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You can never know what an experience will be like until you have it. You can read about Chartres and see the photos. And you can visit other cathedrals, as we have on this trip. But you have to be there, at Chartres to see how it is different.

This is not a panegyric to Chartres. Others have written them. My reaction is a bit different. I was surprised to see how sparse the cathedral is. After Notre Dame de Paris, I was expecting something a little more crenelated, more decked out, more flamboyant.

After all, Notre Dame de Paris was an early example of Gothic architecture. Chartres is considered High Gothic. It was followed by Rayonnant and Flamboyant styles, each increasingly geegawed up.

But Chartres is a veritable Spartan of cathedrals. Her west facade, for instance, is spare in the extreme, with only a few decorations, not counting the portals and their sculpture. But those portals are rather small and restrained, unlike their cousins in Paris. You almost get the idea of a facade that isn’t finished, that is waiting for someone to come along and add the finials, Hebrew kings, garlands of trefoils and quatrefoils.

Instead, it almost looks like the Gothic cathedral equivalent of plywood.

Because this was our first acquaintance with Chartres, we took a rather methodical approach to the building. We walked first around the building, from the facade to the south porch, around the apse and treasury, along the north porch and back to the front, making the full circuit.

North porch

Yes, the portals of the transepts are splendid, rich with sculpture. The bulk of the statuary can be found on the transept porches, and some of it is extravagant. But otherwise, the walls of the building are generally plain.

And when we went inside, we were blinded by the dark. It is a dimly lit nave — again contrasting with the brightness of Paris, to say nothing of Sainte-Chapelle.

The proportions of the nave seem almost primitive. The classic Gothic nave walls consist of three layers: an arcade between the nave and the aisles on either side of it; a second-story, called the triforium, which is another arcade piled on top of the first; and finally a wall of windows, called the clerestory, which lets the light into the building. At Chartres, the proportions are different from in most of the other cathedrals we visited. The large aisle arcades take up almost half the height of the nave. The small triforium leaves room for a rather scaled down clerestory. The result of these odd proportions is that not much light drifts down to the nave floor. It takes quite a while for your eyes to adjust.

West rose window

When they do, there is a good deal of wear to be seen. Not only is the stone floor worn wobbly from centuries of traffic, but the vaulting in places is peeled or exfoliated, showing some brickwork behind the stone. In far corners, walking through Chartres feels almost like spelunking.

The rose windows are also smaller in proportion to their settings than those of Paris.

The west rose window, in particular, is at least half stone. The tracery is heavy and dense, leaving only small patches of glass to shine. Unlike the Paris rose windows, this one seems almost a crude, early attempt at constructing one.

The north and south rose windows are more elaborate, but even they are small in comparison with the space of the transept walls. They could easily have been made 20 percent or 30 percent larger without overwhelming their setting.

The interior almost gives you the feeling of an empty apartment, after someone has moved out. Where are the paintings, the furniture, the curtains? In Chartres, where are the windows, the interior carving, the elaborate bosses in the vaulting?

Of course, we didn’t see Chartres in operation, as we did Paris. Perhaps it has the same awe inspiring grandeur when a mass is being said.

And you cannot fault its setting, on the hill above the town. From miles around, you can see the twin towers looming. It was the first thing we could see from the train arriving in the morning: Those towers poking up out of the countryside.

I walked the eleventy-hundred stairs up the north tower and dangled acrophobically over the roof, the bell and the south tower, taking photos of gargoyles, tracery and stone foliage. Liability laws must be quite different in France. In the U.S., they would never allow anyone to climb up those stairs, let alone hang out over the precipitous drop, with its low balustrades and that steady breeze that must often become a wind.

One of the reasons Chartres is so highly prized is because so much of it is original. The statuary at Paris is cleaner and more neatly featured. But then, it is only 150 years old, having been restored by Viollet-le-Duc in the 19th century. Viollet-le-Duc was a magnificent man, and his restoration work at Paris is convincingly original looking. You don’t sense much of the 19th century in it.

The damned

But it is still pristine. At Chartres, the statuary is weathered. You can see the lichen growing on the stone.

Even the walls of the cathedral sport tufts of daisies high up, in unlikely places, growing straight out of the masonry.

The limestone is mossy, lichened and eroded. Paris has only recently been sandblasted. Its stone seems newer — although there is plenty of erosion to go around there, too.

But Viollet-le-Duc’s restoration has made Paris look fresher than her matronly cousin in Chartres.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t mean to pooh-pooh Chartres. It has its glories. And it is the very prototype of the high Gothic. But there was a certain musty odor in the nave; Paris smelled more urban, more used.

South porch

If I sound disappointed, I don’t mean to. We spent a good 9 hours with Our Lady of Chartres. We spent that time feverishly. I photographed every one of the main sculptures of the portals, and a good deal else beside.

If Chartres seemed dimmer than we had expected, the problem was with our expectations. Chartres has since drawn us back several times, and each time, it has revealed more and more of itself, and now I see it as the archetype of the cathedral, the mother building, the pure form. Other churches may be more tarted up, but there is a dignity at Chartres, a refusal to take on the shallow and transient, that makes it more classic. I have come to love Chartres, and especially its glorious rose windows, those burning embers glowing through the walls.

We have gone to Notre Dame de Paris more often — because it is in Paris, and therefore available each time we visit France — and we love the cathedral in Paris very dearly, but there is in me, at least, a special reverence for Chartres, that draws us back, no matter how far out of the way we must go as we drive around the hexagon that is France. From every corner of the country, we somehow are pulled by the gravity of Chartres back to absorb its special aura, power and spirit yet one more time. And I say that as a committed atheist.

I can remember the art history courses from college, and the long, boring lectures about the Romanesque and the Gothic, and taking it all in, looking at many fuzzy slides of Chartres projected on the screen at the front of the lecture hall. And the many photographs from books, including the great Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres by Henry Adams. Pictures in picture books are one thing. The palpable feeling on the skin of the humidity in the vast interior space of Chartres, the light hitting the floor, the smell of centuries of stone — the reality grabs you by the hair on the back of your neck and has not let go yet. Now we have experienced it, have it in our blood.

This is a panegyric to Chartres.

Next: Climbing Chartres

Click on any image to enlarge

 

The names of the towns and cathedrals of northern France can be a challenge for American English speakers. They all seem to require vowels and consonants not only strange to American ears, but downright taunting.

 
We started this trip at Notre Dame de Paris. That “tre” in “Notre” is something not available in English, outside the clearing of one’s throat. We tend to just go with the name of the Indiana university and say “Noter Daim.” But to approximate the French, you have to give it a “Notra,” ending at the back of the soft palate and “Dom.”

Then we went to Rouen, which is easier, except for that non-rhotic “R” at the start, but we can get by with “Roo-on.”

The drive took us to Amiens, with is a little like saying “Onion,” but with an “M” instead of an “N.” Beauvais is the easiest one: “Bo-vay.”

It’s a little trickier at Noyon, which we might offer “Nwa-yone,” especially if you can say it while losing the “n” in “yone” somewhere in your nasal cavity.

After that, we climbed the hill to Laon, which looks easier than it is to say. Try “loud,” but without the “d” on the end, but with that nasal sound that the French like to use for an “n.” Or, give up and just say “Lao,” as if you were naming the “Seven Faces of Dr. Lao.”

Yet, none of these challenges the English speaker as much as the next cathedral town. In English, we spell its name Rheims, although in France, they spell it Reims. If you think that should be “Rems” in the mouth, well, foolish you. The closest you might get is to say “Rance,” as if it were a gunslinger in a Western movie. Why this should be? Well, if you want to give it the Gallic good-old-try, you might speak the initial “R” at the back of your throat, as if you were clearing it of phlegm, follow that with the “ei” spoken both through your mouth and your nose at the same time, and then attempt to elide into an “m” completely nasal, but more like an “n” than an “m.” Round it all off with a sibilance and you’re good to go. It should come out, perhaps a leaning a little toward “Rass,” as if it were attempting to clean out your sinuses at the same time.

All that aside, the cathedral in Reims is from central casting; it is the handsomest, most perfect, with good bone structure and a set of capped teeth to rival the glossiest Hollywood star. If you were to invent the perfect Gothic cathedral, you would have invented Reims.

Yet, something seems just a little off, like the Hollywood star you suspect of being hollow behind the glittering eyes.

Unlike the buildings in Amiens, Beauvais, Noyon or Laon, which seem too large for the towns or villages they dominate, the cathedral in Reims sits at the center of a sizable city. Traffic is congested and parking is hard to find. When you confront it, walking into the parvis, you see an edifice that shines large, the hub of a great urban wheel.

Also unlike the other cathedrals, it is symmetrical, with two identical towers on either side of the central three portals. Other cathedrals seem hotch-potch, assembled from spare parts, almost, Reims was put together from a kit straight out of the box, all parts included.

Which is all the more surprising, considering that it has been worked over and rebuilt, redesigned and rejiggered for some 800 years. If it looks all of a piece, that is because its many restorers and rebuilders made the conscious decision to keep the essential plan unchanged.

So, the first impression of Reims is of a sturdy, beautiful, archetypal Gothic church, three great arches on its western front lined with rings of sculpture, a great rose window in the center, a line of kings above that and the twin towers rising to the height of a 26-story skyscraper. It is jutting jaw and piercing eyes, all perfectly tanned.

I’m afraid I may be sounding a little too snarky about what is a very impressive bundle of awesome. If you had never seen Chartres or Paris or Amiens, then Reims would satisfy all your spiritual hunger for a Gothic cathedral.

The problem is one that you face in almost every Gothic survivor. One recalls the problem of Theseus’ ship, in which, over the years, every board, every nail, every rope has been replaced, one by one. And one asks, is this the same ship that carried Theseus home from Crete?

Or, more aptly, the Japanese temple, whose wood is replaced every 20 years. The grand shrine in the city of Ise has been replaced this way more than 60 times, yet is considered the same temple that was built in AD 692.

(It is widely believed — though not exactly true — that all the cells in a human body are replaced every seven years, yet we think of ourselves now as the same person we were when we popped out of the dark into this bright world.)

Reims has undergone something of the same constant renewal, like the goddess Aphrodite.

The modern cathedral was begun in about 1220 and was finally roofed in 1299, but work continued, adding details through the 14th century. A fire in 1481 required major reworking, finished in 1516, keeping to the Medieval style.

The continuous renewal of Reims began in 1610 with gussying up the central portal of the west facade. Nineteen statues of the central portal archivolts were replaced.

Later reworkings took place from 1727 to 1742 and from 1755 to 1760 to repair the deterioration caused by rain leakage and freezing. Many of the sculptures were repaired or replaced.

But the real overhauls began in the 19th century, as France began looking at its great cultural monuments and deciding to upgrade them. The Romantic movement in art and literature idealized the Middle Ages, and books such as Chateaubriand’s “The Spirit of Christianity,” and Victor Hugo’s “Hunchback of Notre Dame” (to give it its popular title) revived interest in buildings that had been allowed to deteriorate or had been desecrated during the violently anti-clerical French Revolution.

In 1818, a catalog of “Romantic and Picturesque Sites of Ancient France was begun, not finished, in 20 volumes, until 1878. And in 1830, the government created an post of Inspector of Historical Monuments.

Hugo wrote a pamphlet called “War on Demolishers,” to “stop the hammer that is mutilating the face of the country” by destroying historic edifices. He denounced “ignoble speculators,” who “vandalized” the great monuments to build cheap get-rich-quick developments. He called for a national law to protect the old treasures.

He also explained “There are two things in an edifice: its use and its beauty. Its use belongs to its owner, its beauty to everyone. Thus, the owner exceeds his rights in destroying it.”

Between 1826 and 1837, the first major interventions of the 19th century were carried out, replacing sculptures on the western facade. One after another, from then on, a series of restorers and architects tried to bring Reims back to what they considered the authentic and original designs of the cathedral. First diocesan architect Arveuf, then Eugene Viollet-le-Duc, the restorer of Notre Dame of Paris, who undid the modifications of 1481-1516 and replaced them with his own design.

After Viollet-le-Duc, Eugene Millet did the same thing to the south side of the nave. From 1879 to 1886, Victor Ruprich-Robert did the same thing to the north side. After him, Denis Darcy jumped in, working to 1904. From 1904 to 1915, Paul Gout reworked the western facade and parts of the chevet. The work was not quite finished when World War I broke out. The war did not treat Reims kindly. It was bombed and a good portion left in rubble.

It took another 20 years to fix what the German artillery shells had broken. Restorer Henri Deneux, began in 1919, clearing away debris and cataloging the fragments and installing a temporary roof. The glass was a particular victim of the war. Deneux had the guide of drawings made of the stained glass made before the war and had many of the windows rebuilt, sometimes from the shards of the originals.

By 1938, most of the restoration was complete,  but World War II was in the offing. This time, the windows were removed for safe storage and reinstalled after the war.

The rose windows at Reims are beautiful and unusual. Each of the four roses has an “eyebrow,” an arc of stained glass over the oculus. There are roses on the transept facades and two, one large, one smaller, on the western facade. Outside the roses at Chartres and Paris, these are among the most stunning in Christendom.

The large window dates originally from 1240s, and was restored in 1872; because of war damage, it currently contains only about a quarter of its original glass. The rest, like the lower rose, dating from 1255, now has replacement glass from 1937.

The south rose was destroyed in a storm in 1580 and replaced a year later, then destroyed again in WWI and recreated in 1937; the north rose dates from before 1241, but now contains only a couple of original panes, also having been replaced after The Great War.

Finally, there are modern admixtures, like the great trio of lancet windows designed by artist Marc Chagall and installed in 1974.

So, like Theseus’ ship or the Shinto temple, the question of how much can the current cathedral be called Gothic is problematical.


Reims was clearly one of the big boys, as far as cathedrals go, but it is hard, sometimes to really appreciate how much restoration has gone on at these buildings. The older, plainer looking churches, such as Noyon, tend to be more authentic, however you want to define that. The better looking churches are usually the ones restored by Viollet-le-Duc or one of the other enthusiastic restorers of the 19th century. You have to choose between effectiveness or authenticity. Are you willing to accept the slightly “Disneyesque” interpretations of the restorers, to get a feeling for what the buildings must once have been like, or do you approach it with a scholar’s eye, and want to see nothing but the actual evidence of the era, uninterpreted by later centuries, no matter how well-meaning.

This is why Chartres is so well admired by those who know: Most of it is original, and most of it wasn’t destroyed during the Revolution. It is the best example of the style, without the admixture of good intentions. We will be visiting Chartres soon.

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Next: Vezelay

nd-from-the-seine

Some years ago, we knew we wanted to see Europe. But we weren’t sure where we wanted to go. This was at the beginning of our new century. Friends had just visited Rome and brought back exciting video, photographs, watercolors they had made, and most of all, stories. It whetted our appetite.

But once we made the decision to go to Europe, we stopped to wonder if Rome was our only option. Perhaps we should think carefully if there might be some other destination that might call us.

We thought of Prague, Paris, London, Florence, Budapest.

London we ruled out because we wanted the experience of being somewhere that doesn’t speak English. We agonized for some months, fantasizing this place or that. We finally narrowed it down to Paris or Rome.

Rome — Baroque palaces, Classical ruins. Paris — Gothic cathedrals.  Do we want the classical experience, or the Medieval?

Yes, that’s what it came down to. Ultimately, the gray stone of the 11th century was more appealing to us than the sunnier marble of the Mediterranean.

nd-fruiting-branch-sculptureWe decided on Paris, with the plan to avoid all standard tourist fare and attempt to feel what it might be like to live in the city. We would eat in the neighborhood, shop in the neighborhood and walk up and down its streets. In addition, we would try to see as many Gothic churches as possible. In each subsequent visit to France, we managed to add to our life list of important architectural sites, and we developed a growing appreciation for both their beauty and their ability to inspire a profound inward-looking sense of the infinite.

I hope the reason for all this will be clear as I write about them. We kept a journal of our visits, over the years, and alternated portions written by me and often more personal portions written by my wife, Carole. There is an immediacy to these journals that cannot be recaptured in a more finished ready-for-print version and I hope you can enjoy them.

Over the years I have visited Notre Dame de Paris maybe a dozen times — multiple occasions each time we ventured to France. It was a lodestone that drew us back over and over for that glimpse into eternity that only an 800-year-old empty space can provide. The first time I went, was in 1964 and I was a teen ager, barely able to grasp what I had seen. It was before the cathedral was cleaned, and was a giant sooty briquette on the Île de la Cité. The second time was our first trip together in 2002, which was covered in an earlier series of blog entries (see: Paris 2002 Part 1). That included accidentally participating in an Easter Mass; we did not realize it was Easter. (See: Paris 2002 Part 5).

This new series of entries begins two years later when we went back. The photographs for each of these entries were taken at the time we wrote the journals.

Here is our return to Notre Dame in 2004, first my entry, then Carole’s (she puts me to shame).

nd-transept-and-north-rose-window

Richard’s entry:

We walked to the river and down the quai to the cathedral.

“This is why we came here,” said Carole.

And we walked in and the building did not disappoint us: The space remains magic. The rose windows remain the most beautiful art I have ever seen.

“Most buildings are constructed to contain something,” she said. “Most contain furniture, or people, or warehouses that contain lumber or dry goods. This building is constructed to contain the space itself.”

nd-vaulting-diagonalShe is certainly right about that. The space itself, the negative, if it were turned positive, is the shape of — what — infinity. The shape of the interior of our “souls.” The shape of the inner dome of our skulls projected out into space.

It was early in the morning and the rising sun poured directly in through the apse windows. A small mass was being said in the choir and the light shone down on them.

I went around making photographs, mostly of the sculpture at the west portals. Carole sat still inside and soaked up the ambiance.

We stayed most of the morning. We will go back.

Notre Dame is the reason we visit: There is nothing in the U.S. that gives quite this same spiritual sense. One begins to understand the appeal of Christianity to the Medieval mind. There is something mythological rather than ethical to the religion engendered by such a building, something theatrical rather than pious.

nd-carole-sitting-2

Carole’s entry:

Oh. Notre Dame was just the place, just the room, just the building.

nd-chandelier-2This time, I spent most of my time looking at the windows from the center of the cathedral. And I especially loved the trees around Notre Dame, because they have grown in a special environment. They haven’t been treated like ordinary trees and they’re just a short distance from trees of their same species, but they’ve been treated like sacred statues because they’re part of Notre Dame.

Something else I loved, was the wood in Notre Dame. It reminded very much of the logs in Aunt Donie’s house in Wilkes County (North Carolina). Aunt Donie’s cabin was very old and there is something about the wood in both places that is the same.

nd-nave-and-clerestory-2

This time, the part of Notre Dame that became very real for me is the empty space above my head and it was like the empty space around a still life that I drew a long time ago on the day I realized that the empty space was not empty.

nd-stained-glass-panel

Today I thought the most beautiful window was the one at floor level behind the altar because the sun was coming in and the leading in that window looked like a tree with branches and it gave me the very human feeling of sun behind trees in the evening.

nd-saints

Oh, the sculpture outside Notre Dame is a different color now and it is so smooth it looks like modeled clay.

I think maybe Notre Dame is the most important art that I’ve ever seen. I wanted to sit so I could line up the top of my head with the part of the ceiling that had a curve most like the top of my head.

I truly felt in a human attitude that I share with people who lived centuries ago, or maybe thousands of years ago. I was frustrated by knowing anything that I do know about architecture or art or history or Christianity and I kept trying to clear my mind so that I could put myself in the right relationship with the room that I was in and the same with the outside of the building.

nd-scenes-of-hellI almost got to the point where the demons on the outside of the cathedral were comprehended by me on a completely visual level. I wanted very much to have the experience of an ordinary person who was seeing Notre Dame for the very first time centuries ago and would have been able to read the building visually. Today the cathedral worked on me profoundly in a visual and spacial way, but I regret that I am not one of those who participated with that architecture with innocence and terror and devotion.

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And all of that is the part of today I don’t ever want to forget.

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I feel like I don’t understand the windows yet, even though I did sit there and look, not at the side windows, but the three rose windows and they were beautiful, but I couldn’t make them work on me the way the window behind the altar began to work. I want that kind of thing to happen with the rose windows. But I do understand the rose windows at a level now that is not just intellectual and I think they’re very mysterious and that they must work but that I haven’t been able to get them turned on yet.

The sculptures of the actual humans and the idealized humans — the saints and the kings — and the symbolic humans suffering in hell, and the other worldly figures of angels and little grinning devils affect me in a way that is really beyond language except that if I try to describe it it would be like going on one of our trips out West and seeing really massive places of stone that nature had created naturally, and seeing how it was made completely by the mighty forces of time and weight and heat and wind and water, but especially time, and that those big outcroppings of rock, faces of rock, are completely indifferent to being perceived by any kind of intelligence, but are profound and affecting faces of rock and the statues affect me in almost the very same way, amazing and profound to me, and because they have been affected through time, they seem mighty to me.

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Not just that they show the evidence of time, but most of all that they testify to the mystery that is inside our minds. I love the silence of Notre Dame, the silence of the architecture.

When we go to sleep at night here knowing that Notre Dame is there, it is a lot like going to sleep in the Blue Ridge knowing the mountains are there.

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We have now been to Chartres three times, and I pray we may get back there yet again. There are a few places on this planet that impress themselves into your experience so profoundly they define the joints and hinges of your biography, just as a marriage, birth or death can. Among those for me have been seeing the cave paintings from 30,000 years ago in the Vézère valley of France, standing in the breeze-twisted grasses of the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa, dawn at the Grand Canyon in Arizona — and Chartres Cathedral, some 60 miles southwest of Paris. looking into apse
 
Chartres is the archetype of northern Gothic cathedrals, and the one perhaps least touched by time and remodeling. Entering the cave feels like spelunking: it is a cave, huge, dark, cool, chthonic. On our first visit, in 2002, I was admittedly unprepared for it. As you will read in these notes, I was slightly underwhelmed; I must have been expecting something different. But in each subsequent visit, I have become more and more moved. For our first visit, the sky was a bit hazy, the temperature touching on the raw, and the interior of the cathedral was darker than it has been on our revisits. We made a trip in 2006 that made the rounds of the cathedrals in northern France, from Paris to St. Denis to Chartres to Amiens to Beauvais to Laon to Noyon to Rheims, and seeing them all has given Chartres pride of place. It is not just the architecture, not the sculpture or the stained glass — there is something singular about the site, as if it were the champion, having taken on all challengers and knows it has nothing left to prove. It was built by businessmen to advertise their market — the way cities now build NFL stadiums — but it has captured something sublime, something that speaks to the magnum misterium. If I were not an atheist, I might call it spiritual, but that word is so overused, it no longer has any real meaning. Suffice it to say, a day in Chartres cathedral lifts you out of the quotidian and places you among the stars. I am embarrassed that I was so thick-brained on first seeing it, that it could not penetrate.

The north rose window remains the single most beautiful man-made thing I have ever seen — ever experienced.

There will be more photos with this entry than normal; click on any of them to enlarge.

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Chartres
Tuesday, April 2

As they say about football: That’s why they play the game.

west facade fullYou can never know what an experience will be like until you have it. You can read about Chartres and see the photos. And you can visit other cathedrals, as we have on this trip. But you have to be there, at Chartres to see how it is different.

This is not a panegyric to Chartres. Others have written them. My reaction is a bit different. I was surprised to see how sparse the cathedral is. After Notre Dame de Paris, I was expecting something a little more crenelated, more decked out, more flamboyant.

After all, Notre Dame de Paris was an early example of Gothic architecture. Chartres is considered High Gothic. It was followed by Rayonnant and Flamboyant styles, each increasingly geegawed up.

But Chartres is a veritable Spartan of cathedrals. Her west facade, for instance, is spare in the extreme, with only a few decorations, not counting the portals and their sculpture. royal portalBut those portals are rather small and restrained, unlike their cousins in Paris. You almost get the idea of a facade that isn’t finished, that is waiting for someone to come along and add the finials, Hebrew kings, garlands of trefoils and quatrefoils.

Instead, it almost looks like the Gothic cathedral equivalent of plywood.

We walked first around the building, from the facade to the south transept, around the apse and treasury, along the north transept and back to the front.nave

Yes, the portals of the transepts are splendid, rich with sculpture. But the walls of the building are generally plain.

And when we went inside, we were blinded by the dark. It is a dimly lit nave — again contrasting with the brightness of Paris, to say nothing of Saint-Chapelle.

The proportions of the nave seem almost primitive. The large aisle arcades take up almost half the height of the nave. The small triforium leaves room for a rather scaled down clerestory. The result of these odd proportions is that not much light drifts down to the nave floor. It takes quite a while for your eyes to adjust.worn floor maze

When they do, there is a good deal of wear to be seen. Not only is the stone floor worn wobbly, but the vaulting in places is peeled or exfoliated, showing some brickwork behind the stone.

The rose windows are also smaller in proportion to their settings than those of Paris.

The west rose window, in particular, is at least half stone. The tracery is heavy and dense, leaving only small patches of glass to shine. Unlike the Paris rose windows, this one seems almost a crude, early attempt at constructing one.west rose window exterior

The north and south rose windows are more elaborate, but even they are small in comparison with the space of the transept walls. They could easily have been made 20 percent or 30 percent larger without overwhelming their setting.

The interior almost gives you the feeling of an empty apartment, after someone has moved out. Where are the paintings, the furniture, the curtains? In Chartres, where are the windows, the interior carving, the elaborate bosses in the vaulting?north rose window

Of course, we didn’t see Chartres in operation, as we did Paris. Perhaps it has the same awe inspiring grandeur when a mass is being said.cathedral on the hill

And you cannot fault its setting, on the hill above the town. From miles around, you can see the twin towers looming. It was the first thing we could see from the train arriving in the morning: Those towers poking up out of the countryside.statues 2

One of the reasons Chartres is so highly prized is because so much of it is original. The statuary at Paris is cleaner and more neatly featured. But then, it is only 150 years old, having been restored by Viollet le Duc in the 19th century. Viollet le Duc was a magnificent man, and his restoration work at Paris is convincingly original looking. You don’t sense much of the 19th century in it.

But it is still pristine. At Chartres, the statuary is weathered. You can see the lichen growing on the stone.

Even the walls of the cathedral sport tufts of daisies high up, in unlikely places, growing straight out of the masonry.north transept from roof

The limestone is mossy, lichened and eroded. Paris has only recently been sandblasted. Its stone seems newer — although there is plenty of erosion to go around there, too.

But Viollet le Duc’s restoration has made Paris look fresher than her matronly cousin in Chartres.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t mean to pooh-pooh Chartres. It is glorious. And it is the very prototype of the high Gothic. But there was a certain musty odor in the nave; Paris smelled more urban, more used.

If I sound disappointed, I don’t mean to. This was one of the true high points of our travels. We spent 12 hours from the time we left the hotel in the morning till the time we returned. With an hour each way on the train, and time out for breakfast and lunch, that left a good 9 hours spent with Our Lady of Chartres. We spent that time feverishly. I photographed every one of the main sculptures of the portals, and a good deal else beside.south fleche

I walked the eleventy-hundred stairs up the north tower and dangled acrophobically over the roof, the bell and the south tower, taking photos of gargoyles, tracery and stone foliage. gargoyle pairLiability laws must be quite different in France. In the U.S., they would never allow anyone to climb up grotesquethose stairs, let alone hang out over the precipitous drop, with its low balustrades and that steady breeze that must often become a wind.

Visiting Chartres was one of the highlights of our lives.

Now we have experienced it, have it in our blood. This is very different from ID-ing the photos in the art history textbook.

For lunch — because we have to mention such lowly things among the lofty ones of the cathedral — we had a pot au feu at the Cathedral Bistro, just across the courtyard from the south nave exterior. As we sat eating our boiled beef, potatoes and turnips, restaurant interior with tablewe could see the masonry through the plate glass window of the restaurant front.

And when we finally got back to Paris, we went down to L’Etoile d’Or and had a cassoulet with duck and sausage. C’est magnifique.

Carole’s highlights from Chartres:

I loved the ride on the train. I loved the white flowering trees by the train tracks, and loved watching the men come out and work in their little back yard gardens. The sculpture outside the cathedral and the windows inside. Inside the cathedral, in the chapels, one of those had a statue of Mary and draped on her was what looked lancetlike a very old white silk garment encrusted with pearls and there was a little group of people sitting there and there were five or six fresh floral arrangements, and every time I walked past it I could feel the heat of the candles on my face. I walked by five or six times just to feel the heat. That was very nice. While R. was photographing outside, I walked around and around the carved stone rood screen pretending I was there in the Middle Ages and I was reading the stories from the statues; and the statues worked great. There was this really remarkable carpet at the altar in the center of the cathedral and it was tapestry work and it was blue and red and as a carpet it was made in the form of a cross, so it draped down all four sets of steps of the altar. It had 8 large medallions and each was different. One had roses another had wheat. Oh, and one of the things I liked best was the floral arrangement at the altar. It was branches of those white flowering trees with birds of paradise and orange day lilies. I spent a lot of time looking for a spot on the floor that looked like nobody had ever stepped on it, but I couldn’t find even an inch in a corner that wasn’t worn. I loved knowing R was happy all day.

Richard’s greatest hits:

south rose window exterior detailThere is no way to break it down: It is the sum total of Chartres cathedral, including its architecture, stained glass, sculpture, setting, the town around it and the people in it. If there was one event that stood out, it was the climbing of the north tower. It was a trial, but there were several stops along the way that I had all to myself and could sit in the air above the roof of the cathedral, contemplating the whole thing. The train ride was also good, through forests and past villages with old stone houses covered in vines and lichen. When we finally got back to Paris, there was a cassoulet with my name on it at L’Etoile d’Or.

west facade 1west facade central portal tympanummary detailclerestory from navevaulting and organsouthside with treeroofroof and south transeptrood screen and ambulatorydreamer statue basebegger at the doorkids

PARIS 2002
Days 1-3

Along the Seine

The Flight

In the spring of 2002, my wife, Carole, and I went to Paris for the first time. Some friends had just got back from Rome and waxed effusive over the experience and they encouraged us to follow their example and travel. We thought about it but decided that the north felt more simpatico than the sunny Mediterranean, and so finally decided on France. On March 25, we flew from Phoenix to London and on to the City of Light.

We left the house in Phoenix, Ariz., at 4:15 on Monday and got to our hotel in Paris at 4 p.m. the next day. It isn’t as bad as it sounds: With the 9 hour time difference, we were only in transit 15 hours. Well, it is as bad as it sounds. The time waiting in airports, cramped on airplanes, and riding around town adds up to one great pain in the ass.

And while British Airways is much to be preferred to most American airlines, that is still faint praise. The seats were sardined, the hours tedious, and the food bland. The flight from Phoenix to London was bad enough, but the short hop from London to Paris was a nightmare. The plane loaded up with Scottish soccer fans, all dressed in kilts, with tam-o-shanters and beer guts, and they yammered and yelled for the whole flight, making it more like a school bus than a jet plane.

“Hey, laddie, when you gonna take a rest,” yelled a Scot from one end of the plane to another. “Aye, and I suppose you are, too,” said his buddy at the back. And they all laughed at the joke, which was mute to the rest of us. It was like that the whole way.

One minor note: On the short leg, they fed us only drinks and snacks, which were “Pfeiffers’s Bread Sticks with Worcester Sauce Flavour.” Truly a bizarre taste. Little pegs of dry bread, about 3/4 inch long with the sharp taste of worcestershire sauce, coated as a dry powder on the surface.

Worse: the note on the back of the pack. “Best before Sep 02 2059.”

Now that’s a shelf life.

The following notes are from the daily journal I kept of the journey, day by day, excising some of the more quotidian bits. The photographs were all taken on the day described in the journal, even if better examples might be had on revisits. Click on any photo to enlarge. Each entry ends with a short summation, one each by me and by Carole. The first three days get kind of garbled together. That’s the way it felt with the jet lag.

Hotel Vendome horiz

The Hotel
March 27, 2002

Paris airshaftWe stayed at the Hotel Vendome St. Germain, which is a hole in the wall place off the Rue Monge in the Quartier Latin. We got a room on the sixth floor, the top floor, looking into the courtyard. At the bottom, there are a few potted plants that serve as the “jardin,” of which the hotel website promises a “view.”

The hotel couldn’t be more Parisian, as far as we could tell. It is old, with peeling paint on the exterior — although the interior was nice enough.
The rooms are tiny, just room for a double bed, a small desk and closet. But it has a bathroom — even tinier — right off the room.Through window

As night descended, we could see the people in the rooms across the “view,” apparently in apartments, cooking their suppers and sitting down to eat.

I could practically hear accordion music. Ou est Jacques Tati?

We were so exhausted from our flight that we collapsed in the bed without supper and fell asleep. Which sleep proved fitful at best, with both of us waking up about hourly, and trying to get back to slumberland.

By 6 a.m., we gave up trying to sleep and got up to start our first day in Paris.

Seine with tower
WEDNESDAY

Breakfast

Breakfast in the hotel cafe — really just a room in the basement where they stack up a bunch of croissants and baguettes with some rolled ham, yogurt, butter, Laughing Cow cheese and confiture (jam).

The coffee machine hissed and spumed, and the hotel maid, doing morning cafe service, brought out the cafe au lait.

To say the least, even this modest petit déjeuner was a revelation.
The croissant was flaky and buttery. But that we expected. The coffee was marvelous. But that Carole expected, too.selling strawberries

“The butter is too rich for me,” she said, after spreading a little on the croissant. I pointed out that it wasn’t butter, but cheese in a package that said, “la Vache qui Rit.”

The real butter was from Normandy: ice cold and fresh, and was as tasty a spread as you could put on a bread.

But the real champ was the baguette. Who knew bread could taste this good. With a shattering crust and a light interior, it had that kind of browned, crusty flavor you can only imagine.

I remembered growing up on Wonder Bread. American white bread. Wretched stuff. I could never understand, as a kid, why people would call bread the “staff of life.” Uncle Tony loved bread. And food writers wrote panegyrics to the stuff. But the bread I knew — and the ONLY bread I had any experience of — was banal, pasty, tasteless, or when not completely devoid of flavor, redolent of the stale air of the grocery store.

I hated bread as a kid. I hated sandwiches, which only wasted good filling between slices of inanity.

That isn’t this French bread.

Now, I’m not a complete tyro. Certainly in my adult years I got over my childish hate of bread. I make my own, which is wonderful hot out of the oven. And local bakeries make baguettes that are a pleasure to eat.

But I wasn’t prepared for the difference between even good American French-bread and plain, ordinary old French French-bread. This was bread to give you orgasms. Flavor — no, flavors — that rang from lip to pharynx with a medley of sensations, and those sensations were as physical as they were chemical. The initial crunch led to a repertoire of smaller crunches inside the closed mouth, and then the teeth broke through the crust into the heart of the bread and felt the giving elasticity of the gluten.

This was no bread to erase errant pencil lines with. This is bread to build an altar to.

Notre Dame west facade

Notre Dame de Paris

After our repast, we walked up the rue Monge toward the Seine. We could see the spire of Notre Dame at the end of the road, less than a half-mile off. Along the way, we past a billion cafes, bistros, tea bars and restaurants. In between were shops, fruit stands, book stores and churches.Notre Dame interior

A lot of churches. Anything built after 1700 is hardly worth mentioning, but there are plenty built before then, and you can enter them at any time, gaze up the nave toward the apse and see the sunlight throw color from the south clerestory onto the stone of the north triforium.

We got to Notre Dame, crossed the river to the Ile de la Cite and walked along the southern edge of the building, around the apse and along the north side, taking the exterior measure of the place.

Carole became fascinated with the scores of gargoyles. Some are truly spooky.Notre Dame exterior

The building’s age is obvious. Many of the stone blocks are so eroded they look “texturized.” The difference between the weathered old masonry from the 12th century, and the tighter, cleaner restoration of Viollet-le-Duc in the 19th century is quite apparent. And although he tried his best to match his restoration work with the original Gothic, there is still a kind of Romantic sensibility to it.

That is fits right in with the original work is another proof of the kinship between the Gothic and the 19th century Romantic.

When we came around to the West side of the cathedral, which is all a tawny white since the sandblasting of the 1960s, when they cleaned the place, and walked inside.

Notre Dame de Paris is not the biggest of the famous Gothic cathedrals. Nor is it the most beautiful, either by reputation or by the photos I have studied. And much is defaced by either restoration or careless modernization. A tres moderne altar is greatly out of place.

But none of that matters, as the building moves its visitors. Turn one way and the light breaks through the clerestory. Turn another and you can see the great rose windows. Walk past the crossing and you see the choir screen.

At every turn, there is something pure, beautiful, unconcerned with profit and loss. Something meant to awe its visitors. Something which does awe its visitors.Notre Dame north Rose Window

The north and south transepts are shallow, but that hardly matters, given the splendor of the two rose windows. Carole and I had the same response: being overwhelmed.

It’s one thing to see pictures in books. It’s quite another to experience the flesh. The windows are huge, colorful, intricate. They serve as metaphors for the same thing as Dante’s mystic rose at the end of the Paradiso. Radiant, radiating, they speak — no they sing — of a divine order, a shape and meaning to the universe. You can practically hear a great C-major chord sung by a Mormon Tabernacle Choir, or more apt, like the great C-major chord in Haydn’s Creation at the moment they chorus sings, “And there was …. LIGHT!!!!!”

As a well-known atheist, I don’t believe in anything like the theology of this masonry, yet, I cannot help being moved deeply by the spiritual metaphor. Ranks of angels, rotating as they sing, like some ethereal Busby Berkeley choreography, singing in 8-part polyphony to elaborate harmonies, sliding from suspension to suspension — dissonance, resolution, all headed for that great C-major.

“When you see this,” I said to Carole, “it kind of makes you laugh when they call some pop star an ‘artist.’ “

Whoever made the great rose windows knew what real art was, and how difficult it is, and what ambition it takes, and how impossible it is to be satisfied with less.

I nearly broke out in sobs.

We will return to Notre Dame later to spend more time and do the tower tour, or “tour de la tour.”

Toupary horiz

Lunch

We walked along the Ile de la Cite, past flower stands on the north side of the island, past the horologue, the city jail, and on to Sainte  Chapelle. Unfortunately, by that time, the crowds had assembled, and the line to the church was down the street. We decided to wait until tomorrow and try to get there early, before the throngs.

We continued down the south side of the island to its very end, under the Pont Neuf. The current of the Seine is surprisingly strong, causing standing waves across its surfaced.

When we consider what makes Paris different from Phoenix — well, there are many things — but one that is not often noted is that the river, with its current, gives a kind of physical yet metaphorical pulse to the city, serving as its aorta, shooting blood and life through it. In comparison, Town Lake is a clogged artery of stagnant algae.Samaritaine

Just north of the Ile, we could see the great Samaritaine department store and I remembered that there was a restaurant at its top with a legendary view.

When we got there, the fifth floor restaurant, Toupary, was not yet open for lunch. It was about 11:15, and it opens at 11:45. So we toured the store first. It is stunning with its Art Nouveau details, its glass roof, five floor escalators running like a “canyon” down the center of the building, and the peacock murals across the top floor of the store.

The Toupary is the kind of restaurant where they don’t look at you standing there until 11:45 sharp. You are invisible. Suddenly, as if a bell went off, the hostess suddenly has her eyesight back and asks if there are two for dejeuner. She seats us near a window out which we can see the Seine, and off in the distance, the Eiffel Tower.

There is a crisp linen tablecloth, linen napkins, plates engraved with the name of the restaurant.

A young man brings the cartes and asks us if we want wine or water. We opt for water. We order the Lambchop grille aux herbes de Provence avec pommes sautees Provencales.

When it comes, it is artistically presented on the plate, with the lambchop symmetrically cut and dropped on top of the diced potatoes and garnished with some spring greens.

I put the fork in the potatoes and raise it to my mouth and I realize we have entered heaven. With a garlic and wine sauce, but not too much of either, the potatoes are divine.

The meat and salad followed suit, and we recognized that gastronomically, Paris is already a success, a triumph, a coup de brilliance.

St Germain Aucerrois nave

Afternoon

After lunch we drop into the St. Germain Auxerrois, the Gothic church next door to the department store. Miniscule compared with the cathedral, it is nevertheless beautiful.

What makes all these ancient churches so compelling is the way their history is composted on their faces, a palimpsest, a pentimento, with each age remaking a part of the past in its image, so that a 17th century door gets spliced onto a 14th century transept, or a 19th century stained glass replaces a missing earlier scene.St Severin 1

A Neoclassic church cannot stand this tampering: the effect is ruined. But the Gothic style screams out for such fecundity. It is a style rooted in the variety and richness of the world, and its strength is in that stylistic midden. It also makes us all the more aware of the age of the edifice.

We stopped also at St. Severin to see the sunlight on the nave walls.

We walked back toward the hotel by a different route, through the worst of the tourist section of the Latin Quarter, past endless little restaurants and souvenir stands, although there were also all those book stalls along the river.

And Carole found a place that sells crepes, and bought a chocolate one. It was a tiny storefront, with a shelf along the street lined with colored decanters, presumably flavoring agents. Through the door and inside, Carole ordered a crepe de chocolate.

The young woman, who seemed to be an apprentice, dropped a load of batter on a large round hotplate, using a special device somewhat like a flour sifter, but with a funnel shape that dropped the batter out the small end. She then took a squeegee and dragged the batter out on the hot surface to cook. Before it was completely done, she turned part of it over with a long metal spatula onto itself, then turned the whole thing over to finish cooking, ladled some chocolate sauce on the upraised surface, smoothing it out with the ladle bottom.

Then she very neatly folded half of the crepe back on itself, forming a line in the middle, then folded the other side, making a seam in the middle.

Then, wrapping the whole thing in wax paper, she handed it to Carole, who joined the angels for a polka around the divinity.

Carole said it reminded her of the Hopis making piki.

We passed by some exceptional architecture on the way. Paris is an oddly layered city, with the newest on the bottom and the oldest above. Almost every building houses some modern shop on the ground floor, with neon lights, plate glass and corporate logo. While from the second floor upwards, you see the old wrought iron balconies to the small casement windows, peeling paint, rotting plaster or concrete, and surmounted by a gaggle of chimneys, each with a half dozen flues poking out the top.

How they got those modern shops underneath the old apartments, I don’t know. It looks like they jacked the buildings up and constructed a shopping mall underneath.

We got back to the hotel about 3 p.m. and rested a bit.

About 7 p.m. we went out for dinner, wandered around the neighborhood looking at all the bistros and Turkish restaurants. We finally decided on a Afghan restaurant, called Kootchi, and had a grand saebzi chalow.

Carole’s highlights of the day:

Mary standing on a demon, the roots on the wall at Notre Dame, the rose window. The chocolate crepe, the cafe au lait in the morning. All the pink jasmine I saw for sale on the sidewalk. The tree just budding with the sparrows mating in it under the Pont Neuf. And all the bridges over the Seine. The gargoyle with the human face. Learning about Notre Dame from Richard while standing in it. Oh, and finding out that I can communicate a little bit in French.St Germaine light on floor

There is some gray area when deciding whether the biggest event of the day was Notre Dame de Paris or the chocolate crepe.

Richard’s highlights of the day:

The baguettes at breakfast. The rose windows of the north and south transepts at Notre Dame. The current of the Seine. The smaller churches of St. Germain Auxerrois and St. Severin, and most particularly, the colored sunlight filtered through the stained glass at St. Germain Auxerrois and hitting the wall of the chapel of the apse, and spreading across the checkered floor.

turn here 1

A reader once asked me what I thought were the major turning points of art – by which he meant the Euro-American tradition in art from the Renaissance to the 20th century. Of course, he had his own list already prepared to share with me. On it were 20 items. He wanted to know what would be on my list. He had the enthusiasm of a puppy dog, and it would have felt churlish to refuse him.

Making it a list of 20 is, of course, arbitrary: There are hundreds, maybe thousands of “turning points” in art history.

Also, we must confess this is a parochial list, when you have the rest of the world and antiquity — to say nothing of prehistory — to consider. But that bobsled ride from the Renaissance to Postmodernism can be seen as a single unit, and that is what my reader wanted me to consider.

Off the top of my head, then, are the 20 most pivotal pieces of art, each of which could be a chapter heading in an art history text.

Admittedly, they function as epitomes. It is rare a single piece of art can change the course of art history; instead, they are stand-ins for whole movements in art, entire changes of esthetic outlook and purpose that propel the eras they helped codify or inaugurate.

But even given my guidelines, I had to start a bit earlier, because the reawakening of Europe after the Dark Ages doesn’t happen in Renaissance Italy, but in Gothic northern Europe.

Chartres north rose window

My list begins with the north rose window at Chartres – the single most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen from the hand of humankind. Actually, the list should begin with the basilica of St. Denis in Paris, the first truly Gothic church, and the inspired conception of Abbot Suger, one of the most important clerics of the 11th century. His Neoplatonist idea was that God was light and that a church, to capture the spirit of divinity, must be opened up with windows and color. The engineering was a breakthrough: He realized that you don’t need walls – the heavy stone walls of the Romanesque – to hold up a roof, but you could put the roof on pillars and fill in the space between the pillars with curtains of colored glass. It was a huge step forward esthetically and technologically. But St. Denis was a first draft: It is in Chartres that the ideal finds its apotheosis.

Giotto

Second, Giotto’s interior frescoes for the Arena Chapel in Padua, for waking up to the idea that painting not only could, but should try to capture something of the feel of reality.

Masaccio trinità

Third, the Trinity of Masaccio at the Sta. Maria Novella in Florence. It’s impossible to choose the single image that represents the triumph of Renaissance perspective over the Gothic style, but Masaccio is as good a choice as anyone.

ghiberti abraham 2

Fourth: The bronze doors of Ghiberti to the Baptistry in Florence, an astonishing display of inventiveness and naturalistic imagery.

three davids

Fifth: The David of Donatello, and the final destruction of the Gothic schema in Western art.

Sixth: The David of Michelangelo Buonarroti, and

Sistine ceiling detail

Seven: The Sistine ceiling. No artist so defined his age and the two hundred years after him more than Michelangelo, the single most influential artist in history.

caravaggio

Eight: Caravaggio: The Calling of St. Matthew, although most of the crazy guy’s central paintings would do: The Invention of the Baroque. “Energy is eternal delight,” as Blake says.

Nine: The David (above) of Gianlorenzo Bernini (although I actually prefer the Apollo and Daphne), and the perfection of the Baroque, and the most proficiently perfect sculptor in history. I choose the David only for the symmetry with Donatello and Michelangelo. Look at the three Davids together and see the direction of the 15th and 16th centuries.

rembrandt

10: Rembrandt Portrait of the Syndics of the Cloth-maker’s Guild, (chosen over the more flamboyant Night Watch) to show how the psychological acumen of the Dutchman could bring life to an otherwise utterly conventional group portrait. This sense of psychology, that there is a real person behind the eyes, is what Rembrandt brought to painting, as Shakespeare brought it to the stage.

benjamin west

11: The Death of General Wolfe by Benjamin West, which manages to turn the conventions of the mythological painting onto not merely the historical event, but the current event. In a way, each of these choices is a step on a road from stylization and convention to a more aware and awake attempt to engage with the experience of being alive, with what we might call a more “real” vision of the world.

delacroix

12: Liberty on the Barricades by Eugene Delacroix, although you could also use Greece Expiring on the Ruins of Missolonghi, as the symbolic use of politics and the rise of the democratic spirit in the world.

Turner

13. Joseph Mallord William Turner’s The Slave Ship as another political comment, but more important as the first glimmerings of a kind of Impressionism in paint, and the turning point where what we now call Modernism has not its birth, but at least its conception.

Manet

14. Edouard Manet, The Fife Player, as the birth of that Modernism, flat, ironic, oblique.

Gauguin

15. Paul Gauguin, Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going? and the continuing flattening of picture space, at the same time as opening up to non-Western pictorial influences — to say nothing of questioning the values of European civilization, and it’s about time.

picasso demoiselles

16. Pablo Picasso, Demoiselles d’Avignon as the source of Cubism, and the sense that the picture is a canvas and not a window. It was the single most revolutionary painting of the 20th century, although in retrospect, not Picasso’s best.

duchamp

17. Fountain by Marcel Duchamp – the “found object” urinal – and the single most influential sculpture of the 20th century, and an influence that is still oppressive today. Now, everyone thinks he’s Duchamp.

40-12-17/35

18. I would also include Picasso’s Guernica in this list, as his most ambitious work and the single most powerful image of the 20th century. I grew up with this mural size scream, when it was at MOMA in New York and I was a kid. It is the perfect meld of technique, imagery, symbol and “message.”

warhol soup can multiples

19. Andy Warhol’s Campbell Soup Can and the rise of Pop. Warhol is the most serious postwar American artist, despite his public antics. Art is about the world we live in; Warhol reminds us that the world we currently inhabit is the one of commercial signage and media imagery.

beuys

20. Finally, Joseph Beuys How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare, or any of a dozen other Beuys pieces, angry yet detached, symbolic yet utterly there physically as a presence. The most influential European artist of the postwar years.

This list is, of course, just off the top of my head. I’m sure if I gave it deeper thought, I’d switch out some of these choices. But this is a good enough start.

I’m sure you can think of things I’ve missed.