Tourists often feel compelled to see famous art. They stand in line for hours for the Mona Lisa in the Louvre in Paris, for Michelangelo's Pieta in Rome. But more interesting, as a traveler, is to seek out the originals of whatever art you have hanging on your walls. Learn more about what you've chosen to look at every day. Or to leave time and space in any journey for serendipity, which is what happened to me.
I'm spending a rainy Saturday at the Musee d'Orsay. It may become one of my favorite museums, a transformed train station, all the more beautiful since its recent renovations. I like it because it is not intimidating. After three to four hours, I feel a sense of satisfaction rather than the anxiety that the Louvre elicits by its enormity, too much to see, more than I can fathom absorbing.
In any case, on this morning, I have no agenda. I stroll the sculpture hall, meander the Impressionists, not looking for anything in particular. And so it is serendipity to come around a corner and see my painting. My print. Only inches from my face -- the original. And it has a name. Le Lit.
When I bought my print, at one of those start-of-semester-poster-and-print sales that infiltrate every college campus, I'd never seen it before. But, from first glance, it tugged at me. It showed a couple in bed, two heads with short tousled hair emerging from a pile of covers. From a distance it almost looks as if their eyes are closed, but, when you get closer, you can see that they are looking into each other's eyes. It speaks of tenderness, these heads on white pillows, duvet pulled up to their necks, perhaps invisible feet touching. They could be a man and woman, they could be two women, perhaps even two men, but gender seems irrelevant.
I was, at that time, 38 years ago, falling in love with a young man.
I did not know about the artist, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, until much later. When I saw his other work, what he is known for, the highly stylized posters of the Moulin Rouge, the can-can and burlesque dancers, where gender, if not genitalia, is exposed and highlighted ... well, Le Lit didn't fit. A lot of Henri's work (other than his love of horses) was counter-culture, a rejection of traditional values. His was often an art of rebellion. He was born into a wealthy family, but wealth is worth less when one's body is crippled. Chronically ill, his legs stopped growing in early adolescence, leaving him in an adult body on dwarf-like, poorly functioning legs. His art focused on fringe elements of society -- dancers, prostitutes, etc. -- but treating them with respect, as complex people. It could be that, feeling marginalized himself, he focused on those who were also socially unaccepted. Henri died of alcoholism and syphilis in his 30s. I wonder if he was ever really happy.
I see Le Lit as an expression of desire -- for the security of a partner, snug under the covers, who would gaze at him with affection, would look deeply, unflinchingly, with love and acceptance, into his eyes.
"I want this," I remember saying to myself, as others pawed through piles looking for posters of their favorite rock group. Whether I was talking about the painting, the art, or the relationship and life that the art depicted, I can't say. Just, "I want this."
I married the young man a few years later. And the print has hung, invisibly, in our bedroom, ever since. But, sometimes, when the light comes through the window at an angle, so that the whites and oranges, blues and greens, all so soft, so domestic, seem to glow, I see Le Lit as I first saw it, and it still pulls me in.
And "I want this" is what I hear in my head.