Musée du Louvre, Aile Richelieu 2e étage: Northern European Painting 16th-17th Centuries

Into the ‘newer’ stuff. The second floor of the Richelieu Wing covers Northern European painting from the 14th to 17th centuries, mostly what’s now Netherlands and Belgium, also German artists, many of whom migrated west to Antwerpen and elsewhere, and a chunk of French painting from the same period which bleeds over into the entire 2nd floor of Sully Wing and continues on into the 18th and 19th centuries.

I’ve split the earlier Northern European painting into the previous post, and saved the Sully Wing for a subsequent one. This all doesn’t strictly adhere to the floor plan, but it’s a compromise between keeping posts at less than ridiculous length and not getting equally stupid in microscopic and arbitrary dividing of artists and periods.

So, off we go with Lucas Cranach dit l’Ancien. Cranach! Also Jan I Brueghel, dit de Velours. Brueghel and Cranach the Elder! Petrus Paulus Rubens! Famous names! The Louvre has them! So does Musée des Beaux-Arts de Valenciennes, which was the museum I saw after Musée du Louvre. It’s like going to Bendigo and finding a room of Jackson Pollocks and everyone is all, “No big deal…” Even on the rare occasion an exhibition tours these names to Australia, it’s the commonplace of it all here (as well as some works are far too massive to ever tour), it’s not just the famous names, it’s the entire community of artists together across various cities and lands of Europe, influencing each other, experimenting in an abundance of styles.

Rubens had a one beautiful piece, a substantial wall of art: L’Adoration des Mages. Brueghel though, his L’Air, ou L’Optique is fucking magnificent. Sarah-Jane took one look at the bird on the woman’s arm and was all, “That’s one of ours! That’s a Cockatoo!” In a painting from 1621, barely more than a decade after the north-east coast of Australia was first explored by Europeans. It could also be a Yellow-crested Cockatoo from further west in Indonesia, but I prefer for now to believe it’s a Sulphur-crested Cockatoo from Australia and this is one of the earliest popular representations of Australia in European art.

Nearby is Hendrick Goltzius’s Vénus et l’Amour épiés par un satyre, dit autrefois Jupiter et Antiope, which pretends to be all mythological, but fits neatly into Madonna Lactans iconography. Definitely art had got way too horny by this period to be getting away with jizzing boob milk in Christian art, especially as the naturalistic style was dominant. Modern ‘sex-positive’ interpretations aside, the lascivious, perving satyr tells you all you need to know about Renaissance pornography.

Once again, I thought I’d stumbled out of time and landed in 19th century art, but it was just that abundance of styles again: Frans Post’s L’ancien fort portugais des Trois Rois Mages, ou Fort Ceulen, à l’embouchure du Rio Grande and Le char à bœufs. Paysage brésilien both spare and minimal, almost presaging the single Turner I’d bump into later. Gerrit van Honthorst’s Le Concert and Femme jouant de la guitare firmly of the ‘bohemian’ style of which there was plenty.

I could—and shall—go off on a tangent here about Bohemian art, which became a thing—or an obvious thing—in the early 17th century. Neither Van Honthorst’s (nor Georges de la Tour’s Le Tricheur) pieces are as explicit as Valentin de Boulogne’s Réunion dans un cabaret and La Diseuse de bonne aventure, but all of them represent the ‘bohemian’ world, and the people, the Bohémien, now named Romani, Roma, Sinti. Many of these works are simultaneously unflattering and seductive: fortune tellers, pickpockets, card sharps, people generally having too much fun playing music, singing, dancing, drinking in places with dim backgrounds. Nonetheless, here we go: representation. Whoever was in Europe at any time in the past ended up in European art.

The difficulty is identifying who’s who. Seeing a black Saint Mauritius taking up the height of a two metre retable wing in the Gemäldegalerie is unambiguous—insofar as I’m presuming here we’ve moved beyond having to argue the Saint is black in the first place; saying a group of people with brown skin wearing Saracen-styled clothing in a 15th century illumination are Romani goes to entirely another level of historical analysis for which we largely still have to rely on art historians not being somewhere on the white supremacist interpretation of art history spectrum—which is a fucking big ask. Just to be clear in my effusiveness here, I’m not saying European art historians are cryptonazis; I am saying by default they have a really fucking tough uphill shove against a history of art that was and remains deeply committed to the racial ideology all of Europe was enchanted with and is still struggling to overcome. Just have a cursory read of Alois Riegl’s hugely influential Historical Grammar of the Visual Arts, that shit’s nasty. Even a brief perusal of @medievalpoc’s People of Color in European Art History tumblr will demonstrate how attached people are to the idea that European history and its art is white. Whatever the fuck ‘white’ means. Which means we’re often never getting to the discussion of if a figure might be Roma or Persian or from wherever else in a painting in Sweden and what that implies. Which makes even someone like me who spends way too much time gawping at old shit hanging on walls effectively illiterate. It’s like a whole language has been buried. And with it, entire cultures and histories in and of Europe.

Sometimes, I like works just because. Ferdinand Bol’s Enfants nobles (de la famille Trip ?) dans un char tiré par des chèvres is one of those. Totally meme-able, “They see me rollin’ they hatin’” and so on. Also goats. Some are deceptively compelling, yet perhaps appealing only because of its naïvety. Johannes Vermeer’s La Dentellière which gets a place in the Louvre floor plan (alongside that genuine work of bollocks, the Mona Lisa) I have to admit I was and am taken by, though also suspicious it might in fact be asinine and pretentious.

I can’t not talk about Karel Dujardin’s Les Charlatans italiens, one of a few like this (the rest I couldn’t get acceptable photos of, and even the closeup of this is kinda crap and out of focus) which I don’t recall seeing similar of further east (Germany, Poland, and so on). Blackface. Yup, the Louvre has it. Perhaps pertinent in all the works is the person in blackface is also a musician. I feel a little dirty even including it, hanging there as it is without context, something I don’t think a museum in North America could get away with, or for that matter Australia. When I was at IMPACT 14 at PACT Zollverein in 2014, and what I’ve noticed in the last few years in Berlin and elsewhere is an obsession with moving dance into museums, and an unspoken dissatisfaction or belief that there is some inherent lack in museums only a liberal, conceptual approach can fix. It’s all very shifty and feels like a Republican convention at times, and seems to miss a greater, fundamental problem, one that conversely is far more readily addressable. Which some museums are, notably in Sweden. Sometimes it’s as simple as declaring the title of the work is made up, no one knows what it was or even if there was an original title; subsequent titles display all the bias of the generation who labelled it, and the best we can do is describe what’s there with as much context as it takes. It’s one of those ‘not much to ask’ things which seems to butt up against the ‘we have more important, conceptual shit to do’ when broached.

Ok, we’re gonna finish this round with nipples. Cos I’m only in it for the nipples. École de Fontainbleau’s Portrait présumé de Gabrielle d’Estrées et de sa sœur la duchesse de Villars. It’s mad sexy. I thoroughly recommend reading how beautifully strange this piece is.

Then I veered off into the entire 2nd floor of the Sully Wing for 17th-19th centuries French painting.