I went to the Musee d’Orsay’s 30th Anniversary Exhibit at the National Palace Museum psyched up like a rugby player ready to give as good as she gets, but it wasn’t that bad.
As expected, people still walked right in front of me as I was looking at a picture unless I was standing right up against the low cord that kept the crowd a few feet away. And even with that cord across my shins, a few old people tried to scootch in front of me like no big deal, but I held my ground.
One dude straight up smelled like bad breath all over, but I didn’t budge cause you cannot come up on my right and try to get closer to a picture on my left just by smelling bad. I held my breathe and stood there staring at a Degas painting and wishing I could focus on it instead of how much I wished that old man would trip over the wire and end up going viral on YouTube.
But I got there early enough that the crowd wasn’t hateful, and then I went through the exhibition backwards so I managed to see about half the pictures without being annoyed at all. However, I was uncomfortable by the second little room, watching a dad explain the nudes to his little daughter. It wasn’t like the dad was being inappropriate, it was just that there was this little girl who came to this special museum for a special day with her dad, and here she is having to look at these very important paintings of lovely, young, naked women. And there was some text on the wall which didn’t say much, some generic words about Impressionism. It compared Vallotton’s Women at Their Toilet hanging right there on the wall to Degas’ nudes because of the “naturalistic style of women painting” and I was reading that and hearing this dad talk to his daughter and I was wondering if he knew to tell her Degas was a misogynist and a voyeur; that it was fucked up that Vallotton painted these young women naked and faceless; or that just in general it’s super fucked up that the canon is populated with hordes of naked young women and we all have to pretend it’s respectable and not at all pervy that male artists and art collectors want to deck the halls with female bodies.
I wanted him to tell her that just because these paintings and artists were famous, they could be flawed and ought to be questioned, and it’s not immaterial that most nudes are women, and young, and pale and smooth and demure and feeble and soft.
Concerns about male hegemony aside, I am so grateful I got to see that exhibit. Every couple of paintings, I felt spiritually transported, no shit. I could imagine Monet standing in the grass in slacks and suspenders with his shirt loose and a little sweaty, I could see the light sparkling off the ripples of the water that he was trying to capture on his canvas, and knowing that this was a thing that happened in a time I can never travel to was so depressing and so elating. Those paintings, any paintings, any art, are an inimitable product of the era in which they were created. They’re like time capsules. And if you know a little about how Monet and Sisley and Renoir and Corot and Courbet et al were buds, and how most of them were stuck in Paris eating rats and praying for cigarettes during the Siege of Paris, and you read about their wives and mistresses and kids, then you can totally fangirl when you see their signatures at the bottom of their paintings. “omg renoir totally signed this pic of this naked chick 😍😍😍😍”
I get downright melancholy when I read about like the Belle Epoque or the Lost Generation in Paris because you can book a flight to Hoi An or Chiang Mai or make vague plans to finally go to Cairns to see Cole for the first time since she moved there in 2006, but I’ll never be able to smell the breeze coming off the Seine as it smelled to Manet or Hemingway because that whole world is gone now and 🗝️🗝️YOU CAN’T STEP IN THE SAME RIVER TWICE!! 👟👟👟 And yeah that’s a kind of indulgent, luxurious melancholy that can be completely cured by finding out there’s a new pizza place in town. And also I think the Seine super stank in Manet’s time. But anyway these paintings still exist and it’s like a totally not-scary hand reaching out from the past to connect with your own and that’s beautiful.
Look at her arms! She is gorgeous and strong and young and vital. I love her. This painting was huge, like five or six feet tall.
This is what it’s like when you came home drunk and passed out and the alarm went off and you can’t remember if you have to work today or not.
This was the one that might stick with me the longest in memory. I loved the women’s faces, their bare feet, and the folds on their garments. I could sense the relief that comes coordinated with the sun’s setting and that glance of the moon at the end of the work day. And there’s more to this story, because you see these younger woman and even children, working alongside the older women and you know how their lives are going to go. And I love that your eyes return the woman in the front, in the white, and her face is like “yeah this is what i do for a living but this isn’t who i am.”
And this one. I just had feelings about this one. Like this chick is being assaulted by naked children who look like they are about 9 years old, which is the age of my students and if they ever came at me like this I would be working at Starbucks. And yet she’s just looking like she’s not sure if she turned the stove off; she probably did, but if she didn’t, like literally her house could catch fire, but can she just leave work to go check on her stove? And I love the description of this painting/artist on the Musee d’Orsay website cause they say, “This romantically inspired theme resulted in many paintings with similar compositions, proof of Bouguereau’s keen awareness of market forces,” which I am pretty sure just means he was doing it for the money, but I guess if I could pay my bills with pictures of naked angel-kids for your living room, I just might.