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The Paris chapter

Canvassing the city of light


There are two ways of looking at Paris. One definition of this delightfully alive, terrifyingly melancholic city comes from W Somerset Maugham's Of Human Bondage, in which the protagonist's vicar uncle, condemned to a life of rigid orthodoxy, questions his nephew's decision to pursue art. He slams Paris as "a sink of iniquity". Another vicar, Vincent van Gogh's father, expressed his resentment at his painter son's choice to live and work in Paris. He disapproved of van Gogh's love for French literature, calling it "depraved". 

Then, there is the Paris of Ernest Hemingway, as imagined with nostalgic affection by Woody Allen in Midnight in Paris. I always think Hemingway penned this for me (in A Moveable Feast): "If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life, it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast. "

For the week that I am in Paris, I feel young, lucky, as if I have lived life in its entirety. Paris makes you feel good about yourself. And its ranging artistic legacies are munificent in the way they reach out and touch people's everyday lives. Clearly, that this is a city that hero-worships its artists. A painter can take up residency for life here, shut himself up in his atelier and when he steps down after years of slaving at his art, the sun would shine on him anew. Paris recognises talent, as much as it scares away the philistine.

My Paris chapter begins on a windy morning at the Champs-lysêes, that old, bourgeois boulevard that both, exhales warmth and evokes a sense of seclusion, made palpable by the password-protected homes in and around this landmark arrondissement. The temperature had dipped overnight and it looks like rain's coming. It never does, and the day offers itself up for the uninterrupted pursuit of art in Haussmann's ordered mega-polis.

Legging it around the louvre

After buying a six-day pass, I am inside Musêe du Louvre, Paris' brightest jewel. Its mammoth size makes it impossible to view each and every one of the 35, 000-and-some paintings here. Appreciative of the fact, some browsers appear to be in no hurry;they amble along the three museum wings as though taking a constitutional. The Louvre receives both, the casual admirer and the ardent devotee - the latter can be spied lingering at individual works, jotting notes and waiting patiently for the energy of the piece to wash over them.

The Louvre is neatly compartmentalised, and if you go with the intention of viewing only specific works of art, the trek can actually be easy on the feet. I've always had a soft spot for the German painter Albrecht Durer ever since I discovered a reference to him in Irving Stone's Dear Theo, a compelling self-portrait of van Gogh compiled through the numerous letters addressed to his brother, Theo. When van Gogh was in Borinage, Belgium, the scenery reminded him of the "old gnarled trees with their fantastical roots" from Drer's Knight, Death and the Devil. Of course, this particular engraving is in New York. What I found at the Louvre, instead, was a Durer self-portrait, painted when he was 22, clutching at thistle. He looks straight at the spectator, unflinchingly and the combination of the self as a subject matter and its beautifully compact composition make this painting movingly direct in its appeal.

My next stop is at a majestic portrait by Raphael, one third of the holy trinity of Italian Renaissance famously led by Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo. There were many Raphaels I would encounter later (Self-portrait with a friend and La Belle Jardiniere ). Paintings by Caravaggio, Titian, Tintoretto, Ingres, Vermeer and Botticelli cause goose-bumps. Could this indeed be the acme of human achievement?

Eugene Delacroix's vast Liberty Leading the People looks more imposing than it does in pictures. A young woman carrying a flag is the central figure of Delacroix's canvas and he uses her as a metaphor for liberty. There is, in this painting, an abandonment of classical realism. It is a historical document, sure, but also a personal commentary. People sometimes view art without realising that it depicts reality, and often critiques it.

In the same gallery as Delacroix's Liberty, is another masterpiece - the Mona Lisa. It's a shocker to see how incredibly small La Gioconda is. The da Vinci masterpiece is secured behind bulletproof glass and a roped cordon, and to make a good, long study of her (from a small distance), you may have to visit the Louvre again and again, for the crowd thronging this exhibit won't let you stay put long. It was on my third visit, fatigued by long hours of perambulation, that I realised this was beginning to turn into an exercise in nothingness. So I exited into the garden, where I gazed at the external facade of the former palace that now houses the museum. It is a piece of art by itself, frequently overlooked in favour of its artistic contents. Overhead, the azure sky, as if painted by a Renaissance master in a fury of unusual creativity, stretched clear and infinite.

Salon des refuses

For the rejection and opprobrium they received in their time, and having had their works consistently voted out of the feted Salon (an annual affair of the Academie des Beaux-Arts ), the Impressionists would have been vindicated to see their works instated at the glorious Seine-facing Musêe d'Orsay (a former railway station). Thrilled at the prospect of finally encountering some of my favourite artists, I am like a child in a candy shop, spoilt for choice.
Even though I want to absorb the collective works of d'Orsay, I know my decision to screen out, rather than vote in, will be an important one. So I bypass the decorative arts of the Art Nouveau stage, the experimental photographs of the mid-19 th century, designs for The Architecture of Strangeness - and head straight for van Gogh.

They have a world of and life of their own. All of them - the starry night over the Rhone, the portraits, the bedroom scene, the church - move me deeply. It feels as though the paintings have been waiting for me, to add my story to their infinite narrative.

Watching one of van Gogh's peasant paintings reminds me of what he had said about his concern for the marginalised, "The figure of a labourer - some furrows in a ploughed field and a bit of sand, sea and sky - are serious subjects, so difficult but at the same time so beautiful that it is worthwhile to devote one's life to the task of expressing the poetry hidden in them. "

Claude Monet's Blue Water Lilies breathes in front me. The image, combined with a visit to Giverny, a few hours from Paris where the great painter built a countryside home with a Japanese-styled garden that shaped his autumnal output, rendered the lilies more poetical, more freely abstract. Then, to encounter the savage, primitive beauty of Paul Gauguin's works, dominated by Tahitian women and the paradisiacal civilisation that led this former stockbroker to retreat to faraway French Polynesia. Lautrec, Sisley, Renoir, Bazille, Seurat - what a sheer treat d'Orsay is.

Edouard Manet's Olympia has intrigued me for years and I now stand opposite this oil on canvas for a closer look. As often happened with Manet's works, this nude, too, provoked a scandal in his day;viewers were incensed that the work, (a reworking of Titian's Venus of Urbino), pictured a naked prostitute in bed attended by a maid. They believed Manet was parodying a classical work in the crudest form. Although it no longer offends us morally, or formally, Olympia conveys to us that one of the purposes of art is to push boundaries;it then reminds us that those boundaries change with time.

Moving on, I take in Paul Cêzanne's Bathers and The Card Players. Not many go to d'Orsay looking for Cêzanne but when you come out, it is often Cêzanne's works that haunt you. Portrait of the Artist's Mother, the most recognised American painting, by James Whistler, is a sobering presence after the flurry of the French (and Dutch)men. This is the same work that Mr Bean parodied in a wacky subplot in the 1997 film.

Tyranny of time and other tricks  

Next day, I combine my visit to Montmartre with a quick round of Espace Dali, which has the largest collection of the Spanish surrealist Salvador Dali in France. This is not the best of Dali, my friend had alerted me. There are sculptures, photographs and etchings, but they offer only a tangential peek into Dali's vast repertoire;the largest collection of his works lies in Catalonia.

Think, exist 

Past the never-ending queue, Musêe Rodin, along rue de Varenne, opens up into a garden and is a curatorial achievement. It houses the sculptures of Auguste Rodin, an artist the French are infinitely proud of. Rodin served as an early inspiration to M F Husain, who discovered his "first original Rodin while strolling past Montparnasse arrondissement in 1953".

This building used to be a hotel, and then Rodin's home. Some of his most magnificent sculptures are laid out in the garden itself, considerately arranged. I stare at The Kiss for a long time and reproduce it in watercolour, sometime later when I return to my hotel. The Thinker, Rodin's most famous image, draws the biggest crowd, while Balzac, the carving of France's boss writer Honorê de Balzac, stands largely undisturbed. Rodin's figures aren't based on any inherent ideas and owe more to form than anything else. "One must never try to express an idea by form. Make your form, make something and the idea will come, " Rodin once remarked.

La fin 

This is my last night in Paris. I walk over to one of the street cafes and contemplate if I have seen everything I had set out to see. A Parisienne in her 50s occupies the next table. If I had a hat, I would have doffed it to acknowledge her smile. "Bonjour, " she says, uninhibitedly. I respond with courtesy. After a spell of silences, I mumble in broken French, "Parlez-vous anglais? (Do you speak English?) ". "Parlez-vous francais ? (Do you speak French?), " she queries. We don't speak for a while. Then, I get up to leave. "Au revoir, " she smiles.

As I start up for my hotel, Paris begins to fall into its accustomed night-time melancholy. It's then that I realise we often fail to appreciate a painting because we always look for a conversation of some kind, missing its radiant, golden silence.
It is when silent that a painting is at its expressive best, revealing the mysteries that remained previously hidden, and as I stand at the metro station, waiting for the Saint-Philippe du Roule-bound metro, I felt like a brushstroke;a sweeping, spontaneous Impressionistic brushstroke in a larger canvas that's Paris.

Reader's opinion (1)

Kanan DaveOct 23rd, 2012 at 04:59 AM

Paris is homeland to art. Art from any corner of the world can visit, settle and leave traces in Paris for the world to see it.My experience says, the city and the people will show and teach you appreciation for art. For it is essential to enjoy every silent breeze in Paris.

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