A Parisian Art Odyssey by Marty Fugate
Paris is the city of lights — and the city of hype. The hype is especially thick when it comes to Paris’ art and artists. Blame that on “La Bohème,” “Moulin Rouge” and José Ferrer’s knee-walking portrayal of Toulouse-Lautrec. Movie and theatrical clichés fill our American noggins. (Close your eyes and what do you see? The artist-saint starving in a garret or a bearded lunatic attacking a canvas — what else?) If you actually wind up in Paris, it’s best to scrub those images from your mind. When I was there, I did my best to do just that. What follows are a few brief impressions. Pun intended.
Street Art. Visual artists everywhere lack for galleries. When artists in Paris have that problem, they say “No problem,” and put their stuff out on the street — creating a changing exhibition space out of mailboxes, lampposts and any other surface they can find. Yes, I know, artists everywhere do that, but not to the sheer density as they do in Paris. The walls are thick with multilayered expression: cryptic stickers proclaiming “J’Existe,” mocking distortions of street signage, sad-eyed women crying bloody tears. That dolorous image is ubiquitous in Le Marais — high-speed brushwork on huge paper posters signed Konny. Who the heck is Konny? Well, in an unlikely chain of events, I wind up talking to Konny and Jacques Halbert (our mutual neo-Dadaist friend) at an iron-wrought table in a French pizza place. (I’d admired her art; suddenly I’m talking to the actual artist. What are the odds?) So I grill her. You’ve got a fluid style, but the proportions are perfect. How do you do it? A pencil under-sketch? Some kind of grid? Or is this all just brilliant freehand? Not willing to spill her secret, Konny pretends not to understand the question.
The Centre Pompidou resembles a humongous hamster Habitrail or the guts of a shiny machine turned inside out. (Don’t get the wrong idea. That’s what I like about it.) They built it in 1977, on the site of a sprawling outdoor vegetable mart. At a time when Le Corbusier’s disciples were putting up Brutalist concrete mazes, architects Richard Rogers and Renzo Piano created a building that looked like a giant toy. I dig it, though Parisians took awhile to accept it. The Van Wezel took some getting used to, as well.
Inside this glass-and-steel funhouse, “Paul Klee: Irony at Work” is the main event. This exhibit is a box of chocolates for fans of the German-Swiss artist — a smart sampling of 230 pieces on loan from the Zentrum Paul Klee in Bern, Switzerland. History’s the organizing principle: a breakdown of the artist’s output into seven periods. You see, not just the development of Klee’s work, but the way he bounced off other artists’ work — Picasso, Braque and the rest of the usual suspects. All those high modernist artist/gods wrestled with the rough, rude beast of the 2oth century. Klee wrestled with them. He not only followed their experiments — hemocked them. If Groucho Marx had been a German-Swiss artist, his paintings would look like these.
Outside in the mime-free square, an annex boasts a recreation of sculptor Constantin Brancuisi’s studio. It’s the home of all the pieces he didn’t sell in his life. More accurately, it’s the stuff he kept. Everything’s arranged just so — exactly as it was on the day Brancusi died. That’s exactly the way he wanted it — and stipulated in his will. Here, you see that Brancuisi’s studio itself was a work of art — a symphony of spatial relationships: an installation before the word existed. (Photos document the original space, just to prove they got it right.) Don’t touch my stuff must’ve been Brancuisi’s motto. This sacred space makes you glad nobody did.
Le Musée d’Orsay makes its home in a cast iron, glass-roofed, barrel-vaulted structure with a giant clock at one end. The interior has a strong resemblance to a 19th-century railway station for a very good reason: it used to be one. Now, it’s a gateway to mind-bending trips of the artistic variety. Let’s start with the permanent collection …
The Impressionist Gallery offers a tidy visual seminar — and the finest sampling of Impressionist paintings you’ll ever see in one place. The host of iconic images includes Édouard Manet’s cheeky “Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe,” Henri Matisse’s “La Dance,” and Paul Cézanne’s “The Card Players.” The latter gave me a shock of déja vuwhen I saw it — I grew up with a reproduction on my bedroom wall.Put an art print in your kid’s bedroom and they’ll grow up to be an art writer. Kudos to my parents for my visual art education. I guess it worked.
Having a mind full of Trivial Pursuit art facts helps here. But an open mind is far better.
In the changing exhibition section, “Le Douanier Rousseau. L’innocence archaïque” offers a walk on the wild side of Henri Rousseau. Based on these paintings, that’s pretty much the only side he had.
The images are hallucinatory, magical, heavenly and demonic. Rousseau’s famous for his jungle scenes — but that jungle creeps into his cities and suburban lawns, too. Stern-faced people get married; handlebar-mustached athletes kick a soccer ball. It’s all nice and civilized. But in the background and edges, that relentless growth is always there, always ready to take over. Where’d all that wildness come from?
Rousseau’s mind, no doubt. “Douanier” means “customs officer,” which seems like a tame, middle class occupation. But calling this artist “Customs Officer Rousseau” is like saying “Insurance Agent Kafka.” An uncaged mind if ever there was.
Henri Rousseau’s obvious influence is that other Rousseau — namely Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the genial French philosopher who dreamed up the noble savage and all that. Yes, in a state of nature everything’s swell. But Mother Nature doesn’t always play nice. Rousseau’s lions slash, tear, claw and bite. To be fair, they’re usually well-mannered, like the wide-eyed pair in “The Dream.” This digital image doesn’t do the painting justice. But study it anyway …
Weird painting, right? The more you look, the weirder it gets. Questions bubble up in your mind: Who is that woman? Why is she naked? Is that a couch she’s sitting on? If so, how’d it get there? An academic might start babbling about colonialism and the Idealized Image of the Ethnic Other. I say, stop making sense and just enjoy it. Primitive art by a primitive artist — but a highly sophisticated primitive.
Rousseau knew what he was doing.
Le Musee de Louvre has the square footage of about 50 Ringling Museums.Within, the population density resembles a street scene in “Soylent Green.” The echoing hubbub resembles a Baltimore bus station. Signs warn you of pickpockets on every floor. All true. But don’t be intimidated.
Well, OK. Be intimidated a little. But not too much.
The Louvre is one big art museum, there’s no getting around it. But think of it as several smaller art museums jammed together. That helps … a little.
Start in the wing named after the conniving Cardinal de Richelieu. Check out the collections of French and Italian Renaissance paintings. The famous art is here — the stuff that draws the crowds. To an art lover, Louvre is Lourdes — in more ways than one.
Most of this art is devotional. “Art for art sake” would sound like gibberish to the original artists. Creating eye candy wasn’t their job. They designed these pieces to make you think about God, Jesus, the Virgin Mary, the saints and what’s going to happen to you in the next life. If the art is beautiful, that’s just a happy accident, or maybe a problem. Theologically, you could argue too much beauty is a distraction from the sacred message. And let’s be blunt …
A fair share of these Renaissance paintings avoid the heresy of beauty. They’re masterful, imposing, threatening, intimidating, and awesome, to be sure. And stiff, lifeless, artificial and crowded, as well. Call me a heretic, but the list of truly beautiful images here is short. Leonard Da Vinci’s work is obviously at the top.
“La Gioconda” (aka the “Mona Lisa”) is here, as the whole world knows. To me, it’s more like an installation: Da Vinci’s “Room Full of People Crowding Around a Famous Painting behind Thick Glass.” You’ll get a better view in an art book. (For sale at unreasonable prices in the gift shops.) The Louvre boasts four other (uncrowded) Da Vinci paintings as well.
Da Vinci’s “The Virgin and Child with St. Anne” is beautiful at first glance — in a conventionally pretty sense. In a diagonal composition, the Saint and the Virgin look down at the Christ Child; the Christ Child looks back — how sweet! A second look reveals weird layers anddisturbing resonance. Mary and St. Anne are precariously perched on a cliff, ready to fall. The lamb at Jesus’ feet foreshadows the Lamb’s slaughter. St. Anne’s arm actually goes through the Virgin Mary. You realize St. Anne is a ghost — and this is a painting about death and sacrifice and paying the ultimate price.
These images add up to a university-level course. But that’s merely two collections — and you’ve barely started. Feasting your eyes on the rest of the Richelieu Wing is like taking an art survey course on a treadmill with interval training on a stair-master. Don’t forget to hydrate. It’s aerobic exercise to be sure …
A flight of stairs reveals the gob-smacking Winged Victory of Samothrace, a massive Greek sculpture from the second century BC. It’s a stunning vision of female power, headless and armless though she may be. More stairs, more twists and turns, and the finest collection of Egyptian art on the planet confronts you — the noses of most statues smashed by iconoclasts too lazy to pulverize the whole thing. Another climb takes you to fragments of the Parthenon’s stele and a jaw-dropping detailed scale model of that temple. You’ve just reached the intersection of art and archeology — and you’re not even out of the Richelieu Wing yet. And there are still two wings left to go.
Taking it all in is a fool’s game. You can’t. Not in a day, week, month or year. So don’t even try.
Final Unsolicited Advice. There’s a lot of art to look at here. And lots of people looking at art. Or looking at art through smartphone cameras and not really seeing it. A pickpocket had stolen mine, so I was forced to use my eyes. I recommend the experience.
Seeing, that is. It sure beats looking at a tiny rectangular display on your smartphone instead of the thing itself.
For me, an expensive lesson. For you, free advice. Stow the smartphone, lose the tablet. Use your eyeballs and brain instead. Don’t let anything get between you and the art. Have a direct relationship. One-on-one.
That applies to any art worth seeing. It especially applies here.
This is the Louvre, not a LOL cat video, OK? You’ve traveled across the world to look at these paintings. So do it. Leave your clever devices in the hotel to avoid temptation — or just turn ’em off. Let Siri buy her own ticket. Just use your eyes. It’s the Louvre; you’re here. Don’t take crappy photos to prove that fact. (Make a mental note to buy a coffee table book when you hit the gift shop. The four-color reproductions are a whole lot better.) Until then, actually lookat the art. Do more than look. Take your time and really see.
But watch out for pickpockets.
Before you go. Allocate at least a couple days for the Louvre and most of a day for the Musee d’orsay. Buy your tickets online, and stay out of the path of most of the tour groups, which rush in the door, to the Mona Lisa, the Winged Nike of Samathrace, and the Venus de Milo and then rush back out the door. (Louvre checked off bucket list.) You can enjoy the thousands of other pieces at your leisure. (Thanks and a hat tip to savvy traveler, Bob Depree.)
Originally published in the Sarasota Herald Tribune.