“Art is at the service of life”

“Art is at the service of life”

Director of the Hartung-Bergman Foundation and professor of art history, Thomas Schlesser publishes an exceptional work, The Eyes of Mona. A true initiation to art, this transmission story provides the keys to understanding 52 works, and more.

In your work, a grandfather introduces his granddaughter, who is becoming blind, to the history of painting, by taking her to museums. How did you come up with this idea?

In 2013, I experienced a painful ordeal, the failure to have a child, and I felt the need to invent an imaginary granddaughter, whom I made grow and mature over ten years: time to write this book. The idea emerged that his blindness would lead his grandfather to take him to build up a reserve of beauty in museums. I had a strong bond with my grandparents, having been raised in part by my maternal grandmother, in Clichy-la-Garenne (Hauts-de-Seine), because my mother worked a lot.

Did this grandmother pass on your love of art to you?

No. She was interested in culture, but was especially keen on classical music. She worked as a shoe seller and had an exceptional sense of humor. Of great strength of character, she did not let herself be fooled: she taught me not to be afraid. We had a special relationship of freedom and tenderness, full of experience and daring. There is more room for creativity and letting go in the grandchild/grandparent relationship than in the parental relationship.

Where does this passion for painting come from, then?

A class visit to the Musée d’Orsay! In hypokhâgne, I discovered Gustave Courbet, Swimmers. This work grabbed me. I was seduced and intrigued. At the same time, I played video games, and my favorite at the time, Defender of the Crown, was aesthetically splendid, worthy of a Titian! I took art history classes, did my thesis on Courbet, and wrote scholarly essays. But I have always been keen to transmit. I have been teaching for twenty years, at Polytechnique for ten years. Via Les Yeux de Mona, I hope to reach everyone and show that art is at the service of life.

How is art at the service of life?

Art is not only a storehouse of beauty, but it helps to overcome life’s obstacles. It is not necessarily obvious, it is not automatic. We often oppose art to nature, this is a mistake. As Cézanne said, “one must go to the Louvre through nature and return to nature through the Louvre”: that is to say, the encounter with a work of art, its hues, its reliefs, allows one to see again better the subtleties of nature. And conversely, the contemplation of nature, of a sky for example, allows us to better savor the different blues of a canvas. Art is crucial because it allows us to see the bigger picture.

But we can be disconcerted by certain works, conceptual, monochrome… And not want an explanation! Do you understand it?

Of course! And people are right to express their feelings. Art can be easy to access, like Impressionism, which seduces with its shimmering colors (even if it was booed at the time!). Sometimes the approach is slower, tedious, like in front of a Picasso or an abstract painter. We must accept failure, incomprehension, rejection. But for those who hang on, if they would listen to me, I will tell them that there is no opposition between the heart and the intellect: knowledge about a work or an artist can trigger an emotion, or reinforce it. Works of art are calls. When we contemplate them, they are “full of holes”: if we inform ourselves, we add layers of meaning and give them an almost existential depth of order.

Did art save your life?

Yes! Around 25, I went through a period of unhappiness. Reading of Near Swann by Marcel Proust was an incomparable consoling force. I in turn constructed my novel Mona’s Eyes in a way that art history lessons become life lessons. When Mona learns “there is no such thing as a weaker sex” in front of the canvas The interesting student, by Marguerite Gérard, in the next chapter, she tears off with all her strength the ventilation grille under which her beloved pendant had fallen…

You publish your book at the same time in braille and large print. Does disability affect you?

I was greatly made aware of disability by becoming director of the Hartung-Bergman Foundation in Antibes. The painter Hans Hartung had his leg amputated. When I designed the tour route, I materialized his handicap, exposed his wooden leg and his wheelchair. We have worked to ensure that people with reduced mobility can explore the exhibition. As for my novel, I wanted it to be read by the blind and visually impaired. It was a challenge: how to make a blind person see a visual work? Via the other senses: hearing, smell, touch, taste, thanks to descriptions and analogies. While watching Rosa Bonheur’s plowing (Plowing Nivernais), Mona thinks of a river of chocolate…

There is talk of death in your novel. Why did you link it to art?

I dare to imagine that there is a transcendental, spiritual significance in art. Not only in religious art, but also in abstract art, mystics are at work. Even if we don’t believe, there is in art a way to connect with “dear voices that have been silenced”, as Verlaine said. I believe in the subtle but real presence of the dead among us.

Are you a believer?

I have faith, I believe in the communion of spirits and in life after death. I don’t like everything about Christianity, but it has a wonderful principle: weakness is strength. And as a historian, I am fascinated by the history of the first centuries after Christ.

You also address the subject of voluntary death. For what ?

The issue of end of life is very complex and affects us all. It is part of a longer history which is that of pain relief, this slow evolution which leads from analgesics to palliative care, and today opens up to debates on active assistance in dying. It is an opportunity for our society to be able to discuss suffering, to have the courage to confront it. This is what I tried to do in this book which also evokes the family secrets that are so difficult to reveal.

The Musée d’Orsay experienced record attendance in 2023: nearly 3.9 million visitors. Art attracts!

I find it very impressive that people queue for hours to enter museums. Too bad they sometimes pass by the works so quickly!

President Emmanuel Macron has spoken out for an increased presence of theater and art history in classes, is this going in the right direction?

To the detriment of which subjects does the president want to introduce new courses? French, mathematics, languages, history? We cannot pretend to believe that the school volume is expandable. As long as the day does not have 39 hours and the week eighteen days, we will have to focus on fundamental subjects. Teachers already take students to the theater and museum. I fear that these announcements are just communication.

What do you expect from the new Minister of Culture, Rachida Dati?

The character is breathtaking. I’m waiting for her to surprise me, and I wouldn’t be surprised if she surprised me!

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