So Far Away: Notes from the Louvre

I purchased my ticket from the kiosk at 9:45 and 21 seconds, am. There was no standing in line except for a brief security check, which took 4 minutes. I entered underground through the shopping mall directly from the metro, no waiting, no advanced ticket – and before I knew it – I was in the largest art museum in the world. I had my bucket list in my mind. I have wanted to see the masterpieces for decades. By the end of the museum, I had walked for more than 9 miles and taken more than 300 photographs. The experience was grand. For starters I will say hip-hip hooray for the demise of royal power so that this sprawling architectural wonder could be shared with a broader audience including myself. For a mere €15 I could freely roam about the former royal palace, or at least the parts that were open.

Works Missing in Action: David, Oath of the Horatii, Coronation of Napoleon I; Giorgione and/or Titian, Pastoral Symphony.

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As I entered the Denon Wing of the Louvre I really wasn’t sure what to do or where to go. I simply decided to follow the signs to La Joconde. On my way, I encountered Michelangelo’s slaves in the Michelangelo Gallery. The two figures here were originally designed for the lower section of the Tomb of Pope Julius II in the beginning of the 16th century in Rome. The Dying Slave who seems to be at peace /resigned to fate and the Rebellious Slave, who is resisting against all odds, touch upon two different life approaches. It was a nice encounter on the way to La Joconde.

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I climb another set of stairs and find myself in a room that brings great joy to my heart because as I enter I see Delacroix’s Death of Sardanapalus. It is huge. It is every bit as magnificent as I had hoped. On the opposite side of the room is his Liberty Leading the People. It has a tour group in front of it. I am lucky because no one cares about Sardanapalus. It is bigger than Liberty. It is incredible for its painterly virtuosity. Its color is rich, transparent, translucent, rich, fluid, brushy, sumptuous. He paints flesh beautifully. Delacroix is great with death/destruction; repeatedly revealing beauty within that theme. Over next to Liberty is Delacroix’s painting of Dante’s Inferno.

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This Michelangelo-like figure is a tormented soul in the River Styx (the painting is loosely based on Canto VIII). Pay attention to the water droplets (in the zoomed photo). This detail within the overall epic drama of the painting makes him the 19th century Spielberg. Delacroix’s Romanticism was built on a foundation that traces its way back to Baroque artists including Rubens and Bernini. Also in the room is Gericault’s Raft of the Medusa with its monumental and political splendor. The French love protest. It is dark and brown.

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I finally decide to move on with the day, and exit into the next room…a gift shop already? Yes, but I turn around and on the rear wall is Ingres’ Grand Odalisque. Ingres is best appreciated by viewing the real object. There is perfection in the system. It is linear and classical to a certain extent. It is smooth. It is so smooth. There is nothing else like it.

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The next door is a big one. Wow, is it big. I enter into the room of the most famous work of art in the universe. It is La Joconde; from this point on, all art viewing goes downhill. This painting is the definition of masterpiece. This is the quintessential masterpiece. It is Leonardo da Vinci’s great work of mystery, sfumato, chiaroscuro, and the pinnacle of the High Italian Renaissance, the Mona Lisa. So now I’ve finally seen it, from roughly 20 feet away with light reflections all over the protective glass.

No one I have ever spoken with about viewing this work has experienced a satisfactory viewing, so my expectations were not high. The installation is one in which protection outweighs any reasonable viewing experience. The way that is displayed is so compromised. It would be better to go ahead and sell tickets to those willing to wear a face shield and rear handcuffs so at they could stand 24 inches away from the painting for 30 seconds. You could still employ the bulletproof glass.

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Furthermore, the selfie-picture-thing is just out of control; therefore, I’m posting the most obnoxious selfie-picture-thing from my Mona Lisa viewing experience so that others visiting the Louvre can have even lower expectations than I could ever imagine. If this photo should perhaps go viral, then we can revise Dante’s Inferno to include one more form of symbolic retribution.

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Before I know it, Veronese’s Last Supper at Cana is inundated with a tour group, so I look at, it and I move into the next hall. It is rather grand. Not knowing where to go, I simply say to myself, “let’s simply wander over to Leonardo’s Virgin & Child with Saint Anne.” Now this is odd, it’s a Leonardo and I can see it. Nobody knows it’s here? I can stand 15 inches away. There are no queues, no guards no bulletproof glass…this is my normal Leonardo viewing experience. This is like the National Gallery in Washington, or the Ufizzi in Florence. Not only that, but it is such a lovely Leonardo. The nice color is due to a recent restoration, although the restoration has been controversial.

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Nearby is Leonardo’s Virgin of the Rocks and it too, has excellent accessibility. I noticed my white hair emerging for the sfumato (Smokey Haze) while looking at my photos and decided that this was a cool selfie for a lot of reasons: I am emerging in the presence of a bunch of holy figures, I am surrounded by really interesting gestures including a blessing and a prayer, and the Virgin Mary is being very supportive over me. Most of all, however, is that I am not blatantly disrupting other viewers! This is a work that, like the Mona Lisa, can use a cleaning. It is mired in deep thick dark murky varnish.

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After a brief lunch at the café, I continued my journey by visiting French Painting upstairs and then segued into northern Europe. I enjoyed my time wandering through Rembrandt’s, Van Eycks, and so forth when I made this turn into a very large room of Rubens, all Rubens. It was the Marie deMedici cycle. I remembered in my 17th coursework that I loved Rubens but when it came to this series I was flabbergasted at the theme. Here is essentially a wealthy woman with very few important life achievements being put into allegorical contexts with all of history and the Gods. Let’s face it; her arrival to France after a proxy marriage to a King, being represented with Poseidon and ancient sea nymphs in the foreground is blatantly preposterous. I remember chuckling out loud during art history, which opened up quite a conversation with my wonderful art historian. At the very least it seemed a bit gratuitous for Rubens to include such voluptuous sea nymphs in the foreground, commanding more attention than Marie, herself. My art historian could not convince me of the work’s validity. Seeing the entire cycle in its entirety has impressed me in terms of ambition, scale, technical virtuosity, and the invention of allegory in the most imaginative ways. Now, even my hero Delacroix cannot match Rubens’ capacity for painting flesh.

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I am including a detail of a sea nymph here, again, with the water droplets that are so masterfully depicted. Guess who influenced Delacroix? And, guess who paid Rubens? Was it worth it? Well, Marie de Medici secured her place in history and this epic cycle of paintings is Spielbergian within a 17th century context.

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A Digression -The collection here holds so much and some of it so big that it is sometimes difficult to look for the smaller gems. A painter like Chardin comes to mind. In Northern Europe, there were the Dutch still life painters. This Dutch floral arrangement shows that beauty can exist in the temporary. It doesn’t have to be a great allegory. It doesn’t have to be associated with the ritual of religion.

As I continued my visit, I exhausted the European painting strand, casually wandered through decorative arts, and started my literal descent into antiquity as I started exploring the lower floors of the museum. The conversation that continued to play in my head after seeing the Medici cycle (and if you have ever had me for art history you have heard me say this) is how art is often a result of the power structures that produced it; in this Roman relief sculpture, it happens to be religion and prescribed ritual.

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In this image, a priest is reading the intentions of Jupiter from the entrails of the bull prior to the emperor embarking on a military campaign. The work was discovered in the Forum of Trajan in Rome.

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The Great Sphinx is the largest outside of Egypt and weighs several tons. It also represents a king, with the name inscribed under the beard. The lion’s body gives the king power. As a future king needed the sculpture, his name was added until there was no more space; at that point, the earlier kings names were removed completely and new ones added.

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This large capital is from the palace of Darius I in Susa, Persian Empire from the 6th century BCE. With it he was trying to bring together two traditions, the Babylonian and the Iranian. Ionians were brought in to complete the designs, which included two bulls, back to back, on the top. The courtyard where the columns originated were six columns wide by six columns deep. Darius I, the king, was trying to assimilate the various cultures of his empire.

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The winged human headed bulls from 8th century BCE are from Khorsabad, Assyria (now near Mosul, Iraq) and originally guarded the doors of the palace there. The horns on the tiara symbolized divinity. Each bull has five legs. From the front, they are standing still. From the side, it looks like they are walking. They each weigh several tons. The palace was constructed of unfired bricks. These along with other slabs protected the base of the walls.

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This stele made of basalt and is very important because it was erected in the 18th century BCE. King Hammurabi is on the left. The god on the other side is the sun god. Below is a very long and complete legal text. The law predates biblical laws. The central part governs life, commercial, agricultural, slavery, family, economic issues including price regulations. The family is foundational and the laws cover marriage, engagement, divorce, adultery, etc. For example, if an adopted child should say to his parents, “you are not my real parents,” his tongue shall be cut out.

2019-2-8-goolsby-louvre-3853This statue from Ain Ghazal is the most ancient work from Neolithic times housed in the Louvre. It is more than 9000 years old. It is on loan from the Jordanian government. It is thought that it is perhaps related to ancestor worship. The figure is made from lime plaster on a reed framework. It predates the invention of ceramics. It certainly has striking power.

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Well, it was morning when I arrived and by around 7:30pm my endurance was waning. It was evening and now darker. The work crews were cleaning and sweeping. The museum would remain open, but I was exhausted. There was a strange and peaceful quietness in the sculpture courts. When I saw this haunting sculpture from Medieval times, I decided it was time to rest, perhaps, not as permanently as the gentleman was experiencing in this effigy from the Tomb of Philippe Pot from the 15th century.

You may be wondering what I missed and I may never know. I know that it was hard to get this to a point where it would fit into a blog. The guidebooks say that the average visitor spends two hours at the Louvre. I was lost and found so many times, but I discovered things to explore for more than 9 hours. What was nice for me is that I was able to take in things that were off the beaten paths, and in a lot of ways, those were the better experiences.

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