A visit to Marmottan museum – Three lessons on discovery
Today, I went to Musée Marmottan in Paris, on the recommendation of a Russian whom I met in Toronto last year – by the way, thanks for the tip, Natalia. Flying to Canada was quite a detour to learn about a place that lies only 10 minutes walk from my home. In itself, that convoluted way offered the first lesson of the visit: discovery may be in waiting in your backyard – not that the museum lies literally in my backyard:) – but you have to get out and may even have to travel the world to make the chance connections that will lead to it.
The museum hosts a permanent collections from the late 18th to the early 20th century, including some of Monet’s world famous Nympheas and other paintings from his Giverny retreat. As I mused through the latter, I could not help reflecting that those painted in the 1900s looked like the outdoor meditation of a quietly aging man, while those painted during World War I were increasignly descending into chaos and non-sense. When in his final years Monet paints views of his Giverny house from such or such place in the garden, the house can only be imagined, no longer seen. Arguably his eye-sight had deteriorated badly, but was there also something more profound?
I had come to see the Monet collection, but, shifting from tourist to traveler spirit (second lesson), I realized there was more to be seen on that day. The museum also hosts a temporary exhibition of Marie Laurencin. Born in 1883 when Monet was already basking in glory, Laurencin also painted her dark moods during the war, when she had to live in exile in Spain because she had married a German. Traces of cubism are obvious in her work, though by her own admission she never quite got it. At that point of my visit, I almost turned back, having already had my fill of moody paintings for the day. But I decided to hang on and I was rewarded. As Laurencin’s eye-sight also fast deteriorated her style shifted considerably in the late 1920s. Cubist-style lines and multi-faceting disappeared, while colour and simplicity started to shape characters. As the Great Depression and the rise of fascism took its toll, Laurencin’s style increased in softness. Even as war raged again in Europe and beyond, Laurencin didn’t seem to lose her faith in people, whose representation became ever purer. A la trompette, Arlequine, Danseuses, Cinq danseuses et un chien, Femme à la guitare, are particularly touching and soothing. In the bodies she paints she sees only the soul, which we enter through the intensity of the eyes. (Elle peint des corps qui ne sont plus qu’âmes où l’on entre par des yeux intenses.)
The experience left me with a third lesson: persevering can lead to unexpected dicoveries. My persevering through the temporary exhibition in spite of my lack of intent and initial enthusiasm was only a minuscule sample of Laurencin’s own perseverance through her life as a painter. By persevering she found her true and unique style, a style that sees the beauty of life in the darkest of circumstances, a style that sustained her for the last 25 years of her life.