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In Love with the Louvre

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By Adam Gopnik, THE NEW YORKER

October 19, 2020
How a great picture gallery became one of the first truly encyclopedic museums.


What happens when we try to walk at night through museums we can no longer visit? A range of online virtual tours provides the possibility, but apart from physical problems of reproduction—the pixel resolution is inadequate, the movement glitchy and twitchy—the real difference is the loss of tactile and optical tension, the missing dialogue of aching feet and happy eyes. Online, we float, ghostlike, down corridors, making giddy hundred-and-eighty-degree spins, with no querulous photographer from Toledo with a selfie stick to bump into. Sit and know you’re sitting is the meditation master’s insistence, and Walk and look while knowing you’re walking and looking is the more complicated Zen of the museum experience: the physical and the painterly, the squinting to see and the moments of transporting vision, have to go in tandem. The work is there, actually there as a physical fact, which you could touch, if you were allowed to. A book may be an object, but the Kindle edition of “Hamlet” is as much Hamlet as the (no longer extant) manuscript. Raphael’s portrait of Baldassare Castiglione exists at one specific point on the planet, and nowhere else, having begun in one nameable place and followed a track through time, owner by owner and wall to wall. Reproductions reproduce, and they often do it well, but they can’t reproduce the sex appeal of museumgoing, the carnal intersection of one physical object with another, you and it. It’s a thing, there; you, a thing, here.

This truth is never so piercingly felt as when we think about revisiting in our minds the Louvre in Paris, since its essential experience is enormity and intimacy, constantly colliding, on a scale unequalled by any other gallery in the world. Closed for four months during the pandemic, the Louvre reopened recently, in a cautious, by-appointment-only manner; but, like most of the great galleries of Europe, it remains off limits to still-tainted Americans. As Mark Twain, the archetypal exhausted American tourist, noted when he visited in the eighteen-sixties, the museum contains “miles of paintings by the old masters,” but the experience of its Grande Galerie—a corridor, not a room—is necessarily closeup. Even the large and little rooms that spring off its sides hold out the possibility of an intimate encounter with the past. You look—well, you would look, if you could get within thirty feet of it, past the bulwark of tourists for whom it is the destination of a European visit—at the gallery’s most famous picture, Leonardo’s “La Gioconda” (the one called, in English, the “Mona Lisa”), and you see paint, crackle, a smile, a non-smile, a mystery, a woman, a remembered page of prose (“She is older than the rocks among which she sits”), and, if you allow proximity to defeat familiarity, a genuinely weird, extraterrestrial portrait. Had Leonardo come from another planet, as he sometimes seems to have, this would be a picture of its geology, its flora, and its queen.

Ten million people visited the Louvre last year, before France’s lockdown in March, and no museum can become so crowded without cancelling its own purpose, or replacing it with another purpose—the purpose of a dutiful hajj, of having been there. There are too many people looking to allow anyone to see. Construction of the “Grand Louvre,” begun in the nineteen-eighties, with a new entrance hall crowned by the I. M. Pei pyramid, was meant to organize and order the overcrowding, but has only added to the exhaustion. The long lines that snake around the pyramid in the summer without a trace of shade are tiring to look at, let alone stand in. And, once inside, the physical act of buying a ticket and getting oriented is so extended that it makes the time between the urge to visit and the actual experience of a work of art punishingly long.

Nonetheless, the place is so big, so various, so filled with objects, and so beautifully disordered that there is still, especially off-season, a chance to infiltrate inside, instead of being regimented within it. A Saturday morning in one of the lesser wings—say, the Richelieu wing, opened in the nineteen-nineties—offers time alone with overlooked delights, like the sixteenth-century Flemish tapestries called “Les Chasses de Maximilien,” which include a bracing account of the Emperor out hunting with his dogs and horses and attendants and whippers-in on a winter morning, perfectly capturing the smoky, enveloping air of the Flemish woods while providing an extraordinary encyclopedia of canine types, some strange, some familiar.

Mysterious in effect, the Louvre is delightfully mysterious in history, too, as James Gardner shows in “The Louvre: The Many Lives of the World’s Most Famous Museum” (Atlantic Monthly Press). No one knows why the Louvre is called the Louvre. You would think that it has some relation to “Lutetia,” the Roman name for Paris, or the like, but not a bit; the origin of the name is as opaque as the French love of Johnny Hallyday. Even so, the name has stuck through the site’s transition from citadel to showplace. The continuity the Louvre represents is the continuity of the French state. Gardner relates the long story of the Louvre, starting around the thirteenth century, when it was simply a castle, through its elevation as a palace, and then, in the seventeenth century, its expansion into service as an office building for French royalty. In those centuries, the building intersects art history only occasionally. A kind of false spring occurred when François I seems to have bought pictures from Leonardo at Amboise, in the early sixteenth century—three paintings, including that smiling lady, which remain the nucleus of the collection. It was a cosmopolitan collection—the French King, like many of his successors, displayed his power by demonstrating his taste, with the model of collecting as a form of exotic shopping already in place.

Pictures were also commissioned and displayed there. Peter Paul Rubens’s seventeenth-century series apotheosizing the life of the mediocre Marie de Médicis as the Queen of France migrated into the royal collection early on, and remains both the apogee and the burlesque of major art that is also pure toadying to power. In the late seventeenth century, Louis XIV bought a tremendous number of pictures, but, as Gardner rightly says, he bought as a contemporary New York billionaire would buy, acquiring blue-chip names—then mostly Italian—without much evidence of distinct sensibility. Still, one great picture after another did come into his personal collection for the benefit of France, including what is, for some people’s money, the single greatest picture in the Louvre, that Raphael portrait of the Italian diplomat and author Castiglione. Raphael, the most talented painter who has ever lived, somehow compressed in a single frame all of the easy painterliness and understated humanity of Titian, while fixing, in Castiglione’s mixture of wisdom, intensity, sobriety, and wry good humor, the permanent form for the ideal author photo.

Gardner’s muscular, impatiently expert prose recalls Robert Hughes in his city books, “Barcelona” and “Rome.” He indulges in a few polemics along the way but has unusually firm, if retardataire, views on architecture and a shrewd, watchful, knowing eye—noting, for instance, that the greatest architectural achievement of the complex, the seventeenth-century Colonnade, with its bas-relief pediment, is now so hidden away, around the corner from the pyramid and the central court, that “not one visitor to the Louvre in a hundred, perhaps in a thousand, will ever see this masterpiece.”

“Why didn’t you tell me your parents were coming to visit?” – Cartoon by Christopher Weyant

His account reminds us that we always make one era responsible for what belongs to the one before, and among the truths of French history is that we give the Revolution credit—or blame—for historical processes and institutions that were under way long before 1789. The great public-private spaces of modernity—the restaurants and cafés with their class- and caste-spanning crowd—were all nurtured during the Enlightenment, even if they blossomed after the Revolution. Although the Louvre formally opened as an art gallery in 1793—the beginning of the Terror—the idea to make it so had begun half a century before. The removal of the court to Versailles under Louis XIV, in 1682, had left an enormous volume of unused space, and even more was created by the expansion of the Tuileries Palace, west of the courtyard where the pyramid now stands. The urge to turn the princely palace into a picture palace led, in the eighteenth century, to a series of exhibitions in the former royal residence—the kind of French salons that would, by attraction and repulsion, dominate French taste right up to the First World War.

The direction and planning of the incipient Louvre luckily fell into the hands of two remarkable fonctionnaires who, more than anyone else, are responsible for its character. The first was the extravagantly named Charles-Claude Flahaut de la Billarderie, Comte d’Angiviller, who was appointed the keeper of the king’s estates by Louis XVI. As Gardner tells us, he was intent on establishing a museum in the Grande Galerie, and he went about the heroic work, through both architecture and acquisition, of turning a royal abode into an art gallery. D’Angiviller’s dream was made real by an accident of finance almost impossibly ironic to imagine, given that the Louvre has, for more than a century, been the special haunt of American tourists. The end of the American Revolution, we learn from Gardner’s history, helped finance the French museum. Once the War of Independence had been concluded, the French government could start to collect on its loans to the American colonies, putting thirteen million livres in d’Angiviller’s hands.

He started collecting good pictures, not greedily and haphazardly, as prestige prizes, but with a modern kind of eye, devoted to filling gaps in the collection. He sent his emissaries north, for instance, to buy one of the great Rembrandts that distinguish the collection—the humane and anti-idealizing artist not being at all an obvious choice to French aristocratic taste at the time. D’Angiviller also renovated the Grande Galerie itself, envisioning a huge iron-and-glass skylight that would illuminate the arriving pictures.

He lost his job when the Revolution happened—he fled, for fear of losing his head as well—but the position of what was, in effect, museum director fell to an equally aesthetic and public-spirited conservator, Jean-Marie Roland de la Platière, usually called Roland. A Girondin liberal, he built on d’Angiviller’s efforts, with their implicit appeal to ever-larger audiences, and dreamed for the first time of a true museum: a synoptic collection telling the story of art-making in all its genres, available to everyone. “It should be open to everyone and everyone should be able to place his easel in front of any painting or to draw, paint, or model as he chooses,” he declared. When the Louvre opened at last as a museum, in 1793, anyone could go in.

Roland, with his impeccable liberal credentials and democratic instincts, was one of the more pitiable victims of the countless pitiable victims of the Jacobin Reign of Terror. Only months before the museum’s opening, he took off, afraid of the radicals. Though he got out of Paris, his intellectual, spirited wife, an activist who belonged to the wrong families, biologically and politically, was arrested in the spring of 1793 by the Jacobins, and publicly beheaded in the fall. “From the moment when I learned that they had murdered my wife,” Roland wrote (in words Gardner doesn’t quote), “I would no longer remain in a world stained with enemies.” He committed suicide by sword thrust.

As the revolutionary chaos gave way to the military dictatorship of Napoleon, the Louvre was transformed in another direction. Napoleon set out to loot the world for the benefit of the museum. Of the assaults on Egypt and the Levant, Gardner writes that they “may be unique in the history of warfare in that their goals had almost as much to do with the acquisition of visual art as with the conquest of territory.” In the inevitable French manner, there was even a bureaucracy of the piracy: a comité d’instruction supervising agences d’évacuation and agences d’extraction, which, Gardner says, “essentially oversaw the removal of all portable economic and cultural assets from the conquered nations.”

What Napoleon did was turn his predecessors’ idea of a great picture gallery into one of the first instances of a truly encyclopedic museum—a horizontal treasury of the world’s wonders, hauled into a single city and placed under one roof. The French took the self-embracing Medici Venus from Palermo and the four horses from the façade of San Marco (which had previously been stolen by the Venetians from Constantinople during the horrible Fourth Crusade). Being French, they looted with terrific taste. Pretty much everything they took—from the “Laocoön,” in the Vatican, to the Egyptian antiquities—we would still regard as worth taking. It is de rigueur now to see this as the Enlightenment Armed, philosophes crashing in directly behind the armies on an imperial mission. But it was also the Enlightenment Awakened: for the first time in fifteen hundred years, Western Europe fully reclaimed Egyptian history as part of the inheritance of civilization, through Jean-François Champollion’s heroic deciphering of hieroglyphics, which Napoleon’s invasion made possible.

Much of the loot was sent back after the fall of Napoleon, but much remained, and the pattern of taking continued in subsequent regimes. Though many of the greatest pieces that arrived in the nineteenth century were purchased or donated, others were found in French archeological digs in poor or colonized countries and share in the common indictment of the exploitation of the economically weak by the economically strong. The Nike of Samothrace, the greatest mid-nineteenth-century acquisition, came to the museum because a French diplomat dug it out of the ground on the Aegean island of Samothrace and sent it to Paris. (The prow on which the statue originally sat was later retrieved and mounted on the museum’s steps.)

Does time turn loot into legacy? This is one of the great debates of our era, worth taking up. The point is foregrounded by the Greek government’s ever-hotter pursuit of the Parthenon Marbles in the British Museum, taken from Athens by Lord Elgin in the early nineteenth century, with what seemed to be official permission from the Ottoman administration. What is plunder and what is portable cultural material?

It is very hard to acquit any art museum of looting once one looks hard at the historical circumstances of acquisition. The great collections of European paintings in America were assembled, often by the dealer Joseph Duveen and the connoisseur Bernard Berenson, on something like the same unequal terms as the great archeological collections of Europe. Altarpieces were ripped out of Italian churches and palazzos with a disdain for their context equivalent to Lord Elgin’s—and at a time when Italy was as financially weak against American power as Greece had been militarily against English (and Turkish) power.

Indeed, the matchless American collection of Impressionist pictures in the Art Institute of Chicago would not be immune from the same reproach. We bought them, we protest, at a moment when the indigenous nation grossly undervalued them, which is exactly the same response that the British make against the Greeks. Yet the infirmities of the French state at the turn of the twentieth century, the argument might run, made the simple act of protecting the national patrimony politically impossible. Seurat’s perfect “A Sunday on La Grande Jatte,” which resides in Chicago, is an archetypally French painting, depicting a French scene, fully legible only in the context of French arguments about science, society, and Utopia. Send it back to Paris, the patrimonialists could demand, on the next plane after the one that brings the Elgin Marbles back to Athens!

In truth, it all depends on the transaction and the treasure. Bronze Age people, after all, passed art around the Aegean, in the path of trade and armies, quite as much as later people did. Some of the nineteenth-century takings obviously mark the kind of cultural circulation and hybridization that is not just essential to civilization but exactly what we mean by “civilization”; others really do trail the injuries of theft. The Parthenon Marbles are part of a still existent if damaged architectural whole, and the splendor of the Acropolis Museum is that it looks directly out on the original site. They ought to be returned. On the other hand, the Italian pictures at the Louvre represent the long-standing to-ings and fro-ings of art in European culture, a practice both loving and violently rapacious. Portable pictures are meant to move. Seurat in Chicago makes us all more Parisian. The Veroneses in the Louvre show us, in this sense, more historical truth than a Veronese in situ in Venice might. Portable pictures are inherently self-propelled, with the possibility of going elsewhere implicit in their making.


Cartoon by Ellie Black

As the nineteenth century wore on, fewer great objects found a home in the Louvre. But the most extensive building projects in its history took place in the eighteen-fifties and sixties, under Louis-Napoléon and the Second Empire. That nineteenth-century Nouveau Louvre is most of what the tourist sees today, in the Cour Napoléon surrounding the pyramid. Designed by a changing roster of official architects, in what was seen as a noble, Grand Siècle style, it makes the gewgaw glories of the Second Empire everywhere evident. Though made of the same beige limestone as the seventeenth-century buildings, the sculptural decoration of the Cour Napoléon is florid and pompous in a way that recalls the Sunday-matinée façade of the Opéra more than the low-relief severities of the Cour Carrée. Every surface is decorated with statues, so that, as Gardner writes, visitors waiting in line to enter the pyramid “cannot fail to notice that they are being watched by eighty-six stone figures, each about ten feet tall, that man the terraces of the first floor like some overdressed swat team.” The one great accomplishment of the Nouveau Louvre was to link the older Louvre with the Tuileries Palace, which closed off the courtyard to the west. But the palace was burned nearly to the ground by the Communards in 1871, in an anti-Royalist gesture made as the Commune fell. The fires reached the gallery end of the Louvre as well, saved only by heroic Paris pompiers.

The iron-frame buildings of the Nouveau Louvre—instantly identifiable by its proliferation of dormers and mansard roofs—became the most frequently copied architectural style in mid-nineteenth-century America. Here was the basis of “the General Grant style of every other Midwestern county courthouse,” as the wonderful social historian J. C. Furnas once wrote, “and a principal reason for many Americans’ sense of anticlimax when seeing Paris for the first time—so much of it looks like the insane asylum and Public School Number Eight back home.” Philadelphia’s city hall is probably the most imposing remaining instance of the shared style. The ruins of the Tuileries, which were visible through most of the eighteen-seventies, were left oddly unpictured by the great generation of Impressionists coming of age as artists at that time. The avant-garde painters, mostly radical republicans like Manet, regarded the ruins as an encumbering image of exactly the kinds of deadly Paris feud and fronde they were trying to leave behind.

Ignoring the ruins, those artists haunted the museum. The curious thing is that, for all the Parisian drama going on around it, the Louvre as a museum has been a remarkably stable institution. Very few things have entered the collection that stand above, or even very much alongside, its nineteenth-century acquisitions; the works that had arrived by 1870 are still its treasures today.

Nothing is more imperious than the academic insistence on how our tastes in art and music are reshaped by class conflict and social upheaval. But, when one looks at cultural history without prejudice, what is astonishing is how constant taste is. Hamlet’s advice to the players in 1600 is, pretty much thought for thought, what you would say to an acting company now: the straight actors shouldn’t ham it up, the comedians shouldn’t gag it up, and the more lifelike and credible the human behavior, the better. In the same way, an aesthete asked in 1900 to single out the most important works in the Louvre would have named the Leonardos, the Delacroixs, the Greek statuary, the Egyptian antiquities, and, perhaps, the French neoclassical paintings. The aesthete might have liked the insipid side of Raphael, the chubby babies and pious peasant Madonnas, more than we do, but that peerless portrait of Castiglione is an unaltered affection. More than a century later, the list is not very different. All that has changed is the warning labels: the old-style aesthete might have been warned that these hallowed presences are protective against the corruptions of modernity; we are warned not to miss their absences, all the persecuted or subordinated peoples not shown. It is the same kind of talk about the risks of mere visual pleasure, attached to a different kind of moral strenuousness. The pieties change, but the pictures don’t.

The greatest single transformation in the building and its purposes since the Second Empire dates to our own era, with Mitterrand’s “Grand Louvre,” completed in the nineteen-nineties. Gardner is, on the whole, kind to the architectural features of the I. M. Pei project, which certainly achieved its desired effect of making the Louvre a little more rational, if a lot less beautiful. (In the pre-Pei era, you entered more or less directly onto the great staircase and the Nike of Samothrace, a thrilling preface.) What Gardner regrets is the scale of the new mass tourism that the post-Pei Louvre invited, overlooking, perhaps, its central lesson. Despite Walter Benjamin’s famous insistence otherwise, mechanical reproduction, far from diminishing the aura of the original, vastly reinforces it. The more people have seen of the Louvre, the more they want to see it, just as the more baseball games you show on television, the more people come to the park. It’s also true that in a secularized society, where culture fills a role once played by faith, there is a persistent place for pilgrimage—even attached to penance, waiting outside in the hot Parisian summer sun for hours.

“The Louvre stands as an implicit reproach, a programmatic rejection of the art and architecture that the West favors today, with its asymmetries, its puerile rebellions, its clamorous proclamation of its own insufficiency,” Gardner insists. Must it? Certainly French modernism is impossible to imagine without the Louvre: Picasso and Matisse’s Orientalism is unimaginable without Delacroix, as de Kooning and Francis Bacon would be unimaginable without Rubens—borrowing his stylized armor of life drawing, the extravagant hooks and curves he puts in place of real human form. Wayne Thiebaud pulls into the twenty-first century Chardin’s mission of bringing a halo to ordinary edibles. Even the wilder shores of avant-gardism that Gardner seems to make reference to are often Louvre-linked, inasmuch as it took the Louvre to give the “Mona Lisa” sufficient renown to make Duchamp’s drawing a mustache on her something more than just an insult. And the Master of the Morbid Manner, Jeff Koons, is in spirit very much self-consciously emulating the deliberately overblown pneumatic grandeur of the kind we find in Rubens’s Marie de Médicis series. The Louvre seems far from finished as a fishing ground of form.

Meanwhile, the best way to revisit the Louvre at night is to do what Henry James suggested: shut your eyes and see it in your dreams. Such pleasures are real, if hard-won, and prove that memory creates a more virtuous virtual reality than virtual reality can. Ain’t nothing like the real thing, baby. For all the museum’s vainglory and dubious universalist pretensions, an earth without the Louvre on it would be an infinitely poorer place—a truth that we feel as strongly when we can’t possibly be there as we did in the now distant-seeming days when we could. ♦
===

Published in the print edition of the October 26, 2020, issue, with the headline “Picture Palace.”
Adam Gopnik, a staff writer, has been contributing to The New Yorker since 1986. He is the author of, most recently, “A Thousand Small Sanities: The Moral Adventure of Liberalism.”

—— AUTO – GENERATED; Published (Halifax Canada Time AST) on: October 19, 2020 at 07:02PM

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