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Wednesday, April 25, 2012

My Close-Up View of Paris and the Louvre

   For a generation that is being raised to watch movies on their iPhones it is important to remember how much is lost when viewing great works of art online instead of personally standing in front of them.  I do not mean to suggest that great works of art cannot be viewed online.  To the contrary, it is one of the great benefits to people the world over that so many paintings and sculptures can be seen by people who will never get the chance to see them in person.  Yes, something is lost seeing great canvases on a small digital screen, the same as three-dimensional sculpture on a two-dimensional plane.  Yet great works of art can lose a little something and still be great.  They are, after all, great.
   This was easy to see at the Rodin Museum, where I was mesmerized by the long, drawn face of one of the Burghers in Rodin's piece The Burghers of Calais.  The man's face was thin and bony, his beard extended his chin to a point, his nose protruded out and down as if it were more finger than nose.  His eyes were set deeply within his face.  He looked worn down.  His life had been hard.  It was unmistakable.  In a futile attempt to capture that look, I snapped a picture.  But the picture, flattening his image, makes his face look rounded, satisfied, and soft.  He has become something else entirely.
   The first thing that caught my attention at the Louvre was the sheer scale of the galleries.  The long halls in the Denon Wing, where so many Italian and French Paintings are hung, are immense.  Even as the crowds push forward to view the much smaller La Gioconda (perhaps you know here by another name: Mona Lisa) by Da Vinci, I was in awe of Veronese's The Wedding at Cana which is a staggering 21 feet and 10 inches by 32 feet and six inches.  (A painting that was looted from Venice by Napoleon, who had his troops cut it in half to ship it back to France.)  Frankly, I don't even have a wall that is 32 feet long in my house, let alone 21 feet high.  And that's always the problem with buying art prints and posters.  I just don't have much wall space left.
   To give an example of what is lost when viewing smaller copies of these epic masterpieces, let's take a closer look at a painting by Salvator Rosa.  Heroic Battle, from 1652, is a grand depiction of a battle that only measures seven feet by eleven and a half feet.  Modest, compared to Jacques-Louis David's thirteen foot by seventeen foot Leonidas at Thermopylae (which, by the way, was the original 300 big screen feature, nearly 200 years before Zack Snyder's version.)  It is a busy painting, depicting the chaos and glory of a sixteenth or seventeenth century melee.  Taken as a whole, the eye takes in the ruins of a temple, and the struggles of the mounted soldiers as they are deep in the thick of the fight.  But that is not what I noticed as soon as I stepped in front of it.  What drew my eye was the fear in the eyes of the foot soldier that was about to be trampled by one of those warhorses.  There is nothing glorious in his terror.  Yes, he is wearing a totally awesome arm shield, which has its own face designed to bring terror to his opponent, but he cannot manage to look as menacing.  It is easy to forget about scaring the other guy when you see a 1500 pound horse about to land on you.  And Rosa does a great job of depicting this.  That stab of white paint on the eye jumps out at you.
   Off to the left, you can see another foot soldier.  His face is eerily similar to the first one, though his color is much more death-like.  Where the man with the arm shield is full of terror and color, this man has the coloring of a corpse.  That same look of terror is there, but you can see that his arm has been severed, he has bled out, and his face looks as dead as the hand that lies next to him.  If only he had been fortunate enough to get one of those arm shields, he might have lived long enough to be trampled by a horse.  This seems to be too much of a coincidence to believe that Rosa did not depict this on purpose.  The faces are too alike, the protected arm and the severed arm are on the same side.  These are the kinds of details the viewer is supposed to pick up on a large piece like this.  It is what can be missed when you can only see this on a 1/10 scale display.
   I'm intrigued by these giant paintings.  Caring for them must be a headache.  The larger ones are not covered in glass, as many of the smaller ones are.  So that must mean that dust is a problem.  In fact, Veronese's The Wedding at Cana was actually dropped in 1992 when an attempt was made to raise it higher on the wall.  The 1.5 ton painting fell over when one of its supports gave way.  The canvas was torn in four places.  Sadly, this happened just two days after water dripped on it from a leaking air vent.  All of this after it successfully survived WWII by being rolled up and moved around in a truck as it was hidden from the Nazis.  One more impressive feature of these massive paintings is the fact that they have been copied from time to time.  David's The Coronation of Napoleon, the 20 by 32 foot painting seen in the center of this photograph I took at the Louvre, once hung at Versailles, but was moved to the Louvre, then a full-sized replica painted by David himself was rehung at Versailles.  This kind of dedication to art is difficult to understand.  The first painting took him almost two years to complete.  Imagine if Peter Jackson, once completing the Lord of the Rings movies, shot them over again.  Sure, it can be done, but couldn't David have simply made a copy of his painting that only measured five by eight feet?  That would still have been impressive.
   So make sure you take time to visit a museum in order to see works of art as they were meant to be seen.  You might not be able to make it to the Louvre, but there are many great museums scattered throughout the world that hold remarkable works of art.  And if it takes a little time and money to get to one, it will be worth it.  You might just be amazed at what you are able to see.

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