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192 nonfiction When our Parisian friend Isabelle asked which part of the Louvre I wanted to look at first, I responded like a cretin, an infidel, and told her the nineteenth-century French painters: the equivalent, I suppose, were someone to come to my country and ask to be taken to the Baseball Hall of Fame, in Cooperstown. But we went there, navigating through the maze of art, and it was wonderful. There’s an intoxicating emotional impact, a compressed intensity, in viewing great paintings by the masters in a smaller gallery—the greatest hits, for example, in the hushed intimacy of a museum like the Phillips Collection, in Washington DC— but I had never before experienced anything like the quantitative intensity of the Louvre: the steady scrolling, in room after room, wall after wall, painting after painting, of history, seemingly stroke by stroke. Viewing so many paintings, wave after wave of them stretching across time and place (the landscapes and styles of the Italian and Spanish impressionists not differing all that much from the neighboring French painters, as if back then political boundaries were less resolute), you begin to see, here and there, glimpses of what is to come, Museums Rick Bass Two 193 stylistically. The Sargent-like sheen of white sunlight pouring down upon someone’s shoulder and the left side of a face, thirty years before Sargent picked up a brush; the luminosity, the Renoir-like glistening merriment of the eyes in a painting a quarter century before Renoir began work. It is as if these visions of the world (for surely it was only the vision that began to shift, not the world itself, across such a short time span) crept in on their own, not summoned by any one artist or group of artists, but possessed of their own yearnings to be in the world, like spirits, or living things. After only an hour in the Louvre, my lower back was already cramping with that strange ache specific to gallery watching—the stress of leaning in forward and peering closely at individual strokes, then stepping back and arching your back the other way to stare with perspective, forward and backward, like an adder, with your pulse and your breath coming faster, tensing yourself unconsciously in that agitated state of admiration and awe—and in some of the rooms I had to sit down on one of the viewing sofas like an old man and just stare up, neck tilted at the large paintings as I rested. I’d forgotten how damn big they used to paint in Europe, all those gigantic works wherein turmoil swirls below—battles with horses overturned in the mud with whitened eyes rolling, Christian saints and martyrs wailing and moaning, barefoot women in nighties baring their breasts to heaven—while higher up in the huge paintings angels swarm with trumpets, clearly defining the space between earth and heaven, toil and peace. The museum was crowded—we were often shoulder to shoulder with strangers—but when we came to the Mona Lisa, this thronging below was made strangely tolerable by the immense openness overhead: the vertical freedom, the airy boundlessness of that vacuum, created the space necessary to accommodate the exaltation you encountered. It’s why we like cathedrals; it’s why we feel good when we’re in towering We like cathedrals; we feel good when we’re in towering old forests, or looking up at a roof of stars. 194 ecotone old forests, or looking up at a roof of stars. (And may also be why we are sometimes discomforted by the endless blue sky above a prairie: we’re ready for ascension or exaltation, yes, but not, perhaps, for infinity .) You could almost hear echoes of other voices far above the heads of the museumgoers and the paintings themselves. In nearly every room living artists practiced: schoolgirls with tablets in hand sitting on stair steps, sketching a likeness of one of the drawings , and painters, sometimes older men in berets, crouched at their easels, mimicking the work of a master while the flow of museum­ goers parted left and right around them in a never-ending stream. Crawling through...


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