So, the Louvre.
I almost didn’t visit the Louvre while in Paris this week. As I’ve said a few times before, I’ve tried to stay away from the tourist spots. Some of them I went to purely just because I felt I had to — the Eiffel Tower (which I didn’t even go up in), 221B Baker Street, Big Ben, and a few others. But I haven’t bothered with the real tourist traps (I didn’t see Buckingham Palace in London, or Moulin Rouge in Paris), and have no interest in doing so. The whole point of taking this trip was to travel a little bit outside my comfort zone, and I figured the Louvre, filled with things I’ve seen pictures of already, and tourists I dodge in LA every day, might just be skippable.
My friends told me I was crazy, that I would have to go. When I met up with Patrick Beja, my local Parisian, he told me the Louvre was required viewing, and would take a least a day. “At least,” he repeated with meaning, giving me a strong look that I took as, “you had better go. Or else.”
So last week I decided that Wednesday, I would go to the Louvre. This place did have a fair amount of meaning for me already, actually. Eichhorn, the teacher whose Europe trip I did not go on in high school (thus paving the way for this one by myself), was a huge fan of the Greeks. She would talk for class after class about how much the Greeks had done for Western culture, how brilliant the Parthenon was, and how the Louvre itself contained priceless pieces, the keys to any number of cultures at all different periods through history. “And you’re going to see it all!” she promised our class. I didn’t. Back then, that is. So I decided, somewhat reluctantly, that I should probably go now.
Originally, I did plan to get up early and go the whole day. But on Wednesday, apparently, the Louvre is open until 9:45 in the evening, and I figured that gave me plenty of time to do it a little more leisurely. Around 10, I woke up and showered, go on the train, and headed down to the museum. I’ve been in the entryway a few times already, so I knew right where the line was. A few people recommended that I duck in a back entrance, but I figured no, if I was going to do this museum, I would do it right, so I wanted in line for about 40 minutes and then entered through the famous glass pyramid.
I thought that I remembered hearing back when I was a kid that the pyramid was being built, and I was right — the pyramid itself opened in the late ’80s, as part of the last major renovation to the museum. IM Pei designed it, and I like it. The pyramid form does fit well in the middle of those classic French buildings, and the ticket lobby below has plenty of room for all the crazy tourists scrabbling to get inside. Wednesdays are supposed to be some of the busiest days at the museum (partly because it’s open late, and partly because it’s closed on Tuesdays, so tourists pile up then), and there were some crowds, but nothing I couldn’t handle. I paid my euros, and got my ticket.
The audio guides at the Louvre are actually game consoles. The museum recently made a deal to use Nintendo 3DS consoles as their audio guides, and so if you want to know more about how that worked, you can head on over to Joystiq and read the post I wrote about it. But that wasn’t the only guide I had ready for me — I also had loaded up a podcast tour from iTunes to take me around the museum, and I scoured the pamphlet they hand out at the front, trying to chart out just the right route.
Eventually, I decided to start with the 3DS guide. It had something called a “Masterpiece Tour” on it, so I hit the button for that and let the audio lead me around the museum for a bit. The Medieval Louvre is the first stop there — the Louvre itself is actually an old French palace (sort of a partner right next to the Tuleries, which you might remember I walked around the other day), and before that was a medieval castle of sorts, used to defend the center of Paris from attack. During those ’80s renovations, the Louvre recreated the castle walls in its basement, and I wandered through those first as I tried to orient myself to the museum.
From there, I was led up through the Greek antiquities wing, and this is where the voice of Eichhorn reappeared in my head. At the end of a long hall of various busts and statues, I saw the Venus de Milo. And that’s when things really started to pick up.
I’ve said before that I’m not a huge fan of museums — personally, I’d rather explore art out in the world, where it speaks for itself with a voice, in my opinion, much stronger than any museum curator could give it. But the Louvre, I have learned, is the exception that proves the rule. The Louvre, as an organization, and a building, and a collection, speaks with quite a voice of its own. And the pieces in it are important not just because they’re the foundation building blocks of human culture, but because they’re in the Louvre itself. The Venus de Milo itself definitely wasn’t the most important statue the Greeks ever made — it wasn’t even discovered by modern culture until 1820, I learned. The Mona Lisa, similarly, got most of its fame from being stolen in 1911 by an Italian who thought it belonged in Italy. But because these pieces are in those classic galleries, and because they were themselves studied by modern culture’s most fascinating artists, and because they are so influential on all of Western art, that’s what really makes them so incredibly fascinating.
I mean yes, the Venus is gorgeous — the proportions are perfect, the sculpture itself is exquisite, and it’s something you could look at and examine for hours. But honestly, that’s true about any number of other pieces, in the Louvre or anywhere else. It surprises even me to express this sentiment, but beauty, I think, is cheap. I’m in a Paris cafe writing this right now (yet another dream I can tick off thanks to this trip), and there is beauty all around me — this espresso I’m drinking is a beautiful brown color, the teacup it’s in is perfectly round and a wonderful ceramic. The street outside is full of beauty — beautiful women passing by, a man’s perfectly tailored coat, that 2012 car that just rolled down the tree lined street, with the sun falling down through the leaves and painting changing patterns on the sidewalk. Even that elderly couple walking together over by the chocolatier — you could probably sit and look at their love and find it full of truth and beauty (along with some ugliness, and some lies, but c’est la vie, as the French say).
The Louvre is certainly full of beauty. But it’s also full of meaning, and importance. The statue of Psyche and Cupid, Diana of Versaille, the gigantic Wedding at Cana painting, the Mona Lisa, Michaelangelo’s Slaves, the Winged Victory at Samothrace, the Raft of the Medusa, reliefs from the Parthenon, and countless works by unknown artists: an ancient Egyptian talisman with three gods covered in gold, a statue of the crazy Ahtonamon, countless tomb decorations and burial art, and commissioned Italian and French and Nordic paintings. I saw all of these, and all of them were just amazing. I saw busts of Roman emperors (from Rome itself!), I saw the French crown jewels in the mind-blowing Apollo Gallery itself, I saw the Code of Hammurabi — the actual piece of stone that’s the foundation of most legal systems as we know them. I walked through the long hallways of the museum for hours looking at all of the art, and listening to all of the various audio commentaries I’d put together.
I got tired at around 4pm — I sat down in Near East Antiquities for a moment, just across the room from the recreated temple from Iraq, where there are two giant impossibly heavy stone statues of half bull men with wings (who actually have five legs — from the front, they have two, but from the sides they’re meant to be walking, so you can see all four there too). I was exhausted, overwhelmed with all of the art I’d seen. I leaned back and closed my eyes, and woke up again a few minutes later. I’d been sleeping in place.
After recollecting myself, I stood back up and kept moving, explored some more Egyptian art, and then went upstairs to see more paintings: the Oak Trees at Apremont (which is literally a potrait of a tree), Durer’s Self Portrait with a Thistle, Van Eyck’s The Virgin and Child with Chancellor Rolin, the two paintings that make up the Father’s Curse (sequential art!, I thought. Comic books!), countless Virgin Marys and child, panel after panel of apostles and saints and people with their hands and arms outstretched in strange ways, holding various attributes left and right. A mirror means sorrow and reflection, a bundle of reeds means balance, a bow and arrow means something else, and a bird in the hand is worth … well, I forget, but it all means something.
There was, to say the obvious, just too much. You could spend a lifetime in there and still not see and know everything there was in that gigantic building. I’m not even an artist, can’t draw to save my life, and even I wanted to grab a pad of paper and a pencil and try to draw those figures, learn from the masters lining the walls, see just how Raphael made the hand look like that, or how that sculptor made those sinewy muscles out of marble. I looked closely at the panels from the Parthenon, and on one of the man’s arms, there were very clear, perfectly portrayed veins. Veins! On a panel that was created, was carved out of marble (or whatever it is, I don’t remember) 2500 years ago.
2500 years ago, someone was making that, and he decided to portray a hand, and he decided that the best way to do that was to carve some veins on it, make it look realistic. That panel done, it was placed on the Parthenon, where it stood for, oh, a thousand years. A thousand years! Empires rose and fell. The Parthenon was used as a temple, a mosque, a marketplace, with that hand and those veins sitting above it the whole time. Through the rains, the sun, the storms, more sun, more rains.
Just a few years ago (well, a couple of hundred, but that’s almost nothing on this scale), someone took that relief from the Parthenon itself, brought it to the British Museum. From there it ended up in the Louvre, and it was hung up on the wall. And here, just now, comes Mike Schramm, the guy from the Internet, to come along and see the carving of the man, see his arm, see the veins. And Mike Schramm then becomes a part of this piece’s story — he looks at the veins, thinks really hard for a while about what it was like for that man 2500 years ago, to decide that the best way to portray this hand was to add some veins just here.
The Louvre is full of things like that, crazy connections that criss-cross all over human history, in so many weird and strange ways it’s hard, if not impossible, to keep track of them all. I certainly couldn’t, try as I might.
And just walking the halls of the museum inserts you, in even just a tiny way, into all of those stories, all of those little threads moving all of the way across time, weaving and intersecting through the historic halls of the Louvre. Here you’re standing where Napoleon was married, and over there is the actual canvas that da Vinci spent hours trying to get right in his old age, or the altarpiece that hung in an old chapel for centuries, and was almost blown apart by the war. The Louvre is dripping with history, and walking through there, you can’t help but soak it all up, come away dumbfounded by just how much there is of it, and how art and money and religion and everything else all works together to create culture, to create life and humanity.
Afterwards, I headed back to the hotel — I still had some writing to do, and it was starting to rain. I couldn’t deal with picking good food any more, so I just sat down at a chain called Hippopotamus, and for the first time in my trip, I just looked at the waitress and didn’t even try: “English, please,” I almost begged, and just ordered a burger with bacon on it, fries, and a beer. I sat there and ate quietly when it came. I looked out the window onto the street as I ate, watching Parisians try to dodge raindrops, my head spinning with the vast width and depth of human accomplishment.
Posted on Thursday, April 19th, 2012 at 4:56 pm. Filed under general.