When I first visited Paris in 1980, my travel companions and I usually chose to meet up at Le Jardin des Tuileries, the beautiful gardens that stretch from the Louvre to the Place de Concorde. During our walks in the Tuileries I passed the Musée du Jeu de Paume many times but I never figured out why a modern art museum would be given the name “game of the palm”. The mystery has been solved. The answer lies in the text lurking in the background of the poster for the 2005 French Open.

The name and year of the tournament are painted over text on a poster that looks like it could have been pasted to a wall during the student demonstrations in the 60’s or nailed to a tree during the French Revolution.

What does that text say? The answer takes us on a journey that starts with the Renaissance and passes through the French Revolution and World War II while picking up the history of tennis along the way.

The poster was created by Spanish artist Jaume Plensa. The text is a quote from Rabelais:

“Words, when proffered…freeze and become ice upon contact with the cold of the air and we cannot hear them anymore…now that the rigors of winter have passed, and the serenity and softness of spring have arrived, they melt and make themselves heard”

François Rabelais was a friar, physician, classical scholar and author who lived in France during the Renaissance. In 1532 he published the first book of a series called Gargantua and Pantagruel. The stories derided the practices of the Roman Catholic Church and satirized the excesses of French royalty. His fictional Abbey of Thélème was a palace many times more sumptuous than any of the King’s chateaus. The detailed descriptions contained layouts of “jeu de paume” courts, the game that is the precursor of modern tennis still played today under the name “real tennis”.

On June 20th, 1789, 578 members of the Third Estate, representatives in the French legislative body who were not clergy or nobility, gathered on an indoor jeu de paume court at Versailles. All but one of them signed the Tennis Court Oath, a document that called for a written constitution and stated that authority derives from the people, not the nobility. The French Revolution was officially under way.

What is the answer to the mystery? Musée du Jeu de Paume, now called Galerie Nationale du Jeu de Paume, was originally built to house two indoor tennis courts during the reign of Napoleon III. From 1940-44, Hitler’s regime used the museum to store works of art confiscated from French Jews.

All but one of them signed the Tennis Court Oath, a document that called for a written constitution and stated that authority derives from the people, not the nobility. The French Revolution was officially under way.

Which brings us to the present. The artist Plensa had a show at the museum in 1997 and made the connection between art and tennis. What is he saying with his choice of the Rabelais text? The structure and rules of tennis have changed but the political atmosphere appears to be frozen, fixed.

Politicians have responded to the current atmosphere of terrorist bombings, something Spain has experienced firsthand, by taking away some of the liberties a constitution provides and creating a mountain of new laws and restrictions. Meanwhile, words of protest are cordoned off or carted off to jail before they can be heard.

Plensa reminds us that we make the rules and we can change them. Late spring in Paris might be a good time because, in his words, “We need to breathe normally again.”

Leave it to an artist to evoke a world of ideas with a simple poster for a tennis tournament.

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