Trains, art and body odour

February 10, 2013


IT’s only fair to warn the reader at the very outset that a steam-engine taking a plunge out of a stained glass window is not really the subject of these lines. But this is a breathtaking picture… and the rest depends on the reader’s imagination.

This spectacular accident took place at the Gare de l’Ouest in Paris on Oct 22, 1895, when a train ploughed through the buffers at the end of the platform and rammed into the wall, its engine finally coming to rest precariously dangling over the busy Montparnasse sidewalk; the sole casualty was a newspaper vendor.

The image is as stunning as it is rare and is part of the collection of Musée d’Orsay, itself a former train station and today a museum devoted to masterpieces by painters, sculptors and photographers at the end of the 19th century.

A few words now about this building which came into being to honour the Universal Exhibition that Paris was hosting in the year 1900. The central theme of the event was steel, a great invention that would mark the new age and to which the other Parisian tribute 11 years earlier was the Eiffel Tower.

But there was a problem. The site chosen for the new train station was in central Paris by the river Seine and was in the immediate neighbourhood of the Louvre Palace. How to integrate pragmatic modernism into historical, majestic elegance?

The architects scratched their heads and finally decided to cover the multi-storied steel structure with a sculpted stone façade in the same classical mode as the surrounding buildings. Construction started in 1898 finished in time for the inauguration of the exhibition on July 14, 1900.

The Gare d’Orsay that carried passengers to and from the very heart of Paris dutifully served its purpose for well over forty years. Then, when steam was replaced by electric power, its platforms were deemed too short for the new, longer trains. Gradually, the station was closed and a decision was taken to demolish it altogether.

The huge, but now desolate edifice was an awe-striking site, especially when looked at from the inside. It inspired Orson Welles to use Gare d’Orsay as the decor for his 1962 film ‘The Trial’ based on Franz Kafka’s story. Welles would later tell a BBC interviewer it was the greatest film he had ever made.

Probably partly taking cue from the artistic success of ‘The Trial’ (it was a commercial flop by the way!), Parisian intellectuals launched a campaign in the early 1970s to save the building from destruction. Following their efforts it was declared a historic monument that was soon to be transformed into a museum.

Work began in 1978 and the Musée d’Orsay was inaugurated in 1986. Today, among other masterpieces, it houses the greatest collection in the world of impressionist and post-impressionist paintings by Monet, Degas, Manet, Cezanne, Renoir, Sisley, Van Gogh, Gauguin, Seurat and others. Some 75 million art enthusiasts have visited the museum in the past 26 years.

But what has all this to do, you’re probably wondering, with a steam-engine? Oh yes, come to think of it, last weekend the museum was at the centre of a huge scandal reported by all the French newspapers and TV channels.

What happened was as follows: Matthieu, a passionate social worker, met a group of immigrants with the aim of helping them. As they talked on, the immigrants described their travails during their bid to leave their country of origin (not identified by the media for politically correct reasons) and head for Europe. This included a train accident from which they had luckily come out unscathed.

In his enthusiasm to please his new friends, Matthieu was inspired by the idea of taking them to Musée d’Orsay to show them the famous picture of the dangling locomotive. But first he took them for lunch to an expensive restaurant. (Apparently, Act for Dignity, the group Matthieu represents, does not lack funds… like most human rights organisations these days).

As promised, Matthieu led the group to the famous photograph to prove that train accidents could happen in Paris too. By the time he was showing them the impressionist works he was approached by a museum official who took him aside and informed him that a number of visitors were complaining about the strong body odour of his guests and that it would be wise for him to leave.

But Matthieu protested angrily, and as the verbal altercation became too disturbing four armed guards escorted the group out of the museum door.

The incident would probably have died its own hushed death had not Matthieu decided to whip up the scandal in a number of interviews to the media.

The whole affair led to wide publicity and controversial exchanges of opinions. To make matters worse, Act for Dignity issued choleric statements to the press and letters of protest to the museum officials and to the culture minister.

The latest news is that the administration of Musée d’Orsay has issued a public apology over the mishap and has promised to do all it can to welcome immigrant visitors in future.

The writer is a journalist based in Paris. (