medieval art history, navel gazing, horizon scanning
Monday, November 10, 2014
Fake Nature Real Noise
Here I am at the Buttes Chaumont: Baron Haussmann's last project, a rural terrain then in what is now the bustling 19th arrondissement, ex-quarry/pig farm, present-day fantasy wonderland of fake nature. But really, by the 19th century, is there any other kind? That's an unfair question for about 20 reasons, but there is something delicious about reading Baron Haussmann's sentiments that Parisians, as of the 1867 construction of the Buttes Chaumont, need no longer fatigue themselves by leaving Paris, for he will have brought a better nature, an orchestrated nature to them. And yes! There are waterfalls and valleys and little mountains (made much nicer with a temple to the Sybil on top) and this cavern with a waterfall. And everywhere the bridge railings are carved in wooden forms, and there are planks, but they're all from molded concrete. It's just incredible. All arranged, all staged, all choreographed for maximum Romantic flânerie et appeal and yet - and yet and yet, when you're there, you find yourself breathing deep and staring at waterfalls and feeling very good indeed. It's not like other parks somehow - there's something a little wilder, you get lost more easily, the green is more willful, the water has more presence. I stood and smiled with Oliver and said to him, over the roar of the waterfall, "This is the only place in Paris, France where you can scream with impunity" - and his eyes gleamed and so he did: a full, rending scream, long and loud, his mouth wide open and his head thrown back. He was ecstatic when it was over - "I haven't done that in five months!" he said which a) made me wonder where he goes to scream back at home and b) made us both laugh that somehow, that - screaming - had been missing from our time in Paris.
This resonated with dinner conversation tonight which rehearsed the conversation that Mac and the kids had the Louvre this afternoon (I was "en bibliothèque") about these two entities. The one in the foreground is a taxidermied deer to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the Musée Nationale d'Histoire Naturelle. It is positioned across from a 19th-century bronze of the Genie of the Hunt which (I hope (or maybe I don't) that you can make it out) features a stag brought down by said Genie and his dog who is pinning the deer by dragging it down by the ear. The deer bellows, mouth open, eyes wide, tongue swollen. The big debate that ensued was "which is more real?" Not entirely surprisingly, the girls went with the taxidermied deer (closer to the physical real) and Oliver with the sculpture (the experiential real). The kid who screams in fake waterfalls and feels an ecstatic release isn't going to let a little bronze get in the way of the Real.
I want to end (better brief than nothing) with this marvelous image. It's two highly stylized waves from a Viking stele which was featured in the "Voyager au Moyen Age" show at the Cluny (check out the awesome itinerary for children that you can download before you go). I'm going to show the entire stele in just a few lines, but here, I wanted to focus on this patterning, this stylization of waves - the crisp new wave to the left in tight interlace, the wave starting to crash upon the shore with its crest coming undone, its interlace in loopy disarray. And the bodies of the waves themselves thick as stone, joined and rearing, barely tempering. Whoever carved this knew their sound.
Here is the full stele. A stone carved to look like stone, with the warrior it commemorates astride his horse, his wheeled shield propelling him forward. Then a boat, then those waves - and wall text about final journeys to an afterlife. I've been doing a great deal of writing and thinking and reading these past few days, but none of it about these simulacra of the natural and their real effects. Oliver's scream in the midst of Baron Haussman's confection, the taxidermied deer staring at his bronze opposite, and these stony interlaced waves undone wind these strange elements around my thoughts and have me thinking about how the real will out in noise.