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Packing in Paris: a six-day jam and scram


Paris is a city of museums. In fact, the city itself can be seen as a massive open-air museum where art and history are on display everywhere. Take the Eiffel Tower or the Arch of Triumph for examples. They serve no functional purpose (except for drawing tourists, of course) and exist as monuments, one to the history of French victories in battle, the other as a monumental curiosity. The Eiffel Tower was designed and constructed for the World Exposition of 1889, much to the dismay of many Parisians who saw this tribute to the industrial age as an atrociously ugly harbinger of the decline of French culture and, yes, civilization as we know it. It was meant to be torn down after the exposition along with the other exhibitions, but there was enough popular sentiment that saw the tower as a testament to the glory of France, a work of art rather than an atrocity, and as a wonderful place to visit (not to mention as a revenue generator) that 123 years later it is the unquestioned symbol of Paris – and France.

Pic: Moyan_Brenn/Flickr

But it’s the museums of Paris themselves that are my subject, all 83 – or 153 – or 204 of them . It seems that no one knows for sure how many museums there are in Paris or even the precise definition of a museum. Be that as it may, places such as the Louvre and Musee D’Orsay are unquestionably museums. The city of Paris has a special offer – a museum pass – that for a set fee allows the holder to enter 70 public museums at no charge for 2, 4 or six days (the fees are on a sliding scale) as many times as the holder wishes. The cherry on the top is that the holder of the museum pass doesn’t have to wait on the sometimes hour-long lines to enter. What a deal! Who could pass it up? We didn’t.

When you have a six-day pass that allows you to visit as many as 70 museums, what do you do? You naturally try to max out on your investment, cramming in as many museums as possible into those measly six days. If we were fifty years younger and even more philistine than we are, we probably would have careered from one to another checking off a scorecard as we careered, ticking the acknowledged masterpieces off so as to certify our cultural sophistication by the number of works that got a cursory glance as we would race breathlessly through the tourist-clotted galleries with a mindset that proclaimed, “If it’s 2:30 Tuesday this must be Leonardo’s Venus de Mona Lisa.”

But we’re aged folks (aged like fine wine or really smelly cheese), reasonably well educated and “cultured” (like good French yogurt). Besides, we’ve been here many times before so there was no need to do the museum jam and scram. However, as that supremely shrewd businessman and sometime artist Pablo Picasso knew, you take advantage of a good deal when you can. Picasso, worth probably a billion (in 2012 euros) when he died in 1972, was also a world class schnorer. Word on the street has it that he paid all his bills with checks, fully aware that a check with Picasso’s signature would never be cashed. So, despite our age and experience, we tried to hit as many museums as we could before collapsing from exhaustion or going blind from being visually dazzled by so many great works of art.

Pic: Moyan_Brenn/Flickr

I won’t bore you with details of all the museums we visited, but after the concentrated museum hopping experience, I do have some reflections I’d like to share:

In a crowded museum like the Louvre or Orsay, where you’d like your mind enlightened and your soul uplifted by the great works lovingly displayed, you instead get your body thumped, your ribs elbowed and your toes stepped on by the throngs moving through. Stopping in front of a popular painting to contemplate its artistry and study its detail is an act of foolhardy bravado or unconscious masochism. The moving tide permits no stationary flotsam in its surge to and fro, be it a Japanese group dutifully following a guide with furled yellow umbrella held on high or a gaggle of jabbering American teenagers on a Parisian spring break, rarely looking at anything but their smart phones and each other, trailing a beleaguered teacher who volunteered for a wonderful free week in Paris chaperoning thirty hormonally challenged high school sophomores, and there, the art of the great European masters peering down at her, wishes she hadn’t. So it’s move along or risk getting trampled. Rembrandt, Rubens, Titian, Van Gogh, Renoir, Picasso, et al, what have you wrought?

At the wonderful Rodin Museum, not exactly hidden but not as well-known as some others, many of the sculptures are situated in the beautiful, expansive garden, so it is never crowded and there are time and space to contemplate, appreciate and photograph to your heart’s content without the threat of being overrun by barbaric hordes. Many of Rodin’s sculptures are of male nudes. In the Rodin museum these nudes are truly nude, genitalia exposed as nature intended. One mile up the Seine at the Orsay, a couple of these same male nudes (bronze cast so that the ones at Rodin and Orsay are identical) have had figgy foliage affixed to shield their private parts from view as neither nature nor Rodin intended. Can’t give the French a lot of credit for consistency. Maybe at the much more crowded Orsay, museum officials wanted to give the sculptures a little protection from the flying elbows of the jostling crowds. Just a thought.

Show Me the Monet

Pic: StephenCarlile/Flicr

In Paris Monet’s ubiquity (no, that’s not the name of one of his paintings) is everywhere. You can barely turn around without getting an eyeful of a water lily or the façade of the Rouen Cathedral. Art museum after art museum feature the Grand Daddy of Impressionism. Claude Monet did, after all, lived to be 86 and painted nearly until they carted him away. Though no one knows for sure, it is believed that there are over 2100 Monet paintings extant, and it is also believed that he destroyed about 400 paintings (presumably his own) while he lived. While robustly prolific, Monet cannot compete with the aforementioned Picasso, who lived until he was 93 and seemed to produce a new work every few minutes.- reputedly over 18,000 of them, and he even had time to be a nasty son-of-a-bitch to boot. Van Gogh, too, was a painting machine – 900 in his 37 years until his life was cut short, not by suicide says a new theory, but by a teen aged boy in a tragic accident. Imagine how many more he would have painted had he lived just twenty more years.

But it’s Monet we’re concerned with here. Two years ago I visited Giverny, a small town not far from Paris, Monet’s home for 43 years, where he built a pond and a Japanese bridge to span it and planted heaps of water lilies there – all of which he immortalized through his incessant painting of them until he died. Oddly, there are no Monet paintings at Giverny, but the gift shop abounds with Monet stuff. In addition to prints and books there is Monet schlock: scarves, umbrellas, ties, t-shirts, cigarette lighters, trivets, placemats, earrings, and hidden in an obscure corner, diapers adorned with lilies waiting to be watered.

Paris adores Monet. No self-respecting, period-appropriate museum would be without its share of his art. The Marmottan-Monet Museum, which practically no one has heard of, obviously features Monet’s work, including his painting “Impression, Sunrise” which gave the Impressionist movement its name. The Orangerie, a beautiful little museum in the Tuileries Garden devoted primarily to Impressionists has two immense rooms with four thirty-foot long murals of Monet’s water lilies. Musee D’Orsay? Don’t ask. The joint jumps with Monets. We went into a Starbucks here in Paris. It had a Monet! We don’t think it was an original, though. An iced mocha frappuccino on a lily pad?? Don’t think so.

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