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).