Friday, March 23, 2012

Taking Hemingway's Advice: Musée Delacroix sans alimentation

"You could always go into the Luxembourg museum and all the paintings were sharpened and clearer and more beautiful if you were belly-empty, hollow-hungry. I learned to understand Cézanne much better and to see truly how he made landscapes when I was hungry."
               -Ernest Hemingway, A Moveable Feast

It's so easy (and so clichéd, but also so fun) to become a bit obsessed with Hemingway when you're in Paris. He captures it all so well and you walk past places he mentions so often that the whole city makes you think of Hemingway and, if you're me you end up living half in the 1920s, looking for the Paris of your imagination (which isn't really that hard to find). I especially start to think of Hemingway when I'm hungry.

It's surprisingly easy not to eat in Paris. One Sunday, I realised that I had no food in my cupboard and found almost everywhere closed. Another day I went for a walk, intending to buy groceries, and saw a man walking along the street carrying two cages with talking parrots inside. I felt obliged to walk in the same direction as him, was distracted by the (wonderful) Bêtes Off! exhibition at the Conciergerie and then the Sainte Chapelle... and found at dinnertime that I hadn't had breakfast or lunch.

Today, I confused coffee with cereal in the morning, assumed at two that it was late enough that I must have had lunch and realised with a jolt of hunger in the first room of the Delacroix Museum, looking at a Fantin-Latour painting of a vase of flowers, that I'd once again forgotten to eat. I decided to take the opportunity to evaluate Hemingway's idea that hunger strengthens your perceptions.



The Musée Delacroix is located at the last house Delacroix lived in, in the Rue Furstemberg. He moved here in 1857 to be closer to Saint Sulpice, where he was painting a chapel, and remained until 1863. The museum is located in his former apartments and his studio in the back courtyard.

The exhibition taking place when I visited focused on Henri Fantin-Latour's Hommage à Delacroix. The painting opened the Musée d'Orsay's Manet show last year but makes much more sense here. You can also see in this exhibition, surrounded by material related to the painting, how Hommage à Delacroix, itself a painting about cult following, could easily inspire a cult following.

Hommage à Delacroix holds centre-stage in Delacroix's former studio. There's also a photograph of the Fantin-Latour at his canvas working on the painting and there are works by all the painters who appear in it, grouped around the central portrait of Delacroix. There are letters from one artist to another and when you're hungry these take on a magical appeal; I found my brain wasn't working well enough to decipher the handwriting and read the letters so they remained objects of mystery, touched by artists who had created the paintings and sketches which surrounded me.

While my intellectual faculties were somewhat subdued, my senses did seem heightened and I felt I was looking at works more thoroughly and for longer than I otherwise would. Earlier in the exhibition were two Delacroix pastels of the sea and sky and I felt myself almost disappearing into the soft, atmospheric colours. I found I could much more fully appreciate the sensual, painterly qualities of the pastels when my mind wasn't thinking critically, was attuned purely to beauty without my brain acting as a mediator numbing the impact.

The works I paused in front of were the ones most immediately beautiful. I liked Albert de Balleroy's paintings of horses and Jules Dalou's model for Monument à Delacroix, now in the Jardin du Luxembourg. I also liked the Delacroix frescoes positioned high on the walls of the studio, invisible to those who did not look up, done in 1834. These three small works were Delacroix's only frescoes and they're lovely; the lines in Léda et le Cygne are pleasing and the tiger accompanying Bacchus has so much personality. There was a surprising lack of Delacroix work in the Musée Delacroix, perhaps due to the exhibition, but I liked the Delacroix works that were on display.

Fantin-Latour's Immortalité was the highlight of the exhibition, along with the studies for this painting. The painting of Delacroix's tomb shows light shooting down from the top right corner of the frame, illuminating the sculpted figure whilst obscuring the tomb itself in shadow. This treatment brings the funeral monument to life and these works are really a beautiful representation of immortality. The lithograph of Immortalité is from the Bibliothèque Nationale, the drawing is from Karen B Cohen's collection and the finished painting is on loan from the National Museum of Wales. It's wonderful to see the three together; looking from sketch to lithograph to painting, the woman and flowers come increasingly alive as the tomb itself becomes more obscured by darkness.

I doubt hunger leads to writing good reviews. I think it causes me to feel the paintings more than I otherwise would, but it also stops me from fully comprehending both words and curatorial devices. It also probably depends a bit on what you're looking at, as I imagine this approach works much more for impressionist paintings than, for example, the maths exhibition currently on at the Fondation Cartier. My senses were heightened, but not my critical faculties; afterward, wandering along the Rue de Buci, everything felt perfect and like a photograph but I'd lost the ability to effectively work out what to eat.

I couldn't consult Hemingway on that question, either. In the story quoted above, he goes eventually to the Brasserie Lipp. It's still there, on Boulevard Saint-Germain, but in the intervening years it's become very expensive (and reportedly not very good). You can find a lot of Hemingway's newspaper articles online; in 1922 he wrote an article for the Toronto Star entitled Living on $1000 a Year in Paris. $12, then, was the cost of a room in Rue Jacob overnight. It's now less than what you'd pay for lunch on Rue Jacob (itself half a block from the Musée Delacroix).

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