Shakespeare’s “The Winter’s Tale,” Bohemia has a sea coast and deserts.)
Today, the official term in France is “gens de voyage,” traveling people.
Their mysterious origins, incomprehensible language and unconventional lifestyle invited suspicion and fear. On the other hand, their free spirit and purported fortune-telling skills were widely admired.
The first part of the exhibition illustrates how these outsiders fascinated painters, writers and composers. Paintings including Georges de La Tour’s “The Fortune Teller,” Frans Hals’s “Gypsy Girl” and Vincent van Gogh’s “The Trailers” are among the show’s highlights.
French literature’s most famous gypsy girl is Carmen, the heroine of Prosper Merimee’s 1845 novella. After Bizet adapted Merimee’s “Carmen” for his opera by the same name, the hot blooded gypsy conquered the world.
In the same year, Henri Murger began publishing in the intriguingly-named magazine “The Corsaire de Satan” sketches from the life of penniless writers and artists. Six years later, he repackaged them in the novel “La Vie de Boheme.”
A new slogan was born. “Bohemian” became a label that helped many a struggling artist endure their financial difficulties.
The second part of the exhibition deals with the Bohemian subculture in 19th-century Paris, which after 1860 had moved from the Latin Quarter to Montmartre.
Unlike their 18th-century precursors, the Bohemians had neither noble patrons, nor were they wined and dined in elegant salons. Instead, they met in cafes with names like “Le Rat Mort,” “Le Chat Noir” and “Au Lapin Agile.” (The Agile Rabbit, a pun on the caricaturist A. Gill who had painted the store sign.)
Heavy drinking was the order of the day, and sexual mores were by no means as innocent as Puccini’s opera “La Boheme” leads us to believe: When Mimi, (the real life Lucile Louvet), knocks at Rodolfo’s door, she has already a long string of boyfriends to her credit.
The most notorious liaison of the time was between the French poets Paul Verlaine and Arthur Rimbaud: In a drunken quarrel, Verlaine wounded his lover with a revolver and was sentenced to two years’ imprisonment.
The show is staged by opera director and set designer Robert Carsen, who does his best to illustrate the Bohemian lifestyle. Some may find his ideas -- torn wallpapers, cold chimneys, stained easels -- a bit corny.
The final part of the show is a kind of melancholic coda to a vanished era. We find nine portraits of gypsy girls by the German Expressionist Otto Mueller. A wall text reminds us that Mueller’s canvases figured prominently in the 1937 exhibition of “Degenerate Art” and that at least 50,000 gypsies perished in Nazi death camps.
When German filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl made her movie “Tiefland” during World War II, she recruited 150 gypsies for the opening scene. Once she finished filming they were sent back to their concentration camp.
“Bohemes” runs at the Grand Palais through Jan. 14, 2013. From Feb. 6 to May 5, 2013, it will be at the Fundacion Mapfre, in Madrid.
(Jorg von Uthmann is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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