Monday, February 20, 2012

The Real, Real Reason We're In Paris

(left: France (?), c. 1460, Man with a glass of wine, detail. Louvre)

Some of you have asked if we have a schedule. Yes, we do! First, La Potiche gets sick. She's on her second cold here. Le Prof writes in the mornings while La Potiche snoozes and sneezes. Once Le Prof routs her out of bed, we go shopping for the day's groceries, which can take anywhere from ten minutes (if we visit the Bio a few doors down), or four hours, if we walk to a new street market. These walks often detour toward churches, parks, and unanticipated confiseurs. Then, somehow, lunch always happens right after the market walk, regardless of whether it was a 10-minute or 4-hour walk: Le Prof eats a hunk of bread and cheese and wine, just like in this painting, and La Potiche eats a quarter of a cauliflower and a jam-jar of yogurt, which is probably in a Flemish still life in the salle of the Louvre that was locked the other day. Then we sit down to write some more (or, for La Potiche, there is a commencement), though, ten minutes later, La Potiche declares, "It's sweetie time!" and routs out whatever candy or pastry we bought earlier that day. Then we really do write. Then we make supper, and afterwards, sometimes we study a little French (Le Prof is trying to master conversational French. La Potiche is trying to master Proust, and elle se fiche de conversational French, because she's going deaf and can't understand anything said to her in English, anyway, and really, what's wrong with spending all your time in Paris alone, wheezing in a cork-lined room? More on that, later). Sometimes, we go out to see parades (two!), and movies (The Artist--more on that, too, later), and friends in cafés.

But the rest of the time, we are busy being Amis du Louvre (Friends of the Louvre)! We paid a membership fee that lets us make as many visits as we want for the duration of our stay in Paris. In the one month and three days we've been in Paris, we've paid five visits to the Louvre, at an average of three hours per visit. Which is to say, we have seen nearly all of the salles on one floor in one wing (Richelieu 2ème), which leaves us two more wings of four floors each. (Correction: and all the rest of Richelieu, of course!) To put this in perspective, we have also visited the following museums/things-like-museums:
--And, most recently, today: the Galérie Saint-German and Réfectoire des Cordeliers, for a gallery show of the work of Lydie Arickx. The Réfectoire is a gorgeous gallery space.

This brings me to a personal revelation, which is what blogging is for. Several years ago, a stranger trying to make smalltalk with me asked, "Do you like art?" And I almost choked on a burst of self-righteous indignation and condescension. What kind of a goon would ask a no-brainer like that? And how on earth could I lump the billions of cultural productions out there under the rubric of art, to be liked or disliked? I have no doubt that I replied in a pretentious, malicious way, then abandoned him to go in search of a cocktail shrimp to commune with on a higher plane.

(right: either a Mayan warrior sculpture, c. 800-1000, or La Potiche's attitude problem. Musée du Quai Branly)

Now, however, I know that there were much better ways for me to respond. Not only friendly ways, but also ways that might have pointed out to me some deficits in my aesthetic sensibilities, and enabled some great changes in my enjoyment of life. Because at that time, the truth was that I didn't like art. I had ideas about art, or rather, prejudices I'd picked up. They had nothing to do with an expansive knowledge of art, and a great deal to do with showing I was the right kind of person, with the right kind of biases, which I wore like the right kind of accessories.

As a result, I didn't like anything that was too "popular" (the Impressionists, or the more floral Van Gogh productions, or anything else that might be represented on a mouse pad). Things made before, roughly, 1880 (like ancient Greek sculpture, or Leonardo's paintings), were to be admired for good form, but otherwise disregarded as irrelevant. (To what? I didn't ask.) Hieronymus Bosch was an exception to that rule, because he was Dark. Good art exposed the Dark Side of the Force, which meant that Goya, Schiele, Van Gogh in a bad mood, Bacon, and anything Japanese was okay; also, agony was good, because it was political, or something. Works made after, roughly, 1930, were also irrelevant, unless they were goth, steampunk, or graphic novels. Colors were to be regarded with suspicion. And having these views didn't mean you actually had to go look at art, because you could just sit in a coffeeshop listening to some cute guy with lots of opinions, and you'd learn all you had to know about Which Artists Mattered. Oh, and Barbara Kruger counted too, because these guys were always Feminists.

(left: The consul Areobindus presides over the games, 506, Constantinople. Cluny Museum)
Then Le Prof, who wasn't yet Le Prof, just this skinny guy (he really was skinny; he weighed 156 pounds with his shoes on) who lived in a walk-in closet in Williamsburg and had somehow read Everything and really enjoyed it all, came into my life. That was when I began to realize that there was something lacking in the way I'd buzz through a museum in search of the Darkest painting in the collection, check it off my list of things to Darkly regard, then head out for coffee. "Oh my god!" Le Prof-Pas-Encore would cry. "LOOK AT THIS!!!!!!" And he'd point at a millimeter-sized detail in some ivory thing from the eleventh century--in a casement, or even a whole room that I hadn't even noticed--and I'd look, and realize that a whole world was contained in the ivory thing, from which Le Prof would spin out anecdotes from books he'd read and other ivory things he'd looked at and books he intended to read but hadn't gotten to yet. And then, after two hours of ivory thingies, Le Prof would want to move on to the Egyptian wing. Or Oceania. Or German Nostalgic Pastoral Works Between the World Wars. Or all the galleries on the Lower East Side. Or all of these and more. It was like Journey; it went on and on and on and o-o-on.... But it was fun. He made it fun to slow down and look.

I'm not sure how much Le Prof realized what a constraint he put me under, to have to look. But it was thanks to him that I realized that I'd divided not just art, but also books and music and film and spectacles and walks and travel and foods and conversations and friends and work, into a narrowly defined realm of the Interesting, and a much wider, undifferentiated realm of the Boring, without having realized that interest is a state of mind in the beholder. I didn't just lack knowledge and experience; I lacked curiosity, without which I could never even realize the aesthetic, intellectual, and emotional boundaries I'd imposed on myself, much less do anything about widening them. What I had to do was to learn To Be Interested. I think that urging me toward that realization, and giving me a living example of how to Be Interested, not just in art, but in lots of stuff, are, by far, the greatest things that Le Prof has ever done for me.
(right: Not dark, and unbelievably gorgeous: Sarcophagus, Sphinx, İstanbul Arkeoloji Müzeleri. That stone is like velvet.)

(left: hard-to-photograph detail from Nicolas Poussin, Triumph of Flora, c. 1627-28)
This is not to say that my taste in or knowledge of art has deepened or improved in a significant way. Rather, in looking more, and liking more, I've only started to glimpse just how much I won't have time to learn or see before I up and die. We have friends who are artists, who are sometimes kind enough to discuss their and others' work with us, and it blows our minds: they know so many things about how to look, and what to look for; their taste is so exquisite; they tell us, "You must see this Poussin show,"or "This is the wrong place to look at Richard Serra," or, sometimes, "This show represents everything that is worst about the art world," about something we've liked, and they make us think. They have a voracious curiosity to make, see, and learn, that is the opposite of the kind of mastery that would claim to have already seen it all, known it all. Art is exciting to me now, not because I've seen it all and know what I like, but for the chance to look at what I don't think I like, and discover why I should; to be astonished by looking at that which I'd never imagined to exist; and to review that which I thought I knew, only to find that I didn't, at all. I enjoy my feelings of ignorance more than I ever enjoyed my pretensions of knowing, because now I'm able to marvel. At beauty! The more things I can find beautiful, the better. I hadn't realized, before, how savorless life was without it.

(left: François Clouet, Elizabeth of Austria. Louvre)
So, the Real Reason we came to Paris was to go crawling through the Louvre and a hundred other museums, looking, very slowly, very carefully at the works, and trying to see what they are. (So carefully that, in fact, when La Potiche was examining a painting of fruit and flowers the other day, she suddenly screamed and bolted backwards into the midst of a tour group. She had spotted a caterpillar. La Potiche really does not like caterpillars.) And if you need any evidence that this was the Real Reason, you need only look at our Flickr galleries. Maybe there is something gauche about being the tourists with the cameras in the Louvre. But it's important to us to be able to revisit, again and again, the things we liked, and to record details of make and date so we can learn more about what we've seen; we also like to share things we think are marvelous and want everybody to see, especially those friends who want to see for themselves but can't get to Paris any time in the near future.

Our galleries are governed by certain constraints, however. We don't keep the many, many photos that inadequately capture what's awesome in a work; the Louvre, in particular, has terrible lighting, and hangs things in such a way that there's always a glare, even when you're standing right in front of a picture. Surveillance systems could learn a lot from their lighting. And we don't often photograph things you can find thousands of images of online, so you won't find La Joconde in our files, unless, by chance, we see something spectacular happening near her, and she just gets in the way. Since Karl's the one who really enjoys taking photos, many of them are related to his research. And when they're not, they're often motivated by a mixture of whimsy and astonishment. And love of cat pictures.
(right: in the category of the utterly rad, from the Entourage of Toussaint Debreuil, Portrait of King Henri IV as Hercules treading on the Lernean Hydra. Louvre. That smirk! Those shorts!)

And Le Prof has a taste for ceramics. He really, really loves a certain kind of ceramic. If you view our gallery from the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, you'll find ceramic upon ceramic upon ceramic. It was our third trip to the museum together, and this was the first time we actually made it all the way through the ceramics wing, though by the end of it we were crying a little, because we just couldn't look at any more ceramics.

There are also dozens or hundreds of things that just made us stop and say, "Wow," and stare, and appreciate. Having a record of all those moments of Wow, counting them up and realizing how many moments of our lives we're devoting to WOW, is reason enough for the project.

(right: Enguerrand Quarton, Pietà de Villeneuve-lès-Avignon, c. 1455, detail of the Magdalene, Louvre. Wow. Holy freaking wow.)
So this is your introduction to our Flickr collections, which contain many images Le Prof couldn't bother to upload to Facebook. As some of you know, we left the U.S. on January 3 and visited friends (and museums!) in London and Istanbul before coming to Paris. You will see that our photos are sorted, conveniently, into art collections and slice-of-life collections. You'll also see that we haven't even gotten around to rotating and labeling some of them. If you don't want to see 3000 pictures of 18th-century ceramics, you don't have to. But I really do think you will be the better for it, because everybody should cry a little at the beauty of the world.

Our London Collection
Our Istanbul Collection
Our Paris Collection (ever-growing)


  1. What a love letter. Highest praises, just smiling to think about it. For more on the dark/decadent side (I'm thinking about A Rebours) go to the Musee Gustave Moreau.

  2. Thank you! A quick look at Moreau's work reminds me Odilon Redon, whom I like. We will go check it out!