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.

Posted by Judah in:  Blogging The Louvre   

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