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14 octobre 2017

“What a blind person needs is not a teacher but another self.” (Helen Keller)

Classé dans : Arts et beaux-arts, Peinture, dessin, Sculpture — Miklos @ 11:41

B*** in front of the Mona Lisa, with my extended arm behind her.B*** in front of the Mona Lisa. Musée du Louvre. (source)

I was recently solicited by a great guy, H***, in order to meet and guide a friend of his, B***, an impressively courageous 24 year-old blind woman, into the Orsay and Louvre museums. This turned out not only to be a privilege, but a transformative experience (for me). B***, who lives in Western Asia, had graduated last June in psychology. To quote her profile: “I’m a young trainer in youth field. I’ve been doing projects, activities, seminars etc. in NGOs working with disadvantaged groups especially people with disabilities, children and women. I’m involving events and activities for doing disability activism. I’m also writing in an online journal. I love writing, it opens my mind and makes me feel more confident by making decesions and acting.” And does she act! She came to Paris for a two-day stay, after having visited Malta and Rome. Alone. It was her wish to see the paintings in Orsay and the Louvre.

We started with the Orsay museum. It turned out that Orsay has no aids whatsoever for blind people – like a “tactile” room (as the Louvre does, see below) or descriptive audio guides. Frustration (mine) can lead to unconventional ideas: I suggested we go to the museum store, where I knew there were replicas of statues, and ask if she could touch them. The sales­woman readily agreed, and this allowed B*** to explore some of the sculptures of this museum with my explanations about the artists.

But what about the paintings? This turned out to be quite a different challenge. The use of such qualifiers as “big”, “small”, “great”, “amazing”, “striking” that we may use while standing in front of a work of art and sharing our feelings with a fellow visitor would provide no useful information to B***. I felt it was necessary to concentrate on being descriptive and factual: size of the painting, overall layout and shapes, colors, tonality and shades (B*** had at a time perceived colors), texture (of the skin, of the hair, of the clothing, of the buildings and the vegetation)1. Think about how to describe “objectively” the faces of the women in Renoir’s Bal du moulin de la Galette, for instance, the soft skin, the dark eyes and eyebrows, the red lips and the so characteristic smile, the rosy cheeks, the shape of the faces, the way they hold their head… What about the differences between the settings of the couple of paintings of the famous Étretat cliff – angle, colors, weather and overall atmosphere? This was a first for me. I hadn’t consciously thought of works that way before, but felt I had to try my best to project what I saw rather than what I felt into her mind.

The following day we went to the Louvre. We first visited its touch gallery, which currently “features 18 casts that show the diversity of the museum’s sculpture collection, from ancient to modern times” illustrating the both clothed and unclothed body through time. Watching B***’s hands explore with such a light touch the scultpures was fascinating. But at times, especially with drapes folding in complex ways around (parts of) the some of the bodies, she got lost, so I took the liberty to lead her hand as gently as I could and explain what she was touching locally by describing the overall shape. Next to each work, there is a Braille notice identifying the work… but unfortunately only in French. At the entrance of that room, there is a bilingual panel (in normal alphabet), explaining the genres that were displayed in the room. The Braille translation below again was only in French, so I provided an oral translation of the text.

We then went to the Mona Lisa room with Saul who had joined us meanwhile (and who took the above photo). As we unfortunately couldn’t come to the museum at opening time, it was already full with dense hordes of visitors. We managed to find a small space at the far left of the barrier keeping them away from the painting, and I started describing the work to her. Just a couple of minutes later, a guard came and asked us to follow him: he brought us to another barrier much closer to the painting – maybe less that 1 m away – where I had never seen anyone standing. This allowed me to notice much subtler differences in colors and shades (e.g., in the clothing) that I had from the public standpoint, which I then attempted conveying to B***, together with the larger features of the painting – the overall shape (foreground, landscape background), her posture (body, arms, hands), detailed shape (face, cheeks, chin, eyelids…), colors, tonality and shades. As we weren’t allowed to stay very long there (we were in between the general public and the painting), my explanations had perforce to be cut short after a few minutes: for example, it would have been informative to explain why Renaissance Italian paintings had such half or quartier openings into the background (as can be seen in other paintings in that room).

After that painting, there was the challenge to describe Veronese’s immense (6.66 m x 9.90 m) Wedding Feast at Cana, which stands opposite that of Mona Lisa (so she wouldn’t be bored only watching the back of tourists taking selfies without even looking at her): the palace structure and its levels, the people – their social classes and functions, their clothing, their attitudes and expressions… -, the animals (including the dog’s head in the upper left corner), and so many other aspects.

We ended up by visiting part of the Ancient Egypt section – that of the 4,400 year-old Seated Scribe with its poised position and calmly powerful expression, or – to me some of the most touching works I have seen – those of couples seated side by side, with a very formal and stiff attitude in the front, and a tender one in the back, where either or both have an arm discreetly holding their spouse around the back or on the shoulder. The one pictured below has the additional characteristic of being ever so slightly bent, which is hardly noticeable from the front: they must be an older, loving couple.

Transformative indeed.

A married couple and their child, seen from behind, with the wife's hand on her husband's shoulder. 4th dynasty, 2620-2500 B.C. Musée du Louvre.A married couple and their child. 4th dynasty, 2620-2500 B.C. Musée du Louvre. (front view)


1. Come to think of it, it reminds me of the way I introduced over 45 years ago another handicaped (in this case: paralyzed) person – my friend Guy – to classical music, by having him listen to Bach’s Cantata BWV 106 (Gottes Zeit). Before every movement, I would draw his attention to melodic lines (by singing them the best I could), harmony and polyphony, textures of instruments, voices of soloists and choir. I had never done it before (nor after, as it turns out), and even 40 years later he would tell me how it transformed his life. Not to speak of mine.

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6 commentaires »

  1. Zeyer, zeyer sheyn ! Betale

    Commentaire par Reicher Betty — 14 octobre 2017 @ 12:31

  2. This is the most effective portrait of the lovely and friendly person that you are. Your blind friend is very lucky if she can count you among her friends.

    Commentaire par Patrizia — 14 octobre 2017 @ 16:40

  3. Thank you, my dear friend!

    Commentaire par Miklos — 15 octobre 2017 @ 8:21

  4. A groysse dank, tayere Betale!

    Commentaire par Miklos — 15 octobre 2017 @ 8:22

  5. Classica, the classical music TV channel I am usually watching, broadcast earlier this evening a piano recital at Carnegie Hall of a 29 year-old blind pianist, Nobuyuki Tsujii. I had never heard of him, but the sheer musicality and virtuosity (it is rare when both are combined, nowadays: virtuosity comes first) made me almost cry — and think of B***. I started looking for info about him, and read what some of the jurors of the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, where he got the gold medal in 2009, said – which added to my emotion. Quoting e.g. Menahem Pressler: « I have the utmost admiration for (Nobuyuji Tsujii). God has taken his eyes, but given him the physical endowment and mental endowment to encompass the greatest works of piano. For him to play the Chopin concerto with such sweetness, gentleness and sincerity — it’s deeply touching. I had to keep from crying when I left the room. »

    Commentaire par Miklos — 16 octobre 2017 @ 21:30

  6. All of this made me think about the senses, and how people can compensate the lack of some by an increased awareness of the others, by making extra use of capacities we all have but don’t use because we aren’t thus sollicited. But it also made me think of the power of the word: when we happen to read a novel (or any text) written by a gifted author, it has the power to suggest to us landscapes, objects, people, situations… that we can envision in our mind, although it is done only by the word. And sometimes to such extent that if it be a real place or person, when we see it in real life later, we recognize it, although we have never seen it (this is also true of sound – e.g. music, which you can almost hear — , of eating — e.g. delicious food that you can almost taste — when you read a good description of either). Why is it so strong, while we, us who can see, hear or taste can forget what we saw, heard or tasted? I think it is due to the fact not only that the text may be excellent, but that reading is an active operation, while seeing, hearing or eating is usually passive: you are there, the stimuli enter your eyes, ears or mouth without you making any effort. There are however active ways to see — watching –, to hear — listening –, to eat — tasting –, for those who trained or were trained to do so, i.e., think about what they so « ingest ».

    Commentaire par Miklos — 17 octobre 2017 @ 14:52

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