Day 4 Paris: Culture Shock and Awe
**Becauseitzthere is typically a hiking and outdoor adventure blog. But from time to time we will feature other sorts of travel and leisure on these pages. In other words…fu fu travel. And it don’t get no more fu than Paris.**
We had one more day to spend in Paris and were determined to immerse ourselves as deeply in culture as we could. What better place to do so than the world’s most famous museum of art and culture?
In Boston we call this “fine aaaaht.” In fact there is a museum of fine arts in Boston, which is called, ironically, the Museum of Fine Arts. Or the “Em Eff Aye” as we Bostonians refer to it.
The Louvre is the largest AND most visited art museum in the world, with over 38,000 objects in its remarkable collection. Many items in this extraordinary museum are familiar as household objects, recognizable by most human beings alive, including many with no appreciation of art at all.
It was just a short distance from to Louvre from our hotel. We had a time sensitive pass for entry and were a bit late arriving; but the actual screening process was just a formality. We were soon inside to join the thousands of milling people claiming to be art aficionados and NOT tourists clamoring for a selfie with some priceless thingamajig they had heard about.
There is really no line to get into the Louvre as such. Just a huge crowd of people swarming EVERYWHERE.
First up was a stroll through the lower sections of the Louvre where the ancient foundations of the building are on display. In most places the lower section of a building is the basement; but in Paris, everything below the level of the street is a ‘crypt.’ What is now the elegant Louvre began as a strictly functional fortress in the twelfth century.
First up after the crypt was the Egypt section. Sylvia was able to get close enough to this sphynx to get a very good picture…Brian was literally shoved out of the way by members of a tour group jockeying for that all important photo.
Many of the art objects on display at the Louvre were looted from their lands or origin during the campaigns of Napoleon I…in particular, Egypt and Italy lost treasures measurable in metric tons to the conquering hoards. Some of these have been returned….others remain in the collection.
One of the pieces that never made it to the Louvre was the Rosetta Stone. Pilfered from Egypt after Bonaparte’s Nile campaign, the British took it back when they defeated him…and promptly decided THEY were the rightful owners of the stone, which was taken to the British Museum, where it resides and continues to sell licensed language training software to this day.
Brian would have liked to have spent more time in this section, whereas Sylvia was not impressed with all the ‘old stuff’ and wanted to move on anyway. Who would have thought old stuff in a museum?
At any rate, somehow we wandered out and were unable to find our way back in again. This is a HUGE museum and even having a printed guide is insufficient, you practically need a GPS.
We fought upstream through the crowds through the Greek and Early European statues. Some of these are remarkably lifelike…I would be surprised if, using today’s technologies, this level of intricacy could be duplicated. And even if it could be, it would cost millions of dollars.
Though the crowds everywhere truly bothered us, the one place where it DID make for an interesting scene was at the Venus de Milo. Here it almost seemed as if the dismembered goddess was surrounded by a throng of worshipful admirers, all trying to immortalize her with a photograph. The veneration somehow seemed fitting.
After much marching about we finally came to the section where the paintings are. Many of these are so recognizable you can go into any Target, Pier One Imports or Bed Bath and Beyond, and find a print of it there on the shelf. The artists of course get no royalties, being in just about every case quite dead.
Most impressive is the hall of towering paintings depicting the battles of France (or the victorious ones, anyway.) Many of these paintings, and especially the epic ones by the neoclassical master Jacques-Louis David, are positively HUGE…ten or twenty feet tall with figures literally as large as life or larger.
Many of David’s works (and many of the prominently featured works in general) are romantic takes on historical scenes, especially of French military prowess. This dates from an age when war was fought mostly by professional soldiers on open battlefields, and by nobles who sought reason to justify their conquests and feuds…hence war, and the territorial ambitions that begot it, could be easily romanticized as gallant and honorable.
Many of the paintings depict combat between “heroically nude’ figures. This is an obviously allegorical style that had no particular roots in reality; especially since many of them depict an age where combatants habitually wore armor, and anyone who went into battle nude was very likely to end up ‘heroically dead.’
Though the epic scale, vivid colors and undeniable skill of these masterworks make them impressive, they are not really Brian’s style. It’s hard to admire a glorification of war even when carried off with such marvelous skill.
Far better, and one of the best depictions of a battlefield Brian has seen, is this stark one by the 17th Century Italian painter Salvator Rosa, titled simply, Cavalry Battle.’
Painted as if illuminated by a grim white light, devoid of romanticism, Rosa depicts his subjects as grotesque visages stalking amidst the chaos of battle…figures frantically hack each other to pieces, flee the slaughter or lie trampled beneath the horses. Faces are rendered as masks of fear, aggression, terror and pain. No depiction of war is ever entirely going to capture the full measure of it, but this one comes closer than most. It was more Brian’s cup of tea.
There are many, many other fine pictures by David and contemporaries. Brian walked through a door and came face to face with one of his favorites…David’s Oath of the Horatii. He has always longed for a print of this painting, depicting the folly of men, the suffering of women, the consequences of honor and ambition, and plenty of other cool stuff involving dead white guys that Brian finds oddly pleasing.
Here’s another…David and Goliath.
Liberty Leading the People, by Delacroix, has a place in French culture not unlike Washington Crossing the Delaware in the American.
The Raft of the Medusa, The Wedding Feast at Cana, The Coronation of Napolean, the Head of John the Baptist…many, many more.
All along the signs and the crowds are pushing you in a certain direction, towards a certain something…I wonder what it is they wall want to see?
Ah, I think I’ve heard of this one. Think I’ll join the scrum. I mean, how bad can it be?
Sylvia had seen Da Vinci’s storied smirking maiden once before and was perhaps prepared for the scene. Brian had not, but figured he knew what to expect. He figured wrong. He had NO IDEA how bad it would be.
Brian’s experience at the Mona Lisa (which despite what everybody tells you is NOT a small painting, it’s the fact that the other paintings around it are so HUGE that makes it seem so) was not one of his most pleasurable. There’s going to be a future rant about selfie culture coming, but I think I’ll wait on it a while.
After the debacle at the Mona Lisa we went across to the other wing of the Museum, the Richelieu (or ‘new’ wing, as opposed to the Sully or ‘old’ wing.) (The Wikipedia page for the Louvre Palace states, whilst trying to keep a straight face as it does, that this division was done for the benefit of “…the casual visitor to avoid (to some extent) becoming totally mystified at the bewildering array of named wings and pavilions.”)
The new wing is much less crowded and much quieter. While the artworks here are far less impressive (hence its lack of crowds) Brian enjoyed the experience perhaps to some extent more than the Sully wing. In order to appreciate art you have to be able to walk around a bit and study the work from different angles and different light. There is almost no opportunity to do so in a building jammed with people whose primary objective is to say that they’ve seen the Louvre, and secondary objective is to take as many selfies as they can. The experience of the museum would undoubtedly be MUCH richer without the crowds.
There are a lot of small, intricately detailed artworks in the Louvre’s collection that are sometimes as impressive as the large ones.
We also toured the apartments of Napoleon III…the grandson of Napoleon Bonaparte and also ruler of France, who made the Louvre his palace. Sylvia once again pronounced his decorative style to be ‘very nice but not quite her style.’ More ‘good doors’ were spotted in this area, however.
After a few hours of touring we were Louvre-ed out, and so we went outside to take some pictures of the outside of the museum. Included among these are the distinctive Pyramid of the Louvre. Though it has only been there since 1989, the Pyramid is probably the structure most people associate with the Louvre; like the Eiffel tower, it’s almost impossible to imagine Paris without it.
Brian confesses that while he has often bashed modernist architecture, and especially the architect I. M. Pei, whose work includes Boston’s John Hancock Tower and the John. F. Kennedy Library, plus the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland. Brian has never been a particularly big fan of Pei’s boxy-slabby style, nor the fact that his creations, like those of Frank Lloyd Wright, tend to fall apart not long after they are opened.
But he does admit that the Pyramid of the Louvre is Pei’s best work by far. It’s striking how the old and new styles have fused together almost seamlessly to become one…just as the elements of the museum’s collection have, just as modern Paris has. Apparently others agree…visitation to the museum has doubled since the pyramid opened.
After we had as much Louvre as we could take we strolled out and uptown to have lunch in the area of the Palais Garnier, the French National Academy of Music and Dance. This proved to be somewhat beyond our budget, so after a few drinks we kept strolling until we reached the area of our hotel and found…what would you guess? Another café.
While en route we stopped out of curiosity in the Baroque Church near our Hotel in Les Halles…St. Eustache. Though it is technically not a Cathedral (it is not the seat of a Bishopric) most anybody looking at it from outside or in would find it plenty Cathedral enough for them. Beyond its huge doors is a remarkable space, almost completely devoid of tourists.
Though it is not as old as Norte Dame de Paris (St. Eustache dates from the 16th century) it is about as big and impressive. Walking around this vast, ancient and almost empty building was a spiritual experience may times that of our tour of noisy Notre Dame. You could hear the silence, feel the antiquity of the place, see the soot from centuries of tallow candles and torches on the wall. An impressive house of god, and one of MANY in the city worth visiting. Make an effort to do so if you can.
This would be our last night in Paris, and so we sat down at – what else a café – to enjoy it while we could.
If we had one word to sum up the experience of Paris, we would probably chose the word exhausting. We had four days to see it all…but of course, we didn’t see it all, no one could possibly experience everything Paris has to offer in four days. Instead we tried to see as much as we could, to check as many of the important “Must See” places off our list as we could.
The result was an incredible, if somewhat mixed, experience. Brian enjoyed the city but not the crowds; he found Paris at its best when he was away from the tourist magnets, or at least off in the corners of those magnets where he was not being pushed, shoved and hemmed in. Places Like St. Eustache, the tower of Notre Dame, or the quieter byways of the city. Crowded spaces simply do not impress him much, and his desire to see famous things simply because they MUST be seen is rapidly waning.
Sylvia, who had been to Paris before, was perhaps even less impressed. While she enjoyed the experience, she found (as many do) the city of Paris to be a dirty and intimidating place. To her, Paris simply is not very bright – instead, she might consider it the “City of (b)light.”
Both of us will say that the usual object of everyone’s wrath – the people of Paris – we did not find to be any more rude or difficult than those of any American City (and maybe less.) Nor did we feel seriously in danger at any time while we were there.
And if we ever do visit Paris again (Brian for one would like to) we would DEFINITELY go outside of peak season and would avoid the tourist traps this time.
Next time we do hiking in Europe, it is unlikely we will stop in Paris. Many of our wish list destinations are in southern or central Europe…We’ll fly into Geneva or Barcelona or someplace else. But the experiences of life are what defines a person…whatever our feelings we cannot deny that our experiences in Paris, the City of Light, have left a deep impression on us both.