I’m not all that fond of art galleries and museums. I’m soon defeated by scale in much the same way that a keen appetite is defeated by the huge portions of anything one orders in the States. Not only do I know I’ll never get through it all, this very knowledge spoils the bit I might have been able to manage had the portion been more modest.
“Just do one thing per visit,” the museum aficionados tell you. Which is probably sound advice but I don’t seem able to zone in and focus on just one thing without all the other displays which I know to be close by elbowing their way into my consciousness. “What about me?” they whisper, like the call of all the sweets you didn’t collect at the buffet table, which you know as soon as you sit down, would be far superior to what you’ve chosen.
Furthermore, art galleries and museums have an arty-craftiness about them that doesn’t sit quite right with me. I do all the right things. I adjust my deportment, I look closely, change angles, step back a bit and give the odd appreciative nod, but somehow I still get the feeling I’m an imposter.
But… ‘The Louvre.’ It’s one of the biggies isn’t it? You go to Paris and you have to get yourself to the top of the Eiffel Tower, you must visit Notre Dame and you must visit the Louvre. It’s in the rules.
‘The Louvre!’ It’s such a big word. The association are so grand. The Renaissance, Leonardo, art, culture… I played with the sound for a few seconds,“Ooh, the lure of the Louvre,” but I felt alienated straight away and reacted badly by changing a vowel here and dropping a consonant there.
“Yes I just had to drop into the Lav for the exquisite exhibition
Yes I know - the instinct of the barbarian to destroy what he doesn’t understand. Or perhaps I was just searching for an excuse not to go in. But, pathetic box-ticker that I am, I did go in. I was in Paris, ipso facto, I had to go to the Louvre, and no silly notion of idle contentment or concern at the hundred metre queue was going to get in the way. I was going in whether I liked it or not. I consoled myself with the thought that maybe the visit would do me some good. Perhaps, by osmosis, I would suck in some class and culture and celebrate a new status as a converted Philistine.
Yet the tyranny of scale crept over me as soon as I was handed the guidebook. The Louvre is, and feels, seriously big. Huge, actually. But as I’m not much of a guide/map/instructions person either, I decided to stroll about randomly until I blundered into the Mona Lisa by which time, according to my internal contract, I could tick the box with a clear conscience and then bolt. As I shuffled off, though, I couldn’t help feeling that somehow I had been bullied into all this. Half-an-hour earlier I was ambling happily by the Seine without a care in the world and now, bang, I’m thirty unprofitable minutes older and forty-six francs poorer with some invisible force directing my steps that hitherto were under my own control.
Anyhow, I set off and soon found myself in a very large room full of very large paintings. And these paintings were terribly interesting because they all looked very much the same. They all had a woman with vacant expression, at least one naked baby, and a bearded geriatric male on his knees reaching ecstatically for the heavens. I’m not sure what for. Maybe his kite was off the canvas. These paintings only seemed to differ in the design of the frame and composition of the personnel. What’s more, these paintings, let me assure you, were not all by the same painter. I checked. Any half-smart high school teacher would have known straight away that some copying had gone on here. Or, if I’m being overly cynical and if, as they say, art reflects life, the lives so reflected in this room must surely have come from the same litter.
I did honestly try my hand at reading a few paintings. I gazed and gazed into their depths searching for their message, the universal truth, something that might improve me. Later, I decided to suspend all cognitive processing and let the essence of the works infuse my soul in case that was the way to go. But it didn’t seem to matter. In the end I only saw pictures. Is that legal? Can I just see the pictures and respond at that level? Do most of these paintings have a message, a sub-text, are they pages in a centuries old diary? Or are they just beautiful? And if so does that make them art? And if not does that make them not art? Do you see why these places make me feel a bit uncomfortable?
As I moved from room to room, the vastness of the Louvre became overwhelming. Probably as a defensive measure, I began to wonder what this lot would fetch if it was flogged off to private collectors. Didn’t Bondy pay several tens of millions of dollars for just one of Van Gogh’s efforts? I quickly decided not to follow my thoughts too far down this line in case some security person, trained to intercept the musings of low rent box-tickers, frogmarched me to the nearest exit and tossed me out on my uncultured derriere.
Tired and confused somewhere in Etruscan pottery, not having bumped into Mona by chance, and having failed an attempt to locate her using the guide, I gave up. I asked an attendant where she hung out, so to speak. My cover was blown. I wasn’t a lover of art. I was an artistically illiterate tourist who had come to cross another travel icon off my list. She pretended not to notice but I know she did.
As I approached her, numerous mini Mona’s and a jostling throng told me I was going in the right direction. She’s actually quite a small lady, and appears somewhat anti-social sitting on her own wall and hiding inside a glass cabinet. My first thought on seeing her was that she looked exactly like a print. “Well what did you expect?” I asked myself. ”Someone else?”
Riding on the metro on my way back to the hotel a fantasy played out in my mind wherein the curator of the Louvre went public to tell the world that for the last few centuries the original Mona Lisa had been kept in a secret vault and that during this time a copy had been on display. We had all been looking at a fake. Somehow I found that very comforting.
See also the companion article on Paris
and the Louvre.