General 3-23-2004

The Column: Why I Love Art and Continue to Write about It (Despite It All)

Michael Fallon goes to Paris, okay, I'm envious too, but he saw a lot of wonderful art that reminded him of what the stuff can do if you let it.

Michael Fallon

This time last year the sun in Paris was unseasonably warm, causing battalions of yellow tulips to take up early posts in the city’s parks and planter boxes. In the Luxembourg Gardens, a block from where I was staying, the chestnut trees stood on the side of the pathways, their faces hoary with a morning’s growth of green spring beard. Montparnasse was cheerily busy and replete with brasseries and cafes. In the afternoons I sat by the blood-colored wall of La Rotonde, the café where Bohemians like Picasso, Apollinaire, Modigliani, and Leger congregated once they moved away from the more crowded and expensive Montmartre district on the other side of town. Life in Paris was warm and fragrant and tasty as a mug of La Rotonde’s chocolat.

Don’t be jealous: this was a trip I’d dreamed of and saved for and planned for years, and I was determined to make the most of it now that I was here. It almost didn’t happen–it was March 2003, a time dominated by the growing din of war and paralyzing international anxiety.

Signs of concern over the war were everywhere in Paris. I have a photograph of a poster advertisement for the newspaper Le Monde, in which someone inked a swastika on the forehead of George W. Bush. In my journal, I note that on the first three days in Paris, whenever I went to the café for my afternoon chocolat and croque monsieur, diners were hidden behind newspapers that showed pictures of international protests. After the invasion began, I jotted in my journal the March 20 headline of Le Monde, “La Guerre Americaine á Commencé.”

I was then at least passingly anxious. With my rudimentary French so heavily accented with American sounds, with the large number of Arab-looking people in the neighborhood, and with the stress of traveling through international airports and train stations, I must have been constantly on guard—I can recall friends and family asking why I hadn’t canceled the trip: Wasn’t I afraid I would be a target? Truth be told, however, I don’t now remember much fear. In fact, my journal doesn’t mention the war again after that first day.

Instead, it’s a daily log of the visual treasures of Paris. At the Musee d’Orsay, I was transfixed by Edgar Degas’ “Femmes a la Terrasse d’un Café, le Soir,” from 1877:

Gray-white colors dominate, round marble tabletops; only a
few colors in scene—the women’s bright blue and pale-pink
blouses, a fringe around their busts, hats w. fruit and flowers,
bare arms (or lacy sleeves), baubles and makeup, full of life,
giving life to a gray scene.

A few days later, I wrote of the Cathedral of Notre Dame: “A tall presence on the Ile de la Cité, not lovely, but a matronly old family maid, standing at the doorway, observing comers and goers to the household; squarefaced, wide, aproned, heavy-bosomed, not to be trifled with or ignored.” In the Louvre, I was struck dumb by the great hall of nineteenth-century French historical paintings—in particular J. L. David’s gold and scarlet “Coronation of Empress Josephine” across from Theodore Gericault’s dark and creosote-hued tangle of bodies in “Raft of the Medusa.” I was also particularly enraptured by a chance to see a favorite painting by one of my favorite painters—the sensual banquet of “Endymion Asleep” (1791) by Anne-Louis Girodet, an artist who died underrecognized and neglected in 1824. Painted in the thick of the Revolution, it was an escapist fantasy of gentle illumination effects and atmosphere—and Girodet’s patriotic teacher, David, hated it. Some art historians say the painting was a harbinger of the Romantic era and style—the arrival of which was delayed in France by the strong-arm reactionary ideals of David and his cronies. I was particularly happy to see the painting because Girodet was a central inspiration in a series of profiles of neglected artists that I had recently begun contemplating writing.

There was more art. In Rodin’s house, I made a few notes and a quick sketch of the “Tête de Baudelaire,” from 1898. I visited the homes of Ingres and Delacroix on the Quai Voltaire, and the graves of Ingres, David, Delacroix, and Gericault in the Pere LaChaise cemetery. My favorite museum of all was the Museé Marmottan, an Empire-era house with a basement full of spectacular impressionist paintings. I spent a full hour-and-a-half just in one round room that held nine of Monet’s stunning and
massive velvety purple-green-and-blue water lily paintings.

Meanwhile, the war faded away. If I am to be faulted for running away from reality—the bombing footage and reporters in the field and body counts—so be it. I am happy now to recall the wonder I felt as I walked through the streets of a city that has loved art and beauty for hundreds of years. I don’t feel guilty.

Toward the end of the trip I took a train out to Chartres to see the famous cathedral. Once there, I latched onto a tour with local British historian Malcolm Miller. He pointed out the stories in the cathedral’s stained glass, which windows had been restored at what cost, and so on. He explained that the vast labyrinth on the cathedral floor was ordinarily not visible, that the chairs that normally obscured the labyrinth had been moved aside to accommodate the pilgrims due to arrive the next day. Miller took us outside to look at the Gothic sculpture that adorned the exterior of the building. We examined the flying buttresses, learned how many steps were in each tower (and when each tower was built), and came to a part of the cathedral accessible to a small town square. Here, he pointed out sculptural figures that were armless, occasionally headless, chipped in leg and foot, and asked us if we knew what had happened. One person guessed that was the ravages of time, but Miller shook his head.

“In 1793,” he said, “revolutionaries converged on the cathedral to remove the sculpture and rededicate the building as a palace of enlightenment, or some such.” Such fanatics had knocked many of Paris’s cathedrals to the ground in the early 1790s, and some wanted to do the same in Chartres. They began hacking at its statuary, Miller explained, only to be stopped by a local official. “They had already done some damage, as you can see, knocking off heads and other elements that they could reach. The official stopped them by simply saying in one hundred years people will want to come see the cathedral.”

Here I was, more than two hundred years later, thankful to the nameless official for his insight. The simple answer to why I love art, why I continue to seek it out despite all the distressing and depressing things of the world, is that it is in art then that we rise above it all. This is not to diminish those who are concerned about war, and politics, and the struggles of men. But in the long run, art outlasts all the tiresome and anxiety-inducing aspects of living; it outlasts the arguments, the blood feuds, and the sectarian squabbles. Art is the way we reveal ourselves as somehow more than ordinary. Even old Girodet, who died forgotten, his accomplishments unremarked upon, knew that history would remember him for the brief moment of beauty he gave us.