Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Avignon, Nimes, Arles

I just spent the last week all around Provence, seeing sights and thinking thoughts -- I can't decide what to tell you about.

The main points revolve around ancient buildings (including Roman structures from the 1st century AD and a 14th century papal palace); wandering through impossible tangles of French streets and stumbling upon places I may never find again; contemplating art from the 14th and 21st centuries; eating (yes, really); and talking with all sorts of nice people. We could also get into both the introspection I had time for, my renewed appreciation for my bathroom (toilet seats! you don't see those every day), and small epiphanies on language.

I walked through a lot, a lot of very old stone buildings. No sooner did I recover from the shock of a 14th century palace, than what should appear but a 1st century arena. It is impossible for my 23-year-old mind to grasp 2000 years old -- although my young viscera definitely got the "I know this tower has lasted 2000 years, but can this narrow winding stone staircase really hold up until I get to the bottom safely?" bit. So we must be impressed then by the size and grandeur of the structures -- but even that's out of reach. At its finest, the architecture is so perfectly proportioned that it doesn't feel huge and you don't feel small; but the people walking around in front of you do seem a little silly in their irrelevance. I wonder what it was like to be walking around these buildings not as a reverent visitor, but as an inhabitant? I'm talking about the Palais des Papes, temporary seat for the Popes when they were in Avignon (starting around 1309, I believe), a place that housed not only the pope but the hundreds of people who worked with, under and around him; I'm talking about the 1st century AD Roman arenas, where 20,000-30,000 people could watch machismo in its bloody glory. What would it be like to see all that lavish extravagance as functionality rather than a sacred cocoon of History?

History's overwhelming; let's talk about Art. I saw two art museums: One of medieval Italian paintings, one of contemporary photography and sculpture. I realize that my nerdiness really borders on snootiness when I get all excited about Art and Western Culture and the New Yorker magazine and all those fancy elitist things that people pretend to like, but, seriously, fusty old paintings are a big deal. Looking at what one man (or woman) decides to put in one frame that ostensibly represents one moment in time puts me in their mind like nothing else can. Because of course they couldn't possibly confine the meaning of the painting to only one idea, even if they wanted to. What informs their decision to choose those expressions, those colors, those gestures? Nothing less than the entire world they live in. And so in room after room of Virgin Mary and Child, we see not the same woman with the same child but dozens of different artists as people, the towns they lived in, the conversations they had, the qualities they valued... as many enigmas as insights.

Wandering through narrow, windy little streets, or across ancient stone floors, is the best way to mull over all these thoughts about art and places and the world and what I'm doing here. And none of these words looks quite the same on my laptop screen as it did floating above a ivy-shaded shuttered window somewhere in Arles. I'll try again later.

1 comment:

  1. But did you danse sur le pont d'Avignon .... toutes en rond?

    The old works of art are very powerful. I saw La Pieta at the 1964 World Fair. I was stunned to see such emotion carved out of stone. What kind of person can create such a work?

    I'll sing Avignon for you ... unless you buy me a pastis.

    Love, Dad