Art et the Soul

When I bought a ticket to Paris, I had one, mildly complex goal in mind: To visit friends who had moved there temporarily, using the opportunity to spend my 40th birthday in Europe and get closer to my friends by sharing in some of their experiences there.

What I found when I got there was rather more. I had blithely hoped to experience some clichéd goals such as drinking coffee in a café in Paris; buying food at the market the same day I planned to eat it (complete with a baguette in a bag); and that’s basically it. Sightseeing wasn’t super high on my list, although when my hosts mentioned Stonehenge my eyeballs got huge and I signed up immediately. I hadn’t even thought of visiting museums, other than a vaguely planned trip to a jewellery exhibit (in hopes I could write some of it off, to be totally honest). It was enough to be in a land seeing buildings that were older than my whole country’s history.

These hosts of mine, SS&SC, whom I have lovingly mocked for their endless go-go-go attitude and lifestyle, took my humble “hey I should go visit” trip and turned it into some sort of transformational, beautiful experience that – speaking of clichés – I shall never forget. Despite my horrible memory, I know I won’t forget, because I took ten million photos (as evidenced in this post by SS) and also, I made a determined effort to journal specific things while I was there.

I would have been perfectly happy to blend seamlessly into their lives, watching from the sidelines; and instead they turned their lives inside out in order to show me as much as we could possibly stuff into two weeks.

I have many things I wish to talk about. I’ll try to take it slow and spread it out.

First, the art.

A few months back, SC was in a museum somewhere in Europe, texting me because something she was experiencing there had moved her to tears. I realized that music makes me feel that way, but art never has. Art makes me smile, and I love it – my eyes devour beautiful art, tracing the lines and colours and shapes, working out how it was made – but it doesn’t make me feel something. Music can pull my heart out of my chest, make me close my eyes and grasp at my soul; but art never has. This is surprising; my auditory processing is quite low, while my visuals are jacked up to a thousand – why would I not be more connected to what I see than to what I hear?

I discussed this a few times with others. It became a bit of an interesting question, if not exactly a quest: was there art that could move me?

Europe, I’m sure we all know, seemed up to the challenge. And yet when I visited the Museum D’Orsay in Paris, I was unmoved by Van Gogh, Degas, Renoir, even Monet. I could see their beauty, but nothing made me care.

Little Dancer of 14 Years, by Edgar Degas
Little Dancer of 14 Years, by Edgar Degas
Van Gogh
Van Gogh
Van Gogh
Van Gogh

Whistler’s Mother looked on my indifference with disdain.

The statues were a pleasant surprise to me – carvings in the architecture as well as marble and bronze on display in various museums – but while fascinated, I didn’t feel it.

I’ll spare you the suspense. I did find a few, fleeting moments where my soul and my eyes agreed on the importance of what they were looking at.

The first was at a surprise museum. SS and I were meandering around Paris searching for bead shops (more on that later) when we saw an interesting steampunk-looking exhibit poster series on a wrought iron fence, and next door was a lovely looking old church. We walked around to the front and realized that the church was the museum; it was Musée des Arts et Métiers, and we decided to go back and visit the exhibit, which was named Machines a dessiner – a sort of wordplay on machines for drawing and drawings of machines. It was a beautiful building even on the outside, and the statue of the dude holding some gears outside seemed promising.

Upon walking past the gift shop and entering the first nave of the (renovated) church, I stopped dead. The vaulted, gothic arches, the opulent carvings, and above all the light – made me suck air. I stood, transfixed, for I’m not sure how long, taking it in. I think I even backed up a step or two, knocked off balance by the magnificence of it.

This was the feeling I was looking for.

This is now my phone's lock screen.
This is now my phone’s lock screen.
And this is my phone's wallpaper.
This is my phone’s wallpaper.

And this was just the building.

After wandering the hall and gawking at the architecture and the super nifty steam engines and whatnot on display, we moved into the actual exhibition, to be greeted by a haunting display of what appeared to be a real, antique diving suit. It looks like steampunk! This should be right up my alley, I thought.

Moving through the dark space, the first thing to catch my eye was something that stopped my breath and, I’m sure, my heart. I know I put my hand to my chest. The use for this esoteric machine was immediately obvious to me, although I hadn’t seen anything like it before; I didn’t even know something like this existed. But the knowledge of its use exploded directly into my brain.

SS wasn’t sure what it was for, and explaining it doesn’t necessarily help. My art-date-friend Whitney knew what it was once I showed her the photo, and we geeked out over the perspective machine after I got home. But in that moment – I was overwhelmed by evidence of the handiwork and brilliance of artists who had gone before me. Around the corner were antique drawing tools such as beautiful old pens and nibs and colored pencil displays; the astrolabes and the artwork by the artists whose exhibit this was were also beautiful – but I kept coming back to this machine. The beauty, simplicity, and genius of it is still a little overwhelming, to be honest.

Later that night, Notre Dame failed to evoke any emotion except appreciation for its beauty. The architecture of the city, from the Palais at the Seine to the Arc de Triomphe to the wrought iron railings everywhere, kept my total interest, yet stayed separate from my soul.

Someone told me I had to take pictures of me at the places, not just the places. So. Here you go. Me about to attend at concert at Notre Dame de Paris.
Someone told me I had to take pictures of me at the places, not just the places. So. Here you go. Me about to attend at concert at Notre Dame de Paris.

Not until I entered the Palais des Beaux-Arts in Lille did I feel again; this time, evoked by a large painting whose light and movement took my breath away, yet again. I held a hand up to SC, who was chatting to me, as I tried to sort out what I was seeing and feeling.

"Nymph Abducted by a Faun", by Alexandre Cabanel
“Nymph Abducted by a Faun”, by Alexandre Cabanel

Walking slowly towards the gilded frame, I found more and more in the detail. The lines, the light – wait, does he have hooves? The blue sky and the sun were all perfectly captured. I stood taking it in for quite a while before moving into the statuary room.

The sunlight in this part of this museum might have been the star, lighting the pieces in a way artificial light never could.

Hermaphrodite, by Francois-Dominique-Aime Milhomme, 1808
Hermaphrodite, by Francois-Dominique-Aime Milhomme, 1808

However, other than the Cabanel, few other pieces caught my attention on the trip overall – Rubens comes to mind, and a handful of others. They seem to have lighting in common, now that I see them together. Oh, and naked ladies, always a thing of beauty to me.

Ixion, King of the Lapiths, Deceived by Juno - by Pierre-Paul Rubens
Ixion, King of the Lapiths, Deceived by Juno – by Pierre-Paul Rubens
Allegory on the state of France before the return of General Napoléon Bonaparte from Egypt, by Jean-Pierre Franque
Allegory on the state of France before the return of General Napoléon Bonaparte from Egypt, by Jean-Pierre Franque
The Truth, by Paul Rouffio
The Truth, by Paul Rouffio
La Belle Dame sans Merci, by Frank Dicksee
La Belle Dame sans Merci, by Frank Dicksee

And then, a revelation: In the Louvre-Lens, which my hosts’ guest tagalong/guide called “swimming through time”, were samples of ancient writing pushed into clay or carved out of stone. Stunned, I stared, and the cuneiform, hieroglyphics, kufic and greek made me as close to weeping as anything visual has ever done to me.

Pre-cuneiform writing tablet noting food rations: archives from the Temple of the Sky God (3300 BC, Mesopotamia)
Pre-cuneiform writing tablet noting food rations: archives from the Temple of the Sky God (3300 BC, Mesopotamia)
Cuneiform writing tablet. Poem in Babylonian: dialogue between a man and his god. (1800BC, Babylon)
Cuneiform writing tablet. Poem in Babylonian: dialogue between a man and his god. (1800BC, Babylon)
Tablet commemorating the foundation of a temple in the name of Gudea, prince of the state of Lagash (Mesopotamia, 2100 BC)
Tablet commemorating the foundation of a temple in the name of Gudea, prince of the state of Lagash (Mesopotamia, 2100 BC)
Letter in Greek from Persian king Darius I to a governor (satrap) of Asia Minor (492 BC, the Persian Empire)
Letter in Greek from Persian king Darius I to a governor (satrap) of Asia Minor (492 BC, the Persian Empire)
Fragment of a panel: property deed in Kufic script (Egypt, Middle Ages)
Fragment of a panel: property deed in Kufic script (Egypt, Middle Ages)

Ancient lettering; graphical language; the origins of our language in written form; marks on clay that are millenia old. Words that took hours to inscribe. The graphical nature of these pieces, the sheer, incomparable age of them, their visceral nature – it has all been trying to speak to me on a deep, deep level.

I’ve been struggling to understand the message and put it into words. How it felt being three inches from the surface of an item that had been carved into by human hands nearly six thousand years ago, carved with the intent to communicate using words and concepts. Six thousand years ago. The age of this ancient writing puts it so far away from me it may as well be in another solar system; and yet I was right there, looking at it.

I can’t capture it. But I realized that I wanted to continue exploring it. And so, I will, in any way I can.

In retrospect, I’m not sure why it was a surprise that the thing that moves me is ancient words caught in stone and clay. Words have always been “my thing”, despite not being a great writer. My degree in English, lowly as it is, came about due to my love of reading. I’m never without a book to hand, and some of my favourite people became that way because of their cleverness at being wordsmiths. You might have noticed a mild obsession with calligraphy and pens if you’ve known me any length of time. Tracing down or understanding the origin of a specific word has always been fun, and fascinating. Finding connections between words that seem dissimilar but suddenly make sense when you find out the ancient Latin word they both came from is a delight. But suddenly, I was faced with the origin of writing itself, and I found it difficult to breathe. It evoked a feeling similar to the one I felt while watching Neil deGrasse Tyson’s Cosmos – one of utter smallness and complete awe.

In hindsight, of course the museum of art and design intrigued me. Of course ancient writing filled my soul. Of course I, the artist who works in clay and stones and wire, was more interested in statuary than oil on canvas.

And of course – now I can’t stop looking for ways to incorporate this new knowledge of myself and the world around me into my own artwork.

I’ll keep you in the loop as I figure it out.

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