On Friday we revived an old tradition, the day-long family outing to a Parisian museum, and we visited the Musée d’Orsay. We had been there many time before, but this time was special.
The pretext for our outing was a temporary exhibition, called “Les origines du monde” (“The origins of the world”). The title is a reference to one of the emblematic paintings of the museum, “L’origine du monde” by Gustave Courbet. The exhibition retraced nature in art, and the fruitful dialogue of art and science, between the 18th and the 20th century.
How did art contend with the revolution in thinking about nature, and about man’s place in nature? Stunning biological drawings, moving first editions of Linnaeus’s, Buffon’s, Darwin’s works, evocative paintings of scientific expeditions, vertiginous landscapes sharing the new wonder of geology, fascinating portraits of monkeys, disturbing caricatures and monsters, and valiant attempts to visually recreate prehistory, long-lost worlds and lives.
Artists talked and listened to scientists, and shared widely the newly-found awe nature inspired. Man, placed by God at the centre of Creation, slowly became an animal amongst others, a minuscule and insignificant speck in the tree of life, born out of chance, and sex. Dethroned, humans’ only redemption is through their own creations, through art.
Once out of the temporary exhibition, we simply had to go and pay our respects to the Masters. We went to the highest floor of the building, a stylish turn-of-the-century railway station, converted into a unique museum. For on the fifth floor of the Musée d’Orsay is the most incredible collection of impressionist masterpieces in the world.
Renoir transports you to the middle of the ball at the Moulin de la Galette; you can see the dancers spiralling, you can almost hear the music and the chatter. Monet takes you for a sunny morning, an overcast afternoon in front of the Rouen cathedral, creates a brown harmony, and a blue one. He takes you to Etretat when a storm gathers up the waves. To his Giverny garden when the Japanese bridges catches the ray of sunshine after a shower. To rue Montorgueil, where the red white and blue flags flicker in the breeze.
Further on, Degas catches dancers as they thrive for the perfect balance, the perfect movement. Gauguin shows you the pagan paradise he has found of the other side of the world, where sin doesn’t exist. And Van Gogh shares with you his visions of swirling skies, flickering stars and their reflections on the Rhone, the heat of the afternoon sun come harvest time.
Normally you jostle with the crowds to catch an uninterrupted glimpse of their genius. The Musée d’Orsay is one of the must-see on everyone’s list when they visit Paris. But not that time. Covid has emptied the museum, and has left us alone to contemplate the highest peaks of beauty in art. We could contemplate whole series in peace; paintings and sculptures echoed each other and competed for our attention; rooms flew into one other in a dizzying vision.
I felt like taking a break and gather my mind, looked out the windows, and saw the Louvre, the Seine, the Tuileries gardens, the Sacré-Coeur, the Pont des arts, the Grand Palais and the Eiffel tower. The giant clocks of the old station were windows onto the beauty of Paris all around me. A truly special experience.