Paris and the Art of the Body

Debbie says:

I’ve been back a little more than a week from a ten-day trip to Paris, much of which was spent in art museums. Of course, artistic representations of bodies are everywhere: bodies in painting, bodies in statuary, bodies in sketches.

I can’t find any photographs on the web of a piece that particularly struck me. The Cluny “Musee de la Moyen Age” (Museum of the Middle Ages) has a lot of headless statuary, pieces that were vandalized in the 18th and 19th centuries, often used as building materials, and recovered later. One in particular is a female torso (I really wish I know what her head was like) with uncharacteristically large and realistic (sagging) breasts–except that her right hand is cupping her right breast up–and the nipple of that breast is the conduit for a fountain! She was labeled as a “gargoyle,” but I imagine her with a more realistic head. Looking at her felt like receiving a light-hearted message about real bodies from seven or eight hundred years ago.

Also in Cluny are the Lady and the Unicorn tapestries, which are notable for another kind of realism–aside from the famous “To My Only Desire” there are five other tapestries (one is missing) and they are named for the unicorn’s experience of the five senses. For example, this is “smelling.”

At the Musee D’Orsay, before I got to the Degas special exhibit, a companion and I went looking for “The Origin of the World,” a painting a friend was excited about but I hadn’t heard of. It turns out to be a Gustav Courbet painting of a naked women’s torso, surprisingly vivid. The only photos I could find on the Web have ugly frames, which is not true of the original:

I suspect that a lot of the art world discussion about representations of headless women comes from this work, which is nonetheless surprisingly powerful in the original.

Several of the Impressionists, of course, are known for their fondness for fat models. Laurie and I have talked before about how the models in these paintings are often more beautiful than they are powerful or real, but the women in this picture feel quite real to me.

I was almost more interested in the statuary than the paintings. Since childhood, I’ve been interested in Rodin’s “The Caryatid Fallen Under her Stone.” (A “caryatid” is the name for a female figure used as a pillar–Rodin may have been the first person to see these women as alive enough to be unable to bear their burdens.)

In the garden at the Rodin museum, as you see her here, she is faced by another caryatid, this one fallen under a heavy round jar. Most of Rodin’s figures are so strong; it’s touching to see ones who can’t carry their load.

Even in the Louvre, where there were so many paintings calling me, I kept coming back to the statuary galleries. Here’s Roland Furieux (better known in Italian and English as Orlando Furioso), gone mad for lost love, not yet knowing he will be rescued by a champion who brings his wits back from the moon, carved by Jean Bernard Duseigneur:

I could really see him straining against his bonds. At this statue, I saw something I was to see again and again in Paris museums–a group of young schoolchildren, not just being shepherded through the art as a duty, but seated around the statue while their teacher talked to them about what they were seeing, asked and answered questions, and brought the art to life. And if American schoolchildren were instructed in details of particular pieces of art, I doubt they’d be seated in front of a statue as anatomically correct as this one.

As if Paris knew I was coming, the Musee d’Orsay had a special exhibit called “Degas et le nu,” (Degas and the nude), with literally hundreds of Degas paintings, drawings, and sculptures of nudes–over 90% women, but some men. The exhibit was chronological, starting with early sketches, ending with his most mature work. One particularly rich section was “the brothel,” a section where the women seemed to have more personality and, to use a 21st century term, “agency,” than in the rest of the exhibit. I particularly appreciated this very active drawing from that section:

Another aspect of the Degas nudes exhibit that struck me was the attention to detail: “woman looking at sole of her left foot,” for example.

A great deal of the amazing art I saw was not about bodies; a lot of the art about bodies was familiar or unremarkable. But still I came away thinking about these pieces, and a few others, and bodies across centuries.