Blogging The Louvre
Monday, January 21, 2008
Blogging The Louvre
Today I set out for the Louvre with the mud of the French countryside on my boots leftover from a Sunday afternoon outing to Chevreuse. If at first it seems like an affront (to the museum, to the royal palace), I quickly think of it as an offering to the spirit of the French kings that haunt the halls: a bit of earth to remind them of their lost kingdom.
I've also got a mission. Last night I saw a performance of "Berenice" by Jean Racine, with Carole Bouquet in the lead role, and Lambert Wilson both playing Titus and directing. In Racine's tragedy, Titus, on the verge of being named emperor by the Roman Senate, is forced to choose between his passion for the Jewish queen Berenice and his ambition (Roman law forbids a foreign-born emperess). He chooses ambition. Now I'm curious to see how the same story might play out on a canvas. It strikes me as a primitive form of multimedia hyperlinks.
But a docent confirms what an internet search had already suggested. There are no canvases of Berenice and Titus. I wander through the French painting wing until I stumble on "The Painting of the Month": Mercury Orders Aeneis to Abandon Dido. I never read the Aeneid, so the story is unfamiliar to me. But the parallels are there and the canvas, hanging alone in a small alcove off a passage, is a beautiful one, so I take a seat.
Aeneis sits on a chair, a child servant lacing his sandals, while Dido reclines naked on the bed beside him. Her expression is one of resignation, youthful but somehow not innocent or naive. As if she understands her status as object of desire, a footnote to the larger narrative of Aeneis' destiny. Berenice disappeared from the historical record after Titus' death, and it seems safe to assume, given the nature of Western mythology, that the same will be Dido's fate. From her expression and her languid posture it's clear, too, that she understands her essential failure. She has offered her being, her self. And it was not enough.
Clearly, the unmade bed he's rising from is their lovers' bed. She lies in it, still naked, a living echo of the passion they've shared, while he is present but already gone, his eyes directed towards Mercury, messenger of the Gods: to his destiny, to his glory. It's a moment we've all lived, if we've lived: the interior farewell that precedes the last goodbye. It's a moment of brutal rejection, a declaration that all that the other has to offer is not enough. That the unknown offering in destiny's outstretched hand is more tempting than all that is known and cherished in the soon-to-be-abandoned lover.
The brutality of the moment is magnified in the canvas by the public nature of the scene. The servant lacing Aeneis sandal, two old maidservants huddled in the background gossiping, the courtyard in the distance representing the public square and community, and the Gods all witness Dido's humiliation.
From Dido's attitude and expression, I wonder if Aeneis has left her carrying their child. At least, it occurs to me, the deadbeat dads of antiquity abandoned their families to accomplish heroic deeds. What began as a pursuit of glory has, in modern times, devolved into a shirking of responsibility.
But were the ancients really all that glorious? Titus, I learn once back at my desk, was a violent and lethal chief of his father Vespasian's "secret police" (the Praetorian Guards), a Putin-esque figure at best, an Uday Hussein type at worst. Nicolas Sarkozy, whose name came up last night after the theatre performance, is more a child in a toystore than a hero in search of glory. But is glory even possible in the age of google, when all of a man's shortcomings are stored in a database for instant recall?
The colors of the painting are evidence of its recent restoration. The vibrant pastels of Mercury's rose tunic, the servant's peach shawl, Aeneis' blue armor almost leap out from the canvas. Aeneis' pink and ruddy skin contrasts sharply to that of Dido, pale and porcelain. Outside, through the window, the sky bleeds grey. It's barely dawn; he'll be gone before the light.
I wonder if she'll rise and carry on as if nothing has happened? Or lie in bed all day long, wondering where she went wrong?
Image of Mercure ordonne à Enee d'abandonner Didon. Orazio Samacchini (1532-1577). Richelieu Wing, 2nd floor, French painters, Room 17.
Monday, January 14, 2008
Blogging The Louvre
Before leaving my apartment, I consult the Louvre floor plan and decide on a large room on the first floor of the Richelieu wing labelled Renaissance. To get there I wander past a black monolith covered with cuneiform, an actual example of Hammurabi's Code. Then there are halls of sculptures in bronze, lead, marble and stone: Mercury lacing his sandles, Greek nymphs in various suggestive poses, enormous Egyptian temple guardians guarded themselves by photovoltaic alarm sensors, and ancient Sumerian totems that manage to capture movement and stillness depending on which angle you look at them from. I hesitate but decide to continue on, only to find that the long room I've imagined filled with lush Renaissance canvases is in fact a hall full of enormous faded tapestries depicting The Emporer Maximilien's hunting parties. Bummer.
I'm sure people who know their tapestries would probably find quite a bit to draw them in, but all I see are some worn out blankets, and I'm suddenly confronted with the experience of the museum as disappointment (for what I'd hoped to find), and regret (for not having stopped before one of the sculptures that had tempted me on my way here).
Knowing that I'll ultimately find my way back to the blankets before the year is out, I continue wandering until a series of pictographs alerts me that I'm drawing nearer and nearer to the ultimate destination of this yearlong journey, the Mona Lisa. Only two weeks into the start of the project, it's the equivalent of playing with fire. But there's nowhere to turn aside and so I continue onward, wondering how close I'll allow myself to come before heading back, when suddenly I'm stopped in my tracks by an enormous square room of massive dimensions. When I say massive, consider that among the canvases hanging from the wall, a couple of them, if laid out flat, would make nice-sized bedrooms. One of these in particular, hanging high above the first row of paintings, announces itself as today's subject. I sit on a bench a good thirty feet away, take off my coat and settle in.
In a palette that contrasts sharp foreground pastels against the muted grays and greens of the background, achieving the kind of vivid smokiness typical of American colonial art, a crowd seated behind a wooden barrier stretching from one end of the canvas to the other watches the last strides of a footrace. A young man in a pastel pink tunic seems to balance perilously on the toes of one foot, almost falling towards the finish line to our right. In his hand, he delicately holds onto a golden ball, his fingers splayed daintily. Several lengths behind him, a woman in a blue robe baring one shoulder swoops gracefully and powerfully in mid-stride, scooping another golden ball from the flat racetrack.
Paris, I think to myself, about to win Helen's love. I think of all that will follow, and wonder whether he would have followed through had he known himself.
But of course I've confused my Greek myths, not to mention my golden apples, as I realize when I check the title and painter: The Race of Hippomene and Atalanta. I only vaguely remember the storyline, something about a fiercely independent and athletic young woman who will only marry the suitor who can beat her in a footrace, knowing full well that no one can. And so Hippomene must use his guile to win her hand. He drops the golden apples, a gift of the Goddess Aphrodite, in Atalanta's path, who can't resist the temptation to gather them up, allowing Hippomene to win the race and her hand.
But I can't help but feel pessimistic about their chances, at least based on the painting. Hippomene's posture is effete and dainty compared to the sure-footed power coiled in Atalanta's lowered stride, the thickness of her shoulder and arm, and the poised strength of her arched back. The marriage seems more like a prison sentence for her than a union. Maybe that explains why her father, who in the myth was constantly pestering her to marry, in the painting has his hand raised and his arm outstretched, as if to stay his daughter's impulse to scoop up the golden apples, or perhaps even to hold Hippomene back from crossing the finish line. His face is strangely impassive, as if he, too, is unsure whether the outcome is cause for celebration or grief.
The rest of the onlookers seem similarly ambivalent. From atop a pedestal that seems to mark the finish line, a marble cherub looks down with a look of amusement. In the crowd, amid the surprise and consternation rippling through the crowd, the noble woman closest to the finish line encourages Hippomene forward with two outstretched arms.
But in the foreground, a woman of clearly more modest origins reclines with fatigue, a naked baby at her side, clearly foreshadowing the future that awaits Atalanta. And to the left of the canvas, still in the foreground, a young girl, tense and alert, regards Atalanta's impending defeat with alarm and disbelief. As if her own fate is somehow tied up with that of Atalanta, tripped up by a woman's love of all that glitters. Tripped up by the apple, too, of Eden (unknown to Atalanta, perhaps, but not to our painter), an apple that represents knowledge and sexuality, but also death and mortality.
Perhaps not coincidentally, across the room hangs a sombre canvas of laquered browns and umbres, Lady Macbeth Sleepwalking. She storms out from the shadows like a fury, the flame of her candle, her peach-colored robe and her wild shock of red hair all piercing the darkness. Her eyes are asleep yet somehow aflame with panic and hysterical guilt, and the tilt of her earrings conveys the lurch of her stride. Almost lost to the layers of paint and varnish that cast the background in deep shadow, a man, demonic, hunches threateningly over a young woman, whose corseted chest is in prominent display. There's a sexual violence to the scene, a menacing quality that reinforces the terror in Lady Macbeth's eye. But it's her own violence that she flees, the violence of an ambitious woman condemned to live in the shadows of a vacillating man.
I don't know how the myth of Atalanta turns out. But I leave the museum not feeling very hopeful about her chances.
Image of La Course d'Hippomede et Atalante (1765). Noel Halle (1711-1781, Paris). Oversized image here.
Resizable image of Lady Macbeth Somnanbule (1783). Johann Heinrich Fussli [Henry Fuseli] (1741-1825, Switzerland, England).
Sully Wing, forst floor, English painters, Room 74 (The Salon of Seven Chimneys).
Monday, January 7, 2008
Blogging The Louvre
Monday morning at 10am. The Louvre is almost empty when I arrive. Empty and vast. Imposingly vast. Here I am to begin my ambitious project, a room by room exploration of this institution of a museum, and I'm immediately disoriented by the very dimensions. Not only of the palace itself, but of my ignorance: of the museum and of everything in it. Suddenly I realize it isn't empty at all, the Louvre. It's full of artifacts, every last one of them a testament to my ignorance of the history of art before 1900.
I've already decided that my journey will end one year from now in the Holy of Holies, the Grail of tourists and Dan Brown readers alike: la Joconde. The Mona Lisa.
But where do I start? And how do I organize my itinerary along the way? Seized by a moment of doubt, I scan the floorplan and grasp hold of the first thing I find that offers a hint of security. Flemish painters, 16th century. I know about them. Fourth grade, Mrs. Wenger's class, Packer Collegiate Institute. I did my country report on Belgium, and as part of the section on "Culture" I went to an exposition at the Met, studied the catalogue, and fell in love with Hieronymous Bosch, Peter Breughels and Jan van Eyck.
I ask for directions from a docent in the Cour Marly, the great hall of marble statues, and as I describe my project to him, I'm perfectly conscious of my need to explain, to justify my presence to someone who belongs. I climb a staircase and cross the apartment of Napoleon III, where a janitor vacuums the carpet. I feel like an intruder in someone's home. But the docent, the janitor, the repairmen working on the escalator remind me of why I'm here. I project myself into the future to the time when I will feel like part of the surroundings, free to observe the goings on around me.
The purposeful act of seeking something has alleviated my moment of doubt. I pass through an enormous room devoted to Peter Paul Rubens without even a glance, taking note of the luxury of knowing I'll be able to come back to it. (Next week? Next month?) The halls are almost empty, but an art student seated with her sketchpad and two older women with easels and oils making copies of the Dutch masters remind me that there are many ways to settle into a museum, and that I'm not the only one to do so.
The only Van Eyck in the collection is disappointing, so I take a seat in a room with two Breughels, one depicting a line of blind men falling into a ditch (The Blind Leading The Blind), the other a group of beggars. But it's an enormous painting in front of me that captures my attention.
A young woman sits with a transparent shawl draped over her shoulders and lap, exposing her breasts, plump belly and thighs. At her feet a servant readies a sponge to bathe her while gazing with an amused expression at a young man who half kneels at her lady's side, his hand raised to the sky. Two other servants (one a young woman, the other a small child with African features) stare out from the scene at the viewer, the first with an expression of sadness, the second with a mischievous grin.
Is the young man a suitor? No. His outstretched hand points off to the upper lefthand corner of the painting, where an old man with tired features looks down on the scene longingly, his desire so overwhelming that it renders him frail, grasping the marble pillar of his balcony for support. The painting's title, David & Bathsheba, reveals the pair's identity: King David, moments after he's spied Bathsheba bathing on her roof below his royal palace.
Bathsheba, for her part, looks off into the distance, past the king's servant, with an ambiguous expression. The upturned corners of her mouth could be a smile. Or they could be the regret she already feels for what she knows will come to pass. She will accept David's advances, and become pregnant by him. David will in turn organize her husband's death on the battlefield to hide their adultery. The child will die as punishment for their sin; their second son, Solomon, will inherit the throne and be graced with uncommon wisdom.
I'm struck by how much the story resembles a Greek myth, with its lust and treachery, and a God who plays favorites. A God who punishes his beloved servant for disobedience, but who can't quite bring Himself to definitively turn His back on him. I'd first met David outside the Bible as a kvetching old man looking back on his life in Joseph Heller's "God Knows". But I suddenly picture him more as a Jewish Odysseus, turning to God only when his own guile and luck don't quite suffice to get the job done. Nothing like the frail old man overcome by his own passion portrayed here.
But I'm drawn in by the painting's colors and shapes, which combine to form a startlingly erotic composition. The pink of Bathsheba's exposed breasts stands out against the downy white skin of her belly, and her fleshy curves are exagerrated by the precise geometry of Jerusalem in the background. The red velvet of her servants' dresses contrast against the olive green hills stretching off into the distance, and the glistening lacquered foreground is sharpened by the matte grey, proto-impressionist rendering of the clouds.
It's 11:30, the forgotten wing of the museum begins to quicken with activity. The occasional slow footfalls of the gallery's two docents are now joined by busy steps, some hurried, some more languorous. Some circle the room quickly before heading off, others linger in front of a canvas or two. A man photographs the two Breughels that I've ignored with a digital camera and walks away examining the exposures. I've passed into anthropologist mode, as fascinated by the color-coded couple with matching shoulder-bags who move through the room with synchronized choreography and hands clasped identically behind their backs, as moments before I was by David's longing for Bathsheba.
I make my way to the exit, past Napoleon's apartment, which already feels less like a stranger's home and more like a friend's than it did an hour and a half before. I keep an eye out for familiar faces, but the guards and docents have all been rotated. I climb to the courtyard and leave the glass pyramids behind. I'll be back next week.
Resizable image of David & Bathsheba by Jan Massys (1509-1575, Antwerp). Alternate image here with better detail, but poor color reproduction and cropped. Richelieu wing, second floor, Flemish 16th century painters, room 11.
Monday, December 31, 2007
Blogging The Louvre
Today I walked to the other side of the Seine, descended into the glass pyramid and bought my "Friends of the Louvre" membership. It's the first step towards what will become a weekly feature, starting next Monday, similar to Michael Plotz's "Blogging the Bible" series that Slate ran this past year. By "blogging" a room of the Louvre each week until I've covered them all, I'll attempt to convey a sense of the art, the artists, the stories and the histories represented. But more than that, I'll also be trying to deconstruct the very experience of visiting a museum, especially one as celebrated as the Louvre.
The project will be one of discovery for myself, as well. My art credentials are limited to an Art History 101 class I took at Stanford University with Albert Elsen in 1987, and a year spent working alongside a group of brilliant (and, yes, starving) artists at the MoMA bookstore in NY the following year. In addition to forming many of my attitudes towards art, that year at MoMA also enamored me of museums in general, and a certain type of museum experience in particular: the extended occupation of a space that is meant to be passed through.
That's something I'll try to capture in this series. By becoming a fixed and recurrent observer, I'll really be letting the room itself lead me to the story. Some weeks it'll be a painting, others a painter; sometimes I'll dive into the story on a canvas, other times it will be the story behind the canvas. Some weeks, though, the story might be a visitor I meet during my visit, or else a museum employee, or maybe even the collector who donated the work to the museum. I'll combine the experience of the visit with whatever research it inspires me to do afterwards, and as much as possible, I'll include images of the work I'm dealing with.
Depending on how it goes, I might spin this off into its own blog. For the time being, though, it will be here each Monday as a little time out from the discussion of global events. Hope you enjoy it.