Friday, June 24, 2011

La Fête de la Musique

My first encounter with the city of Paris happened to be during the Fête de la Musique--a kind of city-wide party featuring hundreds of free music concerts.  Had I not known this in advance, I would have assuredly believed that Paris, at all times, has music pouring from every street corner, park, and café while Parisians smoke, drink, and dance in the streets.

Places des Vosges during the Fête de la Musique.
I accidentally came across the Place des Vosges, which was built by Henry IV at the beginning of the 17th century.  The first time I saw it, a band was playing Dave Matthew’s cover of All Along the Watchtower.

Not surprisingly, my aimless wandering turned purposeful and I headed towards the Place de la Nation, the home of Dalou’s Triumph of the Republic, easily his best and most famous work.  The subject of my first Dalou paper, it will play a large and important part in my dissertation.  The first time I saw it, a choir was singing French gospel music.  They ended with, believe it or not, a song called “Happy Day.”

Dalou's Triumph of the Republic à nuit.
A common response to seeing familiar art for the first time is that it is either bigger or smaller than you imagined.  I know that the Triumph weighs in at 38 tons.  I know it is big.  But it is one thing to think 38 tons and another thing entirely to see 38 tons.  The sculpture’s putti, allegorical figures in the shape of small children, are larger than full-grown adults.  Yet, at the same time I was struck with its unimaginable enormity, I was also impressed with the emotional affectivity and intimacy of the work--characteristics difficult to achieve in something so monumental and physically intimidating.

As it turns out, it was fortunate that I saw it, as only hours later I had to defend its very existence to a Frenchman at the Café Rouge--a bar on my street.  It was late at night, and the bar was playing techno music, so I stopped to hang out with the French dancing in the street at the close of day.  The Frenchman assured me that there was nothing good in the Place de la Nation, to which I insisted, “no, no, no, there is an enormous sculpture there.”  “The columns?” he asked, “they are boring.”  “No, not the columns.  The enormous sculpture, with the lions,” I protested.  “The French do not look at art,” he finally admitted, “they swim in it, but they do not see it.”

It is a strange thing to come across the world to see something that can be rendered invisible by familiarity.   Because really--those are some seriously big putti.

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