There comes a watershed moment in every person’s life, when a realisation dawns on you so completely, that you forget everything around you, and in a moment — as that realisation shatters your train of thought — you become enchanted, in my case, in this instance, by a fellow human.
I was once a history addict hooked on art. So when I first traipsed the streets of Paris, artworks, buildings and sculptures appeared before me, triggering within me, fleeting memories from the days I had spent pouring over art tomes. Famous names and artworks were pulled from deep, dark, dusty corners of my mind and made anew; pages of old books were replaced by the real thing.
Around every corner a smörgåsbord for the eyes was waiting to be found. Tourists had flocked to the city in droves, combing it better than any search and rescue team ever could, in the hope that they (as searchers themselves) may get a glimpse of greatness.
And greatness was to be found everywhere. Yet such an abundance can be at times overwhelming to even the most die-hard art lover. So much to see, so much to cover, so many places. Wherever you turn a unique snapshot of a particular era, period, or movement. At every place of interest hundreds waited in the scorching sun, feet baking, growing anticipation mixed with slight vexation at the fellow queueing, suffering hordes shuffling in their throes, all waiting to see beauty curated from a time long before now. And I was one of them, just as hungry for a glimpse of greatness.
Sitting on the edge of my hotel bed later that night I looked down at my shoes, once black, now covered in fine white dust from the streets outside. My feet within throbbed like gelatinous deep sea creatures, crying out for release after an entire day spent walking. I reflected on what I’d seen, and while I had been exposed to an incalculable amount of wonder at places such as The Louvre, Sacré Coeur and Notre Dame, as much as I hate to admit it, I was not yet blown away by anything. Sure, it was great, amazing even at times — well more often than not in fact — but I was looking for the holy grail, a sense of awe in the religious sense, something that would make me stop dead, render me speechless, or even unreachable, just for a moment. But it hadn’t happened. So I continued to greedily lap up the copious amounts of art and history, my appetite insatiable.
Before long I had become a sort of high-functioning drone, reeling with the crowds. I was a robot: stop and stare, absorb-backstory-which-contextualises-said-piece-of-art, take a picture, shuffle onwards, then repeat. This continued ad infinitum. This state of numbness hit me completely as I stood staring at what was probably a laudable artwork, and as I stood there, eyes glazed, I absently realised I was in fact wondering whereabouts I could get my next baguette.
At least, that was until I arrived at Musée d’Orsay. Inside my shuffling feet led me to a room that held the work of Vincent Van Gogh. The hordes kept shuffling around me, but out of the gloom, and piercing the cloak of numbness that had enveloped me, a tiny light appeared. And this tiny light came in the form of Starry Night Over the Rhone. I was awakened. It’s fair to say I stood staring at it longer than any other artwork or sculpture I had encountered before. Finally, reluctantly, I made my way closer to see the brushwork, and the illusion that had captured me from across the room collapsed in on itself. I could see the brush strokes, and in effect, I saw where the magician was hiding the rabbit before he pulled it out of the hat. But I was still off-balance from how striking it was, in that first moment.
Then I went into the next room, where again I was struck, but this time dumbstruck. I stood swaying, pulled in against all will to a pale mass of blue swirls contrasted by sharp piercing eyes, quivering with intensity, challenging me, set against that soft, lucid background. I forgot all about the baguette, and more. Later on I had an urge to travel back in time, take my High School Art History teacher by the shoulders, and lament “Why didn’t you tell me!?” For in that moment no reproduction, no textbook, no colour plates, indeed no 72dpi image found scattered across the internet, could come close to experiencing this self portrait of Van Gogh, first hand.
I was operating at a low ebb of consciousness. It felt like I wasn’t looking at the painting, it felt like the painting was looking at me. The stare of the artist burned outwards, boring a hole through every thought that sat in my head, splintering their existence into tiny fragments of no-concern. I was left helplessly hypnotised by the iron-grip of eyes that hinted at the tortured, vulnerable soul within. I thought it, or I, might spontaneously self-combust, there was just too much intensity going on. Time itself may well have stopped, as far as I was concerned.
Recovering slightly, I forcefully broke eye contact and at once fell into the eddying tranquility of blue surrounding him, a beautiful moment of peaceful chaos, raging softly within a whirlpool of gentle madness, which when juxtaposed with the deliberateness of the brushwork to form the facial features, created a perfect moment of insanity, technique and ability.
From that moment on everything else I saw in Paris was a joy to behold. I was riding on a high that had twisted my brain to the point where I had to rebuild my preconceptions on what us as humans are actually capable of.
If you do find yourself in Paris one day, try and remember the words of the man himself:
“I put my heart and soul into my work, and I have lost my mind in the process.”