A couple of angels recently alighted on my doorstep — or right in front of my face, really. To start, I was hired to teach an art class! To adorable college students from the US studying in Toulouse for a semester. I say the title of the course and imagine the low rumble of a tympani crescendoing into a loud boom: MASTERWORKS OF FRENCH ART!
It’s a dauntingly broad topic for me. Just shaping the whole thing into a coherent structure is hard, let alone filling it with content, then squeezing it into twelve short sessions. And art history? My general department, yes; but I’m much more at home with a stick of charcoal than a laser pointer.
Not surprisingly The Voice has taken up residence, seizing the opportunity to ask, The hell do you think you’re doing young lady, pretending you know anything about art, let alone art history? Who do you think you are, some kind of authority? Sigh. I look her in the eye, open the door, tell her to leave. I need to focus. It will be fine. I don’t need you; you’re not welcome here.
It requires repeat effort. She’s persistent.
So, I’ve begun soliciting ideas from friends. Asking “What do you think”, or “In your opinion”, or “From your perspective” stretches without overwhelming my capacities in French. I even managed to facilitate a group conversation at my figure drawing session, amongst four passionate draughtspeople, one a historian. I pepper our conversations with encouragements: “Really?” “I had no idea.” “You don’t say!” Vraiment? My unwitting recruits are helping me build my syllabus.
|Port de Collioure - a day trip from Toulouse. André Derain, 1905. Oil on canvas.|
Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris
I start by asking, Who are the — we’ll say five or so — most important artists in French history, in your view? Or I’ll ask for personal favorites, so they won’t feel as if suddenly they have to be experts.
Marc’s response was immediate and unhesitating: the Impressionists, without a doubt. Not just because they’re so well-known, but because with them, things changed dramatically and forever.
During our discussion, as we delved further back to the painter Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, who happens to be from this region, he and Nathalie introduced me to a new expression.
Have you heard of a violon d’Ingres? I’d not, of course, so Marc went on to explain. Well, he said, if a person has an Obie, she might refer to it as her violon d’Ingres. At first, I was a little puzzled. How many people actually get an Obie award in their lifetime? Particularly in France, how many people have worked in Off-Broadway theatre? How common can this expression really be, if it only applies to a teensy fraction of the population?
|wrong Obie, Una.|
Ça veut dire quoi, “Obie”? I ask them, tentatively, to clarify. Marc, with enormous patience and as if it’s perfectly normal to not know what an Obie is, described how, you know, sometimes you have something, an activity say, that you engage in passionately and which is outside of your work or job. Something you really enjoy and devote a lot of time to, like knitting or a sport or some kind of craft or something. Hm, I think, that sounds an awful lot like a … HOBBY! Yes, a hobby. Of course — he’s saying ‘obby! We’re speaking English! (Further puzzlement, accompanied by head tilt, and side question to self: Does he really think I have no idea what a hobby is? Shake head in wonderment.)
As it all begins to make sense, I try to keep my cool, let the conversation flow rather than reveal that I’m just emerging from a rabbit hole. No one need know that for a moment there I thought we were talking about theatre exploits. Of course of course, I say, bien sûr, and casually steer us back to Ingres.
Mis-hearing is part and parcel of my life in France. I’m perpetually poised for the very likely event that someone will say something, I will think it’s one thing, and turn down some road; then I’ll stop in my tracks as I realize my mistake. Heel of hand to forehead. Ah! That’s what they meant! That’s what we’re talking about. Quick about face, retrace steps, turn down opposite street, run to catch up. And so forth, until the next intersection, the next erreur.
I’ve decided it’s not all bad. Life was like this already, only now I’m freer to admit it. It’s quite possible I'm misinterpreting; let’s give everybody the benefit of the doubt.
But what a great saying, right? A hobby or passion — your violon d’Ingres. It turns out that the great Ingres, born just a stone’s throw from Toulouse, was both an artist and a violinist. It was his secondary artistic passion; he even played second violin for the orchestra of Toulouse as a young man. Man Ray borrowed it, for the title of one of his best-known photographs. So did a restaurant in Paris. Le petit garçon, his violons d’Ingres are, for the moment, soccer, sports cars, and chess. My violon d’Ingres is in fact the violon, so there you go, perhaps I can call it my violon d’Una.
|Le Violon d'Ingres. Man Ray, 1924. Gelatine silver print.|
© Man Ray Trust ARS-ADAGP (The J. Paul Getty Museum)
Despite my wrong turn, it was a great conversation for me. If I can’t actually provide clear or insightful content to a conversation, I can at least prompt people, and encourage them to talk. So I asked, what is it about the Impressionists? We talked about Duchamp and Surrealism and Dada, about conversation-changers, about artists, French or non, who assembled in Paris. I loved that they were so smart about it — running through the broader periods of art as if they discuss them over breakfast every day.
|Paganini. Jean-Auguste-Dominic Ingres, 1819. Graphite.|
Collection le Louvre, Paris.
So I think it’ll be okay, this class. I figure, if I all I do is introduce someone else to the beauty of Nude Descending a Staircase, or this gorgeous little ditty by Pierre Bonnard I stumbled upon this week, that alone will be deeply satisfying.
descendant un escalier n° 2 - or as Teddy Roosevelt apparently unhappily called it, |
"a naked man going down stairs". Marcel Duchamp, 1912. Philadelphia Museum of Art.
|L'Omnibus. Pierre Bonnard, 1890. Oil on cardboard.|
Right here in Toulouse at the Fondation Bemberg!