Noah built an ark, commissioned by God. In Paris, architect Frank Gehry built an ark, commissioned by Louis Vuitton.
Noah's charge was to fashion an ark containing all manner of species, so that all living beings could reboot in a fledgling new world. Noah's ark was to have three levels with outside decks, so that all of the animals could be sustained during the period of the flood. Light was provided by a space called the "Tsohar", an enclosure at the very top of the ark illuminating the ark day and night.The light of the "Tsohar" was never extinguished, guiding the vessel from above.
I do not know whether or not Frank Gehry, (née Goldberg) intended to build an ark as the latest addition to the museums of Paris, but the nautical shape of the vessel of metal and glass is immediately visible as one rounds the path through the Bois de Boulogne. The building even sits in a flowing stream of water. The curves and glassy surfaces, reminiscent of our Disney Hall, enclose three decks,with an upper enclosure filled with light. But this ark does not contain a Bois du Boulogne zoo, or a conservatory for all plant species. The Louis Vuitton Foundation appears to have been constructed as an ark to ferry the human spirit.
The current exhibit is the last of the three inaugural exhibits dedicated to the emergence of contemporary Western art. This one begins with the anguish of the human experience. Taking the escalator down to the bottom of steerage, one emerges face to face with" The Scream " (the original) by Munch. A silent howl penetrates the air as the iconic thin line sculpture of "Everyman " by Giacometti steps into the void. A portrait of the existentialist writer Jean Genet, a head fading into layers of darkness, watches from the wall.
As one rises through the museum/ark, each layer offers a contemporary artistic response to the challenge of humanity. The first is an appreciation of the beauty of nature, culminating with two massive paintings, the famous "Water Lilies" by Monet. The second theme, that of Man and Music, unfolds with a series of abstract expressionist paintings by Kandinsky that turn color into sound. The Russian Dance, perhaps the most famous painting by Matisse, fills an entire room with strength and joy.
Pop Art, with its satirical political edge as well as its appreciation of everyday life objects, is the third, most contemporary response to the spirit of our times. Jewish?. Nothing seems particularly Jewish here. Then, I see the lineup of Warhol portraits. Ten notable Jewish figures of the twentieth century, from the Marx Brothers to Gershwin, from Louis Brandeis to Franz Kafka, Freud, Einstein, and Golda Meir, dominate the gallery wall. Their spirit will be preserved for the epochs to come.
Following the portraits, one takes a few steps upwards, and suddenly one is in a cubical space at the top of the ark. Could this be the "Tshohar", the ark's guiding light? We have some choices here. One is an installation of pure violence , screen images of modern warfare with a deafening soundtrack of guns as percussion instruments. In another, a man and his son struggle alone across a frozen wasteland. At the center of the uppermost enclosed space is a an installation by artist Doug Gordon, based on the filming of a visit to Poland by two Israeli violinists, who have been invited to Krakow to play with the Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra.
I enter a darkened hallway filled with video screens and mirrors. The first image is that of a swimming pool, with balletic swimmers diving and cavorting. The scene is beautiful, but there is an ominous edge as the forms disappear underwater. Outside, I read that this is a swimming pool built on the ruins of a synagogue in Krakow. I am reminded of my own trip to Auschwitz, which began in a luxurious spa in a Sofitel in Warsaw, and ended with my standing in the empty showers of the gas chambers.
The video switches to images of the two Israelis boarding the train for Krakow. The footage, reflected in the mirrors and the screens placed at all angles, records only the current journey ,but the lights and shadows of the Nazi cattle cars never leave our minds.
One of the Israelis explains that his mother, a survivor, is so throughly a part of Israel that she would never return to Poland, but that he felt a pull to do so. The food, he said smiling, so reminds him of home. The Polish orchestra conductor, an older woman who might well have been alive during the Holocaust, picks up the baton and the deep strains of a Mozart Simphoneta begin.
As the violinists begin to play, the music of Mozart penetrates into the deepest recesses of my soul. Mozart bounces off of the screens, the mirrors, the walls, filling the "Tshohar" with sound. One thing is clear, the "Louis Vuitton" will carry the sound of highest of human endeavors into generations to come.
The music flows up through the opening at the top of this ark, up past the glass and steel precipices, up over the Bois de Boulogne, over the city of Paris, and out into the world. The unleashed sound knows no boundaries as it circles the earth, playing counterpoint with the angels above. Mozart, music, and the human spirit are eternal.
Should the Jews leave France? in a few days here, I can hardly answer the question. Here, at the top of the Vuitton Museum, two Jews play their hearts out and the sound covers the earth. This much I know. We will survive.