Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Postcard from Paris: Musee d'Orsay

I suppose it was apt that a hiccup in long-distance travel arrangements should bring us to see the Musee d'Orsay in Paris, because for a generation it was one of the key travel places in the French capital city.

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Now, of course, it is a museum, and it was as such that we went to see it. A recommendation from our son that proved to be a really worthwhile experience.

Everybody knows about the Louvre; probably many also know about the Musee d'Orsay, but it doesn't have the same international recognition, despite housing key works from some of the most important old and modern masters.

More, it is a wonderful example of how to turn an architectural masterpiece into a repositary for masterpieces of other kinds.

The actual site was formerly where a palace built before the French Revolution housed the functionaries and bosses of the royal Court of Accounts and the State Council. It was destroyed along with the whole block in the 'Paris Commune' in 1871.

Thirty years later the Orleans Railroad Company was given the site and built a new railway terminus that is famous for being the first in Paris with electricity. Designed by architect Victor Laloux, it was opened for the 1900 World Fair held in the French capital.

The station included 16 separate tracks, elevators for those using the multi-story building, and an integrated hotel on the grand style for customers who used the rails for long-distance travel on the south-western network.

Victor Laloux's creation was also exactly what had been required in aesthetic terms, a building to the scale and style that fitted in with the grandeur of the section of Paris where it was located.

Paradoxically, while it was at the leading edge of the electricity revolution when it was built, less than four decades later the Gare d'Orsay lost its place as the main station of the network because the beginning electrification of the French railway system enouraged longer trains, which didn't fit in the limitations of the platforms of the station's Great Hall.

dorsay2385The station's downgraded status as a suburban terminus didn't even survive much beyond WW II. It was used for a variety of commercial purposes, but none of them properly reflected the scale or grand nature of the premises. Though its use as the set for part of the film of Kafka's 'The Trial', produced by Orson Welles, might have come close.

And the use of the grand Salle des Fetes in the hotel by Charles de Gaulle, to announce his return to political power, was an historic moment.

The hotel itself finally closed its doors in 1973, and plans were mooted to tear the building down and put up a large modern replacement. This plot was thwarted by the intervention of the French national museum authorities, who wanted to locate there a facility dedicated to the art of the second half of the nineteenth century. The matter was also helped by the listing of the building as an historical monument.

dorsay2387In late 1986 it was reopened as the museum that it is today. The development used the Great Hall as the main area, with galleries and terraces on either side and on several levels. The original glass end wall with its magnificent clock remains a centerpiece.

Turning the main rail station hall into a space with the kind of human proportions so different from that needed for large puffing steam locomotives wasn't an easy job. But they did it quite briliantly, partly by providing different floor levels under the vast curved roof, as well as installing a coherent stone flooring surface with a matching surface on the walls.

The magnificent ceilings in the Dining Hall and Salle des Fetes were also retained, and provide a sense of splendour that truly recalls a France proud of itself at the height of its colonial state. The Dining Hall is now the museum's Restaurant, and the Salle is an exhibition area.

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dorsay2404With permanent collections of the works of artists like Monet, Van Gogh, Cezanne, Whistler, and Degas, the Musee d'Orsay is a must-visit for anyone seriously interested in the Impressionist and Post-Impressionist artistic eras. Other masters whose works are on display include Delacroix, Manet, Renoir, Rodin, Seurat, Sisley, Pissarro, Gauguin, Matisse, Toulouse-Lautrec, and many, many others.

In addition, there are many examples of modern artists' works, a number of them showing homage to the old masters, and therefore in a fitting place to do so.

For this writer, the sculpture works were the most interesting, and displayed as they are in the centre section of the Great Hall, they have the light and the space to be viewed at their best.

All in all, a technical fault in a plane at Dublin Airport which caused us to miss our connection onwards to Singapore and therefore left a day to kill in Paris proved to be a singular boon. If you look for it, there's always another side to down.

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