As a connoisseur of Paris museums—the Nissim de Camondo, Espace Dali, and the Musee des Arts Decoratif are three favorites—I was very excited to tour the Gobelins, a working carpet and tapestry factory in the 13th arrondissement that dates back to the 1600s. Not only are the products of the museum something rare and special—each piece of work takes years to create—but the concept of it is super French.
The creations are done entirely by hand, at astronomical cost, for a market that basically does not exist. Just like haute couture. Finished works can be (but are not necessarily) requested by government officials for residences or offices. The carpets and wall hangings are not designed by the specialists who devote their careers to making them, or by the people who ultimately spend time looking at them on walls or walking on them on floors. Some government administrator taps the very worst contemporary artists to make ugly rugs, many of which are destined to become a part of the other half of the work done by the institution of Les Gobelins—that of tending to all government furniture. So you can think of the institution of the Gobelins as mix of art in a vacuum and the vacuumers of government furniture.
Sound interesting? It wasn’t.
It started with the cashier. My conversation with her, in French, went like this.
Me: Three tickets, please.
Her: That’ll be 27 euros.
Me: Is there a discount for government employees? I see this is a government institution.
Me: Can I check this bag?
Her: No. And please note the tour is in French.
Me: We are speaking French right now. Does it sound like I don’t understand?
The guide arrived, in a ratty scarf and unbrushed hair, and began the tour in a murmur better suited to a Serge Ginsbourg backing signer than someone addressing senior citizens in a cobblestone courtyard. Even when she scolded people—“Don’t take pictures! “Erase that photo!” “I said, don’t touch anything!”—it was barely audible.
“Here’s the original building, the oldest one in the complex,” she whispered. “We can’t go in there. Over there are the dye vats. We can’t go in there.” Where we could go was on a hike across the street to a building that was modern, but whose elevator we were not allowed to use. So we tromped up 6 flights to see approximately 6 FUGLY rugs and tapestries. All contemporary. Call me crazy, but I don’t go to a 400-year-old institution to see crap created in Lady Gaga’s lifetime. The figurative pieces looked babyish—a silhouette of a hand that recalled kindergarten finger-paint projects—and the abstracts looked like still lives of vomit. We viewed ZERO old ones.
The tour guide didn’t tell us how many tapestries the place had made or what the subject matter of them was. Perhaps cognizant of the fact that 9 euros is a lot to pay to see 6 dopey “metiers” with no context to speak of, the guide held up a few 8 x 11 photocopies of rugs that—once again—we were not allowed to see in person.
There was one highlight: witnessing rug-makers in action. Up to five people at a time wove wool yarn from large spools in and out of what looked like piano innards. They would refer, from time to time, to the original work of “art” nearby, one of which looked like early computer artwork by a heavy metal pothead. Believe, me, it wasn’t as cool as that might sound.
The extent to which all this inspired the tourists and septuagenarians was summed up in the first question asked by one. “How much do the weavers make?” an old dude wanted to know. When the guide answered that the women (the weavers are almost all women) are “B” level civil servants, an argument broke out in the crowd over whether Bs earn a livable salary. “Barely above minimum wage,” muttered one visitor.
And just like that, it was over. No gift shop, no catalogues, no post cards. OK, I’m exaggerating. You could buy a wool pompon for 3 euros. The debacle reminded me of the old joke, “Terrible food. And such small portions!”