Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Postcards from Paris: The Museum Life

So here we are. Ah, Paris. About a month ago, I got to go to Paris (actually, France!) for the very first time ever. For some reason, the City of Light just had never been on my must-go European radar. I think a bit of the aversion stemmed from the inferiority complex I have of being one of the only linguists I know who does not speak any French. But here's the thing. I know plenty of French. You know, the important stuff like pâtisserie, or boulangerie, or baguette, macaron, croissant, tarte, chocolat, madeleinethé, fromage ... At least I didn't starve to death because of my terrible French, I'll tell you that!

Oh, but food. Food is for another post. There is just too much to chronicle, to share, about my trip that I've decided to break it up into shorter "postcards" for you all. I hope you don't mind the episodic nature, but it will give all of us more to look forward to, right? Plus, Paris. One should not rush Paris. One should stroll slowly, and study everything.

So this post. This post is about something that set my heart a-flutter in Paris: THE ART. I didn't have much time, so I spent one day at the Louvre, and another day at the Musée d'Orsay. How I would have loved to visit all the museums, but no, stroll slowly. Study everything.

There were moments in these museums when I would see a piece and be like, no no no, I can't possibly be standing in front of a Manet tabletop, or a Cezanne, or one of Monet's ladies, or a Degas figure sculpture, or a Rembrandt portrait, or a de Heem floral still life, or Van Gogh's vigorous brushstrokes. I nearly cried at the first Cezanne.

And really, it wasn't about the names. Those could matter less to me. (I think I made the "not impressed face" at the Mona Lisa. But that could have also been due to the bajillion tourists crowded around the painting.) What I was most fascinated by was the interpretation of the visual world, which made the art so devastatingly beautiful to witness. You can see the individuality of how each artist's eye sees the world, and how light and dark and color gets uniquely translated from the eye through the mind and body, to the canvas. But in these incredibly longitudinal collections housed in Paris, you can at the same time see how much the ebb and flow of communal ideas from the time, culture, and community that each artist lived in also influenced the way they made sense of imagery.

My absolutely favorite part of these museums was standing as close as I could without getting yelled at by the docents, to see each brushstroke on canvas. It's this texture that you just don't get with prints, and basically can't get unless you're standing in front of the original thing. It was amazing (argh, using that word so much here) to see the diversity of each stroke, how much or how little paint made it on, how each different type of stroke had its role in telling the overall story.

I thought a lot about my art--dessert, photography--while studying these masters. As an artist, what one does is transfer some sort of vision into a different medium. For these guys in the Louvre or Musée d'Orsay, it's the visual world to paint. In photography, it's the visual world to pixels or printed page. (In dessert, the world translates into sugar and dairy and flavor.) But, that old adage is true: something always gets lost in translation. The translation is imperfect. Because we can never give the viewer a complete, 100% replica of the world, what we're translating. The message is always mediated, e.g. by unconscious factors that we can't control (i.e., the way our brain processes light). But what makes these masters masters -- I think -- or, what makes artistry in art -- is the way this imperfect translation, the loss, becomes something more. Something beautifully represented and full of vivacious complexity in its own right.

That's what I want to (quite humbly) strive for, too.

In Paris, stroll slowly. Study everything. And one might yet receive a private art lesson from Cezanne.


More Paris soon, stay tuned!

(Also, post hoc apologies to any actual art peeps out there for my very amateur ramblings.)


  1. I think I loved the spaces in the Louvre & Musée d'Orsay almost as much as the art - the whole experience was wonderful.

  2. I really appreciate your ideas about art. The "lost in translation" stuff is so interesting...almost magic.
    Wonderful pictures, full of light and life. Amazing those about the canvas, taken from so short a could you take them?!
    Really wonderful blog.

  3. I also think about the tools that these artists used to achieve the texture of the paint on the canvas. It's one of the reasons I like seeing van Gogh paintings in person- all those chiseled smears, all that vibrancy of color. When I visit the Louvre, I find myself transfixed by how Rembrandt was able to capture such keen emotion in the face of Bathsheba. By titling the painting, you know what has caused the look on her face and yet what the viewer sees is a letter in her crestfallen hand- what the painting lacks in visual narrative, it compensates for through its name. It makes me wonder how I might react to the painting had it been named another woman's name with less of a well-known story. Would I have felt as drawn into its emotional world? Maybe. I love that your first Paris post starts with art. Of course.


I love hearing from you and reading your comments! Thanks so much for stopping by the blog. Happy feasting!