France part Deux: Damn, it feels good to be a Buddha.

(Originally published on my old LiveJournal.)

This is, in fact, the original Mona Lisa. Yes, I was surprised too.

Besides eating and drinking, what do you do in Paris? Well, museums. Mostly art museums, cause that’s L’s thing. I wouldn’t go to many art museums without her encouragement, but she’s a great person to see them with, offering a funny and idiosyncratic little art appreciation course with each trip. “The Bayeux Tapestry is not actually a tapestry, Rob, it is an embroidery,” she says, apropos of nothing, saying “Rob” like Coach McGurk says “Melissa”, in a tone of voice that shames me deeply for ever having thought such a thing. Even though, on reflection, I’m pretty sure I never thought about it one way or the other. And even though we aren’t even looking at the Bayeux Tapestry when she says it, or any tapestry at all, in fact.

So here’s the big museum roundup.

Musée d’Orsay
We almost didn’t go here, only changing our mind because it was raining while we walked by, and it ended up being my second favorite of all the museums we hit. (My first favorite gets its own journal entry, still to come. If you know me and you know Paris and you know geek culture you might be able to guess what it is.) I love the space, a huge and gorgeous Belle Epoque railway station, and I like much of the art better than what’s at the Louvre, though it is funny that all the great Impressionists are stowed away up in the attic to leave acres of room for the pompous and unremarkable nineteenth-century stuff on the main floors. Show me the Monet, I say! (Yeah, L didn’t laugh at that one either.)

The Louvre
Still, you have to do the big gruelling monster museum. It’s the House on the Rock of Paris! And I think we did it pretty smart, going in the evening, and dining in the slanting sun on the surprisingly secluded little balcony restaurant that overlooks the Tuileries and the big, um, Louvre-place-thing, while the throngs dwindled a little.

Forty hectares of paintings, what can I say? I like the Vermeers. I like the Rubens (“Mama Mia, I was-a master of-a form and-a lighting! Why-a you remember me only for-a fat chicks?” —Ruben, as quoted by <lj calamityjon>). I like the Winged Victory of Samothrace. We make our pilgrimage to the Mona Lisa. Lining up for half a mile to see a picture you’ve seen elsewhere a thousand times before is a funny experience, inspiring all sorts of high-toned meditations on the signifier and the signified, the image and the thing and the image of the thing, yadda yadda yadda. What magic property does the painting itself have that makes seeing the Mona Lisa here different then seeing it on, say, a T-shirt or airbrushed on a van? Or seeing the Mona Lisa on all the signs throughout the Louvre that direct you to the actual Mona Lisa? I’ll spare you said meditations (“Is it art just because we hang it on a wall? … is it garbage just because you threw it in the garbage? … hey, wanna make that dog smoke weed?”) but I couldn’t help notice that the very next thing you see after the Mona Lisa is a pair of giant paintings (by Giovanni Pannini) of rooms filled with paintings of other famous buildings and works of art. Paintings within paintings, man! There’s got to be some kind of commentary on the relationship between things and images. But, as Seinfeld‘s Elaine asked the New Yorker‘s cartoon editor, “What… is… the comment?” Well, I’m not quite clever enough to figure that out. Maybe just: “Ha ha, hope you enjoyed standing in line, suckers.” But a trip to France wouldn’t be complete without some heady theoretical jibber jabber, would it?

Musée Picasso
An entire museum devoted to Picasso seems like a swell idea at first. In the fifth room you’re digging it—”Pink Period? Sweet. Blue Period? Cool. Cubism? Bring it on, Pablo.” But by the tenth room or the seventeenth, you start to get a little queasy from all the non-Euclidean geometry and floppy elongated ladies. Couldn’t we have just one velvet Elvis to regain our equilibrium? Maybe a unicorn or a crying clown? And by the thirtieth room—the guy went through more periods than Gordie Howe! (wakka wakka wakka)—your visual cortex is so screwed up it’s hard to even walk in a straight line.

There was an experiment once where the nefarious “They” put goggles on people that made them see everything upside down. For days the subjects stumbled around bumping into things, but eventually, their brain flipped their field of vision so the world seemed right-side up again. Then, when the goggles were removed, everything was upside-down again for the same period of time. (That moment when the goggles came off and the world flipped upside-down must have been fun for the subject, huh? Gotta love the days before ethics boards for scientific research.) Anyway, that’s what the Picasso Museum does to you. By the end, you’ve been staring through Picasso’s eyes for so long, you’re frantically checking your wife to make sure her eyes are still properly placed on her face. Or worse yet, you’re afraid to check. We sat in the Jardin du Luxembourg for a long time after that, breathing in the blessed straight lines and right angles.

Musée Guimet
The Guimet is a museum of Asian art and artifacts that has, apparently, the best collection of Tibetan paintings and sculpture in the West, if not the world. So with L fresh out of Vacation Buddhist Camp, of course we were going there. Tibetan paintings are great because: a) they’re intricate and brightly colored, b) they’re full of multi-limbed, multi-headed gods and beasties, and c) every single one of them is having sex. With all the limbs and heads and all, it’s not always obvious that’s what they’re doing, but trust me, they are. It’s practically hentai. The gods are, like I say, depicted as huge, brightly colored, multi-limbed behemoths, and then there’s always a little consort, or two, or eleven, just sort of stuck on somewhere, arching their backs in what I can only hope is pleasure.

I’m not sure just what religious message all these sex paintings are supposed to import. (The audio guide at the museum broaches the subject very delicately, in a plummy BBC accent: “These paintings encourage you to meditate on the union of opposites.” Like I needed any encouragement to meditate on that.) Quite possibly, the message is just, “Damn, it feels good to be Vishnu.” And in some cases, “Damn, it feels good to be the Buddha.” Ain’t it the truth, brother.


  1. When we were in Paris, I was sick as a dog with one of them Eurobacilli infections. Chris dragged me out of my deathbed to see the Louvre. I was high as a fucking kite on French freakout meds. All I remember is this blur, shaped vaguely like rivulets of Japanese tourists, that streamed around my face.

    Fritz! Fritz! Fritz!

  2. When I went to the Louvre, I made it a point to have my photograph taken with all the busts of all the Roman emperors. Remind me to show you the pictures sometime.

  3. We contracted some sort of weird froggie disease too for part of the trip, but Lisa discouraged me from posting about our innards.

  4. I don’t know about all of these tapestries and masterpieces… I think you should open a gallery of puppet pictures that you use to identify your posts. Of course I would be the only real patron…

  5. “What magic property does the painting itself have that makes seeing the Mona Lisa here different then seeing it on, say, a T-shirt or airbrushed on a van?”

    The Western Art wing of the Tokyo National Museum includes Monet’s “Water Lilies”. Not only were there no line-ups, but I was the only person in the room for a short while. I was able to get real close, even put my head against the wall beside it for a bit so I could take in how sculpted the painting was. To prevent freaking out like Cameron in “Ferris Beuller’s Day Off”,
    I went and paid a young woman to walk on my back for half an hour. She was pretty cool, but she kept laughing at the hair on my ass.

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