Archive for the 'Louvre' Category

The Carters at the Louvre

Flanööri asked me to write about the new video by the Carters. I am not a fan of their music. I’m completely the wrong person to write about the topic, but that might make this interesting. The song sounds like it follows the common theme of bragging about how much money and stuff the artists have, which I don’t find interesting at all. Of course, all this has very little to do with music and everything to do with the video shot at the Louvre. So, I’ll put the new Death Grips album on and have a closer look at the visuals.

carters 1It begins with a very nice panning shot of the ceiling paintings in the Galerie d’Apollon. They look great in fancy lighting. We get a few close-ups of paintings I do not recognize, and then move to the Mona Lisa room with the Carters. They are dressed wonderfully throughout the video and play their part as celebrity royalty very well.

They change into white costumes and there is a wonderful shot of the Nike staircase with dancers lying on the stairs. Then, there is dancing, tilted shots of a few paintings and a bit more ceiling art. And many shots of the Carters who look very defiant in most of them.carters 2

There is more dancing and singing in front of Napoleon’s coronation, Nike and the Sphinx. There is a quick shot of David’s Sabine Women, after which the Carters take another meaningful look at the camera. I don’t know what they are trying to convey, but they look like they mean business.

carters 4Overall, there are not that many instances where our stars interact with the paintings and sculptures in a meaningful way, but I do get some of the points Sarah Huny Young writes about in her piece in Elle: that blackness is an art form in the video. There are a few shots where we see people mimicking the actions of statues, and a strange image of a man standing on a horse that somehow reproduces a Géricault painting. The latter looks interesting, because it obviously carnivalizes the original image of a Napoleonic officer. The man’s clothing mimics the stars and stripes, he’s wearing a cowboy hat, and he is standing on his horse. It would probably be my favorite image in the video were it not for another one that occurs a bit earlier.

carters 3It’s another David, his Portrait of Madame Récamier. Reclining on the floor under the painting, dressed in headgear that echoes the madame’s dress, are two women who also seem to recreate the symmetry of the strange sofa of the painting. There is a morbid parody of the painting by Magritte where the madame has been replaced by a coffin. I would have loved to have seen it in the background instead of the original. In any case, the Neoclassical dress and general setting of the image point to an idealized version of Ancient Greece, the socialite madame to contemporary ideals of beauty. The two ladies point to something else.

The Carters’s strange poses, defiance, intentional vulgarity (the song is called “Apeshit”) and all the rest of it seem to be aimed at creating a new standard of beauty through a commentary on European aesthetics. The plan still rests on the tradition it criticizes, but the critique does remind us of everything that has contributed to it, and of the fact that it’s still an ongoing tradition. The pieces in the Louvre are not preserved in the past. They are here with us in the present.

I guess that’s what I take home from this: aesthetics is never a theoretical exercise and always entangled with history. To quote Death Grips: “It’s a shitshow.”

Art in Paris

I took a trip to Paris in 2008 with the sole purpose of looking at paintings and sculptures. I made notes of my tours of the Louvre and Musée d’Orsay and these posts are based on those notes. I’m uneducated in matters of art, so the result is a sort of reconstructed memory of my efforts to educate myself. Here’s a list of posts:

(1) Some Large Paintings in the Louvre
(2) Sabine Women
(3) Two Poussins with Special Effects
(4) Caravaggio
(5) Louis’s Other House
(6) Chiaroscuro and La Tour
(7) Overnite Renaissance
(8) Not So Fresh
(9) The Greatest Leonardo
(10) What the Hell is Mannerist Art Anyway?
(11) Getting Serious About Pottery
(12) Angels With Human Faces
(13) Some Female Figures in Marble
(14) Head
(15) Impressionist Blurriness
(16) Realist Rudeness
(17) Painting Monet’s Eyes
(18) Degas and the Puberty of Modern Painting
(19) Vincent Van Gogh
(20) Gray, Bland, and Dull
(21) Some Dudes in Bronze
(22) Oncle Corot
(23) Pretty Ladies
(24) Camille Claudel
(25) Looking for Simberg at Musée d’Orsay

The posts were transferred here from my previous blog and unfortunately I cannot include the comments. Similar posts will appear on this blog from London and, a bit later, Amsterdam. The tone of the posts is very informal and be warned that there is a bit of profanity as well, but they do include pretty pictures and links to more information.


Preclassical Greek art is located at the bottom floor of the Denon wing in the Louvre. It’s a place to have a little rest and to try to figure out ways of explaining why Modernist sculpture looks like ancient sculpture. One of the things I specifically wanted to see was this head I once saw on the cover of a book:

Source: Wikipedia

I never could figure out the reasons behind the link between modernity and the ancients, but I did manage to get quite depressed looking at this piece. What I usually do in these situations is turn depressive things into something slightly mysterious and/or noble, give them a veneer that speaks of emotional depth and try to make everybody feel good about themselves for realizing this valuable quality hidden behind the thing in question. But here I think I’ve met my match. It’s really no use trying.

It’s a head of a female idol from the Cycladic civilization and it’s dated 2700-2300 BC. It was probably attached to a body something like this one before it got decapitated:

Source: Wikipedia

The date would make it early Bronze Age, when life sucked really hard. It looks like there might have been some paint on it, but we can’t be sure. It’s actually quite thin. Looking at it from the front you might think it has much more depth, but it’s pretty flat. That takes most of the edge out of it, but from the front it remains intimidating.

Mitch Hedberg used to tell a joke where he said that no matter how good you are at tennis, you’ll never be better than a wall. That’s the exact same thing that’s going on here with this idol, except it’s a staring contest, not a tennis match. This thing has been at it for thousands of years and hasn’t lost once. For all intents and purposes, it is immortal.

Source: Wikipedia

Who knows how many thousands or hundreds of thousands or even millions of people it has stared down during its existence. I’m not going to be one of its little toys, however. I’m not going to play this game anymore.

Some Female Figures in Marble

When one visits a museum it’s usually a good idea to study the works one is going to see beforehand. It would be foolish to barge in and expect to appreciate all the great art gathered there as if knowledge of the aesthetic were wholly innate. It would be like going parachuting thinking: “No need to train, I already know how to fall.” My excuse for not knowing anything about French sculpture from the Renaissance to Neoclassicism before I went to the Louvre is that I didn’t have time to study. Also, I’ve never been that fond of sculpture. It’s a very public form of art and my interests have usually taken me looking for something a bit more intimate. It’s also partly the fact that looking at sculptures is so different from looking at paintings — they are somehow too complete and hence have no secrets that have to be deciphered through interpretation.Some historical things can fortunately be transposed from painting to sculpture, such as the influence of Mannerism in France. It can be seen in one of the most famous Diana pieces from the era, although it’s actually atypical in being a garden sculpture.

Source: Wikipedia

It can also be seen in Germain Pilon‘s Three Graces which I’m told was banged out of a single piece of marble. That’s pretty impressive.

Source: Wikipedia

It’s a monument for King Henry II commissioned by a Francesco Primaticcio who worked under Queen Catherine de’ Medici whose grief seems pretty expensive even by royal standards. The pedestal, by the way, is by an Italian called Domenico del Barbieri.

But the names here aren’t that important. Henry II was the successor of Francis Big Nose and the guy whose accidental death kept the art ball rolling in France at a time when Mannerist weirdness was celebrated as the newest thing in fashion and art. Some time afterwards, there was a reaction to this elongated elegance (sorry) and things started to get heavier. Notions of harmony and balance came back from the Classical ages, although they now had been through the Renaissance wringer and thus came out a bit mangled. It’s also the time of Louis XIV and Le Brun, and therefore court productions have a more unified air about them. They seem like they’ve been designed to perpetuate the monarchy and gone through Le Brun’s office. That’s because they very often did just that.

After the Sun King’s court disappeared, there seemed to be two opposing movements: Rococo or Rocaille and Classicism. I’m not sure how the chronology goes and who did exactly what, but it seemed to be a situation where some people liked really curly ornate stuff and others the classical lines of what they took to be antiquity. Some of these things are pretty awesome, like Guillaume Coustou the Elder‘s horsey-thing. That one is fantastic because its imposing size, but there are less melodramatic pieces and pieces that are therefore more interesting. Like these bathers by Allegrain, whose famous brother-in-law, Pigalle, is known better today because he gave his name to the red-light district of Paris.

Source: Wikipedia

And, by the way, the red-light district is pretty tame. It might even be a good place to find a nice cheap hotel for a few days.

Source: Wikipedia

Allegrain’s work is supposed to be a mixture of Rococo and Classicism, but because the subject is so unfamiliar to me I fail to see the fusion. All I can see is that there’s not too much ornamentation in the figures and that the figures themselves are balanced and proportional. The hair and the folds of their clothes offer a chance to show off, but otherwise the statues are pretty ascetic compared to what came before and what would come next.

What came next was perhaps not a style, but a single artist by the name of Antonio Canova. He was Italian, not French, and he was recognized as the greatest sculptor of his time. He made, among other amazing stuff, this thing:

Source: Wikipedia

If there is one statue that rivals Michaelangelo’s Dying Slave in the Louvre it would have to be this one, Psyche Revived by Cupid’s Kiss. That might be a bold statement, I don’t know, but it’s not difficult to see why this would be the epitome of French Neoclassical sculpture even though the statue and the artist are Italian. That is to say, it is a very influential piece from a very influential artist. It’s so mushy you can feel it squishing between your toes when it hits your eye and, furthermore, it’s based on a melodramatic soap opera of a story. Cupid has huge gay wings, for God’s sake. Why not have a litter of fluffy kittens running about as well? Despite all this Romantic nonsense, it’s still a magnificent thing to look at.

Angels With Human Faces

Oscar Wilde’s tomb is guarded by an angel, but he has not stopped all sorts of scribblers from writing their trite little slogans on it. Despite the rubbish that’s been peppered on and around it, and the fact that he has lost his impressive penis, it’s a striking Modernist take on the subject.

Source: Wikipedia

Wikipedia tells me some scholars think that cherubs and angels such as the one guarding Wilde’s remains are related to the Mesopotamian shedus, the sort of winged bull-man hybrids like the one below who mostly hangs out at the Louvre nowadays.

Source: Wikipedia

Angels are easy to understand for us who grew up with Christianity and superhero comics: they are on a different ontological plane from us and do all sorts of things for the Big Man, like Silver Surfers to God’s Galactus. Winged bull-man thingies are a bit more difficult. I’m no expert on this subject, but it seems like our idea of a general type of supernatural being, some thing with agentic powers that inhabits a higher realm whose existence is circuitously postulated by the existence of its inhabitants, has to be preceded by some sort of particular thing. As good a candidate as any for this are the hybrid gods of Egypt and the Mesopotamian shedus.

Source: Wikipedia

The latter are bulls with human heads and they are guardians of passageways, the middlemen you have to deal with before you get to meet the Wizard. These creatures are endowed with special powers due to their deformities, their freaky heads and mismatched bodies. They can be classified by their special powers and made into a hierarchy where we can find ourselves at the bottom and the Almighty at the top. There are these hierarchies in Christianity as well, although not many Christians make much of them anymore. Of course, there are also maps of the underworld in Epic poetry as well as of the realm of the angels and other beings of light. Everything fits together nicely and we know where we stand in the grand scheme of things — we know because it is our scheme. That’s our superpower.

Two related figures come to mind immediately. The Minotaur, a sort of reversed Assyrian bull-man, and the sphinx. Here’s a sphinx dating from the Middle Kingdom which would make it an unbelievable four thousand years old, now reduced to smiling at visitors behind a rope at the Louvre.

Source: Wikipedia

The subject itself is much older than that, but it’s difficult to grasp the age of this figure already, so I’ll leave it at that. It might be that the sphinx is some sort of proto-angel, but the word itself comes from the Greek. And in Greek myth we have sphinxes, centaurs, cyclops, gorgons, gryphons, sirens, and a plethora of other strange chimeric creatures. All these freaks cannot measure up to the Olympians, who are always portrayed as more man than anything else. They are far better than mortals in every respect, but they are more like us than the gods and angels of old.

Getting Serious About Pottery

Most of the antique Greco-Roman stuff you see in museums is Roman pastiche or copies of old Greek stuff. The Greeks were a great inspiration, but even the so-called copies are mostly elaborate homages to the originals, not exact reproductions. From the early Greek statuary that has remained intact, like some of the kouros figurines, it seems like the Greeks before the Classical period were concerned with clean lines and a harmonic balance that is covered by robes and musculature in Roman tributes. This is something that was probably also present in the painting of the time, but very little paint survives from the period. Architecture also survives in ruins and there, too, we can see the Greek notion of harmony in action. The idea of harmony is what often got covered in excess and naturalism in later works made too far from the heart of Classical Antiquity at around 400 BC.

In the hunt for this Greek ideal, there is one extraordinary source that we can study in spectacular detail. It’s pottery. Yes, pretty lame next to the Acropolis, but as an indication of Ancient Greek aesthetic sensibilities (and hence the sensibilities of all of us who have inherited the history of the Ancient Greek world) they are pretty much the best thing we have to go on in the realm of the pictorial. The art itself is on a human scale, you will not have the abodes of the gods or the gods themselves hanging over you, you will not hear the booming voices of Apollo and Athena among columns that support structures that have stood for millenia, but sometimes good things come in small packages.

The Louvre has a fantastic collection of Greek pottery and I can but scratch the surface here. I fell in love with the two colors of these pots, black and red, during an art class in school ages ago and it was simply astonishing to find gods and mortals in these pictures engaged in what seemed to be simple everyday chores. People sacrificing to the gods, for instance:

Source: Wikipedia

Gods chasing tail:

Source: Wikipedia

Crass humor:

Source: Wikipedia

Men killing each other on the battlefield:

Source: Wikipedia

And getting drunk afterwards:

Source: Wikipedia

I did not have a camera with me at the Louvre, and the pottery section was the one where I finally cursed myself for not taking one along. Fortunately, there’s tons of stuff online including histories of the development of techniques and many galleries of the different phases the art form went through.

Simply put, next to the literature of the Ancient Greeks — poetry, plays, and philosophy — there is no better point of access to Greek culture, our shared Western culture, than these pots. Much of the written legacy is actually just a couple of clicks away, free online in very accessible form, just waiting to be read. Like these pots, it’s easy to dismiss this stuff as just history, something for bearded scholars to fret over and not suitable for the consumption of anyone who wants to live in the present, has a business to run, or has to stay tuned to the times we are currently living in. But why anyone would sit for hours in front of a television set watching the sort of rubbish our modern culture excretes for quick consumption when you have Greek pottery to look at is a mystery to me. Why should you be interested in Britney Spears’s latest publicity stunt when you could, for instance, be looking up the story of Clytemnestra.

Source: Wikipedia

These shared stories, some uplifting and some simply sordid, are our common culture. We are not made of whatever the yellow press is fretting about at the moment, nor are we the rubbish heap of pop-culture that resulted from our handing over culture to a bunch of twelve-year-olds. Nothing in that stuff is edifying and it makes us hate ourselves with a passion — sucking in worthless garbage will eventually make you feel like worthless garbage. The stories that lift us up from the baseness of our present condition can be found painted on humble clay, and these small paintings are still a potent source of that harmony the Greeks dreamed up and wanted us to achieve.

What the Hell is Mannerist Art Anyway?

I once saw an episode of QI where Jo Brand and Stephen Fry had the following exchange after a picture of the aftermath of an earthquake went up on the screen:

Fry: It’s rather like Renaissance Mannerist art.
Brand: I hate Renaissance Mannerist art, don’t you?
Fry: Michaelangelo, for instance?
Brand: Michaelangelo? Bollocks!
Fry: He was particularly good at bollocks, it must be said!

It’s strange to find that (a) a picture of an earthquake would remind Stephen Fry of Mannerism (he might have been thinking about El Greco) and (b) what Fry said is not too far from what Delacroix said of Michaelangelo:

He did not know a single one of the feelings of man, not one of his passions. When he was making an arm or a leg, it seems as if he were thinking only of that arm or leg and was not giving the slightest consideration to the way it relates with the action of the figure to which it belongs, much less to the action of the picture as a whole.

The point is that Michaelangelo was not crafting a scientifically accurate representation of bollocks when he was at it, nor was he thinking fervently how the bollocks relate to the whole figure or convey the message he had been hired to convey, or so says Delacroix. He was simply crafting a pair and doing his very best to imbue them with some meaning indifferent to our everyday experience of bollocks. Thinking about the human figure in this manner requires an element of abstract thought or, alternatively, horrible boredom that catapults the artist to a level of abstraction never thought of before.

What happens when this happens? In short, strange things that have to be classified under the arbitrary rubric of Mannerism. Something like this piece by Bronzino:

Source: Wikipedia

It’s a noli me tangere and it comes across as a bizarre, stylized, and just plain eerie scene that has been overworked by a sick mind. The gestures are exaggerated, the bodies twisted and out of proportion, and the colors too shiny.

Of course, Bronzino’s mind was just fine and he knew exactly what he was doing. He was following Michaelangelo and his teacher, a Pontormo who did things like this:

Source: Wikipedia

The latter picture is a bit too dark to see the similar coloring, but the shape of the figures is something that can be recognized as containing the same strange uneasiness. Perhaps uneasiness isn’t the right word, but something horrible has happened to the human form that makes the viewer react with unease. It has been aestheticized to a point where it has become non-human — or de-aestheticized if your idea of the aesthetic mimics the classical notion of harmony and is based on art’s correspondence with nature.

Weirdness is a plentiful thing, and thus there are many different kinds of odd styles and contortions available to the museum goer at the Louvre. But it might be a good idea to follow a single strand akin to the one we started with. Images like this Moses scene by a Niccolò dell’Abbate, for instance:

Source: Wikipedia

Niccolò dell’Abbate brought his version of Italian Renaissance art to France with a bunch of other people who were invited to work at the Château de Fontainebleau by Francis and even stranger things started happening to these uprooted Italians and their art. For instance, female figures started to look odd, something like in this painting of Diana:

Source: Wikipedia

Isolated from their sources by vast tracts of land and a sea of politics, they also managed to create what I’ve always thought of as the duck-billed platypus of late Renaissance painting. It’s very strange, but unlike the horrendous mutations of form of the other paintings shown above, it does not make me cringe or become uneasy or nauseous. I was walking the halls, turned a corner, and suddenly there it was. The balanced, stylized, cute, naughty and nice portrait of two ladies:

Source: Wikipedia

I could be facing space aliens and feel less weirded out, though. And to make matters worse, it’s labeled anonymous. One of the figures is the king’s mistress and the other her sister and they are taking a bath together. One is pinching a nipple, the other a ring, and there’s a curtain as if this was a theatrical scene. I remember reading somewhere that this painting is of more interest from the point of view of cultural history than art, but I tend to disagree. Why is the king’s mistress depicted as an alien and how did she get to be depicted like that? Surely that’s the more interesting question unless the king was banging extraterrestrials.