The insane Seine, Sortie and art in Paris

My eyes needed a rest when I found Giuseppe Penone’s Respirare l’ombra, where bay leaves are brought together and create a room stacked with leaves on all sides.

September 21, 2019 20:40
3 minute read.
The insane Seine, Sortie and art in Paris

General view of the exterior of the Louvre Museum in Paris August 12, 2009. REUTERS/Jacky Naegelen. (photo credit: REUTERS/JACKY NAEGELEN)

I had the pleasure of a few days in Paris in which to travel in and through the city to view the great art museums of the world. A citadel of treasures from both the canon of Western art as well as from the rest of the world was captivating. I managed to see the Louvre, the Musée d’Orsay, the Pompidou, the Musée National des arts Asiatiques-Guimet, the Musée du quai Branly-Jacques Chirac as well as see the Pantheon, the Eiffel Tower and the many historic buildings along the winding beauty of the Seine River.

It is difficult to express the power and magnitude of this city and the allure of old-style facades and architectural delights. Within the buildings, the old gives way to the new, and highly modern interiors bathe the art in light and space. The Louvre was fascinating, but the eyes get somewhat tired as picture after picture and sculpture after sculpture tell the same Western narrative: the ideas of the Christian Bible, the conquest of the West and the classical tradition, the mythological and historical.

A throng of tourists come to see what they have been told is high culture. It is quite a surreal experience to be ushered into the room that houses the priceless Mona Lisa as each group is given a stint of three minutes or so to view the image and click away, sold by the dream of culture and then move on. After all those reproductions of the image – on cups and t-shirts, in books and on the web, the original lies there open to the gaze of all – and yet she gazes back. No one has understood that impenetrable style, but art has moved way beyond that for over 100 years.

The Old World gives way to the new in the modern complex of the Pompidou that showcases the rise of modernism from the beginning of the last century to contemporary art. The sheer volume is immense, and it is most enjoyable to see the masters of the New Age as they broke free of the myths of what art was, how it should look and for whom it should be made. New Realism, Pop Art, Abstract Expressionism, Surrealism, New Objectivity, Bauhaus, De Stijl, Cubism, Fauvism, Neo-primitivism, Supremitism and Constructivism, Dada – it is all there in this massive complex. And then one feels even more freedom with the contemporary works on display.

My eyes needed a rest when I found Giuseppe Penone’s Respirare l’ombra, where bay leaves are brought together and create a room stacked with leaves on all sides. What is exhilarating is that it is the smell of these leaves that holds one’s attention, and the room has a certain atmosphere made for simply breathing, stopping, even closing one’s eyes. The result is peace, healing and an appeal no longer simply to the eye (or ear – consider all the tourists listening to the recordings of the “meaning” of each work as they pass it by). There were other impressive installations, notable by Joseph Beuys and Yaacov Agam. I would propose that art has indeed progressed and is no longer servile to the bombastic demands of politics and the Christian heritage of the West.

I found a sort of balance as the tumult of the West gave way to museums that dealt with art from Africa, the Orient, Oceania, Egypt and North and South America. Indeed, much of this could be called the plundering by France and the annexing of territory. Africa, as is well-known, was carved up by Europe at one point. These museums have more a historical feel, rather than objects being presented as art. That may be linked to the Western canon of domination and conquest. However, if one were to appreciate these creations as art, then it is just as powerful as the conquering Europeans, just as beautiful and mysterious.

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