Day III

Saturday approached. More corn flakes, bread, and stories of what other people did while I went looking for invisible Germans…

We returned to the Musée d’Orsay the next day and split into 2 groups for everybody’s favorite part: Portraits!

We began with Van Gogh’s Portrait of Doctor Gachet. We examined the way the blue undulating lines go against one another, how the red table does not continue in a straight line, the possible meanings of the foxgloves in his hand. We discussed whether the man appears sad, lonely, or depressed (attempting to sound smart, I added in the word “decrepitude” where “depression” probably would have sufficed).

Next we looked at Camille sur son Lit de Mort (Camille on her Deathbed). As always, reading the placard was pas permis, but of course some people did it anyway. I had forgotten that the name of Monet’s wife was in fact, Camille. She had died at age 29, and Monet had felt the need to paint her, though he felt disgusted with himself. We looked for the flowers that are on the bed, we talked about the way the sunlight looks as though it’s about to envelop her, and discussed whether she was still alive or recently dead. I liked drawing from this one, largely because of the way there are lines all over the place.

I had a short conversation with my professor during which I asked him what constitutes a masterpiece, and what is it about “academic art” that makes it fail the tests that artists like Van Gogh/Cézanne/Monet/Renoir/Delacroix try to live up to. He said he would show me before we left the museum. But it was time to move on; “Let’s go look at a masterpiece” he said. We walked up to a Cézanne; Portrait of Gustav Geffroy. We spent a lot of time looking from a distance, talking about the relationships between all the books and the figure, the distance between him and his fireplace, how the books look as though they’re going to fall off the table, etc. To illustrate how lines/perspective can change depending on how you look at it, we were told to look up at a bar that went across the ceiling and connected to the wall above an archway. Within this doorway (I’m not sure if that’s what you call it) there’s a bright green exit sign (like a regular “Exit” sign but smaller). Then through the passage is a large painting off in the distance. If you look at the exit sign, the bar appears to be going down. But then if you look down at the painting, the bar looks like it’s going up. You can easily find examples of this optical illusion in any city; just find a house or something and look at the eaves and how it appears to run towards things in the distance, and compare them.

As we were leaving my professor had me stop into a small room to show me why the new curators are morons. He pointed to a Cézanne paining to the left, which was of the bay on Marseille. “See that? Masterpiece…” Then he pointed to an enormous realistic looking painting of men herding bulls by the same location. “…crap.” “But, why…?” “Why did this guy paint the ocean this kind of blue? Because the ocean was like that. Why are the men’s shirts white? Because they’re white.” I suddenly remembered what Delacroix said…naturalism is a dead end in art…

I and a few others had Chinese  food for lunch. Again, overpriced, but tasty. Feeling particularly manly that day, I ate broccoli with it.

To begin the afternoon we met at La Musée de l’Orangerie. This was the least forgettable stop. The main attraction of this museum is two well-lighted oval-shaped rooms, each with 4 enormous Monet paintings. The rooms are separated in such a way that once you leave once room, the small passageway obscures your vision of the next room, so that you can’t look from one room into the other. The employees there keep telling us to shut up. “Un peu de silence s’il vous plait!!!” At first I preferred the first room. I looked into the water and I could view the sky, exactly as you can in the garden (no reflections of airplanes though). On a smaller side of the oval was a sunset painting, with the reds and yellows shining through the ripples of the water. The other side is nighttime, visible through thick willow trees. The other sides have more day-lit skies, and I was almost mesmerized by the cloud-filled sky on one of them. But after spending two hours in both rooms, primarily the second, I found the second had an even greater effect. By standing a few meters in front of the center of the far-most painting, it envelops your entire vision from left to right. One of the professors lay on his back and stared at this painting for at least an hour. We split up into groups of 4 or 5 and had 3 questions to work on: Why do you think Monet chose oval rooms rather than rectangles or squares? How does each room differ in character, and what determines this difference? What is the effect of these rooms together with respect to Monet’s overall conception? 

At the end of the day some of us (including the two teachers) went to have a drink at a café. Then it was dinner time (I didn’t want to turn down a free meal, even if it wasn’t spectacular). And of course I met more Germans (different ones, this time representing Heidelberg) whom I would actually end up meeting later, after dinner. They were doing their Praktikum, which essentially means they have to do office work for a couple weeks to fulfill some kind of requirement. It didn’t sound like they were so thrilled about it. There were 4 of them and only one spoke fluent English, which made things kind of fun. At one point we were in a Scottish bar. There was a 40-something year old guy already in there, violating the number one rule of men’s bathrooms, which is taking the middle urinals while the others are unoccupied. I politely pointed this out to him. I forget what he said, but I remember he said it in a British accent? I asked if he was Scottish. He replied no, that he was Welsh. I said I’d like to go there someday. He smilingly told me that if so, I must make absolutely sure to “Follow the Angles”. I asked him what he meant. “You’ll know when the time comes.”  He exited the bathroom toilet, and I was left there to contemplate his wisdom…

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