"to see something in reality that had long been an image in an old dictionary..."

in his wonderful and indispensible book species of spaces and other pieces, georges perec writes of "seeing what you have always dreamed of seeing." to see this self-portrait of van gogh in the musée d'orsay was to have it cause me a thrill of recognition and a simultaneous sense of awe at what a different painting it was in real life. it is a painting that puts a spell on you, that makes it difficult for you to tear your eyes away to look at anything else in the room. it literally throbs with energy, daring you to get closer to it, to look more deeply into it. reproduced on a flat page in a book, and even in a photo, its intimate texture is lost, its immediacy and soul are diluted. as i had only experienced van gogh in this secondhand way before, i was never really aware of him the way i became so while i stood in front of this painting. seeing the deep and forceful impressions of his brushstrokes gave me an inkling of his intense nature. though his intense nature is not a secret to anyone who knows the famous stories of his life, i still felt, examining his painting, that he was letting me in on something secret.

seeing the mona lisa, on the other hand, was wildly disappointing, though maybe if i had gotten as close to her as i did to van gogh's painting, i might have a different story. fat chance. the mona lisa, comparable in size to the van gogh painting, is given a wall all her own in the louvre. now, the mona lisa is over-inflated in all of our minds, and we are bound anyway to be surprised that she is not bigger when we finally see her. my surprise at this was elevated immediately to disappointment when i saw her dwarfed by such an immense white wall, and practically obscured from view at all by a thick wall of glass. i wonder, was it bulletproof? no one there seemed to mind; there had to be at least fifty people standing before her, jostling each other and craning their heads. two guards also flanked the painting, making sure people didn't get too close. but i could see right off that too close was not even close to close enough, and i only got close enough to glance at her from about the middle of the room. i didn't even care. the whole thing left me feeling irritated. i should have taken a picture of the spectacle, but i didn't. the only picture i got of the mona lisa while i was in paris was at the erotic art museum in montmartre, but it came out blurry.

"or else rather," writes perec, "to discover what you've never seen, what you didn't expect, what you didn't imagine... not what, over time, has come to be listed among the various wonders and surprises of the world; neither the grandiose nor the impressive; nor even the foreign necessarily. but rather the reverse, the familiar rediscovered, a fraternal space..."

georges, je t'adore.

in the spirit of the fraternal, i leave you with this photo and quote from shakespeare and co.:


SpiffyTurtle said...

oh oh oh yum yum yum.

i was 20, hitchhiking across western europe and hanging out for a while with a spaniard who invited me to paris. we visited the louvre and jeu de pomme, centre george pompidou, all that.

i remember the moment i laid eyes on a van gogh. my eyes brimmed with tears. i was standing, staring, sinking into the life of the man whose work had captivated me for so long.

right then two americans passed by. she screeched at him in a high nasal voice, "IS IT TRUE HE WAS CRAZY, LEONARD? THEY SAY HE WAS CRAZY."

i've never felt so violated and homicidal toward a mere passerby.

thank you for a gorgeous blog.

Julie R said...

kiki, thank your for your thoughtful response, and story of your first van gogh moment. i love the bit about the oblivious americans. luckily we are not all so oblivious...