Painting, Paris, and Politics: The Louvre Gets Set To Move

Given that it is Bastille Day, and I have long ago said all that needs to be said about this most dreadful of un-holydays, the reader may be interested in reading about a less bloody battle going on in France at the moment. The Louvre announced this week that it will be moving a quarter of a million of its works currently held in storage in Paris, out to a former mining town in the north of France.  The building of a new storage facility and the subsequent move will take place despite significant domestic and international criticism of the project. While it is easy to look at this plan and detect a strong whiff of that most pungent of odors, politics, the venture does give us the chance to consider what role politics can play for good in the art world.

It may surprise you to learn that the collections of many museums, but particularly ones of significant scope such as The Louvre, are never fully on display to the public. When you go to The National Gallery here in Washington for example, you are seeing only a small percentage of the thousands and thousands of pieces a major museum possesses.  Because it would be impossible to display all of its holdings, the National Gallery has both an art storage facility and a separate warehouse where these works are housed in suburban Maryland, about ten miles from downtown Washington.

By comparison the former mining town of Liévin, where The Louvre will begin storing its art, is located 125 miles from central Paris. According to The Art Newspaper, Louvre President Jean-Luc Martinez has admitted that he will have to come up with ways not only to shuttle Louvre employees to and from the facility, but to actually house them there, since the town is located a 4-5 hour train ride away from Paris. Understandably, 42 of the 45 curators of The Louvre have signed a protest letter against going ahead with this move.

Timing is also of the essence for M. Martinez since French Senator Daniel Percheron, who has been a driving force behind this project, is leaving office next year.  Senator Percheron is both a leading member of France’s ruling socialist party, and – quelle surprise – the representative of the region where the Louvre store will be constructed. No doubt the effort to establish his political legacy played a significant part in pulling off this coup for his constituents. For of course not only will several years’ worth of construction jobs result from this project but, once established, the huge facility will need guards, cleaners, administrative staff, etc., while those who go to work and study there will need nearby hotels, restaurants, dry cleaners, and so on.

Moreover the location for this storage site, strange as it may seem to send these works of art so far away from home, is no accident. The Louvre store will be a few miles from the “mini Louvre” in the nearby town of Lens, a museum which you may never have heard of.  It was built in 2012 to display works from the overstuffed Parisian vaults of The Louvre, in part to try to draw tourism to this rusty, depressed part of France. If you are looking for Delacroix’s iconic “Liberty Leading the People”, or Raphael’s magnificent portrait of Castiglione – which in fact serves as the thematic inspiration for this blog – they are no longer in Paris, but rather in the Louvre-Lens. Sadly, this ensures that I will probably never get to see the portrait in person, but be that as it may.

The question to be asked however, is not whether it is wrong to send all of this art out of Paris.  The real question is whether there was a workable alternative that could have been accomplished politically. Certainly, there are legitimate concerns to be raised regarding the safety and conservation of so many works of art traveling from one place to another, given the inherent fragility of many of the works moving north. Those concerns need to be addressed thoroughly, and one would expect that The Louvre will bear them in mind.

However, if no location within Paris or its environs was able to mount the funding, logistics, and yes, political will necessary to bring about the creation of this project, what, then, would be the acceptable alternative? Allow these works of art to sit below flood stage in the basements of the Louvre, awaiting the next inundation of the Seine? Appropriate or build a massive facility in or near the capital, where the associated costs for such a project would be astronomically higher, for a country still reeling from economic downturn?

Doing nothing and risking the destruction of the art at issue would seem a pyrrhic victory, at best, and gross negligence, at worst, both for the artistic and historical patrimony of France and indeed of all mankind. Much as one finds the end result somewhat distasteful, one must also be honest in acknowledging that the politics at play here will lead, if not to the best result, at least to a solution with positive externalities. The art will be preserved, a poor area of France will benefit, and perhaps works which have never been thoroughly studied or understood for centuries, may finally see the light of day, as they emerge from the cellars in which they presently reside.  Politics may not always provide the answer to all our problems, but without its influence, efforts to preserve artistic collections of major significance such as this one, would almost certainly fall entirely by the wayside.

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Watching the “Watchmen”: A Beautiful Film from France

If you’re interested in seeing good men doing good work on behalf of the whole world, I can highly recommend a film which for some reason had skipped my notice until last evening, “The Watchmen of the Night”.  I was made aware of it through a tweet posted by my friend Sister Veronica Young, a member of the Sisters of Faith who lives in solitude in Utah, but whom I’ve come to know through social media.  [N.B. Incidentally, if you are on Twitter, Sister Veronica should be on your follow list, Catholic or not, as she regularly posts words of encouragement, prayer, and comfort for those who need it.]

No, this isn’t a review of the superhero movie “The Watchmen”, which in fact I debated about with someone the other day.  Instead, this film is about a Benedictine monastery in the south of France, the Abbey of St. Mary Magdalene in Le Barroux, a town in Provence.  The movie examines the day-to-day lives of the monks, as well as allowing us to get to know some of the monks themselves, and why they chose to enter the religious life. And fortunately, you can watch the entire one-hour documentary on YouTube by following this link.

If this sounds somewhat like another film about cloistered French monks, the German documentary “Into Great Silence”, you’d be forgiven for thinking they were rather similar.  Yet while that piece goes through a year in the lives of the Carthusian monks who reside in the Grand Chartreuse in the French Alps, this film is not only shorter and somewhat lighter in tone, it reflects on a slightly different kind of spirituality.  The German film has no narration, very little dialogue, and an overwhelming sense of the mortality of man preparing to enter God’s eternity, whereas the well-narrated French film touches upon these subjects, but presents a more upbeat, joyful tone about the life shared by the brothers in Provence.

Whereas outside of the Divine Office or Mass, the Carthusians spend the vast majority of their day in total silence and rarely if ever see anyone from the outside world, the Benedictines spend a significant portion of their day working in their community and receiving visitors.  This could be overnight visitors making pilgrimages to the monastery for religious services, or interacting with patrons at the monastery shop which helps support the needs of the poor and the monks themselves. The Benedictines have their own periods of silence, particularly at night, but theirs is not the near-total isolation of their brethren in the Alps.

Yet like the Carthusians, the Benedictines in this film respond to the suggestion that what they are doing has no purpose by pointing out that they do not work for a purpose.  They work for God.  As such, they have no need for the secular materialist justifications of this world.  So as the saying goes, put that in your pipe and smoke it.

What I found particularly interesting about Le Barroux was the fact that these Benedictines are not the hippy-dippy sort which one sometimes associates with the Order here in the U.S.  In fact, this monastery was only founded in the 1980’s, although the complex itself looks like it was built 1000 years earlier. Originally, the monks here were aligned with the traditionalist schismatic movement which was spearheaded by the late Archbishop Lefebvre, but they eventually reconciled with Rome, and their monastic community was elevated to an Abbey in 1989.  To see how the monks live and how they worship is to see traditional Roman Catholicism at its most beautiful.

No doubt the lifestyle of the monks is not for everyone – particularly for those of us who could not bring ourselves to become vegetarians.  Yet it would be hard for anyone to look at the lives these men lead, and walk away unimpressed by the faith and the joy which radiates from them, as they go about following the great command of St. Benedict himself: ora et labora – pray and labor.  Particularly for those of you who are curious about traditional Catholicism, or what it’s like to be a member of a cloistered religious Order, or who want a very watchable film to show your children or students about Catholic spiritual life, this would be a fine addition to your film library.

The Benedictines of Le Barroux at prayer

The Benedictines of Le Barroux at prayer

 

 

A Selfie with Jesus: Religious Art or Political Propaganda?

If you could, would you ever take a selfie of you and Jesus?  If you did, would you do it for personal reasons? Or would you do it to try to manipulate others into thinking better of you?  These are questions which come to mind following the rediscovery of a work of art stolen by the Nazis during World War II, particularly as we get closer to election day here in the States.

Our story kicks off with this 16th century portrait of King Henri III of France, the recovery of which was announced yesterday. The painting had been in The Louvre in Paris, but went missing during World War II.  The story of how it was found, as detailed in the article, is quite a remarkable one, and demonstrates just how important the online community can be for finding lost works of art.

From the point of view of what the media presently refers to as “optics”, the idea of painting the portrait of your country’s leader at the foot of the Cross, when he lived centuries after the time of Christ, may seem particularly odd.  However if one takes a look at the rather calamitous times in which Henri reigned, one can see that the image serves a particular purpose.  Just as today a politician might go to a factory and roll up his shirtsleeves for a photo-op with the workers before slipping back into his limousine, so, too Henri needed to convince his kingdom that he was a good Catholic, albeit in a manner which may seem foreign to us today.

In Western art history there is a long-standing tradition of portraying contemporary persons who paid for a work of art alongside Biblical figures.  Art historians refer to these people as “donors”.  Sometimes the identity of a donor is well-known as a result of documentation or the existence of other known images of the person, but sometimes they remain anonymous, unknown to us a result of the passage of time and the loss of records.

Originally, most of these “donors” were sized much smaller than the holy person being portrayed, as we can see in this example from about 1386.  Over time however, the donor grew to be equal in size to the saintly individuals shown in the art.  Eventually the donor became part of the action, as it were, such as in being presented to Jesus Himself. Oftentimes this inclusion in the scene was meant to demonstrate the personal piety of the donor, but sometimes the donor was just as much – if not more – interested in propaganda as they were in prayer.

As it happens, Henri III himself was not very saintly in his personal life, even though he liked to put on a show of pious devotions.  He managed not only to offend many Protestants with his loose living, but to alienate his fellow Catholics to the point that they formed an armed league to dethrone him.  After having to flee Paris when the people turned on him, he tricked his chief rival, the fiercely Catholic and hugely popular Duke of Guise, as well as the Duke’s brother Cardinal Louis of Guise, Archbishop of Reims, into coming to see him at the Chateau of Blos; ironically, this is where the researcher who rediscovered the lost painting currently works.  Henri then had the two brothers murdered by the royal guards.

For his actions Henri was publicly condemned in Parliament but never tried.  He continued trying to mount a military campaign to take back the capital, plotting his return to power  by manipulating both potential Catholic and Protestant supporters to shore up his failing rule.  A year after assassinating the Duke and the Cardinal, Henri himself was assassinated by a fanatical Dominican friar, who had been egged on by the Duke’s widow.  In the end, Henri’s efforts came to nothing, and the throne passed from his family to that of his Protestant cousin Henri of Navarre, who converted to Catholicism and placed the House of Bourbon on the throne until the French Revolution.

When we see images today of politicians attempting to manipulate us into thinking that they are just like us, such efforts are not new.  By appealing to what they believe the average person wants to see, our contemporary leaders are simply following in a long tradition that stretches back through centuries of Western culture. The form of the media may have changed from painting and sculpture to videos and tweets, but the thinking behind these efforts is still very much the same.

Thus, the rediscovery of this painting is not only important for historians, it’s also a great opportunity to remind ourselves that the use of popular, and even religious imagery for political ends will likely always be a part of the media landscape.

King Henri II at the Foot of the Cross by Unknown Artist (16th Century) The Louvre, Paris

King Henri III at the Foot of the Cross by Unknown Artist (16th Century)
The Louvre, Paris