Last night, buoyed with a tub of vanilla ice cream and post-ride fuzzies, I finally got around to watching the last, movie-length episode of the gloriously weird Sense8. Yes, I cried.
I stuck around for the credits, and post all of that deep emotion, saw the logo for Venus Castina Productions, the company of Lana Wachowski and her wife, Karin Winslow, and thought, “I know that arse. I’d recognise that arse anywhere. I saw that arse in the Louvre.” I didn’t photograph her from that side though, but she was on my ticket when I visited, and I spent a long time with her, five hours into my nine-hours of getting done by the Louvre. Hermaphrodite endormi, 2nd century Rome with the bedding done in the 17th century when the fashion was to go all Baroque on Classic sculpture.
Gala Moody once again getting the pervy fetish down on the first pose of the day.
“What am I supposed to see and feel from this?”
The Last Days of New Paris begins with this epigraph, and continues, “In other words, ‘What does papa say I may think and feel about this?’” a quote from surrealist artist Grace Pailthorpe in On the Importance of Fantasy Life. Pailthorpe doesn’t get a page on Wikipedia, or for that matter much mention anywhere, not unusual for a woman. I don’t think this is the specific or entire point China Miéville is trying to make, his tendency over the decade I’ve been reading him has been towards minor figures — minor in the Deleuze and Guattari sense of the word. I’m not sure either he uses this epigraph as confrontation, though my response, “You tell me. You tell me what my reaction to surrealist art should be if not this most pathetic of all.” is obviously that.
I’m not a fan of surrealism. Without categorising all the European art movements of the last millennium, I would say it’s around my least favourite. When I think of surrealism, I think of a bunch of male wankers engaged in a circle-jerk about how ‘radical’ and ‘edgy’ they are while all onlookers see is bros taking up space, completely and uncritically committed to the most narrow and unimaginative of political, artistic, social, and philosophical positions. So when a surrealist says “What am I supposed to see and feel from this?” is pathetic and follows that up with some ad hominem Freudianism, I feel we’re not getting off to a good start for Miéville’s latest novel.
I’ve read part-way in, and getting all presumptuous here, it’s something of a sequel or same-universe-y to his story, The Tain (in 2005’s Looking for Jake), and digging into the same aesthetic bits as 2009’s The City & the City, and 2011’s Embassytown. The latter two I thought were proper good. Not easy reads either. The Tain though, I was ambivalent about, more on the ‘no’ than ‘yes’. So far with The Last Days of New Paris I’m feeling the same.
It doesn’t help that I’ve just come off reading one of the finest works in history (which I haven’t yet blogged because it’s so profoundly good I don’t know where to begin except with hyperbole), plus The Sea Is Ours, plus Jo Walton’s Necessity, so I’ve been existing in this rarified state of sublime reading. And Miéville is capable of doing that to me: Un Lun Dun, the two above, Kraken, Railsea, he’s been solidly reliable in filling my Book of the Year coffers.
And yet. He also somewhat regularly throws out works I don’t care for. I’m confronted with this surrealist tale and an epigraph that demands a response yet gaslights the very question most valid. What am I supposed to see and feel? Because whatever surrealism was doing it was not without context. If I was my Turkish Muslim grandmother in post-war colonial South Africa, a valid question would be this one I’m ‘not allowed’ to ask. And of the many art movements of the early 20th century, I don’t recall surrealism providing much in the way of answers to these. Filing surrealism along with Psychoanalysis, Marxism, dialectics of the Hegelian (or Marxist) kind, and a swathe of European thinking that has been banging its face into a cul-de-sac since Kant, binning the lot, moving on. Probably not the imagined response to that epigraphic statement, or the novel.
It’s a limit for me with Miéville, a limit for himself as well. He’s a Marxist, or rather Socialist of the radical, International type. I’m a fuck-knows-what who wishes just for once the Left could speak without first filtering the universe through Marx’ beard. More than the fact I think Marx was wrong, I resist the hegemonising desire of others to frame my world through (nominally his) Marxist reductionism, just as I resist feminism and queer’s own colonialism of my self. It’s strange to be talking about a work of fiction like this — admittedly I read (and watch) fiction precisely for this kind of entertainment — though I think Miéville positions himself with the expectation of this. I don’t find it possible to read, say, his most recent novella, This Census-Taker without considering fairly hefty issues of political representation, human rights, violence; it’s intrinsic to his writing, just as Iain M. Banks’ Culture is a manifesto for a liveable world. When Miéville asks that question, even if it’s deferred through the words of another, he’s bringing all this to the conversation.
It could be I’m just not in the mood for him right now, coming off this run of fiction that I’ve devoured like a meal at the breaking of famine. It could also be this run is where I find myself, see myself. Representation. Context. What I need in art. What I find in Miéville sometimes when he ventures far from his defaults, defaults to my mind which sit fairly predictably in hetero male writer land (whether or not he is), defaults I’ve found he’s returned to more or less since Embassytown, so I read him out of fondness for the past, out of loyalty to a writer who can be transcendentally fucking brilliant, but not currently out of much love for the book in hand.
I wanted badly to see Hermaphrodite endormi. I left the Denon wing and miraculously it was right around the corner. From there, somehow back into the Richelieu Wing and into the 12th-16th centuries French and Northern European Sculpture collection.
Not a soul.
Just me and deliriously beautiful mediæval sculpture. Anyone who is not moved by the beauty of Charles V and Jeanne de Bourbon just fuck off right now. Quite a few pieces were behind glass, so these photos are skewed heavily towards works that weren’t or like La Vierge et l’Enfant en majesté, closeups. I can truthfully look at her for hours. And Le Christ décloué de la Croix reminds me so much of similar pieces I saw in Stockholm. I really want to see more art from this period, say 10th to 13th centuries, I feel like I’m missing something huge with the rarity of pieces from then.
Running forward a bit, I round a corner and here is the most Metal, most Doom mediæval object I have ever seen. It’s completely SunnO))). The Tombeau de Philippe Pot (1428-1493), grand sénéchal de Bourgogne with its life-size figures, it’s deeply scary and I would absolutely fly back to Paris right now if SunnO))) was playing in the same chamber. I’ve never seen a tomb like this. Plenty of large stone relief funerary art, some of it masterful, but this, I’ve never seen anything even resembling it.
It’s baffling to me people horde to see unremarkable paintings (Mona Lisa and Botticelli, thank you very much), yet disregard Northern European painting from the same time, and sculpture, it’s like it doesn’t even exist unless it’s Antiquities, Roman or Greek. So here I am, alone, with one of the finest pieces in the Louvre. Ok, maybe it’s a metal thing.
Metal in a Goth kinda way: Jeanne de Bourbon-Vendôme, comtesse de Boulogne et d’Auvergne. I showed this to Sarah-Jane and she went, “Yeah … Wait! WTF Frances? Are they maggots? What the Fuck??” Maggots. Yes. I forget the details on her, I don’t forget her entrails bursting from her stomach, nor her anorexic grinning face. As with the tomb, there seems to be representation going on in sculpture that doesn’t have comparable examples in painting, or perhaps it’s the enduring solidity of stone that makes such imagery—the brief interval of rot after death—so profound.
Further on—and I’m barrelling through stuff now, I’d love to have the time to write properly about some of these—is a hilarious La Vierge à l’Enfant, attributed to Maître H.L. Untouched by woodworm, it would be unremarkable, I’ve seen hundreds of these, 16th century swaying sculptures with baby Jesus nearly flying from Mary’s arms. This Jesus is more at the pudgy rolls of Michelin Man end of the scale, which assists greatly in the coming horror. His arms, feet, most of one leg, and from chin to halfway back through his head, along with Mary’s right hand have been eaten away by woodworm, leaving a surface that seems to be dripping with maggoty tendrils. With Mary’s beatific smile, I looked at this in terrified, it’s complete Lovecraft, Unholy Things from Beyond Time and Space, end of humanity and the universe. And if Charles Stross was ever to combine his Laundry Files and Merchant Princes Series, this is what it would look like.
Of course there were retables with L’Adoration des mages, one in wood, one in stone. Slightly before those and Nameless Horror, I whizzed through the Decorative Arts collections (no idea how, it was on the floor above and I was determinedly going down, and somehow I was swapping back and forth between Richelieu and Denon Wings), and snarfed some photos of Narcisse, dit Hermaphrodite Mazarin ou le Génie du repos éternel, Diane, dite La Zingarella ou Petite Bohémienne, and Vieux pêcheur, dit Sénèque mourant, and Maure, dit Le Moro before guttering in the basement for the last few pieces.
L’Annonciation and Le Descente de Croix are simply beautiful. Their framing, careful lighting, attention to mounting, all just emphasise how sublime these two pieces are. I’m reminded of Muzeum Narodowe we Wrocławiu, which is still one of the finest mediæval collections I’ve seen in Europe (yes, in small and gorgeous Wrocław).
From here, last push into the bowels of the Louvre, the original castle, wound round in a tightening circle then ejected at closing time, into night and rain, the Pyramid empty and glowing in darkness.
The last of the paintings! Several hours into my Louvre march, I’m still on the first floor, traversing 500 metres of the Denon Wing. I’d diverted at some point to see all the Decorative Arts collections, Napoléon’s apartments, Louis XIV and the Régence, none of which I’ll blog besides a couple of photos of the apartments.
I think after the Véronèse pieces, I ended up in the pair of salle which house “large-scale works”. And when they say ‘large’, this is in context of ‘average’ being the surface area of a small apartment. And when they say ‘large’, they mean Eugène Delacroix. Also Théodore Géricault and Jacques-Louis David. Famous shit, yo.
First, a Caravaggio, one of those La Diseuse de bonne aventure that became popular late-16th century and might correspond with the increased presence of Romani in western Europe. As I blabbed on in a previous Louvre post, you could make a substantial exhibition out of ‘bohemian’ works alone. This and a few others including the Turner are up the arse-end of the Denon Wing. I’m pretty sure also I missed the stairs down into Arts of Africa, Asia, Oceania, and the Americas, but seeing I missed in total more than a third of the whole museum, it’s inevitable I’ll one day be back. Nearby the Caravaggio (I think) was Giovanni Paolo Pannini’s Fête musicale donnée par le cardinale de La Rochefoucauld au théâtre Argentina de Rome en 1747 à l’occasion du mariage du Dauphin, fils de Louis XV, which is mesmerising because the close you get the more detail there is. And the idea that for a marriage you’d get on stage and throw a whole Baroque production. Thanks to these rich idiots we have ballet.
Bartolomé Esteban Murillo’s La Cuisine des anges is a beautiful work in the Franciscan tradition, muted browns and greys, ecstatic visions, hovering monks … sometimes religious art like this affects me so deeply, not just Christian art, Islamic, Buddhist, Daoist, all somewhere have this portrayal of the sublime. In this also is the Flemish and Dutch Golden Age of still lives, vast tables of food, game, fish, it’s such a pleasure to see various movements emerge in each other, influence each other, ideas or motifs that are germinal in one place become central and profound somewhere else. Close in style to this also is Luis Tristan’s La Vision de saint François d’Assise.
All this is merely a side diversion—even Guiseppe Bazzani’s La Fille de Jephté which owes much to Rubens—to the immense halls of Delacroix. Splitting these two wings is a salle with the ceiling I photographed, and Léopold Robert’s L’Arrivée des Moissonneurs dans les marais Pontins. I think this work sets some of the tone for the pair of galleries, monumental yet thematically mundane; artificial and staged yet not impossible that a photographer might capture the same. As I’ve been writing these six posts, I’ve been researching the artists, their paintings, filling in gaps, sometimes wondering if a choice of word might be acceptable has led me off on half an hour of reading and searching. It’s surprising how little information there is outside of Wikipedia, and how much there is there on even seemingly minor artists. So my question looking at this painting was, “Are these harvesters Romani?” and the answer is I don’t know.
The big one in the first hall is Théodore Géricault’s Le Radeau de la Méduse. I looked at it and went, “Oh! That one! That one? Really?” like I couldn’t believe the painting I’ve seen in so many books was the one in front of me, as if it should permanently remain a reproduction. But nope, there it is in all its vast 7 metres by 5 metres enormity. I only photographed it because I wanted my version—many of the works in these two rooms were partly glared out, and they’re all on such a different scale of huge, like photographing landscape or architecture.
Eugène Delacroix’s preoccupation is an Arab and North African Orientalism. His smaller works are less afflicted by the bombast of these large ones, like Scène des massacres de Scio; familles grecques attendant la mort ou l’esclavage again like Robert’s sliding between monumental and quotidian, so overly posed yet with one moment of impossible movement. He’s got nothing on Goya when it comes to the horrors of war. There’s something sexual in the way destroyed bodies lie in their arriving death, I saw the same in his Mort de Sardanapale (one of the hardest to photograph), it’s gentle and delicate, and even looking closely uncertain whether it wants to be an orgy or massacre.
One other, so embedded in my memory, like I’ve seen it for millennia, and it’s as old as ancient Greece, Jacques-Louis David’s Les Sabines. These paintings it’s complicated for me to say anything of, being as they are such loci in European culture. For me it’s that I can approach them closely, look at the details, the brushwork, observe it in a way impossible in a print. And these works—as I keep saying— are vast. Les Sabines is average, merely a bit under four metres high by a bit more than five metres wide, and in that is a lifetime for an audience. Do I feel by seeing a painting it makes me more of an authority? Perhaps not as when I see the smaller, minor works. I’m pretty sure the art of this whole period of Europe, of colonialism, Empire, up to and through the 20th century fills me with dread which I never experience in mediæval art. It implicates us now in the future it proposed, and nothing in it offers a possibility for us getting out in one piece.
Ok, away from all that, one last painting: Jacques-Louis David’s La Marquise d’Orvilliers, née Jeanne-Robertine Rilliet. I looked at her in between visits to Les Sabines and I reckon she’d be well awesome for a night of boozing.
From here, out of the chaos of Italian and French painting and into the dead quiet, empty French & Northern European Sculpture of the 12th to 16th Centuries.
There’s people everywhere, all rock concert like and selfie-sticking the shit out of everything. It’s getting into shove-a-rama territory and I’m trying hard to hold onto the luminous calm I had wandering all the mediæval stuff upstairs. Trying. And then I spot this guy. He’s so appropriate, wearing saffron robes with lynx fur trim and an ultramarine cowl, tranquil in all the hysteria, catching my eye and pointing in the direction of Art, all “Yo, check this shit out.”
Bernadino Luini’s L’Adoration des Mages, the best introduction to thousands of metres of art in any museum anywhere.
What a difference the Alps make. On one side, Northern European art upstairs on the second floor of the Louvre. Ghost town. On the other. Italy. Mayhem. Louvre Denon Wing, busier than an international airport. Ok, there’s spectacular and famous stadium rock art of the Delacroix kind, so French too, but everyone’s here for the Italian shit like it’s the last and only word in the history of the universe. And let’s be clear. Botticelli is some mediocre shit—even in Italy, there’s plenty of artists at the same time who are far more interesting; he wasn’t doing anything different to the rest of the peninsula, other than being not as good. And in the north, I’d take Hans Baldung der Grien or Meister des Aachener Altars over Botticelli. He also whitewashed Adoration of the Magi, so fuck him.
As for that painting, the one everyone goes to the Louvre for, it’s some seriously insipid crap. There’s nothing mysterious or unique about Mona Lisa‘s smile, it’s standard Mediæval / Renaissance. Look at any International Gothic Virgin and Child and you’ll see the identical, slightly beatific distant look. It’s small, dull, metres away behind thick glass, and surrounded by braying fools with selfie sticks, who thankfully never look left, right or behind at the truly spectacular art that is forced to share a room with her.
Getting ahead of myself anyway. Past Mr Magi turn right and here’s 500 metres of art. I don’t need to exaggerate with the Louvre, look on a map, the Denon Wing is long enough to land a plane in. And oh! the mediæval art! It is glorious. Giotto di Bondone’s La Crucifixion so similar to what was happening in the north, yet so dissimilar with the palette of blues and those crimsons. Then there’s Bernado Daddi’s L’Annonciation and I know I go on and fucking on about “Islamic influence in European mediæval art” but look at geometric tapestry handing behind Mary and look at how that’s built around the solid block of colour of her robes and cowl, and the two-dimensionality of her side of the work. Nearby is Giotto di Bondone’s La Stigmatisation de saint François d’Assise. I have a bit of an attention focus for Saint Francis, sharing a name and all, also cos Dasniya plays him in Das Helmi’s Große Vögel Kleine Vögel. Here it’s the weird laser beams shooting from the angel’s hands and feet, pinning down our St. Francis, and all the use of browns and muted greens.
Speaking of little birds, Paolo di Dono, dit Uccello’s La Bataille de San Romano: la contre-attaque de Micheletto da Cotignola probably I should not have included, not good photos, but it’s such an odd one, particularly obvious in the closeups. If I was sure to be visiting the Louvre again soon, I’d save this and others for the next time. Contemporary of Botticelli, Francesco Botticini’s La Vierge et l’Enfant en gloire, entourés de sainte Marie-Madeleine, de saint Bernard, d’anges, de chérubins et de séraphins; Liberale da Verona’s L’Enlèvement d’Europa; Giovanni Francesco da Rimini’s Douze scènes de la vie de la Vierge; Guido da Siena’s La Nativité; Vitale da Bologna’s Le Couronnement de la Vierge; Marco d’Antonio di Ruggero dit Lo Zoppo’s La Vierge et l’Enfant entourés de huit anges. These span about 200 years from mid-late 1200s to 1485, and are in the small salle off to one side before those 500 metres.
Le Couronnement de la Vierge dates itself with the woodcut like golden folds in Mary’s black robes. When I see this technique I always expect to be looking at one of the earliest works in a museum, which in the Louvre, excluding mediæval sculpture (and all the antiquities collections) is about it. L’Enlèvement d’Europa, about a hundred years younger is one of the earliest examples of mythology I can recall seeing, it’s also pretty different in composition with its isolated groupings of women. Back the other way a hundred years, Le Couronnement de la Vierge has traces of the gold on black woodcut effect but already presaging high mediæval art with the tapestry behind pinned up by angels, and the overlapping heads and circular halos of the onlookers, also starting to see the emergence of luxurious embroidered fabrics in the guy on the right. And La Vierge et l’Enfant entourés de huit anges, just look at those angels, they’re either all drunk or have been hit on the head with planks, or really don’t want to be there. Even Mary is all, “We fukken done yet?” and Jesus is slurp-slurp-slurp. It’s achieved naturalism and depth though, without going all soft glamour focus.
Somewhere around here I veered out of the old stuff into the 16th to 19th centuries French and Italian art before careening back, I think it was just before Lambert Sustris’s Vénus et l’Amour, where there’s plenty of can’t miss it symbolic things stabbing into other things.
And then I’m in the room with the most overrated painting in the world. But look to the right! Paolo Caliari, dit Véronèse, et atelier, the same Caliari and atelier who painted Les Noce de Cana, which if you turn around… but before that, on the right, also nicely folded along the middle is Esther et Assuérus. Another photo I’d gladly have a better copy of, which I kept at until it was halfway presentable all for the guy in the space in the middle. Who is a dwarf, of African descent, wearing a chest plate with the banner of Saint Mauritius, has a sword, a medallion around his neck, and is lounging one hand on the old guy with the beard to his right. Striped leggings also. I know nothing of Véronèse, so have no idea if he’d think sticking Saint Maurice in a painting would be a good idea, but kinda leaning towards that’s what we’re meant to think. And this is a painting of a woman who’s a Jewish exile in Persia.
Turning back, his Les Noces de Cana. Massive does not help to comprehend how big this is. It’s almost 10 metres wide by 666 (heh) cm high. And was sliced in two when Napoléon plundered it in 1797. There’s also a guy by the table on the left with a parrot who might be the same person as in Esther et Assuérus. A couple of weeks ago, I discovered the extremely involved, high-tech recreation of Les Noces de Cana by Factum Arte. Totally worth an afternoon reading how they did it. On that, compared to most photos I’ve seen of this work, mine looks muted, almost dirty, dim, lacking in contrast and saturation. Some of that’s the difficulty of photographing such a huge work in the busiest museum room in the world, but as much as possible, I rely on my camera being accurate-ish in reproducing colour, exposure, contrast, and I think this is pretty faithful to what Les Noces de Cana looked like on November 20th under natural light in the Louvre. I also resist for all I’m worth the hegemony of Saturate All The Photos! that’s the visual equivalent of remastering albums by compressing the fuck out of them.
So, Les Noces de Cana, it’s difficult to say anything about such a work. I suppose it’s like being in the Sistine Chapel. For what it’s worth, if you wanna see good representation of what was normal for a European city like Venice in the mid-16th century, Véronèse is it.
A last painting before bailing on this part of the Denon Wing, Biagio d’Antonio’s Le Portement de croix. Besides being a fine, large-scale work, something I noticed in French and western European art was the presence of a black guy pulling Jesus and the cross. I’m used to seeing people of African, Persian, Semitic descent in Adoration of the Magi, but it struck me as something new or really infrequent in Germanic art. So, this is one of the best and clearest.
By now I’d been at it for close to seven hours and was getting footsore and delirious, just as I am now, having been writing solidly for eight hours. I swear I’ll never museum like I museumed in the Louvre again. But first, all the Italian & French Painting in the Denon Wing from the 16th-19th Centuries.
The last of the Renaissance, the Ancien Régime, Napoleon, Revolution and Empire, colonialism, North Africa, Orientalism, Chassériau and Delacroix, I’m in the Sully Wing.
Like the Rubens Galerie Médicis Salle in the Richelieu Wing, things difficult to photograph, which also means difficult to view. Possibly due to an aversion to grubby fingers, many works in the Louvre are glass-covered. The overhead lighting—natural or artificial—is harsher, less diffuse than say, the Gemäldegalerie, and that latter I’ve already had plenty of frustration with. The Rubens Salle I couldn’t photograph at all; the Sully wing, especially for the Delacroix, was sort of brute-force photography, sometimes assembling a painting from several shots, other times so much Photoshop it felt like the resulting image was more a fantasy than an actual document.
A veer into photography here: I’m using a Panasonic LX7, kind of a larger sensor compact with full manual control, a beautiful f/1.4 ultra wide-angle lens, and no filters. A polarising filter would help with some of the light, at the expense of trashing the metallics and golds in mediæval art. A larger camera would also do a better job in low light, but the macro on the LX7 lets me do very detailed closeups for which I’d otherwise need two lenses. Also huge cameras and lenses rubs improperly against my desire to be unobtrusive. Being wide-angle, there’s always perspective and barrel distortion which needs to be fixed, and usually colour, tone, contrast differences between upper and lower halves (caused by overhead lighting reflection), as well as glare, specular highlights, veiling, colour freakout when the camera simply doesn’t want to or can’t understand what it’s seeing. So for all of that: Yay! Photoshop!
And for all that, whatever I’ve blogged from all the museums I’ve seen is firstly a subset of what was acceptable enough to even attempt cleaning up. And either I’m getting increasingly picky, or the Louvre was one of the most difficult I’ve been through. Excepting one or two, I was iffy about every photo here for one reason or another.
I start with some book burning: Eustache le Sueur’s La Prédication de saint Paul à Éphèse, before jumping forward 150-ish years to Jean Lair’s Rue du Mellah à Mogador. I’m broadly placing this one and others under the rubric of Orientalism, though it’s equally at the rowdy end of impressionism. Compared to the photorealistic simplicity of Bernado Bellotto’s Le Pont du Rialto vu du nord and L’Entrée du grand Canal et l’église de la Salute—whose work I have a thing for—it’s continents away in sensibility and execution, yet not so different, so I don’t want to go blabbing “Orientalism!” at any work by a European just because of the location, while also acknowledging it was and is absolutely a thing.
Of which, Eugène Fromentin’s Enterrement maure from Algeria is high on my list of “Will Steal”. I love the detail and care in the funeral portrait, especially the woman clustered in the side corners in blue and white haïk. Alexandre-Gabriel Decamps’s Sortie de l’école turque is similarly documentary. Adrien Dauzats’ Le couvent de Sainte-Catherine au Mont Sinaï as well, a beautiful depiction of the Greek Orthodox monastery and figures arriving by foot and camel.
Exterior to interior. Eugène Delacroix’ Noce juive au Maroc (Jewish wedding in Morocco), the musicians, the women dancing, the man leaning in the corner … Delacroix is far better known for his vast canvases, but I’d take this one any day. And I’ll mention the red woodwork of the balcony is substantially photoshopped as the lighting and bubbling of the paint surface turned it into a bluish glarey mess. It was hideous, and its hideousness only relented because there was no way I wasn’t going to blog this one.
For some reason I photographed many of Théodore Chassériau’s works. Probably because there’s a whole room just for him. Definitely Orientalism going on in Cavaliers arabes emportant leurs morts, après une affaire contre des spahis, Interieur de Harem, Juives d’Alger au balcon, Esther se parant pour être présentée au roi Assuérus, Danseuses marocaines. La danse aux mouchoirs, Un bain au sérail, and all are exquisite. And yup, I’m photographing the chicks here. An earlier one by Chassériau, before he went all Impressionist under the charms of Delacroix is Portrait d’Adèle et Aline Chassériau, sœurs de l’artiste, dit aussi Les deux sœurs, it’s one of the most luminous in the Sully Wing, with shades of crimson and teal, a symmetry of the two sisters wearing identical dresses and shawls.
Ending the Sully Wing and the 2nd floor of the Louvre with Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres’ famous La baigneuse, all cracked and splitting. So many great works in this wing alone, so few visitors, unlike where I headed next: down the stairs to the Denon Wing, Italian and French painting from the 13th to 19th centuries, large-format monsters, even larger-format beasts, and that one, the one everyone knows.
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.
I was looking on the rooflines for snipers. Outside the Louvre metal fences controlled entry to the Pyramid courtyard. Groups of ski-masked stare-right-through-you assault rifle carrying French Army soldiers dotted the perimeter, Carrousel, and entrance passages. The roofline though was clear. After all, it’s more about security theatre for civilians than it is about engaging a determined terrorist, security theatre on show in the airports where brown and Muslim people were pulled aside while the good neo-Nazis got a smiling walk through. It was Friday, the week after November 13th.
Outside, a snaking queue of a couple of hundred of us jovially shuffled through the rain to the box before the Pyramid where we were scanned like going through airport customs. Down the elevator, and more of that airport colossal scale. I wandered in circles for a bit, trying to make legible the mess of escalators, avenues, circulating crowds, before realising there were ticket areas on each of the four sides. Ticket acquired, Louvre plan acquired, monomaniacal desire to gawp at mediæval art delayed by inability to operate fancy locker combination lock, all more like being in the MCG for Friday night footy than art.
I would have started at the point furthest from there even if it hadn’t been Northern European mediæval and renaissance art. Lucky for me then. Next task was how to get to that distant corner. Scale is important here. The square of the Sully Wing is 150 metres a side, that’s 600 metres on each of its three floors, so 1800 metres of walking if it was a straight line. Add half again because it’s mostly parallel chambers and corridors, so 2700 metres for that wing. Slightly more for the trapezoid of the Richelieu Wing with its courtyard and interior wings, and that again for the Denon Wing which approximately mirrors Richelieu then goes merrily off along 500 metres of grand promenade. All that not including meandering, doubling back, stairways, deadends, been through here already from a different angle, getting lost. A lot of getting lost. Quite a bit of “can’t get there from here.” Very much Aéroport Louvre.
By the time I arrived at the first work, La Parement de Narbonne, I was completely convinced I was gonna enjoy the shit out of all this, and still harbouring the misconception it would be a usual museum jaunt, three hours tops, probably enough mediæval art to go, “yeah, thanks!” but not enough to be sated. I swear if I’d taken the audio guide I’d still be in there.
Mediæval and Renaissance painting from Northern Europe, 14th-16th centuries. It’s really rare to see art pre-12th century, sculpture less so, but painting generally falls under a cryptic dividing line where Migration Period / Early Middle Ages / arbitrary delineation around 1100CE is more likely to be found in archaeology museums than say, Gemäldegalerie or Bode Museum. Same in the Louvre.
Same in the Louvre also: women, Semitic and Muslim people, North and Sub-Saharan African, Persian, Central Asian. I approach mediæval (and more recent) art looking for these people, but lately I think their absence is more telling. Botticelli is a good example of this: so explicitly white it’s remarkable. What I found in the Louvre was the unremarkability in mediæval and renaissance art of this presence. They—we—were everywhere. Which is partly why it took me 2 months to get through all the images—and that’s excluding the works which were unphotographable, of which in the Louvre there were so, so many.
A couple of early works make an excellent comparison of the breadth of styles: La Vierge à l’Enfant à l’écritoire and Jacquemart de Hesdin’s Le Portement de Croix, both from around the start of the 15th century. The former is classically medieval, vertical, symmetrical, front-facing, lavish use of gold and embossing; the latter a riot of movement and form, layering of groups and narratives, blocked in browns and slabs of lapis lazuli, reminding me of Islamic art from the same period.
La Messe de saint Grégoire and Maître du feuillage en broderie’s La Vierge et l’Enfant entourés d’anges also from the same period, the first one, which I assembled from multiple shots, with its early use of perspective and vast empty surfaces contrasts with the three-dimensionality, naturalism, and opulence of the second. Then of course there’s Hans Memling with his Portrait d’une femme âgée, still the same period, yet about as secular in its absence of overt religious iconography as any portrait from today. He also did the next one, Ange tenant un rameau d’olivier, which gives an indication of the diversity of styles a single artist could have.
Jan Provost’s Allégorie chrétienne is one of those supremely trippy works that convinces me there were a lot of hallucinogenics eaten back then. Deeply weirder than any Dali, a vast hand bearing a blue orb with earth, crescent moon and sun, radiant eyes floating in golden clouds, a levitating crowned lamb. Maybe all the heavy symbols and symbolism is forced, but in the work itself it transcends this. I have no idea how a person at that time might look at such a piece, it’s kinda terrifying.
My wanderings were non-chronological. I’d turn a corner and skip forward two centuries, later find myself magically dropped back. One of the things the Louvre does very well is not inflicting a single narrative of the works through a prescribed path. The abundance of stairs, elevators, detours, means it’s possible to loop up and down and around wings and salles and corridors in myriad combinations.
There was one Bynum (what I call representations of Christ that are exceptionally bloody) of which I only have a closeup, La flagellation du Christ saint Pierre et saint Paul. It’s a moderate bloodiness compared to what I saw further east, though coming as it does from Thüringen, it’s in the Germanic tradition rather than western Europe, where such rivers of blood didn’t catch on.
Ludger tom Ring l’Ancien’s La Sibylle Delphique is another one of those portraits of women I love, along with Quentin Metsys’ Sainte Madeleine (check out both of their clothes and headdress), and the couple in Jose Lieferinxe’s La Visitation; au revers, figure de sainte Lucie. In between all the magnificent Jose Lieferinxe pieces, Trois prophètes, the middle of the trio flagging Isaiah XI. I’m in it for their headgear and their faces.
One of the few L’Adoration des mages is Ulrich Apt l’Ancien’s. ‘Few.’ There were many; there were also thousands of other paintings. Another is Maître de la sainte Parenté’s L’Adoration des mages, La Présentation au temple, L’Apparition du Christ à la Vierge. Again, similar date and so completely different in style.
One of my favourites is Enguerrand Quarton’s La Pietà de Villeneuve-lès-Avignon, probably at some time ransacked and folded (the French made a point of filling the Louvre in this way). Really difficult to photograph, with glare all over the show, but I think the detail of Mary (guessing Magdalene) shows what a profound work this is.
Approximately here I stumble out of Northern European mediæval painting and into 16th-17th century painting. I actually went back and forth a few times, veered into the later French stuff in the Sully Wing, veered back again. All that continues in the next post.