Sunshine Abroad

The trials and rewards of French translation and beyond

Why Art Museums Exist

Yes, other artists in varying stages of budding can sketch there. All the more power to them.

But art museums really exist because the visceral power of art cannot be fully transmitted through photographs and copies of the original. There's a whole other argument about why such power is important to our lives, but I'll leave that for another time.

Suffice to say, I went to the Musée d'Orsay over the weekend, simply because I was in Paris. It's my favorite museum in the world, so I go when I can. They had a new temporary exhibit on the fifth floor: the private collection of Marlene and Spencer Hays, American art collectors with a love for 19th- and early 20th-century French paintings. Most of them are back on their home soil for the first time since being sold at auction. It was a glorious discovery of new-to-me (and new-to-the-public) works, by both known and relatively unknown artists. Matisse and Caillebotte rub shoulders with Fernand Pelez, Jean-Louis Forain, and other people I'd never heard of before.

One painting that especially caught my eye was Odilon Redon's "Vase de fleurs et profil." Or it might be more accurate to say that the rich and brilliant colors drew my gaze like a tractor beam, holding it there for many minutes. The backdrop was a wash of sunshine, light as particle and wave and paint all at once. I've been in love with Monet's waterlily paintings for a while, because of the thickly-painted brushstrokes, but this was on a whole other level.

Then, there was the vase itself. It wasn't so much a vase in the normal sense as a sphere-shaped cradle of flowers itself, springing more delicious flowers out from its womb. It's a big jumbled pile of flowers that, instead of giving a feeling of confusion, feels like the lushest nature bursting free of its silly little mosaic-tiled container.

And then, finally, the aforementioned "profil," the hint of a woman off to the right. But not a ghostly hint, a memory, like so many other lightly-sketched faces in paintings. She was a light whisper of a woman, a glowing entity in herself, like a muse or a tree-spirit. Dryad? Naiad? I can never remember.

At any rate, a new rule was instated at Orsay, about two years ago, that forbids any photographing of anything. Period. Let's gloss over for a moment why I'm so irked by that, and instead just note that I respected this rule. I did not take a picture of Redon's painting, no matter how much I had fallen in love with it. It also wasn't one of the main works in the exhibit, so there wasn't a postcard that I could buy to remind myself of its glory.

And thus, when I got home, I rushed online to find an image of the painting that had captured my attention and praise. I found this:

(image found here)

(image found here)

This is nothing. This is a shadow. A dull, two-dimensional shadow of the actual painting. This inspires nothing in me. It's pretty. It's nice. That's all that can be said. I wouldn't give something like this a second thought. Oh look, what a cute butterfly, maybe. That's it.

Of course, this is not to say that any picture I could have taken with a camera would have done the work justice, either. But that's exactly my point. Such a visceral, immediate reaction can only come when faced with the work itself, in person. And for most people, for everyone in the world who can't afford that kind of prized art, museums are the one chance they have to experience such awe and wonder, such a coup de foudre, falling in crazy love at first sight.

My dear Musée d'Orsay, I do begrudge you your recent decision to forbid any photographs of the works within your walls. But thank you all the same for existing, for giving the works an opportunity to sear their images into our brains and memories. Images cannot do them justice, anyway.