A new way of looking at things
“One’s destination is never a place, but a new way of looking at things.” –  Henry Miller

Curt Veeneman, Ph.D.


Mickiewicz and Chopin Part 1

Polish Expats in Paris

18 February 2011

Our destination was only two bridge-spans away.  And so my wife Colleen and I walked across the Pont d’Arcole onto the Île de la Cité, and then the Pont St. Louis onto the second of Paris’ two islands in the Seine River, Île St. Louis, where we found the small museum on Quai d’Orléans.  The sign above the door says “Société Historique et Littéraire Polonaise/Biblioteka Polska,” the two languages neatly signifying the cross-cultural exchange.


 The Musée Adam Mickiewicz in Paris


The Musée Adam Mickiewicz is open only on Saturdays and Thursday afternoons, so one must plan carefully to get there, as there are many wonderful things to distract one in Paris.  My only previous contact with anything having to do with Mickiewicz had been the monument to the great Polish poet in Kraków’s Stare Miasto (Old Town), that seemed to serve as a giant magnet for the adolescents of the city.


The Adam Mickiewicz monument in Kraków, Poland


But what many people do not know is that Adam Mickiewicz (1798 – 1855) is a national hero in Poland, and that many Poles can recite from memory complete stanzas from his epic Pan Tadeusz.  The museum we were to visit today, established in 1930, is devoted not only to Mickiewicz, but to all Polish expatriates who lived, or are still living, in Paris.  This includes composer Frédéric Chopin, poet Czeslaw Milosz, film director Andrzej Wajda, physicist and chemist Madame Curie, and many others.

I rang the bell and an older gentleman vigorously opened the massive, oak door for us.  Judging from the masterful way he handled the door, we wondered if this burly man might make a better hammer than a pen or a paintbrush, but sometimes artistic or literary types are hard to pick out of a crowd.  We paid our admission fees and were ushered into a salle d'attente where we were asked to be seated.  The room, apparently used for lectures or other types of meetings, was filled with stackable chairs and had bits of art on the walls.

We were left to ourselves for what seemed like an epoch.  We waited.  Then, after a certain period, with no indication as to what was to happen next, we began to wonder if we were in some sort of museum-purgatory.  (We realized later that the guide had been waiting for a critical mass of visitors to accumulate before the museum tour could begin.)  After a while, we cautiously stood and, in a subdued manner, walked around and quietly looked at the art.

We discovered that the exhibit in that room featured several pen-and-ink drawings by Polish artists living in Paris.  As these drawings gradually drew me in I put our long delay out of my mind and soon poignantly began to recall an art form that I had encountered years before and had almost forgotten: Cyrk.  I first stumbled upon this genre as an undergraduate university student, when I worked part-time at a public library branch located in a neighborhood confidently brimming with Polish immigrants.  On the second floor of that library was displayed, through someone or other’s bequest, a permanent exhibit of 1960s Cyrk posters.

I would often spend my spare moments studying those cryptic works from the Polish School of Posters, finding myself transported to another realm.  I was captivated by the je-ne-sais-quoi mood of this functional art.  (By the way, the underlying purpose of these strange images was to hook the unsuspecting into attending —what else? — a circus.)

Well, I’ll attempt to describe the mood anyway.  Here goes: humorous, fantastic, melancholic (but delectably so in regard to the last trait and, moreover, expressed with superb skill and finesse) and even a little . . . creepy.  In Poland, after the initial, strict state control and enforced socialist realism under communism was relaxed following Stalin’s death in 1953, this was the art form that percolated out of the Polish mind.  Just as with Polish music of the same period (Lutoslawski, Penderecki, Serocki, and the Warsaw Autumn, for example) Polish art developed its own styles.

Later, when I had the opportunity to visit Poland shortly after the Solidarity movement had precipitated the fall of communism, I spoke with several composers in Warsaw and Kraków.  While they were hopeful in the new climate of a democratically elected government and a free-market economy, they longed for the period of their lives in which the state generously subsidized the arts, encouraging a veritable renaissance in twentieth-century Poland.


The location of Musée Adam Mickiewicz on Île St Louis as seen from the roof of Notre Dame cathedral


But back to Paris and the Musée Adam Mickiewicz.  Many of the works that we saw in the waiting room had similar features to Cyrk posters — economical linear design, rich in allegory, the requisite wry take on life — but fast-forwarded to the twenty-first century.  Two pieces that caught my attention depicted Parisian landmarks, La tour Eiffel and Les invalides.  These edifices were made up of superimposed music staff lines with notes that seemed to dissipate into the atmosphere, but with the ironic effect that the evanescent structures dominated the earth on which they stood, the globe being small by comparison.

But just as we became absorbed in the drawings, the room instantly filled up with a group of people who seemed to have arrived together.  We were all quickly asked to be seated and a young woman guide began speaking (in French) to the group, telling us about the tour that was about to take place.  Just then, an erudite-looking older woman who also worked at the museum, and who happened to be standing near me and had heard me speaking earlier, leaned down and asked me if we spoke English.  When I automatically responded yes, she asked us to go wait in a different room.

At this point, I was too interested in what guide was saying to our group, and besides, I didn’t exactly want to go to another waiting room, so I peremptorily blurted, “Nous comprenons le français bien assez.”  The woman smiled and relented (a narrow escape).  As our group stood to follow the guide, Colleen whispered, “But I won’t understand everything!”  I reassured her, “I’ll translate for you,” which I later did with some effort.



The photographs used in this blog, unless otherwise noted, are by Curt Veeneman.

Related Posts (France)

Who started Travel Con Brio®?

Composer, scholar (in music theory, ethnomusicology, and music history), performer, educator, conference organizer, and entrepreneur, Curt Veeneman received his Ph.D. from the University of California, Berkeley.

His additional interests, subsumed in wonder at the beauty of God’s entire creation, include art (he was an art major before the balance tipped ever-so-slightly toward music), literature, architecture, photography, mathematics, history, languages, cultural studies, world-cuisines, and, of course, travel.
photograph by Colleen Veeneman

In founding Travel Con Brio®, Curt was eager to synthesize all of these interests to create imaginative, stirring, and enlightening experiences to be enjoyed by both young and mature travelers alike.  The tours that he organizes reflect his extensive travel experience and familiarity with the art, music and culture of numerous countries, with each tour being richly enhanced by local experts.

Curt and his wife Colleen live near San Francisco.  They have three children.

What is this blog about?

Culled from a number of trips abroad, this blog compiles various experiences in an attempt to reveal the cultural nuances of places visited on Travel Con Brio® tours.  Sometimes humorous, sometimes serious, Curt’s observations are intended to describe and appreciate the personalities, character, idiosyncrasies, conventions, mood, and ambiance of places visited.  Contemplations of topics ranging from language and customs to climate and bureaucracies are freely offered alongside art and music reviews.  Any cultural issue, if illuminating, can become the focus.

These musings on the personal impact of various cultures are offered so that you, as a traveler, may compare and contrast your own impressions with them.  Do you share a similar interest?  Do you agree with a specific conclusion?  Or is there a fine distinction to be made regarding a particular point?  You are invited to leave your comments; please, however, be respectful of other readers.

And last, a caveat:  flukes, asymmetries, and twists of fate may suggest more about Curt than about any foreign culture under discussion.

What are some of Curt Veeneman’s musical activities?

As a composer, Curt has spoken and/or his works have been performed throughout the United States, in Canada, Germany, France, Italy, Poland, the Netherlands, Switzerland and Bulgaria.  He is the winner of several awards, including the ASCAP-Hubbell Award for composition.

Curt Veeneman's compositions include Les Cloches, inspired by the life of Joan of Arc (premièred by the Berkeley Symphony Orchestra), The Wiry Concord for 5-string banjo, dulcimer, cimbalom, harp, harpsichord, piano, viola and percussion (available on Capstone Records), Mountain Thyme, based on Bulgarian folk music (recorded by the Sofia Symphony Orchestra), Alcuin's Riddle, for orchestra and 15 soloists who cross the “audience-river,” Hommage for voice, flute, 'cello, piano, and percussion, Windmills, computer music featuring sampled wind turbines on California's Altamont Pass, and Pneuma for solo flute, (also available on Capstone Records).

Of this last work, the following comments have been made:  “J’ai beaucoup apprécié le lyrisme et la rigueur de Pneuma pour flûte de Curt Veeneman”  (I greatly appreciate the lyricism and the precision of Curt Veeneman’s Pneuma for flute) —Gérard Condé, Le Monde, Paris, 29 August 1996; “a well written piece”  — Robert Dick, flutist, author of The Other Flute; “it is quite exciting!” — Molly Alicia Barth of eighth blackbird; and “strong and imaginative” — Jules Langert, San Francisco Classical Voice, 13 March 2006.

As a new music promoter, he directed the new music ensemble Sonor Borealis at University of Alberta, Canada, and founded and directed the concert series, PACIFIC MARKET: Fresh Music From Around The World, at the University of the Pacific.  As a performer, Curt Veeneman is recorded on Music and Arts.

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