Though we made the obligatory pass past Buckingham Palace, Ben and I had a commoner’s experience of London; we didn’t see royal privilege up close. Versailles promised to change all that. Built at a deliberate remove from the city, the Paris suburbs have since caught up with the Palace: today it’s a forty-minute train ride from Saint-Michel. Getting off the train, we had the sense that the locals had been awaiting our arrival: scenting blood, they were out the front of their shops, brochures in hand, advertising guided tours. We walked past them and approached the great golden gates; it turned out they were only a harbinger of the tourist ruckus to come. Versailles is the only time on this trip that the experience was spoiled by the crowd.
It didn’t help that the main Palace was such a roped-off, linear experience. Herded along, holding our audio guides to one ear like a mobile phone, we learned who had painted this ceiling mural or where the marble for that wall had been sourced but gained very little sense of what it was like to inhabit the place. Crossing each room became a matter of negotiating the minefield of sightlines set up by the hundreds of photos being taken; I felt a foolish rage when some clueless fellow tourist strayed into one of my carefully composed shots. Worse, the space was filled with hideous installations by the artist Takashi Murakami – grinning plastic flowers and gold-embossed cartoon monsters, redolent of Pokémon and the worst of Japanese cutesy culture. Like Jeff Koons, Murakami seemed to take the Palace’s reputation for excess as an excuse to go completely over the top; indeed, I wondered if his goal was to outdo Koons for bad taste. The human traffic seemed to have had an impact too: it was all looking rather shabby. Even the famous Hall of Mirrors felt more like the lobby of a theatre than the height of luxury. We walked out after an hour or so, feeling quite discouraged. It was wet, a low windswept drizzle that found its way in under our umbrellas; my camera wasn’t working. We sat in a restaurant in the gardens, hoping the day would improve.
And then, magically, it did. (We found that in Paris our prayers were usually answered.) As we walked up to the Grand Trianon – the palace that the royal family used as a respite from their duties at the main Palace – the skies began to clear. With our umbrellas down, the tree-lined avenues were revealed in all their charm. And the Trianon itself was luxurious in the best sense – not wealth that set out to wow or to intimidate, but wealth deployed as an expression of taste, to enjoy the best of everything. As we walked through the boudoirs and salons – each decorated in a different colour, their views out over the gardens carefully planned – I had a sense of the other quiet afternoons that must have passed there. As ill-founded as their privilege was, there was beauty in the life of Louis XIV and his court – the beauty of living well. (It helped too that the crowds were relatively thin, discouraged by the rain and the half-hour walk.)
We walked on into the gardens of the Petit Trianon, the palace given to Marie Antoinette and decorated according to her tastes. Here we discovered a toy hamlet, built at her request in 1783, just a few years before the Revolution. There’s a small tower, painted yellow and pale pink, overlooking a pond, and a mill and thatched cottages and a farm with sheep and geese and donkeys. It expressed some of the paradoxes of wealth – the Queen, with the riches of a nation at her disposal, sentimentalised the life of the peasant, sought refuge in this sham Arcadia. The place is perfectly useless but also fanciful and deeply charming – there’s something wonderful in her capacity to realise her fantasies, to make them concrete. It’s a glimpse of human possibility – it shows us what can be done, vaults us out of the everyday. In this sense she could be said to have lived for all of us – though only now that the grounds have been opened to the public. Of course, the hamlet also shows how deeply divided Marie Antoinette was from reality – she did not venture out into the true countryside, with its attendant hardship and dirt, but took refuge in this sanitised version. There’s a sort of obscenity – ignorant self-indulgence – in celebrating the rustic when so many of her subjects suffered in poverty. In this sense it’s an illustration of the reasons for the Revolution. It must have been a rude awakening indeed when the hordes first descended on the Palace.
The following day we visited the Musee Rodin. The sculptor’s work is housed in a mansion not far from the Eiffel Tower, his bronzes scattered around a beautiful garden. The French cherish order in their landscapes – the gardens at the museum were all rectangular lawns and neatly trimmed hedges. It was as lovely as Marie Antoinette’s hamlet – Rodin’s sculptures tucked away amongst the trees; some of them famous, like The Thinker or his battered Balzac, some of them bodies divorced from their context in his other work. It was the latter that touched me most – men and women contorted in ways that recalled the strain of exercise but served no discernible purpose so that, bent over sideways or clutching themselves to themselves, they seemed to be straining against their physical limitations, trying to escape their bodies. There’s a glassed-in section housing some of Rodin’s unfinished marbles, and these – busts of some of the great personalities of the age, from Clemenceau to George Bernard Shaw – seemed on the other hand to be straining towards selfhood. Detailed faces rise out of blocks of white marble, the stone sloping away from their chins where their necks should be, so that they just seem to be keeping their heads above water.
The mansion’s interior is full of his work as well: it really does seem to be living there. The rooms were crowded with art students on low canvas stools, giving it their quiet attention. I was surprised at how frankly sexual some of it was – The Eternal Idol (a man on his knees, head bowed, planting a kiss on his lover’s breast; the woman giving his action the rapt focus of sex), The Kiss (his hand claiming her hip; she, engrossed, her body fully engaged, her arm around his neck), the Iris with her legs parted and the frank anatomical description of her genitals. There are studies showing how he arrived at his Balzac; a cabinet detailing the process of casting in bronze. Rodin never actually lived here, but walking around, seeing his first drafts, marvelling at his productivity, I entered quite deeply into his creativity – began to feel that I knew him. It’s an extraordinary place.