The Allure of The Louvre
Paris has always been one of those cities I have wanted to visit, just never got round too. I’m not sure why, but the city never had a place in my imagination, outside of Dickens and Dreyfus. But, recently a perfect storm of a Seu Jorge concert and the best of friends meant I found myself in the City of Lights. I found Paris to be every bit as lovely as expected and found myself wanting to return to do all the things I didn’t have time too. The concert was incredible, the company exquisite, food divine and the weather baking hot. The place is literally designed to be perfect, thanks to the intervention of Napoleon III and Baron Haussmann. I wandered, climbed The Pantheon, got sunburnt and generally felt any ambivalence to the city drift away like the odd odour the Seine gives off. On my last day I headed to the one place in Paris that I’ve longed to visit, The Louvre.
The Louvre holds almost mythical status to art lovers, tourists and, from my visit, scores of teenagers trying to get you to sign various petitions. Wandering in, the I.M. Pei pyramid is as impressive as the queue for people who didn’t drop the 17 euros for a timed ticket. To be fair, this is totally worth it, from flashing my phone at the guard, through security and down into the lobby took a grand total of three minutes. Once inside, I knew where to go, as it was the same general direction as everyone else, towards the Denon wing and the Italian paintings. The palace is as beautiful as it is cavernous. The galleries disappearing into the distance, the vaulted ceilings and the mind boggling art. It is an incredible place. The works you drift past are literally the stuff of legend. Given I had a list and had two hours before I had to leave, I cracked on with my mission.
Which was far harder than I thought it would be. I wanted to see Caravaggio’s The Death of the Virgin, a painting I have dreamed of. It is the painting that lead to Caravaggio committing murder and fleeing Rome. I longed to see Veronese’s stunning La Belle Nani again, a portrait I had fallen in love with when it came to The National Gallery in London. I needed to see Gericault’s The Raft of the Medusa, a painting that has haunted me. And, of course, I wanted to see the Mona Lisa.
As I worked my way over, I started noticing things. Firstly the humidity. It was beyond muggy and that is not good for the 500+ year old paintings. Also, the gallery was rammed with selfie sticks. I’m not going to go into this again (see here for my view on Selfies and attached sticks) but I was cringing at the possible damage an idiot with one of those could inflict on something that has survived Revolution, countless lost wars, Nazis and the French in general. As you approach the gallery where Da Vinci’s most famous work hangs, you pass one of the better ones. La Belle Ferronniere is utterly wonderful and, while it is not 100% confirmed that Da Vinci painted it, she is amazing. When you read about the work, it is called stiff and lumpen, but when you see her in person, her eyes shine and she stops you in your tracks. Which is a much different experience to when you turn the corner and gaze towards the Mona Lisa.
She hangs on a false wall in the middle of the gallery, protected behind flash glass and mounted maybe eight feet up. In front of her, is a scrum of people. There is no system to filter people through, no guides to usher or explain, no order at all. Just a mass of people with cameras, some with the inability to know how to turn a flash off, snapping away or twisting around to get that “dream” selfie. I’m not sure what I was expecting, but it was not this. What I was watching was unseemly. People were pushing and shoving just to get towards the mob, let alone a clear view. I took a moment to look around and my eyes met with La Bella Nani. She hangs by one of the entrances to the Mona Lisa gallery, at just below my eye level, hidden beneath a thick bit of glass. The glass reflects anything stood in front of her and removes your ability to see the intricacy of Veronese’s work. She shines out at you, as long as you stand to the side to get away from the reflection of the queue for the Mona Lisa. I wanted to cry. To give you some idea of Mona Lisa’s surroundings, you have to spin around. Directly opposite the Mona Lisa is the incredible, huge, The Wedding at Cana by Veronese. It stands over six metres high and is alive with action. Jesus is almost an afterthought with the party going on around him. Walking around the back of the wall upon which the Mona Lisa hangs are five (FIVE) Titian’s. While I stood and looked at them, almost everyone just wandered past to the gift shop in the next gallery…
Disconcerted, I worked my way down to the main reason I’d come, The Death of the Virgin. Caravaggio had been desperate for an altarpiece and signed the contract for this work in his own blood. The resulting piece stands tall and shows an ageless Mary, laying dead, her colour pallored and her feet dirty. The old apostles stand around her, mourning the loss, the Magdalene, also ageless, weeps in the foreground. It is hauntingly beautiful. Or it should be, if you could see all of it. Of the paintings I saw, only one was hung and lit in anything near reaching the standard of the Pompidou across town was the Mona Lisa. Standing before this painting I’ve dreamed about for years, that I’ve read about and analysed digitally, I couldn’t see it all. The top third was washed out in glare of reflected light. The light streaming down from the sky lights, is so direct that it causes the colours wash out and the varnish to reflect so you just see a white wash across the top. It is such a waste.
When I go to galleries and exhibitions, I take notes. A tad pretentious I know, but it helps me remember. I jot down brush strokes, colours and how I am made to feel by what is before me. I struggled in front of Death of the Virgin, because I knew it was better that it was being given. When I saw the Raft of the Medusa, it was the same, only the glare was refracted on deteriorating varnish, resulting in a splash of blue light across the canvas. I’d thought the French would look after their own, apparently not.
With all that, you’d think I’d never want to go back. But I do, just for an evening viewing, or on a cloudy day, or on an eclipse. There is so much to see, so much I’ve yet to discover. But, it’s France. My whole life they have told me how much better they are than me. Wandering around the Pompidou you get them impression they are, but their greatest treasure trove seems to have focus on just one work. The story they could tell leaning you too the Mona Lisa and what came next when art exploded through Veronese to Caravaggio to Rembrandt and Titian to the art of the Revolution and the 2nd and 3rd Republics. The focus in the art I saw, which is a fraction of the collection, feels afterthought. And still, I want to go back. That is the power of the collection. Even poorly displayed, it is magical to see those works together. Art has power over so much. Art changes it’s surroundings for the better and when held in a beautiful city, it draws you in. Now I know what to expect, I can plan accordingly. Perhaps I shall start at le Musee de l’Orangerie though.