The first time I visited the Musée d’Orsay in Paris I was spending my junior year abroad in London. I was taking an art history class taught by Pat Utermohlen, an elegantly eccentric older woman with giant glasses, handfuls of rings and a love for art that was contagious. I had never taken an art history class, didn’t (and don’t) really “get” art beyond what I find enjoyable to look at, but I wanted to make the most of my time abroad, and I made sure that the two elective classes that I was able to choose would have plenty of cultural offerings. Once a week Pat Utermohlen led us through a London museum (some many more than once), and we would also have a weekly lecture about what we would see. My first experience with art theory, actually discussing art, and writing about it, was truly interesting, although it admittedly was a bit of a struggle. There is a saying that writing about painting is like dancing about architecture*. That’s not to say that there is no value in it, just that it feels a bit awkward. Pat Utermohlen also took us on a weekend trip to Paris, to see the great works there. The trip is quite a blur; I think we visited every major museum with works relevant to the period we were studying (late 19th to early 20th century) including the Louvre, the Musée d’Orsay, the Picasso museum, the Marmottan museum as well as a trip to Giverny to see Monet’s house and gardens that he famously depicted in his water lily paintings. At the Louvre all I really remember is running by renaissance painting after renaissance painting to get to the Mona Lisa and the Venus de Milo, which were mostly memorable themselves for the mass of tourists all trying to get a picture of themselves with the artworks (so bizarre.) But the Musée d’Orsay, which I hadn’t even known existed, felt like a museum that was made just for me. It was the art I liked, (impressionism, mostly) in one place, and that place happened to be a gorgeous Beaux-Arts style former train station, and it wasn’t too crowded or huge.
The second time I visited the Musée d’Orsay was last Sunday, and it was just as perfect as I remembered. Since I will be in Paris for a bit of time, I was able to purchase a Carte Blanche, a membership card for both the Orsay and the L’Orangerie, for about the cost of 3 visits. This way I can go as many times as I like, spreading out the trips so that I can leave before I stop really seeing the art (museum overload, is what I call it, for me it can set in as early as two hours into a trip). And the discount ticket for young people was capped at age 35. I love that art institutions tend to peg “young” as under 35. The Orsay doesn’t seem to be as popular or as busy as the Louvre or, to be sure, the Eiffel Tower, but I think there is so much more value in it. The museum houses some very famous paintings, such as Van Gogh’s Starry Night Over the Rhone, some of Monet’s water lily paintings, Renoir’s very large dancer series, Whistler’s Mother, as well as others, and some great paintings by possibly less-well known artists, Berthe Morisot, Millet, Courbet and Caillebotte. (That links to one of my favorite paintings). I took the picture above of one of the giant clocks on the top floor through which you can see the city below. The museum being a former train station, there are several clocks of different design throughout the museum.
Lately, the time I spent in London is at the front of my mind, because I am lucky enough to be spending two weeks there very soon. It has been 12 years exactly since I was in London and, as is the way with time, it feels impossibly long ago, and just a breath away. I am hoping to revisit old haunts in that way that we do to try to grasp hold of the past. We are staying on the opposite side of the city from where I lived last time, so I am excited to discover new parts of the city as well.
*This saying, “writing about music is like dancing about architecture”, as well as the very similar “writing about painting is like dancing about architecture”, is believed to have been first used in 1979, and although the first quote has been attributed to several different people, they were most likely both first used by Martin Mull, a musician, comedian, and artist (and Colonel Mustard in the film Clue, for those to whom that may mean something). However, similar similes have been found as early as 1918, and it may just have been one of those maxims that were in the air. Now, it is not uncommon to hear talking or writing about various art forms to be compared to dancing or singing about math, football etc.
**The title of this post is from an Andrew Marvell poem, To His Coy Mistress.
Nantes, France is an old city that feels very modern, as I mentioned in a previous post. Partially it is simply a function of being very young, but the city also seems to make an effort in that direction. A good example is the castle in the city, The Castle of the Dukes of Brittany (Château des ducs de Bretagne), the center of power of Brittany when it was separate from the rest of France. Rather than making it a historically accurate castle, the city has decided to make it into a museum of the history of the area, exploring the long history with artifacts, multi-media presentations and art.
During the summer and the “Journey to Nantes”, the usual inhabitants of the algae-green moat (a lively crew of fish, turtles, ducks and pigeons) were joined by floating mannequin heads, which represented characters from a larger, apocalyptic story line running through many of the installations around the city.
The original ramparts afford great views of part of the city, including the remaining tower of the LU biscuit factory, visible through the window in the picture below. There were originally two matching towers, flanking the entrance to the factory, one was destroyed in bombardments during the war. The tower has been transformed from its original purpose, like much of the rest of the city, into more of a community space. The LU now stands for Lieu Unique, and it holds a museum, restaurant and cafe, book and gift shop and a hamam, or Turkish bath, in the basement.
You would have to be crazy to visit France and not eat a crêpe or seven. France does crêpes well and we, the people of the world, respond by eating those crêpes. Until this trip, I didn’t know that crêpes in France originated in Brittany, although it’s true that every culture with some kind of flour and a hot surface has some kind of similar idea. Up until about 100 years ago all crêpes were made with buckwheat (sarrasin, or blé noir) flour, making a dark brown (and gluten-free) pancake and savory crêpes are still usually made with this type of flour. These are more accurately called a galette, which confusingly is also the name given to various cookies and cakes, the only commonality being that anything called a galette seems to be round and edible. Common savory fillings for galettes are mushrooms, cheese, ham, bacon, fish or some combination thereof, sometimes with an egg fried right on top. Sweet crêpes, made with white wheat flour, are accompanied by maybe a dusting of sugar, (powdered or regular), and/or butter, fruit, nutella, melted chocolate. Nantes, being Breton culturally, has no shortage of places to enjoy a nice crêpe with a bowl (yes bowl) of cider or lait ribot, a thick buttermilk-style beverage. We visited one centrally located and recommended crêperie on our visit to Nantes, although there was no shortage of appropriate and busy places to go. When we visited it happened to be the owners birthday and the waitstaff wound their way through the outdoor seating area wearing hot pink wigs and bringing all guests a plate of delicious cake and a glass of champagne, a very nice and unexpected start to the meal.