31 July 2006

Worth a 6 year -- or 26 year -- wait? L'Orangerie

The last time I was in Paris was in May 2000. I had previously tried to see the Monet Nympheas murals installed on the curved wall of the L'Orangerie 20 years earlier, but didn't make it to the museum before it closed on my last day. So I had wanted to see them on that trip 20 years later. One morning, I set out for L'Orangerie, but was disappointed to find on arrival that the museum had closed a few days earlier for remodeling. Little did I know that the next time I would be in Paris would be only a few months after the building reopened after numerous complications and delays in the remodeling.

Fast forward 6 years. This time I had only a few hours layover in Paris and was with my son who had never been to Paris. On a day so hot you didn't want to do anything, especially if it involved taking a subway, we went several places at his request: l'arc de triomph, Eiffel tower, wandered near the fountains at Trocedarro, rested our weary feet at a sidewalk cafe, saw Napolean's tomb -- and with only a few minutes left, rushed to L'Orangerie at my insistence just before they closed the doors.

The building is washed in light: bright white walls, a roof of skylights letting in the sun, reflecting off the curved walls at the entrance. You cross an open walkway giving view to the floor below and enter the first room. You are greeted by more curved white walls, an antechamber that may -- or may not -- exist for future exhibitions. You wonder what waits beyond the next doorway as you process through the figure-eight hallway of rooms, considering whether the smooth curves leading to the paintings isn't some sort of architectural hyperbole, an attempt to build up expectation for the murals installed on the curved walls beyond. But, entering the first room with the paintings, I dare anyone not to gasp!

Ahhh! The giant Nympheas murals are overwhelming! Simply framed, one on each stark white wall, your eyes dart from one explosion of color to another. Each is of waterlillies, but so different from the others that it is difficult to believe at first that they are of the same subjects. Looking at the paintings I could understand what Monet was attempting to do with light. Waterlillies in the morning, at dusk, under the hot summer sun, late in the season just before the final blooms fade.

Each painting is too big to have only one focal point, yet the various parts of the lengthy murals do not seem to compete for viewing, but to gently guide your eyes from one part to another. While it's true that the air-conditioned building would have been a respite from a blistering hot day even if there was nothing on the walls, sitting in the rooms looking at the Monets seemed to naturally cool you.

I don't know that I have the vocabulary to describe the murals adequately in artistic terms. I will post pictures later after I return home and hope that those can at least give a hint of the magnificence of these paintings. I can say that I am sure that if I had made it to L'Orangerie in May, 1980, or if it had not been closed yet in May, 2000, I would have seen an entirely different set of artwork. It is hard to believe that these paintings were cloistered for years in a building with a second floor without any natural light. Harder still to believe that the building was reconstructed around the works without bringing any harm to them.

Was it worth the wait? I think so. I'd suggest to anyone visiting Paris that you make the effort to see these --even if you only have a brief 6 hour layover.

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