Left Bank Nostalgia

In an excerpt from her memoir in progress, Laura Itzkowitz muses on studying art history and learning about life in Paris.

In this excerpt from her memoir in progress, Laura Itzkowitz muses on Yves Saint-Laurent, art at the Musée d’Orsay and a memorable stay in the home of a baronesse.

I survived the death of Yves Saint-Laurent. I was studying in Paris when he died in 2008, and it seemed like the whole city was in mourning. My friend Jessica’s grandmother, la baronesse, was in mourning, but I didn’t know it at the time. Later I saw his prints in her appartement on la rue de Bellechasse.   I saw the dresses he made for her. I never saw her. When I stayed at her appartement, two years after the death of Yves Saint-Laurent, she was not there. She was in Corsica. She was having her appartement repainted and Jessica complained of the fumes.

My friend, the baronesse’s granddaughter, thought the appartement was “trop grandmère,” but I loved it. It was full of narrow corridors leading to big rooms. Jessica told me to make myself at home. I got lost on the way to the kitchen. I thought we could cook together. Jessica apologized because she didn’t know how to use the professional stove. Only her grandmother’s cook uses it. Fortunately there was an electric kettle for making tea.

There was also an attic apartment that the baronesse rented out to concert musicians above her appartement. We were invited to have dinner there by the Chinese violinist who was the tenant at the time. He was in love with Jessica’s older sister, and he serenaded us while we were preparing the pasta. There was no dining room table in the attic apartment–indeed there was no dining room–so we made a picnic on the floor of the salon. Jessica put a towel on the floor to make sure nothing would spill on the beige carpet. It was exactly the same beige as the walls of the apartment buildings covered by the slate-grey roofs we could see out the windows. The sky too was slate-grey after the rain, and the raindrops on the windows gave the city below the air of an Impressionist painting, like the ones housed in the Musée d’Orsay, just two blocks north of the appartement on la rue de Bellechasse.

The Musée d’Orsay was always my favorite museum in Paris. I went with my friend Ren, who was studying art history, and she acted as my guide. We stood staring at Olympia and Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe by Manet. What a scandal these paintings were at the time. “She was a prostitute!” Ren exclaimed. “Look, she’s staring straight at you, challenging your gaze.” Even after Ren moved on to the next painting, I stood there staring at Olympia, studying every detail of the painting. I went by myself too. Sometimes I would bring a sketchbook and sit there sketching the sculptures, like the one of the four continents holding up the globe. I watched the real art students and pretended to be one of them. I wanted to be an artist and an artist’s muse at the same time.

Jessica was dating an artist. I never met him. That summer when I stayed with her at her grandmother’s apartment, she brought me to her father’s birthday party. Her parents lived in the 11th arrondissement, near the Bastille. Their apartment was the opposite of Jessica’s grandmother’s, raw and unfinished-looking. Where she had paintings in gold frames and porcelain Chinese vases, they had posters and wooden sculptures from Africa. The left bank, where la baronesse lived, used to be considered the more bohemian part of Paris, but now la Bastille is à    la mode. Still, I have to admit that I loved staying in that out-of-date aristocratic apartment on the Left Bank. One day when Jessica was out, I went around taking photographs of those rooms, as if I needed proof that this place really existed and I was really there.

Get in touch with the author @lauraitzkowitz.

 7th arrondissement, fashion, left bank, Musee d’Orsay

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