Does History Anoint Your Taste?
By Alan Dean Foster
Everyone knows the Louvre and the Musee d’Orsay, but the fact is that Paris is full of museums: everything from the Dali museum to small museums that focus on the history of the city to collections specific to certain religions. If you can think of it, there’s probably a museum in Paris that is centered on it.
It’s a good idea to explore such locales. They often feature special exhibitions that are important but not quite iconic enough to enlist the attention of the larger museums. The Luxembourg museum in Paris currently showcases a wonderful such special exhibition on the master of Art Nouveau, Alphonse Mucha.
But what if you don’t have the time? Or if you’re on a package tour that only leaves you something like half a day at the Louvre or d’Orsay? Or more importantly, what if you don’t know much about art?
The resultant expedition should be treated like any other excursion. Plan, prepare, and try to maximize your time with respect to how much of it you have available. The trouble is, most travelers do none of that. Instead of focusing on what they like, they let their schedule or their tour guide do their perceiving for them.
I hear this all the time. “Oh, I didn’t know that was there”. “What a wonderful piece—why didn’t our guide mention that?” “I’m especially interested in this artist—how can I find out where his or her work is located?”
You have to prepare for your own visit. Don’t trust your guide—any guide. Their job is neither to educate nor satisfy your personal likes. It is to get you from point A to point B on schedule.
Everybody who visits the Louvre wants to see the Mona Lisa. Perfectly understandable. It’s a nice portrait. The hundreds of people who crowd in front of it certainly think so—because most of them have been told to think so. They’ll spend ten-fifteen minutes of their precious visitation time edging and pushing closer and closer for a better look. Meanwhile, there are another couple of da Vinci’s nearby, both of which I think are more intriguing works than poor Mona. I watched as people caught sight of these in passing, paused to check the provenance, and move on.
Why? What makes the Mona Lisa so much more viewable than da Vinci’s other paintings? It’s because we are told it is so. Yet a careful study of the other da Vinci’s in the Louvre exhibits just as much if not more mastery of technique.
Two Vermeers hang side by side in one small room. Vermeer is one of my favorite painters. If you’ve seen the movie Girl With a Pearl Earring you’ll understand whereof I speak. The smaller painting, The Lace Maker, is exquisite. I’m not saying it’s better or worse than the painting that hangs next to it, The Astronomer. Personally, of the two I prefer The Astronomer. But in writing about Vermeer, all the talk is about The Lacemaker and Girl With a Pearl Earring.
I came back to The Astronomer several times. People would go up to The Lace Maker, study it, step back, and read about it in their guides, or listen to their guide lecture about it. Then people would move up to it for a closer look—and zip right past The Astronomer. Because it’s not nearly as highly publicized, and heaven help anyone who tries to make up their own mind about great art.
The Aphrodite of Milos, better known as the Venus di Milo is also in the Louvre, and immortal because some ancient art critic said it exhibited the perfect womanly proportions. Perfect for whom? I think the museum holds far better ancient Greek sculptures of women, complete with arms. When did it become a “thing” to lavish praise on one piece of art while virtually ignoring everything around it? Everyone needs to make up their own minds and not rely solely on historical acclaim.
Among all the famed Egyptian relics to be found in the Louvre, lost among dozens of decorated mummy cases, beyond the Assyrian reliefs and gold jewelry, is a small statue that has to be discovered by accident. I did not see it pointed out by tour guides or highlighted in guidebooks. But to me it spoke more of a connection with ancient Egypt, its culture and its people, than even the massive obelisk in Concorde square.
Done in (I believe) painted terracotta, it shows a man and a woman seated side-by-side. It is not as static as most such surviving pieces from ancient Egypt. The woman has her right arm around the man’s shoulders. Her left hand rests on his left arm. For something thousands of years old it is so modern in its posing, so emotional in its implication, that I was taken aback by its appearance among dozens of other far less animated pieces.
Nobody told me it existed. It doesn’t inspire raves in guidebooks. But it brings a past era to life and connects it immediately with our own. Two people long, long dead who lived and loved one another. In Paris now. Not a bad immortality.
Ignore the guide and the guidebooks sometimes, explore, and you will find art that speaks to you rather than to the opin
ions of others. Even across the ages.
Alan Dean Foster is author of more than 120 books, visitor to more than 100 countries, and still frustrated by the human species. Follow him at AlanDeanFoster.Com.