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Four Nights in the Museum
By Karen Green
Monday June 6, 2011 06:00:00 am
Our columnists are independent writers who choose subjects and write without editorial input from comiXology. The opinions expressed are the columnist's, and do not represent the opinion of comiXology.
Why do we go to museums? Why do museums even exist?

I had parents who loved museums. They started taking my siblings and me with them at a very, very early age. This was always presented as an exciting treat, and so we looked forward to seeing the art or learning the science (one of my earliest museum memories, actually, is of playing tic-tac-toe with a computer at the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago, probably in the early mid-1960s--and, man, I can't believe Google Images won't cough up a picture of what it looked like...).

As I got older, though, museums mostly meant "art," and I loved them. My parents and my older brother bought me art books, and I dreamed of seeing the colored plates live and in person one day. When we moved to the east coast from Michigan, an entire world of museums opened up for me: all of New York City's treasures. We went to them all, over and over. When I was in high school, in the 1970s, I would cut class to escape over the George Washington Bridge to Manhattan, and to museums like the Cloisters.

So I'm a fan, but I know I'm not in the majority. When I go to the Met, for example, I see the tourist families dutifully dragging their despondent children, because it's important and they should see Art. No one looks happy. The parents aren't into it, so the kids aren't into it. The parents aren't into it because their parents weren't into it. But everyone knows they should go.



The New York Times ran a piece a couple of years ago, "At Louvre, Many Stop to Snap but Few Stay to Focus." The author, Michael Kimmelman, wondered if technological changes--the ease with which digital cameras allow us to capture images to take home, the barrage of visuals the internet brings us--have created a "cultural cornucopia" that overwhelms us, and perhaps deadens us to the exceptional nature of some images. Or perhaps it's only the curators and art historians who find these images exceptional?

Museums themselves are aware of this, of course. The Louvre, however, took an innovative approach to dealing with it: Fabrice Douar, the assistant head of museum publications in the Office of Cultural Development, partnered with the Parisian comics publisher Futuropolis to commission a series of graphic novels--four so far--that would incorporate the Louvre and its works into their stories. As Douar explains on Futuropolis' website: "Associating the world of museums with that of comics was not obvious a priori, as we tend to feel these two worlds, with their own, different realities, are ‘sealed off' or too distant from one another. The ambition of this collection is to create a lasting bridge between these two worlds, thereby permitting the comics reader to become more aware of the Louvre's collections, using traditional reference points, but also promoting and encouraging a contemporary, living creation so that the Louvre's usual visitors might discover another expression of art."


 




 



Douar goes on, "The interest and the principle of this collection [of comics] lies in the free exchange between the author, with his personal aspirations and desires, and the museum which has been put at his disposal. Carte blanche is given to the creation and the imagination, in order to establish a dialogue--a game of exchanged glances--among the works, the museum, and the artist who invents his ‘story' by choosing a work, a collection, a gallery, or all of these together."

(My sincere apologies to M. Douar, by the way, for butchering the translation of his elegant French.)

What a great idea, eh?!? Setting comics creators loose in the Louvre, and then letting a story come to them that is inspired by the works they come across. This is so much cooler an initiative than anything the Metropolitan Museum of Art has ever done; even their superheroes exhibition at the Costume Institute was far more informed by superhero movies than by the actual comics themselves. It's true that comics have a more respectable reputation in France than they have in America, but still: one of the premiere cultural institutions in the WORLD decided that it would be a great idea to create a "lasting bridge" between their artworks and the world of comics--and their readers. That's just huge.

The Louvre's first choice, Nicolas de Crécy, produced his book, Glacial Period, in 2005 and NBM Comics Lit published an English translation the following year. (NBM has published all four books in translation, and those are the editions I used. My French isn't so bad, but I'm not insane.) On the Futuropolis site, de Crécy notes that he didn't quite know what plan of attack to take, not least because his own personal artistic preferences are in 19th- and 20th-century art, and the Louvre does not collect anything created after 1848. He recalls that, despite his own training and expertise, roaming the Louvre's galleries alone made him realize how little he knew--and that became the basis for his story. What would the Louvre look like to people even more ignorant than he?



So he posits an archaeological expedition a millennium or more in the future, in a frozen world where humans partner with bespectacled pig-dog hybrids that can talk and ski. One of these hybrids--bred from dogs for their hunting skills and pigs for their similarities to humans, although surely pigs can sniff out a truffle as well--is named Hulk (another is Spider-Man; both named for the human ancestors' apparent religious idols), and he's a melancholy, philosophical type. He wanders off from the team and suddenly notices a musty smell penetrating the snow and ice, "a thousand-year-old sweat."

While Hulk follows his nose, the humans have suddenly been confronted with a baroque tower bursting through the ice and they descend gingerly into it only to discover themselves in the Louvre's still-intact collections. Our millennial descendants don't appear to have developed a particularly visual culture, however: "How strange to hang large images on the walls," one remarks; "How is it done? It's flat, yet you sense the depths." Another replies, "It's a coded message, or a simple representation of their lives." Faced with Louis Hersent's 1824 Salon piece, "The Monks of St Gothard," and believing it a message from their ancestors, one explains, "Yes, it's a message meant for us: they knew they were doomed, hemmed in by the cold. And, since they didn't know how to write, they drew, like children."



The humans, trying to create a narrative for themselves, as humanity is wont to do, arrange the artworks in a sort of linear pattern. A stormy Constable seascape reveals our watery origins; a Claude Lorrain scene of a 17th-century seaport at sunset depicts our architectural advances; a Beccafumi scene of St Anthony and the mule indicates the eternal order of animals' obedience to man. Museums, by their nature, remove artifacts from their contexts and these archaeologists, seeing such a tangle of eras and styles, believe it all to be from a single era, the era of the lost continent of Euro (extrapolating from found coins). A 15th-century Sassetta portrait of a saint freeing the poor from prison leads them to believe that we could levitate due to a special propelling energy that caused the lower halves of our bodies to putrefy. Essentially, it's a serio-comic version of David Macaulay's Motel of the Mysteries, but with really great art in lieu of toilet-seat sanitizer. The depictions of the rediscovered works meld with de Crécy's luminous tints and delicate lines to create a world in which familiar artworks appear as bizarre to us as to the fictional archaeologists (de Crécy was nominated for a 2007 Eisner award for his artwork).

While some of us feel we commune with artworks on walls or in vitrines, Hulk, exploring on his own, finds himself in actual communication with objets d'art, all of which clamor to tell him their story. Have they truly become animate, or does the presence of the viewer make them so? It's the Bishop Berkeley conundrum of the unobserved tree falling in a forest: does the life of an artwork lie in a collaboration between the artist and the viewer? In a grand finale I would not dream of spoiling unduly, the works of art burst forth from their prison (the etymology of "Louvre" is said to lie in a Frankish word for a fortification), and we and the archaeologists are all left to wonder whether they were ever truly for us.


 



Marc-Antoine Mathieu followed in 2006 with The Museum Vaults: Excerpts from the Journal of an Expert. In an interesting artistic choice, the book is entirely in shades of grey, sometimes darkening so as to seem almost impenetrable. Mathieu, too, posits an expedition, in some distant future when the name of the Louvre has been forgotten. (It is known only as the "Musèe du revolu," perhaps in a nod to the museum's revolutionary origins, but also as the first of what will be an almost endless parade of anagrams of "Musèe du Louvre.") A Monsieur Volumer, "the Expert," has arrived on a mission, along with his hunch-backed assistant, Leonard, to study, index, and evaluate the museum's collections. This takes him on a nearly infinite descent into the museum's sublevels, as complex and endless as Borges' Library of Babel. First come the basements where rail-moldings are created; next a flooded crypt with a Charon-like ferrywoman, rowing the intrepid investigators past half-submerged sculptures and overly humidified paintings. "For here we're in the gallery of the ‘arts pompiers,' pompous artwork. Note the irony. Pomp submerged. The pomp needs pumping." Mathieu likes a pun.

From rail-moldings to packing-cases, from packing-cases to restoration, where the restorers dream of keeping the works in absolute darkness so as to preserve their colors, albeit unseen. "In this permanent penumbra, the works survive while people fade away." From restoration to reproductions (on day 1,413 of the inspection), and a discussion of whether a truly artistic copy can be considered art in itself. On they continue to storage (day 3,865) but the stress is beginning to tell on M. Volumer: "Imagine an infinite painting...a painting of museum paintings of...etc...and we were part of them. And all those paintings were nothing but copies! Can you grasp it, Leonard? Not only were we but representations, but we were fakes to boot! It's horrible!"



And down...down...down...they meet an earlier expert and collect his journal, and the journals of his predecessors. They meet a framer who self-referentially hypothesizes a frame simplified to the point almost of invisibility, which would allow sets of paintings to be arranged chronologically in a sequential grid so as to tell a story. On and on until they realize, on day 16,610 of the expedition, that the sub-basements they've mapped out, each larger than the one above it, form an enormous pyramid, the peak of which might, perhaps, be situated on the surface of the museum's esplanade....

And on they go until, on the 18,134th day of their sojourn, an aged M. Volumer finds himself handing over his journals to a new expert. For that is what museums do, through generations: they guard and preserve their contents, forever handing over these artifacts of humanity's nigh-spiritual yearnings, manifested in art, as a sacred trust to posterity.

Next in the series is Eric Liberge and On the Odd Hours (nominated for an Eisner this year, as well, for its artwork), a fantasmagoric story with breathtaking art about Bastien, a belligerent, deaf young man, who blows his chance for a Louvre internship but gets something quite remarkable instead. Missing his internship appointment, Bastien comes upon the mysterious Fu Zhi Ha, a puckish Chinese gentleman who claims to be a museum guard "on the odd hours." Fu Zhi Ha acknowledges that the museum takes physical care of its artworks, but "nobody takes care of their souls. Except me." He takes Bastien under his wing and--after the confused young man sees the Winged Victory of Samothrace literally leave its pedestal and take wing through the galleries, and later is winked at by the Mona Lisa--explains that, using percussion and soundwaves, he manages to control the turbulent, caged artworks so that they will remain on the walls, uneventfully, to be viewed placidly by the millions who throng the Louvre's galleries and corridors.



Liberge uses as an epigraph some lines that Bastien will read in Fu Zhi Ha's journals: "A piece of art is exactly like a child. Or like an orphan, rather. When you're there before it, and are admiring it with all your heart, a privileged contact is created between the two of you. It becomes your mirror. Remove that simple attention from it, and it becomes nothing." Like de Crècy, Liberge is interested in the relationship between the viewer and the object--what each gets from the other, and what is created by the two being brought together.

Finally, the most recent volume in the series (one which I hope will also be nominated for an Eisner!): The Sky Over the Louvre, written by Jean-Claude Carriere with art by Belgian cartoonist Bernar Yslaire, who also conceived the story. I'm not sure why I love it best; perhaps because I'm an historian, perhaps because its themes so appeal to me, perhaps because its size (nearly 11 inches square) allows the reader to become nearly swallowed up in its pages.

Carriere takes us back to the origins of the Musée du Louvre in the French Revolution, inaugurated on the first anniversary of the end of Louis XVI's reign: Robespierre proclaims "Opening a public museum is a revolutionary duty! It's putting at the people's disposal the works of art usurped by the few." He continues, later, "For the Republic must defend itself with arms, but also with ideas, with images, with symbols...with beauty!!" Such words sound revolutionary even today; the notion of art as a public right and as the defense of a civil society seems almost laughable in the current political and cultural climate.


 



The painter Jacques-Louis David, an ardent revolutionary, opens the story, displaying his famed portrait of the dying Marat in his bath to Robespierre, the Incorruptible. Marat is seen as a new Christ, a martyr to the people--but it is clear already that David's revolutionary ardor is shot through with a spirituality looking for an outlet. David is one of the axes around which the story revolves, as he explains the political significance of the plain red-glazed background in a recent portrait: "We're heading towards liberty and equality, citizenness. Towards a better society...and equal for everyone...like that scumble there, behind you, do you understand? Yes, that's where we're heading. If I paint for you a chest of drawers or a garden, I distinguish you from others; it's like a privilege." The connection of art and politics is a thread that runs through the book--the relationship between the two, the expression of one through the other--and this is mixed with the reconciliation of both with the spiritual search for something larger than oneself. So Marat is contrasted with Christ; a martyred teenager is elevated as a secular saint; an angelic-looking lost Khazar orphan warns of the insatiable maw of the revolution while being cast as the face of a new revolutionary religion. And the nature of faith--in causes, in ideals, in religion--is seen as an elusive but persistent thing, which outlasts all, perhaps, but the art that captures it. And, perhaps again, only because that art is preserved and presented in museums.

And so, in a way, these books ask a series of questions of interest to anyone invested in the liberal arts. What purpose does art serve? What is our responsibility to it--is it a living thing or the dried husk of old ideas? Why is it worthy of study or, at the very least, of viewing? In what way does art enrich our lives? These are questions asked constantly of the entire discipline of the humanities, which seems always in need of defending itself. Just recently, Peter Thiel, the founder of PayPal and an early investor in Facebook, inaugurated the Thiel Foundation, which pays young people $100,000 not to go to college. Thiel is not convinced of the usefulness of the traditional liberal arts education, and argues that such an education is not necessary for success. I would argue, in turn, that it depends on how one defines success. I think the Louvre and its cartoonist collaborators would make the same argument. To stand in front of, say, Delacroix's 1822 painting of Dante and Vergil in Hell, and not see merely the price it would fetch in auction, but to know who both Dante and Vergil are, the significance of making Vergil Dante's first guide, why the damned are pressing close upon their boat, why the figures are arranged and "lit" as they are--this is a different kind of measure of success, and it places the viewers on a continuum of literary and cultural time that connects them to generations past and to come. It is, I'll grant, a more amorphous definition of success than the ability to buy a Maserati or a summer house but, in the end, it will likely make you a better, more thoughtful, and more engaged person, and it will endow the world around you with a constant abundance of wonder and discovery. I don't know about you, but I'm okay with that version of success.

Karen Green is Columbia University's Ancient/Medieval Studies Librarian and Graphic Novel selector.

Comic Adventures in Academia is © Karen Green, 2010

 

Comments

klg19 (1 year ago)
 
In response to martha.cornog
Hi, Martha! Yes, I've been waiting the publication of the BM book for a while. And folks at NBM tell me that there may well be several more nights in the Louvre ahead--both the Louvre and Futuropolis had initially planned just the four, but the success has led them to keep the series going indefinitely.
Hooray!
 
 
martha.cornog (1 year ago)
 
Terrific article, Karen! Greater rapprochement among branches of the art world can only enrich the entire gestalt. Actually, it looks like we're getting five nights in the Louvre. The manga-style Rohan au Louvre is available in French - see http://editions.louvre.fr/en/titles/comics-childrens-books/the-louvre-and-comics/rohan-au-louvre.html. I would think NBM will do this one as well. Also, the British Museum is going the same route, with Professor Munakata's British Museum Adventure: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Professor-Munakatas-British-Museum-Adventure/dp/0714124656/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1309699945&sr=1-1.
 
 
nsousanis (1 year ago)
 
Great column, Karen (and good comments David). Both make me think of Dewey's approach to education, and how in line with it these books are. Maxine Greene writes on this, “John Dewey said that works of art are too frequently presented as if they have no roots in cultural life, as if they were specimens of fine art and nothing else. Art objects are made to seem remote to ordinary people, as are many fine fictions that reached beyond our daily horizons and much music that reaches beyond our accustomed gamut of sound. Set on pedestals, actual or figurative, art forms are removed ‘from the scope of common or community life’ .” Integrated the works on a pedestal into life, into the context of our experience - is essential work. Looking forward to checking these out. Thanks, Nick
 
 
klg19 (1 year ago)
 
In response to davidagreen
Thanks, my brother! I like the sound of your TED choreographer. And, yes, live art performances can be a physical manifestation of that relationship between creator and audience.
I think that the failure of arts education in this country--really, of liberal arts education in general--is what leads to that phenomenon of museum-goers who pause, snap, and move on. If the image exists without any context brought by the viewer, the viewing experience demands more of that viewer than most are willing to give. There may be a purely aesthetic appreciation--liking the colors, the light, the drawing--but the deeper levels are missing. That Delacroix becomes a dark painting of some guys in and around a boat. None too compelling, perhaps. But knowing both the Aeneid and the Divine Comedy provides contextual depth, and enriches the viewing. Now, it becomes a matter of--well, how well does Delacroix depict this scene? What visual cues does he provide to identify Dante and Vergil? Seeing the painting becomes a dialogue, and that's just a richer experience for everyone involved, I think.
 
 
davidagreen (1 year ago)
 
first, what a cool idea these books are. All Hail Fabrice D. That said, a couple of thoughts:
* saw a choreographer presentations at a TEDx conf last fall -- first a short dance and then a shorter talk. And he made an interesting comment that you echo in your remarks on the 1st and 3rd books: he sees choreography as a collaboration between artist and audience. Everyone sees a dance piece differently, but that the piece essentially does not actually exist if it existed only in the vacuum of the choreographer's mind and dancer's body, and not also in the eyes of the audience.
* your remarks near the end on the role of art in society gets at some concepts I'm involved with in my work with my art-educator client, but it doesn't go far enough. Yes, art plays a critical role as an engine of cultural and personal aesthetic. But many recent studies are starting to reveal that that view does not give art sufficient credit. It is also a driver of critical thinking, of empathic development, of the creative abilities of even the least artistic of us. So any medium that gets us to view art in a different way is, almost by definition, enhancing the art, the artist, the audience, and society.
Back to the salt mines -- david
 
 
klg19 (1 year ago)
 
Sorry, folks: there's a little glitch with the Liberge image. It won't be up until later today.
It's a corker, so you'll definitely want to come back for it!
 
 

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