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Stunned in Orsay

photo: entry, musee d'orsay

The age of steel fascade of the Musée d'Orsay.

Paris Life - No. 20

by Laurel Avery

Paris:- Thursday, 9. October:- Last night I dreamed that I was driving around, lost in some strange city. I had a very detailed map with me that showed every street and major building on it, though each page was only one small section of the town.

I realized I needed a larger map to give me an overview of the city, and found one at the back of the map book. However, it then occurred to me that I had no idea where I was, and even though I had this detailed map showing the place I wanted to get to, if I didn't know where I was, the map was useless.

This dream was likelyphoto: musee orsay interior brought on by yesterday's visit to the Musée d'Orsay, the Paris museum that was converted from a Belle Epoque railway station to a place housing one of the most important collections of late 19th century art in Europe.

I had gone there specifically to see the exhibit, running only until Sunday, 19. October, which is devoted to Engène Atget and his contemporaries - artists who made photographs around the turn of the 20th century.

The ground floor of the museum's interior.

My friend and I had to wait only about 20 minutes on the line to get into the museum, which wasn't bad, as it was the first Sunday of the month when all the state museums are free and I figured the crowds would be larger than usual.

I picked up a map of the museum as soon as we got in, but it didn't show where the special exhibit was. Amusingly enough, when my friend asked the woman behind the catalog sales counter where the Atget exhibit was, she said she had never heard of it. After a couple of minutes of wandering around we found a sign pointing to an area for 'Photography,' and sure enough, that's where it was.

Three small rooms were filled with photographs that brought La Belle Epoque back to life. Including works from my favorites, Steichen and Stieglitz. There were also photos taken by artists who were not particularly well-known for their photographs, such as Edgar Degas, Pierre Bonnard and Edouard Vuillard.

Still ecstatic from the experience of seeing these photographs up-close, I then tried to find the rooms featuring the Orsay's collection of Art Nouveau - one of my favorite artistic styles - and I consulted the museum map.

However, the museum is arranged on a number of different levels, and one staircase does not connect to all levels. So where there is a stairway from the ground level to the top level, you can't get to the Art Nouveau collection at the middle level via this staircase.

To do this you have to go back down to ground level and take a different staircase to the middle level - a staircase which is artfully hidden around the area of the toilettes. I felt like a rat in a maze.

It took some searching, but it was worth the odyssey. Finally reaching the area of decorative arts devoted to Art Nouveau, I was stunned by the vastness and beauty of the collection.

The room devoted to Charpentier was breathtaking enough to make me gasp. The whole room was made ofphoto: railway clock, orsay mahogany, oak and poplar panels, carved in elegant, sinuous vine patterns. I think they must still be mopping up the drool that I left when I finally got dragged out of there by my long-suffering companion.

For the last couple of weeks I had been suffering from a lack of creative inspiration and wondering whether my big move here was for any purpose.

More clocks on the outside, just like a train station.

The best part of my visit to the Musée d'Orsay was that it reminded me that I am living in one of the most beautiful places on earth, and one of the great things about living in Paris is the fact that there is so much to inspire, just a short walk from my apartment.

Museums, gardens, galleries, street people, Métro musicians, vegetable markets, strikes - the list goes on and on.

So I've gotten my bearings again and now can set off down the road more assured of where it is that I'm going, map in hand, showing me that 'this is where I am.'

Text and photos, Laurel Avery © 2003
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