2015 Grateful 38

You look at me and what do you first notice? My size? My shape? The colour of my eyes? My glasses? My hair? My attitude? The size of my ears? How I’m dressed? What you see is pretty much the finished product. Yes, superficially I might decide to go blonde again, or pile back on the pounds, but the essence of me will still be recognisable.

Think of what a sculptor sees when he looks at a block of granite or marble.  To the untrained eye, it’s a block of stone. To them, though, it has form, shape, and essence, all of which they need to bring to the surface so that other, less-trained eyes, can see them too.

In hindsight, my rather tame reaction to seeing one of the world’s most acclaimed masterpieces might well have stemmed from the fact that I’d spent the previous few hours touring the Musée Rodin on the other side of the Seine. I’ve always been a great fan of his, and number The Kiss as one of my all-time favourite statues. One day, when I have money, I’ll have a copy in my living room that I can enjoy every day. Right now, I’m settling for a framed poster from the gift shop.

IMG_6709 (600x800)Rodin himself wasn’t all that impressed by it, calling it a ‘huge knick-knack’, but there we differ. I was taken with it the first time I saw a copy and could look at it for hours.

The Kiss originally represented Paolo and Francesca, two characters borrowed, once again, from Dante’s Divine Comedy: slain by Francesca’s husband who surprised them as they exchanged their first kiss, the two lovers were condemned to wander eternally through Hell.

The museum was undergoing renovations so I’m hoping that’s why it was stuck in a corner that didn’t do it justice. I’d hate to think that everyone else sees it as a knick-knack, too.

IMG_6674 (600x800)Out in the grounds of the Musée Rodin, along with a series of other individual pieces, many of which end up on the famous Gates of Hell, is the even more famous of Rodin’s creations –  The Thinker. He originally had the poet Dante in mind, but the statue apparently evolved to represent all poets and creators. Just the male ones, obviously. It’s a curious piece to see up close and in person. I’d never realised that the muscle detail was so obvious and in a certain light, it didn’t take much imagination to fancy he was real.

IMG_6684 (800x600)IMG_6687 (800x600)The detail in each bronze sculpture was extraordinary. The day was wet and overcast. It was raining. The ground was muddy and the visitors few in number. Perhaps that added to the eeriness of the place, a setting that would, I’m sure, be so much different on a bright, warm, summer’s day. But this seemed more appropriate somehow.

IMG_6689 (593x800) IMG_6691Each statute took us one step closer to seeing the Gates of Hell, the ultimate collection of over 200 pieces that Rodin created separately, a collection which was not cast in bronze until after his death. He never saw for himself what IMG_6694 (800x600)so many enjoy today.  It’s stunningly grotesque. There is a tangible pressure from those who simply come to take its photo to cut your scrutiny short – to get out of the way. Best ignore it. Take time to digest, to explore, to see, and despite the damp cold, to feel the heat from the flames of hell.

Rodin began drawing at the tender age of 10. And although he had talent,  the École des Beaux-Arts, a prestigious Parisian art school, refused him admission three times. He spent a couple of decades as a decorative brick-layer, and it wasn’t until he was in his forties that he started his artistic work.There’s hope for me yet.

IMG_6678 (600x800)He considered his best piece to be a statue of Honoré de Balzac, which he described as ‘the result of a lifetime, the very pivot of [his] aesthetic’. He eschewed the idea of a poet/writer in contemporary dress, quill poised over paper, and took the more ballsy approach of cloaking Balzac and his belly in the dressing gown he usually wore while writing. A minor uproar ensued when the piece was unveiled in 1898 at the Salon. It was rejected by the commissioning body who said that it ‘regrets to have the duty to protest against the rough model exhibited at the Salon by M. Rodin, which it refuses to recognize as the statue of Balzac.’ Admittedly, it didn’t do a whole helluva lot for me either, but then again, me and Balzac aren’t on a nodding acquaintance.

Still though, I have to admire Rodin’s courage to challenge society and convention, to stay true to his convictions, and to stand by the product of his beliefs. In a week that has been thought-provoking and somewhat life-altering, I’m grateful to have Auguste Rodin as an inspiration – late bloomers are beacons of hope on what at times might seem a pretty flat horizon. And his work is a strong reminder that inside the ordinary lies something special.

If you’re in Paris, Musée Rodin is worth a visit.



Getting an education

We’re half-way through January and my resolve to do more than simply work, eat, and sleep, is holding. I’m saying yes to things I would usually say no to and am working on saying no to things I usually say yes to. And it is work. Especially the latter.

I know very little, if anything, about art,  other than what I like and what I don’t like. I’ve never taken the time to learn. Visiting art galleries is something I might do if in a strange city and it’s lashing rain. It’s not that I don’t have an appreciation; more that it simply never crosses my mind. What I needed (although I didn’t know it) was a foundation. I needed to learn the basics and from there I could navigate the artistic waters on my own as and when the humour struck me.

The lovely GK was doing her last trainee docent tour at the Museum of Fine Arts (Szépmûvészeti Múzeum) (it closes its doors in February as part of a three-year regeneration project in Hősök tere), and she invited me to tag along. Her animated presentation made my education all the more pleasant. And her notable lack of pretentiousness (an unlikeable trait that, for whatever reason, I mentally associate with art aficionados) was just what I needed.

The Museum of Fine Arts was commissioned in the late 1896, when the M2 metro line was laid under Andrássy út (the first metro line on continental Europe). It was a time when the city boasted over 600 cafés, meeting places for people to chat about art and politics and whatever else took their fancy. It houses a collection of work by international artists, including 400+ sculptures, among which is a cast of an old favourite of mine – Auguste Rodin’s The Kiss.

But there is so much to learn. While I was familiar with the concept of periods in art (Renaissance, Renaissance to Neoclassicism, Romanticism, Romanticism to Modern Art, Modern Art, Contemporary Art) – even if I couldn’t have named them all in order, I hadn’t realised that the Baroque period fell under Renaissance to Neoclassicism, and impressionism under Modern Art. And I didn’t know that you can identify the Baroque style by the characters that appear to be jumping out of the painting, as they capture the exact moment when something happens.

artI’d never heard of the hierarchy of the genres (a list of which paintings are more ‘important’ than others). History tops the list – large paintings with multiple characters in the act of doing something – a prelude to the freeze-frame. This is followed by Portraiture – a painting of someone who is recognisable. There’s one painting in the Museum by an unknown artist – that of the Sleeping Girl. I’d have put money on it that it was a portrait but because no one knows who she was, it’s classified as a genre painting, the next step on the hierarchy – that of paintings of everyday life. These are followed in quick succession by landscapes, painting of animals, and still life.

Apparently these are ranked from top to bottom in order of their artistic merit – the level of skill noted by the Academy as needed to produce any or all of. They also correspond in size, with history paintings including those massive biblical scenes hung in churches around the world, down to the typically much small still lifes.

art2Of course, if you know the backstory to a painting, it enriches it even more. Ghezzi’s Pygmalion tells of the artist’s distaste for women and his subsequent falling in love with this statue he was sculpting. He asked the gods to send him a woman just like her and they brought the statue to life (a process that can be seen if you look closely at the picture – amazing). This is what makes art interesting.

art3And, of course, the lives of the artists add a certain flavour to their work as well. Paul Gauguin, a stockbroker-turned artist, left his wife and five kids because they were limiting his artistic ability (ahem) and eventually died destitute only becoming famous after his death. Karma? Perhaps. And I can’t say that I particularly cared for his Black Pigs, even before I could spot the mix of impressionism and solid colours.

And lest you think that photoshopping is a new concept, Tiziano was at it back in the sixteenth century when he painted a portrait of Marcantonio Trevisani.  After he painted the facial features, he covered it with a wash of sorts to give it a softer, younger look. You’d never think the Venetian was in his seventies.

But of everything I learned, what fascinated me the most was the move from egg tempera to oils and the level of detail the new medium allowed. Bellini’s portrait of Catarina Cornaro has some exquisite examples. It gave me reason to stop and look rather than walk by and glance. And it explains why people can spend hours in galleries and not tire of seeing. Unlike me, they know what to look for.

But now, with a little basic education, I might venture forth on my own and see what I can discover. GK – ta much.