I think I get it now. It’s that language doesn’t really matter that much. Nothing is ever said so much as done. Nothing is ever spoken so much as felt. Nothing is ever written so much as captured. And on and on.
Yesterday at a station in the Paris Metro an old Japanese woman gave us an origami flying crane for helping her operate the ticket machine. I held it in my hands all the way back to the hostel, pulling on its little tail. It was a day of free museums – the Louvre, the Musée D’Orsay, the Musée Rodin. I walked around looking at the artifacts, paintings and sculptures, writing down the titles and artist names of those I gravitated toward so that I could go back to them later and have a look. There were enormous crowds milling about the rooms. Andrea looked around at the tourists mimicking statue poses for photos and firing off flash bulbs and said, “I wonder if most of these people have any idea what they’re looking at.”
Maybe not, but still: Paris taught me more than ever that art belongs to the world. It belongs as much to me as it does to the person who can’t so much as stumble their way through the French placards. It belongs to the person with a speaker jammed in their ear, providing them with a dialogue about each piece as they wander around looking, not able to understand what they’re seeing without an explanation or some kind of narrative that puts the images in place. Some look because that’s what one does when they go to a country foreign to them. All they can rely on is what’s put in front of their face. The universal language of Renoir or Lévy-Dhurmer.
Like any tourist, I’ve searched in vain in portrait galleries for postcards of my favourite paintings. I want to walk away with a small chunk of what reached me. The trip has largely been a blur, but the ever-brief moments in galleries have been my favourites – the two minutes spent looking at a portrait that captures my imagination. Andrea and I were 9th and 10th in line for the Louvre as it opened. We half-ran to be the first of the crowd to see the Mona Lisa. Later on, the room was a frenzy of people, picture-snapping and trying to get the best glimpse as the room filled with conversations in all languages. This way. That way. We haven’t seen this yet. Did you see the Venus de Milo? We don’t have much time.
I had always wondered why artists were and remain attracted to Paris. It’s because every last little scrap of humanity can be found on the city’s streets. I thought of Henry Miller when I looked at the rippling light beige walls of our hostel room, the number of cigarettes put out previously on the terrace in view of the Sacre Couer. I watched the silhouette of a woman in her window five streets up the hill. I encountered hustlers and gypsies and the presentation of a lost ring. Paris is where the best and the worst of us meet. It is where we take advantage of each other. It is where we give of ourselves in the form of folded paper birds.