As you probably know we’re all supposed to write about a picture we took that means something to us; I chose a picture I took in the town of Bayeux. Bayeux is a smallish town in Northern France where the famous Bayeux tapestry is housed. Here’s a picture of the tapestry itself, however, not one that I took. I really like the picture I took because it represents the histories of both France and Great Britain and the picture itself is beautiful. I chose a picture from Bayeux in particular because I am a big fan of British monarchs and I respect William the Conqueror very, very much because he is the last person to invade Britain (except for William III, but he never fought a battle).
While most other PA students’ lower year includes plenty of chemical equations and properties, mine was filled with artists ranging from Cimabue and Artemisia Gentileschi to Velazquez and Goya and Marcel Duchamp and Mark Rothko. Taking Art-400: Histories of Art with Mr. Fox for all three terms this year has acquainted me with these artists amongst many others. During class, Mr. Fox would often say things like, “This piece is well worth a trip to (insert cool but obscure travel destination here),” or “When you are in Madrid make sure to see these pieces at the Prado.” A large number of the pieces we studied or other pieces by artists we studied reside in France so this trip has been an art history dream. While art history class exposed me to a myriad of beautiful images, a projector and slide show can only do so much. Here are some “art moments” I had that proved to me that the real thing offers more than just looking at a photo:
- Standing in a room full of Duccio and Giotto at the Louvre felt like being Alice in Wonderland: the canvases that these artists painted on are so large, they are placed in a room of magnificent architecture and ceiling work, and the gold paint that they (especially Giotto) painted with still manages to sparkle after about 700 years. I kept circling the gallery looking upward and admiring.
- While walking through Versailles our tour guide, Josh, told us about how Louis XIV cultivated both French and Italian artists to show that the French were just as talented as the post-Renaissance Italians. Louis XIV ordered for Bernini to make a bust of him but he claimed to be not impressed by Bernini’s work, thus furthering his nationalistic agenda. After viewing this bust on display in Versailles, I have to disagree largely with Louis. I became a huge Bernini fan after studying Apollo and Daphne during winter term with Mr. Fox and I was able to identify the bust as Bernini’s even before Josh told us. Mr. Fox taught us that Bernini tried to capture moments in time and he really does so in the bust: Louis’ hair appears to be blowing in the wind and his cheek is turned to the side in a mighty position.
- After walking through rooms and rooms of impressionist paintings at the Musée d’Orsay, I pushed through a crowd of people to look at Manet’s Le Dejeuner sur l’Herbe. A picture online does nothing to show the stunning deep green tones. I also had no idea how large the painting was and so I walked across the painting several times. I truly felt like the eyes of the nude women were moving as well, watching me watching her. Talk about that in terms of “the gaze” and spectatorship and consumption of nudes in art!
- Despite it’s lack of bold colors or a high level of mimesis, the Bayeux Tapestry, in its near 1000-year-old glory, does not fail to impress. Viewing this piece in person allowed me to see the whole cloth at once rather than in fragments and a headset narration system completely immersed me in the story of William and Harold.
You have tons of free resources: library books, internet encyclopedias, photo sharing, books on tape, your grandfather’s stories, etc. So why would you ever want to go to a place to learn about something? Why visit a historic battle site when you can watch a reenactment? Why go to Moscow when your aunt already went there and uploaded photos of her trip to Facebook? Why visit the Lincoln Memorial when you can just look at the back of a penny?
One of my favorite things we did in the last few days was visiting the Bayeux Tapestry. Before we went, I saw small images from the tapestry in its Wikipedia article and other places online. When we arrived, television screens in the lobby played little GIF images of parts of the tapestry that made it look like the characters were moving. When we got into the room with the tapestry, it was amazing. The tapestry is huge, and none of the pictures I saw before hinted at how large it actually is. It was hard to get a mental image of the tapestry before I saw it with my own eyes.
Not only is it hard to get an idea of the tapestry as a whole without seeing it in person, you can’t see the small details either. With any type of copy, either online or in print, you cannot lean in to study the stitching, closely observe the stains that have accumulated on it over time, or notice minute variations in the texture. The tapestry is not made of pixels or ink dots, and cannot be reduced to them.
The other aspect of seeing the Bayeux Tapestry in person is that it is an experience. Being in the presence of such an old, important piece of art is a unique experience. Even if you don’t like the tapestry itself, its rich history is a reason in itself to visit it. You cannot fully appreciate artifacts like the Bayeux Tapestry without a firsthand experience of seeing them. The tapestry is housed in a dark room with soft lights to preserve its vibrancy. It is mounted on an island so that it runs the entire length of the room, and then the entire length back. We had audio guides to help us understand what was happening in each scene on the tapestry. Instead of seeing a picture and reading text about the contents, I was able to physically move from scene to scene down the tapestry, with the audio guide supplementing information. When the tapestry was in use many years ago, no one scrolled through a photo of it on the computer, they would have walked, much like I did, down the length looking at each scene. It was great to be able to lean forward and examine the workmanship and see the individual threads, and then step back to see half of the entire tapestry, but being there to acknowledge its history, instead of just being fed the information from a book, was also important to me.
We just finished up our second day in Normandy, and tomorrow we depart for the Loire Valley. Our experiences here could not have been more different from our experiences in Paris, though I think we all continue to be dazzled by France’s beauty.
I think a number of people in our group were particularly taken with our stop at the home of impressionist painter Claude Monet in Giverny. It’s clear that many of the students knew more about Monet than I did, but for me it was a surprise to learn that he was as equally skilled at gardening as he was at painting. The gardens he kept were stunningly beautiful, and to walk through them is as close as one can come to physically entering into one of his paintings. His gardens are rich and lush, and they dazzle the eye with their masterful manipulation of light and color. To take a walk through Monet’s gardens is to better understand his genius as an artist.
As much as I enjoyed our visit to Giverny, I was even more moved by today’s visit to the cemetery at Omaha Beach. More than 9,000 American soldiers from WWII are buried here, many of whom lost their lives during the D-Day invasion of June 6, 1944 or in the fighting that followed over the course of the next several weeks. Since my own father fought in the European Theater, this visit was especially meaningful for me. He didn’t join the war until after D-Day, but just being there really brought home the sacrifice that all the young men–boys really–of that generation made during that war. Looking out over the choppy sea, you can almost feel the ghostly presence of the nearly 200,000 soldiers who stormed the beaches on that grey, stormy day, straight into the teeth of German machine gun fire. And the field of white crosses, while beautiful, evokes an incredible sense of sadness and respect not only for those who died but for those who survived what had to be a nightmarish day of horror.
After Omaha Beach, we visited the small town of Arromanches where we went to the Musee Du Debarquement. Here I learned far more than I ever knew about the incredible engineering feats undertaken to ensure the success of the D-Day invasion–most notably the creation of an artificial port that allowed supplies and reinforcements to be brought ashore immediately following the capture of the beach. This was a task that had to be completed in a matter of days while under heavy fire, and the fact that the Allies were able to pull it off is an amazing testament to the ingenuity and cooperation of the generals, admirals, engineers and political leaders of America, Britain and Canada. It was so heartwarming to see how much the people of this region of France appreciate the efforts and sacrifices of all involved, even to this day. In fact, I would hazard to say the people here know far more about the details of the D-Day invasion than the average Amercian.
Our final stop in Normandy was the picturesque town of Bayeux, where we viewed the Tapestry of Bayeux–another incredibly important historical artifact that I’d never heard of. This was a last minute addition to our itinerary–thanks to Dr. Wheeler–and what a fantastic addition it was. This tapestry is over 200 feet long and was created in 1070 to commemorate William the Conqueror’s successful invasion of England in 1066. What makes the tapestry special, besides its size and its age, is that it consists of more than 50 scenes that depict the full story of this conquest. Unlike most pieces of medieval and even ancient art that depict a specific event, this tapestry conveys a whole narrative. At the time it was created, it was a perfect way to share that narrative with a population that was largely illiterate. That the tapestry has survived more than 900 years is practically a miracle. Getting a chance to view it up close was a special treat for all of us.