'Art' On Main Street

photo: painters near etoile, 29 may

Painters of the Arc de Triomphe - On Strike

A Thousand Painters In a Fever of Creation

Paris:- Saturday, 29. May 1999:- Last week I scouted locations for today's 'Faites de la Peinture sur les Champs-Elysées' but all I think about on the train ride into town is what a beautiful day it is.

It is also going to be very warm for the end of May this afternoon at the 'paint-in' on the avenue. As usual I am travelling as light as I can, but I should have remembered to bring water. It's the kind of thing I can give advice for, and not do myself.

At the top of the escalator at the métro's Etoile exit I see no competing painters doing the Arcposter: paint-in, champs, 29 may de Triomphe - possibly because it is closed on account of the strike. On turning, I see a small group of them, just by the Rue de Tilsitt, with a very bright sun on their backs.

Across the street in the Drugstore I get a copy of today's Le Parisien. Except for the reporting today, my official duties are finished - no posters to photograph or collect, no visit to the Tourist Office for brochures and gossip.

Shall I shoot the painter right in front of it? He's doing the Arc; looks like a professional with the gear he has. With the PTO as a background it would be a great PR photo - except for their window full of publicity for a department store or something. No photo.

I have to get to the Théâtre du Rond-Point to officially sign in and get my three drawing cartons stamped and numbered '884,' which is my competitor number. These fit in a cheapo attache case with my few tools - pencil, eraser, pencil sharpener, Rotring speedball pen and set of 29 Caran d'Arche aquarelle colored pencils, with a spare lead pencil. This is the same kit I use to do Metropole's cartoons.

At this time the sidewalks are very wide and the café terraces are all empty, although waiters are hurrying to get the tables set for the lunch trade. The sun is laying its light straight up the avenue from Concorde while I try to keep in the shade of the young plane trees going towards it.

There are a few painters scattered about; more after passing the Avenue George Cinq. There is a very artsy older guy right in front of Fouquet's; almost one of my cartoon characters. Perfecto, but no photo.

On the avenue, still heading towards Rond-Point there more artists and at Rond-Point itself there are a whole gaggle of them. The city's gardeners have done a lot of plant arranging here, with some palms spiking their fronds into the very blue sky - reminds me of Malaga - especially with the fountains shooting up jets of sparkling water.

Under the trees on the other side of the Avenue Montaigne, the entry to the Théâtre du Rond-Point is not clogged with competitors. My sign-in deadline of 11:30 is the last ofphoto: lady painter, 29 may the day. The rigamarole goes off without a hitch and I do not buy the official rain-proof jacket; saying, maybe next year.

The part of the Champs-Elysées from the Rond-Point to Concorde is non-commercial. Both sides are lined by several ranks of trees, behind which are items such as the Grand Palais, the Petit Palais; and on the other side there are the Espace Pierre Cardin, the Théâtre Marigny, and the back of the gardens of the Elysée Palace.

What the Impressionists would have liked - light and shade.

Except for the wide avenue in the middle, it is like a country park, with lots of shade from the trees. There are a few kiosks and some benches, and a lot of cool space in general. Artists are in clusters here, but a few brave ones are right at the road's edge - doing the 'grand scene' I imagine.

Close to noon, I hoof the 800 metres back uphill, back to George Cinq. This is to be the location of an impromptu session of the Café Metropole Club. I park myself by the métro exit to wait for the expected 'members.'

Nelly and Don Smith arrive and I see Don's hat which he has said will be a Panama - not real - no, 'western' instead; but it is neither. The guy has a sack too, so it must be them - regardless of the hat's description.

As 'club members' I get a photo of them and I pick a bench to use as an artist's stool. After I've got my stuff out, Don pops off a couple of digital shots of me 'at work' on the Champs-Elysées - I'll never wear a Metropolitan Toronto Police cap again in my life! The couple recite their next sixteen rendez-vous' and head off for the one of them. See this week's Café Metropole Club News for more about Nelly and Don from Seattle.

I have a hat like Don's; an off-white straw one with a brim - and it would have been better that this tractor-cop thing I have today - but is has never been exactly the shape I want, so I don't wear it often. The sad decline of our funky western civilization means nobody spends much design attention to men's hats anymore.

Well, I'm supposed to have other things on my mind here. The first item of business, is this paint-in. I am a beginner at this sort of outdoorsy activity and not much into 'Art' for art's sake; and if you really want my two centimes-worth, the Champs-Elysées is not very inspiring.

First off, it is very big. Its centre has a ten-lane speedway full of traffic. It is what you can see anywhere, but here there is a lot more of it.

The wide sidewalks on either side are lined with two rows of plane trees, and some café terraces stick out - or are in their own islands of sidewalk space. Impressionists could do something with these.

Other details like shop fronts are commercial and committee- designed, as is all of the street furniture and the official kiosks, poster panels and advertising columns. The Champs-Elysées is impressive as a whole, wide-angle, visual experience - but I for one, cannot thinkphoto: erickson, by d smith of how all of this experience can be rendered - either in paint, of captured in a photograph.

This is why I decide to do a cartoon of a non-Parisian couple from Asniéres, having a barbeque picnic of brochettes on the sidewalk. For good measure, I toss in Metropole's resident clochards Eddie and Charlie - Charlie who pours Monsieur a hit of grape from his mineral-water plastic bottle, while Eddie fumes in disgust.

A pause in traffic clears the avenue, robbing the artist of subjects. Photo by Don Smith©

While I am doing this I am only minimally aware that crowds on the avenue are increasing, the sun is getting hotter, and there seem to be many gloriously happy people celebrating their weddings, by honking all their car horns.

Once in a while I sense over-shoulder lookers and some camera auto-flashes. Unshy Jacques Rutman asks if he can take a photo and I do one of him too when he agrees. Jacques has come to the Champs from the 11th arrondissement, near Place de la Nation, and thinks the whole paint-in is a great photo-op.

Finally my cartoon is as finished as it's going to get. It is a lot sketchier than what I usually do, with more background Champs and less detail with the characters.

It takes 30 seconds to pack up, have a good stretch, and see that the Champs is jammed with people, cars, buses, football and rugby supporters, and all of the café terraces are all nearly full. It is not weddings making all the noise; it is the sportsfans. It is also very warm.

Slightly dizzy, I slog down the avenue and back to the Rond-Point to hand in my 'painting' of the Champs-Elysées. At the theatre, there is a line of other artists filing upstairs to hand in their works too, and it is stiflingly hot in the airless interior.

I am not going to be able to go to the Queen nightclub to see the prizes handed out. My entry ticket says this will finished by 19:30, but I'm told the affair will kick off at 20:00. Besides having to mind the kids earlier than this, I couldn't last until then.

I get a big glass of water at a café called a Salon de Thé across the Avenue Montaigne. Going up to the métro I pass a lot of rugby fans from Toulouse in their red andphoto: jacqyes rutman, paris 11 black supporter's colors, and note PSG's big fan shop, almost for the first time.

The ride out to La Défense gets me there one minute late for my train to the sticks, so I go up to the steps of the Grande Arche to catch the breeze. Since I am not going to win any prize for 'painting' today, I buy a Loto ticket instead, before catching a hot train, partly full of hot-looking riders.

After shooting me, Jacques Rutman holds still for me to capture him. Merci, Jacques!

Later, the evening's TV-news has been bumped 20 minutes forward on account of tonight's football and rugby matches. The paint-in is not featured. A march held for and by the disabled, which has drawn an estimated 20,000, gets good coverage. Another march, against urban violence, also gets good coverage - but only about 2000 participants.

If weekend TV-news only covered these sorts of things, there would be no time for 'news' news. A thousand of us 'artists' today on the Champs-Elysées, were outnumbered by the other 109,000 who were there - who didn't make the news today either.


The 'Faites de la Peinture sur les Champs-Elysées' competition first took place in 1997. It is sponsored by the Mairie de Paris - the city hall - of the 8th arrondissement, the magazine 'La Revue des Artistes' and by the Comité des Champs-Elysées. The prize-winning entries will be displayed from 6. to 14. September at the Mairie of the 8th arrondissement.

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