Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Oh what a relief it is

Today I made a four-mile jaunt down to see a Dalou work that has a decent amount of both personal and professional significance for me--his Monument to Alphand of 1899, on Avenue Foch.  I have some particular fondness for it, as it took me to Chicago twice in order to present a paper on it.  Not only did I have a great time in Chicago, first with Jack, then by myself, but presenting at the Art Institute of Chicago is a rare moment in my art historical career that I actually have a bit of pride about.

Monument to Alphand:  Totally less boring in person.
I am fairly convinced that this was a particularly important monument for Dalou, in that I believe it epitomizes what he was trying to do with monumental sculpture.  As such, this work counts pretty emphatically in my dissertation.  For the dissertation to work, I really need this sculpture to do a lot for me, in terms of how it functions stylistically, and how it relates to Dalou's other work, and to that of his contemporaries.  Fortunately, when I saw it, I bought my own thoughts about it.  This is always a relief when you see a sculpture you've only thought about and studied, but never actually seen [Including my title, this is my second subtle and bad pun on the word "relief."  See that wall of hard to see marble stuff?  That's relief sculpture, and, ummm, yeah.  It is a sculpture joke.  Not funny.  Ok.  Won't you be relieved when I stop making them?  ha ha. . .  Yeah.  Never mind.).  At any rate, I like it quite a bit more than I thought I would, and am actually more convinced of its merit and importance in terms of turn-of-the-century public sculpture than ever.  Hip hip hooray.
Opéra Garnier.  Gilt. House.
As always, my trip to the Alphand involved the requisite number of distractions and side trips.  As I've been here for a couple of weeks now, I've become more accustomed to things within a certain radius around me, so my trips are somewhat condensed and more purposeful.  Opéra Garnier?  Seen it, moving on.  This is only partially true.  There are still some things, the Opéra an excellent case in point, that I am still pretty blown away every time I see them.  However, there comes a point where you can't gawk at everything every time you see it, because Paris is simply so full of stuff that you otherwise couldn't go anywhere without it taking 6 hours (it's happened) or your brain exploding.  It is no wonder the Parisians no longer see their own city, because otherwise they wouldn't get anything done.  It is still weird, at times, though, that modern life happens around monuments so grand, and rich, and historically deep.  The Opéra was built during the French Second Empire, a time of high glamor and opulence (putting giant gilt things on top of your buildings is always good indication of that).  And yet, people obviously live normal, 21st century lives around this thing.  It is a popular place for street performers and people to hang out in front of, so in order to better reproduce my experience at the Opéra today, you should really be listening to this.  Kinda weird, right?
I am even less great at Medieval art than I am at Contemporary Art, and I occasionally have an equally bad (or worse) attitude about it.  I never get tired of looking at church architecture though, and because I'm not knowledgeable about Parisian medieval architecture, I am consistently stumbling into great churches that are surprises to me.  St. Augustin might be my favorite surprise church (that I should have known about, but didn't).  Both exterior and interior were really beautiful, and it had an absolutely gorgeous dome suspended over a row of stained glass windows.  And it had an equestrian of Joan of Arc out front.

St. Augustin and Ste. Jean.
There is nothing, however, like a bad sculpture to help you realize what good sculpture looks like.  I find that the characteristic of "ass-kicking" or perhaps "badass-ness" are both useful litmus tests for the quality of equestrians, and the Joan of Arc in the Place St. Augustin gets soundly trounced by Frémiet's in the Place des Pyramides in this regard.  Why, oh why, Paul Dubois, did you stick Joan onto that horse as if she was a He-Man action figure unsuccessfully riding a My Little Pony?  You are fired.
My big sister could take on both Joans.  At the same time.

Sometimes it is hard reconciling what you know as a historian with what you feel as a human being.  Point in fact:  I know that the Statue of Liberty was a gift from France to the United States, and that various casts of her exist in various locations throughout the city of Paris.  But damn is it weird every time.  The Statue of Liberty was actually a product of the late nineteenth century, and she is an incredibly interesting counterpoint to Dalou's figure of the Republic atop his Triumph.  My advisor, during one of my PhD qualifying exams no less, asked for comparative material for the Dalou Republic figure, and it sure was awhile before it occurred to me:  OH! You mean the colossal statue on an island off the coast of my own damn country.  Right.  Unfortunately it is hard to remember that in art history, the State of Liberty does not equal a quality tourist attraction and symbol of American democracy but rather an example of a classicizing liberty figure borrowing from the same iconographic tradition as Dalou's figure of the Republic.  And sometimes you run across her when you are walking around Paris.

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