Two staples of French life: Wine and Baguettes

Two staples of French life: Wine and Baguettes

Caroline Godard's Award-Winning Essay

The Language of Looking

Voir: to look.

During the summer after my freshman year of college, I studied abroad for five weeks in Dijon, France. As the capital of Burgundy, Dijon is a small but vibrant town steeped in history. During the Middle Ages, the Duke of Burgundy was the most powerful figure in all of France, and Dijon was the economic, political, and artistic locus of Northern Europe. As the dukes gradually lost influence, the vineyards of Burgundy grew in value until the earth itself—not its inhabitants—became the center of life in Dijon. Today, everything (the colorful rooftop tiles, the cobbled streets, even the surrounding countryside) seems to belong unquestionably to the terroir, the microscopic bits of earth that determine the entire character of the region.

Although I understood French, I wasn’t fluent. Surrounded by those in Burgundy who were born and raised to love their homeland, I was always sort-of-but-not-quite a part of everything: the market on Tuesday mornings that spilled out onto the streets; the café where I drank espresso in the afternoons; even the pedestrian streets at twilight, packed with brothers and sisters and mothers and fathers who amiably, unreservedly chattered away in French. I was looking at everything—absorbing it completely—but I was also intensely aware of being looked at. Would these onlookers see past my accent, my clothes, my confusion at the ease with which they drifted through the day? Did they notice when I smiled a moment too early or laughed a second too late? And, I wondered, to what degree did I value their ability to see me completely? Was I a student from Cleveland, Ohio with a love for art and language—a love so strong and uncontrollable that it propelled me across an ocean and to another continent—or was I another faceless foreigner, one whose desire for anonymity merited her own insignificance?

Voir: to look.

One of my French courses focused on the art and architecture of France, so my class spent every Monday and Wednesday afternoon ensconced in Dijon’s Musée des Beaux-Arts—the art museum—which was formerly the palace of the Dukes of Burgundy. I loved the familiarity of this museum in Dijon because the most mundane details (the coat check, the gift shop, even the overpriced café) reminded me of the Cleveland Museum of Art back home in Ohio.

When I first walked into la salle des tombeaux—the room of the tombs—in the Musée des Beaux-Arts, I remember how silently I looked around the room, unable to find words in French or English to describe my awe.

On the wall furthest from me a massive decorated fireplace stretched upward into the ceiling, which was so tall that it seemed to continue into eternity. Repeating vaulted arches were carved into the stone edifice, causing the fireplace to seem even grander. The dim, murky light contrasted the bright sunlight streaming through the three windows on the crimson red wall to my right. The grandeur of the architecture was countered by two huge, ornate tombs that grounded the space in the center of the room; everything seemed grander, bigger than I could have ever imagined. Other observers glided around the tombs so I began to as well, stepping onto the stone tiles that formed a gold and black checkered pattern on the floor.

Surrounding the bases of both tombs were sculpted figures that appeared no larger than a foot tall. They were all carved out of the same white stone, but each figure was unique. They seemed to exist in a trancelike state of grief, suspended in an eternal expression of melancholy. Many of these figures used the hoods of their robes to hide their faces, as if their grief were far too personal for any viewer to see.

These figures, I learned, were first sculpted in the fifteenth century to honor the death of Philip the Bold, one of the most powerful Dukes of Burgundy. Later on, sculptors created more figures to adorn the tomb of John the Fearless. Known as pleurants, or mourners (derived from the verb pleurer: to cry), the first figures were sculpted by Claus Sluter and Claus de Werve, two of the most renowned Burgundian artists during the Middle Ages. These mourners and I understood each other: their desire to stay hidden was both heartbreakingly beautiful and uncomfortably familiar.

“As far as we know, almost all of the pleurants still exist today,” my professor explained, cutting through the silence. “Nearly all of them are located here in Dijon.”

“Where are the others?” I asked.

“One of them is part of a private collection. The other four are in the United States at the Cleveland Museum of Art.”

Cleveland? The other pleurants belonged to the very museum that I had frequented since childhood, the museum to which I credited my appreciation for art and love of looking? How many times had I walked by the four pleurants in Cleveland, unaware of the connection we would one day share? My home seemed unfamiliar, further from me than ever before.

Voir: to look.

Upon my return to the United States, I went to the Cleveland Museum of Art to see the other four pleurant figures.

“Excuse me,” I asked a museum guide, “where is the French medieval art?” I was embarrassed to ask for directions in a museum I thought I knew. The guide gestured to the back of the museum and I followed the direction of his hand, entering a small, dark room tucked away from the main exhibition area. My eyes scanned the collection of tapestries, paintings, and ornaments, anxiously searching for my pleurants.

Voir: to look.

Suddenly I was looking at those four sculptures. I saw their grieving expressions, the carefully chiseled alabaster, those beautiful folds of drapery; then everything disappeared and I was standing in Dijon, listening to my professor explain the history of les ducs de Bourgogne et le puit de moïse et l’architecture gothique du Moyen Âge et…

…my mind slipped casually into French, finally fitting easily into a language that I had been trying to understand for the entire summer.

Why was I so comfortable in this quiet gallery on the first floor of the Cleveland Museum of Art, surrounded by paintings and sculptures that were over six hundred years old? Was it because I was in Cleveland—my birthplace, my home—and thus felt reassured by the stability of my immediate surroundings? Or was it because I was in a museum, a physical space that venerates the idea of displacement? Many of these objects had traveled further than I ever would, they were certainly much older than my nineteen-year-old self, and they could still be here long after I died. Their visibility as objects on display caused our mutual displacement to seem respectable, even admirable.

I looked at those pleurants and they looked back at me. Together we remembered those five weeks in Dijon when I, too, briefly belonged to a life so far from everything I had ever known.