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30 July 201408:16AMeurope-2014travel

It's here that, true to my subject matter, I have to diverge from a strictly linear story.

There is a lot of art in Paris. A lot. And it is spread across many, many galleries. We managed to visit a few of them, and this is what I thought when we did.

Centre Pompidou (Monday)

I think my favourite thing about the Pompidou is the building itself. You can see all of its insides, and with those massive air vents, it sort of looks like a giant wind instrument that at any moment might start belching an enormous melody out across Paris.

The coolest bit of art - as opposed to architecture - I saw was this:

squiggly thing

I have no idea why. I think it's the colours. Close second was a series of spherical objects arranged in order of size, culimating with an orange juice trailer with its indicators on:


The Pompidou's thing is modern art. My thing is not modern art. Frankly, I think a lot of it is kind of pretentious and trying too hard to be meta. I think, specifically, that asking 'what is art' in your art stopped being fascinating to ask basically immediately after Marcel Duchamp stuck a urinal on a wall. The Pompidou centre actually does pretty well on this front, at least by my book - there was only one thing that really pissed me off.


You can't really see, but it was a single nail, banged about a centimetre into a bit of wood, and stuck on a big blank wall. I don't care how famous or whatever that piece might be, or how uncultured it makes me, but I think that's pretentious and stupid. Unfortunately, as much as I hate to admit it, this had the effect of actually making me think about what I like in art, and that line of thought sort of came to dominate how I was approaching the rest of the art galleries we visited.


Musee Rodin (Tuesday)

By far the highlight of the Musee Rodin was the gardens, and the story of how the museum came to be a museum.

Basically - and take this with a grain of salt, because I am remembering translated French here - Rodin spent a significant part of his career becoming famous, and the once he was, proceeded to gift his entire now very prestigious collection of works to the French state. He did this on one condition - that they be housed in a hotel which Rodin very much enjoyed, but didn't actually own. Only after a protracted fight with French bureaucracy and his eventual death did the hotel finally become the Musee Rodin.

I guess the other big one was watching people pose with The Thinker. It's a relatively easy one to do, and the pedestal they put it on is almost-but-not- quite a bench, so it makes me wonder if imitating the pose and thereby coming to some kind of meditative state by proxy is sort of the point.

I hope so, because that makes Grace's statue imitations across Europe into legitimate engagement with art, which is pretty funny.

Musee d'Orsay

Walking around the d'Orsay for me was kind of an exercise in finding something that I really liked and preferably that I haven't seen before, and making generalisations about what I like in art from there. Seeing a lot of art in a short period of time seems to have made me concerned about having a defined 'taste' in art. On some level I'm aware this is kind of pointless, because I'm not informed enough about art to give anything I like a name - I like what I like, and trying to define that set in terms of anything other than the fact that I like it isn't really useful to anybody. Especially me, since I'll still have to look at something to decide if it fits my criteria, but I might as well just look at it and decided if I like it, right?


I really dug some sculptures by this guy called Francois Pompon. From what I can gather, the one that really grabbed me was his most famous one, The Polar Bear. Which looks like this:

polar bear

I seriously sat and stared at this for about ten minutes. I think the only adjective that really suits it is 'majestic'. Seriously. Check out all its majesty.

The other one was, inexplicably, this one - The ascension of Poilu. I have no idea what it's about, but I find trying to figure out what it's about fascinating.

So here is the part where I generalise. There are two things, I think, which really matter to me in a bit of art. Actually, three. The first is that it has to be visually interesting. It's got to look cool and make me want to look at it in the first place. Generally, for me at least, that means it's brightly coloured rather than murky, and clean rather than fuzzy, and detailed rather than vague. Although, obviously, there are exceptions.

The second thing is that it has to either have cool subject matter, or cool execution. So either it depicts something that I find inspiring or evocative or thought provoking, or it's executed with skill that leaves me kind of awestruck. In the first category we have The Polar Bear. In the second, The Ascension. And to a certain extent, one of the three can make up for the others - this is where the abstract piece from the Pompidou comes in, I guess.

There's probably more to it than that, but that's enough to satisfy my need to categorise things.

L'Orangerie (Wednesday)

Another building with a cool story. This one used to be a greenhouse for growing oranges.

The big one here is Monet's water lilies. They are big. Much bigger than I was expecting. Kind of the opposite of the Mona Lisa in that respect. They fill entire walls. Oddly, they panorama into one image really well. I wonder if that was intentional.

Maybe the reason they're so big is so that you can look at them from further away. Because they definitely look better from further away. I know, I checked. I may have kind of made an idiot of myself in the process by trying to pace out distances and spinning on the spot like a cowboy in a gunfight, but that is neither here nor there.

(Reader question: Does this, like imitating statues, also count as legitimate engagement with art? Discuss.)

The ideal distance is about 10 metres away, which is approximately two-thirds the width of the rooms they're in. Which means that, ironically, the one you're best off looking at from any given point in the room is not the one that you're closest to, it's the one on the opposite side of the room to you.

I can't help but see these paintings through the lens (no pun intended) of the fact that Monet went blind later in his life. I know the impressionism thing has its own reasons and was entirely intentional, but that's still what I thought. Apparently other people think that too, because Grace and Jess both made comments along the lines of "it's like I'm looking across a room into a window of how the universe looks without my contacts in." Oddly, Grace liked this feeling, and Jess, if I recall, was not overly fond of it. Feel free to correct me, but take from that what you will.

The Louvre


This was an experiment in themed visits, in choosing the subset of the Louvre that you want to experience, rather than trying to see everything.

I don't know about anyone else, but I can only look at so much art before I... well, get bored. I get art fatigue. So the theme I chose for this visit was initially "not art". It eventually expanded to be "Oriental Mediterranean in the Late Roman Empire" - basically, Egypt and thereabouts under Roman rule.

I really enjoyed this visit. It was nice to be able to stand and read the French. It was nice to find a section of stuff that pretty much just appealed to me, and wander alone. It was nice to find something away from the crowds thronging around the Mona Lisa.


It was neat to find Roman-style paintings preserved by adopted Egyptian bural customs, and to see Egyptian gods adopted as official patrons of the Empire. I think we sometimes forget that mixing of cultures isn't exactly something new.

dead face

It was neat to see stuff that's this impossibly old, and wasn't necessarily chosen to be preserved. It's cool to see fragments of everyday life. It's fascinating and frustrating to see writing, different people's handwriting, in a language that nobody spoke for thousands of years.

writing hall

It's fun to see things that you understand, like being able to look at a black-figure and a red-figure vase and name them and say that they were from different periods, without reading the sign. It's fun to read the sign, and find out you were right.

(Aside: I am so glad I did Classics. So, so glad.)

It's pretty remarkable that some of this stuff even exists, and even more remarkable the lengths we go to to preserve our past. I mean seriously - how the hell do you preserve and move a floor mosaic the size of a house? I find the whole process fascinating. I think I might have enjoyed archaeology.


I don't know which Louvre I'll see next time, but this time, this Louvre, was pretty damn cool.

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