Musee Melee

I think that one of the reasons people go to Paris is to see great art. Well, one of the reasons that we wanted to go to Paris was to see great art. One of the smartest purchases we made – actually the first one that we made at the airport was the six-day Museum Pass, for which one price gets you into nearly every museum (and other sites like Ste Chappell). Cost-savings aside, it had the awesome benefit of having its own entry line, so while the masses queued up at the ticket booths, we sailed right in every place that we visited. Bon!

Your best friend to get into museums

Now, in comparing the different museums, I could provide a thoughtful discourse on all the artwork that was in each, but that’s really only part of the museum-going experience, right? And being A Judgmental American, it’s important to keep score. Here they are in the order we visited them.

Rodin Museum. Our first museum stop was actually the one that was the closest to our little Parisian apartment in the 7th Arr. I remembered it as one of my favorites from my visit to the city in the mid-1990s. We were delighted to see that there was a special exhibit of Rodin’s sketches being shown. Seeing them made me realize just how much Rodin liked drawing naked women. And not just curvy, tastefully-shaded women, but everything out-there-for-all-too-see women.

Three Shades -- all the same piece, just oriented differently

We soon realized why there was such an exposition, when we found out that the main house of the museum was CLOSED. Merde. Ah well, many of the really stand-out pieces – The Thinker, The Burgers of Calais, The Three Shades, The Gates of Hell – are all outside in the garden, which we were happy to stroll through on a cool, cloudy (even a little rainy) day.

Gates of Hell Endure a Rainshower

Experience: 6 Balzacs. -3 for the main house being closed. +1 for trying to make it up with the drawings. +1 for the middle-aged couple that was overcome with l’amour while strolling in the garden and grappled like a couple of wrestlers. Kissing wrestlers.

L’Ongerie. Also one of my favorites from the 90s visit. I recalled a lovely small museum filled with wood-paneled rooms, each of which held a few Impressionist masterpieces (and of course, the grand galleries containing Monet’s Nymphae). So, I was pretty disoriented when I saw that there were no charming wood galleries and all the art seemed to be in a huge concrete basement hall. (I learned quickly that the museum had been closed for six years for a huge renovation.) The best part was a special exhibit on Debussy’s Art & Music. This exhibit highlighted the close friendships between the composer and several Impressionist contemporaries – and their ability of one to influence one  another. The exhibit also had several of Debussy’s music note books, which was fascinating to me. He had a very neat hand for music note-writing, but I was most interested in the things he crossed out in red ink.

Experience: 7 Cezanne pears. -3 for the renovation, because the industrial feel of the “basement” gallery was not hip, but cold and industrial. +2 for for the Debussy exhibit.

Orsay Inside

The Musee d’Orsay. I know it’s very bourgeois to like Impressionist art, but I like Impressionist art. And if you’re like me, the Musee d’Orsay is hard to beat. Every gallery contains a dozen pieces that most musuems would kill just to have just one of. Beautiful art and a beautiful space to house it. I’ve come to understand that the movie Hugo was set there (when it was still a train station). I suppose that now I’ll have to watch it.

Sacre Couer through the great clock at Orsay

Experience: 9 Degas ballerinas. -1 for the café running out of Eclairs Maxi before I had a chance to have one with my lunch.

The Marmottan Museum. This little museum (the only one not covered by our pass) had been part of Monet’s family for a long time and houses the family’s “private” collection of his paintings. It’s in a manor house out in the 16th Arr., so it’s off a lot of Seine-centric tourists’ itineraries. The house was lovely, though none of the Monet’s there were particularly stunning. In addition, half the exhibition space was taken up with a special exhibition on the life and art of Berthe Morisot.

Experience: 5 water lilies. -2 for the Berthe Morisot exhibit, which left me wondering less about her art than the Monets in the storage closet that were put away so that we could see it.

Plaza of the Louvre

The Louvre. The Granddaddy of them all. It struck me that the Louvre is most like Yellowstone National Park in that when you arrive it’s all crowded and crazy with people waiting to see Old Faithful – or in this case the Mona Lisa – but if you get a little bit off the trail so to speak, you can see wonders in privacy. For example, while the Grand Gallery was a wash of humanity, we saw Hammurabi’s Code (yes, THAT Hammurabi’s Code). While taking time to try and decipher the French curation, maybe one other couple went by. Crazy, but that’s The Louvre.

Hammurabi's Code All By Itself

Experience. 7 Winged Victories. The Louvre is probably the only museum that I can think of that is overwhelming and underwhelming at the same time (there’s just SO MUCH STUFF). -1 for having to watch people push and shove to look at the Mona Lisa. +1 for getting to watch people push and shove to look at the Mona Lisa.


Centre Georges Pompidou. The modern art monstrosity is naturally at one end of the hipster den of The Marais district. Modern art seems to be a tricky business – much like indie music – in that if you create something people really seem to like, then you’re a sell-out. I was prepared to hate everything. The top floor contained an exhibit on Henri Matisse that compared paintings that he did of similar subjects, which was spectacular. That and the Debussy exhibit at L’Orangerie were maybe the best things I saw all week. The next floor covered, in chronological order, all the major movements in 20th century art with good examples and curation. The last floor had all the new pieces. The new pieces, of course, are almost never something as bourgeois as a painting – they’re “installations”.

For example, there was a 21st century piece called “Flux” that was a stand, a fan and a ribbon of audiotape. I kept expecting it to collapse, but it never did. I’m not sure if it was “art”, but I could have watched it for an hour.

Experience: 10 cubist Picasso guys. +2 for beating all expectations. +1 for “Flux”, +1 for the best view of Paris from top floor. -1 for selling out.


20 thoughts on “Musee Melee

  1. What a wonderful fun quickie tour of the Musees! (probably not the correct plural)
    I loved the rating system! I was in France visiting my sister and we did hit Paris for two quick days, so didn’t go to the museums as much as Notre Dame and the Arche and the Eiffel Tower. I remember one museum in Arles we did see with modern artwork including old raggedy stuffed animals hanging by fishing line from the ceiling. Very odd.

    • Lauri — Let’s go with musees (which a quick check of google-translate says is correct!). If I had friends that were only going to be in Paris for a day or two, I think I’d suggest d’Orsay — in a half-day, you can see a lot of marvelous things.

    • joie — I know! I need to get more Debussy now that we’ve struck such a connection.

      We wondered if they shut “flux” down when the museum closes and whether there’s a “boot-up” procedure for some docent each morning.

  2. I probably *would* have stood there for an hour watching Flux!!
    When I think of my Louvre/Mona Lisa experience, I think of Japanese tourists, (taking flash pictures of it when it was behind glass). And it was about the same, tons of people at the ML and no one anywhere else. And loads and loads of ancient tapestries. I felt like I missed all the good rooms at the Louvre, even though I went through a lot of it, because I thought it was pretty boring. I liked the d’Orsay a lot too. I think the only other place I went where I had to pay was Versailles.(My friend was cheap/broke and wouldn’t pay for anything so we walked a lot, ate Burger King and didn’t go to many museums or anything)
    Anyway, thanks for the quick tour! That pass sounds great!

    • cranky — yes, I think the “checklist” people at the Louvre go for the Mona Lisa –> Winged Victory –> Venus de Milo circuit and then get out, with maaaaybe a stop at the Egyptian artifacts. Of the Big Three, I thought the Winged Victory was easily the most impressive.

      We skipped the wing with all the Dutch Masters. The Louvre had worn us out by then.

  3. “Flux” wins hands down. I would sit there for hours, I’m sure. It’s like a Rube Golberg piece, only quieter. Again, I liked the rating system you used. I look forward to your next installment.

  4. -1 for having to watch people push and shove to look at the Mona Lisa. +1 for getting to watch people push and shove to look at the Mona Lisa.

    LOL!!! Yes! I sometimes think it’s more entertaining to watch the museum goers than the art. The Mona Lisa was disappointing, IMO. I preferred “The Virgin and Child with St. Anne”—St. Anne had the most wonderful smile. I also liked the Delacroixs and the Ingres, and they were in a gallery that had very few people at the time I was there. But it’s too bad nobody takes the time to explore the Egyptian and early Greek art. I liked the Winged Victory of Samothrace, even if she was missing her head, lol.

    The d’Orsay is also one of my favorites, and there is no reason to apologize for a love of the Impressionists. They were revolutionary for their time, and to see the real paintings and their use of paint and color is to see the beginnings of modern art. Hipsters who scoff at the Impressionists because the paintings are accessible and “pretty” are philistines, nyah nyah. I didn’t see the Pompidou but I think “Flux” would be fun to watch for ten minutes. My attention span isn’t what it used to be.

    Five stars for this post, Steve!

    • Thanks HG! As a student of human nature, watching people at the touristy places was a great vacation in itself. We thought that people probably did the Mona Lisa –> Winged Victory –> Venus de Milo circuit and then were out of there. I thought of your post a while back at the museum with all the people clicking phone-photos rather than actually looking at the art.

      Some of my favorite things at the d’Orsay were the pieces I hadn’t seen reproduced a thousand times that were really striking — and I’d end up thinking why did “Starry Night” get to pop-culture status and this piece didn’t?

  5. Oh, yes, I definitely like “Flux”.
    I generally don’t care for the exhibits at the local, Long Beach, museums but they once had a slo mo video of 14 people, standing in a studio space, being hit by a LOT of water (fire hoses or something they were off camera) – and their subsequent reactions and recovery. It was long. I watched it twice and could easily have watched it all day.

    • leendadll — I liked more of the 21st century pieces than I thought I would. For too much after WWII, “art” seemed to be about confusing or offending the viewer. The very modern pieces have seemed to get beyond that somewhat.

      Didn’t spot Gabe and his grandfather though we kept our eyes out!

  6. Years ago, my aunt had gotten a divorce (in 1950! disgraceful!) and wanted to leave town for a while.
    So she drove out to California, because she would get paid more as a teacher in Maryland if she had seen the Pacific Ocean.
    So she went and looked at the Pacific Ocean.
    (And never went back, which is a whole other story.)

    I was thinking about the crowds milling about to go see the Mona Lisa.
    Sort of like seeing the Pacific – ooooo, now you are a different person, because of being in its presence.

    It sounds as if you had a glorious time, and now I wanna go.
    (Sorry about them taking out your lovely old wood paneled rooms, though.)
    And yay Debussy!

    • Lauowolf — that’s funny that seeing the Pacific would have paid your aunt more. Imagine if she had gone to Paris as well! Of course, I shouldn’t kid. I came out here more than 10 years ago and haven’t left either! :)

      It was a great great time — so many great memories.

  7. The Flux video is honestly meditative. I am moving to Europe for a year and will likely visit Paris during that time – your posts are going to come in super handy then. Am really enjoying the read.

  8. I really wanted to read this post in depth but had to stop. We’re planning a first-time trip to Italy next summer with a stop in Paris and I want everything to be a surprise…so I kind of read it with one hand over my eyes so I won’t see all of the pics. Sounds like you had a wonderful time…at least from what I could see. ;-)

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