In The Garden
I slither through the still-chained gate, barely fitting my torso through the two foot length someone has left on the chain, allowing just enough space for me. It is dawn, a beautiful morning in Paris, very little breeze, and the temperature rises seemingly by the minute in concordance with the sun’s ascension.
I am not trying to avoid paying the meager twelve Euro entrance fee. I will pay when they open. I just want to get in before anyone else. There is no feeling like strolling these incredible grounds alone. I’ve duped the English-speaking gardener a nice piece of change in the past for early entrance, so I know of what I speak. I was anticipating having to do just that this morning, but this cavalier security, very French-like, gives me unencumbered entrance to paradise.
The silence is all-encompassing and luscious, as if inviting my thoughts into an open air, yet ultimately empty, amphitheater, where they will hold sway, need no opening act, and are presented with an ethereal red carpet upon which they are practically required to parade. I’ve never experienced a more inviting environment for my soul to breath. It is achingly comfortable, yet in an oddly parallel way, an almost sepulchral experience. It mirrors what I have often thought heaven would be like. Not easy…just wonderful.
I stop, rubbing my hands together to combat the slight chill, staring at what is one of my favorite pieces of real estate on earth: Rodin’s Sculpture Garden.
In the center, blotting out most of what lay behind it, is a huge, ancient brick structure. It resembles a conservatively built castle but was once the Hotel Biron, which opened in 1919 and was where the great sculpture lived at one point. An enormous structure that probably provided comfort and succor during a rain storm, but now houses some of the greatest sculpture work ever done by man.
It is a magnificent and fitting home for Rodin’s work, and its creaky old wooden floors and non-symmetrical layout lend a sense of randomness to any slow stroll through its rooms on both floors.
Outside, as I gaze skyward, a huge brick chimney rises alongside it on the right, clinging. Even at this hour, some good soul has already started a fire as the tell-tale smoke wafts above me toward the blue sky. There is something there. Nobody will ever know what.
Oddly, it is the rear of the former great hotel that faces the front gate and greets visitors first. Not unattractive, of course, but it is the other side that beckons people. That side is the engraved invitation from Auguste himself, to indulge.
The front of the building has a second floor balcony that affords a sweeping view of the grounds and is a popular perch from which to take photos. It faces west and is generously bathed at the end of each day in every last bit of sunshine provided to the greatest city in the world.
I have been here many times at that hour, when light begins considering sleep, at different times of the year. When the sun sets on this garden, it’s as if God is slowly closing his eyes, committing the last visuals of this shrine of thought and contemplation to his memory in order to get through the night, to be able to call upon them when necessary, to quell whatever demons may visit him in his slumber.
Or at least I like to think so, as that is what I often do.
On either side of the solidly built former hotel that currently shows one light on downstairs and two rooms on the second floor that are brightly lit, are luscious strips of green grass sprawling westward and from which sprout some of the great concoctions of the imagination of Auguste Rodin. It is his statuary that attracts people from all over the globe. His bronze and marble renderings are so evocative that many people fall speechless. Most of his most notable sculptures were roundly criticized during his lifetime because they clashed with the predominant sculpture tradition, in which works were supposed to be decorative or formulaic, that generation’s white wash terms for shallow. Rodin's most original work modeled the human body with realism, and celebrated individual character. Many scholars described his work as ‘visceral’. There was a radiant intensity that accompanied much of his work that simply overwhelmed people, even the so called experts.
At this hour where dawn answers light’s gentle knock at the door, and the almost indescribable transition from night to day occurs, this silent, immaculately tended garden is the perfect venue for solitude and reflection. The strategically placed benches throughout the grounds invite just that. I have spent many melancholic hours upon these benches, exploring my navel, contemplating the beginning, middle and the end of life, over and over. Mine….and yours.
For every statue there are a half dozen tall trees that, based on the crescendo of sound coming from their apex, apparently are home to thousands of birds who are greeting the day’s birth with various tones of their melodious dialogue. Birds greet the day with the same wide range of emotion that human’s do.
Incongruously, I hear a generator start up and look to see a man, not my gardener friend, pulling a portable tank with a long hose attached, as he begins a powerful pressure-washing of the statues. The bird’s presence above has rendered the obvious results below.
At first I thought it audibly intrusive, but then realized it was a necessary response to the man-made structures inhabiting what was originally a world meant only for animals. I felt Auguste understood this as well, with a wry grin, and an ironic nod toward human advancement.
Both lawns spill toward the front of the Musee and curve gradually into a huge pond in the center of the rear of the garden, and meet on either side of the water, which is home to a marble statue centered in the pond and from which water gently is emitted.
Down the center of the garden, spilling forth from the huge, wide, shallow stone stairway that leads from the Musee to the garden and eventually the centralized pond, is an unadorned wide swatch of grass, with parallel stone paths on either side upon which people may walk.
One can spend hours in the garden alone, before heading into warmer climes inside the old hotel, where the ancient wood-beamed ceilings and unfinished wood floors give the impression of life centuries ago. Inside are many of Rodin’s smaller pieces, but no less compelling and in fact, in some cases more so, as certain pieces contain so much fury and activity confined to a small sculpture as to be almost mind boggling, if not stunning to the eye. He could fit “fury” into almost anything he crafted, without invoking the extreme nature of the word…it was contained and controlled. I can only presume he was as well.
I am here for what has become an annual pilgrimage, pared down from the four or five visits a year that I have made in the past. From London I venture south to the City of Light, usually in November. Fall in most parts of Europe is mind- numbingly beautiful. The lengthy drive from London, and subsequent crossing on the ferry to France, always provides a landscape upon which contemplation blooms. I arrive at the Musee perfectly suited for my task at hand.
And that task? To leave a kiss at the foot of Le Penseur, Rodin’s “The Thinker”, arguably his most famous sculpture, created in 1902.
In what has become an abstract, even sloppy tradition; an awkward homage to a long ago failed love affair, the act itself has little to do with her and more to do with a vague maintenance of my urge and compulsion for romanticism and passions of the heart.
She’d left me a kiss here, many years ago, after fleeing America while our breakup was still fresh, raw and painful. A short year later I’d mirrored her sojourn and returned the gesture, and it had grown into a tradition for me that occasionally reached the point of ridiculousness, far more significant to me in my soul than representational of any literal connection with her.
But I persist to this day. She has no idea that I make this yearly return trip to the burial ground of our brief love affair, where our final kisses were exchanged 20 years ago, from 6000 miles, and one year, apart.
Nor will she ever know. As mentioned, it has little to do with her. She may have spawned the gesture, but it has grown beyond anything we ever shared. In fact, I have often invoked more recent lost loves when placing the kiss at Le Penseur’s feet.
“The Thinker” has become my go-to destination for my homage to the lost loves of my life.
I simply hope I live enough years to do them all justice.
© Copyright 2016 Bill Rayburn. All rights reserved.