Once there was an old railway station. Built in 1900, the Gare d'Orsay was the Grand Central Station of Paris, crossroads of Europe before the Wars changed everything. It was a monolithic structure, built on numerous levels serving Central Paris for travelers coming into the City or moving, by other means, to the great directional stations, such as the Gare du Nord. Following World War II, time and traffic caused the old station to fall into disuse.
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After being sold off, various proposals for its future fell through, and by 1962, abandoned, it sat by the Seine, thought by many an eyesore. There was talk of tearing it down.
Enter a hero of mine: Orson Welles. He, too, at age 47, was beginning to feel his age, gaining weight but not quite yet the size of a railway station; working harder than five men still, but slowing down. He had agreed to make a motion picture for the Salkind Brothers of Franz Kafka's seminal novel of modern angst, The Trial, the story of a young man who finds himself in a bureaucratic labyrinth in which he is accused of a non-specific crime, for which he can neither make amends nor escape punishment.
Welles, as usual, had written most of the adaptation, planned the sets, hired a cast of international and personal favorites (Anthony Perkins, Jeanne Moreau, Elsa Martinelli, Romy Schneider), storyboarded the camera movements. Shooting was to begin in Paris, then move to Rome, and on to Yugslavia for principal photography. As often with Welles, he experienced one great problem. The producers ran short of money. The extensive locations leased in Zagreb, Yugoslavia, had to be abandoned.
Welles had no place to make the rest of THE TRIAL.
As he describes it in a delightful book, This is Orson Welles (with Peter Bogdanovich, Da Capo Press, 1998), feeling desperate one night in Paris, he returned to the Hotel Meurice (perhaps from Fouquet's, his favorite hangout on the Champs Elysee). As he prowled around his sitting room, pondering what to do, he stopped to glance out the window, hoping to see the full moon over Paris. He was puzzled to see two moons! Then, he realized that one moon was the still illuminated great clockface of the Gare d'Orsay.
It was his answer. Where better a place to make THE TRIAL, about people waiting, than a railway station?
The Salkinds were able to hire the huge structure for relatively little, and within that great cavern, Welles constructed law offices, cathedrals, courts, and over the next several months shot most of his film.
Incidentally, it postponed the destruction of the old place long enough for a group of people, including Welles, to persuade the Ministry of Culture under Andre Malraux to begin a long, slow bureaucratic process of turning the station by 1982 into . . . The MUSEE d'Orsay!
So now, perhaps on a Sunday morning (when its free), having had your cafe e croissant, the tour boats passing nearby on the Seine, you may enter the grand portals of the Museum.
(And say a small, "Thank you, Orson Welles.")
You find a huge space, rising four levels, and almost as long as a football field. At the far end, high up, is an interior clockface, and behind its translucence are what appear to be ants. They are people!
[UPDATE: March 14, 2006 -- It occurs to me that I have unconsciously invoked a recurring Wellsian image: people appearing to be ants. You will find it in his THE STRANGER, in THE THIRD MAN, and other films made by, or related to Welles. But in those films, the image is a fascistic one, first expressed by Mussolini's airman son dropping bombs, godlike, on helpless peasants in Italy's 1935 Ethiopian invasion; of people who can be destroyed or ignored because they don't count. But at the Musee d'Orsay, it is the ants who are the gods, scrambling ever upward over, and feasting on sublime treasures. Might Welles have had one vision for his bleak film and another for a democratic society? Or both? Another question for your Sunday morning.]
The main floor, as has been noted by many, is dominated by large sculptures by Rodin and others. (It rather resembles an immense artist studio.) On either side, rising up in galleries (once passageways for travelers), the length of the structure, are superb collections of French Impressionist Art from 1848 to the Beginning of the First World War.
Here are bays containing heroic paintings (e.g., Millais, Ingres) from which the Impressionists provided a ferociously criticized departure. You climb higher to find collections of Empire and Art Nouveau living rooms, furniture, tapestries, screens, glass, pottery, etc. Higher still we reach the works of Manet, Cezanne, Gauguin, Renoir, Toulouse-Lautrec, P-ssarro, Seurat, Van Gogh, Monet . . . .
These were the paintings which reminded chagrined Parisians (and the World) that ordinary people, not just gods and great figures, might be involved in important and romantic acts.
Not every Impressionist painting you have ever seen is in the Musee d'Orsay. (My favorite, Edouard Manet's "Bar at the Folies Bergeres," is in the Cortauld Institute in London.) It just seems that way.
For those of you who might want to explore Orson Welles' meditations on Modern Art and its Classical and Impressionist origins, I recommend his 1973 film essay F FOR FAKE, starring himself and a work of art he brought back to Paris with him in 1962 from Zagreb: his longtime collaborator, Oja Kodar. Picasso is featured, presumably without his direct participation.
Anyway, if you are in Paris, be sure to save time for the Musee d'Orsay.
For a review of F FOR FAKE, go to:
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