May 6, 2013

A Continentalist in Paris: Musee d'Orsay Special Exhibit - L'ange du bizarre

A thought-provoking meditation on the macabre side of Romanticism.

We cut short our first-Sunday-of-the-month trip to the Louvre given the 2.5 hour estimated waiting time (especially ridiculous since this was a) at 10 am and b) using the "secret" below-ground entrance through the Carrousel du Louvre).

Instead, we headed just over the Seine for Musee d'Orsay.

Here, the wait took 45 minutes.

I hadn't been to Musee d'Orsay before, so I was pretty mesmerized when I stepped into the main space. It combines the airiness of the the nave of the Grand Palais with the extensiveness of the Louvre, but isn't quite as overwhelming as the Louvre can be. (Nate was less mesmerized since the guys taking extensive sinkbaths in the men's restrooms somewhat dampened his enthusiasm for the place.) We did an initial circuit around the first and second floors - though there's still much more to see - and then spent the bulk of our time at the special exhibit "L'Ange du Bizarre: Le romantisme noir de Goya a Max Ernst".

The title of the exhibit is based on Edgar Allan Poe's short story "The Angel of the Odd" (full version here). While I'm far from goth, I've spent a fair few nights creeping myself out reading ghost stories - including a lot of Poe. And the paintings were mostly along the same tantalizingly unsettling lines as the English, French, and Russian ghost stories I devoured as a kid until I was too scared to turn off the bedroom lights.

The exhibit is organized into three main parts: the emergence of Dark Romanticism (1770-1850); its transformation by the Symbolists (1860-1900); and its rediscovery by the Surrealists (1920-1940). There were a lot of well-known artists and works (Blake, Goya, Delacroix, Fuseli), and screenings of films like one of the the original Frankenstein movies. The subject matter sometimes reminded me of the Melancholy exhibit I saw in Berlin back in 2006, and indeed some of the works (like Fuseli's) were identical.

The accompanying text panels (French and English) are informative yet concise, providing valuable insights to the perception of the dichotomous struggles (dark vs. light / insanity vs. reason / civilization vs. savagery) during the Romantic age. As far as I can tell, the museum website, which also features some of the paintings, reproduces the text panels in their entirety. Le Monde online also has a photoseries featuring fifteen of the works.

If we'd had more time I could have spent at least two more hours at the exhibit, and though she considered many of the paintings "creepy," three-year-old Lee was fascinated rather than scared. And in its entirety, the museum is surprisingly child-friendly - though touching the objects is naturally forbidden, there is plenty of space, benches for taking a break, a coffee bar, and a restaurant. And I can't wait for Museum Night 2013!

We headed back home through the Tuileries, which were full of springtime hustle and bustle. Tourist season is definitely upon us...

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