Friday, September 1, 2017

Paris museums - but you do go

In the museums you will find acres of the most strange and fascinating things; but all museums are fascinating, and they do so tire your eyes, and break your back, and burn out your vitalities with their consuming interest.  You always say you will never go again, but you do go.  (Mark Twain, Following the Equator, 1897, Ch. 16)

I went to a museum or museum-like location almost every day that I was in Paris, sometimes, even, if they were small enough and I was fool enough, two a day.  I have now been to a small fraction of the museums of Paris.

The Museum of Art and Design had the first airplane to cross the English Channel (the top one pictured, I think), and a steam-powered bus that was the first motorized vehicle allowed to drive in Paris, and a diving suit that never worked but looks cool, and, what else, Lavoisier’s test tubes, and a display of the evolution of the eggbeater, not prominently featured, but they had it.

This is basically the French patent museum, full of prototypes, dead ends, and revolutions  Amply strange and fascinating.

On the same day, I went to the Museum of the National Archives, both museums reminding me that I am in a capital city, where amidst facsimiles of Napoleon’s will, the Edict of Nantes, and the letter authorizing the Albigensian Crusade, there was this:

It’s the Infernal Machine – each pipe is a firearm – that nearly assassinated King Louis-Philippe in 1835, and did kill eighteen other people.  A hand-constructed, terrible object, not a facsimile but the actual fragment of history, set out among the charters and constitutions for some reason.

The museums of Asian and Pacific art were as strange and fascinating as anything in Paris.  The small-scale Musée Cernuschi, the Guimet (ancient) and Quai Branly-Jacque Chirac (more recent).  What Surrealist ever bettered the wooden Melanesian reliquary, part tuna, part shark, impaling a little man on its beak, and containing a human skull.  This object did not come to Paris until 1935; the Surrealists who saw it must have despaired.

The objects in the Western and non-Western museums are in deep conversation.  The 1845 J. M. W. Turner painting at the Louvre (right), which I swear looked more orange in person, and this Australian dream painting by Mick Namarari Tjapaltjarri, which depicts the dream of a mouse (below), seemed to have a lot to say to each other.  Formally, I mean.  When I came across the latter, I thought “Didn’t I just see this at the Louvre”?

That Turner was the last painting I really saw at the Louvre.  Where I got the strength, I do not know.  It was getting late, the crowd had become preposterous, and I was no longer looking at art but at people looking at art, or more precisely at people taking photos of people taking photos of art.  And who could blame them.  I was in the long red gallery filled with the most famous French paintings – Gericault’s “The Raft of the Medusa,” Delacroix’s “Liberty Leading the People,” and Napoleon in a number of monumental scenes.  How is anyone supposed to actually look at these things, as paintings, as art, even without the company of hundreds of other people.  We were mostly there, like those in line to see “Mona Lisa,” to acknowledge the celebrity of the paintings.

When I start thinking like this, it means my vitalities have been plumb burnt out, and the smart thing is to trade the museum for coffee, which is what I did.


  1. "Mouse Dreaming" doesn't mean the dream of a mouse, though. It means something closer to, "There is a complicated location-dependent system of ontological understanding and behaviour known as Mouse. This painting represents a physical aspect of that Mouse." It's also understood that if the artist had been born in a different area then he would not have the right to know or depict Mouse. He'd have to paint Yam, Stingray, or some other thing.

  2. Yes, thanks, Umbagollah -- an extraordinarily interesting and enlightening comment!

  3. That coffee sounds like a good idea!

  4. Thanks for popping by. I'm so behind--you're in Lyon! I've been traveling so much myself that I'm behind on everything and everybody. Did go to a lot of museums in Paris this spring but only intersected with your choices on the Louvre (naturellement!) I keep thinking about wonderful Cluny, though (and also Sainte-Chapelle, to veer off topic a bit.) I have managed some regional ones, including another visit to the Clark Institute. Plus museums in Japan, from little ones to the Tokyo National. Big year for looking.

    So crowds and people watching other people taking pictures of people photographing art have been on my brain all year... It would be lovely to go to a place like the Louvre and be able to visit one picture or object each day. But instead we stare until our eyes are on stalks!

    That Mouse Dreaming business is interesting. I am wondering how the vegetable or animal is connected with a particular area because mice, well, are everywhere!

  5. The first part of Umbagollah's comment somehow reminds me of Stein's "Tender Buttons."

    I can't help feeling that you must go to Musée de Cluny aka Musée National du Moyen Âge if you have not--or did I miss that somewhere? But the Twain quote is exactly right. One despairs of going to the museums of Paris, so many and so various. The Louvre alone would be enough--the ideal way would be to live there, be a member, and visit one or two things per day the rest of your life.