So I recently finally got to Paris. My wife and I spent two weeks inhaling the Parisian atmosphere, and of course I did everything you would expect an artist on his first visit to Paris to do. I won’t even try to recount the whole trip, but two moments stand out in my memory. The first one, not surprisingly, involved a painting. You often hear that art has the power to move people emotionally. Frankly I’m almost never stirred by art in the visceral manner this statement implies. I will get reasonably excited over an inventive composition—Picasso’s Guernica for instance—and masterful brushwork has been known to trigger what I call the bifocal tilt, where I stand inches from a painting with my head tipped back to focus through the bottom of my glasses, agape at some painterly nuance. But you won’t catch me swooning the way nineteenth century audiences did over academic painting at the Salon. Well, normally you won’t.
For me, art more often inspires intellectual awe, which is more slow burn than spontaneous combustion. Concepts are my favored source of aesthetic appeal. But if ever there was a city with the potential to provide emotional thrills, it’s Paris, with all of Western civilization’s greatest artistic hits on display. Many works I encountered in Paris for the first time are among my all time favorites, though it’s an ironic commentary on the times we live in that you can actually have favorite works of art that you’ve never seen. One such painting that has held a special place in my imagination is Édouard Manet’s Le déjeuner sur l’herbe, which I refer to by its loose English translation, “The Luncheon on the Grass.”
It’s not what Manet did with paint that thrills me—though there was plenty of bifocal tilting in the presence of his work in Paris—it’s that he did it at all. The Luncheon on the Grass, which arguably represents the first glimmer of modernism’s dawn, is a work of monumental importance that might be considered the opening shot of France’s greatest revolution. More than any other, this was the one work I wanted to see in Paris. When I got to the D’Orsay, where it’s usually on display, it had been moved to a special Manet exhibition within the museum. Popping for the extra two Euros and standing in another long line to get into this show was a no-brainer; I had waited a lifetime already.
When I turned a corner in the exhibition and suddenly laid eyes on Manet’s game changing masterpiece on the wall in front of me I wasn’t prepared for the wallop it packed. The thing is stunningly beautiful. The phrase “stopped dead in my tracks” would not be too far off. There were about sixty other people standing there with audio wands pressed to their heads, but the painting and I were having a private moment.
Photography is different from human sight. When we view things in life we make constant adjustments for color and value, perceiving subtle variations equally well within dark and light areas. A camera on the other hand, tends to either adjust for dark areas while washing out brighter parts, or capture the delicate brighter areas, while burying the dark parts. Photography can’t readily pick up the full value range with complete fidelity, so photographers either sacrifice darks or lights, or narrow the value range so that both light and dark areas are reasonably observable. A quick check on Google pictures reveals widely varying results.
Manet’s painting has much more dramatic contrast than reproductions reveal. Manet’s central female figure—the one who’s defiant stare pissed everyone off at the time —virtually glows. This must have added an exclamation point to what was in its day, too-real nudity. I plunged into Manet’s juicy brush strokes, in both the luscious and scandalous senses of the word, with their ballsy lack of “refinement.” There’s a robin flying at the center top of the composition that I never noticed before, lost as it usually is within the dark foliage. I looked at the painting for a long time, crossing from the left edge to the right edge and back again so I could get close without standing in front of it.
Renee was patient. I wanted to explain why I was reluctant to move on. I had waited so long to see this, and once I turned the next corner of the exhibit, that would be it. I would probably never see it again. I wanted to tell her this, but the words stuck in my throat. I knew if I tried to get them out the tears in my eyes would explode. This emotional reaction to a painting was a source of amusement for me. I walked away several times, then back. I got almost to the next room, then went back one more time. It was too little, yet it was becoming too much; I had to go.
The second moment that stands out as an emotional highlight happened in the Panthéon. Actually it happened in the crypt below the Panthéon. This expansive vault with its flaring columns, curved staircases, multiple turns, copious rooms, and long mysterious halls, looked like the set from Abbot and Costello meet the Mummy. Entombed there were many French notables: Rousseau, Voltaire, Victor Hugo, Alexandre Dumas, and Louis Braille among others. One tomb stood out, that of Marie Curie and her husband, Pierre Curie.
This was the only tomb that had evidence of visitors having been there. Madam Curie’s sarcophagus was covered with notes and several flower bouquets. The mostly spontaneous outpouring of gratitude and admiration was scrawled on anything people had handy: transit tickets, business cards, admission stubs, and sticky note paper. “You are the best woman in the world. We love you. Best wishes,” read one in English which was signed by two people “From China.” The notes were written in many languages: I noticed European, Middle Eastern, Asian, and of course North American. “Merci d’avoir aider Jean-Charles Fournier a vivre plus Longtemps…” read one on torn notepaper. Another scrap of paper contained this message: “Thank you for your contribution. Because of you we have excelled.” After the signature, squeezed in almost as an afterthought, was the title, “MD.” One, written by someone who struggled a bit with English said, “Thank you both for your love for science + work Marie, had not it been for women like you and supporting scientists as Pierre, maybe I (and other women) had not been given the chance to study physics/science easily. Thank you both.” I began to get choked up. “Thank you for your contribution to science and medicine. You have paved the way for many great discoveries to come.” “Merci Marie for showing us that women can make great contributions to science.” Several simply wrote, “Rest in Peace.” It was getting hard to read the notes, with my eyes so watery and all.
What moved me I guess was the idea of people compelled to write a personal note of thanks to a dead person they never knew. A bittersweet human connection. The note-making was a form of endemic contagion, but the flowers were planned. It was all like the last scene in Schindler’s List. Maybe it was the idea that our actions can have an impact beyond our lives. This makes me wonder why people don’t leave notes of gratitude on the floor below important works of art. If they did, I might have left one for Manet at Luncheon in the Grass. It would say, “Thanks Manet, for putting up with the crap, so that we could all have modern art.”