Monday, October 5
When I was in music school at the University of Wisconsin – Madison, there was a Music History Professor named Gwynn McPeek who I really liked. He was a highly respected specialist in Medieval music who would eventually have articles published in the 1980 Groves Dictionary of Music and Musicians. When I knew him, he was maybe in his fifties, had a smudgy mustache, smoked a pipe and loved to have students drop by and sit in the one of the big leather chairs in his office and chat, which I did often.
The one course I had from Mr. McPeek (people never addressed teachers as ‘Professor’ when I was in school, was a general ‘History of Western Music’. McPeek was a really good lecturer, so good that his classes were broadcast on the state radio network. But I have a point here about something he said in one of his lectures that struck me somewhere in the middle of our visit to the Louvre.
A general history of western music course must by necessity cover only major composers, major events, major works. But McPeek would, from time to time, bring up some minor composer, usually a contemporary of one of the great masters, one whose work — though fascinating and often ‘near-great’ — had been largely or completely forgotten.
“Don’t sell Anton Fils short!” he would exclaim to quiet titters from all-knowing students in the room, including mine. But over time I understood the wisdom behind what he meant. In our zeal to hear the great works of the great masters, we were overlooking a rich heritage of often extremely good and quite often entertaining and really cool music. If you only know Antonio Salieri as Mozart’s nemesis in “Amadeus”, then you don’t realize that he was a major figure in his era who wrote some really fine works. Or if you only know Brahms’ symphonies and chamber music, you are overlooking Joachim Raff, a composer well worth seeking out. Or in the Baroque, worshippers at the shrine of Bach, Handel and Vivaldi tend to be dismissive of Georg Philip Telemann or Reinhard Keiser, two other giants of that same era.
The tragedy of classical music also-rans is that their music is never heard. The scores and parts have been consigned to dusty drawers and high far-off shelves in academic libraries. And once in a great while, some record company like Naxos will resurrect one or two of their works on some CD that gets bought by about twenty people, including (sometimes) me.
But one of the great things about being an artist dealing in a visual medium is that for many, their work is still with us, and it’s out there in plain sight, to be appreciated and enjoyed long after the artist has left this life. And the greatest of these minor masters, or at least the ones whose work wasn’t obliterated in some church fire or world war, find their work into the collections many major museums. That’s right. Hundreds of years after these works were created, t can still be seen, appreciated and enjoyed.
Walking through a few of the hundreds of galleries in the Louvre, I was struck by how many of these minor masters were represented. And while Rembrandt, da Vinci, Titian, El Greco, Reubens, Breugel, Van Eyck, Tintoretto, Caravaggio and a hundred or so others have their greatest works on display at the Louvre, probably a full 95% of the remaining tens of thousands of works on the walls or in the sculpture galleries come from all of these other forgotten masters.
In preparing for the Louvre, I read a number of articles, most of which talked about the many visitors who come only to see the “big three”, the Mona Lisa, the Venus di Milo, and the ancient statue, Winged Victory of Samothrace (two of which were created by geniuses whose names are lost to time). Mary Ann and I were unexcited about having to brave the crowds that are inevitably packed in around these three works, so had no great desire to pack ourselves
into those masses of humanity. Winged Victory is installed in a grand staircase on the way to other galleries, so we were able to appreciate its triumphant greatness in spite of hundreds of gawkers, photographers (i.e. me) and people attempting to pass through without tripping and falling over someone else. Mona Lisa is in the center of a large room, against a bare wall by far the smallest painting in a room of enormous paintings ranged out on the walls around it.
So there are actually people who actually make it to the Louvre to mainly see these three works (and maybe a few others) and then they leave! On to the next thing on their Paris checklist! No, they have not interest in the other 95% of the near-greats that make this museum so huge and complex and fascinating.
And while we pretty much wrote off the ‘big three’, we did have a small list that included the surreal quartet of ‘food-face’ paintings of Archimboldo, Vermeer, and few others. (And truly, there are some truly major masterpieces like Da Vinci’s Virgin of the Rocks, that were just on a wall being largely ignored among dozens of other paintings.)
But what really fascinated me were all these masterpieces at the Louvre that were created by people I had never heard of. Brilliant paintings and sculptures with emotional power that had the ability to command your attention not just to their craft, but to their allure. They draw you into their world and you just can’t go to the next painting on the wall or sculpture in the gallery until you’ve had a moment to spend to connect with them.
I wish I could rattle off all their names today. I did take a few pictures of them, but shooting pictures that aren’t of high quality is a less than satisfying way of remembering those kinds of moments. I think the ephemeral quality of these chance encounters needs to be appreciated and savored right there in the moment. So that’s just what I did.
One thing that you learn even before you go to the Louvre is that you will not see it all in one day. If you do, you’ll need to traverse over 13 kilometers of galleries in something like ten hours. Not a good way to drink in great art. You won’t even see it and fully appreciate it if you allow a full day for each of the eight major sections. Maybe six months might let you skim the surface of some of them.
So with the one day we allotted ourselves, we knew this was going to be something akin to flying over Frank Lloyd Wright’s Falling Water at 5,000 feet. (Fortunately we saw Falling Water at ground level earlier this year. It was amazing!)
The museum guide tells you to decide what you want to see and create a map for seeing it all. Truly, the Louvre redefines ‘HUGE’ for anyone who visits it, so you don’t want to be seeing Winged Victory in the Denon Wing and then hike for fifteen minutes over to the middle of the Richelieu Wing to appreciate some Rembrandt. You need a plan or your feet will fall off before you’ve seen half of what you want to see.
And consider that the Louvre is always packed with people. And especially on Mondays, the day we were there! (One nice thing, though, is that those galleries where you find most of the also-rans, the galleries are usually quite empty and ripe for the picking! Great places to visit these forgotten masters.)
Neither of us particularly likes crowds, especially me I think. And we knew Mary Ann’s feet (see an earlier post) would last only so long. So we chose some general areas we wanted to check out (Flemish paintings, Italian paintings, Sculptures, decorative arts, and some galleries we found ourselves in on the way from one to another. Otherwise we really didn’t come with much of the sort of plan the gallery strongly recommends you make. But in doing so, we found out something, that when you have no plan, you’ll still have a great time and encounter great things. If you aren’t totally set on seeing ten great artworks in person, if you’re willing to see them in fine volumes, you’re going to see so much more. You’ll see a full forest of trees, each of which is worthy of your attention.
It was a satisfying visit even in spite of the massive crowds jostling and pushing at times, and all because of what Mr. (Professor) McPeek taught me back in 1966.
“Don’t sell Anton Fils short, Johnny.”
Afterward we were definitely tired, hungry and in desperate need of resting our feet. A cafeteria that greeted us just as we emerged from the Richelieu wing was uninviting. Crowded and nearly out of food. But on the floor below, we found Le Café Grand Louvre, where the wait was long, but the food delicious!
After lunch, Mary Ann opted to go to the bookstore while I returned to the galleries for another hour to enjoy the decorative arts and visit some other things that interested me.
Wikipedia tells me that “The Musée du Louvre contains more than 380,000 objects and displays 35,000 works of art in eight curatorial departments with more than 60,600 square metres (652,000 sq ft) dedicated to the permanent collection. The Louvre exhibits sculptures, objets d’art, paintings, drawings, and archaeological finds. It is the world’s most visited museum, averaging 15,000 visitors per day, 65 percent of whom are foreign tourists.”
And today I (and my tired feet) have some small sense of just what that means!
When we finally emerged back into the real world, nature had intruded with what had been a daylong rainstorm still in full force. Taxicabs everywhere had passengers, and we weren’t about to walk two miles in the rain. Just as we were about to give up, one taxi with his red lights on (red means the cab is occupied) flashed his headlights and beckoned us to his really empty cab and started us on a ride back to 125 Rue de l’University, a cab ride that came with free amounts of humor, philosophy and wisdom, all courtesy of our driver, Mr. Nayef Sbeity.
But more about Sbeity in the next blog post.