The Scribbler

4 July 2010

Part 3 – Lisa, Vincent and Montmartre

Filed under: travel — The Scribbler @ 23:21
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Up and out early to beat the rush to the world’s second largest art collection at the Louvre. Taking a tip from our tour, we take the metro and buy our tickets in a shop in the underground complex, arriving before the doors open.

We zoom through the corridors, and it’s like someone opened the world’s biggest art book. A slew of angels, of women robed in blue and gold, of cherubs and golden haired children. The colours as vivid as if they were painted yesterday. “That’s a Da Vinci,” I murmur as we pass by, but it’s not the one we’ve come to see.

The guidebooks turn up their noses. They say she’s small, cramped, hidden behind bullet-proof glass. Over-hyped, too popular for her own good, needs taking down a peg or two… the original WAG perhaps.

But when I see her, I am silenced. For she is beautiful. A true beauty from within that draws you in with a sense of warmth and kindness. She speaks across the ages, through the genius of the artist. Her image has been endlessly reproduced, imitated, copied and manipulated, but I’ve never really seen her before.

Did he know? This genius artist, scientist, inventor? Did he know this one was something special? Or was it just another painting for a rich merchant? Could she know that she would be gazed upon, hundreds and hundreds of years after she and the artist had gone? If there’s such a thing as immortality, then she’s the closest thing I’ve seen to it. We listen to the audio guide unwrap the mystery of the lady and demonstrate the symmetry of the composition, but it cannot touch its magic. I had not expected that.

Eventually we move on to glut our eyes on other masterpieces, but after a while painting after painting starts to blur. They say that if you were to have a full time job and spend 30 seconds in front of each exhibit at the Louvre, it would take you 9 years to get round them all. We tick off the Venus de Milo, a couple of Michaelangelo’s and linger over the romance of Cupid and Psyche, then descend to Egyptian halls for a change of pace and scenery.

Like a cool drink of water after an elaborately flavoured cocktail, it’s quite a contrast to dive headlong from the Renaissance into primitive art. The clean lines of the hieroglyphics, the stone carvings on the sarcophagi could not be more different from the fluid roundedness of the paintings on the walls above. And yet, the connections are so very human. Wooden carvings, clay figures, woven grasses or stone – through the ages it seems we’ve sought to depict ourselves, our lives, the things that matter to us, using the materials at hand.

The tall, slender African figures give way to squat and rounded shapes and I know I’m in Polynesia before I even catch a glimpse of the basalt head of a Moai from Easter Island. I’m fascinated by a small clay figure from Mexico that has a panel in its chest opened to reveal a little man inside, operating as it were the human machinery. This is thousands of years old.

There is far more than we could ever hope to see and understand, but we feel like we’ve given it a good shot and move on through the vast courtyard of the glass pyramid, mixing ancient and modern again, surfacing to make our way to the Musee d’Orsay.

This too is a magnificent building, with its glass roof and elaborate gold clock, but it’s what’s within we’ve come to see. To our left, a banner proclaims Van Gogh and Gaugin and I rush on in search of Vincent.

At school once, a teacher once brought in some art postcards that she spread out on the table. She invited the class to take one and write a story about it. I picked Van Gogh’s Starry Night, not knowing then that it was a famous painting. I remember asking the teacher how to say his name, for even then, I was as fascinated by the words as I was by the pictures. So me and Vincent, well we have a bit of history. And of course, he recently appeared in Doctor Who.

The painting is there. The one of the church in Auvers that featured in that episode. I looked very closely and there’s no monster. But there’s his self-portrait from 1889 and for the second time that day I felt a painting connect to me across the years.

His red hair and beard sing out against the blue-green of his suit and the swirling background. But it’s his eyes that caught me, with their tone of sadness, of weariness, a plea for understanding. Easy to read back into a painting what we know of the artist’s biography but reproductions do no justice to this unique and distinctive style.

The collection in the Musée d’Orsay is less eclectic than the Louvre and it’s easier to see how each artist re-interprets what’s gone before, from classical nudes to still life and pastoral themes and how they begin to move from realism to impressionism. I’m no great student of art, but with the help of the audio guide, the pieces started to slot into place.

We soaked up our big old slice of culture with a snack at the gallery cafe and then headed out on the metro to the artist’s quarter of Montmatre. So far Paris had been about the wide boulevards and squares, the grand buildings and tourist sites, so it was pleasant to wander through the winding streets of this area on the hill.

It was baking hot in the sunshine, and we learnt our metro tickets covered us for the short ride to the top of the hill and Sacre Coeur. The views over the city from the white stone church are quite spectacular and a crowd of young people had gathered on the steps to enjoy the sunshine and a couple of lads busking with guitars.

We were glad to dip our warm and weary feet in the nearby fountain and to cool down a little before heading back down to explore. Wandering away from the souvenir stalls, we found a lovely little gallery and took a look inside. They offer a range of original artworks, all square formats in different sizes at fixed prices, to help new artists sell their work. So we came away with a beautiful reminder of our time enjoying the art in this city.

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