Notes from the Musées Royaux des Beaux Arts

This is one of my favorite art museums in the world.

I take an art museum hard. They overwhelm me. Paintings are not like books. In a bookstore you can ignore all the books except the three you’re looking for. The ideas in books need time to get their hooks into you, and if you don’t give them the time, they’re just dead trees on the shelves.

Physical art, on the other hand – painting, sculpture – is like an odor. Unless you’re blind, you can’t ignore it. It assaults you.

I like going to new museums, but I love returning to one.  Knowing a collection makes it easy to do what I like, which is put my head down and make straight for what I’m interested in. Only after digesting what I came to see am I encounter something new.

I go to the Musee de Beaux Artes for the Bruegels.  More than just simple celebrations, Brueghel’s paintings present an alternate history, like Don Delillo’ Underworld, which posits that what’s really happening is what’s happening in the layers deep beneath what’s reported as happening.

In this small but (and) wonderful collection, Bruegel says: We want to dance with our ugly townsfolk, because we are the ugly masses ignorant of Icarus and other big dreams.

Says, turn off the TV, the Icarus of Fortis and Lehman Brothers et all aren’t all that important to you and me.

Says, go to work (plough or sail), play, drink, go forth lustily and lust after fat wenches – as Jordaens in the next room down says, you too can be KING (but don’t forget to change the brat’s diaper).

Says, to mash-up Gary Snyder and Tom Waits: Fuck the noisy machinery on the boob-tube, get behind the mule in the morning and plow.

Says, let the angels have their battles with the world’s absurdities. Maybe even kick back with a beer and watch it on a quiet Sunday, while the kids ice skate and build snowmen. But don’t fret it. It’s their fight, not yours. You and they both shall pass, and you’ve got better things to worry about.

***

After Brueghel I checked out one of Cravach’s Venuses (Venusi?), poked around the collection of adoration imagery, and spent some time checking out the temptation of St. Anthony. But I decided to skip most of the older works, including Reubens, and headed downstairs to the modern wing.

***

Delvaux:

Look what flesh does to bones, yes, but like St. Anthony upstairs will tell you, flesh turns to bone as well.

And his train coming in the night, with the girl hiding behind the fence that she’s outgrowing… it is adolescence arriving in the spooky night, and it’s also an appreciation of the heavy feeling of a night train arriving at an empty provincial station.

***

Seurat inventing the pixel.

***

Dali’s St. Anthony resisting his giantess temptations. He kneels and with wiry arms holds up the most pathetic simple cross. Making a firm & what appears to be a final stand in the middle of the mind’s broad plain, no kind of defensive position.

Left me laughing, thinking hell, resistance? 21st Century American doesn’t even try. 21st Century American asks the elephant where to stick his credit card. 21st Century American sits making snide, ironic comments about stilts while his wants trample him to mush.

***

But finally the best – Khnopff and his Caresse! (Has to be said in French, ‘luh caw-ess’, to realize that it’s an onomatopoeia, in our integrating it into English we’ve managed to trample the romance out of the word – certainly not the first time it’s been done.)

The Caresse is like Leda and the Swan reversed. It had me scribbling a poem, which I’m leery about posting here, since it’s not really fleshed out much beyond a first draft at this point, but here goes:

In or Out?

Like when, handling our staff
we find our other hand
finger-deep in a tuft
of coarse fur, feeling
another strange heart beating
the ribs & teats of a long & lean torso
& a face in our face
whispering “Like to?”

A silly girl.
Her taut thighs ripe for the spreading
if we’d like to.

But watching that long, thick tail throb
and the points of claws on a belly
we remember being bitten by a kitten
who’s line of play didn’t align with ours
and would a cat care how we answer?
All the ways she has to shred a swan
if she’d like to.

3 Days In Bourgogne

Riding the rails from Alsace to Burgundy: Green France under May showers and spotty sunshine. The woman next to me hums away. I’m reading Wikipedia articles I’ve saved about Beaune and the Cote de Or – the Cote de Or is part of the Rhone watershed instead of the Seine as I’d assumed.

The old farm converted to a guesthouse in Ciel, Bresse, 15 miles out of Beaune. Reading in the evening sunshine. A dip in the blue pool – cold water on a warm evening after all day on trains. Dinner with a winemaker and a wine seller – amuse bouche, entree, plat, fromage, dessert. Cremant de Bourgogne, Meursault Chard, Ladoix Pinot, Marc de Bourgogne. Stumbling up stairs to sleep with the windows open to birdsong and country smells.

Elizabeth’s French country breakfasts, taken on the veranda in the morning sun: croissants, bread, fromage blanc, muselix, fresh squeezed orange juice, homemade confitures, that wonderful butter.

Tear-assing in a 6-speed Peugot through the hills above Beaune. Walking in the woods. Learning: The prize of taking a good photo in the woods is not the photo, but how the work of taking a good photo changes how you walk in the woods.

Over the hills and into the valley of the Ouche. A dour Dutch woman running a frites stand. “Speak English Good” says her sign. She does.

Walking into the yellow, swallowed by yellow, overcome by yellow.

Learning (again) that Bourgogne is prounced “Boor-goyn“, and wondering (again) why we have to call it Burgundy and not Bourgogne.

The afternoon is given to the wine route: Gevrey-Chambertin (Jev-Ray-Sham-Burr-Tah), Nuits-St.-Georges, Vougeot, Ladoix, Aloxe Cotron. Tasting. Spitting. More good pinot than I’ve had in my life. Walking along the primer-cru vineyards, the roses, the old stone walls. An English couple making wine in Aloxe Corton, daring to mix two primer-cru vineyards “they gave us these Gaullic shrugs and figured it’d never work, but it did, here taste – ”

Back home, more wine – a nine year old Savigny-les-Beaune, a twelve year old Vougeot. A big chicken dinner – poulet de Bresse.

The next day, the Cote de Beaune. Meursault. Rully. Stopping alone the winerows to watch the workers spray the grapes. The town of Beaune, heat in the streets, a sandwich at a cafe table between Japanese and Brits. Cows in the hills, horses in the hills. Silent Savigny-les-Beaune on a hot afternoon. Fish for dinner alongside a Languedoc pinky.

One last dip in the pool. One last walk under the cerise tree with all those cherries reddening for June. One last big breakfast.

Answering The FAQ

So, uh… what the hell are you up to over there, dude?

I find most podcasts difficult if not impossible to listen to. This one’s no different: It’s an eclectic mix. I took the ten albums I’ve been listening to most frequently and jammed together a collage of songs around some spoken word about life over here. There’s some Aretha Franklin, some Bad Religion, some Clinic, some Astor Piazzolla. Like I said, it’s an eclectic mix. And there’s plenty of me talking about the neighborhood, writing, food, wine, and even a little macro-econ.

Enjoy!

Listen to my Paris Podcast (80-something MB)

The Moveable Feast Meal

When I got there i told my wife about the wonderful place I had found.
‘But Tatie, you must go by this afternoon and pay,’ she said.
‘Sure I will,’ I said.’We’ll both go. And then we’ll walk down by the river and along the quais.’
‘Let’s walk down the rue de Seine and look in all the galleries and in the windows of the shops.’
‘Sure. We can walk anywhere and we can stop at some new cafe where we don’t know anyone and nobody know us and have a drink.’
‘We can have two drinks.’
‘Then we can eat somewhere.’
‘No, don’t forget we have to pay the library.’
‘We’ll come home and eat here and we’ll have a lovely meal and drink Beaune from the co-operative you can see right out of the window there with the price of the Beaune on the window. And afterwards we’ll read and then go to bed and make love.’
‘And we’ll never love anyone else but each other.
‘No. Never.’
‘What a lovely afternoon and evening. Now we’d better have lunch.’
‘I’m very hungry,’I said.’I worked at the cafe on a cafe creme.’
‘How did it go, Tatie?’
‘I think all right. I hope so. What do we have for lunch?’
‘Little radishes, and foie de veau with mashed potatoes and an endive salad. Apple tart.’
‘And we’re going to have all the books in the world to read and when we go on trips we can take them.’
‘Would that be honest?’
‘Sure.’
‘Does she have Henry James too?’
‘Sure.’
‘My,’ she said.’We’re lucky that you found the place.’
‘We’re always lucky,’I said like a fool I did not knock on wood. There was everywhere in that apartment to knock on too.

The Louvre is a 7500 word sentence without punctuation

(just an occasional ‘and’ to segment its burst into semi-discrete thoughts)

…and I. M. Pei’s pyramids placing the 21st century in the old palace courtyard

and Egypt those hieroglyphic triumphs of the desire to preserve informata

and kitty-cat svelte is the dominant sexy

and they oughta crank the heat in the Egyptian wing because check the climate for Cairo it don’t get cold expect at night when the winds would blow the pleasant reek of Nile fertility into the open homes

and Pharaohs seated promising a decent life in return for obedience

and the seated scribe with eyes forward representing maybe some foreknowledge of us to come & how amazed would he be by what we call our daily trivialities

and the sarcophagi those boxy monuments to the will to live forever forever forever

and Ozymandias Ozymandias Ozymandias

and Phoenicia which means We Sail The Seas but how many seas did they sail which means what secrets do they hide in their own sarcophagi & Neptune-headed busts

and in Assyria a child’s fascination with castles & ramparts & defensive positions

and babble on about Babylon

and what’s more pathetic that a man splayed squirming struggling to remove a spear from his throat while another man (bigger, wearing a bull horn helmet) straddles him

and The Code which was a concession because to write the law is to lose power by losing a bit of your arbitrary randomness (even if those laws are written on a giant phallus with your visage up top)

and Victory

and Victory on her prow her posture suggesting the ultimate celebration of the triumph of a species over the thoughtless meat masses of animalia

and Victory was champagne cracked before we learned irony or self-pity

and Victory at the top of the staircase a masterpiece of curation & display

and Everyday Greece the pots the pans the water jars the wine jugs

and an old man disemboweling an animal showing life in primary colors the triumph of humanity in raw

and a satyr dancing madman in marble

and Artemis stone faced all alone except her buck who she holds back while preparing to draw an arrow knowing she’s going to be flattened by Western Civ but her face  the feminine strength says I Do Not Give A Fuck I Have A Job To Do

and you don’t have to know history or poetry to enjoy the Louvre but it sure as hell helps

and Venus de Milo towering over her daily hordes with a made sexy a DIY sexy a Punk Rock Sexy a sexy that says I’m Sexy Damn It a just-larger-than-life visage of sex on the square-shoulder & I don’t need my damn apple or the arm the held it to exude what I exude

and speaking of sex here’s Cupid reviving Psyche driving a mad reminder that what is fundamentally sexy is far from new & cheap porno cannot touch the play in this work

and Rome the gallery of rogues with their pompous oscillations between regulation and debauchery

and Rome the iron ribbons of a centurion’s armor

and Rome the first stab at thrusting a European order into the primitive body

and Rome Rome Rome what the column means to the barbaric analogue

and Roman soldiers spitting over the futility of rotting out here in Lutetia while their wives aged cruelly back home

and The Etruscans who an American does not know because we only know Greeks & Romans but they lived vibrant lives full of their own wine full of their own stories full of their own pisspot & homes which thrived or did not in the small-scale of grand grand grand scale

and all of it along the stream of Western Civilization black and white but as the Louvre says in Monty Python French “Of course Western Civ is an unbroken stream when seen from far enough away, don’t be ridiculous.”

and Paint

and Flemish portrayals of cat & dog after the lamb which has her head still intact to remind us of where meat comes from & the thin line between a life’s sole (soul) possession & food

and Rubens using what will become impressionist sensibilities in flowing backgrounds which fade into haze like he and Bruegel also invented a camera’s depth of field

and the eruption of Vesuvius with men gathering to witness this gnash in the earth this exposure of his internal fire & primal minerals

and the Dutch showing how ice skates and little games are their triumphs over hopeless winter reminding you how you cannot be unhappy on ice skates

and Jacques-Louis David’s idiotically romantic take on Leonidas at Thermopalayae making the whole shebang seem more fun that teacups at Disneyland with wreath-tossing nymphs triumphant Spartans & Leonidas himself striking an easy pose in the near-nude

and right next door is another ridiculous cartoon is Clytemnestra and Aegisthus come sneaking to slay the hero of Troy Agamemnon in is sleep but honey oh honey did you happen to notice that your TITTIES are hanging out of your dress

and far more serious the lithe David having Goliath by the hair with the sling flung to the ground showing technology’s triumph over the brute ways of other men

and Mona who ain’t never gonna get tired of looking so smug

and all the long Italian gallery showing scenes and saints

and crescendo after crescendo

and an orgy of dramatic climax as the paintings go on and on and on down the long hall

and so much flesh and so much godly succumbing and so many perfect painterly diagonals

and worst of all is Panini’s painting of paintings his gang of aristocrats front & center drowning themselves in canvases so that the only thing that could quench their thirst would be Japanese simplicity but that will never happen

and way back in the corner near the Porte des Lions exit are Lady Macbeth’s terrorized eyes her finger pointing upward because she feels in the centerless sphere her guilt her guilt her guilt…