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The intensity of city life demands that you commit to it fully, embrace it wholly – its corners, its characters, its comedy – letting its life become yours and yours its, in a kind of noisy, concrete, stop-and-go symbiotic urban relationship.

I suppose you can commit halfheartedly, but you’ll then never know its secrets and it will never hold yours. Because the city demands to be loved so intensely, it affects you so completely.

Odilon Redon, Le Sommeil de Caliban, 1912

Odilon Redon, Le Sommeil de Caliban, 1912


Versailles in the Fog

Versailles in the Fog


When you’ve lived in a city long enough, there are ghosts everywhere: the impressions of your life left in the streets themselves like footsteps or dropped wrappers. Your experience lingers. There is the park bench on which sitting you cried, that same long walk home from work where you thought about dinner or what you’d find when you opened the door, the park of many picnics, the diner or café that you ate at on Saturdays, the way the lights shines down the airshaft in your building, the way the lobby smells when the door lets a bit of rain inside. Embedded in the landscape, it is these that haunt you.

One of the beauties of traveling, of wandering through a new city, is the ability to have that intense urban relationship without the haunting, without the laden symbols embedded into the landscape that you may trip on at every turn. You can assign new meaning: exorcise your urban. The only ghosts I’ve found in Paris are not my own.

At the nearly 150-year-old printing house, Idem, I listened to the artist Mathilde Roussel talk about how the ghosts of artists rise to the surface of the lithographic stones, haunting the prints of others. She described how the stones, etched over and over and over again, absorb small amounts of the ink that will sometimes create unusual effects in the printing process – to the detriment of the present artist’s work – even if the ghost was of a Matisse, Picasso, Miro, Braque, Chagall, or Calder print (all had prints processed on these same presses using the same stones). Located in Montparnasse, Idem was originally built in 1880 by printer Emile Dufrenoy, then operated by Fernand Mourlot and his brothers, and then later by his son until 1997. Currently the studio prints museum-quality lithographs, to include those of filmmaker David Lynch, who made the short film about the studio.

Marcel Duchamp revealed ghosts in paint also. The current Duchamp exhibition at the Le Centre Pompidou, Marcel Duchamp. Painting, Even, has paintings by both Duchamp and Redon inspired by their fascination with the auras created by x-ray machines. They created paintings of figures with colored forms surrounding them to represents the subconscious and connections with metareality – the ghost of the mind.

I met a true believer in la vie romantique, one who spends free time observing the landscape, the crisp shadows cast by a hedge running along the pathway down which you walk slowly, the way the light catches your hair, the way the light catches the wet cobblestones. Sketching and writing little poems at café tables, the Romantic shares a story about the students at the landscape architecture school of Versailles, who on foggy nights used to dress up like ghosts and hide under the small bridges in the garden. Ghosts in the garden dans le brouillard. I love this image. Whatever one’s experiences are of the city, they rise like the fog. Your memories haunt you, pleasantly and with good humor as the Student Ghosts of Versailles or as something less benign, they are always there.

We all have our own ghosts, whether they reside in our mind and hover around us, rise like ink from a printing stone, come from under a foggy bridge, or appear as memories evoked by a side street we stumble down again. Our experience never leaves our side. However, we can always walk through a new city alone, as a blank sheet of Arches paper if only for a moment, making new memories, new ghosts.