Surprises

The collection at the Orangerie is a staggering thing to see. The museum houses the collection of a rich Parisien of exceptional taste who accumulated many of the works of the impressionists and immediate post impressionists while they were still purchaseable. All the big names in painting from the years around the turn of the 20th century are there, and there are plenty of works by each of them. It's a strange experience for a wild colonial boy to look at a whole wall of Picassos or a roomful of Renoirs. At the end of the visit though, we happened into a temporary exhibition of the work of a contemporary French painter I had never heard of, Didier Paquignon. His works are acrylic painted on board and are very brightly coloured. They are street scenes, pictures of prostitutes touting for business, and everyday arcitecture. Some of them are very large, and I was gobsmacked by them, more, I have to say than by the more famous pictures in the halls nearby. Art is primarily about seeing, and here was someone who saw as I wish to see. Continually as I looked I said to myself, "yes, of course....". There were one or two which three days later, I am still thinking about.

At the Musee D'Orsay there is a tribute to the realist painter Jean Leon Gerome. He made, towards the end of his life, a life sized bronze of two gladiators fighting. His son in law added, after his death, a bronze of Gerome working on the sculpture to make a new composition of three figures. The sculpture shows a Retiari with his foot on the throat of another gladiator. The state of their weapons tells the story of the fight and they both look in the same direction, toward the emperor who will make the call of life or death for the conquered man. The sculptor is initally hidden from view as you approach the work, but you see him as you walk around it. Gerome is looking in the opposite direction to the fighters, towards his judges; that is towards you and I who will pass the judgement of life or death on his work.The two lines of sight intersect the work like an arrow. It is a commanding piece, and one which questions the viewer, in the same way as a Shakespearian play within a play. We are looking at a sculpture of a sculptor and being invited to pass judgement. Who is looking at us, and who is passing judgement?

Also at the Musee D'Orsay, amongst the dozen of so Rodins on display is his La Pensee. This piece is a block of unworked marble, about 2X2X3 ft. From the top he has carved the beautiful face of a pensive woman. The face is perfectly finished. He is making a statement of the observation arrived at by anyone who sculpts by carving, that all the work is done by removal of material; that the perfect form lies hidden within the stone and the sculptor's job is to discern it and free it. In acknowledgement of this way of working, Michaelangelo made a whole series of statues in which the forms are seen to emerge from the unworked marble, and this is Rodin's version of the same thought. It is a work of striking beauty but also a profound philosophical statement.This is how it is for all of us. In the end, real growth comes not from a process of addition but from subtraction. We grow into wholeness not by adding stuff - more ideas, more possessions, more experiences, more places visited, more famous artworks seen - but by subtracting them. The way to the perfect self that lies within our crude marble is by unlearning not by learning. Perhaps this is why the natural cycle of our lives involves the loss of precious things as we grow older. Perhaps the hammer blows of the master are not so much bereavements to be mourned as liberations to be celebrated. This is the way of the cross

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